I was dubious of Sam because he’d hitchhiked here on a whim, and I can use details like that to justify a sour attitude when I’ve decided I’m against someone. He was just some guy who’d blown in to piggyback on my trip, and I sort of thought, “the nerve.” Until then, it was just going to be me and my two long-estranged pals Elliot and Steven. The prospect of reestablishing foundational intimacies was making my heart feel like hot buttered noodles and, c’mon, did Sam really have a right to interlope just ‘cause he and Elliot had been roommates once? But Steven opined Sam was exactly the type of person who’d be great to have on a trip. Yanking me aside as I peevishly wondered aloud how four people and my bike would fit into the car, Steven firmly pointed out that Sam was calmly exploratory, genuinely curious, and in possession of this lilting Scottish accent that imbued his every comment with cheeky charm (“cheeky” was one of Sam’s favourite words and it caught on like kindling with the rest of us, “cheeky j’s” especially, “smoking a cheeky j”).
Steven said: “With Sam on this trip the confluence of eccentric personalities will make adventure inevitable.”
I imagined us all out on the whipped sand in a pine-scented miasma and was like, “Actually maybe yes, the universe has ordained this voyage. Fuck my bike.”
That’s when Sam’s interest in the island faltered. He heard it was great, but there was just a lot to see and do while he was in this part of the world. He thought maybe instead of taking a detour to the westernmost point of the globe to stare intensely at the horizon with us, he might just start hitching down the coast. We morphed into a speechifying wolfpack and tore that alternative right from the bone. He was sold, and the night before leaving we drank beer by the bay and I smudged the boys with burning cedar on the balcony of my apartment, which was something I’d started doing — I don’t know why.
The last minute addition to the trip meant we needed new accommodation, the lady on the phone for the cabin we’d rented was not being cool about an extra, even if he slept in the tub. But I’d bumped into a friend the previous day and she’d drawn me a route to get to a little commune. We made for it soon after spotting ocean through the trees, arcing down the highway’s hills to the crescendoing “ohhwooows” of a song I put on at euphoria-volume every time I got to that point of the drive.
We found the commune thanks to driftwood signs painted with hearts and smiley-faces. I pulled into a dirt path so narrow all the salmon-berry branches stroked the car thickly ‘till we hit a little enclave. There, a tanned, shirtless man waited in his office: a plastic chair and a milk-crate in the woods. His name was Mark, known there as Mushroom Mark, and he’d arrived this far west on bike. The trip from Ontario had taken him 177 days, sleeping by the highway-side, unable to pick his favourite province from the beauty of it all. “Next I’m going to China,” he told us, “and from there I’ll bike to Portugal.”
I had to actually picture a map.
“It’ll take me five years to get there.”
I said, “I bet it will.”
We settled that we’d all work an hour daily in return for a campsite, then I drove us into the foresty depths of the commune looking for a spot ‘til I got practically stuck between creek and cedar trunks. Sam leapt out to guide me millimeter by millimeter until we found a place to set up. Elliot liked the hanging lichen on the branches around the clearing. “Very atmospheric,” he said, unpacking his vintage-style hurricane lamp. A group of Baja hoodie-wearers walked by us. “Hello, gods and goddesses,” one of them said, leaning in to hand Elliot a lemon-half as he passed, sticky and inexplicable.
To fulfill our obligations, we got to work straight away, hauling a slithery truckload of kelp to enrich the communal gardens. The truck’s driver explained he’d harvested it from the beach that morning. “The sea vegetable subsumes oceanic nutrients,” he said, “all the minerals, even gold.” It was important to him that we understood how much gold there is in the sea.
Smelling like low tide, we trudged up the dunes with their sharp breezes and gray grasses and looked out at the smooth wet slice of beach. Sam produced a pen and notebook and wrote, “Sam, you’re just tripping. – Sam,” folded it up into quarters and tucked it in his shirt pocket. This was so in the future he could open it and grin broadly, reassured that things weren’t as weird as we were making them. An hour later, the woods began to vibrate around us, all the leaves sharp and hovering in the air.
“We need to make a bonfire tonight,” said Steven, alight with the prospect of glowing in a tiny circle on a vast, empty beach, when all the scenic draws of daytime would be replaced by dire darkness and dichroic water, and any subaquatic tectonic movement would swallow us like a canapé. I built the fire with kindling stolen from oceanfront cottage backyards, as Sam held my growler of beer and whispered nervously to not let anyone see me. But I left the bonfire with Elliot when I saw that his face was lit with internal terror. We’d lost track of him earlier on the seaside rocks at sunset. Upon reunion he said, “I wept,” but in the umber-shadowed flamelight he just look scared. Within pupil-blackness to a backdrop of wave-sounds, I told him he was doing a really good job in as many ways as I could think of until he said he felt better.
“I’m frustrated because I feel like I’m at the precipice of something that I really, really want but I’m not reaching it. And I know I have to work hard, even harder, but I don’t know how, or where to direct my energy.
“I feel like something needs to change, but that’s very indistinct and intimidating and I’m not sure I’m capable of achieving what I aspire to, or even what that is more, than the vaguest feeling. I’m paralyzed just wondering where to go. Life lately has felt like the same scenery is rotating in the background, and I just know there is a lot more to this that I haven’t penetrated, and I need to earn my entry. I’m looking for ciphers indicating intelligence and humility and depth, and human warmth, that it’s real and I can pull it close.”
Facing the ocean, its gold as imperceptible as ever in the dark, we looked to an inscrutable horizon to reassure us we were ridiculous.
It was so empty around us we could have splayed our arms out and twirled. I said that there’s a reason people are drawn towards places of natural majesty; that there’s a perceptible force reverberating through them at the register of whalesong. There’s a powerful presence impervious to conceptions of good and bad. I encouraged reverence for something ancient and resonant with the sweet sincere spiritualism of well cared-for kids unnerved by bad feelings they can’t quite place.
When we got back to the fire I asked Sam when he’d felt the most loved. He said, “It was when Sarah told me that she loved me,” his accent heather rippling on rolling moors.
“Oh god,” said Steven, “That was the moment I felt most loved, too!”
Sam asked me, point blank, what I liked to write about, and it tripped me because I’d never been asked that. When I asked him about his travels, the breadth and fearlessness of his litany left me small-feeling and focused on the stars. We talked ‘til we found ourselves staring at embers like they weren’t how fires always end. We realized none of us had a flashlight. We realized it was going to be very difficult to find our way.
Steven jabbed a puny beam out of his iPhone, all gritted with sand, and with a strange skittish giddiness we bushwhacked through the Pacific Northwestern mega-shrub until the zip-swish of sleeping bags lulled us to sleep.
Sam hitched off the next evening, because he had a route to follow. His path traced down the entire length of the continent, and once everything had been explored and observed, he’d catch a plane and start his Ph.D. at Oxford in the fall. Elliot, Steven and I stayed on, our position on the outermost cusp of the west not a detour but a destination. For days we clustered around gysering hotsprings thick with fat purple mussels and fed wild dogs our sandwiches on cliffsides tangled in coastal strawberry scrub. Steven and I climbed rocks and Elliot made bouquets of cedar fronds and Sam missed it all. One morning a weird wash of benign blue jellyfish filled the sea thickly, an inexplicable natural phenomenon. They just swept in from some deep mysterious source and surfaced in the billions. When you looked down into the water it looked just like the universe. Sam missed that, too, and I wish he’d been there to feel the abrupt and wonderful sense of serendipity the apparition brought on — a lucid, fluttering feeling I’d follow to the end of the earth if I could.
after Drinking Spirit by Rebecca Chaperon
When I was seventeen, I didn’t go out much. Friday nights were spent in my bedroom with a Word document open, and I’d dress to do it. I’d put on a pleated skirt and these empty plastic frame glasses identical to the glasses I actually need now. When I let slip in class that my writing routine required a whole “serious” outfit, my high school English teacher gave me this buttery look. He told me, "You are such an exciting student to watch develop." I thanked a cup filled with pens. (“God,” said Fell, “What a perv.”)
Appearance felt like a way to manifest an indecipherable destiny, even if I was the only one who saw me, reflected in my bedroom window. Really earnest posing was my default; private, sincere, and embarrassing if anyone threw open the door. That was years ago, but it’s not like my early compulsions have changed all that much. I’m still trying to make things feel just right.
“I think I just need some time to myself,” I told Fell last December. “Like a little trip to go somewhere else for a while, be in nature and write.” In an half-baked vision I saw myself coherent, ideal, rustling leaves aside to find a glowing, humming apparition of inspiration that had been there all along. Running off felt like what Vanity Fair would call a necessary extravagance: indulgent but solemn, fueled by the rabbit-like terror of routine. Pilgrimages to lush, nurturing “creative spaces” must be a thing for a reason. I booked a ferry ride for the first day of the New Year—cold sea air, perfect fresh start time.
Except, I woke up wrecked. My alarm went off and it felt grimly funny, like “alas, now I must face the consequences of that fucking champagne.” I don’t even drink that much, but I believe in champagne unreasonably, like a fantasy, the same way I did when I snuck it as a kid, scrunching my face up through every sick sip.
The day before leaving, I’d stuffed clothes in a pretty carryall that always gets compliments though inside it smells dank. I get a lot of compliments. People say I’m such a “lady,” an elegant young woman. They say it because I’m polite and I dress nicely, the kind of nice that’s a touch mature for my age but pulled off expertly. Skirts, blouses, prim stuff. It’s one of the “things” I “have.” It’s a foundational element that keeps me from disassociating entirely. I dress up as my own goals, I play nicely with the others.
But if you asked my mom she’d say lately I’ve become exceptionally rude. Sometimes she calls and says, “Listen, I’m not the oracle or anything but when you’re feeling down sometimes there’s nothing to do but buck up and keep going,” and I say “What else am I going to do, disappear into a fog?” and she says, “Hey—“ and I say, “I can’t have this conversation right now,” and hang up.
Then she texts me about bad manners and “stopping it,” and I don’t care at all for a second, and then for another second I want to crunch my phone in my hand. I want it to break like a clam, wet and killable inside.
I don’t know how I made it, driving in the ice-glare of a New Year, gripping the steering wheel hard and repeating “stupid” in my head like a mantra. Miraculously on board but too sick to stumble above deck, I lay in the trunk of my car, wrapped in a shawl my mom had forgotten in the back. It was thick and cashmere and lightly scented with her perfume and maybe for a moment it was my favourite thing about her.
I’m mean to the people who love me. I try to articulate sympathy through absence. It’s situational rejection. “I’m out of here,” when witnessing misery, the “because I can’t bear to see you like this” just a little kernel enveloped somewhere in the airbag of callousness mushrooming up. I’ve had the same conversations with my mother for so many years I say, “just stop” before rehashing advice; holding the phone four inches off, everyone in the coffee shop aware I’m bitchily stonewalling someone emotional. Some days I think about thanking my grandfather for his role in raising me, before he dies. I’m not doing the things I know I should be. Excavation attempts inward reveal a decadent and despicable civilization responsible for its own fall.
Fell is brilliant but nurses a collection of phobias like a collection of metallic-shelled beetles in a case. You wouldn’t even guess somebody had a collection like that ‘til you came to their house one day and went, “oh, you like beetles!” To me, she’s figure skating, but to herself it’s more of a galumph through the snow bank with the wrong kind of boots on. She told me once, “I imagine how much I could have accomplished had I not spent so long dealing with all this. I see what other people have achieved; grad schools and honours and novels and such.”
Like the whole time you’re growing up, there’s another version of you surmounting your hurdles with ease, writing a novel while you’re teary for no reason, mastering a piano concerto as you make yourself barf. You’re tailed by an alternate, superior specter of self, the world’s most aggravating imaginary friend, realer than all your achievements combined.
The ferry docked. A walk felt optimistic so I went for a drive. I pulled abruptly onto the rural shoulder, accidentally slamming the gas, lurching into the winterfern brush as I puked out the window. As I was rinsing the carside vomit with cold earl grey tea, some guy slowed down and yelled, “Hey, you can’t park there!” I thought, oh, ok, thanks. I clearly did not intend to end up here. Once, I made everyone pull over in Hawaii so I could retch a sack of guava onto the shoulder (winding cliffside road, more fruit than foresight). When I looked up, I saw an unrealistically glittery blue ocean, bird filled trees frothing with fruit and flowers, three rainbows in the sky. Three whole rainbows. Everything moving and glowing and warm. I said it was the best puke of my life.
I pulled up the cabin’s steep driveway with a little vomit still on my car door. On the same property was my hut, and a main residence where the woman who rented it lived. I fell straight into bed (heart-soft and smothered in blankets) but reeled back up when she knocked to say hello. Her handshake was like shaking hands with a brisk glacial river. A small dog plus three cats circled her feet. In the adjoining cabin she appeared to live alone, filling her backyard with bird feeders and eccentric garden décor; a bathtub and a Buddha’s head, and Christmas lights she showed me how to unplug if I wanted to see the stars more clearly at night. From outside I heard her say, “Don’t – get down from there, I don’t like you up there!” and I knew she was talking to a cat. In my notebook I wrote, “I’m young now, but give me twenty years…”
When I checked my phone, Fell had texted me, “r u alive?!"
She texts me, “I’ve been the one holding me back.”
I text Fell, "I think the scope of emotional sensitivity you gain from feeling weird and sad helps you understand things better.” “Like what?” she types. I write, “Not sure.”
I’ve got a low success rate with being sure. “Have a grateful heart” and “practise awareness” are two pieces of advice often spritzed on me in rapid succession. I know people who find it useful to surround themselves with foundational phrases to blueprint their life’s architecture, but I’ve always thought it was stupid. OK, maybe not exactly stupid — I admire the organization it takes to identify who you want to be and draw a map to get there.
I ditched the island in the morning dark. I woke up at 3am and decided to throw in the towel on the whole idea of getting away from anything. I arrived home and felt no different than when I left, that fantasy version of me staying on behind to be prolific in a rain-hammered cabin. Chalk it up as the first dumbass move of the New Year, self-indulgence squared. In my notebook I wrote, “The way headlights cut fog in the forest in the dark,” “making not-serious mistakes that don’t hurt anyone,” and “sweatpants.” It was the gist of the writing I got done. I crawled the car onto the onramp, hours before sunrise. In the trunk: a crumpled cashmere shawl, a pretty, moldy tote, and a paper cup once hot with earl grey tea.
Fell sent me an online questionnaire to fill out for fun and one of the questions was, “What do people get wrong about you, first off?” I thought of the reassuring linearity of my life’s trajectory so far, a stroke as neat as a pencil skirt. I thought of all those kind people who tell me that I’m doing well and need to stop being so hard on myself. They say, “That girl is going places.”
Words by Adrienne Matei.
Paintings by Rebecca Chaperon.