I have not been writing. I have been very, very busy not writing. I have been taking out the trash, washing the dishes, and painting my toes to dismal results. I took my hands hostage, forcing them into copying, printing, organizing, and whatever verb that could occupy them. I was updating my resume, my diet, my wardrobe, my life. I was breaking in new shoes and throwing out old bras, curating new playlists and burning old lyrics. I was packing and tossing and cycling and pacing and ignoring the boiling inside.
Life was settling into order, and there was one enormous, insurmountable problem: me.
A few months ago, I lost it on the phone to my parents. “Is this it?” I yelled dramatically into the phone. The yelling, already dramatic, was heightened by the fact that I was really performing for the universe with this one. “Is this seriously it? Do I just get up miserable every single day, waiting for people to spend 8 am to 10 pm freaking out and never saying thank you just so I can have five days a year where no one can talk to me? Is this really it? Do I just find someone tolerable enough to come home to so I can create spawn to go through this self-inflicted cycle of selling your body to the corporate clockwork so I can watch all their dreams get crushed every year that they get closer to reality until they’re old and brittle like me and lose their minds to the fantasies they never lived?”
I was having a bad day.
But this was an ongoing issue. The pressure to conform was omnipresent, but only recently had it begun to cloud my atmosphere. I felt the pressure to decorate my home, to find a boyfriend, to buy a car, to build a life as advertised. I felt the pressure to settle, to quiet the force of nature building in myself to ripple out. I felt the pressure to become someone else. I had always been a grass is greener, passport-yielding vagabond with no appreciation for comfort or security. The only thing that kept me remotely grounded was Larry - a four-legged attitude problem who threw up when he pouted. So when life settled into a rhythm and others settled softly into the blankets along with it, I stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. It was only in the dead of night I could see my dreams clearly.
In October I booked a ten-day vacation to Bonaire, hoping it would provide direction, clarity, peace. It didn’t. Bonaire is the speakeasy of islands. You’d blow right by it unless you knew you were looking for it. On the surface, it’s dry, desolate, and the winds are like a hairdryer you can’t turn off – loud and increasingly annoying. It’s only when you slip beneath that water that you see the appeal. The reefs of Bonaire are littered with color, energy, and mystery; it’s a diver’s wet dream. Literally. Except I wasn’t diving – I was soul searching.
On Day 3, words still escaped me. I was sprawled out on an orange and yellow towel with a beach design no one would be able to recall if asked. My notebook sat in front of me, blank. Standing behind me in the shaded nook of the singular beach tree, my mother interrupted my unproductive silence to ask me the question that would loosen my creative block. Or rather, circumvent the creative block entirely due to the sheer audacity of the insult.
“Why would anyone turn to you for relationship advice when you never have one?” She adjusted her dive gear, and I propped myself up on my elbows to speak.
“I take no pleasure in routine, comfort, or security. I like to be alone, I don’t like other people to help me, and I have little caretaking instinct.” I knew answering was fruitless, but I couldn’t stop myself. I wasn’t even answering the right question. “So it’s not that I can’t get a boyfriend, it’s that I don’t really have much incentive to have one. You’d have to be pretty mind-blowing because there’s just not much that a relationship provides that I want.” It didn’t matter what my answer was. I could hear the question loud and clear, or rather the statement - what’s wrong with you. She raised me to fend for myself, to speak strong and tall, to never act dumb and pretty, to be myself. She raised me to want more, and for reasons that maybe I wasn’t old enough to understand, she was seemingly shocked that I did.
But the truth remained, she was my mother and I wanted to make her happy. I’d begun desperately searching for an anchor, something to moor me, to tie me down. Something that could force me into the mold I didn’t fit. That maybe I could learn to appreciate the closeness, the camaraderie that made me feel so ridiculous, so fraudulent. Being alone was easy because there was no rule to tell if you were doing it right. All those people around me, you could see the laughter and the ease and the touching. God, all the touching. Every time someone touched me it made my skin melt off. It was too intimate and too vulnerable and too much. They all looked so comfortable with themselves, their lives. Were they better actors? Or just better believers? Or was I really, to my great sadness and exaltation, just different?
Even on the good days I caught myself thinking, “is this it?” I wasn’t disappointed so much as I wanted someone to just tell me if this was when I stopped seeking, when I too settled in, if the best part of my days would always be tinged with guilt or fear. I shouldn’t have paid $3.79 for this latte. I shouldn’t ignore emails so I can ride my bike. I shouldn’t watch Hulu at work when I’m waiting on feedback. But was that it? Was that all I looked forward to? Lattes and stolen bike rides? My giddiness for my vacation was framed with a sickness. I wasn’t excited to see the tropical fish or eat chutney. I wasn’t excited to hear the waves or sip rum with my mother. I was literally most excited to be left alone for ten days. I wanted to disappear.
Was this it? What a depressing sentiment. That this was so unimpressive. That this should feel so dull. That this, at one point, was what I aspired to. Life, man. Good god.
I worried there was no place in the world for people like me anymore. That we’d written everything down and traversed every path and there was no escape for the escapees. On a remote beach, under a tree with prickles and a ground with fire ants, I stared at the ocean, lost. Where could I even go? It felt like I’d tried everything, like I’d packed my bags enough times to know what was out there. And the bills, the loans, the American values of work hard and settle down - they made me sick to my stomach.
My father suffers from the kind of anxiety that turns your eyes yellow. Earlier that day, I had watched his fingers reach to clutch something, his glasses, his watch, the edges of his shorts, anything, as his eyes glazed over, searching desperately for an exit. He didn’t belong in a beach bar overwhelmed with Venezuelan tourists. He belonged alone. And I saw so much of myself in him - my increasing distaste of public places, of crowded rooms, of swarms and swarms of indistinguishable people seeking escape by merriment. Was this enough for all of them? Or were they acting, too?
Given even three short minutes alone with the horizon, my dreams began to fill the expanse. I wanted to travel by foot with a pack on my back and watch my scars open and close over obstacles. Again, I was forced to remember I was a woman. Again, I was forced to remember that no matter my strength, I had something worth stealing and breaking. Like a teenager, I wanted to bellow at the universe that it was wrong, that I could protect myself, despite long-faded bruises. It had taken intimacy from me, it had taken trust, it had nearly taken everything, but I’d come out the other side, wearing my freedom like war paint. You could rob me of everything else, but freedom was part of me. It couldn’t be stolen or broken. It defined me.
I yelled into the ground anyway. It exhausted me and allowed me to lay in the white noise of the waves for a moment longer. The horizon broke as a man emerged from the water. I watched him as he carried his dive tank over the dead coral to the truck on the shore. With his wetsuit still on, I could tell he was young. I watched him unload and unzip the top of suit, revealing white skin and rigid muscles. He was dripping wet and I watched like a lioness in the brush. We made eye contact, and he smoothed his black hair back onto his head, more conscious of his movements. I unclipped my washed out locks, letting them fall into my face and picked up my book. He was 20 yards away and on the other side of the world. He climbed into the rear cab of the truck and let one leg dangle idly. I stared at him as he filled his space, stretching, back arched, arms extended. I wondered if he was The One, and if we’d ever know this happened, telling stories about our trips a year into our courtship, not remembering the dates to know if we’d been on Bonaire at the same time. We would laugh, hands intertwined, never knowing. I turned back to my book, unable to watch the truck drive him away.
My father came up behind and tossed a piece of cookie on my towel saying, “try this.” It was waffled and thin and I thought of a morning a week before when 102 had reached into a paper bag, pulled out some sort of treat, and said, “I got this for you.” I knew it was extra. I couldn’t imagine him at a store, getting one for himself and thinking, I bet she would like this. It had been waffled and strawberry and had the type of packaging that suggested it lived next to the register at gas stations. I hated how often I thought about him. I wasn’t in love with him. I just cried every time I thought about him leaving. I thought about his small mouth and peculiar speech pattern. I wanted to sit quietly with him forever. I wanted to pretend that forever was something I wanted. He was the only thing that could have anchored me, and I was watching him shrink smaller and smaller against the horizon, unsure of which of us was drifting and where.
My phone buzzed and I hated myself. I didn’t think it would be him, but I was human - I wanted it to be. It was the New York City alert system. Another love I’d left behind. Another place I couldn’t love.
I wondered where the others were. Where were the people just like me? I was fairly certain I was meant to fall in love with one of them, and I didn’t care whom, so long as they could see me stare at the horizon like a starved animal and simply say, “yes,” not in allowance, not in hindered commiseration, but in steadfast and strategic planning. The horizon would be ours. But there were caves in the musings of love that I avoided. In love, I let commitment sit idly on a cloud of loyalty, avoiding the other constraints that our society had built into it - mortgages, insurance, the American dream. Love and youth glossed over the realities of status and income and familial expectations. Now, those things slunk around my brain like a disease, growing their fungus thicker and thicker ‘til my hull would become part of the dock and the only escape would be that which escaped me.
I wanted to see the world, but more than that, I wanted the world to see me.
“The water makes me nostalgic for when I lived on the boat,” I said to my father, to myself.
“But remember, you grew bored of that pretty quickly.” He was right.
“Is there anything that will ever make me happy?”
We laughed, and settled into a painful quiet, watching my mother maneuver in the water past the reef in front of us. I knew my father felt my pain. I knew my mother did, too, but she was reluctant to admit it. My parents all through my youth were dreaming of somewhere else. My father wanted to be where he met my mom - in the backwoods of Idaho with only the sun and the mountains to dictate his day. My mom wanted to see the world. She wanted a nicer car and a nicer house and nicer clothes. There were a million places she’d never been… St. Lucia, the Sahara, Morocco, Belize, London, Amsterdam, Paris. I went to Paris without them when I was 14. They loved me. I did everything in my power to be what they thought would make me invincible. Be your own person, have adventures, travel, speak out, individuality is key, stand up for what you believe in, fight tooth and nail for what you want. It was only when I turned 22 that I realized these things were caveated and that my efforts were pointless. It turned out none of this mattered if I didn’t have health insurance and a good man. What a load of shit.
Of course I wanted to be in love, of course I wanted to have someone light up my night in the darkest hours, of course, of course I did. But I wanted a novel, I wanted a story in motion, and I didn’t want that love to be the end of the story. I wanted him to be a character and I wanted our novels to crash together and rivet us. I wanted to be bewildered and have my breath stolen and the rug ripped out from under me and to read him top to bottom for the rest of time. I didn’t want the prepackaged combined income and health benefits home in the good school district. People told me I would want these things by now. And I tried to. But I exhausted myself trying to be what they wanted. And at 27, I was relieved to feel the fight in me still raging like a wildfire.
My father walked down the beach to where the reef broke open and swam out to join my mother. I watched them from my towel and felt my world begin to shift. The gears in my head cranked furiously, and the cobwebs inside me wilted. A donkey bellowed somewhere in the distance. I know. The tree ached and turned above me. I said, I know. And one more wave crashed onto another on the coral just feet away. “I KNOW!” I yelled with my face buried in my towel. The sun’s pace quickened; it was eager to stare down at something else. I watched it change into a deep orange as it neared the line of the ocean, like it was dressing up for a dear friend. I rested my chin on my hands, watching my parents swim toward the shore. They clambered out from the water, laughing about something, my mom playfully hitting my father in the shoulder. They made their way to the car and hollered my name to join them. I nodded, still staring out to sea.
I never longed for a man the way I longed for the horizon. If I had been born different, they would have called me a sailor, but I was a born a woman, so they called me a fool. My eyes lingered on the edge of the world as I watched the sun run away, quietly, but clearly, calling my name.