We are famished. Somehow, we drag ourselves off our feet and make it into the nearest café willing to take in an unlikely group. The waitress reminds me of the one in the pink zebra shirt, the one we left behind what feels like eons ago. This one is prettier, friendlier, smiling in such an inviting way I almost want to leave behind a postcard, tell her a story in exchange for her own. But she flutters away, pouring steaming hot coffee for greasy men looking worse than a beat up tire.
“Ask her,” I nudge myself, my companion reflecting a look I used to wear, hostile and afraid, a shy turtle reluctant to come out yet not fast enough to move away.
“Ask her what?” they say nervously.
“Ask her what she likes to eat.”
“Why? That’s the waitress’s job, not mine.”
“Do you want to get to know people or not?”
“What day of the week is it?”
“Freaking Monday, how the hell should I know?” I sigh, exasperated. Was I really this difficult? Each time they moved two steps forward, three steps back, afraid of the sunshine waiting behind the clouds.
The young woman with the beautiful name smiles wanly. ” Omelettes. I like omelettes, cheese and pepper, with bacon, because who doesn’t like bacon?”
“Vegetarians,” my companion deadpans.
“I also like listening. Songs. Stories. They are all the same. Can you tell me another one? Another memory from your travels. They are better than mine, anyway.”
I glance sideways, unsure if my companion has grown envious of the additional audience. I draw in a breath, then release it, steadily, slowly, a turtle who has all the time in the world to cross over into the waiting river.
I hear the windchimes sing Across a gentle breeze Whose arms hold me A mother holding their Child Who is not their Child And I feel nothing The weight of her rock Holding me down So I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I hear the windchimes sing Across the blue shutters Of a house that used to Hold me A mother holding their Child Who is not their Child Something else A monster Held down So I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I cannot breathe I hear the rock shift Across my chest And my lungs fill with Air Willing to hold me A mother holding their Child Who is their child And I follow Rustic hands into a Grove Where monsters Who are not really Monsters Can run around and Breathe Breathe Breathe
The Midwest was not where I expected to travel, and I had no reason to step there, unless there was an obscure wedding that I somehow managed( perhaps a bit of luck, a bit of whimsical charm, a whole lot of clumsy awkwardness) to get invited to. There was no major body of water or awesome, breathtaking mountains which to get lost on. What was there to be found in the middle of the low lying hills of Missouri?
In this case, it was a matter of not going for something but rather for someone. The Fabulous Baker I met in college, in the most unusual places considering the Fabulous Baker was not much of an outdoor person, yet to Maine she went( another story for a different time) and together we shared space. The more I share space with someone, the more I reluctantly and begrudgingly accept that maybe this person won’t be going anywhere and I can call them the dreaded F word- friend.
“It takes years, you see, for me to consider someone a friend because for the longest time, nobody did, and the ones who did really didn’t- they just wanted someone around, and I was so desperate I let them do anything to me as long as I had the company. It took me awhile, you see, to understand that sometimes it is better to be alone than surrounded by all the wrong types of people. Then eventually, maybe the right people who you were supposed to meet all along come your way,” I look at the young woman curiously, and she stares back, holding my gaze with the sharpness of a cat, one who didn’t know what to make of its new owner yet wasn’t shrinking away either.
“And you need to have a little faith that it will work out, don’t you?” she says, and for the first time I see color on her cheeks, a beautiful color forced to hide, dragged by its feet by a sullen sadness which refused to release it. “You have to have faith that it will get better if you hang on longer, wait.”
“And stop looking. When you look too hard at one thing, you miss the ancient apothecary and its fascinating structure, you miss the water laying just beyond the gnarled tree, you miss so much.”
With the Fabulous Baker, I didn’t expect her to stay around. She transferred halfway through college, and I didn’t expect to see her again, nor did we, not for a while. She called me one day, out of the blue, asking me if I wanted to come to a Halloween party at a college I’ve never been to with people I never met. I should have said no; it wasn’t an ideal situation where I didn’t know what to expect, but I suppose that’s part of the thrill. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and although she didn’t talk to me a lot, leaving me to fend for myself against a pack of wolves, it was worth going because after that we spent more time together, finding that despite our differences, at our core there were similarities. Who knows if I would have found those if I didn’t take the shovel and dig deep into the ground.
But like most people, she had her flaws, some that pushed me hard, and I would eventually have to learn to set up boundaries or else I would find myself in the same hole I dug, the pile of dirt tossed back on top, this time smothering and suffocating, my screams bouncing off dark walls unable to hear.
Missouri was unassuming for the most part. Flat, low lying hills surrounded us, along with blocks of rock and stocky cliffs that aspired to be taller than they actually were. Then we reached Branson, a town specifically designed to attract tourists. Hell, there was even a store called “The Tourist Trap”, and as funny as it was, it also made be uncomfortable. Inwardly, I groaned; the superficial feel palpable. Yet this wasn’t my trip, I told myself, and this was where she wanted to go, or at least was convinced to go. Originally, she wanted to go to Hawaii, but for various reasons that would not work out. With her, I’ve learned to be cautious, as she was the type to never commit, to change plans last minute, or worse, be inconsiderate of my time- numerous occasions she straight up ditched me in favor of sleep, other plans she made after making plans with me, and even materialistic objects.
“Why did you accept this from her? From anyone?” The question from her isn’t reproachful, rather inquiring. She has asked the same question to herself, and my younger self is not yet there to question what they should be questioning.
“Because sometimes we think it is what we deserve. We’ll take what we can get, even if its something we shouldn’t get, making a purchase we shouldn’t have bought, otherwise we’d be left with nothing. And nothing can be scarier than something. But I also believe that if you say something, if you find a voice to say something, then maybe there is a chance they can change, they can be better and grow into a different person.”
There is a line, however, a line I wouldn’t understand for sometime, where waiting for someone to change becomes impossible, if not miserable. Either its from empty promises that are never fulfilled, or a refusal to acknowledge that they should change, and its not worth it, it’s not worth sitting on the line and waiting. But the Fabulous Baker has proven they need time and patience, and there are plenty of times where I am not miserable in her presence. If I am ever miserable in someone’s presence, that is the time to walk away, to find another place because any place is better than misery.
Surprisingly, Missouri was a good time, especially since I just went with whatever she wanted to do. Unfortunately, it wasn’t full of a whole lot of activeness, and a longed to explore the trails and the park nearby, but again, we found what we both liked and went for it, even though they were things we could do anywhere else. Ideally, I like to explore what I would not find at home, explore what is unique about the place. There wasn’t much about Missouri that I couldn’t find anywhere else, although perhaps a Bigfoot expedition may qualify as unique-hokey, but adventurous none the less. A large, safari-like truck drove us up to a farm overlooking the Ozarks, a farm housing adorable Scottish cows and hideous wild turkeys. I was slightly disappointed not to find a wild armadillo rolling around, for I have never seen one, and like a child at the zoo I would have pressed my nose to the glass, screaming “Ooohhhh.”
Instead, I got licked by a cow. I’ll just leave it up for interpretation.
We had no definitive plan upon arrival, except getting a rental car, which I half expected to pay in its entirety and drive entirely, but much to my surprise the Fabulous Baker was happy to split. I say this because oftentimes I am the driver between the two of us, and lately there has been an increase in reciprocity. It isn’t always me doing the work, and I can feel the weight shift, my breathing coming easier as my lungs take in fresh air.
“Again, you might be asking: why? Why are you doing this? Simple, but take your pick and place your order: I know what its like for people to give up on me, so I do not give up on them and give them chances, I stay around longer than I should for people who may or may not be good because I am desperate. I cannot see what is in front of me, the rain coming down heavily and my window shield wipers not fast enough to clear it away.”
“Did you enjoy this trip? Doesn’t sound like you did,” my companion asks quietly, retreating into a shell they didn’t like to venture too far out of. Lately, they have been doing just that: going beyond what was safe and comfortable, making them frightened from the unsafety and uncomfortableness.
I did, for the most part. I realized then, perhaps even earlier, that if I focus on the bad that people do, it can eventually give me an excuse not to become too attached, to drift away like a balloon, escaping from the innocent child’s hand. I cannot find the balance; if I focus on only the good that a person does, I will ignore the bad and allow myself to dissipate, to lose myself, to be kicked and battered, a mistreated dog only wanting to be loved by its owner but afraid to love when it is treated well because it only knows the kick, believing it only deserves the kick.
We drove. On and on we drove, roughly forty five minutes which is easy for me but not for the Fabulous Baker. She needed to find a welcome center to pick up tickets for some shows she wanted to see. We drove. On and on we drove, in circles trying to find which center we needed to go to. We found it. We walk inside, and the Fabulous Baker waited patiently for a host to be available. In the meantime, we broke something, a corn hole game set up inside, which later turned out to be worthless. We had a good laugh as we joked how “We came, we saw, we broke things, and we left.” It was the wrong center, yet instead of frustration, I smiled, because if I didn’t then the bad thing that loomed over me, the shadow that haunted me from Tennessee, would sink its teeth in me and bite. Hard.
The Fabulous Baker can be both impulsive and a planner, and I never know what I am going to get; her flippancy was high, and she frequently changed her mind. It happened at the hotel, when she pulled as many pamphlets she could get trying to figure out what she wanted to do during the day. I didn’t care; I would say yes to anything, and part of it was a genuine apathy, for this was her trip and I’m just along for the ride, and part of it was out of a fear to say no. I’m supposed to say yes. Don’t you want friends? You can’t say no or they will never ask you again. You’re not supposed to say no. Do what you are supposed to do, what they tell you to do. This line of thought I would eventually discover was a result of a trauma response.
Trauma response. Once I heard that, everything began to unpack. I took each layer, each shirt, each scarf, and unraveled it, analyzed it, seeing the stains and mud, blood and holes, the little pieces of torn fabric that grew over the years. I could finally see it, the rain clearing up. Some pieces I tried to get rid of, and could easily do so, but others were much harder, the clothes ingrained too far into my wardrobe. All I could do was iron it, work on getting the wrinkles and stains to fade. In that hotel room, I was working at it, ironing and sewing, ironing and sewing, but not quite enough. I was still afraid to speak my wants, my needs, which in this case was a good night sleep. The Fabulous Baker snored and moved around, making noise that up until recently she didn’t make before. I blamed myself for not being prepared, so I said nothing, despite being kept awake at night. A break through for me was thinking that maybe she could have warned me, prepared my sensitive ears. But I couldn’t say that too; I was afraid, because it happened before when she stood me up and got mad at me for getting mad at her, she would deflect responsibility and blame me again for a feeling I thought I had every right to feel.
“Gaslighting. That was a term I would come to know incredibly well, my sole companion who kept whispering sinisterly to me until I no longer believed a word I said, only theirs,” I say as the waitress hands me a plate, and I chew miserly, waiting for my appetite to kick in.
“It feels like the world is caving in, doesn’t it? And your mind is stretched, stretched, stretched beyond what is reasonable, being pulled until its on the verge of breaking?” the young woman with the beautiful name stares into the dispenser reflecting her silver image back at her. I bring her back, to a story resembling a sort of familiarity.
The voices, they came Frightful and spiteful Little monsters meant to Destroy A beautiful mind Full of dreams Now threatened to be Charred To pearly white bones The voices, they came And she screams For them to go away To leave her with A balloon Light and delightful Floating And waiting for her to Come Find her dreams hidden Behind pearly white clouds The voices, they came And the world spun Swords clashing As the battle rang Between this and that A collision Of two things leaving Little room To sit in between The light Of pearly white stars The voice, they left And the world spun back As she made A promise Betraying her dreams To the monsters Frightful and spiteful Destroying Charring Throwing as many pieces Of a beautiful mind Away But she steals And hides From the monsters Frightful and spiteful A small thread Pearly white Of bones and clouds And stars Belonging to her Alone A beautiful mind still Alive
Our first adventure led us to a so called Bigfoot safari. It was a gimmick, of course, one that stuffed a truckload of people and drove them out into the middle of the Ozarks where no one could hear us scream. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea. Much to my surprise, it was sort of amusing, the ride through the low rolling hills and mountains bumpy and rowdy, almost like a roller coaster. The driver certainly knew how to entertain, flooring it up a single lane road and stopping at the most beautiful view of the farm land around us. The Scottish cows came right up to us, licking for more food, and the wild turkeys skirted on by, avoiding the twists and turns the driver took as he guided us through bits and pieces of historic land. Half the information he told us was nonsense, things concerning the mythical Bigfoot, but the other half actually concerned the area and the tribes that used to be in the area. In the end, we came away with a little more knowledge then we started, as well as a free bracelet to remind us that Bigfoot does exist, even if its just in our imagination, an imagination worth preserving and carrying, for I have found that an imagination keeps the door open where lively spirits enter and dance and sing and laugh with the soul.
After the Bigfoot adventure, it was time for our first dinner show. The night previously I spent alone, as the Fabulous Baker fell asleep at seven thirty and didn’t wake up again, leaving me to explore on my own. I was glad for some company this time, because I did not come all this way just to wander around alone, although perhaps this was a small, seemingly insignificant sign of what was to come, if I was to believe in that sort of thing, and I suppose I do.
“There is little magic out there, in the smallest of things made by the smallest decisions. Some may call it coincidence, others fate, even destiny or a premonition of some sort. Its all about reading the decisions and where they could go, but not all decisions are predictable. You cannot predict who you will meet along the way.”
“Do you think it was a coincidence that we met?” the young woman asks.
“I think we met based on a decision I made to met myself,” I say, glancing at my other companion, the young me who has had nothing to say and is either lost in their own dreams or is covertly hanging onto every word I say.
The dinner was a murder mystery hoedown extravaganza, or so it was advertised, but the Fabulous Baker and I agreed it was a bit of a letdown. The food, however, made up for it; the brisket and cornbread savory and delicious. I think that would be our best meal, other than the bar-b-que pit down the street, because it would prove difficult to find food after our other show, an Illusion show which was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, more out of curiosity than desire to see it again. Food in Branson was hard to come by, and we had to clean off what was left of the shelves in a Walmart just to have something to snack on.
Most of the trip wasn’t anything too special, except that for the first time in a long time the Fabulous Baker and I got to go somewhere together that was far away from home and that in itself was a worthy journey. There wasn’t a whole lot we didn’t do that we could have done in our hometown, but we did make the effort to experience some places we normally wouldn’t get to experience, although it was difficult in a place designed to be a tourist trap. I couldn’t help but wonder what our adventures would have been like if we were in a place like Hawaii, but I quickly remembered how incompatible that would have been based on our different perspectives of how we see the outdoors and how long we each can last. Coming to this town in Missouri was perfect for her because it gave her what she needed even if it didn’t give me what I needed-but again, that wasn’t the point. The point was for her, and sometimes sacrifices should be made so someone can be happy. It makes me happy to see others happy, and in the end I went to a place I never would have gone otherwise so it worked out. But there was a reminder, a future hint, that when I decide to travel with someone, I should either try to travel with people who are incredibly compatible or brace myself with what I should expect.
Between the Illusion show- done by a personable guy I didn’t like at too much but who knew how to dazzle and wow- the Bigfoot experience, and some glow in the dark mini golf done at the zoo to pass the time because we didn’t always know what to do( at some point, I was expected to come up with a plan of what to do even though I just came along for the ride on a trip that was not of my making) we were truly in it for the tourist experience. We stopped at the Silver Dollar amusement park, which turned out to hit the check box for the Fabulous Baker’s outdoor activity- there went my plan of walking around the conservation park if needed where there were some nice trails to talk and laugh along. Nothing too remarkable about it other than it was fun and exhilarating, although I couldn’t help but wonder if I was expected to ensure the Fabulous Baker didn’t make too many impulsive decisions. No, she is an adult and fully capable of making her own decisions; I am not responsible, she is. Yet a nagging feeling berated me, insisted she would blame me, and it triggered a fearful response: What if I don’t do what she expects even though I don’t know what she expects and then she gets mad at me again and I ruin everything? Key word: I ruin everything. Thank you, past experiences, for developing and warping an highly erratic sense of social anxiety.
This anxiety would continue as we traversed some caverns, something I was highly excited about because caverns are awesome and quite literally cool. She agreed to do it, although expressed some concerns about the exertion it would take and whether she could handle it. It was a walking tour, so not a completely isolating trip down into some caves which I knew would be ideal for me but not for her. She did, in the end, handle it, but I stopped part way through as the thought hit me: did she really want to do this or did I make her do this? I felt guilty, but it was too late to go back, to get out of the ground we were already two hundred plus feet below. The natural designs were spectacular to look at, with a special feature known as the Cathedral with its architectural lines and patterns as well as the halo of light cast down upon its spire shape, the stalagmites and stalactites pouring down and twisting up all around.
I could have stayed in the cave forever, a bear hibernating in the coolness, if it was allowed and I knew I would survive. The darkness was pitch black at the least; it went beyond into an endless chasm where nothing could be seen or heard. Yet there was something oddly comforting about the eerie darkness, and I stood adrift, my mind wandering into its own cave, its own solitude where it could think what it wanted to think, be what it wanted to be, without judgement, without restraint. But I couldn’t help but realize how lonely it was in the dark, and, as I climbed the stairs back into sunlight with a tired Fabulous Baker who was done with anymore outdoor activity, how different I truly was. Was there a combatable travel companion out there for me, someone I could do adventures with instead of sitting around for the most part, spending money on things I didn’t need to spend money on.
“I sound ungrateful, don’t I? Perhaps I was just tired, a little grated as the consideration I extended to her sleeping habits could not be extended to my own needs. I don’t mean to be; I am glad to have done something I never would have thought of doing on my own, and I’m glad I got to explore the Fabulous Baker’s interests, understanding what she loves the most because I love seeing what people love even if I don’t necessarily love it. Like I said, it wasn’t a trip about me- I was not the planner even though the role was unexpectedly turned on me to do so at times,” I take a sip of the lemonade. Sour. Sweet. A balance of both taking my taste buds for a heavenly ride towards the bright blue sky.
“Perhaps there was supposed to be some kind of balance. If you give too much of yourself, then there is nothing left of yourself to give,” my younger self must have been inspired by one of those posters they stick onto walls, mostly in schools to motivate children to achieve but they can be spotted around, posted by optimistic Samaritans.
“Perhaps…” I muse, uncertain as ever. Sometimes that happens; when I think I have it all figured out, I fall apart, hit my an avalanche of confusion that keeps me buried beneath the rubble, clawing for a way out. No matter how old I get, there will always be a puzzle waiting to be solved, new answers waiting to be uncovered, because growth never stops. A flower may reach its fullness, but it will wilt, then start again. A person never really stops growing, and if they think they do, they are most likely stunted in bad soil.
“Just remember,” I say suddenly, an thought coming into my mind and throwing out a rope to a struggling swimmer. ” Bad people don’t care about being better or growing. As long as you care to do so, you aren’t so bad.” It was something I knew would break through their black and white mindset.
They nod. Then, ” So, how was Missouri? was it as miserable as the name implies?”
“It was what it was. If I stayed in my lane and didn’t veer too hard, it wasn’t too bad. Then again, any place I go where I have to cover up my identity as much as I have to cover up my tattoos, it’s not a good place. But it was an adventure, and all adventures, for better or worse, are worth it.”
The door to the café is flung open, ripped viscously by a turbulent gust of wind. Fluttering inside is a piece of paper, glossy on the back, and I catch it, recognizing it as an old photo. There we are, the Fabulous Baker and I, dressed up western style- her in a tight corset and blue dress, me as a bandit because of course I refuse to wear anything too feminine( a stage, I was told, I would soon abandon, but here I am, so many years later, still a “tomboy” when in actuality I am part boy, part something else)- inside one of those made up saloons, posing ridiculously. Yet I couldn’t help but grin at the memory, at a sporadic, need to do it once decision that is held between the two of us, and only the two of us.
I press the photo tightly, laughing quietly to myself. It is so easy to forget the good when there is so much bad out there. It is also easy to forget the bad when all people want is the good. Really, what I need to remember is that there is a balance, or needs to be a balance, to keep us from losing our damn minds.