Life in the Liminal

Life in the Liminal

In Issue 66 by Clint Martin

Life in the Liminal
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’m on my back. Lazing between sleep and awake, dream and reality. It’s morning’s blurry edge, so comforter reaches cheeks, just below closed eyes. Right leg stretches uncovered, cool in our hotel room’s conditioned air. Left side warmed by wife’s breathing body. Florida’s proud light spills into the room, so behind shut lids, it’s not dark. It’s red. The oldest pair of our Spring Break party—my parents—whisper good mornings and how’d-ya-sleeps in the room’s second queen-sized bed. Their bed is on the other side of my wife, next to the scantily curtained window. Sounds and temperatures disappear as I doze, doze, slip back into reverie. Just for a beat or two. Maybe four. Just until my youngest son’s giggle yanks me back. He’s on the fold-out bed to my right, already watching YouTube videos on his phone. He, too, is under the covers. All of him. His laughter, like the sunlight, is muffled by morning’s softness. His older brother’s breathing fills the few soundless spaces lying between parents’ whispers, son’s giggles, and AC’s blow. As I slide off the edge of awakeness into another swift dream, my hand reaches for my wife’s. Hers reaches for mine....

Surrounded by scores of people, I’m all alone. Parents, wife, and sons are a few yards up the beach. Might as well be miles. For I’m standing solo. Sturdy. On two legs. Not moving yet slipping between continent’s edge and vast sea. On land. In sea. Leftover drops from the Gulf of Mexico magnify evening’s coolness atop my reemerged feet. In front of me, soft waves arrive in long angles not quite aligned with the shore. I watch waves roll, roll. Break, splatter, spread. Around me, a wave ends in an audible whoosh incongruent for its diminutive size. Tingly foam fondles some shin hairs as flattened wave fizzes around me. Feet resubmerged, so toes wiggle in water’s familiar warmth. Neptune calls and Gulf obeys, pulls a rush of pebbly sand and slivery shell across my unshielded Achilles. My heels sink and suck further into the sifting land. Feet feel the fire of evening’s chill while the brine of sea teases the tongue. As casually as dreams roll upon the edge of almost-awake minds, the next wave glides in....

I’m seated in a friendly Florida pub, a fine setting for an impromptu reunion of sorts. On the other side of the wobbly table sits a man I haven’t seen in seventeen years. Since my wedding. A fact I’d forgotten until Mr. Ott announces it. Mr. Ott. Father of Ryan, one of my closest high school and college friends who lives in Connecticut. So far away from both here and home. A friend I haven’t seen in years. Regardless, I am presently within arm’s length of his dad. And though he has weathered a bit, Mr. Ott is still a brick of a man. Square shoulders and thick neck. My folks, wife, and youngest haven’t arrived from the hotel yet since their names were further down the shower’s waiting list. To my left sits my sixteen-year-old. Neat brown hair. Limber, athletic build. Aside from the blue eyes, he could easily pass as my sixteen-year-old self. Sixteen coincides with the age I was when my friendship with Ryan began. A kinship seeded and fertilized during after-school hours spent leaning against white gym walls while bigger, better players like LeMar and Dre dribbled and sweated. As the basketball team’s two shortest members, my bond with Ryan formed easily. I relayed all this to my politely listening son on the short drive from hotel to restaurant. I rerun it again to Mr. Ott, a dad who never missed a game. As Mr. Ott and I recall close losses and bad calls, the sound of casual evening chatter fills the pub around us. The smell of beer and seafood lingers between my words....

I’m scrunched. I’m in the middle row of the minivan behind my long-legged Dad. His seat is all the way back. As he drives us toward Kentucky, he chats with my oldest. Behind me, Mom knits and converses with my youngest. In between YouTube videos, my son answers his grandma’s queries with one-word responses. An open gray beach bag holding a family-sized helping of brightly colored beach towels separates me from napping wife. My knees are pulled up into my chest. Head lolls against the vibrating window. Seatbelt clasp jabs my lower back. My shielding cocoon is a burgundy blanket—soft and thick and heavy. Underneath its protective layer, my eyes are shut. Red again. Not just from Florida sun, but also from flashing images of unspooling memory. Remembered moments flicking faster than mental words can label. Interstate traffic whooshes in quick spurts along the window. The click, click of Mom’s knitting needles tick faster than the seconds....

...Awake, but still in hotel bed with eyes shut and comforter pulled to cheek, I hear my parents’ voices strengthen from waking whispers to mid-morning talking. They discuss whether we should go to the beach after breakfast or after lunch. They debate the order in which our family should shower. Before I’m assigned a number, dreaming beckons once more. Mind obeys but body lags and for the briefest instant and in that teeny expanse of space I become divided, become split between a wistful world of dreams and the one holding my wife’s hand. As I drift over in the gray area of that line, not quite in either reality or dream, ears locate sounds to congeal me, to form a more complete awareness of a cool room and wife’s warmth. Mom and Dad list possible supper spots. My youngest giggles. In compliance with sun’s growing presence, his sounds of mirth intensify. My oldest surrenders to the futility of sleeping in a rented room full of awake people and Florida sunlight. The bathroom door slides shut, and the sound of pouring water rushes in. I release my wife’s hand, roll left, and hug her heat. She too rolls left. Our bodies align. Chest, pelvis, thighs: warm. Back, butt, calves: cold. My parents agree dinner should be near the hotel....

...Subtle sea waves continue to break across my shins. My family’s not far and people pepper the beach, yet I feel singular. Standing on shore; standing in sea. Out in the water, flicking fish-tails flip and plop in random spots. In one band of the sea stretched before me, the small plops are everywhere. It’s a swarm of swimming mackerel causing the plops. It’s a school of herding dolphins causing the swarms. Amid the modest peaks of rolling waves, amid all the plopping and flopping, the upper curve of diving dolphins rolls into and out of view. A flopped fin sits centered atop each slick curve. Brown pelicans are present too: some skim Gulf’s surface, some bob amid sea’s peaks and valleys. Like the dolphins, the birds are here for the mackerel. One gray pelican skims the waves, ascends an invisible hill of air, dives, and jabs its pouchy beak into the swimming plops. A wave breaks on my shins. Returns across calf. While I sink deeper into the sand, evening sun sizzles along day’s edge....

...Across the wobbly table, Mr. Ott orders a vodka martini. With three olives. It’s not our waitress who takes his order; it’s the owner. Mr. Ott introduces us. I order an IPA. I remind myself it’s okay, surely Mr. Ott knows you drink by now. My friend’s dad talks. Despite an added gruffness of years, his voice lands strikingly familiar. Its cadence calls me back to his Kentucky kitchen. Must’ve been where I heard him the most. Mr. Ott timelines Ryan’s life since college. The major events—wife, two kids, Connecticut—I’m aware of. The details—Ryan’s son loves cars, his daughter carries her mom’s old doll—are new. The waitress returns. My son announces Ribs. Exactly what I would’ve ordered at his age. Mr. Ott doesn’t need a menu. I, on the other hand, am staring at the printed words. Staring. Not comprehending. Just staring. I am seeing something else. Another place. A place somewhere between dinner options...and...Mr. Ott’s kitchen. I try to read the list of entrees, but they blur. Words won’t stay still. They melt into white gym walls....

...Beneath the blanket, I breathe. I breathe. Heart thumps. And body is acutely aware of both practical processes. Keen to breath and beat, behind shut eyes, I see the face of another dear, dear friend. Not Ryan’s. LeMar’s. An old teammate of ours. LeMar. One of the guys who sprinted and jumped, played and sweated while Ryan and I spit chat against the wall. LeMar. One of the guys I lived with in college. My forty-two-year-old, father-of-two friend. LeMar. His face won’t leave my sight. LeMar. The guy who—according to the text I just read—died this morning. My eyes are shut, yet all I see is LeMar, LeMar, LeMar. Dimpled cheeks, brown face, puppy brown eyes glinted with mischief and mirth. Joker grin under short, short black hair—hair I noticed a few months ago sporting more specks of ashy gray. Eyes stuck on LeMar. Recall his pencil-thin mustache. Remember how hair arrived above his lip before most boys find it in their armpits. Hear his chuckling giggle, echoing in step with my heart’s double-timed thumps. Between Dad’s seat, the van’s door, and the bag of beach towels, I am physically wedged in place. Because of LeMar, I’m emotionally scrunched as well. The clasp jabs my back. The knitting needles click, click....

...Still in bed. Still rolled left, arm around wife’s warmth, I hear Mom and Dad converse in their bed by the window. One son giggles while his brother breaks morning’s seal. As ears sift between sounds of parents and sons, I feel myself splitting. Not between dream and morning. Not between warm and cool. I feel son. I feel son-self listening to parents. Hearing them plan the future, not asking his opinion. I note the obedient urge to ride their tide. To follow along. It’s a familiar feeling but one I don’t live with daily, a result of now having been adult longer than kid. But it’s son-self that’s splitting. Pulled behind me toward son’s giggles. His muffled chuckles make me feel father. Father-self rolls in. Pulls too. Brings a desire to remind my boy to leave his phone in the room when we leave for the beach. Other son emerges from bathroom and now fatherly feeling swells with the desire to ask my oldest, to find out from my oldest, to hear his words tell me how he slept. As this wave of fatherly feeling crests into its climax, it spills, washes across my bones and lifts me straight up, ready to jump all the way up, to flee the bed, run to both boys and snatch each in a big hug, knowing full well both’ll act like morning squeezes are no longer necessary. The same way I’ll act when Mom snags me. But I resist this and just sit. Sit up and watch my groggy sixteen-year-old step further into the room, my cheesy smile ready to strike, poised to ask about his night. But before slightest syllable slips my lips, all fatherly feelings crash, fizz, dissolve when sitting-up Mom chirps in my direction, How’d you sleep?

...I’m on the shore; I’m in the sea. Shore. Sea. Shore. Sea. Dolphins curve. Pelicans dive. Mackerel flop. Sea. Shore. Across the domed sky behind me stretches a band of deep, deep navy. The near black of space. As band advances toward dome’s apex, navy diminishes, dissolves, brightens bit by bit until directly above floats the bluest of blues. An idyllic blue. A blue so perfect, it can’t remain. So it slips, eases its way down toward sea’s horizon. As it does, it disassembles, gradually reveals itself an impostor. Not blue. Somehow gold all along. Splendid and shiny and stained along the edges in a color that feels like little streaks of vibrant lime. But Gold won’t remain either. Gold’s ribbon widens, ripens into a band of orange, a flaming orange, a glowing orange, orange in sweetest momentary perfection that, as it bleeds out into the periphery, cools and coalesces into a sliver of magenta, further into a crimsoned plum. Straight out to see however, where the triumvirate of sun and sky and sea meet, where sizzling sun sinks into shimmery sea, colors are impossible to distinguish. They’re there. They’re akin to blue and orange and yellow and red. But they’re none of those. Maybe they’re not so much colors as brightnesses or vibrations or...whatever they are, in this space, they insist on remaining nameless, insist on blurring words. They speak not to the eyes, but the gut. To subconscious. Yet, through their mystery, a burst of sun thrusts outward bleaching rays in symmetrical spokes. Spokes widen as they grow. Spokes stream from sun’s blurry edges, edges sizzling silently as the entire spectrum of still-lit sky pulses, breathes as if electric. Dolphins arc and Pelicans bob while wave arrives then returns. Sun sinks. Night swells.

...Mr. Ott tells me more about Ryan. With each fact, Ryan becomes more adult and less freckly teen. With each highlight, I miss him more and more. I wish it was Ryan giving me the details. My missing grows, swells so much it drowns the words crossing the wobbly table. Flattened and fizzed, the words don’t register. I’m too much in the missing. I start to miss more than Ryan. I start to miss me. Sixteen-year-old me. Miss that guy too. To regain conversation’s thread, I watch Mr. Ott. Put my eyes on him. It works momentarily but too easily brick of a body blurs, becomes colorless, a sinking sun on the table’s horizon. I fight for focus, watch Mr. Ott raise his right arm to get waitress’s attention. Seeing his movement again makes memory swell, riptides me into the past. His arm. Mr. Ott’s arm. The way it rotated at the shoulder. No arm muscles involved. Twenty years have passed, but two decades is not enough to keep me from recognizing the gesture. That was Ryan. That was Ryan raising his arm to shoot a free throw—an act I’d seen hundreds of times but first noticed at a wobbly table in a Florida pub. Eyes return to the present, fall back on Mr. Ott. He jokes with the waitress. My eyes are all attention now, thirsting for another glimpse of Ryan. Eyes so attentive ears hear nothing of what Mr. Ott says. But the waitress does. She retorts as she walks away. But there! See it there! See head to chest. See how head swivels slightly as mouth-closed grin chuckles. That’s Ryan! That’s my friend! My friend is here, sitting across from me...a voice pulls me back to the table. It’s talking to me. It’s familiar. But it’s not Ryan’s. It’s Mr. Ott. Disappointment covers me, the part of me no one can see. Under its weight, I look, find myself pulled more into the missing when I note my high school-self’s stand-in. He is sitting next to me. He is unaware of blurred edges or remembered pasts. He is waiting for his ribs.

...Van cruises. My eyes are shut. All I see is LeMar’s face. Shallow dimples accentuating a mischievous grin. His image fades into the opening scene from a fantastically funny anecdote, but before exposition shifts to rising action, his face returns. Story disappears. When it does, onto my scrunched body, the unfinished memory piles on the pounds. Hundreds of pounds. Thousands of pounds. Thousands of pounds from millions of memories. Their unapologetic weight drives me deeper into the seat. Who knew memories could weigh so much? My limbs are numb. His face again. His deep belly huh-huh-huh. Another story. Face. Story. The wave breaks when I remember today’s story. The tale that started all of this. The one that happened mere moments ago. Unlike stories from a further past, this story is not one I imagine. I enact it. Act it out again. From beginning to end. Act it out again. As if it’s the first time. As if it’s never happened before. I begin by looking at my phone. I see the group text. Silently sound out Dre’s words. Read them the same way I did when my nap ended. I read them even though they were seared into memory the instant I saw them. I read them anyway. Like it’s the first time:

Fellas, I’m not sure what to say. We lost our brother last night.

With the memories heaping atop my scrunched body, Dre’s text does not compute. Its words do not add up. I return the call of another friend. Maybe he can explain. Somehow Joe knows. Somehow Joe says yes, yes, Dre’s words do make sense. Says, yes, they do. Says LeMar’s wife called him, three in the morning, shrieked into voicemail, “He won’t wake up!” I hear Joe’s plain words. I hear them but...but...but where’s the logic? What am I missing? I squeeze my face and tighten my eyes. Not to hold back tears. Those are still very far from shore. I squeeze my face in attempt to wring understanding from Dre’s digital and Joe’s verbalized words. I try. After some silence, I say something dumb. Whisper to Joe something shit-ass stupid like, Damn, I had dinner with Ryan’s dad just last night. That’s what slips out. Those are the words I find in this blur of nonsense. A part of me wants to tell Joe about my week. Now that it’d change anything. But some part of me wants him to know how I’ve been feeling split all. In all kinds of ways. Between father and son. Night and Day. Shore and sea. I want him to know. I want him to understand that’s where I am now.

I hang up. Scrunch more. Strain harder to hold the strands of so many me-s together. All the different selves as Spring Break transitions from crested climax to tumbling wake. All week moments have pulled me in multiple directions, into dichotomous places and roles and times. Pulled me into uncertainty. Into the in-between places where little firmness exists. Little certainty of who or where or even when I was. This is not to say I was lost. That’s not it. I was just somewhere between it all. Somewhere numb and uncertain. Somewhere wordless. Somewhere inside the parts I could say: warm chest and cool back, solid shore and shifting sea. And despite being somewhere uncertain, somehow the not-knowing, the not-having-word-for-it, made it all feel supremely intense. In a silently sizzling kind of way. In a way much more intimate than all the labels could ever convey. The not-father and not-son standing in not-day and not-night. Just the soul in-between. In the liminal. Where there aren’t colors. Where edges and clarity dissolve. Where words can’t reach. Words are for places we’re foolish enough to think we know. Night, day. Asleep, awake. Land, sea. Now, then. But words don’t fit inside them. Words live on borders, are determined by edges. And life, at its heart, is too pure, too androgynous to be limited by labels.

So that’s where I am now. Soul a-sizzle and smack dab in the liminal. Here. In this van. Between parents and sons. Between memory and present. Where my life overlaps a friend’s death. Where I struggle alone, next to my wife, surrounded by family. All traveling in ignorance of what I know. Be another hundred miles before I voice the news. Until then, I’m curled, under a red blanket, rolling toward an unchanged home that’ll never be the same. I bob on these waves of the in-between.

Between.

Behind me, the click-click of Mom’s needles appear and disappear. LeMar’s face swells, dissolves. Seatbelt clasp jabs lower back. And memories knit themselves into a long line of soft waves that don’t align with the shore.

About the Author

Clint Martin

Clint Martin lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, two sons, and their yellow dog, Waggie. When not writing, Clint enjoys transcendental meditation and identifying the birds visiting the backyard.