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  • Ken Ilgunas

How a piña colada almost killed me

Two weeks ago, I was on my hands and knees on the floor of Deadhorse Camp’s “coworker lounge,” trying to cough, or breath, or do so something, anything, with my lungs. But I couldn’t do anything except pound my chest and look at my friends with wide, frantic eyes. I was choking to death. Moments before, I’d been drinking my third piña colada of the night. I was still wearing my red and black kitchen uniform because I’d just finished my evening dish shift. I had a friend bring up my bottle of rum that was in my room in Coldfoot, so we celebrated by making piña coladas. I was in a jolly mood, and after Liam told me about his absurd but amusing idea to start a “munchies catering business” (in which he drives to parties to serve munchies to drunks, crafting the meals out of whatever’s in their pantry and fridge), I started laughing uncontrollably. The piña colada, which had some ice cream mixed in, started to come up and out of my nose. But because it was thick with ice cream, the drink didn’t gush out of my nose like it should have; instead, it just clogged my upper respiratory area. I coughed for a few seconds, and when my lungs could no longer take in air, I dropped to my knees, holding my throat. At first, Liam and Emma (the only members of the get together), looked away. Liam thought I was throwing up, so he respectfully turned his head. Emma got up and stood over me, slightly more concerned. Seconds later, I was pounding my chest, signaling them to give me the Heimlich. But they were in a state of shock. Liam could only gently pat my back, and Emma, forgetting how to give the Heimlich, set up a chair, so I could give it to myself. “What should we do?” Liam asked. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Emma. With Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” (or some such song) streaming on YouTube on my computer, I realized that I was running out of air and that I wouldn’t be able to last much longer. This could be it for me. Yet even amidst the panic, I took a moment to feel embarrassed. Here I am choking to death, in my dishwashing outfit, sprawled across the floor, just halfway through my third drink. I am being killed by a piña colada…. Give me a bear, starvation, a mountain cliff, some worthy cause… Anything other than this! If I’m going to go, let me at least go in respectable fashion. Oh, how un-literary a death. And then, all of a sudden, I coughed up the thick drink that had been lodged in my throat into the plastic cup beneath me. I got up, coughed some more, sat back down on the couch, and tried to laugh it off. The party ended soon after.


I had disturbing dreams that night. I dreamt that I had been fasting. And after fasting for a couple days, I wanted to wow everybody and fast some more. I gradually withered away, turning into a bag of bones. In my dream, I remember thinking that there was something beautiful about dying this way. I awoke in the late morning with a scratchy throat and a slight hangover. I thought about the dream and remembered how Liam had once described to me Kafka’s short story, “A Hunger Artist.” I walked out of my room, out of camp, and towards the Sag River, the wind bludgeoning me in the face with 20 mph gusts. I was hoping to be struck by some epiphany, some lightning bolt; to be given some message about where to go and what to do with my life. Maybe I should just keep walking. Maybe I should pack my bags and put my thumb out and head south. But the epiphany never came. I just thought about this place; this barren coastal plain. I thought about how this place reminds me of the film Black Narcissus—set in the Himalayas, where some well-meaning nuns try to turn an old palace into a school. They never could, though. The palace will always be a palace—a place for kings and queens, ornaments and jewels and delicacies. The wind from the mountains drove the nuns mad. It never stopped. It moved into their rooms, invading, molesting, reminding them, like a ghost, that this place is and only will be a palace, and that you can either accept that and change or die trying to change it. That’s how I feel here. Like we shouldn’t be here—that this place is meant to be still and silent and unbothered. I looked north at the facilities, the giant drills, the mud-spattered cars. It’s like we’ve planted a big ugly town on some sacred site, some ancient burial ground. There just seems to be something wrong about our presence here, like a cathedral on the edge of a volcano, a log cabin on a city corner, an industrial work camp on the deathly still coastal plain. We don’t belong up here, at least not this way, I thought. A place like this could drive a man mad. That evening, I went back to the kitchen for my dish shift. I felt like I was a character in a story, but a poor, unassertive character in a story without a proper conclusion. Shouldn’t this be a turning point? Shouldn’t this be where I change shit around, when I change and grow, when I get the hell out of here? Instead, I just put out the salad bar and washed my spoons. We are, by nature, impressed with stories and symbols. Our lives are our stories, made up of events and people and things to which we assign symbolic meaning. And when we step outside our stories, I think it’s then that we feel most lost; when we feel like we’re losing the grip on our identity. A couple days later, two Deadhorse Camp coworkers came back from their vacation in Japan. I packed my bags, put on my rain suit, and set out in the blistering misty gales, under a bleak storm scorched sky. There was nothing grand or literary about my departure, but once I got on the Dalton and set my pack down and held out my cardboard sign to south, I was excited about the prospect of turning to a new chapter.

I got a ride with this sheet metal worker. He took me 600 miles to the south.


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