I stir from my nap, my eyes still groggy and blurry, hanging onto the last snippets of the dream, catching them as one catches butterflies. The sun is casting its glow downward, turning everything to bronze with a simple touch. We are still nowhere and everywhere, mulling in thoughts and dreams and desires and pasts we probably should not be mulling in. Yet we do anyway. It’s a compulsive urge, an ever-persisting itch that needs scratching. The young woman with the beautiful name is the first to rise from her perch on the statue, her eyes widening in recognition.
“It’s him! It’s him!” she screeches like a banshee, the fear reverberating through her body, the chimes of her bones struck hard.
“Are you sure?” I ask smoothly. The refracted light likes to play tricks, a devil in disguise bringing out phantoms hiding in the darkest corners of our minds.
“I… I… ” she gasps, gulping for air she believes has escaped her. Then it swiftly changes into a hysteric chuckle. ” No, it’s not him. But it looked remarkably so.”
“I hate that,” I say, brushing lingering dirt I’ve collected on my travels off my pants. ” How people can have dopplegangers, or even not; just one similar feature is enough to remind you of someone you’d rather forget. A sort of trigger that begins a trauma response, a pattern to your being that developed and is hard to break, like a bad habit.”
“And what if I can never break the bad habit? What does that say about me?”
“It says nothing. You are only a human trying their best, but its hard to remove the roots that have been in the ground for so long. Be patient with yourself, and if others can’t be patient with you, it’s their problem not yours. That is something that has taken me a long time to learn: it is not always me, sometimes it is them. And with them, sometimes you have to let them go, get rid of the roots that can be and should be disposed of. Look after yourself, and those that care to see you out in the sunlight instead of suffocating beneath a dark rock.”
“What if I have no one that cares?” she is scared, the scars of her past either still fresh or reopening, leaving her susceptible to the doubts, the tricksters, the devilish voices trying to pull her further down into a pit that’s not real.
“Oh, there is someone out there who cares; believe me, I’ve spent a long time searching everywhere I could think of- under rocks, behind cobwebs hanging from a splintered lattice of an old porch, across the blue-green sea, over icy hills and tundras- but I was always going in the wrong direction. If you have to search hard for it, you’ll never find it. And if you keep searching when it’s finally right in front of you, you’ll miss what you have, doomed to forever go on an endless search that will never be enough, never fulfill the empty glass.” I pick out a card, the back side glimmering white. The front is etched a design: complicated and a mess, yet each individual, colorful cord weaves its way, connecting with the end and making something whole.
“Here, ” I hand the card to her. ” This one is for you. As for me,” I turn to my younger self, their brown eyes glinting green, the envy unable to conceal itself. ” I have not forgotten about you, which I know you don’t like because it seems everyone always forgets about you- you feel lost, trapped in a bubble filling with fog and all you can see are bobbing shapes moving in and out of a world you are not a part of. You scream and shout, wanting to be heard, but your voice is smothered, sewn shut by a prickly wire meant to bite if you speak. So you watch and wait, feeling smaller and smaller, your bubble getting lost. At first, this story won’t please you, but stick around to the end and you might see the benefit, not the reinforcement, the tricks and illusions the darkness likes to play.”
I didn’t expect Arkansas to be so beautiful, nor did it have any right to be, it’s history uglier than a wart on a toad or slimier than the skin of a slug. Little Rock is famous for the Little Rock Nine, a group of students first sent to break down the segregation barrier put up around schools, the town, the nation; a symptom of the rampant disease of racism we still have yet to purge, even in the 24th century( I have used the machines myself before, for where I come from the planet has been ravaged, and some genius thought it would be a good idea to set up the rings, and they can take us to any point in time. Of course, the use has been abused, and strict regulations have been put in place, making it a luxurious exercise for the rich and a crime punishable by death for the poor) it is still alive and well. Perhaps I have divulged too much of my story; please, disregard my current life, for I only want to spend time in the past, in the places my loneliness has often spent ruminating about, which professionals would argue is not the healthiest habit. But sometimes the unhealthy habits are the ones that keep us surviving. Ah, I run away with myself, chasing the railroad track to the point of divergence, taking the less sensical one. Little Rock. Where once the governor tried to condemn minorities and now, as I pass signs supporting transgender youth, is trying to protect some.
I didn’t expect to end up in Arkansas; there was no reason for me to me there. But I suppose a chain of events, a chain of decisions, lead me there. It started with a chance encounter in Oklahoma, where I met someone I’ve had to rename: Barbwire. Typically, its hard for me to either open up or connect with other people, but because I have an open door policy- in which I do not limit myself to a small circle of firends because I’ll never know if there is someone great out there I’m still supposed to meet if I keep the door shut, and also as someone in constant need of a friend, there may be someone else in constant need of a friend too. It seemed like Barbwire was in need, and initially we hit it off, exchanging contact information and keeping in touch despite living hundreds of miles away.
I helped her. She sent me a copy of parts, fragments, to a book she wanted to right. As a struggling writer myself, I wanted to encourage her, help her any way I could without losing perspective and infusing my dreams through her. It was going well, and for once I was feeling happy, confident, floating high above the clouds. But clouds are fluffy for a reason, and they aren’t always there, so I fell, landing hard on the surface and brusing whatever was left of my ego.
There was a plan. She was making a trip to visit some friends, and a friend of hers was supposed to go, but then backed out. Barbwire wanted to hike, to explore Little Rock while she waited for her friends to be done whatever it was that made them unavailable in the moment. She didn’t want to do it alone. Perhaps I was a fool, yet I offered to go, reasoning that it would be an adventure, that I like the outdoors and knew how to explore alone. I guess I didn’t expect to end up all alone. Beforehand, she jokingly asked if I would like to come and in hindsight I don’t think she ever expected me to say yes. But she didn’t tell me not to come. No, that came when it was too late.
“I don’t know if desperation caused me to put on rose colored glassed so all the red flags just looked like flags, or I really am a fool putting blind faith in people who don’t deserve it.”
“Why do we do it?” my younger self stirs. They still don’t look directly at me because I know it’s uncomfortable. Yet people are going to try. People are going to laugh when they say they never look people in the eye; people are going to laugh when they have a difficult time ordering food or going to the bank or going to someone’s house and wondering if they should knock, ring, or just go inside. Eventually, they will wonder what the hell is wrong with them. They will ask why are they so different. The answer won’t come for an extremely long time. In the meantime, they will suffocate, they will drown, they will hide deep inside the closet, waiting for a chance to surface. When they surface, there will be no one around to hear them.
“Why do we do it?” they ask again, their brain trying to unpick the tightly wrapped foil. soon, they will become frustrated and rip it off with their teeth. “Why do we keep putting faith in the prettiest looking face? The nicest looking smile? The first decent gesture that ends up disappearing, or we burn it without meaning to? Why, why, why?”
I stare blankly at myself for a long moment. It is an excellent question, one that I thought I had stopped asking. But no matter how old I get, I am not done. Why, why, why. So many whys and not enough becauses. Or not satisfactory enough. I want to say because we are desperate. Because something in us when we were born made us different, made us navigate the world differently, without a blue print that so many others innately have. I look at my postcard. What am I writing this for? It seems pretty obvious to everyone, everyone except me. I’m not writing secret family recipes to try. I’m not writing life saving tips on how to survive a bear attack, which any outdoor expert can tell you. I’m not writing anything differently, except from maybe from a point of view starting at a different location, a different point on a map filled with so many stories, so many experiences, that get smothered in a cacophony of other voices screaming to be heard. I don’t scream, or if I do, I do it so no one can hear me. Perhaps I want to be heard. Perhaps I want my journey to be seen, especially by me. Why, why, why. Because we need to. We need to try to understand ourselves and others and the way we interact with the world around us. Because I need to have hope that I will find what I’m looking for, that I will find what for so long I did not believe I deserve.
What I want to tell myself are three words that are not easy to say. You are different. Because I’ve been told different is not good. Autism is an evil word, a disease to be eradicated. Asexual is a disease, an abnormality in the folds of the universe that needs to be ironed out. Trans- nonbinary also does not make sense, and bends the map that was already laid out for us. I am told I am broken, I need a cure. So I deny, deny, deny, that I am such a bad thing, that I am such a monster. But in reality, I am not the monster. It is other people. Other people like Barbwire are part of the problem in keeping the world nice and tidy instead of letting a little paint get on the walls.
“We keep doing it because that’s who we are. We give people chances. We give ourselves the opportunity to try to heal, to try to reach out a hand to someone who needs it. If they decide to bite, its on them, not us.”
There was a plan in Arkansas. There was a plan, I keep telling myself. I also knew that my plans tended to fall apart, so I expected to be left alone, although perhaps I didn’t expect to be out right abandoned, spat upon, and given the equivalent of of restraining order in the form of social media banishment. I didn’t understand; things like these I never understood, it was too difficult to. It was like being at the train station: I waited, waited, waited to get on, except I held my ticket upside down. By the time I turned it around, my train was leaving and I was running, running, running to catch up, hoping it would stop so I would get on and finally understand. Except it kept moving, and I fell behind, lost in my own sea where there was nothing to hang on to.
I arrive in Little Rock expecting a ride because she said she would pick me up from the airport. She said we would share her Air BnB, which turned out to be in one of those communities out in the middle of no where, the ones where you drive along a vacant road with maybe one or two country stores or questionable gas stations that made you think twice before entering in case of being mistaken as a prostitute( that happened to me once, although I was closer to Baltimore City, a notorious city for its crime rate although it has its hidden beauty among gems stashed in the fire, its hidden light illuminating the solid dark) and then suddenly you round a corner and there is a sliver of suburbia transplanted right there. The houses were replicas: short, squat, tan one story houses with the same brown eaves dangling from the roof. I had the Uber drop me off since Barbwire at the last minute decided she couldn’t come get me despite the fact she would meet me there ten minutes after being dropped off. On the bright side, the driver played some cool music, and I was able to snag it, adding it to my collection.
“I’ve decided to keep a special playlist. I feel like you can get to know somebody through the music they listen to. So from now on, I gather my friends songs, ones I either agree with or else love fervently as well, and put it on a separate track. When it comes on, I know it’s their song. So, what’s your song?” I point to the woman with the beautiful name.
“My song?” she laughs, and its a beautiful laugh, one that isn’t weighed down by sadness but rather floats high and free like a cloud- puffy and full of air instead of stone. ” I don’t think you know it.”
She inhales sharply. Then the words pour out of her, flowing and unhampered.
Oh, strange stranger Your fire tempts me near Yet as I stretch out A finger I feel my skin singe And blacken And burn Oh, strange stranger My curiosity brought me near When perhaps it was better To stay far Hidden among the other Stars Where I do not burn Anything that is not Supposed to burn Oh, strange stranger Your fire tempts me near And through a single Touch I may burn and singe Black But I need must stretch Myself to new limits And discover what I do not see Hidden among the Stars Oh, strange stranger Perhaps I should stay In a world where everything Is exactly the same And nothing is ever Strange In ways that burns Or heals And I will never know Until I take your Hand But I know now I should Never Have taken it And I will not do that Again Oh, strange stranger I prefer that everything Stays the same and Never burns
I wait in the dark, staring at the starlit sky sparkling above me. Eventually, she comes, pulling up to where I stand. I get in her car and she tells me about her day. Then we find the house, and a nice man greeted us. We put our things in a room, a shared, spacious room with a flat screen tv. Our host goes over some of the rules and points out the bathroom, the towels, and other necessities. I’m pretty content, and Barbwire seems agreeable. It’s a cozy and comfortable place. I lay down and relax, paying my portion of the room. Then I ask her about the hikes, where we should go, and what time does she want to meet her friends. She was quiet, her lips sealed shut, like a guarded temple now closed because a rock fell over its entrance. I tried to be patient, for I knew something was wrong, but she wouldn’t say. Suddenly, she left to make a phone call, and I relaxed, settling in a turning on the television which usually eases any type of tension and provides an escapism.
“Sometimes the worse I feel, the more I escape into a world different from my own,” my younger self, a once reluctant companion who may or may not feel obligated, trapped, to continue this adventure, mumbles weakly, unconfidently. ” I submerge deeper and deeper, unwilling to come up and draw breath because its so much better living in fantasy than reality.”
“But that’s the thing- it’s just a fantasy. The real world is waiting, and it might be scary, but it might be rewarding to. You won’t reap the rewards if you stay stuck in a fantasy, as pleasurable as it might be,” I say, although I, too, am still prone to diving head first into cool, refreshing water, and am reluctant to come up. I prefer swimming among the dolphins and whales, and even the sharks and jellyfish that terrify me rationally and irrationally.
When Barbwire comes back, they tell me abruptly they have to go. She has this strange look on her face, and she blames it on anxiety, telling me she’ll message me tomorrow. I understand anxiety and its crippling effect, so I don’t force her to stay. Rather, I wish to help, but she doesn’t want it.
The next day comes. I wait, and I wait, my stomach grumbling. I am in the middle of nowhere with the closest thing a railroad track and perhaps one of the thousands of waffle houses scattered throughout the area. I have no idea if anyone would be able to drop off food. Also, am I expected to sit here in this comfortable box, isolated from the outside world, all day? All weekend? Eventually, I message her. No response. Finally I decide I need a car. She drove off despite agreeing to give me a ride because we would explore and wander together. Instead, I make my back to the airport and waste my time purchasing a car to rent.
The city was better than I expected. In fact, I joked it was greener and healthier than it had any right to be. As I drove around looking for food in the rented out car- in which, I started to think, since I end up driving around so much I should just live out of it (what better way to see the world, and possibly escape from a life that wasn’t meant to be as I believe I am meant to be alone and wander as a vagabond, lost and with no direction of where I want to go so long as I keep going)- I spotted the bridge and its intricating archway. I followed it over the river cutting the city in half, and I see some ugliness. The electrical plant spewing off much needed electricity. Trash littering the street, a sign of mankind’s horrible mistreatment of the planet it inhabits. Abandoned and neglected buildings graffitied, and yet here I find beauty again as I stare at the most beautiful symbol that reminds me that hope exists in a red state. There were several of these type of signs, with even a billboard dedicated to protecting trans youth. I breathed a sigh of relief, for I have always believed I was an alien stranded on a hostile planet filled of misunderstanding folks aiming nothing but their guns at a face that is different. That’s part of the reason I may be afraid to move. The last time I made a big move, it did not end well, and the scars I still carry because they cannot be so easily removed. There is this fear, small yet still planted, a seed that grows only when smothered in darkness, in which I’ll find myself trapped in an area, alone, with people who do not accept or understand. I’ve come to realize that great loneliness and misery comes when I’m not surrounded by the right people. But who are the right people? I search with a metal detector, scanning the ground until I’ve reached metal. If I don’t find it, I go away. After enough days of never finding anything, I might not come back.
I spend an hour or so driving, searching for a place to eat, ideally somewhere local, somewhere I haven’t heard of. There was supposed to be this cute little café tucked in a corner that I’m sure all the locals know about but to me would be a novelty, like discovering a meteorite for the first time even though hundreds before me have already found it. It still to me, as someone who never finds anything cool, a novelty, and its disheartening when its dismissed. But I am digressing a bit, driving further back into the fear that ebbs and flows like the tide. On this particular trip, I am not fearful. I am, for once, hopeful. I am encouraged. I grabbed onto that feeling like a drowning swimmer hangs onto a tossed life ring. For some reason- I believe the road was blocked off for an upcoming parade- I don’t make it to that cafe. I don’t have a little adventure and explore a part of the city to keep as a memento in a scrap book. Instead, I wind up- go figure- at a wafflehouse.
It wasn’t the greatest establishment; chaos was rampant, with people milling about as there was hardly a waitress in sight, and the tables were cluttered with untouched or half eaten food, spilled juice, and used napkins just sitting and waiting to rot. I found an available barstool without a care in the world because at this point my stomach was growling, and I would have dined in an actual dumpster or sewer( hell, rotten pizza with the ninja turtles would have been exquisite) in order to quell the thundering hunger.
I was sitting, waiting for my order, when I finally here from Barbwire. The message was short and to the point. “I’m just going to stay here, my anxiety is better, but I think its better if I stay where ever I am just to make sure.” I try to make a go of it, clearly not picking up the hint that only the shrewdest eye could pick up. ” Do you still want to meet for hiking later?” No response. ” So I came all this way for nothing.” “Sorry you came all this way for nothing.” It would be another week before I realized she blocked all forms of communication, essentially giving me a restraining order.
It was a smack in the face, this disguised insinuation that I was some kind of monster, a stalker completely in love with her, that just wouldn’t leave her alone. I fall back into a dark hole, the memories of previous accusations rising to the surface. There was another, someone I thought was a friend and at least was able to bluntly, delicately, tell me to go away and stop being a creepy loser, who did a similar act. In that instance, I was trying to thank her for something, to show my appreciation and gratitude, but she took it as something else, something I didn’t and still don’t really know because no one bothered to explain.
Because I am stuck with a condition that makes it impossible to read a blueprint I was never given.
I cross these words out. They must never know. No one must ever know because they won’t understand. They will wish I was dead, or believe I’m not human and must be fixed and cured of this disease. They will not accept what they see, which apparently is a creature with seven heads. No one must ever know, and the mask must stay on forever.
I am stuck, I repeated the phrase over and over as I finished eating. The poor woman next to me got to absorb my sadness, pitying me as I told her what happened. She told me that whoever it was, was the worst, and its too bad there’s a lot of garbage out their ruining perfectly good and healthy streets. Foolishly, we pick it up, believing its something we need when really it’s nothing more that what it is: a smelly piece of rotting tuna that really does not need to be kept, even to feed to a dog. What we need to do, what I should do, is pick it up and throw it away. Yet caught in a desperate net for so long, I wonder what if I throw away something that is good, that is more than the garbage it looks like. After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This uncertainty haunted me, and still does; the straggler hopped the train and hid beneath the stacks of crates piled in the last carriage.
I sit in the waffle house, staring down at my phone. The pieces of anger come together and form an army wanting so badly to tear down the barbwire fence and poke and prod, strike and lash, the open air blindly, not caring who I hit. But the army quickly disbands, replaced by resignation.
I tried to take a chance, to get out of my comfort zone because that’s what they say, right? But it’s utter nonsense. Sometimes its better to stretch the comfort zone only in ways that fit the person. For instance, perhaps it’s a good idea for someone who has lived all their life in their hometown, who is itching to get out of it because they are suffocating, to quite their job and move across the country or to a different country. It might seem scary, but to them its just the right amount of pushing outside their comfort zone. They might not want to say, I don’t know, be stranded in a dangerous foreign country on their own for two years or more. That is not an ideal breaking the comfort zone.
“Sometimes you have to write your own story the way you want it to be written, not the way its supposed to be. And sometimes while writing your story, you realize you have to put your own character first, and the rest will come or not come. You have to be comfortable with your own character because that the character that will ever matter.”
“That’s the character you live with for the rest of your life, isn’t it?” the woman with the beautiful name smiles. She stands after crouching for so long and playing with the loose dirt and pebbles, carving broken shapes and patterns that suddenly don’t look so broken. Her spindly legs hold her up, and she kicks at the dirt and pebbles, scattering them far and wide. “No one else really matters.”
“No. Whoever he was, doesn’t matter,” I say, then I walk up to her, my old age decelerating my speed, and place a reassuring hand on her shoulder. ” He doesn’t matter; he is a character that lasted two chapters, not the whole book, although his phantom might still be there, lurking in shadows and waiting when you are asleep to grab you. It will take some time, but eventually those shadows will disappear, swallowing him with it.”
Barbwire did not matter. If she wanted to think I was crazy, fine; she doesn’t matter, and I can pretty easily take myself out on a date. But where do I go? I search on my phone for places nearby I can explore, for it’s already midday and I don’t want to make any more worthless trips. So I choose a small mountain to explore, to release any trapped negative energy and propel it away off the cliff.
Climb, climb, climb away Little mouse Let's see how far you go "Can you reach my furthest branch?" Whispers the gnarled tree With the gnarled face carved Right in the middle Where the heart connects To an ugly soul Climb, climb. climb away Little mouse Let's see how far you go "Can you touch my puffy white head And bounce, bounce, bounce With others unlike you?" The smoky grey clouds snarl Contemptuously, mockingly Climb, climb, climb away Little mouse You won't make it All this way The Little mouse Climbs, climbs, climbs As they were always told to do To places out of reach Meant for owls and sparrows Not a little mouse Who just wants to be a Little mouse Climbing, climbing, climbing To where they are supposed to be Climb, climb, climb Little mouse So you can see the little Boat Floating out at see "Can you reach me, Little Mouse So I may take you to a Yellow house With a yellow garden Full of others just like you?" The boat croons softly, Magically, Wistfully The only friendly voice In a sea of bitter fruit Lacking the imagination of the Little mouse The Little Mouse Climbs, climbs, climbs To the tallest branch On the rottenest tree And touches puffy white head Of an ignorant cloud Seeing nothing but grey The Little Mouse Jumps, jumps, jumps Into the caressing hands Of the whimsical breeze Who brings the Little Mouse Down, down, down Into the rickety wooden boat Who carries them to to place They are supposed to be
The drive was short, the road not too busy. I find the Pinnacle Mountain State Park quickly, and park. I take a moment to look around, and I notice several different trails. Of course, most people take the shortest one, the easiest one that wraps around and provides excellent view of the Arkansas river, which in itself is devoted to a rich and significant history which I can’t even begin to describe because it is at least a novel’s worth of information. The man in the office explained a bit to me- as well as one of those information boards the stick outside, which really are quite nice to read just to understand the land and its story a little more- and I absorbed as much as I could before trying to find an escape. I wasn’t much in a people mood, and I just wanted a map so I could choose my own adventure.
It was a beautiful trek along railroad crossing and through valleys that really made me think of Arkansas differently. I never knew too much about it, other than it was a red state and perhaps not too welcoming to different birds with different feathers. I expected it it be flat and dry, with brown, dirty roads all over the place. But as I walked, there were some beautiful things, some nestled in quiet places while others screamed noisily. Eventually, my path split and I was faced with two choices: take the slower, more arduous yet ultimately rewarding path, or skirt around the edge, taking the flatter, safer, non- risk taking path. There was no question: I was heading for the wall, clambering like a spider monkey over boulders round and square, sharp and smooth, large and small.
I forgot everything in the moment, I forgot where I was, I forgot who I was supposed to be with, I forgot what I could have been doing back home. It was just me and the wall of boulders, me hopping from stone to stone, passing others also wanting to work up a sweat. Sweat I did, and there’s no better feeling than sweating because it means I worked hard, and I like to work hard. It means I accomplished something, even it was something little.
At the top, I rested, pulling out my journal as I took in the view. My head cleared, I wrote and I wrote, mostly dreams turned into fictitious stories- I don’t write my thoughts anymore, not since my privacy was viciously violated and I had to burn the notebook down in shame- or, to be completely frank, fan fiction based off of previously established stories. I get lost in my stories, my fantasies, my dreams, wishing they would come to life but don’t know how to make it happen. I keep losing myself because sometimes dreams are better than reality, and I’d rather taste the sweetness than the bitterness. I was bitter. I was bitter that I was stuck in Arkansas, and yes, I was moping a bit. Every one should be allowed to mope every once in a while because it gets it all out. It took me a while to realize this but feelings should be felt, and sometimes its necessary to turn on the shower and let the water flow for as long as possible, until there is no more water left.
I stopped moping when I heard a voice behind me. “Excuse me, this is embarrassing but may we borrow some water?” a woman smiled pleasantly enough, yet nonetheless I was suspicious. Why ask me when there were a few others sitting and looking around? Perhaps its easier to approach a lone traveler than a group, which struck a nerve: What if something bad happens to you when you’re alone? No one will ever know what happened to you?
“Why do you think I joined up with you two?” the beautiful woman with the beautiful name laughs as she interrupts thoughts I realize go nowhere except onto the wind where they are carried away so no one can hear or look at them.
“But how the hell are you supposed to travel when there is no one to travel with, or yet no one who likes to travel the way you do?”
I shrug. ” You take a gamble, then leave a trail behind you for people to follow. I fortunately told some people what had happened, and I was surprised by how a few were willing to help, saying they knew some friends I could stay with if need be. Fortunately, I was in a good neighborhood and I wasn’t planning to stay much longer, changing my flight to an earlier time so I could end my misery that rode on my shoulder like an squirrel.”
Indeed, I took a gamble, and in some ways it did work out. I visited a place I doubt I’ll ever go to again except in strange circumstances. I went on adventures I probably would not have gone on, and who knows what else could have happened if I stayed with those nice friends of a friend. I gave the woman and her child some of my water, insisting they take as much as they need, then I hiked back, retracing my steps and taking the loop back to my car just in time for sunset.
As I went back to shower, I met a new roommate occupying the room next to me. He seemed like a nice guy, and we chatted a bit. He was a roadie, traveling across the country. I wish I could remember more, but I know I was a bit distracted, eager to get back to a TV show that would take me out of his world. But I remember enjoying talking to him, and I realized that sometimes there are unexpected presents left behind the Charlie Brown Christmas tree that wasn’t really a Charlie Brown Christmas tree if you saw what it had to offer( the littlest offers can mean the most if the place is sincere; a dried rose means more than a dozen freshly bought ones if you know the person spent all day picking the perfect flower, walked half a dozen miles back in the scorching heat, and hand delivered it in person).
I didn’t do anything remarkable that night. I was indifferent, unable to fully explore Little Rock because I didn’t care to be there anymore. So I found a random steak house, wanting to treat myself a little bit but also not caring where I went so long as I satiated my hunger. The woman greeted me, and asked me too many questions, one of which was why I was dining alone. Apparently, it’s illegal to dine alone in society. I should have said “Dating myself is so much better than dating anyone else,” but instead I told her the truth, well most of it: I didn’t want to get into the full story, so I pretended to be local, saying a friend stood me up. Honestly, it felt so empowering for a random stranger to shout ” You are too good for them anyway!” It was a boost of confidence, and I found myself uttering words I do not often say: ” Damn right, I am!”
The next day was going to be my last, and I was determined to make the most of it, savoring what debris I could find from the wreckage. It really was a blow, but it wasn’t as hard as it would have been ten or so years prior.
“Sometimes people make it seem like its your fault, but really its they that have the issue. And there’s nothing you can do about it except let them go. The fish isn’t worth keeping.”
“How do you make that separation?” the beautiful woman with the beautiful name asks. My younger self is playing, their mind halfway in one world and this world. They listen, but they need to move; they need to hop on one foot, zigzag between the cracked lines on the sidewalk, and balance to keep their equilibrium.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to sever yourself from a person you thought you liked, maybe even loved, because you see one thing you want to see, not what is actually there. And its so easy to deny what is actually there. I should have seen the signs that something wasn’t quite right with Barbwire, but how can you see the signs when you’re covered in a blindfold? You have to be willing to forgive yourself for taking the blindfold off to late. You have to tell yourself over and over ‘It wasn’t me this time, it was them’ until you start to believe it. The irony is that this girl I once knew was kind of right: sometimes you have to keep smiling until you believe the smile and its no longer fake.”
For my last hike, I drove an hour north, or at least what I believed to be north- its hard to tell sometimes, although the sun is a good indicator. I used to be able to accurately predict the time using the sun. It rises in the east so depending on the time of year and the frequency I woke during that hour, I could say it was six thirty and be off approximately five to twenty minutes. Because I am a night owl, I could tell how late it was even when it was pitch black outside. But now I am clueless, relying on digital clocks and maps to guide my way up to another state park- I am now determined to create a sort of bucket list and hit up as many state parks as possible sometime during my life, which I think could be good to have as a sort of motivator to get out and see something other than the backside of your couch.
Jean Petit was the name. At the time I went, there was a wedding about to take place, and I could see why. A large body of water spread itself out wide, surrounded by a thin shoreline crowded with unused kayaks and tall, green trees of various sorts. It was beautiful, the perfect place to immense myself in. There were multiple trails, and of course I take the one towards the waterfalls. Before I leave, however, I treat myself to the gift shop because no matter where I go, and no matter the circumstance, I like to take a token of some sort, something to remember the trip whether it was good or bad. In this case, I took a fanny pack.
“Are you serious?” my younger self laughs, and I have the urge to punch myself.
” Hey, fanny packs are more useful then you think. You can keep everything right on you, and whip it out so quickly, so easily. Just like cargo pants. They have huge pockets where you can store everything: a diamond, the pope, a castle. Again, useful!” I cry indignantly.
“Whatever you say.” Even the woman snickers. I roll my eyes.
Anyway, I trudged downhill, behind a few folks who were taking there good old time. We were burning daylight, and I wanted to explore what I could. At one point along the trail, it broke off, and I turned to my left to see an ascending path, a sort of secret staircase that probably wasn’t meant to be in use, but there was no clear signage that it wasn’t supposed to be taken. So of course, I take it, if only to have some peace and quiet to myself, to look around from a different point of view.
I climbed, climbed, climbed, making my way to the top through stones and bushes, finding a flat landing to sit and question the decisions that lead me here. I couldn’t help it; it nagged at me the way a mother tends to nag at their child. What did I do that was so wrong? It needed to come out, it needed to be sprung from a box it was trapped against, bouncing furiously off the walls, trying to break through the lid. Now the lid was broken. It was a question I had asked before, when she became a ghost and left me behind: what did I do that was so wrong?
Did I appear to be clingy? Did I appear to be obsessive? What was wrong with me? How truly broken am I? This anxiety stays with me because I don’t know how to interact among people. I don’t know all the rules, and people get mad at me for breaking rules I didn’t know I had broken.
Fortunately, once the questions are released, the disappear, and I can look at the trees, the rocks, the gapping hole between me and the other side of the gorge. One wrong move and I could fall, so I quickly assumed I probably was not supposed to be up here. I backtracked down, my boots keeping me upright, until I was back where I should have been all along. But it’s more fun getting sidetracked and going places where most others won’t go.
There it was. A huge crater-like hole with a long waterfall pouring into the basin below. With the daylight still burning brightly, I sat for a good while, alone but for once not lonely. Because nature sometimes is better than any companion, especially the wrong companion, and it lets me clear my head, dispel whatever troubling thoughts I have, all without saying a single word. The right kind of silence can provide the best kind of comfort. Now, no one was supposed to go into the water, but that didn’t mean people weren’t daring, touching the ledge and getting their feet wet underneath the waterfall. I’ll admit, I crawled my way over and stuck my head beneath the curtain, letting my short hair get dampened, then wet. It felt nice, cool, and I smiled as the droplets washed over every once of ache in my heart.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that smile faltered as a looked around and saw that most people were here together, either in a group or with one companion. It made me sad, I realized, how often I travel more by myself than with others. And its fine, I like it, and being alone has its perks, but there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.”
“Usually being alone is a choice, while being lonely necessarily isn’t,” my younger self says. “Everyday I’m surrounded by classmates in the hallways, but I might as well be swimming in the deepest part of the sea, looking up at the fishes and turtles swimming near the surface, and I am unable to get to them.”
“It doesn’t help that society makes being alone seem like the most terrible thing in the world,” the woman with the beautiful name added. ” And to be fair, its only terrible when it comes to true crime documentaries. Could you imagine being killed and no one ever knowing because you had no one who cared enough to know?”
“That’s a chilling thought,” I shiver while my younger self stays mute.
I stayed by that waterfall until it emptied out, and I was one of the few people left standing around the rocks, my hiking boots gripping the stone tightly. It’s funny how often I saw people walking along the trail in poor foot wear- not to be judgmental, but I worry about those ankles cracking over bumpy terrain. Of course, hiking boots were not cheap unless they were bought used, on sale, or received through a friend. Or perhaps there is a secret I don’t know about? There is only so much I have learned, and I would have thought by now I would have learned plenty, but there are still gaps that leave me behind, making me wonder how much of a new born duckling I am- waddling in the wrong direction while the head duck rolls their eyes and drift further and further away.
The sun started to lower, so I took one last shower beneath the falls and climbed my way back, still thinking how lucky those people are to have someone to travel with, to share in adventures and stories, and to experience different things together. I thought I found someone I could possibly do that with, but I realize I was too different, too strange, for her, for anyone really. What do I have in common with people? I find I have more things in common with a dog than a human sometimes, and if I think I have something in common with a human, its either a delusion or when our personalities come together, not even that one thing can save us. Still, I hum merrily back through the trail, happy I’m exploring but also ready to go home, whatever home means.
Across the valley the little boy limps His leg broken while searching for imps Those mischievous creatures who said they would play Instead they took him away for a day And he though it was great For here there was nothing but hate For the little boy who liked to skate Instead of swimming in lakes And making drapes Instead of designing shapes For bikes And kites And all the things a boy Was supposed to like The imps found him broken and beaten His leg all twisted as he fell Down a hill whose slope had deepened They carry him away, straight into a well Their home for so long, no one could tell They sing and the dance The smallest one could even prance And the pain in his heart Falls apart As he smiles and laughs at the imps Floating like little golden blimps Promising they would play But instead they leave him alone for the day Sitting in the night Stealing all the light And letting their voices sing A terrible ring Of truths that he is not A real boy Across the valley the older boy limps His leg still broken after being with imps Those mischievous creatures who said they would play Instead they trapped him inside for a day Laughing, taunting, teasing It was none too pleasing To hear them sing with so much hate How he should not love to skate And make such ugly drapes Instead of shapes For kites And bikes And all the things boys Were supposed to like What kind of a boy was he? He stood tall and eventually Said " I am who I am supposed to be" And he made his way out of the well Made to be his personal hell By those who said they just wanted to play When all they give was a miserable day That went on, and on, and on too long Where soon he knew he didn't belong Across the valley the man no longer limps From breaking his leg after searching for imps Those mischievous creatures who could never play Choosing instead to waste his beautiful days Filling his heart with a self hate That took too long to deflate He walks and walks and walks away From the place that was never his to stay He carries his drapes over his back And keeps his skates inside his pack Waiting to find a place where no one can say He is not a real boy Because he is real More real than any of Them.
I quickly changed in the back seat of my rental car in order to use the restaurant overlooking the trails. Once inside, I got myself a seat by the window, and as the sun set, I was able to watch magic unfold as the gold turned to orange turned to pink and then red, coloring the forest and the sky a magnificent shade. I swear nature is more beautiful than people, although like people it does have an ugly side, a side caused by an inner turmoil. I realized some people have their own inner turmoil that causes them to be ugly, to do ugly things, and that it is Barbwire who is the problem, not me. I don’t need to appease her, I don’t need to appease anyone who doesn’t deserve it. I need to deprogram myself, let my brain fully heal from the scars that keep reopening, that keep warping my logic and sense of self, that keep gaslighting me.
“I also needed to have faith, just like you two need to have faith,” I say as I start walking towards a row of scooters waiting for someone to love them. ” Faith that I am not a bad person because, as they say, bad people do not care about getting better, nor do they worry how they might affect others. You two also need to find the faith that I found: that one day there will be successful relationships, and that eventually some people will stop coming and going through an open door. Some people will see the open door, and choose to sit next to you on the couch, read a book, or watch something awesome or ridiculous or something ridiculously awesome on the television. And it will be the warmest, sweetest, most thrilling feeling ever, matching that of a sunset over a park, or the rushing waterfalls over a cliff, or a view of a magnificent river filled with its own history of turbulent and wholesome relationships.”
This had been a trip where many things went wrong, including losing my debit card at the restaurant which was just the icing on an already terrible cake( this is why its essential to have a back up plan and potentially one or two other cards or some cash to hold one over until they can right the oopsie) but I also feel like it could have gone so much worse. Like somehow I could have gotten involved in a drug cartel, the place I’d stayed at could have been hit my a storm, the rental car could have exploded, I accidentally somehow robbed a bank or else I let someone accidentally on purpose rob me, and I could have been stranded in the middle of an island without any cell service to signal for help. So all things considered from a numerous list of disasters, this wasn’t so disastrous.
“Like everything else I’ve told you about, it was just another trip to learn something from,” I go to one of the scooters and wrap my fingers around the handles.
“You learned never to trust people ever again?” the woman with the beautiful name says wryly.
“No, I learned that several times already, and although I’m a bit more cynical, I never seem to stop doing the same thing anyway.” I pull out the scooter, then realize there is a bar code. “Anybody have a scanner to pay for these?”
“Uh… this is your world, shouldn’t you?”
“Remember, I’m kind of on the most wanted list after out little escapade.”
“And now you want to reignite it by stealing these?” My younger self is always so tepid. Our other companion is grinning brilliantly.
“I’d like to think of it as a temporary commandeering that pays for our adventure.”
” And where exactly may that be?”
“Where ever our two feet and empty pockets take us, whether is to the sunnier parts of the world, or the shadier parts, the parts not given a chance so they’re treated like a smudge, a hideous stain the rich and the dictators keep hidden until its convenient for tourism. But let’s try to avoid popular tourism. Instead, lets give a self tour of the world instead!”
Down the rabbit hole we go, Alice, the white rabbit, and of course, the Mad Hatter.