It is quiet. The air is still except from our soft breathes gently rippling the calm pond. Our voices are strained and weary, yet full of stories battering hard at the walls, desperately trying to dislodge the stone. I drive. Gradually, the mountains slip away, shrinking into the background until the tallest point is only a lingering blip, receding once we are too far to see it wave goodbye.
It is quiet. The story screams inside my head, refusing me peace as usual, but I yank on its chain, forcing it to bow to me. I have the reigns. I determine when it is time. But is any time ever the right time? I look over at myself, at their hazel eyes which have dulled as they settle into a numbness that stops everything but their heart. I have disappointed myself. I am not telling them what they came to hear. The time is not right. But is any time ever the right time?
What game am I playing? I wanted to tell them, to stop them from following a path that would lead to misery and pain. Yet my hesitation is revealing; if I had not followed such a treacherous path, I would not have found the reward waiting on the other side. Ultimately, I must plow forward, and give the choice for them to make.
“Get out another card,” I growl more unfriendly than I anticipated. ” Your collection is not finished yet.”
“Okay,” they look at me forlornly, resigning themselves to the acceptance that they will not receive an apology. For years to come, it would be hard press to find an apology, for they are rarer than gold, and the apologizes they get are half hearted , insincere, forcing them to believe they are the one constantly in the wrong, they are the one who always needs to be better. ” I promise I’ll be good” will become a song sung over and over, even when they do not know what they did wrong. They will know something is wrong, they will know they are expected to know, and they will know that it must be all their fault. My cheeks blaze with guilt because I know I should do something to assuage, to provide the aid they will spend years searching for, and to give them the explanation no one else will give. But suddenly I do not want to change too much. I want to tell but not tell. I am at a crossroads, unsure of which way to go, so I wait. I drive and I wait.
Starting in the fall, I was to begin again as a fresh guppy swimming out into the large pond, this time in a different watershed. The transfer was unexpected and not part of the plan, but I had no choice- I had to follow this derailment and take the new tracks winding away from the old. To ease this transition, it was thought to be a good idea to send me on a new student orientation up to Acadia, Maine. I had agreed, not because I wanted to meet new people- for I had since lost interest- but because I would be outside, flying as free as a bird across lakes and mountains, and huddling inside a tent beneath trees shielding me from the unfavorable noise from the city and suburbia.
My excitement would wane, however, as I discovered the close proximity to other people I would have to be, as well as the more glamping style it would actually be. No taking a shovel and walking a hundred yards to find a good bathroom spot. No actual campfires made by finding kindling and dry logs. No scaling walls and sweating through the same set of clothes I’d have to wear for five days straight. Still, outside was outside, and no matter the shape it was much better than being trapped inside a cage with white walls and white floors.
The ride up was rigorous, a hefty length of sixteen hours, mainly because our driver had to stop on the hour every hour and we suffered what would turn out to be a series of unfortunate events. It started out with a popped tire. With some fumbling, we dispatched it and replaced it with a spare, but not long after another tire popped. We waited on the side of the road, the darkness already shrouding us in a thick blanket and sleep tugging at the corners of our eyes. We waited and waited, some of us slouching into the nearest ditch ready to roll up into a ball and stay right there as they rested. Eventually, we got moving again, but by that point we were dragging ourselves around as zombies, our eyes glassed over and our minds thinking one thing and one thing only: sleep.
In the early hours we finally arrived in Bar Harbor, a beautiful port that I sorely did not appreciate enough because of the uncomfortable night spent inside a white van. Unlike everyone else, who were busy keeling over a rock, a bench, the soft hilly grass area by the boats, anything really that could be used as a bed, I tried to keep myself going, to observe as much as possible. Although, and perhaps this comes in hind sight, I did not observe as much as I thought I did, failing to see beyond the veil of blue and green;of birds and lobsters. Perhaps at that time I did not wish to see anymore than I already did.
Down in the hollow Where the crickets sang With the birds who stood On their self made nest High above watching The world pass by The little boy walked And danced And sang His head held high Watching the crickets And the birds sing Their song Down in the hollow Where a new world waited And held its breath Down in the hollow The little boy climbed And climbed Searching for the footholds That would take him to The crickets and the birds Sitting low in bushes Perching high in branches Singing in voices Overflowing With a sweetness Coated in the love He wanted to take and store Inside his pocket And keep to himself As he sat in a new world Better than the old Holding his breath Waiting For the old to pass him by And never come back.
I cannot remember what the food was like except for the lobster, which was a compulsory meal. I did not enjoy the taste; it was odd and full of a strangeness that soured my tongue. The others, however, took great pleasure, and I sat back and watched, making mental notes in my head. These notes, I realized later, were an assessment: Bio-teach appeared friendly, a giant grizzly man with a wide smile spreading beneath a beard, Bubbles spewed forth oddities that seemed in line with my own weirdness, a slight connection that could possibly span the width of the chasm and pull the two separate cliffs closer together. Never did I think any of these people I would see again outside this trip, and for the most part it was true. I had lost faith in the hope that I would find people that would stay, that I could spend time with and do more than just one trip, one sports team. I had lost the ability to smile fully, to laugh without restraints, and was taking small steps to learn how to live again.
“What happened?” they ask with impatience breaking in between their words. ” Are you going to tell me what this irrevocable event was that changed you?”
“Not change. Took away. Something happened that chipped away at the stone until it fell and crumbled, and the mason was left with a pile of broken stone that could not be made anew. But the mason would begin again, taking a fresh slab and reworking it, adding to the stone designs and carvings that were not there before. But again, that is a story for another time. You are not ready.”
“When will I be?”
“When I decide you are.”
There was this boy, Camera-X, who was different from the others and it was obvious in his mannerisms. He bluntly called a fellow group member fat, he experienced a meltdown when he lost his camera, and he forgot his clothes when it came time to shower so had to wrap a towel around his waist and ride back to the base camp half naked. He was nice, but in truth he was a word in which I hesitate to say, if only because it is hardly ever acknowledge around me and is instead referred to as “learning differences.” But almost everyone knew what Camera-X had and they treated him extra nice. The problem with that is it is not usually genuine and no one truly wants to make him part of their friend group. The benefit of going unseen is escaping the insincerely, however the downside is no one knows how much I really struggle. For years I have played a charade, putting on different masks that fit in, that pass for what is acceptable. Camera X does not need to put on a charade, or else does not know how, in which case he is lucky. Because then he does not have to worry, and he can wander about freely, disregarding the subtle social rules that are a puzzle to unfold.
After exploring the local spots, some of us stopping to play cards or ultimate Frisbee, the later resulting in two members taking a trip to the hospital after spraining an ankle and earning a ninth concussion, we make our way to Acadia National Park via bike. The road was long and steep, the winding path carving into the side of the mountain with extremely few places to stop. Most of us are sweating, and even more are dragging the bikes behind them as they jump off and walk, panting the rest of the way up. I keep going, taking rest at the flat turn offs where cars can peak over the side and glimpse an amazing view of the valley below. The rigor drove me, strengthened me and gave me a boost of adrenaline and determination. For I was not going to let the few boys who remained beat me, and when I bested them I would later be given an award for being better than the boys.
“That makes sense. In forth grade, I was the only girl on the football team at recess, although I needed the teacher’s intervention to allow me to play. Of course, I kept up with them, much to their chagrin.”
I manage a soft laugh. ” I remember that. Same thing for the coed basketball team. Some dunderheads refused to pass to a girl, but the smart ones were quick to realize that if they were going to win they would need me because I was more athletic than those dweebs.”
Challenging myself against the boys opened myself up a little to the possibility of having fun again. I grinned happily, and reveled in the victory, smiling and laughing with the fullness of my heart which was beginning to shed the heavy blanket that hung around it for the last several years. After reaching the top, it was time to begin the descent, but before we could begin a girl fell from her bike, scraped her chin, and took a trip to the hospital. Three bodies in three hours. Two popped tires. Accidentally stranding two girls at the lake for several hours the day before. Our list of misadventures was growing. Still, those make the best of stories, and the latest was not going to stop me from rushing down the hill as if I were in the Tour de France, taking turns at unnatural speeds and soaring like a bird through a refreshing summer wind that rejuvenated my bones.
Once at the bottom, I rested, waiting for the trip back to camp. Steadily, I was getting used to sharing a tent with three other people, yet I made sure to leave a little space, keeping my belongings as close to the exit as possible. For years I had set up a world, designed it with specifications that could not, or would not be tweaked and interfered, and I did not want to change it, sealing the vents up tight. The problem with not letting any fresh air in is that everything becomes stale and that I just keep breathing the same air over and over again. The outside world can be frightening, however it can be surprising in unexpected rewards, so gradually I began, step by baby step, to turn the valve and let the right air enter. After resting up at camp, I followed a crew along the beach, listening to their stories as I searched for shells and rocks which would feel nice and smooth in my hands.
“The thing about Maine is, it was a place where the first set of wounds was given a chance to bathe in the healing water. There was still a long way to go, and soon another set back would happen and I would face an unpleasant deja vu but I will not get to that now. What I will get to is that traveling is important not just to experience a frivolous trip or run away from the stress of home life or to volunteer and earn a cultural knowledge- the later a fact I sorely missed out on a believe if you have the stomach the Peace Corps would be greatly beneficial- but to heal. The best way to heal is to pluck yourself out of the toxic soil. You would not keep a lavender plant inside a house, leaving it to wither in shade when it needs the sun would you? But leaving the toxic soil when your roots have been planted for so long takes a great deal of strength…” I stop, unsure of how to go on. I know they are looking at me- I can feel their angry gaze burning the skin off my back. I am lecturing now, as a grumpy old man lectures a child who has done something against their approval.
“Is that why I am here?” they say bitterly. ” So you can judge my actions, my choices, my lack of proper decisions? I know where I am now and I am fine. I’m used to it. Besides, I have a dream and to complete that dream I must suffer for it. Things will not get better, I just need to adjust and accept the way things are.”
“Change is rough, believe me I get it. But if you want things to get better, things are going to have to change, which means what you love the most you will have to let go because what you love is not good for you. You are slowly being poisoned, and if you want to continue that route, then so be it.”
The road ahead dips and swerves, and the empty land fills with houses big and small, run down and held in high esteem. Still, our journey is endless, with only rests in between that gives us time to think and reflect. Or not. Too much thinking wears the brain down, and sometimes I dream instead, or float, bouncing in fluffy, playful clouds. One of the last days in Arcadia was spent hiking through the mountain, following a path which would loop back to the great lake in which most of us would frolic innocently among the waves, splashing and laughing and diving to the cool depths, swirling around weeds of grass and fallen flowers while eagles and gulls flew ahead. As we swam and took pictures capturing a beauty that would remind us of the light that waited on the other side of a tumultuous cloud, we waited for the other group who were still on the mountain so they could see what we were seeing. But time passed and they didn’t show. Four of us were lost, with a fragile walkie talkie to communicate. Darkness was creeping on and still they did not show. As we were about to call for emergency services, they finally show up, scrambling out of an unmarked trail. Suffice to say, they were not happy and the evening was cut short, with no final campfire and no final goodbye. After all, we’d see each other around campus, right?
“So…” they say after the awkward silence sails away on a boat. ” Is college different? All I have to do is wait it out until then, right?”
I stare out the window, at the crescent moon making an early appearance as the sky grows darker. They hope, they dearly hope, it will be different. But it is not because the soil never changes. The toxicity deepens, and the poison hurts more until finally, finally I am ripped from the ground and tossed to an area where it is better for the odd things to grow.
What am I to say? What is it they want to hear?
“Yeah. Sure. It’ll be different. Eventually.”