The wind, gusty and frenetic, like a bullish pigeon, breaks on my newly buzzed head sending chills down my body. When they asked me what I wanted at the barber shop in Amagansett I just showed them that photo of Britney Spears, courageous and feisty. I wanted to channel her fuck-you rage and I needed my strands of hair that carried a decade of drug abuse gone. I’m doing my best Keith Haring impression with the damp sand beneath my toes, which I notice are turning slightly blue even on this balmy June day, and am struggling to focus on whatever my counselor, Nancy, is rambling on and on and on about. All I can think about is being 17days sober and desperate to rail a line of blow after last night’s group outing to see Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (at my request), which, in hindsight, was a fucking dumb thing for a rehab to approve of.
Nancy is 32 and seems sad to me. Her brunette hair is thinning at the ends and her brown eyes are fixed in an intense squint, revealing deepening lines from what I imagine to be a lifetime of abstaining from sunscreen use, opting for tanning oil instead. She wears tight skinny jeans and a T by Alexander Wang t-shirt knock-off over a black bra. Hot. The scent of her cinnamon gum stings my eyes and reminds me of my mother. Not hot. I imagine picking up her body and throwing it a hundred yards away into the sea and orca whales swallowing her whole. It’s not that I want her dead, I just want her away. As lonely as rehab is, it’s still a heavily surveilled institution and after a lifetime of hiding the most shameful parts of myself from the world, it’s intense to have so many eyes eviscerating my every move.
Like the night nurse, Sharon. Her wiry gray hair is always tucked tightly in a frizzy bun behind her ears. She surveys the halls at night, squeaking Skechers on the hardwood floors upstairs, doling out melatonin gummies and vitamins for the next morning. Hampton Bays is her homebase where she lives with her third husband and a zoo of rescues that claw at her body begging for food at all hours. Probably not so different from the mentally ill patients she takes care of here. Miraculously, Sharon is 13 years sober. I can’t imagine 13 more years of living, let alone doing it and having to feel things. Somehow this mid-sixties cat lady is in charge of night security. Only at a private rehab.
But back to Nancy and her beady eyes. She is waiting for me to respond. “Right. Totally,” I say.
“Did you hear me? That thing, the thing about the ocean – like, the waves?”
I don’t understand when older people talk like they’re in middle school. Or more, I trust them less. I hope that by the time I’m in my forties, I am speaking with clarity and intention, not fumbling on words.
“Honestly no, it’s loud,” I yell, with emphasis and annoyance.
“Thought so. Like, what I’m saying is – GOD – he is everywhere, Tommy. He is the sand you’re on, the air, God is – like the book says may you find Him now – like, God is literally in the Now.”
I nod but also, like, what the fuck is she talking about? “Do you think you’re powerful?” Nancy asks me.
Absolutely not, you fucking idiot. (I wish I could’ve said that. But instead I just stare back at her, intentionally playing dumb with a blank stare)
“Do you think you are the most powerful being on the planet? Like, the center of the universe?” Nancy sizes me up and inches closer as she asks this.
“I think that I’m, like, the center of my universe.”
“And that’s the problem. That’s your alcoholism, she says with her pointer finger mere millimeters from my head. You think you are the center of the world, the universe – like you are the most powerful –”
“Nooo, I said MY universe, not -”
“Hon, we’re breathing the same air. There’s no yours or mine out here. It’s the collective,” she says, grinning yellow teeth, arms waving in the air like a spiritual referee.
I hate team sports. I resent anything that requires relying on anyone other than myself. But, it’s clear to me at this point Nancy won’t stop pitching me on God until I play along, at least a little.
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“Okay. Right. I’m just not, like, religious, Nancy–”
“It doesn’t have to be religion, Tommy! God – it doesn’t have to be God. Anything can be your higher power so long as it’s not you. Like what is out of your control?”
Everything right now. I’m stuck here, in the sand, wasting my 22nd year on earth away while detoxing from cheap vodka and cheap heroin on the beach in Long Island. I know, it could be worse, but it also could be better, like… I could be drunk. And it’s not like staying sober is a forever plan. I’ll learn how to drink responsibly, I just need to stop using so I can get my life together and finish school and marry Peter and get famous and buy a house and have a dog and be forgiven. For everything.
“Um. Like. The person on the train who steals the seat that I like to sit in,” I finally reply. “Right. That.”
“But also, I have control, I can go to a different seat.”
“Sure. That person isn’t your higher power, okay…but, like, what about the waves?”
“What about them?”
“Are you in control of the waves?”
I look ahead at the tepid water. It’s not quite Blue Crush-level surfing out here.
“Those waves? I think I’d be in control of those waves. They’re barely there,”
“So stop them then.”
She’s challenging me so I respond with an eye-roll.
“Try to stop the waves from coming to shore,” she says, smirking at me as if the waves have a slutty little secret I don’t know about.
“That’s really fucking dumb…”
“It’s an exercise. Like what’s the worst that could happen, you find God?!” Nancy chuckles at herself, her excitement about the big man upstairs.
She’s desperate for this to work. I can tell I’m more resistant than other newly sober clients she’s brought here; or perhaps I’m failing to meet her desperation in ways that I should. Being a good student in rehab is important to me, I want to assure them that I’m trustworthy enough to get my parents off my back when I’m out of here. There’s a lot left to prove. Squinting out into the distance, I start counting the ships on the horizon, eventually losing track my brain glitches and, with a sigh, I bury my newly stubbled face in my hands, combing my fingers through the spiky milliliters of chia pet hair left on my head.
“Finding God” is an exercise reserved for rednecks in Mobile, Alabama or Disney child stars trying to make sense of their trauma, their bisexuality, seeking answers from tattooed pastors on big stages, not for New York City faggots recovering from years of sexual abuse, drug addiction, and suicidal ideation. Or is it? Have I exhausted every option and it’s now come to developing a relationship with a “higher power” (air quotes, obviously, for effect)? Like, I’d let Jesus rail me but I don’t want to put my trust in him or his mercurial father. I’d rather shackle myself to a life of sin and rage with Lilith. And I know it doesn’t have to be them, it’s just ingrained in me, indoctrinated by society – even growing up half-Jewish – that to believe in God is to be Christian.
And yet, here I am, sweating. The Atlantic is tempting just by virtue of cooling down and drowning out the noise. Water has always been a salvation for me in other ways, like as a kid, I would spend hours underwater, holding my breath, swimming to the depths of Lake Martin in
Alabama, searching for lost treasure. The muffled sounds made as I flip and twirl my limbs underwater, or fly into the pool like in The Matrix, my favorite childhood film, is the best part of summer. Water gives me superhuman strength, able to carry friends and family twice my size on my back. Nancy might have a point.
I jump up and sprint towards the shore, ripping my shirt off as I fight the breeze. I can hear Nancy screaming but can’t make out the words. After days of being monitored, I run towards freedom, spontaneity, and agency, and dive into the crisp barrier of the ocean. My body freezes at first, the water having not quite warmed to the outside world this early in the season, but quickly adjusts. And while I can swim under the waves and through them, or ride them on my torso to shore, I cannot stop them. They are mighty, even if they seem small from the beach, and confronting them, taking them down, is a battle I’ll never win.
My arms extend as wide as I can reach, Michael Jordan-style, and though at first, I resist the power of the waves, trying to summon some witchy spell to stop them in their tracks, it’s pointless. They win. Mother Nature prevails and remains the queen of all beings. Diving under, the salt water stings my eyes and a small cut from shaving on my chin. I flip on my back and let the waves rock me back and forth and back and forth. The sun bakes my face and I’m reminded of the beauty of all things, all creatures, the circle of life.
Memories flash in my psyche of my dad throwing me into the waves a few hundred miles south of here, at Holden Beach in North Carolina, where we’d go every summer to reconnect with cousins and uncles and grandparents.
Like back then, the world feels simple here. I surrender to gravity, and allow myself to be held for the first time in a long time by the ocean. As I let my body sink entirely, I’m pulled under: the light pierces the backs of my eyelids, my nostrils and mouth fill with seawater, testing the limits of myself versus Poseidon’s turf. At that moment, I realized I could drown here, but the ocean won’t let me. An undercurrent pulls me back to the surface. I gasp for air and scream into the wind. This is power. This is greatness. This is God.