Was it a ghostly pressure of air or sound, an eddy in the vast current of molecules, atomic particles, and solar winds?

Half-life

“A full Dolphy step in time”

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photo / Patti Witten

In the Tipping Point, poet Billy Collins wonders if anyone felt a subtle tremor on the 36th anniversary of Eric Dolphy’s death at the age of 36.

I wonder –
did anyone sense something
when another Eric Dolphy lifetime
was added to the span of his life,

when we all took another
full Dolphy step forward in time,
flipped over the Eric Dolphy yardstick once again?

The line, a full Dolphy step in time, reminded me of my recent 30th sobriety anniversary. It also reminded me of the sensation of movement I often feel just as I fall asleep.

A few minutes after I have turned out the light and turned on my side and slipped one hand under the pillow beneath my cheek, I might feel a tremor on the blanket near my feet or at my back — so slight — as though the cat has settled there to add its heat to mine.

This sensation has happened regularly, many times over the past ten years. I have even reached out to feel for my cat but found the bed empty, and of course, it is not the cat because the bedroom door is shut. Was it a ghostly pressure of air or sound, an eddy in the vast current of molecules, atomic particles, and solar winds?

I am now 30 years sober, half my life, and 30 years past the age I was when I took my last mood-altering substance. Did I feel a “Dolphy step” on January 21st, 2018? The date is an average of days during the week in 1988 that I sat cross-legged on the brown corduroy couch in the basement apartment I shared with my then-husband and last toked on the roach-end of a joint. My last drink was a month before that, December ’87, when my husband Eric and I drank whiskey shots with our friends Paul and Anya at the Royal Palm in Collegetown. Paul and Anya were celebrating completing their graduate degrees at Cornell, and I was trying to quit drinking.

When Eric died without warning in March of ’90, we were separated and heading for divorce. Paul died a year or two later, or maybe more, also by what was called a “sudden death” heart attack. I don’t want to think about Paul or Eric, but especially not Paul because I feel ashamed and guilty remembering the last time I saw him.

Paul came to see me just after Eric died. I might have asked him because I was holding court in that basement apartment, although I did not see it that way at the time. I asked friends from AA and from the “real” world to come because I was desperate to understand and to be understood. Desperate for a message or explanation from his friends or absolution from the people who supported me in recovery. I did not give much thought to how others felt. My own need made me blind and deaf.

While I talked, Paul sat in silence on the edge of the window bench. Then I picked up the ringing phone, and he left abruptly. Was he about to tell me something and changed his mind, or did I offend him by answering the phone? Did I fail to ask how he felt about his fishing and drinking buddy’s death, and did he despise my self-pity? Did he blame me for Eric’s death?

I assume the worst of my past-self. I presume my failing was the agent driving that scene because I can imagine nothing but the best of Paul, who left without a word and carried off with him things that were either impossible to say, kinder not to say, or just the empty place where words might have been but weren’t. I will never know.

Maybe the bed's tremor is a gentle hand saying goodnight, touching the blanket to see if I am still breathing. Perhaps it is the ghost of my father or Eric. Or David, Bruce, Mary Elin, or Geoffrey. The ghosts of my dogs or cats, or my horse, one at a time, making tiny fluctuations in the invisible stuff that surrounds my heavy body. Momentarily opening the veil between dimensions to reenact the old rituals — to check on me like a sleeping child, curl around my feet and against my back, or blow sweet hay-breath on my neck.

But really, I am the one who relives the rituals, as though playing a note that generates harmonics, conjuring the looping, familiar scenes of reassuring domesticity and deep desires in the timeless, hollow moments before sleep.

Written by

Writer, songwriter, essayist; novel-in-progress. Writes for Cornell U College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. swaytothis.wordpress.com

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