The convolutions of time, how they wrap around us all. Invisible threads that tie us to the past, to an unseen future, to a wild hope or apathetic acceptance.
You can pour your heart out to another who tramples it without mercy, or you can offer the up the worst of you to be soothed and accepted by friendship. Those who are worth the time, you come to find, are those who forgive your imperfections.
These were Jenny’s thoughts as she sat on her rock and watched the ocean. This was her state of mind while the totality of her previous existence fell around her with a mighty crash.
“So this is what heartache means.” She says aloud to herself, to the pebbles, to the sky who did not answer. Her chest felt constricted, like her heart was a prisoner, breath pushed past an unseen obstruction by the force of will. It was not tears that stopped her throat and clouded her brow, no. Tears were yesterday. Today she is empty, a limp and lifeless thing washed up on the beach.
Two months ago she sat by the banks of a river and felt happiness. Two months ago she was laughing and dancing in perfect harmony with herself. Contentment was a lazy Sunday afternoon with a fishing pole and cooler full of cold beer. Sun lingering with reverence on the olive skin of the bare breasted woman beside her. Partner, lover, sister, wife, companion. The excitement of a bite, anticipation, but oh! At the last minute, another salmon swims to freedom. Smile; shrug it off, better luck next time.
Pockets full of neat pebbles, hands full of driftwood, walking home with all the fish still in the river. A patch of wild strawberries along the way, pausing for the plunder. Lips are sticky sweet, skin is warm and salty, no need for wearing clothes.
In the midst of summer lassitude, when the heat lulls you into submission, where each perfect day passes slowly and you cannot foresee it’s end, this is when the words fell into her life. A thing that broke apart the delicate dream of heaven like a precocious child tearing the wings from a fly.
“Moving on… A new opportunity… Something I have always wanted… You know it has to be this way… I will always love you.”
Moving on, like I was a pit stop, Jenny thought to herself. Bigger and better places, new opportunity, like I was a lower rung on the ladder. Something a person settles for, not aspires to… Something she had always wanted, like she had never wanted me… Yes, I’m sure I would have known this was the way it had to be, if only you had bothered to tell me so… How dare you love me.
An empty house still smelling of clove, an empty bed that is not slept in, and a path to the river overgrown and abandoned. One last look at a life where she had known happiness, and out the door with a single black pack and a suitcase full of notebooks.
In the back of the cab, on the way to the airport, stuck in traffic. A thick cloud settles around her emotions, seeing everything through a haze, outside of her existence. Distantly, she watches the faces of those in the cars around her, wondering what tragedies or triumphs they face in their lives. She has a sudden, vivid fantasy of rising through the roof of the cab, growing wings of epiphany and wearing robes of starlight. All those lifeless automatons hunched behind the wheel would gaze upon her and find their true selves. All would accept the greater knowledge of the universe, finding rapture in their own personal moments of beauty. None could hide from the truth of themselves, and all would grow their own wings and rise to the heavens, freed from the misconceptions taught to them by society.
It made her smile, thinking of this little scenario, and she wondered if the bleach blonde in the SUV would fall into a wild coupling with the aging contractor in the beat up Ford if the two should see each other unfettered. She imagined the woman’s Starbucks coffee being flung to the wind as he laid her on his dirty tailgate.
“I have a very strange head.” Jenny muttered to herself, and the cab began to move along.
In the airport café, a basket of chicken strips with ranch. A man wanders around with a lost air about him, carrying a plastic shopping bag with everything he owns inside of it. His hand is open in a faintly hopeful fashion, while his eyes know he will get no kindness, only pennies.
There is something wild about him, primal and untamed. Perhaps it is the matted hair, the dark rags that smell of sweat and earth, the hunched way he prowls the lobby. Or maybe it is the glint in his gaze, the piercing way in which he looks at his quarry through shaggy brows. Whatever it is, Jenny finds herself fascinated, nearly missing the call for her flight.
She presses a $20 dollar bill into his hand as she passes, making eye contact and giving him a warm smile. She does not speak. The money is wrapped in a poem she wrote on a café napkin.
The movie on the plane is some animated drivel about the adventures of a white rabbit. She cares nothing at all for the film, staring at the screen with eyes that are not watching. Thinking about the man in the airport.
When you have lost everything, when your reality has become so unbearable that you cannot bear to face it, I suppose you only have two options, she thinks to herself. You can either kill yourself, or go crazy. Lunacy provides some sort of entertainment at least, a bright side to the situation. Suicide would be for those who lack the imagination required to go properly bug nuts. Lucky for me I am a writer, so I am already partly unhinged, it wouldn’t be such a far leap to the other side.
With this thought in mind and a slight grin on her face, she falls asleep.
Woken by the arrival announcement with lucid, painful dreams still stirring behind her eyes, she gathers her belongings. The memories and fantasies have scraped bloody gouges across her emotions, and once again she settles into a dark fog. With a bored indifference she shuffles off the plane with the rest of the sheep.
Another cab is waiting, and she hops in with a minimal amount of conversing. A short drive, a tip to the cabby, and onto the ferry with rain in the air. She buys a coffee from the machine that makes it way too sweet, and scowls at the beverage as she slides into a booth.
A young man across from her smiles winningly, meeting her eye with a bold appreciation. Giving him a neutral, uninterested expression, she turns to the view in her window. Puget Sound is grey and rippling, sluggish and lazy. Seagulls wheel around the ferry, complaining about the weather, and the lack of bread thrown by the tired passengers. Off in the distance she could see one of the islands hunched over the water. The green of its trees seemed black and forbidding, the stone cliffs sharp and menacing. If you looked at it just so, as the motion of the ferry carried you, it could be a large prehistoric sea turtle, cruising along in the murky waters.
She was distracted once again by the young man. He was striking a pose, lounging a leg up on the table, relaxed back into his seat, smirking at her. She was suddenly and furiously annoyed with the little bastard, and wanted to punch him in the pretty face. Instead, she leaned forward slowly, keeping careful eye contact as she began picking her nose.
She did not just put her finger in her nostril and make a show of it, no. She began to really work at it, cleaning out her boogers with studious concentration, all the while staring at the man.
An expression of shock at first crossed his face, and then disgust when he realized she was not going to stop. He promptly got up and walked briskly elsewhere, leaving her to privacy. This sort of little prank once would have made her giggle like a schoolgirl, but even the best jokes get old. Now she was just tired of the game.
When she got off the boat, she had to find another going to her island. None of the ferries ran to it, and you could spend a day or a week trying to find someone going that direction. She got lucky by chance, her first stop being the first pub she saw, where a local fisherman was willing to take her out for a small fee and a smile.
It was foggy and secretive when she finally made landfall. The madrona and pine materializing out of the swirling mist and disappearing again, like ghosts that haunted her walk up the stony beach. A path appeared, just where she remembered it, which led her to what passed for a road on the island. A rutted track that was sometimes graveled, mostly potholes, and only occasionally pavement. This led three miles inland to the only general store.
The walk was very soothing, meditative. A dense, moist atmosphere swallowed the noises of the forest, and the crunch of her boots seemed like the only sound in the world. She tried not to think along the way, just to enjoy the air that lay like a cloak around her body. Watching the movement of mist and catching shapes in them like dancers in the forest.
When at last she reached the store, so distracted in her thoughts it appeared as a surprise. Gerry was waiting for her on the porch, she knew he would be. He would have been sitting there if a hurricane were raging around him. He didn’t say anything, just opened his arms and let her fill them. She embraced him gratefully, inhaling the smell of tobacco, spices, and oil paint. Heaving a sigh, she let herself relax and linger for a bit. He held her lightly, allowing her to drink her fill. She drew back and gave him her first real smile in days. “I’m so happy you’re my friend, have I told you that lately? I love you, you old tramp.”
“Oh is that how it is?” He replied with a mock offence, “If you keep that up girl, you’re not going to get any of that jambalaya I made for you, and I’ll make you sleep with the chickens.”
“Jambalaya?! My God, I would wrestle an alligator for a bowl of that spicy masterpiece from the culinary Casanova I have come all this way to see. I would have brought a black lamb to sacrifice to your incredible, almost godlike abilities, but alas, I find them hard to come by these days.”
He laughed and grabbed her suitcase. “Go inside, my goodness you are shameless.” She twisted around him with an impish grin, and instantly began trolling for the kitchen. He came in to see her lifting the lid from the pot and taking a good whiff. He leaned against the doorway and shook his head, smiling at her.
“You know one of the best things about you Jenny? You always make people smile, even when you’re unhappy yourself. It’s a gift.” She had set down the lid and was looking at him. “You know what the worst thing about you is? You’re so caught up in your own head, your own writing, that you never see the people around you. You’re so busy writing about life, that you can’t really SEE life. Walking up the road to the store I saw you. So distracted with the metaphor of the mist, and not seeing the damn scenery.” Her shoulders had drawn in as if receiving a blow, and she had turned away from him. “However,” He added, grabbing her shoulders and forcing her to meet his eyes, “You are one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met, and I am proud to be your friend.”
He gave her another big hug, softening the blow of his words. She was smiling wryly when she drew away. “You’re the best Gerry, nobody else can tell it like you can.”
Poking her in the ribs, he says “Go on, eat that stuff, it’s just sitting there in the pot.”
“It’s only getting better simmering there.” She replied, but digs eagerly in the cupboard for a bowl.
He opens every morning at 6 o’clock. He rarely has any customers. The island is a small one, no power supply or government to speak of, and everybody knows everybody else. Besides the little general store there was a post office, a volunteer fire department, and a public meeting hall that was used for basically anything it was needed for. Gerry retreated here two years ago when his partner of 15 years died in a car accident. He became a hermit to every body he once knew, keeping ties only with Jenny. She had known him since the age of 13, and he had become her big brother, and the most important person in her life. Every now and then, when things fell down around her, or she got writer’s block, she would come visit for a week or two.
She stayed in a little cottage out back, which was nothing more than a glorified potting shed for his extensive herb garden. She always left refreshed and invigorated, brimming with story ideas and ready to take on the world.
This time, however, she found herself wandering listlessly among the veggies, or lying on the grass and watching the clouds. The notebook pages held absolutely no temptation for her, and she didn’t care if she ever picked up a pen again. She joined Gerry for dinner each night, which he insisted on cooking, and she insisted on cleaning up after. She tried not to mope around him, being lighthearted and funny, but he soon saw through her little ruse.
“Get out of here.” He said one evening. “Go down to the water, that is a direct order. It will be beautiful tonight, it’s a full moon, and you haven’t been on a single night walk since you’ve been here. What happened to the adventurous girl who prowls at midnight with a hunting knife?”
“I’m not 13 anymore Gerry.” She replied tiredly. “34 years old is past time to wander willy nilly in the dark.”
He frowned at her. “Jenny, don’t you ever grow up, how dare you? Don’t become a washed up jaded author who can no longer enjoy the things they write about. Go out there and get mud on your feet you walled in little hermit crab. Here give me your shoes, you should go barefoot. Still got calluses on these toes?”
He began pulling off her boots despite her weak protest. She recognized this mood in him, and when it struck him he would not tolerate ‘no’. It seems that she would be doomed to at least fake her walk in the dark.
At least she had planned on faking it, but when she stepped out onto the back porch and lit one of the rare cigarettes she allowed herself, the night called to her, and she followed. Wandering down the shadowy lane toward the water, she imagined each step taking her further from her past, from her pain, from the mistakes she made in her youth. She left behind her sorrow, all the memories of laughter, every glimmer of passion, each scar so deeply nested it was never seen in the light of day. All these things she left on the roadside, like the layers of clothing she slowly peeled away as she went, ‘till she arrived on the beach pure and naked by the light of the moon.
She found a rock to perch on there, and read her future in the stars. Listening to the waves breaking on the pebbles, drinking in the breeze on her bare skin, trailing her fingertips in the water. Each sigh of the ocean was a whisper in her ear “shh” it seemed to tell her.
The dawn found her still there, the rays of the sun slowly creeping toward her bare flesh, smoothing the goose bumps scattered like secret constellations among the freckles.
“Two months ago I was somebody else,” she said to herself quietly. “In the pain of parting, when someone we love is taken away, they never fully leave us. People are like rivers, and when the two of them meet, they can never truly separate again. Little pieces of the other will always remain. It is those things that are left behind which torture us in the night. Like scars from a wound so deep the nerves still remember. Like an amputee with ghost pains from a limb no longer attached. It is only ghosts that haunt my head.”
Rising from her rock, joints popping like cannon fire in the silence, she wanders back up the road. She smiles to herself as she imagines the picture she must make should anyone care to come driving along. A wild haired naked woman with mud on her feet, red rimmed eyes from a night without sleep, and a goofy grin on her face.
She retrieves her clothing piece by piece as she finds it, seeing every patch of moss and hidden wildflower along the way, chuckling when she finds her underwear snagged on a bush. She hasn’t felt so young in years, so she does a little dance as she goes, just to see if she still can.
It is a very beautiful dance.