When Dmitri slammed head-on into his watershed moment, he was behind the wheel of a Ford F-250 doing eighty up I-5, somewhere north of Azalea, Oregon. It wasn't a logging truck that did Dmitri in, not a state trooper nor one of the lumbering motorhomes climbing the long grade up Canyon Creek Pass. The moment that grew into his undoing was an inside job.
Dmitri's Waterloo spilled from the dash of his truck, a National Public Radio story that blinded him with tears. In an instant, a sunny autumn afternoon transformed into a weeping man trying to wrestle a speeding pickup to the shoulder of the freeway. It was September 7th, 2003, the day Warren Zevon died.
An old rockstar with lung cancer, his death a foregone conclusion. Dmitri was not related to Warren Zevon and had never even met the man, yet word of the singer's death clobbered him like an ax handle to the forehead.
There he was in the middle of nowhere, hunched over the steering wheel of his work truck and sobbing. Milestones can be sneaky bastards.
Viewed through the lens of hindsight, a day came when Dmitri saw that tear-streaked afternoon as a turning point in his life. A portal cracked open just enough to offer him a glimpse of brightness into his dark past, a shiny thing where nothing was supposed to shine. Dmitri discovered that a door opened is a temptation, and glittering treasure is difficult to ignore.
Dmitri wept while paths shifted, and doors creaked open. When his tears were spent, he dried his eyes and gunned the pickup truck back onto the interstate. He was going home to the new love of his life. Dmitri was fifteen years clean, fifteen years sober, a miracle child in a man's body. Forty years old with a future as bright as his past was dark.
Eight hours of hard driving brought him home. Evening came and went as he pounded up the road, and the clock ticked towards midnight. The reunion with his woman altered the memories of that day. He turned it into a tale told at his own expense. They laughed over it in bed, tangled in the sheets and each other.
In the weeks that followed, that tearful episode on the side of the road faded to insignificance, yet it had already altered the course of Dmitri's life. Had he taken a hard look, he might have seen the shadow that appeared as he wept bright tears on a hot afternoon in the middle of nowhere. But he did not look back, not until much later.
People cling to momentous events, the day a hero died, a parent, a president, the day one human set foot on the moon or another was born in obscurity, a heart irretrievably betrayed or a new love sparked, the moment a symbolic door opened or slammed shut. Constructing altars to these precious, defining moments, humans sometimes believe them to be carved in stone, inviolate. After this day came that, before this it was so, principium et finem, beginning and end.
Maybe that's how it happens for the lucky few or the wide-awake, once every other blue moon or so. Two Robert Frost roads diverge in a yellow wood, and someone has the good sense to pause and examine both routes. But most of us are too busy chasing life or being chased by it, to afford much of a pause.
One of those lucky mutts might have the decency to erect a signpost, a fingerboard for those of us too unlucky, harried, or tear-blinded to notice the fork in the road. But the lucky don't spend much time thinking about the unlucky. They can't acknowledge bad luck, lest it rubs off on them.
There was no signpost that day for Dmitri. He was miles and years down the pike before it occurred to him to look back over his shoulder, to wonder why, how, and where the route had changed. Where it all went wrong.
Dmitri's past was no closed book. He read aloud from it at his meetings, twice a week, regular as clockwork. From the safety of long sobriety, Dmitri told stories of how terrible the bad old days had been and how good it was now. He walked the walk and talked the talk, careful to tell the newcomers what they needed to hear. A dark past, a bright future, and never the twain shall meet.
What he never talked about, barely remembered, was a shining treasure in the darkness. Better to recite the sanitized version of the story, the madman boy-child who chased lines of Bukowski poems and cocaine across filthy mirrors. Dangerous to acknowledge that sometimes there were flashes of brilliance in the blackness.
This is what happened the day Dmitri wept beside the freeway in the sunshine. A door cracked open, and a sliver of crazed light escaped out of the night. It wriggled through that momentary portal, burrowed into Dmitri's present, and waited.
Time passed. Dmitri married the good woman, and they made a life together. He worked hard, drove from here to there, and lived up to his responsibilities. The road went on, and he went where it led.
Dmitri followed a pathway he thought was his, and a shimmering silver thing stalked after him. It fed on the edges of his memories and grew stronger. It whispered to him from the verge of midnight dreams.
What is it you yearn for, Dmitri? You and I are bosom pals, old mates. You can confide in me. The old days weren't always bad. You know that to be true. Lie to your pathetic sober crowd if you need to. I understand. I know the thing you can never say, and you remember even as you deny it. I know this because I am you as you were. You blather on about pain in the black night, the crash, the bottom, and the shame. But there was more, so much more.
What do you long for? I know the answer. You long for that perfect moment of not having and not caring, the absolute freedom of not giving a fuck about anyone or anything and meaning it. Dangerous, yes, but danger is sweet. Dulce periculum, that's what you used to say. And you laughed when you said it, didn't you? Latin mottos dripped so sweetly from the lips of the drunken poet boy.
Let me play you a film clip, shall I? Just a teaser, enough to jar your far too simple memory. Ah, there she is, the girl named Bonnie. Why don't you ever mention her in your cozy little meetings? Look, the two of you together, wild things, reckless, but even in recklessness she frightened you. Scared to death and yet so crazy for her, so wildly in love. Because you're gonna die anyway, just like the rest of us. Why not roll those bones and to hell with the rest? Her words, your words, remember?
The liturgy, call and response, Bonnie and Dmitri, word for word. You knew it was your bones that were going to do the rolling and it was pointless to be afraid. Only three possible outcomes; Bonnie leaves you, you leave her, or one of you dies. Or option number four, the nuclear option: You both die.
Bonnie laughed when you told her about dying, busted right out with that scary laugh of hers. Called you Dee, one of only two people who ever got away with that. Not how it's gonna go down, Dee. She grinned at you, that wicked leer you loved so much. Then she asked if you were up for a little murder-suicide. She meant it too, and you knew it was true. She was hell on wheels, that girl. And you loved her, Dmitri, heart and soul.
Wait, here's another ragged snippet of film, a short shot done on a handheld camera. Let's give it a look Dmitri, my old pal Dee.
A shitty bar across the street from a failing steel mill. A tough watering hole, full of guys just off their shifts and worried about losing their jobs. Oh look, there's Bonnie. She was hella easy on the eyes, no doubt about it. And you right beside her, looking all young and handsome.
Bonnie looks to be feeling frisky, maybe itching for some trouble. You look worried. Then there's her crazy laugh, right on cue. Don't you just love old movies? Wait, here's the good part.
She gives you a hard elbow to the ribs. Don't be a pussy, Dee. Hurt don't last long, and pain lets you know you're still alive. Watch this. She snatches a full bottle of beer and heaves it at a corner booth packed with drunken steelworkers. The bottle hits the wall behind the brutes, showering them with broken glass and beer foam.
Oh look, she's got their attention now! Six big ugly faces staring daggers at her and she's pointing at you. This punk called you fat assholes a buncha faggoty bitches and I agree with him one hundred percent! Ollie-Ollie-in-Come-Free, Boyos! Then she yanks a sap out of her jeans while she's giving you her little girl smile. Holding your chin tight, smiling into your eyes, yours, and yours alone, as six angry men charge across the bar. And that excruciatingly beautiful moment is better than state fair cotton candy, better than pancake breakfast at the firehouse, better than anything.
Wait, this is my favorite part, Dee. What's the matter? You look a little green around the gills. Just a bit more, the action scene. Remember Bonnie's motto. Don't be a pussy. Holy shit, those big lunkheads are coming fast and they mean business. But your girl stands her ground. Go get 'em, Bonnie!
Ouch! Look at that wall of meat smash into you two. And Bonnie swinging that sap for all she's worth. She's a live wire, that one. Takes out two of those big bastards before they knock you down and laid the boots into you both.
I believe you were ten days healing up from that adventure. When you got out of the hospital, did you head for safer pastures? No, Dee, you ran right back to Bonnie. That's how you remember it?
The film of memory flickers and goes dim.
Dmitri sighed into the darkness and swung his legs from the bed to the floor. Another sleepless night staggering down memory lane. He plodded into the kitchen and switched on the electric kettle. Beyond the kitchen window, the streets were deserted. Waiting for the water to boil, he rolled the rest of it around inside his head.
It wasn't last long after he and Bonnie got out of the hospital that they were back to ripping and running. Darkness dogged them every step of the way. The Black Dog finally hunted Dmitri down, cornered him, and swallowed him whole. Everything was gone, everything except Bonnie. Then he was up on the suicide bridge, two hundred feet above the inky, swirling water. He clung to the railing, looking down, down into forever, and he could not remember Bonnie's face.
Somehow, Dmitri staggered down off that bridge without taking the jump. He got clean and Bonnie got gone. Ended up with a pot-metal sobriety coin, a single bed in a group home, and no Bonnie. She had no time for cheap medals, sobriety, or anything else smacked of the straight life. Didn't even stick around for a goodbye.
He saw her one time or thought he did, six months clean and hands still trembling. She was stalking down a sidewalk ahead of him, with no past or future to slow her down. Dmitri quickened his steps, but she disappeared around a corner. He stood stock still with the sun in his eyes, staring at where she had been.
That was it. He never saw her again. Bonnie had no use for a sober Dmitri. Sitting in AA halls wasn't her idea of a good time. He doubted she gave him a second thought.
Synchronicity is a powerful thing for a recovering drunk. Someone from your past gets sober, and you notice it. Warren Zevon got clean a couple of years after Dmitri stepped out of his AA fog and dipped a toe into the cold waters of sobriety. Werewolves and excitable boys were traded in for time spent in rehab and doing laundry. Get a phone, call your sponsor, and wash those dirty sheets. Go to a meeting. Don't drink, don't use, don't die. Wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. One day at a time. Forever.
Dmitri got a day job. He learned to sleep at night like regular folks. Earned a steady paycheck and had no idea how to spend the money. He opened a bank account and was shocked when the nice woman called him sir, handed him a checkbook. The sober life took some getting used to.
The road got a little less rocky. Dmitri met the good woman, courted her hard, and convinced her to marry him. They made a life together and it was good. Dmitri worked hard, drove the highways to the next job, and built what the bosses told him to build. He lived up to his responsibilities. The job done, he drove back to the good woman.
Dmitri forgot about the day on the freeway when he wept for his dead hero. He never noticed the door standing ajar, or the seed of the past gnawing on the edge of his midnight dreams. He ignored the return of the drunk dreams and the creeping shadows of the bad old days. Didn't mention it in meetings. It was just a bump in the road. Everybody has them.
Then he met Lara. She didn't creep through a crack in the door. She kicked it wide open, fierce and proud, wreathed in darkest night and bad intent. Dmitri saw her for exactly who she was and welcomed her in.
Lara was looking for a martyr to add to her pyre and Dmitri was willing to burn. It wasn't her fault. She only lit the torch. It was Dmitri who took the burning brand from her hand and threw it onto the oiled wood.
The conflagration lasted for an entire year. They made mad love while the flames leaped high. As the blaze subsided, they made shadow love. When the pyre burned to bitter ash, they made no love at all. The wind took the ashes and there was nothing left.
Dmitri woke up alone. Lara was as gone as Bonnie, except she laughed when she left. The good woman was gone as well. She did not depart in laughter, but tears. He'd gotten what he'd asked for. He wanted that perfect freedom of nothing to lose and that is exactly what he achieved.
It was the addict's Arthurian legend gone wrong, the failed search for the Holy Grail of that first, perfect high. The lure of a single moment of silver oblivion, the one true buzz. Every addict gets a glimpse, a free taste, and then the chase begins. The mirage of a lost moment, always just out of reach, just beyond his fingertips. Dmitri chased it as hares chase hounds, running tongue out and blind to anything else. He never caught it. No addict ever does.
Dmitri burned his life to embers without going back to the bottle or the dope. A small miracle in a large disaster, but it left him nowhere to hide. That was the one thing he had left: he was still sober. And the harsh light of his sobriety illuminated the chaos he had wrought. No blackout to hide in, no hangover to cower behind. Dmitri learned that the price of oblivion had gone up since the old days. The Faustian bargain was done, and his bill came due.
It's a sucker's play, calling ghosts back to life. A hard lesson best learned the first time. Like waking up handcuffed to a cheap hotel bed, alone, with no wallet, no key, and no one to call. Once is usually enough. Seduced by nostalgia, Dmitri suffered the lesson twice. Better to remember the past than romanticize it. Worse to relive it.
There was no one else to pick up the pieces. If the wreckage of Dmitri's life was an inside job, so was the cleanup. He gave up editing the book of his past. Twice a week, regular as clockwork, Dmitri told the familiar tale of his bad old days. But now he talked about how those ghosts were still with him. He spoke of the crack in the door and the lure of old times. A dark past, the struggle with a hard future, the two always intertwined.
He told those listening faces about the shining treasure in the darkness, and confessed it to the room and himself. The sanitized version of his story went into the shitcan, along with the ghosts of his past. Better to acknowledge the flashes of brilliance in the blackness. Safer to recognize the silver mirage for what it was.
Dmitri learned to let his hero rest in peace. Warren Zevon was dead. Dmitri had a lot of living left to do.
These days, when he hears the old songs, and feels the tug of the werewolf or the excitable boy, he gives them a nod and lets them pass. He listens to new songs and tries to stay clean for another day. And as he allows his hero to rest in peace, Dmitri tries to make peace with his past. Some days it fits, other days it doesn't, but he keeps trying just the same.