I needed oxygen. I needed sunlight. I needed to pull myself out of the tightly coiled ball I’d become in the armchair in my apartment. My calves were tight from a 77-mile ride the day before. My chest was tighter. Things had become impulsive. It took an exhausting amount of effort to keep scissors from my hair. I started new projects, switched from a delicate stud to a ring, gauged bigger and making my nose bleed. I liked the way it looked and the way it felt, both disruptive. I bought a new bike with money I didn’t have and I didn’t care. It made me feel fast and free, like I could ride forever, like I could disappear, like I could forget. I unraveled from the tightness and draped myself in new clothes and accessories with no context, no memories. I leaned over my vanity and stared into my own eyes, red and tired. I looked like I had been crying. I had. I grabbed my army-grade backpack and headed into the miserable, sunny day to knock on the doors of Hell.
I walked down the main street toward a restaurant I had never been to. I had never even seen inside. I didn’t know what was on the menu. There were no memories there. There was nothing to haunt me. I was going to fall in love with that place, that was the goal. It would become a haven I remembered as somewhere I began to heal. I walked up to the front door and there was a piece of paper hanging in the window with a note in marker, “closed ‘til 5:30! sorry for the inconvenience!”
I felt my teeth grit and my fists clench as I turned around. I walked on. I hated everything. Every smiling person, every stupid fucking restaurant, every cloud and leaf and brick and flower. Fuck this town, this place, fuck, fuck, fuck. I wanted badly to wallow. I wanted to throw a tantrum in the street like a rotten child. But I also fervently wanted to get better. I saw a pasta place and thought of my mom. My mom would tell me to eat pasta.
I sat in the compounded shade of the awning, an umbrella, and a wooden morethanlifesized chef welcoming patrons in Big Sky country to supposedly authentic Italian cuisine. It seemed cheesy, but most Italians would agree that gaudy and cheesy were typically included in the realm of authentic Italian cuisine. I had chosen the metal chair under the shade of everything to hide in the open. I wanted to be good to myself. I wanted the tightness in my chest to release. I wanted to smile. I really wanted something to eat.
I pulled “Tiny Beautiful Things” from my bag. Between bites of gnocchi, my lips would quiver and I would close my eyes as tight as I could to stop the tears. I knew that book would rip me open. I wanted it to. I was purging emotion like vomiting poison. My heart was breaking in broad daylight, eating alone at an Italian restaurant trying to remind myself life was good and full.
It was difficult to eat, but I was trying to eat everything. I hadn’t been eating much at all in the past few days and I had been burning too many calories. The emotional emptiness and the burning fuel of grief were a dangerous combination when it came to physical well-being. I needed my strength. I knew I would only strengthen my heart by working every other muscle to its breaking point as well. The street noise turned white and I could hear nothing.
“Are you alright,” a man was asking. He was in a group of three: an ancient white woman in Wal-Mart clothes, a black woman of an absolutely indeterminable age in expedition gear, and the old leathered man in a Hawaiian shirt with round glasses. They spoke French. They ordered espresso. They were enjoying the day.
“Miss, are you alright?” I lifted my gaze, realizing the romantically accented question was for me. When our eyes locked, I saw myself: I was a girl eating lunch alone at 4 pm on Father’s Day not even remotely concerned with keeping it together. I was miserable and my emotions were my outfit and my atmosphere. I made a chopping motion over my heart. “Heartbreak,” I whispered. It was only when I spoke that I felt how close to tears I had been the whole afternoon. He nodded.
“I see it in your eyes,” he said, pointing to his own. “Join us?” I tried to smile and tilted my head and shook it politely, trying to convey I couldn’t, and I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t because I might fall apart. I looked away. The old man and the ageless woman and the very old woman finished their espresso in minutes or in hours. I was lost somewhere else. But it was a peculiar validation. Like my sadness was so tangible that people I’d never met who weren’t from my town, my country, who didn’t speak my language could just look at me and read the entire story.
They stood to leave, and the man leaned over my table. Through the decades of difference, through the accent and the round spectacles and the Hawaiian shirt, he spoke to me.
"You never know what ended today for something to start tomorrow.”
The kindness pulled the pain from my chest up my throat and came out gasping through tears, “thank you.”
He touched my hand. “Things will get better and better.” He walked away and tears streamed down my cheeks in a quiet momentous flow.
Sometimes, in our most foolish darkest hour, when we’ve stopped begging for light and grace and we only pound our fists on the ground, knocking on Hell for an answer, sometimes that is when we are finally heard. Sometimes it is at the very worst of feeling useless and lost and disgusting and discarded that you can be helped. I implore you to not be embarrassed by your grief, to not shy away from feeling, to not hide from what shakes you, but to live it so fully and so dutifully that you could paint cathedrals with your soul, so authentic and true to everything you’ve felt and earned and destroyed. And no one will go to Hell with you. No one wants to knock on those doors for someone else’s journey. So they’ll offer words or silence or brush-offs or pick-ups, but no one will go to Hell with you. They will judge you or shy away from that depth of pain, and they will not fix you. So you must go alone. And you’ll look like a fool and you’ll be embarrassed but you’ll be one of the mighty few with the heart to do it. On your knees in the darkest hour when you’ve cried and cried and cried and all you can do is slam your fists in fury, you will find the others, you will find the light, you will find the hope and you will stand again. In this one precious life full of black and blue, I took my heart out of the darkest blue into the sunshine to knock on the doors of Hell to see how miserable I could become, and an angel answered.
Something ended today so something could start tomorrow. And things will get better and better.