We walk in tandem, the three of us: me, myself, and the wounded woman. The day stretches on, and the heat blasts our feet, turning them red despite some of us wearing shoes for protection. Both my younger self and the woman hardly flinch, the pain nothing more than a petulant fly, but I wiggle in discomfort.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I led the way up through the dunes, onto an empty and quiet street. Or nearly quiet. A man dressed as melted skittles stands on a corner, one hand pulling on the suspenders holding a mounted tambourine, harmonica, and full drum set. A one man bad. I chuckle and he plays, gratingly at first, but he finds his rhythm.
“Where are we going now?” my companion says, covering their ears. But the noise isn’t so bad from this distance, and soon they lower them and watch with the same amused enthusiasm as I do. The woman stares hungrily, absorbing the notes which relax her tensed shoulders. Still, she doesn’t let go of my hand.
“Anywhere. Anywhere we like. It’s a big world out there, and if we limit ourselves, we might miss a really great opportunity.”
So I tell them. I get out another card from the backpack that never leaves my side and I begin to write. Speak and write. Speak and write. I was always better at the latter not the former. Because sometimes the hand, or rather the heart, can say more than what a voice cannot. Or perhaps, as I just realized as I sat down on a rickety bench, that my voice was lost, taken by a thief and now I am trying to get it back. Suffocating for far too long, I am now needing to breathe.
What the hell was in Oklahoma? It wasn’t a place that I ever thought I would go, despite the giant cross off map of the world that serves as a bucket-list inspiration to go to as many places as possible. But something happened, something inexplicable and that even now, after all this time, I am still trying to figure out. It’s funny how a momentous event starts out from the most insignificant, perhaps even innocuous, gesture.
I was invited to an online drinking rugby group, an invitation I had declined several times because I thought I didn’t belong to a group which asked you to post a chugging video(later I found out it didn’t have to be alcohol, and that was a pleasant surprise considering how alcohol consumption is a big part of nearly every culture, every community). I also usually don’t do groups, afraid to talk to people I do not know for reasons I am beginning to see are connected through experiences. These experiences have made me stuck in a pattern based on fear and low self worth. I remember the lashes that struck my skin, burning and stinging and bleeding, weakening until I was too fragile to absorb more. I remember the nightmares taunting and teasing, the shadows blaming me just as much as the owners, and leaving me too, forever searching in a vast and endless landscape for those I wanted but who didn’t want me. I remember being strapped down, paralyzed, screaming to be heard by the walls blocking every sound. I remember the quicksand pulling me down, down, down, and the things that were supposed to help but lied, breaking and falling apart. I remember everything and I remember nothing but dark. I crawled around searching for the switch because at that point there was only me.
“I stumbled along, banging my knees into everything- walls, cabinets, refrigerators- and eventually I made it there, despite my exhaustion. Over and over I did this, accustomed to having to find the switch by myself. Eventually, its gets too hard to find the light by yourself. You are tired. Or you’ve lost the key to your house and you need someone to give you another key.” The one man band plays a jaunty tune, uneven and course, but catchy all the same.
“How do you know who can help give you the key?” the young woman with the beautiful name asks.
I wish I could tell her. I wish I could tell her it was from the people who are surrounded by good vibes, whose instincts say they are right. But my instincts were broken and scattered into the wind by those I thought were right. I went to Oklahoma because of a rugby tournament being offered. I went after carefully crafting a pros and cons list, after preparing an exit strategy in case it went wrong, after convincing myself to treat it like another solo travel. If I tell myself I am not going for the people but to play the game, like I have done for so long, then I will save myself some trouble.
“You don’t know,” I say carefully. ” But sometimes you have to take a chance and try, or else you will be trapped, the poison continuing to drip until your mind spirals and you feel like you’ve lost your damn mind. The hardest thing to do is to separate your previous experience from your current experience because your mind wants to convince you it will be the same. It will always be the same. And that pattern of thought will trap you.”
This I am finally beginning to understand, the neural river finally flowing, connecting the fish to the current, the idea to the thought. Each person’s experience is uniquely different and can control the thoughts that drive certain actions. For instance, a person may stub their toe and someone else may say to just shrug it off, not realizing the stub is not just a stub, that the pain reaches far back, affecting the heel so it is difficult to walk. I cannot take credit for this; all I can say is it highlights people and their experiences in a new light. Others who do not understand try to be helpful and supportive, often offering advice that can turn toxic. But saying nothing is just as bad, concealing thoughts which may mislead the other. So what can a person caught in the middle do?
I digress, but these ideas are stirred after my trip to Oklahoma. Something happened on my last trip, something equivalent to stubbing my toe really hard, the pain reverberating up my spin. Should I travel alone? Despite committing to the decision, the pros outweighing the cons and my treatment of it as another ordinary solo trip, there was still something there, a chain wanting to keep the uncaged bird confined. A reluctance still harboring from a damaged and broken past making me weary. Yet the bird wanted to fly, to meet new people because nothing is ever accomplished by staying inside( with maybe some notable exceptions). So fly I did, this time letting people like James Blonde know exactly where I was going. This time, I let them in, finally believing that maybe just maybe I was worth knowing about.
Up on the stage in The rusty old mill The canary sung on a Carefree whim Sung and sung and sung Curing hearts stuck ill From weather beating down Harshly without Relenting The canary sung Its feathers yellow and Bright Ignoring the open Window Where the wind comes in And bites Feathers yellow and Bright Up on the stage in The rusty old mill The canary sung on a Cheerless whim Sung and stopped and Sung and stopped Its own heart ill From weather beating down Harshly without Relenting Picking feathers bright And yellow Until there was nothing There Up on the stage in The rusty old mill The canary sat No longer singing on a Carefree whim Rather waiting And watching The weather still beating Harshly without Relenting On feathers dowsed in White No longer colorful As it used to Be Up on the stage in The rusty mill The windows stayed opened The weather beating down Harshly without Relenting In halls that have spent Years silent The canary still sat As the door flung Open And draped in whiskers Prickly and thin The man closed the Windows And the weather stopped Beating On feathers once bright and Yellow Up on the stage in The old rusty mill The man waited As the canary stood Beating Her broken wings Growing bright and Yellow Sing, sing, sing Canary sing The man draped in whiskers Begged For the song he sorely missed And the canary Sung and sung and sung For she too Missed her own Song
Like I said, I needed to make an exit strategy if I was going to push my boundaries and break my comfort zone. I found an inn ten minutes from where we’d meet up after the games to socialize. I figure if I was uncomfortable, I could leave, easily walking back to a vibrant pink and green building. I’ve made it a goal to try to find the most interesting and unique places to say, and this inn did not disappoint, with the exception of thin walls allowing every noise imaginable to enter at precisely eight in the morning. It was a blast from the blast, modernized in a retro setting given a 1960’s/70’s feel with an old refrigerator and microwave. There was too much pink, and far too much nudity to my liking, and perhaps if I was into girls I would have never left the bathroom, for on the wall was a wide-eye view of a woman’s backside. Sexuality was definitely encouraged.
Down the street from the inn was a quaint little diner. Diners have become a favorite of mine and I realized it’s because they make me feel safe. I don’t know why, nor I don’t understand. Perhaps it’s in the unique decor: the mural on the wall, the music boxes that aren’t often seen anymore, all the knick knacks such as vinyl cds and instruments hung up in place to tell a story. Perhaps its in the friendly demeanor of the waitresses, or even the space which is not too cramped nor is it too far apart. Whatever the case, I came back twice, mostly because it was the closest place in walking distance, and I had the same waitress who was incredibly kind. In fact, her kindness reverberated, touching upon parts of me that were wounded and scarred from experiences that have never left me. I’ve gradually come to see that each act of kindness has healed what has been broken, and I am terrified that it will leave, reinforcing the idea I do not deserve kindness even though I do not know why I do not deserve it.
” At some point, I had an epiphany. Something clicked, and although there aren’t words accessible for me to describe it, I knew I finally understood something after all these years. My aversion to people was based on a combination of things, and it chained me to the ground. Who I was a year ago would have never thought to randomly skip to Oklahoma. But there was something. Something was trying to cut through those chains.”
” Bad things are going to happen. I suspect they have already happened,” I look at the young woman and myself, who stares blankly, lost in a seascape of tumbling thoughts and ideas, dreams to escape the uncomfortable. ” And they are going to do things to you that you never thought they would do. When you’ve made it through the otherside, you’ll find small traces buried in you skin, subtle marks which explain but do not define what you do.”
I meant to have rented a car, but my timing was off, and instead I relied on cabs to get me around. Originally, I was hoping to walk everywhere, but the pitch we played on was too far, too spread in a city that was more like a large town( I swear, there were only three skyscrapers; everything else was boxes pushed together on mostly flat land). I wanted to do everything on my own, and in hindsight I saw what was underneath that layer. Probably not the safest to wander alone at night, so I allowed a girl I just met, a girl I knew for less than twenty four hours, to accompany me back to the inn in order to change and get ready for an unexpected night in the city. This was something I never do; it takes months, sometimes years, for me to just learn someone’s name, never mind let them inside the front door. It was a huge moment, and the weekend itself would be full of huge moments.
So I took a cab to the pitch, finding the one familiar face which helped me make the decision to finally go. My rule is- and I have a bunch of rules- if I know at least one person at the party, then I’ll go to the party, although a good Irish goodbye card is good to have in case I can’t stand on my two legs. For that one person is supposed to be a safety net, not a crutch where I follow them around all night. Rather, if things don’t go well, I can go back to them for a little comfort before possibly getting the hell out of there.
Right off the back, I starting passing and learning names of people from all over the place: Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, South Dakota. I have never before been incredibly quick to warm up to people, to tell people about myself, to laugh and smile and joke instantaneously. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t shy or quiet or awkward. I was free. Liberated.
The games were not incredibly long, and we were a motley crew, strangers gathered for one common cause that brought and bound us together. There really is no stronger bond then when two players are forced to grab and hold one another, push and pull, tackle and run in support. For roughly forty minutes ( the time got shorter as the day wore on; out of shape ruggers struggling to move, especially when pizza was ingested five minutes before game time in which we did not prepare at all, throwing bodies out there and hoping we could figure it out) we forgot who we were, what baggage we had, and just played. Afterwards, we drank, we talked, we laughed as if we had known each other for years- that’s the type of atmosphere rugby creates. It creates this unspoken bond or connection, and despite knowing this for years, it didn’t really click into place.
” I was told from the beginning about instant friends, but I never really believed it. Or I never let myself believe it. Because I never thought i could make friends, that I deserved to make friends; that once they saw the monster I was, they would leave. Sure, instant friends doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be friends with everybody, but it opens the door for all sorts of possibilities. The trick is letting yourself stand at the door, ready to greet anyone who comes to the doorstep. Some people are going to be lost, coming to the wrong house, others are going to come and stay briefly, maybe returning, maybe not, and then there will be those who break down the door and refuse to leave, becoming a permanent resident whether you like it or not. But the door is there, and so are you. You don’t need to be waiting, pining away at the window and banging on the glass so people will see you, but you don’t need to be sitting in the dark, hiding all the way in the back so no one can see you.” The one man band continues to play, pausing to catch his breath and to change songs. He drags on the harmonica, taps his foot. It is slow but soulful.
After the games, I expected to walk along the neighborhood until I found a good spot to call a cab. Instead, I unexpectedly caught a ride with two players, going on a little drive to find the right hotel. Perhaps I should have asked more questions, but it was a novel situation for a perpetual loner, a strange wolf who never wandered too close to packs. For the most part, and much to my surprise, they were incredibly pleasant and easy to talk to. We make it to the social bar, a square box hiding a spacious backyard with a old fashioned steel trailer serving beer and food that sat in front of the skyline. I don’t care much for bars or restaurants, but this one- much like the diner- felt right. There was grass and backyard games, a comfortable atmosphere with live music spread throughout. My headphones- which I had brought as a security blanket, and was previously used to block out the tornado warning that went off every Saturday around noon- hung around my neck, ready to use. When I did use them, nobody asked why I had them or didn’t seem to mind, which again surprised me; I am so accustomed to hiding and masking and pretending about different parts of myself it has become a habit. If my hands start to shake from nervous excitement, I lie and say I am cold. If the noise bothers me, I run and hide, often using phone as a cover. At no point did I have to hide and mask and pretend; I even had the courage to speak up and correct my use of pronouns. It was liberating.
I believe it was Sir Ian McKellan who said roughly: ” I don’t know anybody who doesn’t regret coming out as who they are.” If they did, as I have on the few occasions that I did, it was poison. I felt the poison burning and I wanted to expel it. I still do. Little by little, I’m expunging it, the poison no longer my problem. There are things I can control and things I cannot control. I cannot control the integral parts of who I am so I might as well start to embrace it.
I spent a long time outside at the Union, long enough to pass a rugby ball with someone, long enough to listen to stories and eat and laugh, long enough to make plans to continue the night. I originally had no intention of going anywhere else, yet I figured when would I have another opportunity like this? Blue Jay offered to wait as I went back to my room to change and charge my phone just enough so I could get a cab back, although I’d discover the next morning it was only a forty minute walk. Even Lady Bug walked with me. It was strange, this kindness, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t think I was worth waiting for.
The name of the area the nine of us went to escapes me, but it was a pleasant area. Well lit, with stringed lights running across a canal intersecting through buildings, it wasn’t a bad place to be. Somewhere along the line I had stopped and thought to myself ” I would do anything to help these people.” Again, it was strange how instantaneous that thought came. Perhaps this was what healing truly looked like.
“Sometimes,” the young woman tells me, her eyes fixated on the one man man, his music slowly but steadily drawing a crowd. ” Sometimes I find myself at a wall. i get over it, but then there’s another one, a taller one. I get over that, too, but again there’s a wall, each one more taller and more difficult to climb over than the one before. And eventually i can’t climb anymore, and it’s impossible to get to the other side. It’s impossible to heal.”
A tear drops onto the pavement beneath her feet. The asphalt takes it and keeps it for itself, a memory to add with the rest. ” That’s because sometimes you need someone to throw you a rope, help you get to the otherside. It’s not impossible; as cliche as it sounds, if you wait it out, if you keep trying, it gets better. And the things you didn’t understand before suddenly make sense.”
The night spent in Oklahoma city broke down the walls I had hoisted around me for so long. Once the barriers were gone-either removed or hurdled over- I was in a different world. I was dancing on top of tables. I was paying for people I just met. I followed a path a didn’t expect to follow because I made it around the barriers. I finally made it around. But now that I did, I couldn’t help but wonder why had those barriers been there for so long? Why could I not get past them, or if I thought I did, why did they come back?
These questions could not be answered right away. I mulled them over a bit as I spent the next morning taking a last walk in the area before departing. Eventually, I put them aside, focusing on the pleasantly chill morning just as I had focused on dancing during the evening after a particular song triggered a particular unpleasant memory. There were times when I needed to confront those memories, but this wasn’t one of them. I walked and explored one last time, the euphoric haze of the day before still clouding over my eyes.
Locked inside The memory screams A banshee wanting to be Heard Of its pain Dripping, dripping, Wet Onto their skin And they walk With that memory Screaming, screaming Into everything they do "Out, out, let me out!" The memory screams A banshee wanting to be Seen Of its pain Unhealed, unsealed Bleeding on their skin Washed, washed Over and over The memory forgotten As it sat in its box A child alone wanting To leave and see The sunshine again Locked inside The memory screams A banshee wanting to run Loose A child wanting to play And laugh and smile Again The way they used to And they let it go Their skin Drying, drying From the pain trapped Inside a box Inside skin That could not be Washed, washed So easily "Free! Free!" The memory screams So blissfully And for the first time With brand new eyes They see, they feel They finally say Goodbye To the banshee To the child Once Screaming, screaming Into everything they do
“It’s hard to describe what really happened; words just don’t do it enough justice. But I did learn that sometimes you have to allow yourself to take a chance, especially again after something bad had happened before. Bad things happen, sometimes in a seemingly endless cascade of rushing water, but eventually the water slows, and the current is gentle once more. It can be hard to go back into the water, but nothing happens if you stay on shore all the time either. If you go out there, you might find a yacht you didn’t expect to find. If you go out there, you might find sharks,too, but you’ll know from before what to do,” The one man band was puffing and heaving and he sat back, the drum set attached to his back elevating him from the wall.
“What if you don’t know what to do? What if you keep doing the same things from before? Then isn’t it better to stay put, to not take random adventures to the middle of nowhere?” my companion, my younger self, who had been quiet for some time, finally asks the question that was on their mind, albeit with a hint of frustration.
It takes me a while to answer. They have a point. I remember after New York, there was Salisbury and I repeated the same mistake by joining the wrong team, the wrong community. I remember the same search, the same desperation to find this invisible thing, this invisible desire to be worthy, to be enough, to be loved even though I didn’t believe I could ever be worthy, be enough, be loved. I remember those hands crawling on my skin, those lips caressing mine, and freezing, not pulling away as I should have. Again and again the same mistakes, seemingly inconsequential but just like stubbing a toe against the table, the effects could be far more devastating than initially realized.
There was the girl in the club. The men from the bars. The man from Tennessee. Now the man from the plane. I did not dare make the same mistake as I did plenty of times before, yet all the same I was terrified I would.
“I can’t answer the first part very well. I know that the middle of nowhere isn’t always nowhere and that something can be found even in a pile of dirt or flat land. Eventually, staying put will suffocate you, but that doesn’t mean you go throwing yourself directly in the shark tank either. Baby steps, like a newborn giraffe learning how to walk. You walk when you want to walk.”
I smile, and the joint in my back pops. My body is reminding me that time is slipping away.
But there are still more stories to tell. There is always more stories to tell.