The boat sails closer and closer inch by inch; the wind is dead flat, rippling with life every so often, feeble yet still there, not yet gone all the way. We watch together but a part, our thoughts aligned yet separate, mine elevated on a trail made from the years spent working on it. They are staring, perhaps even dreaming, of the boat coming to take them away, a rescuer retrieving a lost life needed to be somewhere, anywhere, else. And I am staring wondering what it is like to lay flat on your back, the sun pressing warmly down as you float in place, going somewhere but not hurrying to be there; instead you are here, seeing the sails flap and the water lick against the hull, waiting patiently in a place that is safe.
We see, but the years separate what we see. Up and down the boat goes, bobbing in a familiar pattern I’ve seen before but paid no attention to.
“You know what’s strange, I’ve never told you about Virginia, and its one of the places I frequent the most, alongside Delaware, and I never really think about them. I just hop over the fence so many times its just an extension of my house, a cordoned off section of a yard dedicated to playtime and parties, all those fun things kept away from the furniture so it isn’t ruined.”
I ramble on and on, the boat no longer in my sight but now a young woman is. Her face is battered and bruise, her dress- a deep red infused with blood either belonging to herself or another- tilted and askew, and she shoulders it to keep herself from being exposed further. She is dripping wet, her black hair plastered across silent eyes. Both of us say nothing as we pass.
“Shouldn’t we maybe do something? I don’t know what to do,” my companion trembles, their nervousness exacerbated. ” Hey, hey miss!” I’m surprised; their shyness usually ties them back, tethering them firmly to a pole hidden by shadows.
She shrinks away; I know that feeling, that fear of people, especially of those who have hurt. She’s in need of help, but its not that easy and I hate it when people make it out to be the easiest thing in the world. There’s a lot of mental gymnastics through an obstacle course meant to derail and challenge at every turn, and sometimes the challenge is too much to take on. Perhaps if she wasn’t by herself then maybe…
” I won’t bite, I promise,” my companion continues, their voice soft and soothing, reassuring. Then they roll up their sleeves to a shirt changed only once on our time consuming journey, and brandish their arms. ” I have bites, too. Faint and barely scratching the surface, but they are there, and the internal bleeding is worse beneath the surface. Do you want to come with us?”
The young woman is uncertain of course, and peers at us through weary eyes. We can’t be worse than what she just escaped, and after whatever it was she had been through, she could use the company. Her eyes, glistening blue and green like the sea, say as much.
“Where are you going?” her voice is wispy and soft.
“Technically to Virginia, if you want to hear the story,” I don’t know why I offer so willingly; my stories are mine and giving them away allows strange eyes to pry into places I’m afraid to show. But there is something about this woman that tells me she needs these places just as much as I do. I pull out a card, prepared to give her a piece she can hang onto later, when she’s finally alone with the dark she’s been running from.
It began mindlessly enough: a road trip down to Charlottesville to visit siblings playing a silly sports game serious to them but would later- after the fire burns everything inside, roasting each precious object black and charcoal- mean nothing to me. Then there were the camps, and I dreaded them, being surrounded by people I didn’t know and didn’t know how to act. I guess, in hindsight, this was the beginning of the social anxiety I would carry scornfully with me because I didn’t want to believe I was carrying it. These camps were for a day, and so much time was spent worrying about people I didn’t notice anything else. I did notice, when I kept coming back over time, how nice and clean and pretty Charlottesville was-and still is- especially at the university, where pearl earrings and black dresses were worn beside unwrinkled polos and simple khaki pants. It always seemed like a place where it was illegal to get dirty, and I was always getting dirty. I was the mess waiting to spill and ruin the expensive carpet.
“Still, it’s a beautiful place worth visiting, and worth staying if that’s the type for you. We spend so much time bashing others for liking the things that seem so basic, so vapid and decorated, but to them there is meaning, there is something to be gained in what seems like a cookie cutter lifestyle. You should go there if you get the chance, if only to see something clean and beautiful,” I direct my last comment to the young woman who listens with rapt attention. I suppose anything is better than the thoughts running through her head.
She nods, remaining quiet and shy. She is in good company.
The handsome shadow smiles And takes her hand in his Down, down The river grows wild The wind whipping Through untamed hair Where the storm finally Breaks Over her heart Cracked and mended The bleeding finally Stopped Through wild flowers white And gold The shadow dances hidden Under the stars that try And reveal The monster With pointy claws That scratch and tear Cracking what was mended Breaking a heart that Had finally stopped Bleeding Alone she sits Away from the handsome shadow No longer handsome In a wind which ceases Along a river that grows Quiet Listening as she weeps Over and over again The tears spilling Onto wild flowers White and gold Her heart cracking And breaking Bleeding again Strong arms grab her And lift her up Away from the Stars Revealing nothing but Monsters Towards a cave Small and warm Where she can close her Eyes And sleep and dream And let her heart mend So it won't bleed So much From the handsome shadows.
There were patches in Virginia, like most any other place, that were good and were bad. Like a quilt, each patch makes up the whole of a blanket held onto or discarded depending on how it makes you feel. Charlottesville I’d go back to and stare at it like a painting, but other places I’d return and it would be another extension of home, ignoring or reconciling with the obvious blemishes.
“Take, for instance, this raggedly patch over here,” I have crouch onto the sand, finding a piece a driftwood, some seaweed, and some shells and arranging them into a pattern, the seaweed separating each into boxed sections. I point to the driftwood. ” It belongs to a farm, out in a strange part of Virginia I’ve never heard of. It was beautiful, the rolling hills colliding with a spacious sky. The horses brayed and the cows mooed as they ate smooth, green grass growing weeds of dandelions. But a sign at the entrance was quick to remind me of the unfathomable hatred towards those different or with different skin, and I cringe at the blemish which scorches land that had no business of being scorched.”
The young woman crouches beside me, taking a bruised finger and running it across the seaweed, the shells, the patches whole and not so whole. She looks at me with green eyes, silent yet absorbing. She wants me to go on.
Again, I cringe at the sign intimating the rampant racism running as wild as the horses, but try to put it aside for an event I was grateful to be invited to. That’s the privilege , though, of putting it aside when so many others, the Reluctant Warrior among them, cannot. She even pointed out she was the only dark fish in a sea of pale that wasn’t working the food and drinks.
“But hey, these are the kinds of things we are not suppose to talk about during a happy event because even though it never strays far from the mind of those affected, everyone has to be happy, keep on a painted face, and walk around dressed and smiling like a porcelain doll, hiding the cracks that break us,” my companion rejoins bitterly.
“But maybe, just maybe, if we pretend to be happy, we can start to believe in it. If we through ourselves into happiness, then the bad stuff goes away,” the young woman speaks softly, tentatively, a dancer elegantly moving through clouds, bouncing up and down, carving intricate patterns with adroit skill. Her mild manner is surprising if only because it contradicts her self preservation. I also didn’t expect her to talk to two misfits like us. Perhaps underneath her smooth silky skin she too is a misfit.
And the misfit, too, is right. I had some reservations attending an event I didn’t quite belong to, wearing a dress I didn’t quite belong in. Slowly but surely I was fading from the porcelain doll I was trying to be, but it was too hot and there were too many strangers to be in the skin I wanted to be in. There was a tire swing I so desperately wanted to play on madly and without care but a refrained, choosing to toss around a rugby ball with friends in suits and dresses. The beauty of a rugby event is that at any given moment we will break out into a small game, startling unsuspecting bystanders with our rowdiness and willingness to fall on the floor, push over one another, set up a scrum, and perform lineouts where the bouquet is tossed like a rugby ball and we jump for it. It truly serves as a reminder of the kind of people that I should be surrounded by- the weird kind, the quirky kind, the unapologetic and unabashed kind. Because then maybe I can finally be weird, be quirky, and be unapologetic and unabashed.
But I have to keep in mind what lingers in the back of mind. Here are people I like, who can be good and supportive but also walk backwards into that unfathomable land of ideals sparking hatred and scorching others who don’t fit some grand delusion. How can someone be good and kind to some people, and horrible to others? It’s something that has been hard to reconcile with. How can someone support one friend by taking care of them or throwing an extravagant party but then turn around and support apartheid or transgender bans or things that hurt other people, other friends? How am I supposed to feel as someone who so desperately searched for friends that I was willing to do anything, tolerate anything, when someone gives me the attention and love I crave, helping me heal from hurt, but then that someone turns around and hurts others. The world is such a tangled web, made out of patches that both belong and don’t belong on the quilt. There are flaws, but how do we know which ones can be ironed and bleached, and which ones can’t? There is always going to be some stain though, and how can that be reconciled, how can it be so it isn’t hyper focused on like the tear in my dress as I sat on a railing and the nail ripped it apart? How can there be balance?
Is it too much to ask for fun though? Despite these lingering questions, I wanted to have fun; I was grateful after all to be invited in the first place. Beauty was all around me and I needed to soak it in, dancing feverishly beneath the pavilion in which the grey clouds and blue moon tried to peak in, casting a glow on revelers gathering around a woman whose own first dance was shared with those considered family even though they had different blood.
” It was a good night, one needed for many reasons; mostly a desire for companionship that we were missing that year. Yet my old troubles lingered in the back of my mind. I am forever grateful for those who help when an big event gets overwhelming- its one thing to plan, another to execute actually going. Part of me thought I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough to be there, and I should stay away from everyone.”
“Sometimes when bad things happen, no matter how much time has passed, the echoes still follow,” the young woman whispered into the sand.
I nod. ” The echoes still follow.”
They followed me each time I drove back and forth, the shadows more pronounced especially when the wound was poked. There was the time in D.C, and Gummy Bear wanted me to come to the Pride parade, and as I drove I get a call telling me not to come. Gummy Bear didn’t want to lose her spot where she could get free stuff, and it took me back a few notches. I was not worth more that glitter and beads. It kind of ruined the experience for me, despite attended one earlier because I was with those who saw some sort of value, although that time too has soured a bit because another did not think I was that valuable. I gave and gave, but they gave nothing back. So many times I have navigated crowded areas I did not want to navigate, and in the end it was worthless.
Or almost worthless. At Pride, I learned there was a group for people at be, which thrilled me until I saw the biblical encroachers who have nothing better to do than ruin lives that do not affect them. I do not understand those people- why can’t they let people be? At the same time, though, my group isn’t always welcomed by those who should be welcoming, insisting we are better off belonging somewhere else.
Unnatural Comes the light From clouds misshapen and Swollen Unnatural Comes the echoes Whispering from shadows Past and Near From above and within the Wind Unnatural comes And tells the boy Who isn't always A boy And isn't always Strong Or fast Or nice And thin In the shape of perfect Clouds That bounce when told That shade when told That does everything when Told Who isn't always What they want him to be Unnatural They ask the boy who isn't always a boy To leave And wander With no where to go Unnatural Left and right The land stretched far Unnatural Comes the light From clouds misshapen And perfect Bouncing together and Apart Guiding the boy Who isn't always A boy Who cannot tie a knot Or sew ripped clothes But can sing high And drive a boat Left and right Far and wide Away from the echoes That whisper Unnatural Even though its them In their unimaginative Synchronicity In which the light casts Unnaturally. Unnatural Comes the light But not for the boy Who isn't always A boy Who follows the misshapen Clouds The row of uneven Mountains All those things told To be what they are Imagined to be But are not Unnatural They said But they are wrong The unnatural light Is natural For those Not afraid to live As they are.
The young woman looks up expectantly, asking me to go on. But my words are empty, depleted as a vacuum sucks them all up and stores them to be discarded later. We are stare in silence at the ragtag objects forming a ragtag quilt. Then the woman begins to hum. A soft, sad tune, retelling the woman’s own story to match my own. I smile.
Perhaps I shouldn’t count D.C in my postcard, as its just another place I went to on behave of others, and the memories are not exactly mine. Still, I was there, living an experience I did not expect to have. The echoes follow me around and around, a swarm of bees never going away. But perhaps in time they will grow quieter and quieter until I no longer pay attention. I’ve learned that to become whole again, I don’t have to do it on my own. I can learn to love myself through the love of others, by letting others love me and believe it. Compartmentalize. Focus on the bad when its preventing love. Focus on the good when love needs to grow. It’s like a garden; you watch over and tend to the plants with care, but when you notice the rot, the insects and snakes trying to tear apart a system, you root out the bad and fix your system so there is no room for the rot, for the snakes to wiggle through and destroy everything for the sake of destroying.
“Let me tell you something else I saw from Virginia, specifically Virginia beach. I saw what everyone else has seen, and what I had only begun to see but not know how to shovel it out, and that was the susceptibility to being taken advantage of and my ability of blaming myself for everything,” the young woman stops humming, and I am embarrassed, cutting off a lovely melody. I don’t want her to stop, but her sweet, sweet humming, dislodged more of what I want to say, what I need to say. Trapped words only serve to burn the longer they sit among the fuel that ignites. She doesn’t seem to mind, though, and she watches me with attentive ears, my companion doing the same.
There was a tournament, and as usual the drive down was long and tedious, although the company was anything but boring. Our opponents were less than gracious, changing the start time at the last minute because another team dropped out and demanding we start an hour earlier. We stop at a Sheets, changing haphazardly in bathrooms and parking lots, before zooming off the meet the deadline. If we didn’t make it on time, we’d concede a forfeit, embittering us even further after the time it was too hot to play, making it unsafe and dangerous for heat stroke, so we cancelled, and they declared themselves champions.
“What ass hats,” my companion curses and spits, kicking the sand with their foot. I laugh, and the solemn woman manages to smile.
What ass hats indeed. We make it, all out of breath and signing in to register as we hop out of the car. With no proper warm up, we start, and its a sluggish beginning. Their strategy was to slow us down, and it worked at first, but I’d like to believe our rage combined with our talent brought us back on top. We won, and afterwards we planned on celebrating at the hotel, swimming in the pool and enjoying pizza. The Party Planner, however, had different plans. She had rented a boat, expecting all of us would want to go out fishing in the deep blue sea. She was also drunk and unable to drive, although she did drive herself to the game. I dug myself a hole, offering the information that I do not drink, and she snatch it, and I became her designated driver. I didn’t want to; I wanted to stay with everyone else, but I felt responsible. I should help. Besides, it would be terrible if something happened.
I did compromise. I spent a half hour swimming, spending time in the company of good people. I was not accustomed to such goodness, and it was hard to pull myself away, but I did because I had a duty. I drove The Party Planner around, hoping to make it quick so I could get back and enjoy a night out at the bar, which was the next stop the rest of my friends were going to do. But something kept happening. The car needed to be refueled. The boat ride, as nice as it was and how grateful I am for the opportunity despite the poor timing, took longer than expected- and it resulted in some fish blood spattering onto my pants- the Party Planner was chatting with every damn person in sight, and the Party Planner took a long time to get ready, stopping every five feet to retie the straps on these Grecian style shoes. I was ravenous; I only had chips on the boat, and the dead fish the Party Planner brought back was frozen in the hotel fridge. Thankfully, the Bandana Bandit made sure I was fed; it was a moment I was forever grateful for because I was surprised that someone thought to look after me.
” For so long, I’ve kept expectations low. I’ve struggled to ask for help, and when I did, it blew up in my face. I didn’t expect any more kindness, and when I didn’t expect it, it was there, a band aid wrapping itself around a bleeding wound. It felt strange but good to be treated in a way that has been consistently missing, or at the least inconsistently there, enough to feel like a starving dog finally giving a piece of meat instead of of small nibbles here and there.”
“So there are people out there then,” my companion says. The young woman looks up, too, but not at me. The ocean is still, and as the day gets on, people drift towards the edge,the magnet drawing them close. A little boy laughs as he tosses a chunk of sand into his brother’s face. His brother chases him, bent on revenge, and tackles him into the water. They both come up, spitting water from their teeth.
“There are people out there,” I say, unexpectedly restoring optimism in a bitter and cynical heart. ” The trick is to keep the door open enough for them to see what’s inside, but closed enough to keep them at bay if they look in the wrong way. Not everybody deserves to know you that way, and everybody’s responsible if they try to break in and rob you. All I can say for now like I said before is that some places bring unexpected rewards. I didn’t think I’d bring anything home to put on my mantle from any of the the pieces I’ve been to, but now I have quite the collection building.”
There are also broken pieces I need to fix, to rebuild so that it doesn’t happen again, or that I have the ability, the control, in my hands. Being firm with my wants and needs, placing boundaries that should not be violated, are just a few of the things, and if others cannot accept those, then it is a problem they need to work out for themselves. It is not always me; most streets are two ways, and if I keep going one way all the time I’m going to wind up at a dead end.
Virginia is an interesting place full of ups and downs, and yet I keep going back, pleasantly surprised by the frequency and the “discovery” of new towns and cities that are not all bad, although it may not be for me. Its okay to appreciate a painting but not want to buy it and hang it on display. Only a few are worthy of that, and those few are the ones that reach the heart and reflect the self as it is. I am not for crowded paintings filled with delicate designs speaking of a grandiose nature, but rather something simple and rustic, with enough space to think and be free to express how I want to express. I run with the tigers, not the bourgeoise.
The young woman smiles, and my younger self shakes their head in disbelief. ” Never make that comparision again.”
“What? It is true! Besides, I love tigers so much more than people.”
“Even though people themselves can act as tigers?”
I scoop up sand and toss it at myself. They duck and start sprinting towards the water.
The young woman is still sitting, but she finally stands, not so wobbly as before. ” Do you mind if I stay with you?” she asks. ” I’d like to hear more, if that’s okay.”
I walk over to her and take her hand, placing the postcard down on a palm scarred from her own history. I wrap her fingers over it. “Only if you tell me your name.”
She nods and whispers it softly. I smile. It is the most beautiful name in the whole wide world.