Assignment: “Against All Odds”
Now, this is a theme to be found in a lot of heroic tales from Beowulf to The Expendables. But, I wondered about how this theme plays out in the life of someone who only thinks he’s a hero, but who is actually a self-mythologizing egotist. What would be the most unlikely thing someone like that might face and triumph (wait for it) against all odds?
Well, I thought that it might be this: self-awareness, and the ability and willingness to change his ways. And being a self-mythologizing egotist, I figured his revelations would be steeped in metaphor. Of course, the fact that it takes place under a river with his lungs filling up with water might make things interesting where the odds are concerned, too …
When Jane left, I took the car, drove it to the Gateway Bridge just outside of downtown Oakview, got out, and threw myself over the side into the Spencer River.
I went a little bit crazy, I guess. But, as I felt the wind rushing upward at me as I fell, a spark lit up from somewhere inside, up from the inky darkness of my mind, or my heart. I found that in spite of it all, I wanted to live.
So, I had something of a problem to solve. By the time I hit the icy churning waters, I was only just beginning to think about the fact that I didn’t even know where to start.
I married Jane two years before. She was an editor at a literary magazine you may have heard of. I had just had my first novel published. We met at a soiree, the launch of my book in fact. I spilled sparkling wine on her. She was very understanding. Somehow after that, the clumsy English professor and first time novelist, and the startlingly beautiful literary editor began an affair, an engagement, a marriage.
It was as unlikely a thing as my surviving my dip in the Spencer River.
She saw potential in me, she said. She would remind me of that, and often. It was the thing she said to me in lieu of “I love you”. She would especially remind me of her great belief in my potential as I leaned pathetically over my typewriter, trying to think of something, anything, that another writer ten times more talented than I am hadn’t already said.
It was the classic second novel slump!
We moved to crappy old working-class Oakview so that I could write after I quit teaching. It’s truly a dead-end town. The move was supposed to be a way of removing myself from comfortable surroundings so that I could shake myself up, creatively. Jane commuted into the city, leaving me to my silently screaming typewriter. Nothing came. And Jane spent more and more time in the city. The house was dark most of the time. I put blankets up against the windows to block out the noise of the world, create my own womb-like environment to give birth to a masterpiece. I also drank a whole lot, just in case the womb idea didn’t do the job.
It didn’t. And, the booze didn’t help either.
Jane came home one night and told me she was fucking another guy, some guy she’d met at some publishing event, another writer. It had been going on for months. I bet he had potential, too. She told me that my own potential she’d seen in me had gone unrealized and that I’d “let myself down“. But what she meant was that I’d let her down, which I suppose I had. Then she told me to get a lawyer, and left. After that, I found myself in the car, with feelings of the inevitable nipping at my heels. It was the end; no wife, no second novel, no teaching career, no money, no home, no fucking future.
But, tumbling off of the bridge, plunging down into the churning, icy waters of the Spencer River, I found, as I mentioned, that I wanted to live after all.
Of all the dumb luck!
The Spencer is notorious for undertow. And even if I survived the fall, the cold would kill me before I could find the strength swim to shore. It was like a final joke had been played on me.
When I hit the water it was like being slapped all over. By the time I recovered from the impact, and from the knowledge that I was somehow still alive, I realized that I was sinking into the darkness. Even if I beat the odds on surviving the fall, I wouldn’t survive drowning. Yet, oddly, this immediate problem wasn’t the only thing on my mind. I suppose it should have been. But, it wasn’t.
I thought about how I’d got here, how I’d immersed myself in dark fantasies of nearly every kind, just like I was now sinking into the cold darkness of the Spencer. I did this habitually, so much so that I didn’t know, not really, who I was. Even my writer’s block, I was certain, was a kind of drama I’d built up for myself. I think it was unconscious, of course. I didn’t really want to be a failure, to lose my wife, and my self-respect. In some crazy way, what I really wanted to become a hero of my own tragic story.
It was all a fantasy. I realized even my marriage to Jane was a fantasy. I’d always known it would end in tears. But, my propensity for drama drove me on to follow that plot to its conclusion. The reason I couldn’t write a new novel was because I was too busy writing that other novel, the one in my head that was making me live it out in real life.
Well, shit. What a rotten time to have an epiphany!
The river threw me from side to side in the cold darkness as I sank, casting me this way and that, and my insufferable capacity for metaphor just wouldn’t leave me alone the whole time. Because, the undertow was my fantasy embodied. It cast me this way and that in exactly the same way the river was doing. And I let it happen. Yes. And I even enjoyed it in a sick way. It all fed the drama, as if I was a character at the mercy of some invisible author. But, the author was me the whole time!
Another breakthrough. If only I wasn’t about to die!
I held my breath, desperately. And then I had yet another thought about how I’d held my breath all my life, just waiting for my life to happen; getting tenure, becoming a novelist with a consistent body of work, a beautiful wife, a house in the Hamptons, respect, wealth, immortality. But none of it happened, because I was too busy waiting; holding my breath instead of breathing.
Ah, metaphor. What a useful tool! Not as useful as a life preserver, or an aqualung. But, useful.
I felt myself go cold, and I could no longer feel my arms and legs. I was numb all over. And damn it; the metaphors crowded right in there, stealing death’s thunder. Because, I was numb. I always had been. I was numb to what really mattered. I formed no connections, I just made transactions. I didn’t really feel anything. I suppose I was too afraid. And now that I was just flotsam and jetsam under the river, in the most fearful situation I’d ever experienced, I found that I really wanted to feel something. I wanted to connect somehow. I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. It was all so new to me. But, I wanted to embrace it. I didn’t want to create a womb around myself anymore. I guess when I came to this realization, it was just about then that I began to drown.
What a bitch.
But, like I said, the fear was gone. I was just disappointed that I learned what I needed to learn too late. Besides becoming a better man, I just knew that my writer’s block was gone. I knew that if I sat down at my typewriter, I would be able to create something great. I’d been freed.
But, there was the small detail of my death …
Things got blurry after that.
The only thing I could recall were impressions. The cold got less cold and even got downright warm. There was a spear of light into the darkness, a reaching hand, a protective embrace. Most importantly, there was no blue tunnel into the afterlife.
I had been rescued.
Being reborn is kind of like coming out of a dream that seemed so real, almost like you’d lived a whole other life. In the seconds in which you awake, you remember everything in crystalline detail. But soon, it’s the waking world that counts. You leave that old life behind you, and you write it off as being simply a dream. For instance, once I was a one-novel writer, a very bad husband married to a very bad wife, and a man in love with his own sense of tragedy. But, that is all over and done with. I found myself moving through a vital portal into a new life completely, pulled from the primal waters and into the light.
Now, I’m a squirming grey baby, flushing pink with health and hope, soon to detach from the umbilical of a former life.