What I Left Behind

Brett Slezak

Two days before I was to leave home for twenty-seven months, I drank eleven Icehouses and three Busch Lights and smoked three-fourths of a cigar and watched a friend get so drunk that he took his pants off and sat on a grill.  Bryan’s mom was out of town, and we used her house to host my going-away party.  We played beer pong in the backyard and Ping-Pong in the basement.  We sat on the counters in the kitchen as night fell, open cases of beer on the countertops, beer in the fridge, beer in the garage.  Near the end of the night, overcome with alcohol and excitement, we crowded back into the basement.  I took my shirt off and friends that I had known since grade school gave me backhanded, Nature-Boy-Rick-Flair-patented, knife-edge chops.  My buddies Nick and Bryan and I had grown up watching wrestling, we had put figure-four leglocks on each other as children and experimented with sharpshooters and chokeslams and perfect-plexes, and this was our end-of-the-night routine when we drank—we’d take our shirts off and exchange blows and howl with mixtures of laughter and pain, but I like to think on that night, the night of my going-away party, there was something more to it.  They were wailing on me to wish me well—a sort of slap between the tits for good luck.  I threw back a mouthful of Icehouse and waited.  Nick slapped me hard, right across the sternum, and it made that distinct fat-kid-belly-flop-from-the-high-dive sound.  Blood rushed to the ceiling of my skin, and I bloomed pink and red and iridescent.  Lines of individual fingers were splattered across my chest, crisscrossing and chubby and hotdogish.  The veins below my neck spread like blue fishing net in white sand.  One of my friends stopped the slapping in order to proclaim what he always proclaimed: I was going to meet my wife in the Peace Corps.  And I responded with my usual bullshit: I wasn’t going all the way to Africa to look for love, I just wanted to get out and see the larger world and do some good.  The room collectively rolled their eyes.  They took swigs of lukewarm Red Dog.  They said, Let’s get back to the slapping.

But the truth was that everything that I’d ever done was in the name of love, only at twenty-three, I wasn’t ready to admit that to anyone, let alone to myself.  So as Nick pulled his arm back in preparation to unleash another chop, I wasn’t thinking about how I was leaving the continent in an effort to leave behind my own heartbreak.  I wasn’t thinking about dusk over cornfields in Iowa or the gas station outside of Iowa City where I had once pulled over and sobbed or about any of the places love had carried me to or left me stranded at in the past.  I wasn’t thinking about bars that smelled like beer and lemon Lysol and sweat.  I wasn’t thinking about the backseat of the Toyota Camry, the windows down, a chirr of bullfrogs and cicadas, legs and lips and hips, the corn appearing blue in the moonlight.  There is a certain static that takes over the mind as the body braces for pain.  It’s like waiting for a wave to wash over you.  All thoughts drop away.

This wasn’t, of course, my first time being slapped.  One night in Iowa City, during college, my then-girlfriend and I got into a fight in my apartment, I don’t remember over what, but we were screaming at each other, and we were drunk, and she grabbed her purse and her keys and slammed the door and left.  The sound of the door rung out and ricocheted around in the silence of the room like the echo of a gunshot bouncing off the walls of a canyon.  She was going to drive home.  She was drunk.  I thought about headlights sudden and bright on her face, her bare foot on the brake, her nails painted red, the brakes screaming and tire tracks and broken glass, sirens and red-and-white lights and police roping off the scene, and then, suddenly, I was falling.  I had run through the apartment, over the couch, through the sliding door, and hurdled the railing on the balcony.  When I landed, the grass was wet with dew and absurdly lush and I was barefoot, and when I stood up, she was next to me.  She tried to get around me, and I blocked her path.  She pulled back to slap me, and I saw it coming.  I ducked.  Her hand sailed over my head.  I stood up tall and started to say something about how obvious her windup had been, how I knew that she was going to try to slap me, how if you really wanted to slap someone it needed to be unexpected, but she slapped me across the face before I could finish.  I spun around and fell to one knee.  When I looked up, I was just in time to watch her walk to her car.  She didn’t look back.  I remember that hit me in the gut.  That stung worse than her hand across my face. 

Back in the apartment, I thought about calling her, decided against it.  She needed to focus all of her attention on the road before her, on that ten-minute stretch of highway between Iowa City and West Branch.  I put my phone down, and just as I did, she walked into the apartment.  We burst into tears, fell into each other’s arms. That was love as I knew it then—untamed, violent, rueful, repentant.  We were the cause of each other’s tears, but we also provided the hands and lips to wipe them away.

On the night that she and I had first been together, we stayed up, sleeping bags on a blue tarp, heads pressed together, looking for shooting stars.  We saw four.  I always thought that would be a magical number for us, maybe we’d have four children.  Back then I used to think the universe was like that—reaching out to each of us with individual heralds and harbingers.  I used to think that our fortunes could be written by the stars.  That relationship ended during the fall of my senior year, just over a year after it began.  At twenty-one, I had thought I would end up marrying her.  When we split—confusion doesn’t begin to describe it—it was like I was suddenly without the narrative to the rest of my life.  I lost the plot.  I needed something, a string, a thread, some light, something to lead me back to what I was supposed to become.

At that time, I was a photographer for Iowa’s student newspaper, The Daily Iowan.  I took pictures of football games, of fans and cheerleaders decked out in black and gold.  I took pictures of softball games, of ponytails peeking out from helmets, of  gymnastics practices, of perfect dismounts from the uneven bars, of high school baseball practices, boys peppering next to a gravel batting cage, of wrestling meets, of bodies in spandex and ears twisted and smashed against canvas.  I took pictures of a chemical spill.  I took pictures of climbers mounting icy silos in the middle of winter in Iowa, their picks grappling, ropes tethered around waists, ropes headed up to the heavens.  And because I was a senior in the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007, I took pictures of all of the presidential candidates passing through Iowa: John Edwards, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Barack Obama. 

One day, David Guttenfelder, a famous photographer, visited the Daily Iowan and spoke to us student photographers.  He showed us his portfolio.  He showed us pictures from Afghanistan and Baghdad and Pakistan.  A young boy, maybe eight or nine, his left arm gone, his father holding him, a gloved hand holding blood-covered cotton near the spot where his arm should have been.  A helicopter crashing, the moment of impact, people running, its blade bending as it sliced into the ground.  A marine lifting weights, muscles and tattoos rippling across his back like waves in the ocean.  He showed us pictures from Africa.  A man in light blue shot in the chest or the left arm, his right hand to the wound, blood on his hand, blood on his blue windbreaker, blood pooling and collecting and running, his face cast downward as he slumped against a wall.  He told us that if we wanted to do what he did, we should travel, go out into the world, study abroad, join the Peace Corps, and take pictures of it all.  It’s not that I wanted to become a war photographer, it’s more that I knew I didn’t want to take pictures of bowling leagues or softball games for the rest of my life.  In fact, I didn’t even know if I wanted to take pictures for the rest of my life, but I did know that I needed to get out of the Midwest.  The Peace Corps had been an idea long since planted in my mind, but after hearing Guttenfelder speak, it became much more than an idea.  It became a plan.  It would buy me two years before I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  Those two years would allow me to go searching, searching for everything—for my future profession, for adventure, for excitement, for love, for myself.   

Often, in the days leading up to my departure, I went to bed imagining what it would be like to go to bed in Cape Verde.  I imagined lying in a small room by the beach, stars and sand, the smell and sound of the ocean pushing its way into the room through an open window.  There was a translucent golden curtain, and it billowed like a sail with the wind.  Sometimes, since I was assigned to teach English at a high school in Cape Verde, I imagined what it would be like to walk to my morning classes.  I imagined walking down a path high in the mountains, dirt and dry brush and cobblestone.  Hills and wind and cliffs.  It didn’t matter that the imaginings didn’t match up, it didn’t matter that I dreamt of both the beach and the mountains, I wanted to get there, to see it, to fall in love with it.  That’s what I wanted more than anything else, I wanted so badly to fall in love.  Be it with the country or a city, a beach or a coast, a set of islands or a set of friends, a mountain or a woman, I wanted something to work its way into my chest, to fill the spaces between my breaths.  I wanted something to live in the space between my heartbeats.

But on the night of my going-away party, after Nick’s hand came crashing down on my chest, I didn’t think about any of that, I didn’t imagine my future in Cape Verde.  I just passed out. 

I woke up in Bryan’s basement, the cigar smoke in my throat as heavy and coarse as sand.  My chest was bruised, little thumbprints of blue and purple.  I gave hugs by the front door and in the driveway.  Friends told me that they loved me, and I told them that I loved them and that I was going to miss them. 

I’m sure my mom prepared my favorite meal that night—steak and potatoes—but I don’t really remember.  I know that Bryan and Nick came over and the three of us sat on the couches and drank beer and watched TV.  There wasn’t much left for us to say.  They were my best friends; I dreaded saying goodbye to them.  I had known them my entire life, and I was naïve enough to think that I could leave for two years and that nothing would change between us.  When Bryan left he gave me a present: a journal and a pen.  On the inside cover he had written: Write.  About this, about everything.           

That night, after they left, I couldn’t fall asleep.  I’ve always been absolutely fantastic at procrastinating, and in a way it’s like I am able to put off my worry, but that night my anxieties about the Peace Corps started to bear down on me.  What if I wasn’t a good teacher?  What if my classes were wild and uncontrollable?  The Peace Corps had sent me the Rosetta Stone to Portuguese a couple of months ago and asked that I spend forty hours learning the language before I left the States.  I logged maybe twenty.  Why hadn’t I done more?  I’d never been great at Spanish in high school.  Foreign language was not something that came naturally to me.  I picked up the pen and journal Bryan had given me.  No matter what, I wrote, you have to remember: Everything is temporary.  And that is neither good nor bad; it’s just temporary.  I took solace in that.  Even if the Peace Corps or Cape Verde turned out to be hell, it would only be two years of hell.  I could survive two years of hell.

The next day my dad and I dragged my suitcases down by the door and were preparing to load them into the car.  I told him, Even if it’s hell, it’ll only be two years of hell.  He nodded.  I could tell he was nervous for me.  Well, he said, let’s hope it’s better than that.

I said goodbye to my sister Alana and my mom in the kitchen.  It was morning, the lights were off, sunlight came in from the windows.  Each of us burst into tears.  I knew that they’d cry, I knew that I’d cry, and for this reason I had told them that they shouldn’t come to the airport with me—it might make the moment of departure impossible.  I didn’t want any of us to have some sort of ugly, airport-goodbye breakdown.  In the kitchen, we cried into each other’s shoulders, my sister fell into me when she hugged me, my mom blew her nose noisily, there were tissues balled up on the countertops, and then, suddenly, I was in the car, tears cold on my cheeks, the moment was behind me, green lawns and manicured bushes and shuttered windows streamed by, my dad silent and driving.  

At O’Hare, he parked the car and walked me to security.  I don’t remember what we said.  I only remember turning around after we had hugged and walking to the security line.  I remember starting to cry, feeling helpless, small, scared.  I wanted to turn around.  I wanted to tell him that I’d made a mistake.  But I kept on walking, I handed my ticket and passport to security.  I fought every instinct to look back.  As I stood in that line and looked at the people around me, it was oddly like waiting to be slapped by Nick.  I wasn’t thinking about the past.  I wasn’t thinking about running barefoot through grass at dusk with Alana when we were children, empty peanut butter jars in our hands, lightning bugs illuminating around us, dancing and dipping around us.  I wasn’t thinking about my older sister Laura asking me to play with her hair as she sat in front of me in the car during one of our many family road trips.  I wasn’t thinking about my dad pitching to me in the driveway, the whiffle ball slowly spinning, the weight of the plastic bat in my hands, light falling through trees around us.  I wasn’t thinking about crawling into my parents’ bed as a child, the smell of my mom’s unwashed hair on those mornings before preschool.  I wasn’t thinking about playing Super Mario Bros. in Nick’s basement or trying to watch the Playboy channel through the squiggly lines of the TV in Bryan’s basement.  There is a certain numbness that takes over the mind as the body braces for pain.  It’s not that I thought I was putting myself in physical danger by standing there in that line or by leaving for the Peace Corps, it’s more like I had some sense that everything I knew about the world was about to change.  Even though I had tried to imagine the future—the smell of the ocean, the walk down the mountain—I did not conjure up anything as I stood in line.  The future was a rolling wall of white, impenetrable, unseeable, unsayable.  I stood there, waiting for it to slap me in the chest, waiting for it to wash over me, waiting for it to pick me up and spin me around.

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Brett Slezak is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. His writing has appeared in Defunct, Ghost Proposal, and The Pinch, among other literary journals. He was named a 2015 Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow by the Luminarts Cultural Foundation in Chicago for his essay “Girls.” He is currently working on a memoir about his time living as a teacher in the Republic of Cape Verde.