chasing one little baby tick of unblackened weed around the rim of the pipe, warm in my bone-cold fingers: cold white light and me here on this dingy old velvet couch listening to the boys in AIDS’s bedroom pretending it’s a real gym. they listen to eminem a little too much, but i won’t givem shit for it.
genezareth and hannah are considering busking on a corner on weekends; seabass was turned down for a resto job due to his lack of a work visa; bethany was selling Christmas cards for a euro apiece; i was considering selling knit caps, AIDS and I have discussed becoming regional camgirls.
we are sort of brutally poor, but we do our bestish. combat creeping depression with routines and rituals: open the shutters every morning and close them up every night, go for hikes, go for runs, do pullups and pushups and abs, chat together in the sparsely-furnished kitchen all squattin on buckets and low stools on the ground. we are all in balls deep for bernie sanders.
written fall-winter 2015. entry 1 of a series.
The stories are clawing at my insides.
I’ve been on the road for months now, haven’t paid rent since May. Been living out of a sack, the same peeling yellow plastic bag of crumpled clothes that still smell like air-conditioning vents and jaundiced summer subway air and the sad empty space under hostel beds no matter how many times I’ve managed to launder them, at least until I discovered the indispensable trick of stuffing a sack of espresso grinds in my pack. Keeps yeh fresh.
The backpack pockets are crammed with paraphernalia of the deliberately homeless, essentials built up over months of wandering: a watercolor palette, crayons charbon of different hardness levels, an emergency thermal blanket and a roll of duct tape, a pack of band-aids, a rather rag-tag assortment of crumpled condoms, a glue stick and sewing supplies, four or five dirty kitchen spoons – I collect spoons wherever I go, the way most people collect accidentally stolen pens — a torn Ziploc sack full of pennies and two-cents and Danish kroner and Moroccan dirhams, my loose bus/café fare.
In the top of my pack I have clipped the spare keys to Dennis’s apartment in Ishøj, Denmark, which he insisted I take just in case I decided to come back. “You know that’s not possible,” I told him. “This is it. I’m sorry.”
Still, he insisted. I guess some folks just need something to hold on to.
FIVE MONTHS AGO, the end of April in Lyon. The sun was beginning to make appearances from time to time, people blinking sluggishly up as if in a state of mild surprise: « Qu’est-e que c’est ? » I had just turned twenty-two on a brilliant rainy day with a double rainbow smeared across the sky. The wind was turning, getting warmer, buzzing with a hint of electricity, a hint of change.
School was not going so well, mainly because I was giving up on it. Spending more and more time in the real world instead of the classroom, traveling instead of studying, speaking French instead of taking notes in it. I had bombed a final already and suspected I might blow a few more in the coming week. My mind had been made up; I was not going back. I watched idly as the other study abroad students packed their suitcases and figured out their flights home, made plans with their families for their return, registered for classes in the coming semester. I had decided to move to Spain and teach English and was waiting on my formal acceptance letter. In the meantime I searched online for volunteer jobs across Europe; tutoring, gardening, painting, repair work, childcare, whatever I could get. I wasn’t sure where I would travel, only that I would.
Camille and I met on the 30th of April. We had matched on Tinder, which I had downloaded that morning on a whim, and scheduled a date for the same night without hesitation. I rode up on my bike, tires slicing lines on slick pavement, and found him next to the fountain at Terreaux in Lyon city center. He had arrived early. He smiled at me. His eyes were a fiercely glowing blue and we were both wearing flannel shirts.
Our first date lasted twelve hours. Our second, over forty.
Within the week I had found a job bartending at a dingy little pub in the center of Rue de Sainte Catherine, Lyon’s most notoriously filthy and unscrupulous pub street, under a tightly-wound, beady-eyed little Frenchman with a temper like Mount Vesuvius in Year 79. His name was Tom. On my first night, Tom approached me and said curtly in his dreadful thick French accent (for, although we conducted the interview only in French and he knew I was fluent, refused to speak French to me): “Gessica. You must clean ze farst bathrhoom. You go to ze middle of ze bar, you find ze glove, you pick up ze vomit and you trow it away. You do not trow away ze glove. Okay? It iz ze only one we have-uh.” I approached the bathroom with a deep breath and an open mind, C’est que du vomi, can’t be that bad, to find a partially-digested pound or so of what appeared to be a rump of ham artfully deconstructed and spewed into the men’s urinal. Scooping out the chunks with my single preciously-gloved hand, I was soon fishing out handfuls of pubic hair and unidentifiable slime from under a small lip in the bottom of the urinal – quite possibly more pubic hair than vomit, of which there was plenty. When I asked my coworker when the urinal had last been cleaned, he looked at me like I was insane. “I dunno,” he said with a shrug, “Not since I’ve been here. You don’t clean the urinal. Takes too long.” Silly me.
Later, Tom informed me that the customers were not allowed to bring cups into the street – not even plastic ones. “Oh really? Okay,” I responded with a nod. In ten minutes or so he came back and demanded, “Gessica I must see you outside, NOW.” The bar was swarmed with customers and I had an entire row of pints filling, but my coworker urged me out. “Run, run, go go go! Don’t make him wait!” In the street Tom started shouting and throwing his stumpy little hands about. “I do not want your o-pinion,” he said hotly. “When I say somezing to you, you do not respond Oh rheally? OH-KAI. If I say somezing to you you say Yes sirh, yes Tohm. Nozzing elze. I do not hire you to listen to your o-pinion. UNDERZTAND?” He was a head shorter than I and I was acutely aware that I would be able to break his nose with only a minimal amount of effort. “Yes, Tohm.” A growl through tightly clenched teeth. First night of many, folks.
YET IT WAS WORTH IT, every second of it. Cam and I had fallen in love perhaps the moment we met, then a little bit more every passing day. He was raised between Grenoble and Côte d’Ivoire in Africa and had taught himself perfect English through punk rock music. We could talk and joke for ten hours without noticing the time, bouncing between French and English, learning from each other. He was a world traveler, a constant nomad, loved camping, hiking, trail running, cycling and good beer. He looked like a tattooed lumberjack and, just like an Oregonian, he refused to use an umbrella in the rain. In short, he was perfect, and though I was wary, I let myself fall.
It was late May when I received my placement in Spain, in the Balearic Islands. I was working a private party at the bar, got the e-mail, went through the rest of the night in a daze. At home I woke up Cam to tell him, stammering, unsure of how to approach the subject. There was stillness, silence. We were both stunned, though of course we’d known it was coming. Perhaps we’d thought it wouldn’t happen, that reality would never set in — but there it was, inconveniently, as reality tends to be.
It was fast, all so fast, and then he was slipping away before I even had a chance to make a decision. He would not ask me to stay, because he knew better than to try and hold me back, but was unwilling to stay together if I left. Cam does not believe in the possibility of long-distance relationships, and a year ago I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. Now, I’m not so sure.
I’m willing to try. I know it will be hard. Mais je ferais n’importe quoi, pour toi.
He was a nihilist to the core, embittered, chasing the life he believed he was supposed to have. Done with all that now, he said. Much like his predecessor, he now wanted stillness. He sought routine. He hated France, but felt he had no choice but to anchor himself there. I could taste his nomadic soul, like the other half of my own, but he said he didn’t want to be wild anymore. Said he didn’t own anything, no house, no car, no nine-to-five grown-up career. It was time to settle down.
“Then this can’t work,” I told him. “If you’re looking to settle, you’re not looking for me.”
He was mine, and I loved him, and I might have been the one to tame him. But I let him go.
In early June I applied for a position at a children’s arts camp based in Rovereto, Italy. I interviewed over Skype the next evening, and the program manager told me she needed me to start in four days. In a whirlwind I packed all of my belongings, scrubbed my apartment from ceiling to floor, and rode around the city like a madman tying up loose ends. There was no time to be heartbroken. I hopped a bus for Pavia, crossing the Alps away from everything I had come to know and with absolutely nothing left to lose, for I’d already given it away.
Ca va aller.
-TO BE CONTINUED-
And for those of you who are interested, here’s a low-quality video of me being a high-quality employee at the pub in Lyon.
Salut, all. I know it’s been a while.
Been thinking lately of how to tell you about these last two months, what I should or should not say. I could tell you about loss, which has become an all-too familiar concept; I first lost my mobility, then my parter and best friend, then my grandmother, all in the span of a month. I could tell you about the journey of quitting anti-depressants for good; or, in the medical vein, I could tell you all about commuting by ambulance, being bathed by home nurses, weekly doctor’s visits. I could tell you about the hard stuff, the long nights full of tears and paint and candle wax, the physical pain and frustration that has come from walking, sitting, sleeping, the fight to maintain a firm emotional footing throughout this incredible storm.
But these are the grimy details. They’re only slivers of the bigger picture of this autumn, a season that will forever stand out to me as one of transformation.
The loss I’ve endured here has thrown into stark definition the things that are most precious to me, the values I most firmly believe in, and more than anything, the incredible blessings that remain in my life — the crazy people, most of whom are at least as fucked up as myself; the love I’ve felt in their little care packages and postcards; the support over Skype and phone as my family processes the death of our matriarch; the thrill brought on by a gust of wind lifting my hair as I cross the bridge over the Rhône, those surges of energy that make this earthly existence such a beautiful and heartbreaking thing to behold.
My way of life is a source of confusion for some; I’ve been described as chaotic, messy, out-of-control. But the reality is that I am needlessly ambitious; I want to plunge my body into all the beauty and darkness and laughter and sadness of this world all at once. I cannot compartmentalize my experiences nor my emotions, and I accept this — I am a tempest, a raging inferno of passion and melancholy. I thrive in chaos, I love with unrelenting intensity, and for this I offer no apology.
Because I broke my spine, all of life has taken on an even higher value. I now recognize the worth of every footstep, the power in the mere ability to stand, the incomparable vivacity of flying through city streets on two wheels, of screaming sweaty in a concert hall densely packed with bodies, of inhaling lungs full of cold river wind. I have forged connections here with other human beings and recognized the resting beauty in the ones I’ve left behind. After Christmas I’ll start living without the back brace, and I will set forth on my quest to live and experience more, to push myself further and beyond my limits; I’ll thumb my way around Europe, scale mountains, have more explosive romances, swim naked in oceans, and I will do this all with the unshakable conviction that life is best spent in the corners of chaos and passion.
And yes, I will keep climbing trees.