I leave the house while the world is still sleeping.
Blue dawn is just giving way to cool golden daylight. There’s an unseasonable chill in this midsummer air. Even the sheep are still huddled together, snuggling among the low tree branches on their hill. Arriving at the station, I see one other lonely soul waiting on the deserted platform. The orange LED timetable display is blank, dormant.
Shuttered houses snooze, while the first birds are swooping and cackling above our heads.
I wait for the tinny tell-tale vibration of the tracks that signal the train’s arrival. Birds cheep, cars rev into second gear, plastic trash bags rustle. No vibration, no train. The sky darkens, cool air licks up my spine and blows away my grogginess, giving way to worry.
I’ve been pacing, while the minute hand has sliced through half a revolution. A husky wheeze of a bus engine signals behind me. A rosy-faced motherly woman commands the immense steering wheel, and waves me over. Climbing aboard, rosy perfume mingles with the fatigued, stale odor of bus seats who’ve seen better days.
There’s always one passenger who’s got to make friends with the driver; today, it’s a woman who looks just like her, short and plump with hair to match. Her rough smoker’s laugh matches the wheeze of the bus engine, periodically firing off as we gallivant through the countryside.
Bus bounces through impossibly narrow country roads, past steep green hills of grapevines that make way for flat horizons of corn fields. Detours take us through isolated roads, until we reach the point of no return: a road barely large enough for a horse and buggy. A Herculean effort is necessary for our valiant driver to back on up out, and eventually we find the main road.
The passenger next to me is glued to his smartphone. I recognize him as a train employee, on his way to work like the rest of us. His globby fingers daintily poke at the touchscreen, and he’s still wearing yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow. I keep sneaking glances at him, just another guy on the Saturday morning bus. He seems so much smaller than the man whose gaze I avoid while he suspiciously scrutinizes my train pass.
The bus finally hauls its tired mass into the station. I left home nearly 2 hours ago. My legs are a blur, propelling me through the familiar streets rendered foreign in Saturday morning light.
The streets are dingier in the gray light. I pass by a man, roughened and beaten down by life, shuffling stiffly along, hollow mouth agape, framed by a dirty beard and long-neglected hair. The sight of him inspires disgust, then hot shame.
Past the post office, whose sidewalk reeks permanently of urine, sprinkled with crumbles of doubtful origin… Are there THAT many large dogs left to freely defecate on this same sidewalk? Doubtful.
A man strolls along, engrossed in the glow of his smartphone, which emanates suspiciously pornographic sounds.
Just before arriving at work, I catch a whiff of shair. Why is that rank-ass smell following me today?
Rip the door open at work, and there’s nobody but my coworker chirping, “Good morning! Your student called and said she’s gonna be late for class…”
I crouch into a squat and collapse into laughter. Sweet relief mixes with exhaustion and sudden buoyancy. Everything’s okay, and I can finally take a moment to laugh at the thoroughly bizarre start to my day.
Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Every No is a chance to learn something. Every closed door, every rejection, every empty inbox. Every outpouring of effort that fails to make even the tiniest ripple. Every twinge of disappointment, every shameful time you realize that you don’t measure up.
Nos hurt; they make you question what you’re doing and why you do it. But this is exactly why Nos are also a great impetus for growth. Why are you doing that? Is there something to learn here? Is that No a permanent roadblock?
Yes can be too easy. Yes absolves you from the responsibility of reflection. Yes tells you what you’re doing right, not what you need to work on. Yes makes you soft.
I’m on a mission to collect Nos. I have a lot to learn.
Sunday was day 0 in Amsterdam. I never count the day you arrive as a full day. You’re lost and disoriented, cars and trams beep, bikes plink bells at you, men seductively catcall in multiple languages, you’re surrounded by hordes of idiotic bumbling tourists, and you hate yourself for being one.
Stumble along on the sidewalk. Clouds of marijuana smoke explode in tufts from the mouths of eager testosterone-ridden men. They leer through the haze of the window and the weed.
Dragging my stupid suitcase, squeezing myself through narrow spaces between tourists, flattening myself against buildings to avoid bikes. I’m squinting into the sun and scuffing my sneakers on the uneven pavement. Bakeries are abundant and fragrant, and there’s music and movement everywhere.
I’m dazzled at this new, different city.
That feeling is reserved for Day 0. There’s none other like it.
No, no no…
My class was meant to start 2 minutes ago.
I’m upstairs, fumbling through my bag, ripping through the contents.
Where is it…
I’m aggressively breathing, forcing air through my constricting airway. I feel flushed, my heart is racing, and hot tears are starting to erupt.
I find my homeopathy tablets and shove some under my tongue. Breathe, take control.
I feel trapped. I’m deeply uncomfortable. I want 5 minutes to go outside and breathe. I want to walk and keep walking until I get home. I want to walk straight out of this reality, if it means I can get myself back. But for now, I have to swallow those needs and do my job. The only thing I can control right now is my breath.
I crunch through what’s left of the tablets, take a gulp of water, and paste on a smile. I descend to greet my student, who looks a bit annoyed at being kept waiting. I’m 5 minutes late.
A thickly sweet voice says, “Thanks for your patience. Shall we begin our class now?” A body goes into a classroom.
Me dissolves. Breath remains.