January Twentieth: The Fire

Ryan Heller
This story is not about me, but about the mirrors in life who guide and lift a bag of bones from one stone to the next. Two people who grew to become parents, holding the hand of a boy they raised to be a man they love. Grandparents, an aunt, friends, bullies, acquaintances, bosses, coworkers, exes, faded crushes. Characters who reflect what I absorb.
The messengers.
The creators.
The guides.

The boss whom I interviewed with became the one who saved my life. Who would be my husband. It’s about him. And his journey.
Parents who walked with me every step. It’s their journey.
I am the culmination of these people, their history, the interpretation of my senses. From one to another to another to me. To Chris. To his family. And them to me. Then back to my mother. And father. My aunt. A ping-pong tournament of human experience, passed from one to the next in an endless match where both triumph. Where two players are infinite because their game is not secular. The reach is forever.
I’d like to think I am special. My words unique. My thoughts a grenade.
I’d like to believe I am the only, the one. But most folks do.
This story is my story is only the making of every other person I’ve encountered. And those I may never encounter. Every touch, every smell. The music that acts as a soundtrack, or the silence that can raise a storm. Little details of great big episodes, they are more than me. And their resonance is massive.
It is lonely. Humbling. Freeing, I guess.
And like a song, there is the artist struggle to compose lyrics that capture truth, a series of metaphor and word play to carry a message.
Then there is the music.
Pulling heartstrings with guitar strings. It is the vessel. A slow build to an anticipated chorus with the inevitable crescendo. That soul-clutching climax when air leaves the room.
Molecular stillness.
Frozen heights with only the faintest echo of a thump thump in spiritual floorboards.
That crescendo.
A tornado of escalating discovery, memory whirled around present affliction, saturated with future ambition. It’s all there. The moment of enlightenment. Awareness. When it all comes together in a most beautiful package. When life is a movie and you suddenly get a glimpse of the script. The character bios, the web of history, every cause and effect.

It’s why he said, she said –
It’s because they –
My grandmother died so I –
Thirty years ago he –
His father’s a chronic pessimist, so now –
Why we die –
I don’t give a shit –
Because I love –

So on and so forth and on and on it seems to go from one generation to the next. Layers upon layers upon layers of hidden messages, carried associations, held opinions, passed on bullshit that becomes personal truth when really – really it is not mine.
I am the collection jar. One penny, a dollar bill, a quarter, donated in the slit to my subconscious.
A woman on the street who I thought was a homeless crazy turned out kind and considerate. She taught me I still judge others. That there is goodness in everyone. My own fears linger and I project them on to others.
I smiled.
She said hello.
I said happy holidays then walked faster.
She said Chris and I look like brothers.
I said we are husbands. I thought she was going to throw a nasty remark.
She said congratulations and told us not to ever argue with each other.
I felt like an ass and overcompensated with sugar-coated sweetness as we parted ways. She probably doesn’t even remember our thirty-second encounter, while I now write about it days later. Someone may read these words and take something from it.
And so the imprint is passed.
Her life affects mine affects another. A little trickle of massive proportion.
The song hits a crescendo, the feeling is cinematic. Then disperses back to ground zero. To life-level. Where it marinates in the psyche, slowly altering its hardwiring.
This story is not about me. No. I am not an island, not alone in making these connections.
I try and listen to the music.


A few days pass.
The welling of mind numbing nights in front of the television has culminated to daytime drear. Eyes like a furnace. Netflix has me by the throat yet again. This time it’s back-to-back episodes of Being Human. Losing myself in the supernatural.
But late nights of binge watching till 1am followed by early mornings at work are catching up to my sanity. I should know better. I do know better.
But it’s so easy to get lost.
I’m sitting at the recovery house where I volunteer once a week. A snapshot of 1985 cross-pollinated with remnants of the 70’s, traces of the 90’s. Memorabilia, slogans, faded photographs illustrate mustard walls.
Terrazzo floors of pink, white, teal and gray specs. Soiled. Cracked.
A cork board littered with flyers and 12 Step announcements, pimping meetings and service work. White pages that have turned a potpourri of brown and beige with age.
Stacks of books under the counter.
A soda cooler to my right.
Me seated on a step stool.
I think I have to poop.
There are three different rooms in this clubhouse, each with a 12 Step meeting going on. I am alone behind the counter managing the facility until closing at 10pm, after which I very well may be curled up on my couch at home watching the last season of my new addiction.
Only ten more episodes left.
I know I have to poop.
There is a rise of applause from inside one of the rooms. The meeting will be ending in a few minutes. A swarm of drug addicts and alcoholics will carry on their way.
Into night.
The night before New Years Eve.
An occasion deeply ingrained as one of drug-spackled mayhem. My mind so devilishly wanders to New Years Eve 1999, riding the cusp of a new millennium. I was a Sophomore in High School. Hope’s parents left her the house.
Mistake one.
Our group of friends planned the ecstasy ridden New Years Eve party for weeks. We were stocked and amped for the celebration.
After all, what else do you do on New Years Eve?
As the night spiraled in pixie dust and cigarette smoke, more kids from our Catholic School seemed to appear. Faces that did not mingle in our sphere. The kids I always wanted to impress. To be accepted by.
We all melted into one fluid entity that night, where each of us was the same. Spoke the same. Laughed the same. No judgments. No negativity. Just free bird style flight.
Minutes slipped into nothingness. It was moments passed midnight when I called my parents to wish them a happy new year.
I was out by the pool around back.
Some people walked around in their underwear breathing the air as if it were laced with gold.
I tried to sound as calm and sober as possible while I gushed love-rich words to my parents.

I love you so much and –
This year will be amazing because –
You’re the best parents, I –

Channels of heightened adoration.
We hung up.
The music came into focus.
Prodigy or something like that.
I’m the fire starter. Twisted fire starter. 
I walked back into the party as if I had been in time out. Back through the gates of debauchery and teenage wonderland. Black lights and glow sticks, Newport cigarettes and Vic’s inhalers, cocaine and ecstasy.
Into the New Year.


This story is not about me. It’s about those friends I drifted toward in a new school, who helped shape the rest of my life. Choices, decisions, relationships.
Doors opened that may have otherwise stayed shut, cracks and crevices darkened with neglect.
We each show up with our suitcase in tow, the history of us. Like Russian dolls tucked one inside another, my story holds the story and experiences of my mother and father, holds that of their family and connections.
Until the very first breath of life.
The history of the universe folded in each person as kneaded dough.
Sugar, salt, egg, flour, blended into one fleshy lump. Carrying all the microcosms of each ingredient; vitamins, nutrients, molecules and atoms blend to form something unto itself. Baked. Transformed.
So many times I stop to ask myself if I really believe what I am fighting for. Do I like this song? Is that joke funny? Does that whatever really bother me, is that actually a button or have I adopted it from someone else at some other time in the past?
But where is the end?
Because even those opinions or beliefs – the music I listen to on repeat because I can’t get enough of that crescendo – even those are influenced by something or someone along the way. It’s how my little brain began to shape its intricate pathways. It’s how my eyes were trained to interpret and form perspective. That of my own. Of the woman on the street. My family. Those friends. A movie I can’t seem to shake years later.
They are me.
I am them.
And they are fragments of the world.
Fragments now in me.
Projected back through my own filter.
And evolution continues in its bumper car.


Four years ago I swallowed my last pain pill. Christmas night. After days of trying to look past the glowing orange pharmaceutical bottle on the kitchen counter. At Chris’s parent’s home in Pennsylvania. My mind a mess. Months of heavy antipsychotics, antidepressants, antianxiety medication.
One pill to focus.
One to calm.
One to balance.
One to block addictive tendencies.
One to make me happy.
And one more to sleep at night.
Six months out of rehab, diagnosed by a psychiatrist as anxious, depressed, obsessive-compulsive, ADD.
A new pharmaceutical regime to replace the old.
I became a washboard of blank stares and quilted thought. Words dangled from the corner of my mouth like drool.
It was my second Christmas with Chris’s family. We were in the cordial stage of getting to know each other. That awkward period where every sentence is dissected to make sure you don’t come across like an idiot. Not wanting to let too much silence fill the room or monopolize any conversation. Waiting for the right moment to interject a warm joke, the appropriate laugh. I tread water to keep my head afloat, any lengthy discussion passed over me.
My mind melted with the snow.
By the third or fourth family Christmas party that night, my threshold had diminished. The twitch in my brain became an itch in my body. Every inch of my skin tingled with nerves.
Alone, Chris and I went back to the house.
Ice crackles against the driveway as the car crept up. Headlights trace the ground then spread wings against the garage door. A finite horizon aglow. Until Chris turns the car off.
The heat of my breath exhales puffs of cotton against the bitter chill.
We scurry toward the front door.
Vibration, static through every cell. The orange bottle in the kitchen, in the corner of my eye. I have become immune to the civil war in my head, the traffic of thought, of fear, emotion, of right and wrong. It is all just static. One continuous dull hum of mental silly putty, impressions of life and feeing that stretch and dissolve into a fleshy wad of nothing.
Chris runs upstairs to the bathroom.
I quickly walk into the kitchen.
No. Something whispers soft somewhere. But it flatlines. Dissolves into putty.
Mechanically my arm extends. Percocet. Twist open the bottle. Pop one out. Get greedy. Pop another out. Put it back. My heart on fire, it pounds in my throat at rapid speed. Adrenaline. Everything feels off.
I hear the toilet flush upstairs.
One pill enters my mouth.
It’s done.
I fumble to put the lid back on. My body tingles.
As I put the bottle back on the counter, a voice says, “What are you doing?”
I turn to see Chris standing behind me.
His voice unrecognizable. I had never heard that tone, that kind of anger. Or hurt. Or fear. Or whatever it was. I had never heard it. Something deep, deep down; a werewolf who comes out only when the rage is so pure, the betrayal so painful.
And it was.
The next seconds. Minutes. Days. They were all painful. The coming months were painful. Every time our eyes met, it was painful.
His parents walk in the house.
I retreat upstairs.
Chris stays with them. Venomous.
It was as if my eyes could suddenly see for the first time. My ears open. There was an earthquake below and I did not know how to face it. If I could have hid in a closet, I would have. The energy was suffocating. The guilt overwhelming.
I call my sponsor, fingers trembling while I pull up his phone number. He tells me to breathe. To calm down.
“It’s over”, I tell him. “It’s fucking over. Chris wants me to find a flight and leave. He’s done with me. I fucked up.”
“You need to go downstairs. You need to go downstairs and own up to it. Now.”
I don’t like what he tells me.
“Ryan, we do things differently now. When we fuck up we correct it. You fucked up. You need to go downstairs and apologize to Chris and his parents. Right now.”
I tell him I can’t do that. What if he didn’t tell his parents. I’ll look like a drug addict.
I am a drug addict. It’s that whisper again.
“I can’t help you if you can’t do the work. You said when we met that you were willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober. Ryan, you need to go downstairs and own up to it. Apologize. Chris is angry now, his parents may be angry. But you can only do your part. Keep your side of the street clean.”
Chris swings open the door. His face has changed. It is cold. He won’t look at me.
“Have you booked your ticket? I want you out of here.” His rage is a fire poker ready to pierce my heart.
“Is that Chris,” my sponsor asks through the phone. “Ask him if he will talk to me. I can try and explain things.”
I ask.
He says no.
Chris slams the door shut.
“Ryan, go downstairs now.”
I tell him I will.
“Call me immediately after.”
I tell him I will.
We hang up.
An image of elementary school. A giant circular, primary colored fabric. Parachute material. Everyone gathered around, holding the edges. We shake it rapidly, like dusting debris from a rug. Screams, laughter. The teacher instructs me and a few kids to let go and run underneath the blooming, billowing fabric.
My tiny fingers let go. Intently I run under, directly center. Colored shadow reflects on the grass below as sunlight hits the fabric above. I lay down to face the movement overhead. The sound of fabric repeatedly beating against the wind is deafening. It drowns all other noise. The laughter. The birds. It is a monotonous drone that envelops. Pulsating rhythmically. I stare up. It is like the world is crashing down on me. The weight of everything pounces and swallows my body.
That is how I feel now.
A little boy with the weight of the world ready to devour him.
As I walk the endless hallway toward the stairs. The long decent.
I stop midway and shake my head. I can’t do this. There is no way. Tell these people whom I hold on the highest of pedestal. The parents of my boyfriend whom I want so desperately to like me. To accept me. To laugh at my stupid jokes. To think I am the best thing that has happened to their son. I have to tell them I stole their pain pill and relapsed in their home on Christmas.
I can’t do this.
Voices from downstairs dance like mice against the walls. Faint whispers of sound. Or maybe I was floating somewhere else.

First step.
Left foot.
Right foot.
Body follows.

Second step.
Left foot.
Right foot.
Body follows.

I fight through quicksand, one creaking wooden step after the other. All color left my face. Or a vampire drained the life from my neck. I was pale, trembling.
Banter from in the kitchen. A laugh.
Chris’s mother walks in holding a tube of Christmas wrapping paper.
She looks surprised to see me standing there.
I look for any sign of disgust. Disappointment. Hatred.
She may have a good poker face.
The words roll out. “Can I talk to you?”
His father walks in.
I can barely speak.
“What’s going on? Are you OK?” He asks.
“I need to talk to you about what happened.”
“What do you mean? With what?”
A moment of disbelief. I’m not sure what to do. Chris said he was going to tell his parents. He had to explain the missing pill and why I was leaving.
“Before. What happened before,” I stammer.
This was becoming more awkward.
They have to know.
His mother and father look at each other. His father shakes his head.
Chris walks in the room.
He is wearing a dark blue sweater with a checkered collar shirt underneath. His arms folded across his chest. Eyes blank.
They want me to say it. To confess. This is torture.
I say it’s about taking their pain pill.
They had no idea. Chris never told them.
Word vomit. It all came out.
His father’s face warmed with concern and assurance. “It’s fine. You can have whatever you want here. You don’t have to ask.”
I watch it settle in his mother’s eyes. She understood, quickly explaining to his father. She came over and hugged me. Their only worry was me. If I was alright. Then I’m sure it turned to Chris.
I apologize repeatedly before retreating upstairs to hide.
This is not what I expected.

Chris storms in. The room tightens. He says we are going for a drive.
I grab my coat and rush after him.
The headlights retract their wings from the finite horizon and trace back as Chris pulls the car out from the driveway. The crackling of ice beneath tires is now an unsettling sound that crawls down my spine.
Chris stares ahead.
Who talks first?
Before the silence eats my stomach I begin to tell Chris how sorry I am.
So I guess I talk first.
And the floodgates open.
I don’t know how to make it right. What to say. How to act. I feel in my gut that we are over. He’s had enough of my shit. Enough of my lying. Of the secrets. The darkness. My darkness. He wore a heart monitor just before I went to rehab because of palpitations from anxiety. Chris had walked into the haunted house that was my life. Full of demons, ghosts and skeletons.
His heat could melt the snow outside. “I told you when you were in treatment that this was the last time. I will not enable this. I don’t deserve this. You promised me never again. And we agreed. You agreed. That if you relapsed, it would be over. And you did it, Ryan. You broke your word. You broke your promise. I can’t trust you.”

But I –
I’m so sorry, I –
I didn’t mean to –
I love you, and –
I’m a piece of –
Please –

Words. Pleas. They swarm the rental car like gnats.
This person who stood by me. Who supported me. I was breaking him.
And he knew it.
Chris drove for over an hour. Through black roads in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Surrounded by midnight trees and Amish farmland. Two headlights cut through the bitter cold night. Two desperate souls ready to crash.
He made me call my parents to tell them I relapsed.
My mother is supportive. You will get through this she tells me. You’ve only been out of treatment a few months she reminds me.
I wish it were that easy.
That there was a switch. The insanity miraculously stops. The obsession goes away. The insatiable itch to fill a void with something, anything, just evaporates. But it is one failure after another. One guy after another. Emotional and physical investments for a spiritual hiatus. There was Sean, Frank, Joe, Hope, Amber. One person after the other. The twin. The hope. The seeking and searching for whatever it takes to feel whole. Complete.
Running round the May pole with no end to my ribbon. Dizzy, fighting an onset of nausea.
The parachute of fabric crashing down on my head.
It’s the fragments. The layers upon layers of destruction, construction. Building and rebuilding. The pieces of those experiences, of the people who laid the bricks of my path. My past.

Fast forward four years.
Chris and I are on our honeymoon. We’re in Athens. The tour bus driver tells us to look to the right. She says part of the ancient city still rises from modern Athens. Over centuries, society builds new civilizations atop the old, forming what is called a tell. An archaeological mound of ruins. Layer upon layer of ancient culture buried beneath what we see today. And if you dig enough, if you scratch the skin, artifacts and history can be unearthed.
I’ve been sober for four years.


This story is not about me.
It’s about the night Chris finally drew a line in the sand.
It’s about his mother who chose to hug rather than judge.
My sponsor who told me to do the right thing.
His sponsor who passed that information to him.
It’s about my parents who still believe in me.
It’s about unavoidable human shrapnel.
I am an exquisite composition of all these people, these experiences which led me to today.
To that Christmas night.
Chris broken. My truth exposed. It is another stitch in my fabric. Another twinkling star in the sky. It became the bedrock on which a new foundation was poured.
My tell rises.­­

Thanks for reading