I write poetry and creative nonfiction. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mothers Always Write, Red Fez, A Quiet Courage, Literary Mama,...read more and others. I grew up in the Chicago area and now live in Washington State. Because mountains. Most of my time is spent fantasizing about being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air.
I spend the last week of my time in Alaska on Kodiak Island. In order to explore, several times a day I hitch rides. By now my thumb is seasoned, and yet still I heed the advice Rob in Homer had given me: when a car stops for you, ask them where they are headed. This gives you an out, should you get bad vibes. Always listen to your instincts. Each misty day on Kodiak I hitch out to Fort Abercrombie to wander the rocky beaches and rusty, hollowed-out bunkers from World War II. Evenings find me strolling the boat harbor in town. One night the full moon lights up the water so much I can almost see through the black.
Most nights I have a seafood dinner at a small table in a quiet restaurant, absorbed in a good book. I turn in early at the hotel, a basic room with a bed and a shower and not much else, but it’s all I need. I make the most of the short daylight, which doesn’t appear till 10am and is long gone by 6. Besides my visits to the beach, one day I visit a historical Russian Orthodox church, the next day the Kodiak Island Marine Life Center, where I meet an octopus up close. The attendant is really into octopuses, enthusiastically talking to me about the slimy creatures as one wraps around his hand. He doesn’t care, like this kind of thing happens all the time.
On my last day on Kodiak I hitch out to my usual spot at Fort Abercrombie. I sit and watch the gray skies change with the wind, and the sea slosh and wash anew. Under an overhang I find rock cairns, short stacks of little rocks, the top rock balanced, despite all the typical wind and rain. With tears sneaking into my eyes I sit on the rocky beach and say goodbye to Alaska, the place with the chainsaws and hard ground and steel toes, the place that finally quelled The Discontent.
On my layover at the Phoenix airport I lunch at a Chili’s, a chain I frequented often before I left. I seek out a quiet corner table in the busy restaurant. I stare at a large, awkward menu. A waitress bustles over. “What’ll it be?”
“And for a side?” She is talking loud, and I don’t know why.
She rattles off my choices. “Coleslaw, salad, green beans, or corn on the cob.”
I begin to feel dizzy.
“Can you repeat that slower?”
She pronounces each item like she’s teaching new words to a kindergartner. “Coleslaw, salad, green beans, or corn on the cob.”
I swallow and feel a lump forming in my throat. I don’t want her to ask me any more questions. There are too many choices. “I don’t know. Surprise me.”
The waitress gives me a heavy sigh, a real husky sound, like I didn’t hold up my end of some deal. She studies me, her eyes rolling over my long, unkempt hair. They move to my daypack, now dim with dirt, under the table beside my feet. Just go, please go and leave me the hell alone.
But she persists, her voice jolting and shrill. “And to drink?”
She means what would I like to drink. “Water.”
She grabs my cumbersome menu and heads off. I stare at the table, still dizzy. I need to calm down. She was just taking my order. I regain composure and retrieve my journal from my pack and begin a letter to my father. It’s one I’ll never send of course, because I know he wouldn’t care to read it. I write it for myself.
Sometime during the third page I become aware that a young girl, grade school-aged, and her parents have sat at the next table and are now eating. As I’m writing the girl speaks to her parents. In the softest, most girlish voice I had ever heard, she proclaims “I’m full.” I stop writing. I’m full. Some people in this world will never know that feeling. Does she know that? How fortunate she is? How fortunate am I? I close my journal to contemplate this.
The sassy waitress interrupts my trance and plops a big plate down in front me. It clangs on the table to announce its arrival. “Here’s your lunch,” she says, and then stalks off, leaving me alone with this abnormally large plate of food.
The meat looks old and dull, the bun fake and flat. The fat fries hog the plate. For my side item the waitress chose the green beans. Skinny and stringy, they have got to be the sorriest green beans I’ve seen. I’m hungry but no longer want to eat. Not here. If I’m going to eat, damn it, I want to eat a moose burger, served by the hunter himself, and blueberries from around camp. I want halibut from the Kenai River and s’mores fresh from the fire. And I want to do it gathered with my crewmates.
But I don’t want to waste this food.
The burger tastes how it looks, like it traveled thousands of miles, aging considerably with each mile, from a slaughterhouse somewhere in Iowa in the back of some truck to arrive, dead and unfortunate, on my plate. With each chew I mostly think about this cow and how it lived out its days in a factory farm operation. The rest of the time I think about how tasteless it is, like wet, dewy cardboard. The green beans are like dead dandelion weeds, and all I can think about is how this invasive species is invading my plate.
I pay the tab and board my flight to LAX, the remnants of lunch still in my mouth. I never knew cardboard had an aftertaste. I’ve arranged for my friend Gordon to pick me up in Los Angeles.
Once landed in LA I bound down the jet way. I’m home. At long last. I get to see my friends. I get to shower everyday. No more hard ground. Wait. I stop bounding. No more hard ground.
I come into the airport and immediately I’m overwhelmed with the harsh discord of constant commotion. I look around, and everyone is in a hurry, wheelie suitcases being pulled behind. Also, everyone is so well dressed. I stand and watch for a minute, unable to do anything else. It’s like being forced to look at a bright light. As I move into the concourse, the sea of people washes over me with unstoppable force, and I’m swept up in this panicky feeling. People are coming from all directions. And the noise! It is raging, furious noise, bouncing off the walls and the ceiling. I do my best to shield myself from all this, to go a little more inside myself and insulate from the ceaseless outside. I’ve been plucked up and slammed into a different world entirely.
I fumble down to baggage claim, trying to feel as insular as I can. I wait for my backpack and duffel to come out. When they do I collect them. Turning, I see Gordon standing off to the side next to a pillar. It is strange seeing him, like seeing a favorite shirt from childhood. As I walk to greet him, I feel a flicker of unease. I’m in different skin now, and I haven’t quite settled in yet. How will he receive that? We exchanged only one letter when I was gone. In an instant I decide I don’t care. Gordon sees me and walks toward me. We hug. He smells like he always did, of breath mints and aftershave. It was at once comforting and abrupt in a weird way, like he’s distracting me from an inside narrative.
“So, how was it?”
I remember the last days of our service spent with the big group at headquarters, talking about transitioning back into our regular lives. Our program supervisor talked about how strange it may feel to be inside for any extended period of time, surrounded by four walls. Don’t be surprised, she cautioned, if in a month we long for the hard ground and go digging for our Thermarests. Yeah right, I think, I’m not camping for at least a year. We talked about how to best summarize our AmeriCorps service on our resumes. We talked about how to continue to serve our communities. What we didn’t talk about was how I get to know myself again, how I fold myself into my old world, how to give up friendships that no longer reflect my beliefs, how to rekindle the ones that do. We didn’t talk about how I go about building a new life. How could I answer Gordon’s question?
“Good. It was good.”
“Where’s the rest of your stuff?”
“This is it.”
He looks at me. I could tell he’s waiting for me to say more. But I don’t have anything more to say.
We walk to his car, a good half-mile away, still in a sea of people. I shoulder my backpack, while Gordon carries my daypack and duffel. He talks nonstop, and I gather he is talking about work, his son, his boat, and the woman he’s dating. Most of the time I’m trying to curl up inside myself as much as I can. Finally we reach the car. We load the bags and climb in. With a turn of the key his sleek BMW is hurtling me toward where I used to live.