In The Shadow of a Bird

Shome Dasgupta

Writer’s Note: I wrote this piece more so with the intentions of entering a stream of consciousness mentality. I like to do this with my personal essays or reflections because it’s through these meditations I can find some meaning rather than in a concrete narrative. I like seeing how or if a thread of some sort appears in a natural sort of way through a series of snapshots of random memories—random but meaningful, I feel, as they enter my mind when thinking about the past and where I’ve been and where I am now. Being in recovery, memory serves as both clarity and haze when trying to put together the past, where the clarity sticks out from a muddled mind to show me what’s real. As always, upon this reflection, I wanted to share this with potential readers in hopes of a connection through my disconnection.

The first time I shared at an AA meeting, I talked about plate tectonics—meaning I had no clue what I was saying as I hadn’t studied geography or earth sciences since seventh grade, and all I could remember that day, in that room full of Styrofoam cups of coffee, was mentioning earthquakes and aftershocks and lands shifting—finding a balance, however temporary, and how it relates to life. I stood there, talking, but within just those few minutes of sharing, a deluge of memories flowed through—my mother, music and movies, vague and meaningful pizza when I was a child, friends and crossing the street—I think about that day, and the memories within a memory. Sobriety for me is a series of snapshots which might not seem significant, but they must be as they enter my mind during times of vulnerability. 

Now 45 months into sobriety, I think about that last line in Modest Mouse’s “Bankrupt On Selling,” and how when The Lonesome Crowded West first came out in 1997, when I was a sophomore in high school, I listened to that song for the first time and it became my favorite song. I didn’t really know the meaning of it until roughly 20 years later. I can’t remember the last time I listened to those lyrics—it has been a while definitely before my sobriety. They still randomly pop into my head as I drive around Lafayette, as if I had listened to them all day, a one track compilation.

Forty-five was the number Michael Jordan chose to use when he returned to the NBA for his second run of the three-peat—he ended up changing it back to 23, and for his last game with the Bulls—to win his sixth championship—he hit the game winning shot over with Brian Russell or Byron Russell. He scored 45 points that game, giving this surreal circular nature of life with an unexpected meaning of numbers. My friend and I were juniors then, and we were at his house which was built on a prominent golf course in Broussard, where every now and then golf balls would rattle around the back porch, and we sat at the coffee table at the center of the living room eating Bluebell’s mint chocolate ice cream—this was after a dinner of homemade lasagna, and after the game had finished, we went out to the driveway and shot hoops under the garage floodlights. I remember the echo of each dribble was extra that night—louder than usual, and it was summer in the Deep South so we were sweating and giddy and it was that moment, years later, that I realized that I had the best bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream ever in my life.

When that friend and I graduated from high school 35 years ago, it was the first time we had been separated since first grade. He went off to college in another state, and I stayed here in Lafayette. I always stayed here and I still hold my mother’s hand when I cross the street. Everyone I grew up with left around then. I found myself living in the same world, but with unfamiliar faces.

Three years into college, here at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a hurricane landed, and when the electricity went out, the darkness hit with a thud—it was a different kind of darkness, one that overwhelmed any existence of hope. It was during these times, when I realized that unfamiliar faces were lit in the shadows of thunder and violent rains, such that we were holding hands without ever lifting our arms. The bare necessities became the most important needs, and the first thought that always entered my mind was that when this was all over with—when the quiet settled in, I wanted to find out who played Casey Jones in The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie because whenever I was growing up, renting this movie from the local video store—later on buying the VHS, it was Casey who always let me know that it was okay to be a friend to someone you may never know. Now, Raphael was always my favorite because all in all, he was the one who had it the toughest, and he was able to make it through by the end. I still, vividly, remember sitting between my mother and father in the theater, watching this movie for the first time. I still, vividly, remember happiness. It sizzles, from time to time, much like when I walk into the kitchen to see my mother singing in Bengali while stirring the pan on the oven.

My mother makes a rather rude curry—whether it’s chicken or eggplant, and when our home is filled with seasoning and sizzling and when my mind tickles a bit with each tongue, I find myself missing my family’s origins—India, where the dogs of the streets teach us about humility and survival, perhaps, letting us know that there is something holy in the dirt. Sometimes, when I pass through the kitchen, I turn around to see if I’m being followed by a pup with ribbed skin and sunken teeth, and when I don’t see one, I can imagine these powerful eyes—eyes that could only be felt through the daggers of pain and fire. There is no one who loves my brother more than me, and I don’t know if he’ll ever know that let alone anyone else, but I love him so much, that it’s overwhelming so I keep it to myself until a day comes, such as a day when I call him from rehab after my own world shattered into tears of glass and blurred visions of remnants of a lost mind to hear that sibling voice born of the same skin and breath, knowing that no matter what, there is a prototype better suited for an earth.

When my brother and I were young and our father took us to the video shop—Raccoon Records—we didn’t go to the new releases or we didn’t browse around, we went to the same movies over and over again, movies like Willow or The NeverEnding Story or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was in such movies I found kinship with emotions and imagination. The first two movies which I remember making me cry were Dead Poets Society and Batman. I can’t remember which one I saw first or which one made me cry first because tears and time blend together in an infinite memory. What is a feeling without knowing its opposite? That’s why the soundtrack to Amélie brings me so much joy—to find joy in sitting at the single table at the corner of the coffeeshop pretending to exist as I shine the biggest smile on my face with those thick headphones, the ones audio professionals wear at a soundboard. I could feel the smile in its fullest essence—stretched skin, a jaw without fixed hinges, and when a friend walked by, he said he could see my smile from across the room. My only vivid memory of visiting New York when I was 15 was the two-story Sbarro, and it was the first time I folded a pizza—I thought about that visit while sitting in the coffeeshop. I thought about The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and becoming obsessed with pizza through Michelangelo. Memory can be fickle and it can be misleading—either way, however lacking it can be, in its dearth there is a truth which leads to multiple sensations, spanning the spectrums of a universe found in a mind. There was joy before the darkness—there is now joy after the darkness, living inside random bubbles from the past, floating around and tickling my brain.  

I don’t know if I’ve talked to an actual ghost or seen one, but I don’t think it matters, because the experience itself is where I find purpose—what I once thought was a squirrel edging a green field was just a shadow of a bird flying in a blue sky. I feel like it’s much easier to talk out loud to yourself when no one is around than when you’re surrounded by people. I feel like it’s easier to talk out loud to yourself when you’re surrounded by people than when you’re by yourself. Either way, there’s an attempt to communicate and in its failure, there is a stretch of light. A light that might flicker or remain constant, and all that matters for me is that there is some kind of light—then, for me, there’s a chance—there’s a chance that I might be able to learn more about plate tectonics and geography and how the land can bend and crack and topple over and find a balance to where we can remain steady and look ahead, whether we’re stumbling or otherwise, and in those moments, we can look back and find those small moments of our lives which will forever hover in our minds until we find a hand stretched out to help us find a piece of still land—and when we turn our heads back, all that we can see are familiar faces, faces created for us.

Shome Dasgupta is the author of The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India), and most recently, the novels Cirrus Stratus (Spuyten Duyvil) and Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West), and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New Orleans Review, Arkansas Review, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the series editor of the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, LA and can be found on Twitter at @laughingyeti.