Excerpt from the novel This Sweet Intercourse


Though he’d forget the fact, the springboards of change were situated all around, one of which slid beneath him on a Wednesday afternoon while he rummaged the dirty clothes hamper in search of socks: the closet door accidentally closed behind him, and after the brief initial panic passed he decided to stick it out in the dark, see what it was like.

It was intense is what it was, and he discovered in no time at all that being confined alone in a completely darkened place was uniquely intoxicating, fired his fantasies in ways he wouldn’t have guessed. This was different from going to bed at night, as the outside dark pouring in his window was a far cry from true blackness, undermined by moonlight or street lamps, whereas this was a darkness with secrets to share, stories to tell. So he started seeking-out such opportunities, making them a habit or ritual, now shutting the lid on the clothes hamper and sitting down comfortably before closing the closet door to extinguish the light from the hallway, just a little of which leaked in under the door. He’d stay in there as long as he could stand it, waiting on some kind of enlightenment that never came, testing his courage by sticking it out even when the darkness seemed scary, full of hostile forces he feared. After school was a good time for this, his sisters Ellen and Jeanine outside with friends or listening to music in their room, and he’d close his eyes tightly in an effort to intensify the darkness.

Eventually he sought other such hideaways and, remarkably, found them: first crawling underneath the hollow wicker love seat in the den (which worked but still allowed too much light, little slivers of it surrounding him on all sides), then finally, perfectly, crawling into the sweet smelling cedar chest at the foot of his parents’ bed. Here was exactly what he wanted: he could curl comfortably inside the chest cushioned by the sweaters contained in it; he could relish the strange otherworldly scent of cedar that was unlike any smell he’d ever encountered; and, most importantly, not so much as a single speck of light would penetrate the chest once he allowed the lid to close above him. He could lie there and listen to the capsuled sound of his own body going about its business and, periodically, the vague hint of a voice belonging to one of his sisters, reaching him in a canned, muffled state. He loved the secrecy of the cedar chest, he loved being invisible, especially right there in his own home. But most of all he loved the private joy of a journey deep into his own world, that place where he felt so profoundly alone and yet—paradoxically—deeply connected to the world around him. And not only his world, with his parents and siblings and the neighborhood gang, but all other ones, too, the ones he read about in textbooks at school, where people spoke different languages and dressed in peculiar clothes, or where they still carried spears and hunted for their food, stalking animals with whom he also felt a sudden inscrutable kinship. Curled within the dark enclosed confines he was connected to everything, not as distant observer but as participant in a primitive process he longed to be a part of—at least until that one afternoon when something happened that changed everything, some small but not insignificant shift in circumstance that made a mark on him he’d wear for the rest of his life, though always striving to rid himself of it: when lowering the lid of the chest that afternoon, watching the body-long line of light narrow until it was extinguished entirely, he heard the metallic sound of a single snap he surmised might mean—

So suddenly he pushed up on the lid only to find that indeed it was locked, as the metal latch had caught, hence trapped him in that dark place which typically brought him a welcomed sense of belonging and well-being but now felt very dangerous, life-threatening even, and he pushed on the lid repeatedly in a quiet panic that soon overtook him, the sweet smell of cedar now like an oppressive effluvium that threatened to suffocate him, and there was nothing but darkness from which to draw his breath. Pushing on the lid provided only a barely-discernable seam of light leading to the wide open expanse of space, where there was plenty of air that he could draw in great life-giving gulps but could not get to now, that thread-thin line of light just enough to torture him, giving a glimpse of what he so desperately needed but now couldn’t have, so started screaming, kicking and calling out, that cozy warm world he’d created was now closing in on him, so cramped he could hardly move, running out of air and no space in which to spread, no way simply to straighten his bent legs, powerless with so little room for leverage that his panicked attempts to push open the locked lid were pointless, futile, the cedar chest shrinking its squared sides around him such that he imagined his nose crawling across the inside of the lid like a snail. He shouted in a shrill-yelling hysteria that was his only hope, kicking pathetically at those cruel walls closing in, and the heat suddenly stifling enough to choke him, thrashing hell-bent and wailing with such an intensity that it seared his throat skin—

—until light and air rained down upon him like good luck, along with Jeanine’s confused face which he only caught sight of for a second before clamoring out of that coffin like enclosure still screaming and brushing at his chest and arms and legs as if covered by crawly things, his sister’s voice saying, “What were you doing in there?” but Raymond unable to respond in any way other than to collapse on the floor and relinquish himself to a sobbing supposed to convey all of the conflicting sensations wreaking havoc within him—not only the panic and terror but also the relief and gratitude that had just made Jeanine his Savior.

That night a weird paranoia kept him awake: he couldn’t close his eyes without feeling trapped again, right back in that box where he wasn’t able to move or breathe and the darkness was impenetrable. The same sort of terrified panic would overtake him just at that hazy threshold where slumber should have provided relief, only it didn’t, not that night, and in fact his bed became a battleground for many nights subsequent, where he’d rock back and forth until he was worn out and finally fell to sleep only to awaken with a start and the battle would begin again, so certain was he that the simple act of shutting his eyes in darkness made him vulnerable to that awful place where there was nothing and no one, not even air to breathe. Weeks later he’d get beyond this, but only by burying what he now knew, and even this wasn’t foolproof for the fact remained that the knowledge—that dark enclosed space where panic slept, waiting—was still there within him . . . he carried it around everywhere so never knew for certain when he might find himself captured by it again, fighting for the freedom to move and breathe, to live, for he’d begun to believe that this was where he would end up: he could fight it off while still strong, but one day he’d grow weak, powerless to fend that darkness, and at that point hope was reduced to some Savior—like Jeanine—who may or may not actually be there to help him.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Joseph Hanson