The Existence Game - First Three Chapters

...I’ve fallen, weak, but will not die
My tears will be my battle cry;
Though illness threatens to devour,
This will not be my final hour.

I’ll struggle on through fear and shame
And soar, a phoenix from the flame;
I’ve laughter, friendship, art to give,
There is a love-filled life to live.

Excerpt from the poem PHOENIX by Carmen Paddock


This is about two months that took place shortly before my thirtieth birthday. No other time in my life even remotely compares with this tiny fistful of weeks beginning in February of 1989.

Among other things, George Bush had just been sworn into office as our forty-first president, and was soon to launch Operation Just Cause – the largest U.S. military invasion since Vietnam – in order to oust former U.S. ally, General Manuel Noriega, from Panama. Driving Miss Daisy would win an Oscar for Best Motion Picture, with Jessica Tandy taking Best Actress in the same movie, and, there were probably some other incidents of note…

In my world, however, you’d think my home base was on Mars. I had no idea who Jessica Tandy was, hadn’t heard of Driving Miss Daisy, was clueless about The Oscars, and knew nothing of Panama, except that I had a vague suspicion we’d dug a canal there because I’d recently seen the movie Arsenic and Old Lace. And although I knew George Bush had just been inaugurated (because the inauguration forced me to take a different route to The Pub that day), I wasn’t really sure of who had come along for the ride as Vice President of the United States. And I lived in D.C. for Pete’s sake. – Alex Moser, Spring, 1999

When I was little, Pop called me ‘Sponge Baby.’ He said I soaked up everything I came in contact with, good or bad. I guess that’s how kids are – they absorb everything, just suck it all in. People should be more careful about what they do around kids.

—Eileen O’Keefe, Bartender and Budding Philosopher


I am Alexis Moser. I like the name “Alexis,” but I cringe when I hear it. I feel like I’m in trouble. So I go by Alex. The events of the day before I landed in the hospital don’t explain everything, but they are what led me to Jonathan Frank. Without him, I’d be dead, so it seems like a good place to begin. Events don’t occur in a vacuum, though. To understand why someone would decide to end her life often requires some background, so please bear with me as I introduce you to my world.

The Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows, refers to existence as a game, and implies that it is a game we play over and over again. I always liked that perspective. Reincarnation as a learning vehicle made sense to me. One lifetime didn’t seem long enough to learn everything – not for me, anyway – so I thought we probably just kept coming back until we got it all right. My definition of “right” included honesty and fairness in one’s dealings, actively caring for the poor among us, avoiding judgment, excess, and greed, and certainly not murdering one another. After we finally got through the existence game, we began something new. I had no idea of what that might be, but I felt certain that it was a good something, since striving to be a good person seemed to be what most people held as one of the highest ideals – even when they fell short of the mark themselves. I was also pretty sure the existence game didn’t allow for cowardly departures; if we cut our mission short, we might have to come back for the same lessons.

So I was more than a little hesitant to check out, although I wasn’t particularly afraid of dying. I had known a good deal of happiness in my life, but since pain and fear trumped happiness by about ten to one, I often felt somewhat inclined to end my existence. What worried me was that all of the pain I’d already lived through was supposed to teach me something. If I bailed out early I’d probably have to come back and repeat all of that misery. I often wished I could just figure out what I was supposed to learn, and learn it, so I could leave. No revelations ever came to me, though, and I was quite sure I did not want to come back for the same lessons.

In spite of my concerns, however, on Tuesday, February 4th, 1989, I felt that I could no longer play the current existence game; all I wanted was for the abundant, virtually ceaseless pain and fear that comprised my life to finally be over.

The night before, Nick Valenzano, my landlord and neighbor, had told me that neither the January nor the February rent had been paid, and he needed the January rent by the end of the week. I had given my boyfriend, Gunner, (yes, “Gunner”) my half of the rent, and didn’t know he hadn’t paid Nick. I felt furious with Gunner and frightened by the possibility of eviction. To add insult to injury, he hadn’t come home, and I fumed all night about both the rent and about a fact I’d been trying to pretend didn’t exist: Gunner was certainly cheating on me. On Tuesday morning, with still no sign of The Gun, I was so enraged that I collected all of his possessions and, stuffing them into garbage bags, I hurled them over the landing of our second-story apartment. I didn’t think of myself as a vengeful person, but I admit I felt some satisfaction when I tossed Gunner’s leftover pizza into the same bag as his favorite suit.

Dating Gunner was one of my bigger mistakes. I should have been suspicious of a grown man who referred to himself as “The Gun,” but I felt like I was somebody because the great Gunner Rhodes was my boyfriend. I wasn’t anxious to let that presumed prestige go. He had seemed so perfect. Frankly, I was as surprised as my family to find myself going out with such a successful guy. But I’d always hoped that maybe I was better than my family believed. Better than I believed. I imagined that Gunner saw something good in me that I’d somehow missed. He was a well-known sports reporter on one of the local TV news programs and my family thought he was wonderful. They were all baffled about why he would date me, although none of them actually said anything – except Grandma, who asked, “What’s he doing going out with you?” Everyone feigned surprise at her question, but they had obviously been wondering, too.

When Gunner finally arrived and saw his stuff all over the driveway (a few of the plastic bags hadn’t survived their trip) he stormed into our apartment and started getting rough, but I was so angry I didn’t care. Fortunately, Nick had been watching for Gunner’s return, and shortly after he arrived, Nick charged into our living room and ordered him to leave. I thought no one knew that Gunner knocked me around, but Nick obviously did and although I felt relieved to be rescued, I also felt ashamed to be living with a man like Gunner.

Nick wasn’t a large man, and towering over him, Gunner just sneered, but Nick wasn’t even remotely intimidated. He treated Gunner like a cranky toddler, calmly informing him that the police were on the way. A moment later, when the unmistakable sound of sirens could be heard, Gunner had a change of heart. Cursing us both, he headed downstairs, shoved his bags into the car, and roared off.

Nick suggested that I find a woman to rent the second bedroom. I was glad he wanted me to stay, even though I didn’t know how I could afford it, being two months in arrears on the rent already. But I loved the wood-frame house, and the second-floor apartment was beautiful. It would be good to find a way to stay. Nick was a great landlord and I enjoyed talking with him. Unfortunately, although I was still wound up, I knew I’d never make it through work that evening. So, reluctantly, after thanking him profusely, I told Nick I had to get some sleep.

But I couldn’t sleep, and here’s where the real admissions begin. An abusive boyfriend was just the tip of the iceberg. I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid to be by myself. I always had been. I mean, I’m not anymore, but this is after a lot of therapy. Back then, when I was alone, I couldn’t stop imagining someone was either hiding in my house, or was about to break into my house, and then rape and murder me. That fear took such control of my thoughts that I couldn’t sleep. During the day, if I wasn’t trying to sleep, I usually managed to hold in the fear enough to uneasily accomplish a minimum number of tasks, provided I was wary. But trying to fall asleep was nearly impossible.

After dark, whether I was ready for bed or not, I became utterly terrified of being alone, and no amount of logical reassurances made one bit of difference. I stayed awake and vigilant until exhaustion finally knocked me out – hours after I should have fallen asleep. I fashioned my life to accommodate this all-encompassing terror, and either lived with a boyfriend, or, more frequently, in a group house. As long as I was engaged with others, my fears took a back seat, and it wasn’t until bedtime that I ran into difficulties. At bedtime, though, it was just as bad as when I was a kid.

Between the ages of five and twelve I’d slept with my sister, Shelby. I was less afraid and fell asleep more readily. Although I was plagued by nightmares, it was better than when I turned twelve and Mom made me start sleeping in my own room. Every night was the same. I reluctantly left my family members, and, terrified, but without options, I began my nightly investigation of every place in my bedroom where a murderer might be hiding – even, I am not kidding, inside my desk drawers. I then donned the following: two pairs of underpants, tights, leotard, tank top, long-sleeved tee-shirt, shorts, sweatpants, sweatshirt, and socks. It was an utterly miserable outfit but I felt safer, as if I were wearing armor. Then, instead of getting into my bed, I got into my closet, pulling shoes, comic books, blankets and other stuff over me, so that when the murderers came in, they wouldn’t see me. They’d figure I was just a pile of junk. But even then, the pile of junk couldn’t get to sleep. I was constantly hallucinating the sound of footsteps, breathing, even threatening whispers that were not quite discernible, but rich with evil intent. Roasting under the blankets, I read by flashlight until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

This made for difficult times in school, where I slept more often than not. I always managed to move to the next grade, but I didn’t learn very much and was regularly humiliated when the teacher called on me. Being in school was a nightmare. With the exception of my very small handful of friends, none of whom were in my classes, being around other children was excruciating. I felt so painfully awkward, and was so frequently on the verge of tears when anyone talked to me, that I became an automatic target for the cruelest children in school.

At home, my insane mother was continually shifting between Good Mommy, Evil Mommy, and Absentee Mommy. Trying to balance my responses to the Mommy of the Moment was impossible. She might be going along in a pleasant, “I’m so happy to be your Mom” sort of a way, and then something inexplicable occurred, and PRESTO! She turned into Evil Mommy and sought me out as her target of choice. There were no clues as to what brought about the change, and like my father and sister, I learned to stay away from her as much as possible – quite a challenge since I had a powerfully conflicting desire to win her good opinion, which required that I remain in her sphere of awareness. The only respite I had was to bury myself in a book. I grew up inside of books, and usually read a couple of dozen each week. The local librarians loved me and always got up to hold the door for me as I marched in, or out, with borrowed books loaded from as far down as I could reach to just under my chin.

Fortunately, there were some exceptions to all of the miserable times. From the age of three on, I had a wonderful friend, Jane Rosenberg. Until we were seven, when I moved, we were inseparable and had many fantastic adventures – hunting butterflies, crayfish, and minnows, swimming in the creek, building a go-cart (we forgot about brakes), climbing trees, racing around on our bikes, plastered to her heated dining room floor on Sunday winter mornings, reading The Washington Post comics, (Peanuts and Ripley’s Believe It or Not were our favorites).

After my family moved, I was only able to see Jane about once a month, but I became close friends with the boy across the street, Chris Worth. He and I picked up where Jane and I had left off, and spent as much time as possible outdoors – building forts, attempting to reach China with our little shovels, turning purple picking mulberries, pretending to be space men, or whatever struck our fancy. When bad weather forced us inside, we meticulously built and painted plastic monsters from an endless supply of models Chris kept on hand. My favorite, and I still have it, was The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Chris was very bright and funny, always doing crazy stuff like sending away for samples of things, and following his name with “MD.” As a result, at the age of nine, he was receiving all sorts of medical samples, including thousands of tongue depressors and gauze squares, which were great for our numerous craft projects.

Chris moved when I was eleven, and although at first we spoke frequently on the phone, he made new friends and our conversations dwindled down to a couple of calls a year. When Chris was fifteen, he called me one day, excitedly telling me he had a girlfriend, and then again, several months later, to tell me he had leukemia. I didn’t know what that was. I visited him in Georgetown Hospital, and was brokenhearted to see my beloved friend so emaciated, pale, and hairless. Chris died shortly after his sixteenth birthday, and my world seemed to nearly die with him. When my father passed away soon after, I felt my life had ended. From that point on I was just going through the motions.

Before that horrible time I did have a reprieve each summer from the madness at home. Beginning in the summer of my eighth year, I was able to attend a wonderful overnight camp in West Virginia. Although I was still terrified when I was alone, I was rarely by myself, sharing a cabin with seven other girls. Inexplicably, I was not considered weird and in fact was fairly popular. The rigorous activities of the days left me utterly exhausted, and I slept well at night. I excelled in most sports and made friends easily. No one ever tried to make me feel awful about myself. I didn’t feel stupid or ugly, and there were even kids who looked up to me – mainly because I was good in sports, but also, to my surprise, because my personality actually seemed okay. I was funny, sensitive, sharp, and bold – all things I could hardly express at home. It felt indescribably wonderful to be liked and to be a part of a group. Camp was heaven on earth. At home, apart from my friendships with Jane and Chris, the endless hours of school were sheer torture, nights were utterly terrifying, and the ongoing tension between my mother and me was nearly unbearable. Camp was so different – and I was so different – that I went by another name: “Fern,” a character from one of my favorite books. I never had to hear “Alexis” and I felt like a new, whole person.

The best thing about my childhood was the wonderful relationship I had with my father. We sometimes did yard work together, and every Sunday he took Shelby and me out for breakfast – without Mom. She viewed this as her time off, but the three of us viewed it as our time off – from all of her craziness and anger. Shelby and I always had fun with Dad on Sunday mornings. Between Mommy-less time with my father, and the many weeks I spent each summer at camp, I was able to experience what life was supposed to feel like.

Unfortunately, the good times didn’t outweigh the bad – as I grew older and was expected to shoulder greater responsibilities, I became more mentally ill, developing increasingly strange ways of handling the growing number of situations that I didn’t know how to cope with. I couldn’t admit to my problems, so I had to just allow people to think I was very stupid and/or unbelievably strange, which was very painful. Things might have been different, at least in school, had I been able to sleep at night, but while others slept through their nights, I was vigilantly surviving through mine.

When I was eighteen, and Mom kicked me out of the house, I moved in with a new boyfriend, Dorian Gallon – the first “love of my life.” Dorian turned out to be even more of a mess than I was, although I was ill-equipped to recognize this at the time. I had no other options, anyway. Mom had never allowed me to work, so I had no job and no money, and although Dad left money for our college tuition, Mom had informed me that it would be like flushing money down the toilet to pay for me to attend college. There was simply nowhere else for me to go – unless I wanted to try my hand at living on the streets. What had not been apparent to me until I moved into his apartment was that Dorian was actually a terribly cruel man. The damage he did to my self-esteem took years to undo. There’s no point in getting into that relationship; suffice to say Dorian’s particular brand of sadism was designed to destroy women and he was excellent at it. The positive experiences I had from my relationships with Dad, Jane, Chris, and my camp friends, were completely undone by him. When I finally got away from him, every tenuous shred of confidence was gone, and a life that was already more than difficult became nearly impossible and utterly joyless.

I was so anxious to leave Dorian that I didn’t realize I was incapable of living on my own. In my new apartment I nailed all the windows shut, making the summer months unbearable, especially since I had to go back to wearing my bizarre nighttime armor. Each time I came home, I checked every conceivable hiding place, including inside the oven, and, after locking the four extra dead bolts, I pushed my ultra-heavy couch in front of the door. I couldn’t shower comfortably, convinced that in spite of my efforts, someone would break in, and I vigilantly kept my eyes glued to the locked bathroom door, often leaving shampoo in my hair as I anxiously dried and dressed as quickly as possible. The laundry room in the basement of the building terrified me, so I washed all of my clothing in the bathtub, hanging it on the furniture to dry, and then had to spend hours ironing stuff that would have come out of the dryer wrinkle-free had I been able to muster the courage to brave the basement. But with its winding hallways and numerous alcoves, there was no way that I would venture into that dangerous labyrinth.

As a result of my inability to sleep at night, I gave up day jobs and surrendered my life to nighttime waitressing and bartending. Although the choice meant that I’d never be able to have any of the jobs I’d dreamed of, at least I didn’t have to try to go to sleep until dawn, and fewer people were aware of just how dysfunctional I really was. To compound the problems, I quickly discovered alcohol, which didn’t help anything, although it certainly seemed to at the time. In high school I had smoked pot to get away from how awful I felt, but after high school, pot was harder to come by. Working in bars enabled me to drink regularly, which numbed my pain and made it easier to tolerate my intolerable existence. With all of the obstacles, there was never any reason to believe that I would ever accomplish anything meaningful, and I sank into a numb existence that, from the outside, appeared fairly comfortable and happy, but which, when the alcohol was removed, revealed its self to be an insidious form of hell.

Eventually I found a room in a group house which made many aspects of my life easier, but the Nazi nightmares that had plagued my precious sleep since early childhood were still a big problem. Fortunately, in group houses, when I awoke frozen with fear I could calm myself more readily, knowing that others were around. When a nightmare was particularly difficult to shake off, I tiptoed to each housemate’s bedroom door, where I stood silently, waiting to hear a sign that they were still alive. After moments of stillness, even the softest breathing became evident and I could return to my room and read myself back to sleep.

After that first apartment fiasco I had always lived in group houses until I met Gunner. And now here I was, alone, because I’d kicked him out. How stupid to prefer being knocked around to being alone. And yet I had preferred it because being hit occasionally was better than feeling too frightened to sleep. I was terrified of not getting enough sleep because the more exhausted I became, the closer I danced toward making that final decision to just end everything – a decision I didn’t really wish to make.

As soon as Nick left I brought my alarm clock, pillow, and blanket into the living room and burrowed into the couch. It made no difference that I hadn’t had any sleep, though. My mind was racing and each sound grew into something deeply sinister. After a sleepless and fearful hour, I decided a shot of scotch with some codeine would help me relax. The next thing I knew, the alarm was blaring and as I stared at the time, I couldn’t believe I’d slept for forty-five minutes through that racket. And, once again, I was late for work.

Rusty’s was a pretty laid back restaurant, and being tardy hadn’t seemed to matter very much. On this particular occasion, though, my manager had a new take on my apparently casual attitude toward punctuality. He said that anyone who lived only two blocks away ought to be able to get to work on time. When he fired me, I was furious, but in retrospect, how could I blame him? I was frequently late and he’d put up with me for nearly a year. Burning with shame, fear, and anger, I wandered down Wisconsin Avenue, not really sure of where I was heading. I rifled through my mental rolodex, searching for anyone who might be able to lend money to me. Unfortunately, I’d borrowed money from just about everyone I knew who had any, and I really didn’t feel I could ask for more – even from the few people I’d already paid back. As I walked, I began formulating a plan. Mom had never been willing to help me, but I thought she might loan me the $400 I needed for the rent if I could guarantee her that I’d pay her back within a month. It’s taken me a long time to learn that this was totally delusional thinking – on two counts. The first was that I almost never seemed able to earn enough to pay loans back, and the second was that Mom wouldn’t have thrown me a rope if she had had one in her hands and I was drowning.

My regular stomping grounds included a bar – a dive, really – called “The Pub.” It was about four miles from my house, and many of my friends were either employees or ex-employees. Lots of them had tee-shirts proclaiming, “I Finally Came to My Senses and Stopped Working at the Pub!” Of course, they still drank there because it was the greatest bar in D.C. It was an Irish bar, not far from Capitol Hill, and the place was a total hoot. Above the front door, Kieran, the owner, had painted, “Thirsty? Hungry? Confused? Come On In!” and installed a rusty mechanical winking eye over the door that periodically got stuck, making an awful grinding noise. The Pub was not a meat market, like most of the downtown bars, or an upscale yuppie hangout like the other two pubs on the block. It was a neighborhood bar with many regular customers of all ages and from all walks of life. Congressional reps rubbed elbows with sales clerks, and nurses and med students came in for shooters on their Friday night “liver rounds.” But the core contingency of regulars was formed by those who were simply drifting through life, like me, and to us, The Pub was Home. There were a few raging alcoholics among us, but the vast majority were there for the familial camaraderie. Although there were some sad cases, The Pub was filled with many vibrant, talented people, and I felt more alive there than anywhere else.

I’d never applied for a job with Kieran because I didn’t want to risk ruining my favorite watering hole, but I began to consider the possibility. I could make decent money if I worked the bar with my good friend, Eileen O’Keefe. And if it became unbearable I could presumably come to my senses, too, and look for work elsewhere. Walking toward The Pub, I gradually convinced myself that a job opening did in fact exist, and that I wouldn’t have any trouble getting hired. I was attractive and engaging, and landing restaurant jobs had never been difficult (keeping them, of course, was another story). Buoyed by my plans for immediate gainful employment, and spotting a pay phone, I gathered my courage and dialed Mom’s number.

“Hello?” Ugh. I could not suppress a shudder when I heard that voice.

“Hi, Mom,” I managed a casual tone. “It’s me.”

“Alexis?” Hearing her say my name always made me want to crawl into a hole. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this call? Is that traffic I hear? Where are you? Are you in some sort of trouble?”

This response did not bode well, and I should have changed gears immediately. When she responded to my “It’s me” with “Hello, me” she was in Good Mommy mode, and though she wasn’t really a positive force in my life, at least at that moment she seemed to think we were the best of pals, and I could pretend right along with her. Ignoring my “It’s me” and jumping right into “Alexis?” as if she wasn’t sure she was speaking to her own daughter, should have told me to high tail it out of that situation. Granted I’d been adopted, but she’d had me since I was just a few days old. She ought to have known my voice after twenty-nine years. The fact that she wasn’t sure was enough to let me know I should back off. But I was both desperate and dumb. And, I was so comfortable with the discomfort she engendered in me that I hardly recognized it as a warning signal.

“I’m calling from a pay phone. I’m on my way to a new job.” I didn’t like lying to her; it was a self-preservation tactic. She used the truth to tear me to shreds.

“A new job? What was wrong with the old one? You change jobs more than anyone I know. You weren’t fired again, were you?” She was right but it was still really rich, coming from a woman who’d never been able to hold a volunteer position, much less a job, for more than six months in her entire life.

“No, Mom, I wasn’t fired. I can make more money at The Pub. I’m starting there tonight, and I’ll be bartending instead of waiting tables.”

“Bartending? When are you going to get a real job, Alexis?”

“Bartending is a real job, Mom. Listen, I’m calling because Gunner moved out and he owes me several months’ rent. I don’t think he’s going to pay me back, which is why I got a better job.”

“What did you do to make Gunner move out, Alexis?”

“Nothing, Mom, I told him to leave. He wasn’t as nice as he seemed.”

“Oh?” It was obvious that she thought my intrinsic worthlessness had finally become apparent to the great Gunner Rhodes, and he’d jumped ship.

“It’s a long story, Mom, but what I wanted to know was if you might be able to lend me $400 until the end of the month. Gunner didn’t pay his share of the rent, and –”

“Alexis! Stop! This makes me very uncomfortable. You turned eighteen years ago; I would not be doing you any favors if I bailed you out. I’m sorry you’re having problems but you’re an adult, you’ll have to solve them yourself.” And she slammed the receiver down.

How do I feel? I do my best not to, but I need more practice.
—Alex Moser, on surviving


A fine rain began as my mother was hanging up on me, the heavens opening up in sympathy. When I arrived at The Pub, soaked as well as thirsty, hungry, and confused, Eileen tossed a green “The Pub” sweatshirt at me, asking, “What, you never heard of an umbrella?”

I could always count on Eileen, and, gratefully accepting the sweatshirt, I changed in the restroom and came back to warm up with an Irish coffee. It was physically impossible not to smile around Eileen. Her wide grin below dark green dancing eyes coupled with her mop of huge brown bouncing curls was such a cheerful sight she could make me laugh just by turning toward me. Even when she was serious she still looked immeasurably delighted with the world, although she was rarely serious. Usually, Eileen was ranting about something, and she was funnier than any comedian I’d ever heard. A lot of people told her she ought to do stand-up, but she said she already was, as a bartender, and tending bar paid better.

Tuesday nights were usually slow, and there were only a couple of regulars when I arrived. Clark was at his post by the waitresses’ station (so he could force himself on them whenever they came to pick up drinks from the bartender). He was a retired postal worker who lived almost exclusively in a time long past, reliving memories of a woman who’d left him in 1943 while he was fighting in Germany. He played Marlene Dietrich’s Falling in Love Again on the juke box every night, and unfortunately, he was irritatingly lewd. My friends and I avoided him like the plague, until the pressure of feeling sorry for such a lonely old man prompted us to fall into yet another conversation with him which we almost always regretted. Unbeknownst to Clark, Aqualung was on the juke box in his honor. He really was a dirty old man and it was hard to feel sorry for him for very long because the things he said made our skin crawl.

Kevin Sheheen was there on a break, knocking back his customary four scotch and sodas before returning to his job as a security guard at a swank hotel around the corner. He wouldn’t really start drinking until he got off work at eleven. There was a table of loud, innocent-looking young interns from the hallowed halls of Congress, still very green and excited about working on “The Hill.” A couple of college kids were shooting darts in the back, and Jethro Tull’s Songs From The Wood was playing on the juke box – a warm, welcoming song that made me feel I’d arrived at the home of dear friends. Three talented young musicians were sitting on the tiny stage, but their instruments were on the floor and they were deep in their pints of Guinness. Not surprisingly, Kieran was snoring quietly in one of the back booths. As gruff and intimidating as he could be when he was awake, it always surprised me to see how peaceful and innocent he appeared when he slept. He looked like a sculpture of a huge infant.

“Eileen,” I said, “I’m not working at Rusty’s anymore and I need a job. I was thinking I could tend bar with you on Friday and Saturday nights, and wait tables the rest of the week. You think Kieran will go for it?”

“Shit! Kieran just hired this weird little guy, Glatwater, to work the bar with me. That’s him, over there,” she pointed surreptitiously to a man I hadn’t noticed, who was nodding off across the table from Kieran. Eileen continued, “Damn! I wish you’d been here this morning. You’d have had it!”


“Yeah. Glatwater Bellinghan. The Third. But you can call him Glat. His mother does. She came with him to his interview – can you believe it? Talk to Kieran tomorrow, when he’s back on the planet.” She gave another nod toward the dozing mountain. “Maybe he can give you a couple of waiting shifts on the weekend until something opens up. You know it won’t be a long wait. Man, I’d love to be working with you again!”

“Me, too.” I smiled but my heart sank. I had been so sure I’d just waltz in and pick up the best shifts. What was I thinking? Eileen set up shooters which we tossed back, toasting Glat’s good timing.

“Good God, Eileen, what was in that?” I gasped.

“Everything,” she grinned, turning to holler “Later!” at Kevin as he headed back to work.

I know I’ve been rambling. It’s because eventually I will have to talk about what happened at the end of the night, and that includes explaining the Grim Reaper, which I can’t stand the thought of doing. I was embarrassed to admit being afraid to be in my apartment by myself, but that doesn’t hold a candle to admitting to my perception of the GR. He doesn’t exist anymore, but he had tremendous power over me back then. It’s horribly embarrassing to talk about something that is so obviously insane, but I can’t exactly leave him out, so here goes…

Except for the fact that he didn’t carry a scythe, he looked like the classic image of the Grim Reaper, complete with cowl – hence the name – and he’d been with me for as long as I could remember. Although I knew he was a figment of my imagination, he seemed to stand out as a separate and particularly dangerous adversary. When things were going pretty well – rare – he hung back, but I could always sense his presence as he waited for the inevitable crash and burn that followed any good times. When problems did surface, he was ready to exploit my misery; he actually seemed to feed on my pain. I could see him then, as I was processing the fact that there was no miracle job waiting for me at The Pub. The GR stepped to the fore and began his usual long litany of why I should be dead:

You’d be better off dead. Everyone would be better off if you were dead. You are never, ever going to get anything right. No one loves you. No one cares about you. Get off your big, fat, sorry ass, and get this over with once and for all!

It made no difference that I knew the GR only existed in my mind – after all, no one else could see or hear him – he still terrified me. When my whole world was toppling in, and I could see no path out, he could effortlessly knock me into oblivion. The worst thing, and by far the most painful to admit, was that he could push me to the point where I’d get a razor blade and cut my arms in wild frustration and anger. At first it always felt like I was punishing myself at his behest, the slashes running in furious tandem with his vicious, disparaging assessments of my worth – or lack thereof. But after I cut enough I’d lose myself and turn into a zombie – which generally was a relief because I then no longer felt the pain and fear that plagued my life, nor could the GR’s continuous diatribe burn into me. I became a mechanical Alex Robot.

The problem with being a self-mutilator and having my very own personal Grim Reaper was that he wasn’t satisfied with my cutting. He wanted to take things to an entirely different level and put an end, once and for all, to my miserable existence. No one knew about either the GR or the cutting. I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone about the GR, and I almost always wore long-sleeved shirts, even in the summer, when I’d wear gauzy blouses, thin as gossamer, with spaghetti-strap tank tops underneath. I’ve spent my entire life hiding these ugly truths, and now here I am, admitting to having been unbelievably messed up. People don’t want to know these crazy things about their friends. It scares them. Then they go away.

David Bowie’s Space Oddity started on the juke box, and I thought, ‘Right. Here I am, floating along with The Major, unable to raise Ground Control on the telly. And there’s not a thing I can do, either.’ I didn’t even think of telling Eileen how bad everything had suddenly become. Admitting things were bad was admitting to being guilty of not being able to manage my life. The only reasonable conclusion was that I should at least be responsible enough to end it.

Actually, things hadn’t suddenly become bad. My problems with Gunner began when we moved in together. My problems with being late for work had started with my first job. Phobic fears of being murdered had seemingly been going on since I was born, and I’d launched my lifetime career in money mismanagement when I was three and my grandfather gave me a special silver dollar, which I immediately turned over to the ice cream truck driver in exchange for twenty popsicles. But it always seemed that everything suddenly went from completely good to horribly bad. I never saw any writing on the wall. In fact, I never even saw the wall. There were no transitions, no cause, no effect, no awareness of losing ground. Suddenly, everything just blew up in my face. Patchwork remedies that obviously wouldn’t hold didn’t seem like patchwork to me. Once something stopped being utterly devastating, then in my bizarre little world, it was all just fine again.

Business had picked up and Eileen was busier, so she sailed over to my corner as work allowed, bearing shooters which we’d knock back, identifying ourselves to one another as being on the same team. Then off she’d go, leaving me in the abyss, and although she had no idea of the misery I was experiencing, she really was a great friend. As the GR became more persistent, I suddenly realized that I could spend the night at Eileen’s house. That was a great idea! My cats, Pooky and Sebastian, had plenty of food and water, and I’d always felt a real commitment to not killing myself in a friend’s home. No one wanted to wake up and find a dead body.

So, that was the plan. I’d foiled the GR. Whatever he said wouldn’t hurt me because I’d be safe at The Pub, and then I’d be safe with Eileen. “So HA to you!” I thought triumphantly. (Sometimes I couldn’t help talking back to the GR, even though that was even weirder than hearing him talking to me.) I was so elated at the prospect of being safe for the night that I forgot what I’d been so worried about. I’d talk to Kieran the next day and I was sure he’d have several waitressing shifts for me. I forgot about the eviction notice and my completely unsympathetic mother, and by then I was drunk enough to even forget about my general inability to be responsible for myself, which had been weighing pretty heavily on my mind prior to all of the shooters. Safe in my invisible fortress at the corner of the bar, I quietly watched the humans making their flailing attempts to connect with one another, hoping desperately that they could stay two steps ahead of their aloneness. We all seemed to be riding along in our own little one-man boats, like those kiddie rides at amusement parks that are built to seat one tiny toddler in each brightly colored plastic vehicle. Only back when we were kiddies no one had yet told us we were so alone.

At eleven-fifteen, as exhaustion was creeping up on me, Kevin returned from work. I loved Kevin. We all did. He was a great guy and always looked out for us, whether we needed him to or not. Kevin had been a D.C. cop until recently. One night he decided that he was too drunk to drive his car home. He thought it would be better to take his police cruiser. It made sense to him at the time. Shortly after beginning his journey though, he decided he was too sleepy to drive, so he parked the cruiser in the middle of the bridge going out to Arlington Cemetery, beyond the Lincoln Memorial. He parked in the oncoming traffic lane because he thought he might get rear-ended if he stayed in his lane. His last conscious thought was that it would be safer if he turned on his flashing red and blue lights. He might have managed some type of probation, but when he showed up for his hearing he was only wearing boxer shorts and a sheet tied like a cape around his neck. On his chest was a backward “S,” drawn in red lipstick. He was completely lit and quite confident that he possessed Superman-like powers.

The hearing was on the second floor of police headquarters. On the street below, an attractive woman walked by and Kevin hollered, “Hey, baby, come on up!” She replied, “Come on down!” And Kevin promptly climbed out of the window and launched himself, Superman style, executing a magnificent belly flop onto the top of a parked Volkswagen Bug, and effectively ending his career of making the world safe via D.C.’s Finest. After he got out of the hospital, he had to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings and he always came into The Pub afterwards, saying that the stories he heard were so sad that he just couldn’t take it. Then he’d start knocking back his scotch and sodas.

Shortly after leaving the hospital, Kevin landed an evening security job at the Crystal Gardens Hotel, and he frequently arrived at The Pub with funny stories inspired by the hotel patrons. That evening was no different, and he was in a particularly gleeful mood when he arrived from work. Seeing Kevin lifted the last vestiges of my depression as he told me about his evening. There had been a huge formal ball, and Kevin had spotted a particularly attractive attendee who he thought he’d like to get to know better. Probably due to all the scotch he’d already had, Kevin had missed a fairly important point about this shindig: it was for drag queens only. While he was chatting up the attractive young lady, he gradually began to notice something strange about the crowd he was casually surveying. Many of the women seemed over-large. With big faces. And hands. And feet. Then he noticed that there were virtually no men, and finally he realized that they were all men. Including the woman he was hoping might go home with him.

I asked him what tipped him off, and, giggling, he reached into his backpack and held up a keepsake size twelve golden slipper the young lady had given him to remember her by. She had written her phone number inside the shoe, in case Kevin ever changed his mind. Or his orientation. Laughing his head off, Kevin flagged Eileen, who was already on her way with his scotch and soda. Kevin could really laugh at himself. As John Wayne-ish as he appeared, he was actually very comfortable with anybody who didn’t fit into the mold. Live and let live was Kevin’s motto, and I never once saw him stray from his mission statement: Rescue all damsels and defend all underdogs, regardless of the consequences, demand justice, enforce it when necessary, and never judge another because you don’t know where their journey has taken them.

Kevin’s glee was infectious and soon I was up for a game of darts. As we headed to a dart board, we passed the juke box, and as always, Kevin plugged The Ballad of the Green Berets. Kevin had done three tours of duty in Vietnam, earning three Purple Hearts. I didn’t think Vietnam was what caused Kevin to drink so much, but it had definitely contributed to his desire to avoid the pain that lurked behind his laughter.

We shot darts until one-thirty. Almost everyone had gone, leaving one attractive guy at the bar and two of the musicians, both of whom were fast asleep on the stage. Eileen was deep in animated conversation with the good-looking young man when Kevin drained his final scotch, swept me into a dramatic farewell embrace, slung his trademark brown leather bomber jacket over his shoulder, and headed out. I put chairs up on the tables for Eileen and woke up the last two thirds of the band, who staggered out. I was wondering why Eileen hadn’t asked the good-looking guy to leave when she cantered up to me and chortled, “Come on, you have to go to the bathroom.” She was all twinkly smiles as she stood in front of the mirror, combing her hair. “Isn’t he cute?”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes, he is. Who is he?”

“His name’s Paul Brandywine. He just moved here; he’s working at the Library of Congress, and he’s been in for the past few nights. I like him.” She grinned maniacally, pirouetting in front of the mirror.

“Yeah, he looks nice, Eileen.” I smiled, both happy for Eileen, and utterly miserable because the wall I never noticed with the writing on it was coming into sharp focus. It would have been a whole lot better if I’d picked up on Eileen’s interest in Paul earlier, when there had been other people I could have glued myself to. Kevin’s couch was always available and he’d never minded when I crashed at his place.

“What are you doing when you leave here?” I already knew, but was hoping there was some remote chance they were heading for Chinatown and I could pal around with them for a few hours and avoid the GR until the sun came up. Then I might be able to withstand his venomous abuse until I could fall asleep.

“Paul’s invited me to his place,” she twinkled.

“Oh. Cool,” I said. I really wanted to be happy for her, but I was struggling. “I’ll help you finish cleaning up,” was all I could muster. The GR was smirking as he leaned against the wall behind Eileen.

“Great! Everything’s done except the floors.” She gave me a big hug. “You’re the best,” she said as the GR rolled his eyes.

Right. The best. That’s me, I thought. While Eileen and I swept and washed the floors, Paul made himself busy checking out the juke box. Just as we were finishing, he plugged Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Admittedly it was a great song but I could have done without that particular selection. When it got to the part about being lonely I couldn’t stand it. I hated hearing that admission in the song. In my head. In my life. I felt utterly separated from the human race, and I couldn’t stand the feeling or myself for feeling that way. Somehow, feeling lonely was an unforgivable character flaw. It was a state of being that I not only hated being in, but couldn’t tolerate admitting to. It seemed that feeling lonely, awful as that felt, wasn’t anywhere near as painful as having to admit – to myself or to anyone else – that I was lonely. Being lonely was being a loser and being a loser was completely intolerable.

I made my exit before more of the lyrics could rip into my brain. Giving Eileen a discreet thumbs up, I hurried into the night. With no money for a cab, I headed toward Independence Avenue and the National Air and Space Museum. There was hardly any traffic, and the low-hanging sky was that dismal, smoky brown-orange color that comes from too much pollution, too much humidity, and too many street lights. It wasn’t raining but a fine mist quickly had my hair sticking to my face. Three bodies, swaddled in filthy blankets, were huddled together over a steaming vent outside of a government building. Why, in what was supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, did so many people slip through the cracks? Was there a silent agreement among the “haves” of the country to look the other way rather than find a way to help the “have-nots?” How was it possible that it was okay with just about everyone for a certain segment of our society to live on the streets?

Why was it okay with my own mother for me to be living on the streets?

A small child peered out from under the blankets. I had two dollars and ten cents in my pocket, plus an unopened package of Wild Cherry LifeSavers. I walked over and laid my little treasure on the sidewalk in front of him. His face quickly disappeared – a frightened little turtle child. When I looked back, I saw his tiny hand pulling the precious gifts into the safety of his familial nest.

“Some lifesaver you are,” mocked the GR.

“Drop dead.” I snarled at him, quickly hoping no one had heard me.

He started chanting, in a sing-songy way, “Alex is gonna die,” the word “die” stretched into two long syllables. “Alex is gonna die, Alex is gonna die.

“SHUT UP!” I demanded, this time just inside my head.

Counting my steps, I tried tuning out the GR, but he was persistent. In addition to his song, he bombarded me with horribly realistic-looking visions: I was swinging from a rope, lying in a blood-filled bathtub, hurtling over the side of the Calvert Street Bridge. I couldn’t stand it!

“Four hundred and sixty-three. Four hundred and sixty-four.” Counting my steps wasn’t working.

Alex is gonna die. Alex is gonna die,” the GR persisted.

My normal route home, up Massachusetts Avenue, took me over a very high bridge that spanned Rock Creek Park. With the images the GR was throwing at me, I didn’t want to cross any bridges. One brief moment of desperation at the wrong time and I’d find myself dropping to my death with no turning back. Unfortunately, Rock Creek Park lay between me and my apartment. Every route included high bridges – all of which had bid good bye to more than their fair share of lost souls. Walking down through the park was out of the question. I had no doubt that rapists and murderers were always waiting in the woods. Any woods. Although I felt like I wanted to be dead, I knew that if I could just get through this, I wouldn’t want to be dead later. In spite of how hard everything always was, I liked being alive. I liked my cats. I liked my music. I liked my friends.

Each thought that came to me, though, whether a reason to keep on living, or a possible solution to the current problem of job/home/money, the quintessential king of sarcasm blasted me with all of the ammunition in his arsenal. I uneasily decided I’d take my regular route, but when I reached the bridge, I’d walk down the middle instead of near the railings.

Crossing Dupont Circle, I saw more homeless people collected in doorways, huddled together, sharing warmth and lice. Faced with the possibility of joining them, my mind turned from suicide to frantic thoughts and questions. I couldn’t imagine living on the street. I couldn’t imagine eating out of trash cans, or even in a soup kitchen. How did a person get off the streets once they were there? If you didn’t have a phone and an address, how could you get work? For that matter, how could you find work if you couldn’t bathe and wash your clothing? If you couldn’t work, how could you pay for a place to live? As far as I could tell, once you were on the street, you were stuck. Then you died and the city cremated you.

I’d heard more than one person say of the homeless, “It’s their choice,” but who in their right mind would choose to live in danger of being attacked, starved, frozen, and gnawed on by lice and maggots? And if they were not in their right mind, weren’t they deserving of some support? But it seemed that they had simply become invisible. The wind was picking up, and with it, a freezing rain. I walked as quickly as I could, wishing I’d warm up, but as the icy winds whipped through my clothing, I felt I was becoming invisible, too.

Finally arriving at my apartment, I saw that Gunner had come by and, creative genius that he was, he’d spray-painted “ALEX IS A WHORE” in huge red letters that bled down the side of the house. Nick would be livid, but I was so weary I could hardly think about it as I dragged myself up the stairs. At the door my cats wound their furry little bodies around my legs but, finding me soaked, they quickly backed off. I checked everywhere to be sure no one was in the apartment while wondering why I was so frightened. If I was planning on killing myself anyway it didn’t make much sense. If someone was in there I should have just said, “Hey, go for it.” But I was afraid of being raped, beaten up, all that painful stuff that so often accompanied murder. And there was that part of me that never really wanted to be dead, anyway. After I put on dry clothing, I got the nearly full bottle of scotch, poured a drink, and began a note:

Dear Nick, Please don’t think this has anything to do with being evicted. It doesn’t. You’re a great landlord. I’m just sorry that I’m such a loser that I can’t hold a job and be responsible for myself. I know you like Pooky and Sebastian, so I hope you can keep them for me. They’ll be happy to have you for a father. Sincerely, Alex Moser

I was undecided about killing myself, but my actions were robotically moving me toward that final moment, as though my body and mind were disconnected. I started seriously working on the scotch and after about half an hour, it was gone. I wasn’t sure if I was trying to muster the courage to go ahead and end the nightmare that was my life, or if I was secretly hoping to pass out before I could do any real damage. I must have been high on adrenalin because the alcohol only seemed to break down the last remaining inhibitions I had about ending my failed career as a human being.

The GR was acting like a doting old lady. He scurried into the bathroom and brought back the codeine and razor blades. There were thirty-eight pills left. I had used the prescription twice – once for pain, and once earlier in the day, when I was trying to get some sleep before going to the job I no longer had. I mechanically swallowed handfuls of pills with swigs of vodka, wishing I had saved the scotch. I hated vodka. Each gulp of it made my body shudder, but finally getting all the pills down, I glared at the GR, who was happily nodding his encouragement. Trying rather unsuccessfully to ignore how nauseated I felt, I slumped uneasily into the corner of the couch, feeling vaguely surprised that it was already growing light outside.

I’d never cut myself in the living room before. I didn’t want to make a mess, especially on my couch, or on a beautiful afghan I had. I’d made the afghan for my parents when my dad had cancer and we knew it was going to be my parents’ last anniversary together. It was the first and only afghan I’d ever made. It had one hundred squares, each one unique and all of them connected with black yarn. After my father died, my mother had given it back to me. She didn’t want it.

It crossed my mind that if I could just stay awake long enough to cut up my arm, I’d fall asleep and quietly bleed to death. That seemed like the best way to go. So, forcing myself to sit up, I put a pillow on my lap and laid my arm across it. Taking the razor blade, I squinted until the blade and the inside of my arm came into focus. Pushing the corner of the blade until it popped through the skin, I dragged it from my elbow down to my wrist. The cut was worse than anything I’d ever done before, and I saw deep inside my skin for a brief moment before droplets of blood formed from a million tiny holes. Very soon a ravine full of blood was spilling down the sides of my arm. I experienced a moment of horror over what I’d just done, but I felt so exhausted, and so utterly hopeless, that the initial fear and shock slipped away as I drifted off. Leaning against my parents’ afghan, I numbly watched as the GR tenderly brushed my hair off my face and then sat down beside me, snuggling his head against my shoulder. If there was a heaven, I thought groggily, it would be good to see my dad. He loved me.

I like my motorcycle because of the helmet laws. Really. ‘Cause when the world gets too damned big, I put on the helmet and get on the bike. Then it’s just me in there, with the wind, the noise, and that little patch of road in front of me… Sometimes I just put on the helmet and sit on my couch. You know, if I’m too drunk to find my keys.

—Kevin Sheheen, Vietnam Vet, former Green Beret and D.C. Police Officer


Struggling to think, but unable to do so, I felt vaguely frustrated. I didn’t feel connected enough to assess my situation as I nodded in and out of consciousness, but gradually I realized I was in a bed, in some place that seemed very bright. There were people, and something persistently beeping in the distance. I swallowed, and my throat felt obstructed, but I couldn’t hang on to that awareness either as I drifted off again.

Eventually I learned that I was in the intensive care unit of George Washington Hospital. A doctor told me I had nearly died, but before that blessed relief had been bestowed upon me by the god-who-ends-all-suffering, my landlord had looked in on me. Gunner’s spray-painted proclamation on the side of Nick’s lovely white wall had caught his attention and, knowing Gunner, Nick decided to be sure I was all right. When he looked in he had immediately called an ambulance.

I wondered if some part of me had arranged my suicide attempt in such a way that a rescue would be likely. Every time I’d ever thought seriously about suicide, there were compelling reasons, even if they were only based on hope for the future, to stick things out just a little bit longer. With my paranoia, I never left curtains open, but the curtain on my front door was open enough for Nick to see me when he checked in. Additionally, if I hadn’t cut myself, he probably would’ve assumed I was just asleep. I knew Nick to be an early riser, so it would be likely that he’d see Gunner’s graffiti when he prepared his morning coffee. I often waved to him in the early hours of the day when I was tripping home from an all-nighter. He’d invariably be sitting in his kitchen window, wrapped in his blue plaid bathrobe, coffee in hand, newspaper spread on the counter.

I started to berate myself for what was beginning to appear to be an elaborate attention-seeking ploy. But then it occurred to me that if there were more appropriate ways to get attention, I did not know what they were. I had certainly heard “Ignore her – she’s just looking for attention” enough times in my life. What was wrong with wanting someone to notice you? It was the method by which one sought attention, really. It seemed logical to assume that if one sought attention in negative or destructive ways, then positive attention seeking had already been met with unrewarding or even painful results. I couldn’t stay with this line of thinking for very long, though. If my actions had been born of a desire for attention, I certainly could not acknowledge this, even to myself. In my experience, wanting attention was a disappointing and fruitless endeavor, and I had worked hard on not wanting anyone to care about me because that was the only way to avoid being hurt. Or so I thought.

I was in the ICU until they could take me off the ventilator – a breathing machine with a very irritating tube that ran down my throat. It was this that had given me the sensation that my throat was blocked, and I was relieved when they took it out. I’d done some minor damage to my liver and they wouldn’t let me leave the ICU until that was resolved. One doctor told me that the amount of alcohol I’d had in my system would’ve killed a three-hundred pound man, and he recommended that I consider AA meetings. He said anyone who weighed 115 pounds and could tolerate that much alcohol obviously drank way too much.

I was horrified when I learned that their plans were to transfer me to a private psychiatric hospital (their own psych unit was full). If I refused to sign myself into the private one, they were going to get a court order to have me committed and then I’d have to go to the state hospital. The private hospital was creatively named, “The Psychiatric Hospital of Northwest Washington, D.C.”, or “Psych” for short. The social worker who helped me enroll in an emergency medical coverage program strongly suggested that I admit myself to Psych rather than go to the state hospital. She said, persuasively, that the state hospital had inadequate funding and that I’d be lucky to see a doctor once a week. Psych, on the other hand, would provide me with daily therapy and other activities.

I tried to get them to just let me go home. As far as I was concerned, my problems all had to do with not having enough money. The longer I was in the hospital, the less money I’d have. Also, Eileen thought a couple of waiting shifts were open at The Pub and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. The doctors didn’t think that was a good enough reason to release me, though. Nick was taking care of my cats, so that issue had been resolved, and I could not persuade them to let me go home after what I’d done. One of the nurses told me that no one in the emergency room had believed that I would make it. The thought was sobering. I really didn’t want to be dead, but I also really couldn’t take any more of the life I’d been living. I couldn’t imagine how therapy would change anything, but they weren’t giving me a choice, and I was well beyond the end of my rope. I hadn’t been living, I’d been surviving. I survived from day to day, and year to year. So, very reluctantly, I signed the papers admitting myself to Psych.