Welcome Back: Part II

(Continued from Part I.)

I don’t really know where the time went. I was willing time to speed up, to take me to 06:00 when I could just drop off my case full of wine and relax in the luxury of the SkyClub, cursing myself yet again for having the kind of brain that thinks that spending €85 in fees and a priceless amount of personal comfort in order to transport inexpensive wine that was shrouded in authenticity is a satisfactory idea. Although, I thought, going back and forth to myself in the exhaustion that felt palpable on my body at this point like a second skin, people will appreciate this wine. It will be all right. These bottles are going to people who are worth it.

I spent the night watching the clock in what felt like a suspended chamber of time in an infinite measure of space, and spent the early hours of morning watching the dead airport that had been my frigid home for the past few hours illuminate with activity; transform from an abandoned expanse of nighttime vacancy to a bustling mini-city of refreshed, bright-eyed travelers ready for their next adventures against the backdrop of the serenade of the morning sun, singing loudly now across the sky in vibratos of passion and color. And I, with my fingers brittled by dehydration and eyes drooping in fatigue behind my glasses, I just sat there, watching for 06:00 to roll around.

And then, just as promised by whatever force time actually is, it did. I picked up my body, stiffened by stillness in the row of chairs where I tried to forge comfort and lumbered downstairs to the information desk, now staffed by two women: a friendly-looking blonde who appeared to have had her coffee that morning and an older woman with Bettie Page bangs whose skin was pale and wrinkled, making her face look like a crumbled up piece of paper. I made my way toward the blonde, fully aware that I was judging a book by its cover but being too wrapped up in impatient exhaustion to really care. Someone that I didn’t see in my peripheral vision (shrouded by glasses and mental lethargy) swooped in front of me and arrived at the friendly-looking woman before me, forcing me to stop where I stood and sigh, then walk to the other side of the desk to the failed memo that missed the trashcan and sat balled up instead at the information counter of FRA.

“Hallo, guten tag, Englisch ist okay?” I croaked, not having uttered a word since speaking to my new friend on the bus from HHN.

“Yes,” the woman responded, thin-lipped and brusque.

“Okay, thank you,” I said, regaining a bit of my tone with the utilization of my vocal chords. “I have a bag at the left luggage counter that I dropped off a few days ago. My flight isn’t until 13:00—“

She interrupted me with a surly, “The left luggage counter is over there,” with a sharp finger in the direction that I walked less than a week prior and dropped off my bag.

“Yes ma’am, I know,” I replied, realizing a little too late that the nuanced charm of Southern-bred vocabulary had absolutely no meaning here in the frigid air and attitude of Germany, “I am asking whether I can go through security now and re-enter this area when it’s time to drop my bag for my flight,” I continued, somehow masking the strain placed on my psyche by spending the previous night and day cooped up in airports, feeling the grease and grime of extended air travel build up in my pores and the forest of follicles on my scalp. I was pleasant. I was acting.

“Yes, you can, of course,” she said as if I had asked her if 2 + 2 = 4. I could feel myself being labeled in her mind, branded with the iron stamp of German judgment: Stupid American.

“Okay, thank you,” I said quickly, and with a start, I headed to the luggage counter to drop by newly acquired black-and-cream wine carrier.

Within a few minutes, I was walking through the golden hallways of the terminal, pulling up my Delta app to find the location of the SkyClub and feeling the sort of accomplishment that you never expect to feel; the selfish sense of pride that creeps up when you do something that’s only difficult because it’s something that you don’t want to do. I wanted to crash in some plush bed and have a relaxing run through the forests of Frankfurt one last time, after which I would wash off the sweat and the night and the energy of yesterday in a warm shower. And yet, I didn’t. I sat in an airport all night. Sure, it was of my own volition, but I really wanted to see if I could, or if my uppity nature would seep through, grasp the situation, and drag the rugged adventurer in me to some hotel in the middle of the night.

I found the SkyClub, but it was owned by Korean Air. No big deal, I thought, making my way inside and pulling up my membership card from my iPhone’s passbook, this is a partner airline. I handed my phone to the representative at the desk and grabbed my passport from my handbag, only to have her shake her head and give my phone back.

“Only First and Business Class passengers on partner airlines can come in,” she said to my face that had involuntarily twisted itself into a swirl of confusion, disbelief, and a somber sort of sadness.

I didn’t argue. I might have tried to weasel my way in had I not been blanched by the bleakness of the night I spent waiting–holding on—just to be turned away when I thought that the waiting was over. But then again, I employed the meek demeanor that always hides behind me gumption on reserve for when I leave the US: the disposition that I can’t argue with people, that I am a guest in someone else’s country, that this is not The Land of the Free and I need to sit down, shut up, and be respectful of what I’m told. And so, with deep disappointment and frustration vibrating through my body, I turned around, walked out the door and back into the hallway of the terminal, whose walls at that point looked more like cheap foil or lamé than the gilded grandiosity of a few minutes prior.

Hours later, around 08:30, I had consumed a few espressos in a café overlooking the departures hall where I spent the night, and I looked down to see not a large room, but just a constant shuffle of people and suitcases, flowing and pulsating along the floor as the sun streamed in, now totally comfortable with its position on the world’s stage, casting glares and shadows and everything in between. I let out a sigh, cupping my hands to my forehead in exhaustion and felt a disgusting sheen of oil. I needed a shower. I banked on being able to bathe in the lounge. I closed my eyes in a blink extended by how beaten-down my body felt, wishing I could just lay down in a bathtub and wash the grit of going home and all it entails off me. Then, my phone illuminated.

Delta emailed me, alerting me to proceed to the nearest ticket counter. I took a look at my itineraries within the app, and like a magic trick from the joker that is reality, I was awash in muted merriment at the fact that I was placed on a standby list for a flight directly to Atlanta–my final destination—that left in two hours. I immediately grabbed my backpack and handbag and headed out of the café, making my way toward the first Ausgang sign I could see, lumbering past the baggage claim and packs of people just standing in the way of people trying to walk with an energy that I didn’t realize I could muster.

I picked up my bags. I paid the euros, handing the man behind the counter my card in an exhaustion that stemmed not only from the physical sensations I was feeling, but the constant stream of unexpected expenses I incurred throughout this journey. It’s just money, I told myself as he swiped the card, I’d rather use it for something like this than be buried with stacks of cash. I rolled the bags beside me through the crowd, my distribution of effort uneven as my left arm lugged the suitcase that came up to my waist and was close to the weight of two toddlers and the little clandestine carrier, cream and black, rolling to my right, almost weightlessly in the midst of its neighboring luggage. I arrived at the row of counters that Delta had occupied only to be skipped in line by a couple in their early thirties who were skinny, only moderately attractive, and both wore white sweaters that matched without matching and looked as though they were ordered from a catalogue. My face was a diluted snarl, but I didn’t say anything. I just let out a deep and silent sigh (sighing had, at that point, seemed to become my main method of breathing), remembering that this is not my country and that I don’t have the rights to rip into someone (tactfully, of course) because they were rude to me.

It turned out that the couple was American. They spoke to each other in shy and subdued tones, confused and intimidated by the hustle of a busy foreign airport that won’t stop and cater to them. I shook my head in a slight regret at not venting my frustration at them, at being the bigger person and letting these two people at least ten years my senior treat me like a doormat. But then, of course, I remembered that they’re the ones shuffling around like sheep, lost in the world like children who got separated from their parents in the mall, and I’m the one who can comfortably travel internationally without relying on another person to keep me company or hold my hand.

I finally made it to an agent at the counter after about fifteen minutes of waiting behind people asking question after question in German, causing my anxiety levels to spike as the clock ticked forward toward the departure time of the flight on which I didn’t even know if I was confirmed. The agent bore an almost identical resemblance to my mother, which filled me with a sort of eerie nostalgia and, blended with my heightened nerve activity in the wake of waiting for people who apparently have never heard of Google, a slight sense of jagged apprehension rocketing down my spine. She looked nearly exactly like the woman, save for one glaring detail: instead of my mom’s green eyes, faded like moss (the eyes that blended with the shamrock glint in my father’s eyes to create the intense lime of my sister’s eyes; a little club of verde from which the dice of genetics decided to exclude me), this woman had eyes of icy turquoise, screaming for attention just a few shades lighter than mine. As she spoke, I was finding myself seeing less of my mother in her face and more of myself; realizing that this woman was literally what I would look like in 25 years. I was okay with it.

There was a problem printing my boarding pass, but I was confirmed on the earlier flight to Atlanta, bypassing a layover at JFK and filling me with a satisfied relief as I made my way back through passport control. I was given a seat request card in lieu of a new boarding pass, but my baggage claim tags matched the flight number of the earlier, direct flight. It’s all coming together, I thought, making my way to the “All Other Passports” line, my passport closed around fingers marking the identification page as well as the page where the stamp was to go, the page where I had previously passed through security that morning in naive hopes of relaxation.

“How long have you been here?” the passport control policeman asked skeptically with a curt disposition.

Rolling through the catalogue of words and memories and coherence in my mind, I sputtered, “In this airport? Since midnight. I came from Hahn at 22:00 last night. I flew there from Portugal.”

He continued to study my stamps, trying to make sense of the zigzag of clearance that I had been granted to and from Frankfurt over the past few days. My apprehension stacked on itself as I stood there at the counter feeling like I had been beaten like a rug on a balcony and he sat in his chair slightly above me, eyes cast downward in the tense silence between us, the realization creeping in that I didn’t have a stamp from Hahn or Portugal. I could picture myself being escorted to the nearby office bathed in the garishness of high-wattage fluorescent bulbs and marked POLEZEI, my own personal Room 101.

He scoffed and tossed my passport across the counter with a flippant hand that was indicative of my clearance. I didn’t ask questions or say anything, for that matter; I grabbed my passport and made my way back through the terminal to my gate, breezing through inter-terminal security and checking in with an agent airside. I explained the situation as passengers pooled in behind me, children retaliating crabbily, adults just wanting to get this show on the road, teenagers in sweatshirts and spandex with headphones and attitude.

“Well, there is a problem getting you a boarding pass,” the airside ticket agent, a woman who looked like the quintessential German mother in a childhood fable (short and plump with blonde hair and rosy cheeks) said, clicking away at her keyboard. “I want to put you in Economy Comfort due to your medallion status, but it’s saying that as of right now, you don’t have a seat even in coach on the this flight.”

I stood there, silently steaming but publicly polite, smiling and lighthearted in the face of the most extreme exhaustion I had ever known, just trying to get out of Frankfurt. I said nothing, just waited as her eyes narrowed on her screen, darting around as her fingers whirred in clickety-clack oblivion. Finally, I was told to just wait there in the gate area. I would be called up to the ticket counter again. I would be taken care of.

And so off I shuffled, feeling deflated overall but infused with the tiniest glimmer of hope. My bags were being sent on this flight. I was (sort of) confirmed. I would be in Atlanta earlier than expected and I could snarl at people and let out my frustrations in plain sight and eat peanut butter because I would be in The United States of America again. I took a seat in an empty corner which quickly began to populate with passengers. A mother with a toddler and a baby rolled a stroller past me, accidentally snagging my backpack’s strap. I hate strollers. I have always hated strollers. They are needlessly bulky, awkward to maneuver, and a consistent cause of frustration in my life as a single, efficient-minded person on the go. Whenever I see a stroller in a public place–some worn-out mother bumping and knocking into things, lumbering behind this gargantuan tower of plastic that looks more like a grocery cart than a carrier for something that, not too long beforehand, fit inside her body–I turn on my heel and seek an alternate route. And yet, at that moment in my life, I wasn’t the same embittered wench as per usual. She apologized in English, saturated in sincerity, and dragged her toddler forward by one hand, pushing her stroller with the other. I smiled, I told her it was all right. Her baby began to cry as they made their way to a couple of seats next to me, and her toddler incessantly asked if he could walk on the roof of the airport. Rather than carrying out my usual protocol of gritting my teeth behind a tightly-sealed pair of lips when someone else’s child is near me and further reinforcing my decision to wait until 35 to spawn (if at all), I had somehow become one with the frustration. I looked over and smiled at the kid, who—entrenched in confusion as to why, exactly, he couldn’t walk on the roof of Frankfurt am Main International Airport—saw my smile and raised me a moment of silence. It was, in essence, a strange miracle of sorts.

In this silence, my mind (coming up on its 27th hour of continued wakefulness) began to drift to the little family as people, not harbingers of irritation. How amazing it must be to be three or four years old in another country, on another continent, and have stories of “That time in 2014 when we were in Frankfurt,” told to you by your mother ten and fifteen years down the line at dinners or events. My childhood lacked that spark of adventure, that mystique of exploration. While the kid in me wished that I could have traveled often and early, the adult inside my mind couldn’t help but wonder about the mother; why? Why were they across the Atlantic by themselves? Was this just some leisure trip? Why would she lug two small children around a foreign airport if not absolutely necessary? Her hair was pulled back haphazardly into a bun and her clothes hung on her body in sloppy ways indicative of stress, of urgency, of being a mother instead of a woman. I began to feel a sort of connection to her, like she might need help as the intercom blared in unfeeling Deutsche ringing in our ears and the sun hung proudly in the sky casting shadows throughout the glassed-in terminal. And then, after a solid twelve or so minutes of studying, of watching her gesticulations and her interaction with her toddler, I desisted in making her my subject of my inevitable people-watching when she pulled a breast out of her scoop neck shirt and began to feed her baby, turning away and closing my eyes, trying to drift off to a light sleep with my bags in my lap, arms securely braced around them.

The plane began to board. I was never assigned a seat. I felt deflated and stretched out at the same time; a strange feeling of such fervent disappointment that I was too tired to even process the emotion. I walked out of the terminal area and to a noodle bar that I saw around breakfast time, enticing in its after-hours darkness. Now, it was illuminated, waiting for me. I sat at the wall corner of a long banquet table and was greeted by a smiling waitress in German with a Japanese accent. At first, I thought it was a dream, crowding through the reality by my broken brain. And yet, there she stood, grinning, waiting for me to order. “I’ll have a large bottle of Apollinaris,” I slurred in English, forgetting to throw out the disclaimer that I don’t speak German and really, hardly caring. “Please,” I added as she walked away, only vaguely aware of my rudeness.

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“Thank you,” I said with a forced enthusiasm as she returned with a 1.5L bottle of gorgeous, bubbly hydration and an empty cup with a lime wedge in the bottom. She began to pour it in front of me, for me, and it was, at that point, the highlight of my day. I ordered vegetable gyozas and some sort of noodle dish with tofu instead of chicken that tasted like I was in a trendy restaurant where I would go on a Thursday night in some city when I wanted to feel alive. It was a far cry from the pre-packaged, food-grade plastic that’s become the monster of standard in airports, and it breathed new life into me as I got out my laptop to check on all my connecting flights to my final destination: San Francisco. I was still a world away, greasy, and missing sleep more than I missed peanut butter but at least I could see how the dots all connected; I could see the routes take form in front of my eyes and I knew that as time flew, so would I. And eventually—I would be picked up at the airport by someone who loved me; a stark contrast from the shuffle of taxis and metros and busses that I had been utilizing for the past few weeks.

Later, in a little pocket of the airport known as the Leisure Zone, I reclined in a padded chair and resigned myself to the hour or so left of waiting until my flight began to board. My eyes were up to the ceiling and my mind—characterized by its constant whipping and thrashing—was beginning to fall silent. This comforted me and horrified me all at once, as Asian businessmen talked on cell phones beside me, as kids played on iPads across from me, as twenty somethings flanked out across empty chairs asleep and oblivious to the energy of the terminal, I was feeling my brain dull into something unrecognizable: my normally unquiet mind was finally shutting down as my body remained awake. It was a surreal feeling, almost like the worst hangover of your life blended with losing a significant amount of IQ points. I felt terrified that this was it, that I would never regain my brainpower. It was, in hindsight, the final plea from my brain to get some sleep, but in the moment, I thought that everything I had ever learned was melting away into grey goop inside my skull.

I checked the time of my boarding in the Delta app for the fourteenth time that hour to discover that something was different about the image I saw pixelated on my screen. I sat there, bloated from my meal and covered in grime from the day before, just blinking profusely. What I saw on the screen simply HAD to be some swirl of sweet dreaming, and I would jolt up from the chair in the Leisure Zone at any second with a genuine concern about where on the globe I was located. And yet, as many times as I blinked, as many times as I willed myself to wake up, I was not roused from my dream. This was reality. On my boarding pass, my seat was no longer in the bowels of the plane. I was reseated squarely in 8D, in the nestling comfort of the plush Business Elite cabin. My head hit the back of the chair in a satisfaction that was so intense that I felt like crying. It felt like the greatest miracle I had ever known at that point, and I spent twenty minutes dreaming of the flatbed seating and actual pillow and duvet that awaited me on board.

The agent that scanned my boarding pass was the same agent as before, the agent who said she would take care of me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you on the direct flight earlier,” she said, checking my passport with a knowing smile and a glint of discreet giddiness in her eye, “but you see, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it did,” I said, taking back my items and looking at her, taking in her face and programming it into my mind as my literal favorite person in the world at that point, “I can’t thank you enough,” I said in a hushed tone, trying to continue our volley of discretion while also hinting to her that I know what she did, and I hope she wins the lottery for it.

I boarded and was immediately offered champagne by a flight attendant who, while perky, didn’t seem to hate her job. I was gracious, overflowing with appreciation as only a disgusting woman socked by over a full day of air travel can be. We took off, and I listened to “Recycled Air” by the Postal Service as Germany became brown and green squares of farms and fields, fulfilling a prophecy I made up when I was a lonely, lovestruck teenager daydreaming about departing this country back to my own for the first time. It seemed right, even all these years and variables later. I’m older than I thought I would be, visiting Germany for the first time, hearing “Recycled Air” piped through my ears and feeling the numbness of saying goodbye again. And yet, the hours prior to boarding this plane weren’t dampened with heart-wrenching goodbyes, as I always pictured. And I wasn’t in some cramped economy seat. And I hadn’t listen to the Postal Service in years. I paid my respects to the girl I used to be, listening to the song in its full duration, and allowed her to take over for a minute and feel the things that she always thought would be felt when this event took place in her life.

As the song played and my emotions drifted backward, and I looked out the window to see a lake so blue that it looked manmade in the shape of a heart. I didn’t know how to feel about it.

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New York was a blur of baggage and crowds and yelling and a migraine. I slept through the flight, which only seemed to drain my internal battery further, as I needed calibration. I waited in security line after security line, my entire life at that point being a cattle-herded animal through a zoo when all I wanted to do was graze the grasses of a farm. The US Border Patrol agent studied my passport up and down, he glared at my face, his own face betraying any emotion. I was too tired and bloated and grimy to care. Finally, with a jolt, he stamped my passport, handed it to me, and said in a rich baritone that still rings through my ears and made me feel ethereal like Natalie Portman in Closer, “Welcome back.”

I was flying to my next connection from Terminal C, but I already knew that the SkyClub there was under renovation, so I popped into the Terminal B SkyClub to regain a little bit of my dignity. “You realize this is not your terminal,” said the Delta agent as he scanned my membership card and checked my ID.

“Yes, but I need a shower, and this club location is nicer,” I sighed.

“Okay, as long as you’re aware,” he strained, judging me. “Your flight boards in an hour.”

I popped around the corner to the hallway of showers to find two people waiting in line with no one at the desk. We all waited in silence for eight minutes until a fourth person moseyed in behind me. Two more minutes and still no attendant. We were suspended in our confusion of the situation and what to do, and I decided that it was not my place to worry about such things. I was too busy standing in my own filth to have the brain capacity to do anything. Finally, a man sauntered to the desk from the back and let us into shower rooms, shuffling on his own schedule and answering questions in a thick Southern accent that were posed to him by a Chinese man, their rapport built on confusion and clashing of cultures. I grew more and more antsy as the man kept asking questions; questions that could be easily answered with common sense or perhaps just looking behind the door rather than pestering the man that held the key.

Finally, I was underneath a steady stream of hot water, and I never felt more grateful for a shower in my life. I don’t know how long I stood there, just letting the water breathe into me, revitalizing me, but it was the most in-tune I have felt with the universe in years, possibly ever. There was more zen in that shower as I lathered away the dirt and the grease and the agitation of the day before than any time I’ve ever made a human pretzel of myself on some rubber mat on the floor.

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I was upgraded to first class again on my next flight and I immediately relaxed with a gin and tonic, declining the in-flight dinner as my only options were a pastrami and cheese baguette or two enormous fried chicken patties. I sipped my drink and felt, for the first time, a sense of comfort in being back in the United States. I knew I had been transformed, and I knew that I would never be the same after the events that unfolded in Europe. But sitting there, sipping gin and tonic in clean clothes jetting over the country that raised me, the country I served, and the country that will now serve me for the rest of my life…there was something so apropos about the picture.

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The words of the Border Patrol agent rang in my head, bouncing off the walls of my brain.

Welcome Back.

Welcome Back: Part I

I thought twice as I left my Herschel pack in the opening foyer of the Airbnb out of which I was checking myself, paranoid that something would happen to the precious cargo inside. And yet, at the same time, I wasn’t about to waste time sitting on the steps of the foyer copying all my writing to my flash drive, either. I was torn between two degrees of laziness: the immediate, in-your-face sort of sloth that could result in all my hard-earned words—my version of bleeding, in a sense—could, in theory, vanish because they’re trapped in a shiny silver box that’s worth a pretty penny and the laziness with a little more longevity: the fact that I just didn’t want to lug my backpack and laptop around Porto with me.

And so, in the end, I left it in the locked foyer, pressed innocuously against the stone wall, peeking into the wheel of the bicycle left there by someone else (the host perhaps). I mentally examined all the possibilities and took the risk. It seemed more important to me to walk around on my last morning in Porto without the monkey of all my things on my back than to know, definitively, that my writing was safe. What can I say? I’m dumb at times.

And besides, my host emailed me to tell me it was okay that I leave bags in the foyer until I make my way to the airport. In my tawny-soaked dementia of sorts, I took a screenshot of the message for proof, should any harm be inflicted on my storage system of what makes me happier and more whole than anything else in the world. And then I headed, bare-shouldered, into the Portuguese morning.

I made my way to Café Majestic. There was a man on the street during the walk there was was shouting what sounded like, “Enough is enough!” in English, but I knew better than to wipe everything down with my own native language. He was holding up a sign and just kept yelling the same thing over and over in a tone that sounded like a protest, like a calling-out of bad behavior; causing me to wonder whether my jeans were too tight or perhaps my bra strap was playing peek-a-boo out of the inner corners of my Zara tank. I turned a corner swiftly, distancing myself from the man with a stark accusations in a foreign language to see a woman entrenched in her seventies outside with a radio playing “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. She was swaying with her eyes closed, clearly drowning in the memory of 1981. I headed onward to the café, the brilliant feat of architecture and history rolled into an aesthetically pleasing outlet for caffeine, pushing my way past tourists keeping their distance and too involved in their cameras to realize that there were other living, breathing people wanting to live their own lives instead of cater to the all-important needs of an amateur photographer wanting to enhance their instagram feed. I found that, despite the clot of DSLR-wiedling tourists on the outside stoop, there were many tables available inside, waiting to be occupied. I slipped inside and situated myself at a table along the wall in the middle of the restaurant’s plane, securing the most perfect vantage point available and ordering my standard espresso doppio from a server whose eye I was able to catch.

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I sat there, sipping espresso in the most American of ways, watching the people—how they hold their cups, whether they take bite-sized pieces of croissants apart in their hands or shove the whole thing in their mouths and bite from there, the way mother’s faces contort in frustration when the strollers they insist on pushing through the narrow walkways snag on some person just trying to enjoy breakfast, little things like that–and flinching at the random shrieks from babies, waiting until I felt like it was time to leave. Only I could know when. And then, all the seconds were spent and it felt only right, so I paid my bill and was on my merry way, both underwhelmed by the café and somehow infatuated all at once.

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I had to buy a suitcase, I knew that much. It seemed like a cruel joke set in motion by the universe that I flew Ryanair to the port wine capital of the world. Ryanair, “the low-budget airline” of hard-hitting stabs to the wallet, what with their €40 baggage check fee for anything over 10kgs. And yet, it was a price I had to pay, because sometimes in life, you just need some real-deal port wine, okay?

I dropped my big teal badboy of a suitcase at FRA in preparation to come to Portugal and skate out with only a €7/day fee vice the aforementioned €40 (that, I believe, racks up even higher with more weight accumulated. I didn’t look into it because I wasn’t having it). And so, after purchasing authentic port from Cálem as well as grabbing some random reds and rosés from the little produce market beneath the apartment, I was finding myself in need of a bag to check. I was paying oodles of money in fees to bring home cheap, delicious wine. I know, I know. But it makes for a good story and an inside look at the whirring mechanism that is my constant Catch-22 of a mind.

Along the walk to the Majestic, I did some half-hearted window shopping and managed to spot some places with little hand luggage rollerbags on display for sale. I popped into the first one I saw on the way back to discover that it was a Samsonite retailer, and a carry-on regulation sized bag was going to cost me upwards of €80. No thanks. I kept walking back through the cobblestone streets, past local men in their sixties standing outside smoking their cigars, past the man yelling at the top of his lungs in Portuguese but sounded like the English phrase, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” past shopkeepers trying to peddle their goods and beggars pleading in gummy Portuguese. Finally, I found the China Zen shop: a hole-in-the-wall souvenir stop specializing in subpar bootleg goods.

Rolled in, grabbed a bag from the top-shelf display (black and cream, because apparently that’s my subconscious go-to color scheme) and looked around for the shop owner, who eventually made his way to the register. The Portuguese, I’ve noticed, operate on a time schedule that is unlike any other nationality I’ve ever seen: slower than the French and slower than the Italians. Everyone does everything not only like time isn’t a factor, but that it just plain doesn’t exist. I paid up, €35 for this little cream bag with black trim, my only (listless) solace resting in the fact that now I have a carry-on to match my handbag and wallet.

Half an hour later, I was en route to the airport. I was early, four or so hours before my flight, but I would rather be early and bored than late and miss the flight, having to hemorrhage even more money than I had already had to fork over in the wake of all my international mishaps. I took the metro at the stop near the apartment to the main station, where I transferred lines to what I believed was the purple line to the airport. All the stops were the same on the map as we moved along, but I kept a weather eye out just in case I did get on the wrong line. The train lurched forward at an almost painful pace and I began to feel that familiar feeling of homeward-bound misery that infiltrates my body every time I leave Europe: a bloated, sweating sensation throughout my extremities and a sullen, silent sadness that takes over my mind. I felt, standing in the metro and holding onto the yellow plastic railing like I might lose consciousness. Dehydration, too much bread, and the underlying anguish that my time in a place where I feel like I actually belong is coming to an end made me feel like my backpack weighed fifty pounds, and like breathing in the stale air of inside the metro car was something not innate, but a chore that I had to learn to complete.

Finally, the train rolled to a stop at a station that wasn’t on the way to the airport. Sighing, I lugged myself and my bags out, onto the platform, and tapped my Andante Card against the reader (as one is required to do for each and every ride, regardless of whether they have to change lines). “COMPRAR TITULOS” read the little black segments on the outdated digital green screen of the meter. My face felt like it was already so round, so bloated with port wine and baguettes and sangria that to make any sort of facial expression would only aid to me looking like even more of a mess than I already felt, so I simply blinked, stone-faced, and let out a breath of air that I’d held in for the duration of the test of whether my Andante Card still had credits on it. I fed the meter five euros—I might as well get rid of them, whatever, I thought—and re-tapped the card, satisfying the meter and slogging over to a bench to take some of the weight off my shoulders. I halfheartedly looked over at the arrivals screen as I tried to sit in a way that didn’t make me look so much like Jabba the Hutt (to no avail) and noticed that the line to Aeropuerto was eleven minutes away. The heat was crawling in through the dense air of the Portuguese morning as it fades lazily into afternoon and I felt, at that point, resigned to misery. I had to return not only to Germany, but then to the United States. And I was fat.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the axe to drop, I arrived at the airport. I got out, wandered through the metro station connected to the terminal, and found a WC. My bloodstream was basically turned to port wine during my time in Porto, so I decided to slam water like it’s job (although seeing as how I am currently saving jobs for those who need them and funemployed, I guess that slamming water WAS my job) in a measly attempt to restore order to my body and wake me up inside, as well as prepare for the journey across the globe it was due to make. The effect was more painfully annoying rather than fruitful and life-preserving; my absolute need to run to the restroom every few minutes not taken account during the development and execution of this plan. I was haunted for many hours by the lack of foresight in this area, and my stomach only seemed to swell further.

I arrived at the airport four hours before my flight. It was one of those European airports with the revolving ticket agent counters; the kind where you and every single other person flying that day are confined to the open, often-times minimalist expanse of the departures hall with usually one or two food options and hard, airport-style rows of chairs just waiting, just glaring at a screen for your flight information, cattle-herded all together with towers of luggage, the ricochets of thousands of voices throughout the terrible acoustics, and the utter hell of other people. I took a seat near a screen so that I, too, could glue my eyes to it, to let them glaze over with a reluctant patience, to burn out everything around me except that one digital display of when I could go drop my bag with an agent and go through security to the shopping and eating wonderland that was the terminal. And yet, ticket counters were just starting to open up for flights two hours in advance. I had some time to kill.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

Someone Please Save Me From This Glass and Chrome Hell.

I wrote, getting myself lost in the words and making myself wonder subconsciously which world was reality: the stirring kaleidoscope of people milling about all around me in tones of quintessential chrome and stereotypical silver of the airport, or the places and faces and dreams and dialogues I’d invented and woven into words in my computer screen. Hunger began to knock on the door of my mind, tapping lightly at first, and was ignored. Then, it became more of a scratch on a screen door: a threat of sorts as its fingernails scraped the rigid surface of my brain, letting me know that it could make its way in if it wanted to. Eventually, Hunger tore through my concentration like a caged dog itching for hours to get out, and I reluctantly sighed, shut my laptop, and corralled my luggage (handbag, backpack, and new knock-off Chinese Samsonite roller bag) together, heading toward the stations of people all huddled together under backlit neon blurred by my lack of glasses (my argument with myself on my personal objection to wear them, the symbolism that my body is, inevitably, in need of extra help from an outside variable, that I’m not as young and spry as I once was).

All the food was a parade of the same European airport fare: a coffee and pastry spot with all sorts of espresso and milk-based drinks, accented with croissants and tarts that will never make a European fat, a bar with Super Bock bubbling topaz in its marketing posters, enticing customers with this liquid gemstone rather than its actual urine-reminiscent appearance, a Relay shop with Kinder bars and potato chips next to the rack of Portuguese magazines. They all had the same wrapped food items in the cold cases: the ham and cheese baguettes, the three-meat wraps, the salads topped with a generous serving of mozzarella shredded to pieces too small and too abundant to extract. There were, however, sad-looking pineapple circles pinned down to a plate by a thin layer of saran wrap, and just as I reached for the color-drained fruit that looked more like a sun-faded pool noodle than something edible, I decided to use the WC first. I can’t eat when I have to pee.

Around the other side of the departures waiting hell (hell, hall…same thing, really) was a hidden WC, not bustling with a million suitcases and strollers haphazardly rolling every which way. I spotted, as well, a hidden alcove in a white wall, which was a rarity in itself as the hall was constructed nearly entirely of glass. The white wall was indicative to me of some sort of structure within the hall, another WC maybe? It was square and could certainly house two rooms of stalls and sinks. And after walking the perimeter of the walls to the alcove, I found a no-frills restaurant with a public school cafeteria setup…with wine off to the side for sale. I rolled up to the counter and looked at the offerings: chicken, beef, fish. And then, my eyes scanning the silver vats of food behind the glare of the glass that separated it from the general public, my stomach growled with a hungry happiness: plain white rice and steamed broccoli.

I immediately grabbed a tray off to the side, as well as two kinds of bread because I couldn’t decide which I wanted. The fruit at this place wasn’t devoid of nutrients and life, so I threw some pineapple on my tray, too. “Hello, may I please just have rice and vegetables?” I said, articulating clearly and concisely, using my mother’s on-air voice, the one I grew to pick up after spending my childhood playing quietly on the floors of radio stations. I didn’t want to point at the food. Everyone points at the food. The woman serving me was more than some robot responding to the petty pointing of foreign travelers.

She didn’t understand. She asked, “Which?”

Hesitantly, I pointed anyway to the side items that I wanted to combine to make a meal. “What meat?” she asked.

“No meat. Just that, please.”

Still skeptical, she asked something of her manager over her shoulder, then made her way over to the register. €11.20 later, I was at a table nearby and charging my laptop. I’d misplaced one of my USB-to-outlet connecters somewhere in my trek across Europe, and the other one simply stopped working, so my Macbook Pro had been my charging station for my iPhone and Mophie case (in the wake of me being absolutely too cheap to go get a new connecter for too many Euros, and allowing me to save one of my US-to-Europe adapters for my computer, charging three things at once). From the cart of seasonings and salts nearby, I grabbed black pepper, salt, and a plastic cup. I poured a little bit of olive oil in the cup, peppering it lightly. Then, I doused my plain, steamed plate of airport vegan food in seasoning. It looked like a sad meal (and comparatively, it was), but in the moment, it was delicious.

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I lingered for a while, looking up ever so often at the screen mounted above my table for my ticket counter information. I bought internet (I have become the person that purchases internet and I hate myself for it, but I’ve found, unfortunately, that it’s worth it in this world of wailing children and having a father that is waiting–worriedly–for one of my wide-eyed wanderings to bring about my own demise). Finally, I saw my flight information glowing, pixellated on the screen. There was some sort of disconnect in my brain at that point; some fatigue-frayed wire in my mind left me confused, wondering where the time went, why I hadn’t noticed it before. I went to the ticket counter, the only passenger on my flight, and the agent was, thankfully still there. I handed over my phone, employing the same boarding pass protocol as I did on the way to Portugal from Hahn, and she frowned.

“You don’t have the paper pass?” she asked, and I knew I would be hit with fees. She had a computer right in front of her and I would be charged, right then and there.

“No, I didn’t have access to a printer,” I said, truthfully, my voice fortified by the realization that I did this once before without a problem, and that I am obviously on the flight (having paid for two seats, even!), and for them to charge me for essentially just being on-the-go is Ryanair just being a jerk. She sighed, her nails rapidly clicking on the keyboard in a way that satisfied me, a way that spoke to my girlhood idolatry of women with long nails and jobs where they type all day and look pretty; a mental snapshot of the glass ceiling in full, disheartening effect. She printed me a paper boarding pass and told me I was good to go.

“I need to check this bag,” I quipped, showing her my black-and-cream knockoff.

“That can fit in the overhead compartment. It’s free,” she said quickly, wanting me to go away.

“I wish,” I said with a genuine bit of dejection, “but I’ve got liquids.”

I weighed the bag, and was told to take it with me to the airport’s customer service counter around the corner, pay for it there, then bring her the receipt. In a busy international airport, “around the corner” often means at least a five-minute walk. Factor in the village of people aimlessly walking to iron out some of the creases of their boredom, their sense peripheral vision and spatial awareness totally powered down, and you’ve got yourself a few extra minutes to get to where you need to go. Once I made my way down the endless stretch of homeward travel-tinted malaise, I approached another counter with a line of three people in front of me. Portugal was a study in patience, that’s for sure. And for someone with an mindset of ambition that is almost always mistaken for abrasion, the waiting was killing me. My soul was dwindling, losing color with every passing sixty seconds that someone wasted by living slowly.

Finally, €50 and a steady stream of happiness flowing out of my wallet later, I was en route through security. My gate was closing in five minutes. Where did the time go? My head felt like a bowling ball, still, despite the fact that I had been downing water almost non-stop. I ate vegetables. I had been sitting down, not carrying anything. Why did I still feel so weak? Why didn’t I notice the clock before, only making the connection to proceed to the ticket counter when all the other passengers were proceeding to the gate?

What I previously loathed about Ryanair as I was huddled in the minimalist terminal of HHN with two hundred other people was what saved me in the open-air, comfortable OPO: my gate was technically already “closed,” but as I made my way through the medieval crusade of security, I could see a snake of people in the distance and, finally reaching for my tortoiseshell Warby Parkers, they were all lined up for Ryanair flight FR4172 to HHN. I joined the back of the line, and sighed, relieved: despite the ridiculous fee, my bag was checked. I had an actual boarding pass. I was getting on this plane and going for a ride. All was well.

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A couple of hours later, we were all walking along the airstrip in Germany, freezing. It was an unexpectedly brisk 11° C, a far cry from the sunny summer sweetness of Porto. Welcome back to Germany: land of cold. I bought a ticket for the next bus to FRA for €14 and waited 45 minutes in this joke of an airport, writing but keeping an eye out for lights and the commanding wall of charter bus outside the glass double-doors.

Within time, the bus arrived. I didn’t miss it. All was well. I got on, opened my laptop again, and became enraptured by my own world that I created within the computer. I was listening to music; soft music to fit the mood of traveling hours through the blackness of the German night on a bus to Frankfurt, the city that I couldn’t decide whether I liked or hated. I was glaring into the glow of my screen, unable to really see anything else around me, when I felt a presence to my left. I took a headphone out and looked up, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. A man stood there, asking something in German. “Mein Deutsche ist nicht gut,” I replied, the perfection in my execution of the phrase (a perfection acquired by saying it constantly) betraying the actual meaning.

He replied, accented, in English, “Is it okay if I sit here?” In the darkness, I could see the outlines of his face, the stubble of facial hair that grew in what looked to be holiday rebellion against the razors of real life, I could see in his eyes a youthful sparkle rather than the dull of haze of a weary business traveler.

“Of course,” I said, moving my bag from the seat next to me.

“I hope it doesn’t bother you,” he said as he got settled in his seat to me, caught in a web of words and trying to wrangle my way out in the most perfectly eloquent way possible, “but I need to call a friend. Will that disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied, noting the considerate nature in him asking me, as Americans talk on their phones anywhere, anytime, regardless of who is around. “Does my screen bother you?” I asked in the spirit of reciprocity and common courtesy.

He ended up not calling his friend and I ended up not writing. As the bus shuttled us across German countrysides obscured by he blackness of the bitter night, we chatted idly about travel, about life goals, about differences between cultures, about linguistics, about Southeastern Italian architecture and about Maya Angelou. He let me know that we were making a stop in Mainz when the driver slurred the announcement over the intercom in a strained tone indicative of being thoroughly fed up with driving back and forth all day, every day. It was the kind of conversation I live to have, the sort of interaction I had been craving the entire time I was by myself: someone with an intelligence that matches mine but in a different way, someone who can add a different splash of color to the rainbow I have watched documentaries, paid attention in school, and read dictionaries to build in my mind. I usually have no trouble striking up conversations with strangers abroad, but Split and Porto were different. Couples were hooked together and draped all along the stonewalled cities and friends traveled in clots in the streets. No one was there alone. But there, on the bus from HHN to FRA between the hours of 22:00 and 0:00, I was there and he was there; two people who just wanted to feel a connection with another human being after a long day of traveling.

I got off the bus at FRA and headed inside of the departures hall, the same hall that had been infested with travelers flowing through the terminal like water from a leaky roofs few days prior in my waiting period for the bus to take me to HHN. Except now, the same hall had an eerie stillness as all the ticket counters that lined the perimeter were left unmanned, as weary travelers propped their feet on their suitcases and slouched their heads back in a makeshift air of comfort in the quintessential rows of black airport chairs, no doubt cursing the armrests that separated the seats and prevented a full recline. Cleaning crews that looked more like ghosts shuffled through, emptying trash cans that had only a few items inside and sweeping invisible dust into dustpans. I already made the executive decision earlier in the night not to book a hotel room, what with Delta having a 24-hour SkyClub within Terminal 2 of FRA, and also having already spent far more money than I had planned to spend when I first stepped foot into the bright German morning two weeks prior en route with Patrick to his house in what seemed like another lifetime. I failed to recall, however, that I was returning with a suitcase full of liquids, and that the left luggage counter where I dropped off my large suitcase on the way out was closed until 06:00. I found a small space behind a standalone ticket counter next to a Smarte Carte drop off area with a power outlet and sat down on the floor; deciding just to wait the six hours until I could take this little black-and-cream bag full of Portuguese wine to join its teal traveling companion full of almost all the clothes I own. It wasn’t worth it to me to rent a room at an airport hotel…although the place I stayed the night I came back from Croatia with its modern décor, free apples in the lobby and running trails did cross my mind at that point, but was soon banished away by the reminder from the rational side of my brain that the reason I purchased a SkyClub membership was a situation like this: me stuck on some awful layover somewhere in the world and needing a shower and a place to relax in peace. Six hours didn’t seem like such a hurdle.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Five-Star Accommodations.

Frankfurt’s airport has free WiFi for 24 hours that can span across multiple devices, so I took advantage of the situation and read the internet, as I am wont to do. After feeling thoroughly bored with the latest articles on all the webpages I used to scan for entertainment in my days of waiting in a uniform and boots for a life spent adventurously sleeping in airports and gallivanting to new countries at the drop of a hat, I bought and watched a movie from iTunes that I’d read about on some site, somewhere, sometime: Afternoon Delight. It wasn’t on Netflix or Hulu when I found out about it, but I never really forgot it, as it spoke to my penchant for highlighting the lackluster in life and dressing it up into something entertaining (as I watched the movie and realized that it matched up with my style of writing I remembered walking through Mainz with Patrick, stopping to lie down in the grass along the Rhine and finding the heart in the cement, talking about that very subject, causing a sort of rippling repercussion of pain; a stinging reminder that I had lost one of my best friends). The biting beginnings of continuous cold air were permeating the airport’s glass walls, making me grateful for the thin sweater I threw into my bag two weeks before in muggy Mississippi, just on the off-chance that the weather would freak out or the very real possibility that I will be cold somewhere.

After the movie concluded, the sun was just starting to make its demure debut across the horizon of Frankfurt, and I watched it come forward into view, splashing Frankfurt with an indigo that swirled into the sort of sapphire that rich men spend tens of thousands of dollars procuring for their women. And then, in a wardrobe change that seemed to pass a little too quickly, the sun offered up a robust orange, bathing the city and the airport with the inevitable yet nevertheless comforting sentiment that we all lived to see another day. I sat in a row of chairs on the top floor of the departures hall where the rail shuttle between the two terminals picked up and dropped off, alone save for the ever-so-often stream of passengers either catching the train or departing it. I sat sideways, with one leg extended underneath the restricting armrest and the other pulled up to my chest, my laptop balanced on my flat leg and displaying the glow of a webpage that I was too bleary-eyed and sunrise-smitten to read.

Continue Reading…Part II.

No Filter: Reflections on the Weirdest Two Weeks of My Life

Someone wise once said, “Always keep a journal. That way, you’ll have something interesting to read on the train.”

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His name is carved into my brain. It’s not simply a schoolgirl’s nostalgia. It’s years of my mind involuntarily repeating that name, folding it into little tiny creases on the papers of my memory until there’s no other way to think it, say it, remember it other than the way a favorite old pair of jeans fits or how the sentences written in the best book you’ve ever read realign in your brain and you can only go, “Oh yes, this again.”

I immortalized him. Eight years ago, we were children yet also on the cusp of adulthood. I knew, though, that we were closer to being kids than adults. I felt like a fraud, I felt like I was playing a grown-up’s game and foraying into feelings that I didn’t need to have just yet, feelings that I didn’t have to feel if I just walked backwards out of the room in which I had so relentlessly tried to enter, nearly breaking down the door.

before.

before.

Reading it now, it’s more like the paragraphs of some book that I l found squirreled away in my iCloud notes than something that came from my own brain, my own heart, a mere two weeks ago. I’m on the plane back to Frankfurt, another inadvertent layover caused by booking trips within trips between airlines. And tomorrow, I’ll stand on American soil again for the first time since feeling like I was writing the dénouement of a story eight years in the making.

I forget that people are their own inventions, not the fantastical figures conjured up by my own boisterous brainwaves. Hiding behind high expectations and a drive to succeed was the perfectly valid possibility that it could all crash in front of me; that he not only wasn’t the person I’d invented mentally, but that maybe–horrifyingly–he had grown into a person in the near-decade since we breathed in the same air that I would not enjoy. Social media, video chatting, and text messages can only take you so far into a person’s essence. To be around them, to tolerate their little idiosyncrasies and explore the minutiae of what makes them, exponentially, their own person is a different story, and it’s a story I paved over in my mind with the asphalt of my own imagined version of him. But secretly, in hushed moments of mental seclusion, I wondered, “What if we hate who we’ve each become?”

Because fifteen days is a long time. This could be heaven or this could be hell. I was willing to risk it, though. But was he?

And reading the words now, the words I wrote two weeks ago in a swirl of anticipation and disbelief that it was all actually happening, I’m astounded. In all my nail-biting and nervousness, I never pictured things to occur the way they did. I didn’t expect the reality of what fate actually had planned in my wildest dreams. In the moment, it felt like a nightmare, but looking back, it feels like I’m living a scripted life unbeknownst to me, a Truman Show, if you will. It all seems so bizarre, so over-the-top-terrible. And after the hurricane of horror passed, the eerie remnants of what was left of my time abroad felt ethereal and cleansing in a way that, in stark contrast, seemed too good to be true.

I am not the same person that I was the last time I stepped foot on American soil. This trip changed me, hardened me through and through in the way a squishy-centered baguette with a rigid exterior transforms into a food-grade baseball bat when not eaten in time. And also, simultaneously, I was softened like a thick block of chocolate–bulky and impenetrable–melts into a creamy paste when left out in the sun. I was the bread in Germany, left to stiffen as much on the inside as I always attempt to outwardly propel in the wake of abandonment. And in Croatia and Portugal, I was the chocolate: basking in the sunshine, feeling again the whisper of wonder that life has the potential to sing into your ears if you listen up.

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I didn’t expect to be transformed so personally. All visits to new places have, of course, the possibility to flip you around and make you a different person entirely. Heck, every day of your life, whether you’re out exploring territories uncharted to the you of yesterday or sitting mundanely in your pajamas all day eating cereal in front of a screen (and every type of day in between) have the ability to turn your life upside down. But this sort of personal exploration, this calibre of soul-searching was thoroughly unexpected. I just thought I was going to Europe to see an old friend; have some laughs, some good times, some memories shrouded with a prosaic hue stemming from the fact that it was orchestrated so heavily on my part–insured down to every last detail that everything was to be absolutely perfect. And we all know that anytime a proposed perfection is brought into the equation, things are sure to go downhill. That’s where, I expected (though apparently not enough to redirect my thoughts to a more reality-centered state of mind) things to be lightly lackluster: all fun and smiles with just a hint of longing for something more.

And instead, I got a true whirlwind, world-tour of feeling. I was, at different points throughout this time in Europe, drowning in an anguish deeper than I’ve ever felt: a sadness that sprung itself from the affairs that actually transpired and attached itself to torments of events past, snowballing into a heartache of, essentially, every horrible event that’s ever befallen me, shooting me by mental firing squad all at once. Sometimes in moments dotting the landscape of the past two weeks, I was so soul-crushingly lonely that I felt like pretending to have a good time–writing my own story not as a true account but more like the novel of how I wanted to feel–was the only way to hold on and make it through. And there were times, of course, when I didn’t have to pretend; that I felt, naturally, an elation more vivid and pulsing than my own mind could think, beforehand, to produce. There was nothing mundane about this adventure. It was all tidal waves and tornadoes, not at all the sequence of breezy banality that I expected to encounter.

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All I can do is shake my head and smile incredulously. All I expected was something glossy, something sepia-toned, something enhanced to make it more spectacular than it actually was. This adventure, however, needed no filter.

after.

after.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

-Agatha Christie

Split Personality

The alarm I set for 08:45 blared through the morning, and I promptly turned it off in a fog of fatigue. I found myself accepting the new day around 11:00 in a swirl of self-loathing for wasting the morning with petty sleep. I had taken a shower earlier, when I stumbled in with a drunkenness that could be slightly attributed to gin but mostly to the golden aura of Split in the summertime. I threw on a dress I purchased for this trip a month ago in LA–a dress I planned to work with my feet in the Canal St. Martin or on a stroll along the Champs-Élysées–and grabbed my classic escape the ordinary change purse pre-loaded with the the kunas I had withdrawn along the walk home a few hours prior, my military retired ID, my debit card, and my Amex BlueSky Preferred.

I walked back to the promenade along the Riva Splitska, as Sarjana had called it and posted up at a table in the al fresco cafe where I had connected to wifi in the wee hours of morning. Split, while largely ignored by Americans who favor the shimmering beaches of Oia, Amalfi, or Barcelona, is a European holiday spot, I was finding out. Wifi is free in most places, but it’s locked. And so, at this point, I employed the golden rule of international travel: ask politely and you shall receive. I was in luck when I arrived–lost–in Split, because the password for this cafe’s network was clearly printed on the menu, which was on display along the promenade for all the hungry people to peruse at their leisure before deciding to spend their hard-earned kunas. To return the favor of how this cafe unknowingly gave me access to safety a mere few hours prior, I sidled up to a table and ordered an espresso doppio.

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After a people-watching session along the Riva as my espresso transformed from a rich mahogany gulf of caffeine to a simple sienna stain in the demitasse, I signaled for the waitress and after the hand-to-hand transaction of twenty kunas, I left a five-kuna coin, silver in the sunlight and the exact size and shape of an American quarter, on the table and headed for the hill.

I read about Marjan Hill while waiting in Frankfurt in order to dislodge myself–mentally, at least–from Germany. It was the hill my airbnb host told me to walk toward. It had running trails, panoramic views of Split, and beaches along the south side. It seemed like the perfect choice to lose myself and find myself all at once on this sunny Splitska Monday in my mind.

I walked in he direction of the city’s hill, not bothering to use a map. I knew I was probably going the wrong way, but I figured what have I really to lose here? I learned from my golden-light gallivanting the evening prior that even under the shroud of night, Split was a safe place. No one is paying attention to anyone else. Everyone just wants to relax. This is a lesson I’ve learned time and time again in my commission as a beach connoisseur, sampling shores the world over yet it never ceases to seem like some new, novel concept when I come back to the realization in a new locale. I found stone stairs built into the cobblestone street that signaled to PARK MARJAN a few meters in the distance, and yet, there was a coffee bar called Teraca Bamba above a stone wall just near where I walked along the water. Never missing an opportunity for a killer view, I took the stairs and found myself on a skinny street called Solurat, walking in the direction that the coffee bar towered above me just a moment prior.

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I was right about the vista, and certainly not disappointed.

After enjoying this new, prime vantage point of the Riva Splitska, the families and couples and locals alike all walking along the harbor line and enjoying the sheer wonder of the world we all share, I utilized to energy and blurred inhibition allotted to me by the four servings of caffeine and the tonic-soaked serving of gin I’d downed and continued up the hill, leaving twenty kunas on the table.

The way up to the top was casually rigorous and reminiscent of the Colline du Château nice that I had climbed almost a year prior. I was wearing the shoes I always end up wearing (despite vehement swearing to myself that I will, absolutely, change up my shoe routine): my pastel pink pointed-toe flats with a hot pink bow. I was in a dress. I felt slightly out of place in the midst of others decked out in athletic shoes, shorts, wielding water bottles. And yet, just like Nice eleven months beforehand, it didn’t matter. I knew myself to be an ultramarathon runner, I knew that this was nothing in regard to my athletic ability. In Nice, I hiked up the hill in salmon-colored fashion shorts and four-inch cork wedges. In Croatia, I could most certainly traverse the stairs and hills and inclines in a pair of flats and a dress.

And I did.

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The views of Split below me, outlined by the dazzling Adriatic Sea, shimmering cyan and silver in the sunlight gave me a sort of renewal inside. Every new place I see–every tired stamp of my passport by an overworked border patrol agent–I learn a new side of me. I feel things differently. I uncover pieces of myself that I never knew existed, little bits of Sarah that were unlocked before. I stood there, at the railing, taking it all in: the red roofs, the azure sea, the fact that this is a place that most people in the world will never even think to look. And yet, the beauty here is something out of a storybook; something written by the people who are masters of striking others in a torrent of emotion with only a random jumble of words.

Finally, I had absorbed it all. I climbed higher, searching for the highest point in Split, the main vantage. What I saw at the top of Marjan Hill could not be photographed. It looked, through the shoddy lens of an iPhone 5 camera, like a cheap assortment of green. But to be there, to feel it around me in screaming auras…it was so much more. The sound of nature was everywhere: shrieking in that kind of deafeningly quintessential tone that you always excuse when you’re in the woods, the kind of insane chirping whose origins you never question. Crickets? Locusts? Some other insect joined in a crazy chorus of sound and symphony? Whatever it was, it was louder and quieter simultaneously than anything I had ever heard. It engulfed me there in the Croatian woods like a wave sweeping in along the shore, scooping up sand and claiming it as its own.

I clamored down the mountain after breathing in all it had to offer and met a family from California taking a selfie at the viewing point. I offered to take their picture for them, feeling just enough of the warmth of home. They asked me who I came to Split with, and I said no one. They were dumbfounded, unsure of what to say or do at that point, their minds no doubt shuffling with the absolute question: why? Their confusion was almost palpable, but I understood it. Traveling alone can be frightening. It can be dangerous. It can be so soul-crushingly lonely that you wonder what you’re even doing with yourself, and maybe you should just pack up and go home. And yet (there’s always an “and yet,” with me), the keyword in all those sentences is CAN. Where there is a CAN, there is also a CAN’T. Traveling alone–if you’re one those brave enough to embrace the uncertain arms of solo venturing–is renewing. It’s soul-saving. It gets you so lost in the world that you have no choice but to carve out who you really are wherever you find yourself.

After my self-guided tour of Marjan Hill, my dress was becoming translucent with sweat under the cloudless Croatian sky and my need for water was dire. I floated down the cobblestone streets with everyone else touring Split, behind families and couples and groups moseying through the narrow corridors of the city without a care in the world. This is where my American colors really show; I always want to get from Point A to Point B in the least amount of time possible. Someone on an episode of This American Life said that Americans kick their feet when they walk, and I’m no exception. Blame it on my military training, blame it on my cutthroat efficiency; I always have to walk fast. The journey back to my apartment only seemed to ignite my “sidewalk rage” further, and I stopped in a local market for some cheap white wine to alleviate the frustration. I also picked up a bottle of what I assumed to be sparkling water and made the ten or so minute trek on foot up the back hills of Split to my apartment.

After a quick check of my phone in the wifi and an airing out of my dress, I was back on track. I packed a beach bag with a bikini, flops, various charging apparati, and my faux leather-bound journal, the one thing about me that’s opaque in this high-visibility, social media-centric world. I took a sip of the bubbling beverage I’d bought at the market only to uncouthly spit it out in the street, spewing like in the movies. It was a Croatian Sprite equivalent. My taste buds didn’t register the rocket of sweetness, not having soda in more years than I can currently remember. I put it back inside, making a mental note to buy some sort of liquor to mix with it so that my 12 kunas wouldn’t go to waste.

I traversed down the hill past cats and locals and tourists alike until I was back in the outstretched arms of Diocletian’s Palace instead of the beach. I walked to the central area, where the bell tower and grand entrance sat, where all the visitors tag their Instagram photos. This space was infested with people, all looking at the structure’s towering beauty not with their eyes, but cheapening their surroundings through the viewfinders of cameras and phones. Everyone had a device extended skyward like cigarette lighters at some hard rock concert when the ballad rolls around. I slipped through this maze of people with electronics in the air to find steps leading to the bell tower, deciding at the snap of my fingers to see where they led. An older man with a hard demeanor at a kiosk labeled “BELL TOWER CLIMB 15 KUNAS” stared at me with the disgust of someone whose job is to receive tourists day in and day out as I shuffled through the pocket of my beach bag and pulled out three silver 5-kuna coins, handing them over with a smile. He motioned toward the dark entrance with stairs so steep that even the ultramarathoner in me wondered if this was a good idea. “Hvala,” I said with another smile, trying to ooze politeness, and I scrunched my dress around my thighs with my right hand, holding the rail for support with my left, and headed upward.

I’m just going to say it right now: the Bell Tower of Diocletian’s Palace is absolutely, 100% not to be missed. This is coming from someone who abhors the mundane, someone who would rather break bread with locals and not understand a word they’re saying than post up on some tourist block and partake in activities catered to sunburnt families with fanny packs. And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those cavalcading up the bell tower. And yet, it’s worth it.

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I gritted my teeth and dealt with the children screaming about the height, the parents trying (to no avail) to comfort them, and all the confused people in between. And when I reached the top, what I saw changed me through and through. This writer with a lightning storm of a mind was silenced internally, not able to look away from the land spread out below her, a land saturated with culture and history and unfamiliarity. I stayed up there in the bell tower for twenty minutes, watching as a new group of viewers filed in, seeing them marvel at the splendor of Split, take a selfie, and leave again. And I focused then on the buildings, the red-roofed architecture and on the bell tower itself. Scrawls of names and hearts and promises of undying love were clandestinely scribbled into the stone, leading me to wonder whether these people who visited at some point before me still felt the same way, if they’re still together or if, in the usual hand dealt by life, they’ve broken apart somehow. My unfailing optimism peeked through like sun through the shade of a forest and I imagined some of these people still together: married, raising a kid or five, probably bitterly settled into the monotony of monogamy but still, absolutely together.

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lost in the world.

lost in the world.

I was finally done in the bell tower. I had seen all I needed to see, and I headed to a restaurant right inside the palace that offered Pasta Neopolitana (a simple pasta and tomato sauce dish) and free wifi. Checking in with my father, whose worry meter has been on the highest setting since my unceremonious ejection in Germany, I enjoyed my pasta and watched all the people filing into the outdoor foyer of the palace, noting that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, people are all vastly similar. They all just want to see beautiful things, eat good food, and laugh.

Sun-soaked and feeling the beginnings of dehydration, I headed back to the apartment for a siesta. I didn’t actually sleep, but I laid in the dark thinking about my life, about how hard I had worked to be able to come to Croatia on a whim, about all the days I thought that life wasn’t worth living juxtaposed next to the seemingly unreal views from Marjan Hill and the bell tower. And at 20:00, feeling cleansed, feeling grateful to my own inner fighter that always seems to come through and win the match, I headed out again with my bottle of Croatian white that had been chilling in the small minifridge.

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I sat along the promenade at the edge of the Riva, the subtle lapping of the harbor against the seawall hitting just below where my feet dangled. Everyone was out; Split was alive with people all searching for the same thing as me: to watch the sun disappear behind foreign frontiers, to watch it retreat in a blaze of purple and blue. And we all took in the spectacle of our shared sun–our life-giving resource–going to bed, bidding us a subdued goodbye and making way for the supermoon to once again emerge in anticipation of Perseid’s meteor shower. I became hungry again at this point, and feeling at first like I shouldn’t eat again due to the sheet amount of carbs I consumed just a few hours prior, I remembered that I had been on my feet and in the sunlight all day, moving and exploring and unpacking my soul. I headed back into the maze of the palace and found some unmarked al fresco cafe that was illuminated by an orange lamplight, sat down, and had bread with olive oil and tomatoes. I salted my Poor Man’s Bruschetta, as per custom in my own house, and ordered a glass of house red, people watching and remembering, unfailingly, that each moment here is a gift. Every passing second that I get to enjoy Croatia, Portugal, Costa Rica, Hungary…wherever I find myself on a map, it’s a gift that I’ve given to myself. I can’t lose sight of it, because some people go their entire lives believing that their hometown is all the world can offer them. I sipped my wine and basked in the gratitude of having been able to leave the financial conundrum of Alabama at 20. Most never can claw their way out.

I walked some more without a destination after my meal, tipping like I would tip a server in the States. I found myself back at the promenade, back on the Riva, not wanting to retreat home just yet. It was about 22:00 by this point, and there was a crowd of people dancing in the street where I tried to cross. There were strange renditions of classic American songs blaring overhead and lights of every color illuminating the street. A cursory glance around revealed a stage set up complete with disco-clad performers putting on a street show for the “Summer Colors of Split” festival that was occurring unbeknownst to me.

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I hung around, connected to the wifi of the outdoor cafe that I found my first evening in Split, and enjoyed the atmosphere. I wrote, alive with the spirit of the Dalmatian Coast and the culture of Croatia.

I lost myself within my words and finally found my way back to the apartment around 02:00. Time flew at the Riva, but to where, I was unsure. Tomorrow, I’ll get up early and I’ll put all these carbohydrates to work, I said, slipping into dreamland once again after lolly gagging online for a little while. And suddenly, my apartment, Split, and my life as a whole dimmed into a sandy, soothing paradise where absolutely anything was possible.

Homelessness: A Journey

This morning, while registering with the AFAR app, I was faced with a question that I found impossible to answer.

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I’m currently holed up in my father’s Hattiesburg, MS apartment. Save for a candle I’ve been burning on the coffee table, the place still smells like the beige paint applied to the walls, like the fresh cut of the wooden cabinets, like cleaning products. He’s lived here less than six months after taking a promotion and leaving behind the place where I grew up; his tiny and quaint apartment in Alabama with a twentieth-century charm that’s a rarity around these parts. The bathroom had a vintage black and white tile scheme reminiscent of the 1920s and the bathtub was actual porcelain. The hardwoord floors–the same floors that held my footprints through years and stages and phases of my life–were beginning to buckle under the stress of eighteen years of watching children and adults grow. The walls were smoke-stained from my father’s (now rectified) propensity to light up. And yet, here I am, in this minimalist, crisp apartment with its amenities and its convenience; a far cry from the captivating little apartment hidden in Mobile: that charming flat that, with its paint-chipped windowsills and baseboards, felt more like a home to me than the actual houses–cold and unfeeling–where I lived with my mother when I wasn’t on my every-other-weekend retreat designed by the divorce courts of Alabama to somehow “enrich” and “stabilize” a child’s life.

I’m only here in Hattiesburg for one more day. Sure, it’s where I receive my mail. It’s where the United States Coast Guard and the Veteran’s Administration places me on a map. It’s where the home-library I began to collect once I made the foray into adulthood resides, waiting for me to return. And yet, Hattiesburg is just a checkmark, really. It’s a vapid answer to a question whose intentions are usually rooted in something just as transparent. If I list my home in Hattiesburg, it’s always for some sort of document, some strip of red tape. It’s not really my home, it’s just the big red pin on a map that satisfies the digital field I’ve got to complete, or the long, lonely blank on an intake form somewhere. It’s a location, it’s a coordinate, it’s a physical building with running water and a couch and food in the fridge.

And yet, home is more than just some position on a globe.

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I’ve been mentally wrestling with the definition of HOME since I separated from my ex-husband in March. My entire life has been spent with a very solid idea of what it means it be both at home and the place where one originates. My home was my apartment in Massachusetts, dressed to the nines in little bits of décor collected through the years, painted in colors that revitalized me every day, little trinkets of significance stashed in various places to remind myself that this was a place I created. A little over a week ago, I was sitting on a couch in that apartment, my art and knickknacks and books still displayed prominently in wait for the government-hired movers to pack it all up and take it away. Mail that needed to be shredded was piling up on the kitchen counter. The little chalkboard key holder next to the front door still retained remnants of a message I wrote to myself in the midst of smudged chalk from notes past.

And now, it’s just a memory.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Currently, I’m sleeping in a spare room of a place that neither my father nor I consider familiar. In a week’s time, I’ll be in Paris…but not before breathing in the air of New Orleans, of Atlanta, of Frankfurt. And after Paris, it’s Porto. And then, only time and fate will tell where I’ll find myself.

The subject of HOME seems to be on repeat in my mind, coming up in seemingly every conversation I have. From the skeptical, “You ain’t from here, are ya?” slur of a Southerner to the uptight and shrill accusations of down-home hillbilly origins, the last four years of my life–the years I’ve spent living outside of the box in which I was raised–have been leading me to redefine what I always knew to be true of the word and all it encompasses.

What is home? Is it a place? Is it a feeling? Is it a person? Is it my mind?

Sitting in a vegan café on the Fourth of July with excellent drinks and even better friends, I began to wax poetic about the personal meaning of home, or lack thereof. I began to feel a sort of lightness, a tingling on my skin that seemed like I had cracked the backbone on an unsolvable riddle. I felt like life was less of an enigma, and that home isn’t just the place where you reside or the letters on a birth certificate, but a place where everything seems right. A place where it all fits, where the grooves of your soul click together in tandem with the world around you.

Driving down from one place I once called home to another in the wake of my discharge from the USCG, my sister and I began to bounce ideas back and forth on what it means to be home. The RAC remix of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros was playing beneath the baritone of our voices, setting the scene for a heart-to-heart between the two of us that would have made our past selves, entrenched in constant bickering, recoil in horror. “Home is everything inside you,” she said wistfully as we crossed the Staten Island bridge. “Home is everything you already have.” For a 21-year-old, she struck me as incredibly wise at that point. And then, of course, I remembered myself at 21, and gave the world around me a sly smile for setting such a pretentious, smart-ass example.

Speaking face-to-face through the wires and waves of the world wide web to people whom I knew previously only through the opaque walls of Instagram and iMessage, we drifted toward the subject of home. “You don’t seem like a typical American,” one of my new friends said, and it was flattering. I smiled and replied that I’ve worked very hard to create a first impression that is not of where I was raised, and that America’s never felt like my home anyway. I went on to say that I’m still not sure where I am completely at home, or what home actually means to me. In the places I’ve lived and loved in the United States, home has seemed more like the satisfaction of a red tape requirement than a feeling of belonging, I explained. “I’m still searching for that place, that idea, that feeling,” I told my new friends, who seemed to just get it.

In a world of vapid soullessness, of people getting up to go a job they despise in order to pay installments on a loan they acquired for something they thought they needed–something they thought would make them happy–in a world of “if I do x then I will feel y“…it was heartwarming to share a real conversation with real people who saw me in a real way, not just some façade of American contentment finger-painted on my face.

What does home mean to others? What words, what feelings, what memories are conjured up when someone really stops to think about it? I took to my snapchat feed and posed the question via a video: What does home mean to you? What do you think about when you are asked to define “home”?

The results were exhilarating and stirring.

Most of my snapchat friends mirrored my method of messaging, opting to send me a video of them speaking, their voices curving out the words and their faces displaying micro-emotions that they themselves were probably unaware were present. The responses were basked in Saturday morning comfort: women were fresh-faced and glasses trumped contact lenses, pajamas were prevalent and there was an air of raw honesty to each message that is so rare in this day and age of technological overload.

Home is, according to the data collected by my snapchat survey, a place of comfort. It’s a physical place where one can go in which pants are not required. It’s a place of connection, a place of family, a place of passion. It’s the place you share with the one you love. It’s a place where your creativity flourishes. It’s a place where you feel–undoubtedly and unabashedly–you. It’s a state of mind in which you can do whatever you really and truly desire. It’s the eyes, the words, the soul of a person in which you get lost. It’s that special place where you can breathe in the air and know that despite all the negative aspects of our world, in the face of any hardship or adversity, it’s the location or the feeling or the person that can make life worth living.

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I am still searching for it. I’m currently sitting in a sea of clean laundry splayed out around me, waiting to be rolled to maximum tightness and stuffed into a suitcase. I’m clicking a little star on a gold iPhone to save a location across the globe, adding it to a digital itinerary that I’ll more than likely ignore once I’m actually there, soaking in the panache of the place and the presence of the people with whom I’m sharing it. I’m on this mission to find where I truly fit, where all the pieces lock and click into place, where I was made to exist.

Maybe I’ll find it this time. Maybe I’ll walk onto some foreign soil and sigh with relief that yes, I’ve finally found the place where I am, undeniably, at home. Maybe a person will walk into my life and change it forever. Maybe I’ll be able to say, without a doubt, that I belong.

IMG_0080 But until then, here’s to homelessness. The journey is probably the destination on this one.

 

Boston’s Been A Place of Blues


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From the bright-eyed girl on the avenue
To the jaded shell of a woman who can’t be wooed
Yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues

IMG_8720 Boston’s been a place of blues
From blizzards to sweltering summertime hues
From the bustle of a mini-city to international news
Yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues

IMG_9743 Boston’s been a place of blues
I came here as a wife, so fresh and so new
But to a man who couldn’t care less, I lost that too
Yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues

IMG_9879 Boston’s been a place of blues
I found myself here in a fit of views
Growing up, growing older, paying my dues
Yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues

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I lost myself between the pews
They told me I shouldn’t have anything to lose
Yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues

IMG_8975 Boston’s been a place of blues
It was here that I came apart at the screws
Living here toughened me in a way I couldn’t refuse
But yeah, Boston’s been a place of blues.

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Independence Day

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The song in the car reminds me of you
As the wind whips through my hair
It should evoke a nostalgia so blue
Yet I’ve chosen not to care

Because I really like this song
With its beat so airy and light
Fitting the moment, nothing is wrong
As I speed through the LA night

Going back to my house, where I’ll have some wine
Create a page or five
The stars are out, the weather’s fine
To me, this is being alive.

Planning trips around the globe with a face I haven’t seen
Since I was scarcely more than a girl
No more than a blubbering, lovelorn teen
Eight years later, we’re traveling the world

I didn’t think life could feel this way
So breezy, so carefree
All I had to do was wait in the grey
Until I could live my life for me

And what a lovely existence it is
For the power to be in my hands
To float from one place to another like this
My life blooming in spontaneous plans

I am my life’s captain, I’m steering this ship
As colors explode through the sky
Never have I felt so confident, so equipped
As I did on that Fourth of July.

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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),

I MADE IT.

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The rock candy’s melted, only diamonds now remain

 

I AM A WRITER

This is for everyone who knows the roses of life to be a little more fragrant and the garbage of existence to emit an odor a tad more pungent. This is for everyone whose potency of perception has, even just once in life, scared them.

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I AM A WRITER.

I AM A WRITER, unapologetically so
I get higher than high and lower than low
The feelings my soul conjures are that of elation and woe
Whereas normal souls feel stock happiness and sadness as the status quo

I AM A WRITER, romanticizing every day
Feeling life in tsunamis, washing myself away
Carrying a brick of emotions that gravely outweigh
The lackluster minds of others, so mundane and blasé

I AM A WRITER, my mind is a thunderstorm
Horrifically lonely at times with only words to keep me warm
My brain is a swirl of different people combined in an artful swarm
All clamoring for a say in who I am; waiting in the wings and hoping to perform

So if you, too, are a writer, do not be afraid
Your brain will twist this prosaic world into a serenade
Others may call you melodramatic, refuting the perspective you’ve conveyed
But the fact of the matter is that YOU ARE A WRITER and it’s just how you’re made.

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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.