I was speeding down I-10 East in a 2014 Ford Fusion as black as the night around me and blasting Duran Duran. I felt at peace, in my element; a big fish in a small pond. The woman working at Enterprise tried to make small talk with me and I ended up inadvertently elevating it to medium talk; she asked if I was traveling for work and I told her no. She was taken aback by my obvious youth in contrast to the itinerary I have lined up for myself, and we parted ways with me feeling a boost of sorts in the wake of returning back to where days are slow and torturously hot. Welcome back, Sarah. People are still shocked by your rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

I arrived in Hattiesburg around 1am, stopping first at Wal-Mart on the off chance that there were avocados inside that we worth a salt. Some guys in ribbed tank tops and snapbacks with nothing better to do were loitering in the parking lot and all turned to look at me as I walked past them with the strut of a woman who, in a Lacoste dress and carrying Kate Spade handbag full of receipts in other languages, just wanted some guacamole and wasn’t having any of their dim-witted misogyny. As I passed them, I could feel their eyes on me and inside I was hissing, willing them to say something to me (because a woman who carries herself well is an unfortunate rarity in this college town replete with females who mainline Nike tempo shorts, oversized sorority t-shirts and those wretched rubber sandals with Velcro straps from the 90s that are making an unfortunate comeback among the youths of today). And yet, they said nothing, for which I was intrinsically grateful. It wasn’t lost on me, though, that I was notably appreciative at not being objectified in a public parking lot; at automatically believing that this was a successful endeavor out into the world solely because unlike most times that I go out in public while also giving half a consideration as to the way I present myself and am subsequently turned from a person into something purely aesthetic, THIS TIME, it wasn’t the case. I walked into Walmart scowling.

Avocado. Peanut butter. Cilantro. Hummus. Tortilla chips. I took those things in first, unlocking the door to my dad’s place (and I guess mine, too) and feeling a sweet and cool reprieve from the insidious mugginess that clutched me outside. I took a moment to survey the apartment, to feel its forged familiarity, to breathe in the not-quite-lived-in smell of its still-new walls. And then, with a deep breath, I ventured back outside, and wrangled my combined 70lbs of luggage out of the trunk and up the flight of unfeeling metal stairs still wearing my Lacoste tunic dress and j.crew bow flats. It was only after the hurdle of this endeavor which, in the light of day and the restful regeneration of a good night’s sleep might have made more sense to someone else, that I could relax. The apartment seemed different after this chore was complete; less of a hotel room and more of a home. After everything, all the feelings and events and panic and smiles, I was back at the beginning of the cycle of introversion and grateful for my own place, all to myself while my dad was on a business trip in Florida. I made guacamole at 3AM and watched old episodes of How I Met Your Mother, awash in everything that is wrong with the average American lifestyle and literally not caring at all.

The next day, I rolled into Stuckey’s around 11:15 to fill up the rental before returning it just down the street and grabbing a cab back to my apartment. I hadn’t showered yet and my jeans still smelled like Germany, but that didn’t stop some guy in dirty boots and a reflective vest over a dirty white t-shirt from glaring at me lecherously. Welcome back to Miss’shitty. The cab driver met me at Enterprise and when he asked me what I did for a living, making small talk to try to sugarcoat the fact that he was taking the long way home, I told him I was a writer. His demeanor changed from a lackluster day on the job to acutely interested, eyes alight with intrigue. He asked me to take a look at a homemade booklet he pulled from the pocket behind his seat and asked if I could write and publish his story. Leafing through, I could ascertain that he had some difficulty in his immigration from Ghana and overcome his obstacles to achieve that fleeting, beautiful American Dream. I took his business card and told him I would see what I can do. He offered me a Butterfinger bar. I declined.

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We Meet Again, County Road 13.

A little while later, I made the interstate journey to see my family in the fairytale of Fairhope. It had been two months since I saw my sweet nephew last, but by the looks of his growth spurt during that time, it felt more like a year.

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There was wine, there was bruschetta, there were talks after baby went to bed. You know, the sort of situation that I live to have. Everyone else can have their nightclubs and bars; I’ll take a meal at home with loved ones and a bottle of wine (laughs therein included) any day of the week.

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I stayed at my grandmother’s house until a little after 22:00, when I finally departed, the burden of a two-hour drive back to Hattiesburg weighing heavy on my consciousness. The prospect of an early-morning jaunt down to Biloxi to tie up a few loose ends with Uncle Sam didn’t sound too appealing either, but it had to be done. And so it was that for the second consecutive night, I drifted to dreamland at an hour more suitable for the West Coast from which I’d just returned, although this time, my sleep was more of a siesta as three hours later, I was up again and getting a black coffee at Stuckey’s, racing the sun down to the Mississippi coast.

The drive to Keesler AFB took a little over an hour, and when I emerged from my car, I felt sick and grimy, as if I needed to wash my hands. Being on a military installation again made me feel like I was taking a step backwards in life; I could feel the rigors of yesterday dragging me back into their squalid depths. And yet, as I approached the building where I was expected to report, the airmen on base were making their way to work with faces twisted in occupational malaise and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction…a certain victory in that I don’t have to do any of this anymore. I may have been there and it may have been required, but it was going to be the last thing. The very last time the government could take hold of me.

the freewheelin' Sarah Pierce

the freewheelin’ Sarah Pierce

I waited in a lobby for an hour and went to a meeting that lasted about 20 minutes. Then, there was the drive back. Then, there was sleep. Then, there was guacamole. Then, there was the unmatched stress and excitement of needing to tie up all my loose ends: organize my newly-arrived household goods shipment, get rid of my car, and pack my bags. I was on the cusp of leaving for the better part of a year.

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Life as I know it has been boxed up and stored here.

After all the boxes were taken to the storage unit, after the clothes were washed and rolled and stowed in my suitcase, after I bequeathed the keys to good hands, I was at the Hilton Garden Inn across the street from Gulfport International Airport having a glass of pinot grigio and wondering, exactly, how all the things in my life could have happened in such a perfect succession to lead me to this point of prosperity. I have my low points of vicious emotional tumult, of nearly crippling existentialism, but really and truly…it’s such a gift to not only to live, but to feel alive. So many are people are walking corpses.

I tucked myself into bed too late and had another nap of a night’s sleep, but with the foresight that in the morning, I would surely spring up with the adrenaline of wanderlust.

bye, bye miss american pie.

bye, bye miss american pie.

Cool Blue Reason

The sunlight flowing through the blinds sang a song of late morning as I came to consciousness and the disheartening realization that I had, once again, slept until an unspeakable hour. My phone read 11:10 as I groaned, rolling over, knowing that the midday heat would suffocate me if I tried to run under the Croatian sun. “Well,” I conceded aloud and to no one but myself, “I guess it’s time to hit the beach.”

Realizing in the mirror that I didn’t look as puffy and elephant-like as I felt, I put on my bikini and began to pack my beach bag when I heard a knock at the door. Trepidation jilted its way up and down my spine; no one knocks on doors anymore. Those days are over–replaced by texting beforehand–and furthermore, this wasn’t my door. Who would visit me here? My fear of the unknown that lay directly on the other side of the wooden plank hinged five feet away from me was radiating around me. Slowly, with a caution that felt almost paralyzing, I unlocked and opened the door.

It was my airbnb host, an elderly woman who spoke next to no English. She was holding tomatoes and smiling. I greeted her graciously, hoping that my smile and welcoming demeanor would override the fact that we do not speak the same language. Manners, though, are the universal language of all people. I took the tomatoes and she made a square with her hands. I kept smiling, unsure of what to do. Did she want money? I didn’t want to buy tomatoes. And moreover, all I had in cash was a 100-kuna note. These tomatoes were lush and delicious, but not worth 100 kunas.

After some more pantomiming and awkward chuckling (respectively), I got the message that she wanted my passport. Reluctantly, I handed it over and followed her up the stairs to the main house where she lived. She signaled to me to stop, that I didn’t need to come inside. I asked her, slowly and with overblown gesticulations, why she needed my passport. All she said was, “police,” and disappeared inside.

The utter terror of that moment can’t possibly be pinned down with a string of words. I grabbed my phone, waiting at the base of her stairs on the patio, and googled “my airbnb host took my passport.” Nothing was useful, as all the results were pertaining to airbnb’s new ID verification system. I began, once again, to feel that drop in my stomach, that stab to my soul that things had gone terribly awry and that, despite all my hurdles thus far, I would end up in some kind of danger. What had I done wrong? Why did the police need my passport information? Was there some law that I broke without knowing it? Was I going to be tossed into some Croatian jail cell?

Having seen too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and having a mind that never sleeps, my thoughts were racing, dreaming up all sorts of scenarios, all of the “worst-case” variety. It felt like half an hour that she was up there with the one thing that you’re never supposed to lose when you travel, the critical piece of documentation required for international mobility. What if it’s nothing? What if it’s just something required by law? Or, alternately, what if it’s everything? What if my life is about to take a sure nosedive into turmoil? In the moment, it was difficult to be rational, but I sat there waiting, keeping my head on straight. If the police really were after me for some reason, they would be here. An elderly woman wouldn’t casually knock on the door and offer me tomatoes if I were thought to be some country-skipping fugitive.

And, after time slowed to a crawl in the midst of waiting, I saw her come out of the door at the top of the stairs, passport in hand. I breathed a sigh of ultimate relief as she handed it back to me. I asked slowly, cautiously, “it is okay?” and raised a tentative thumbs-up as my voice went falsetto at the end of the question. She didn’t understand, so I tried my luck another way. “È bene?” my thumb still raised to the sky, still wondering what was going on.

She smiled and returned the thumbs up, then began speaking Croatian. I smiled the smile of a person wanting to be polite, a person not wanting to interrupt, a person who didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. She motioned to the street and said “mercato,” and I began to nod enthusiastically, hoping she could speak Italian, hoping that we could have a shared connection. And then, she looked to the sky, wondering how to translate and finally said, “pickle.” I smiled again as she motioned toward me, toward the street, and then said, “patate, pasta salad, mercato. Zwei minuti.” Her cocktail of languages made me wonder how old she was, how many years and decades of stories were locked up in her brain. “Grazie mille,” I said with a wave and took my passport back inside the apartment, hiding it in a compartment in my suitcase. I sent a quick airbnb message to Boris, the English speaker who handles the account associated with my apartment explaining what happened and asking for a little more clarification.

I set out along the affluent marina of the Splitska Riva, where all the wealthy docked their yachts and went for cocktails on the silvery-blue sea. I knew that there were beaches along the side of Marjan Hill, the enormous green divider between the city and the sea, but I didn’t quite know where. I simply walked westward, following the water line. I could have gone to Bačvice beach, but after seeing it in the periwinkle early-morning light after clubbing there, it didn’t look all that special to me. And so onward I walked until finally, I saw tan bodies splayed all over cliffs above the water. I saw people jumping, I saw people lounging in the sun, I saw people squirreled away in shaded corners of stone reading books. I kept walking, wanting not to settle, feeling like there was more to see. I was right.

I think I'll stay.

I think I’ll stay.

Finally, I stopped along a secluded rocky cove where the water was teal and the sun was shining. I set up shop with a beach towel I had purchased on the way over for 50 kunas and fashioned my lifeproof case onto my phone. I sat on the rocks for a little while, surveying the sea below me. It was shallow and rocky for the first few meters, then an endless exhibition of blue. Feeling the heat of the sun on me, crackling my skin, I finally thought “just do it” and made my way into the Adriatic.

The rocks in the shallow water were covered in a fungus of some sort, they were slippery with what felt–disgustingly–like wet moss. My skin crawled as I scrambled off the rocks and into deeper waters, swimming until I could no longer touch the bottom. I peeked under the water to see that the drop-off from the rocks was a steep one; that all of a sudden, I was swimming in a 50-foot-or-so sea. To see straight down to the bottom gave me a sort of existential scare; it reminded me that I was a guest in this vibrant habitat, that this world where I was treading water wasn’t my own.

just floating in the open water. no big deal.

just floating in the open water. no big deal.

I took a picture with my lifeproof case and realized, to my horror, that the lens was foggy. I saw the trickling of water beneath the screen and immediately swam back to the jagged cliffs, back to the slimy rocks that served as my only ladder out of the Adriatic Sea. In my haste to get my phone to air as soon as possible, a serrated bit of stone jutting out cut my thigh and I began to bleed, but it didn’t matter. I needed to get my case off and turn off my phone immediately.

Miraculously, everything was fine. My phone is still in perfect condition despite the leak in my case. I didn’t question the good fortune and continued to relax along the coast, sipping wine and listening to Coldplay.

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we live in a beautiful world.

The cut on my leg eventually became just a memory corresponding with the dramatic red slash on my skin that closed itself with the passage of time. Soon enough, my entire leg was becoming pink and sun-soaked, and I decided that it was probably a good idea to feed the nagging monster of paranoia in my brain, the sinking, stabbing feeling that something could be wrong at my apartment given the occurrence of the previous few hours.

I walked back along the marina and my phone buzzed in my hand unexpectedly as I passed a waterfront café where I had stopped in for a quick drink earlier in my time in Split. My phone automatically connected to the wifi and Boris had responded that he was sorry for the misunderstanding, that by law in Croatia, hotels and vacation rentals must take down the passport number of guests for tax purposes. Again, I rode the roller coaster of worry and subsequent relief as I realized that—standing off to the side of this cafe and borrowing their wifi signal—I didn’t have to make the trek back home. Back to the beach it was.

blue are the life-giving waters, they quietly understand.

I didn’t go all the way along the shoreline to the spot that I found before, just to the cliffs where young people were draped every which way, tanning and talking and smoking and drinking. Sun-splashed bodies dripping with seawater stood on cliffs and laughed, yelled at each other in indiscernible words from different dialects before leaping into the sea without a care in the world. I set my things down on a piece of flat rock and took off for the side of the cliff where I stood, gazing down at the expanse of blue stretched out before me, dancing in the sunlight, calling to me. And then, with no real warning, my legs developed their own mind, thinking a thought that propelled me upward and forward, down in a thirty-foot free fall toward a mighty splash of seawater. And in those few seconds of falling, I felt that familiar drop; that gravitational pull of uncertainty when all your insides feel fluid and cold and I became, suddenly, one with the water into which I crashed. And then, of course, there was the release that is always guaranteed to occur after a tension—any tension, be it a leap into the Adriatic Sea or a friendship-ending fight or any other example from the myriad of life’s rigors—and I flung myself around under the water in a maze of bubbles, springing around like a wayward rubber band flicked into the distance. I came up for air, salty and clear at the same time, and I realized that those few seconds when I was airborne were the most carefree seconds I’d felt in years, possibly ever.

they love to tell you "stay inside the lines," but something's better on the other side...

they love to tell you “stay inside the lines,” but something’s better on the other side…

And I did it again. And again. And again.

I kept jumping, doing cannonballs into the ocean until it all blended together: the sun, the sea, the sugary-sweet scintillation of summer. After jumping to my heart’s content, I retreated finally to my towel and the radiance of the afternoon sun, exhausted from leaving so much of my soul in the sea. I used to think that while money couldn’t buy happiness, it could buy security, which was better than happiness. Lying on my towel in the sun after hours of excitement that didn’t cost me a single kuna, I saw just how wrong I was. I remembered the child in the Frankfurt airport that brightened my day on the way out of Germany by bouncing a balloon in the air, never letting it touch the ground. I remembered the kindness of someone who sent me an instagram direct message offering to help me out with accommodations should I ever need them (you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart); a message that renewed my faith in the kindness of strangers during a time when I felt like people as a whole were inherently evil. These are the things money can’t buy. These are the things that can’t be put on an AmEx, or procured from Amazon Prime in two business days. These are the things you need to go out and get for yourself, to uncover from the earth and claim as your own experiences.

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blue are the life-giving waters, they quietly understand.

Traveling alone is 10% exploration of the world on the outside and 90% of the caverns and mountains and oceans within. You self-reflect. You think. You find the real you. You may think you know yourself, and you may think you know how you see the world, but chances are that if you go somewhere new all by yourself, spend a few days not talking to soul but only observing the strange and beautiful surroundings in which you’ve placed yourself, you’ll find a different person standing in your skin on the way back. You can’t be the same after you’ve spent time totally alone, handling things all by yourself, making your own bonfire of entertainment. And it’s a sad fact that a lot of people will never attempt this feat, this leap of loneliness. Perhaps loneliness, though, isn’t the right word…because while you’re alone, as long as you’re alive and breathing with brain cells firing, you’ll never really be lonely.


I finally left the cliffs when the sun began to turn orange with fatigue and walking back to the little apartment in the Old Town, the city center of Split was doused in fiery hues with a backdrop of purple against the mountains. I could only shake my head and fall even more in love with the world around me, wondering what more sunsets in strange places awaited me in the years to come.

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Having not eaten all day, I stopped in a little bakery on the way home and, in broken Croatian and mostly a silly pantomime routine, bought a fresh baguette, still warm from the oven in my hand. It was a steal at five kunas juxtaposed next to the fifty kunas I’d paid for pasta and tomato sauce the day before. Going home, I cut up the tomatoes I had awkwardly accepted from my airbnb host and, with olive oil and a little salt, recreated the meal from two days before for a fraction of the price. I purchased some Croatian red from a market earlier for only 13 kunas, conceding to the notion that it would probably kill me, leading to it being so cheap. And yet, it blended perfectly with the meal set before me. This was a scene played out so many times in so many locations across the globe: the go-to vegan meal abroad. I did a little research and then, finding my answer and feeling satisfied with the result, filled a glass with water from the tap to add to the spread.

After dinner at the small kitchen table of my rented apartment, I fell into a carb-laden sleep from which I fully anticipated to wake weighing a full fifty pounds heavier, and didn’t exactly care because of all the fluffy feelings of euphoria in the wake of all the white starches I consumed overrode any worries of weight gain. The United States is a place for running, a place for vegetables and moving around and keeping a routine. Europe is a place for wine, a place for carbs, a place to forget. And with that, I floated away in the flirtation of fatigue.

Zero Six Two Six and the Ensuing Twenty-Four Hours

“You don’t need to come in tomorrow,” my boss said to me, off the cuff, on Thursday around 10:00.

I looked up from my malaise of seat-warming for the federal government in disbelief. “Really?” I asked, already kicking myself for being so gullible and waiting for a swift blow to my ego that only a just kidding! can bring.

“Yeah, you’ve got to check out with the Chain of Command during your leave time, and that counts as work. Take tomorrow.”

“Roger that,” I squeaked, attempting yet failing to contain my utter joy.

Suddenly, that was that. It was my last day in uniform, the day about which I used to fantasize when I was in the most pain, languishing in a hospital bed, even just walking down the street, freshly disillusioned with the world around me and the way that society (especially those my age) has morphed into this vapid, creaky-voiced, despicable race of people.

I was a few hours away from the freedom to do what I want, when I want, where I want. I was a mere stone’s throw from having my life back.

(I think it’s important to note here that “what I want to do” really just involves copious travel. I’m still active duty and on leave until 23JUL2014, but I’m not the sort of person to go out and do drugs–the usual celebratory medium of choice–because quite frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn about getting high. I just want to paint my nails and see new places without anyone having an issue. That’s my kind of high.)

I sat there as the clock ticked on my last working day racking the mental Rolodex for how to make the day special. It just felt ordinary, splashed with only the most subtle, muted excitement. That’s how it always goes: the days that are really supposed to mean something seem to fall into the blend of the blasé whereas sometimes, an incredible day can spring us from sleep and we’re catapulted suddenly into the best day ever. How was I supposed to plan for this? Last Sunday, I was lamenting to a friend on Cape Cod that I had literally no idea how long I would have to remain here. Fast forward to Thursday, and I’m being told that I never have to come back. It was such a switch that I almost felt dizzy. Life is strange.

I was taking a bag of the contents of my locker down to my car; the bag tossed over my left shoulder and a spring in my step reminiscent of those old cartoons of wayward children running away with only a red polka-dotted sheet tied around a stick containing their belongings. I was already aware of my happiness-gushing gait, but I had a hard time walking in the regular, rigid demeanor that the military demands…and an even harder time finding the urge to care.

I was passing by a fence and I was overwhelmed with the urge to just lightly skim my hands along the bars; a childlike nod to a simpler time when military bearing wasn’t a constant determinator in my behavior. Nope, can’t do that, I thought to myself. Just move right along. But then it hit me: why can’t I? Who’s going to care? What will the Coast Guard do…kick me out?

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And so it was that I brought my hand up and touched the stark metal, warm and dirty from the outside air. And then, I glided my hand along the succession of bars, each one flitting against my fingers and causing my mouth to curve upwards into the slightest smile of pure, free satisfaction. With each bar that I touched, the reality of my life changing became more true, less of a pipe dream that I didn’t allow myself to believe. I was taking my things to my car. That very day, in the time span of a few short hours, I would drive off the base and leave my military obligations behind forever. I felt ethereal in that moment; as if I could simply blow away with the wind. And really, that’s not too far off from my vagabond plans (or lack thereof) as it is.

The next day, I found myself alone at Mayflower Beach on Cape Cod. I wasn’t alone in the sense that there was no one else there–quite the contrary. The beach was flocked with wayward bodies all languishing under the cloudless cyan sky, all searching for that elusive bit of time under the sun that transforms their marshmallow skin into a s’mores quality color. I was alone, though, in the sweetest sense, the sense that I didn’t know anyone: surrounded by a sea of strangers next to a sea of saltwater. I laid in the rays with my vintage edition of The Sun Also Rises, re-reading the words that have imprinted themselves along the waterlines of my brain for years but whose sharp outlines always seem to fade away after enough time has passed, like footsteps in the sand washed away by the waves and waters of life’s distractions.

IMG_0434 Processed with VSCOcam with k2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with k2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with k3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with k2 preset When the sun got too bright and the rays too warm, I sat here on the shoreline–the very edge of America–and let the water flow through me as the waves glittered in front of my eyes. I strapped my phone into the waistband of my bikini and sat in the surf (Thanks, Lifeproof!) facing the last few do-si-dos of daylight. The tide was low, which morphed the beach into this gargantuan expanse of empty, wet sand (a stoic other universe from the lighthearted, cramped white sands near the dunes) and when the words clicked together in my brain, I instantly heard the serenade of Anthony Kiedis in my head: My sunny side has up and died, I’m betting that when we collide the universe will shift into a low/The travesties that we have seen are treating me like benzedrine, automatic laughter from a pro. 

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I was washed over with melancholy at that point; bathed completely in the beauty around me but alone, needing to rely on only my power of conveyance to get the point across at just how spectacular the world was at that moment. The sun, the sand, the sea, the sensational stringing together of it all…it was heartbreakingly perfect. I sat there in the quiet, subtle waves for a long time; long enough to realize that the waves had drifted backward, the ocean had retreated into itself and I was left on the new de facto sandbar, so lost in thought about the simple beauty of nature recoiling into itself in our hectic calamity of a lifestyle that the irony of it all had become lost on me. I thought not only about nature’s sweet kisses to the soul but of the times in my life that I felt nothing satisfactory was ever possible again, the times when I was on autopilot because I had no choice but to be, the times when I was simply existing and not living. I thought about the places I had been and the things I had seen up until those moments, the unfiltered present: I saw the good times flash behind my eyes like bandits, the mediocre moments moseying around, taking up space, and I saw all the horrible memories in full force, parading through my brain. I saw some of the lands I had traveled and how although I had a traveling companion for most of them, he wasn’t really there. He was too sucked into his phone, or work, or his own desires to get home and be the person that he couldn’t be around me.

I thought about all of this as the sunlight danced on the waves in front of me, illuminating the magnificent shoreline and I simply said (aloud, but in a tone that was masked by the crashing of waves and the joyous shrieks of children on the sandbar),


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The rock candy’s melted, only diamonds now remain


Aaron and Maria

There’s never any hesitation when someone asks me about the worst day of my life, but it takes some real pondering when I’m assaulted with the question of the best day of my life. There are always the quintessential answers, the go-tos: My wedding day! Graduating boot camp! Finishing my first novel! Finishing my first marathon! Standing on European soil for the first time! But really, those are just tiles in the mosaic. Beautiful tiles, but tiles nonetheless.

The best day of my life, I’ve come to believe, was January 11, 2011. 01-11-11. I woke up on a mattress on the floor of a freezing apartment in a brand new city with two gaping holes in my skull that had been shrieking with pain for the past week but were, that morning, thankfully dormant. It was my first morning in Boston, and my apartment was so new that it still had tape on the fixtures. I woke up early, around six, as for the past eight weeks, I had been awoken much earlier by fire alarms, shrieks, air horns, and garden variety yelling in my ear to get moving. Our loft, the apartment gleaming with pristine avant-garde was just a home for a heap of boxes and a mattress in the middle of the living room floor at that point, as our exhaustion the day before stuck a preventative hand in front of doing any work further than what we had already done: having driven from Alabama into the vast unknown of the frigid Northeast and procured an apartment in a mere three days. As I tossed and turned on the mattress on the floor, wondering whether to attempt more sleep or embrace the wakefulness and unpack, my wisdom teeth wounds were beginning to moan for medication. I got up reluctantly, feeling the full weight of my unfit body, sore from two months of straight physical activity, and rustled through my handbag (full of crumpled receipts from at least two months prior, leaving me feeling like I had been in a coma; which, for all intents and purposes, I guess I had been) for the pill bottle housing 800MG ibuprofen, all I was prescribed for the pain. I was nonchalantly unaware that in the civilian world, much stronger medications were doled out in the wake of that type of procedure.

Describing the feeling of coming out of boot camp is impossible to fully convey; almost like coming out of jail or a hospital might feel. You’re there, you’re still a person with thoughts and feelings and a working brain, but you’re not allowed to be a person. You’re not permitted to have a mind. You’re a robot, a number, a piece of a machine. Everyone looks the same and lives their lives in unison. The only thing you’re permitted to do on your own is breathe. There is no privacy, no freedom, and no leeway. You are held to rigid standards and broken, mentally. I never understood what the big deal was when my dad used to talk about the moment when Dorothy steps out after the tornado in the Wizard of Oz and everything is in color, but the second we disbanded as a company, it all made sense. It was almost too overwhelming, the freedom I had. I could check my Facebook. I could go to Starbucks. I could wear my hair down. I felt like I needed to do everything and nothing all at once.

And yet, my wisdom teeth had been extracted the week of my boot camp graduation, and the pain was severe. All the dreams throughout those eight weeks of the junk food I was going to pile in my mouth upon returning to Alabama to pack up my life were smashed into the ground as I marched back from the clinic on base, my mouth aching more with every step. So when it came time to leave home for the last time, to pack up and go, that’s all I did. My face hurt too much for pleasantries. I had to report to my first unit in four days and counting. The stress of boot camp was still lingering on my shoulders in a residual sense, wafting over my head and transforming into a tension far more straining, an anxiety about the oncoming rigors of military service. There was nothing left for me there.

And after three days of driving, of stopping intermittently when the pain on the sides of my jaw were too jarring to see straight, of fatigue and restlessness at the same time, we made it to New England. We found an apartment that was more beautiful than any place I ever expected to call home. We hurled our mattress and a few boxes inside and collapsed as a blizzard swept in behind us.

And then, the morning of 11 January 2011, I awoke on that mattress on the floor, the first time in a week that I was awoken on my own free will and not the screams of a man in a hat or the moans of my gums. I was freezing, but it was the kind of cozy cold that’s easily fixable with a blanket and the body heat of another person, both of which I had readily available. The walls smelled fresh, like they were painted just for me. The selling point of the apartment (aside from its square footage, loft layout, and gorgeous fixtures) were its windows. The living room boasted two huge pie-piece panes of glass that, together, formed a half-moon of window with a huge ledge for viewing. It took up an entire wall, and it was glorious. This morning, the morning of 01-11-11, the sky was the color of a lavender sprout and snow was drifting heartily yet gracefully, layering on the ground and trapping us inside.

I dug the coffee pot and a tin of Cafe du Monde coffee out of the box with KITCHEN scrawled in my haphazard left-handedness that looked more like a repetition of the Hollister logo than penmanship. It was the same coffee pot we were given as a housewarming gift from a friend two years prior, two apartments ago, when we first decided to move in together and start out our lives as teenagers taking a gamble. I chuckled a little to myself, not realizing that the years had passed by so quickly, realizing that we were married now, out of Alabama, Real Adults with a capital R and A.

As the coffee machine gurgled to turn water into something better than wine, I walked over to the wall of window. The entire apartment was an open floor plan, my husband was still asleep on the mattress, unaware of my wakefulness and the moments I was having, and that was sort of nice. I felt like I needed to wake him up, I needed to spend time with him, what with getting married then immediately shipping off to boot camp for two months. And yet, it was so comforting to just stand there, gazing out into the vast white and purple expanse of the outdoors. To just be alone, to not share, to just be Sarah, enraptured with thoughts, and feelings, and dreams, and a tousle of wavy hair hitting her shoulders. Looking outside, the soft light bouncing off the iciness of my own eyes, I couldn’t help but feel hope in my uncertainty, my unfailing optimism peeking through the dubiousness of my own future.

My phone was in the pocket of my pajama pants, the red and white pajama pants spotted with panda bears I bought to seem endearing and offbeat in some put-together sort of way when Matt came over to my house for the first time. I don’t know why I thought it would be impressive, but I was seventeen, so we’ll just chalk it up to being a teenager and enamored. Looking at the snowfall in my apartment, standing squarely in the new life I had literally bled, sweat, and cried to acquire for us as Matt slept soundly ten feet away, I took my iPhone out of my pocket, this strange new device that felt like a brick in my hand and a torpedo in my mind, and selected “Aaron and Maria” from my music app.

The sandy, snappy beginning jived perfectly with the powdery outdoors and when the guitar bled in, my ennui matched it. The coffee machine stopped grumbling and I rummaged around the DISHES box for a mug, pouring the coffee in without even washing it off. I went back to the window, coffee in my left hand, my right hand in my pocket, clutching my phone, just taking in the moment. The lyrics. My life. Wondering what the future held for me.

Where the rich kids hide and the years go by

Where the rich kids hide and the years go by

Today, I sighed as I got up, one apartment and three years later, and trudged to the same coffee pot. My phone was sitting on the kitchen counter, where I left it last night after a particularly comfortable evening of ignoring the world post-coffee sipping in Boston with my best friend. I sighed again, heavier this time, the sunlight streaming in and illuminating the impossibly white countertops. The neon green lines of the clock on the stove aligned themselves to read 06:48.

As the same five-year-old, twenty dollar, right-off-the-Walmart-shelf Mr. Coffee pitter-pattered with my morning elixir, I wistfully stared out the window and had a stoic sense of déjà-vu. I picked up the phone and willed it to sing me a familiar tune: “Aaron and Maria.”

Hearing that intro, that sad little guitar riff, those melancholy and disinterested words soaked and dripping with disillusionment, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d come full circle. The last time I heard the song, I was alive with hope and promise, having just left my hometown where I no longer belonged. It’s three years later and after all that’s happened, all the people I’ve met, the actions I’ve taken, the things I’ve seen, well, there’s nothing left for me here anymore, either.

Still, though, 11 January 2011 was the best day of my life because that hope for the future, though unfulfilled by crush of reality, was probably the happiest I’ve ever felt.