Powwow

Deep and earthy rhythms
rumble from the skin
stretched on oaken frames.

All hearts beat together
shake the listeners’ bones
till all jump up to dance.

Midst feathers and the forest’s brightest hues,
the lithe and agile bodies hop and peck
as the wobbling white girl finds her feet.

Let go, the music beats.
Follow, we will lead.
The drum pounds in her chest.

Her bones throb with noise,
feet hop, body follows—

She beats with the drums.

 

 

Originally published in The Sheepshead Review, April 2016

Sharpies

Sharpies

 

This time last year, my favorite self-soothing technique was to draw on myself with Sharpie. Whenever I got triggered, I’d take out my box of Sharpies and roll up my sleeves. I always started on my arms, often with the word be on the back of my hand and eventually my wrist. (That would become my first tattoo.) I’d elaborate upon it across my arms: be willing, be real, be true, be brave, and whatever else I could come up with—everything I wanted myself to be. I’d fill in the gaps with swirls, flowers, balloons, animals, mushrooms, leaves—anything to take my mind off the shivering my spine, the spiraling in my mind. I loved watching the broad, bold lines coloring through the bland pinkness of my skin, turning me into a living canvas. The vibrancy made me feel alive; often, the bold colors obscured the scars. And the most important part: I would never cut into skin that was covered in Sharpie.

The first time I went all out with my coloring was the day before we left for South Dakota. I wore long sleeves the night we started out fourteen-hour drive, despite the fact that it was warm enough not to in the cramped and stuffy van. My teammates already viewed me as somewhat weird, often the oddball out. I didn’t want to reinforce that by flaunting the splatters of color on my arms.

I tried to wash the Sharpie off during my first shower at the Ranch, but it was determined to stay. I learned that Sharpie stays on for a very long time.

It stayed on bright and vivid throughout our stay, and throughout my interactions with Ty.

Ty was the tough kid, the one who knew everyone else at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. Ty was the one with the cap and the eleven intricate tattoos. Ty was the one the little kids ran to for comfort, who greeted them with “What’s up, little sister? What’s up, little brother?” when they sought out Ty’s aid. Ty was the master at hackey-sack, the troublemaker in the hallway and the paint room. Ty ignored us all, so we all wanted to be the one to break through with Ty.

Ty was the one we all thought was a boy until I found out she was a girl.

I don’t want to assume anything about who Ty really is; at the very least she’s a very butch lesbian. Her gender expression was masculine enough for a few of us to wonder if she was trans, but with her limited education and few available resources, even if she was, she might have no idea.

I was interested in Ty because I could tell she was on the queer spectrum. I also knew she was the type I could never build rapport with, so I didn’t try very hard. We were painting at the same table once, with one other girl who was more receptive to my conversation. Not that I was saying much. I couldn’t figure out what to say, while it seemed like everyone else from my team was having lively conversations with the kids, gaining favorites, and having a blast.

Ty was ignoring me point-blank even as I tried talking to her and the other girl. The first time she acknowledged me was when she was drawing a hill and a sun set and I told her I liked how she was texturing her work.

“You know where I learned that? Blue’s Clues!” she mocked me, shooting me a dangerous look.

“I like Blue’s Clues,” I said weakly.

I shut up after that.

When Ty was done with the picture she crumpled it up, claiming she wanted to get an interesting texture in it, probably mocking me again. The she threw it at me.

“Here, here’s a present,” she said, and then left to play hackey-sack with the boys.

“Thank you,” I said, opening it to look at the platters of color. “I really like it.”

I think she heard me, but I’m not sure.

I was bad at hackey-sack so I didn’t join in until the third day, our last time there. Most of the little kids had gone home due to the third suicide that week. But all of the high school students were still there, giving us the opportunity to focus our energy on the group that had primarily ignored us. I was afraid; the little kids liked me, thought I was funny, and loved that I’d go along with whatever they wanted to play. The teens would only play hackey-sack. Ty was a master. Ty schooled us. Anytime we served ourselves Ty made sure to catch the sack and chuck it at us—and I’ll tell you that little bean bag hurt when hauled by that kid’s fist. But Ty took the time to hold my foot and place the sack on it, giving me instructions and showing me how to improve.

As we were preparing to leave many of the team members were asking the kids to sign t-shirts they’d bought earlier on the trip. The shirt I was wearing was patterned and left no room for names, so I asked a few of the kids I was closest with to sign my arm. It was already marked with Sharpie, which was faded enough that the kids wrote on top of my pictures without trouble. After most of the little kids I’d played with had signed, I took a deep breath and called out to Ty to sign my arm.

She strolled up to me barking “What?” and I showed her the Sharpie and my arm. “Can you sign your name?”

She stared at me narrowly, obviously thinking it was stupid, and asked why.

“So I can remember you better.”

She shrugged and grabbed the Sharpie, then seized my arm and twisted it roughly as she tried to find an open spot. She rolled up my sleeve to reveal my upper arm and when she looked she stopped moving.

“What?” I asked, but when I looked I saw what she saw.

“It’s okay. We’ve all got those,” she said softly.

I started shaking. Ty scrawled her name on my arm. “I’m going to give you a hug,” she said suddenly. “I think you need it more than I do.”

I coughed in surprise as she clamped her arms around me. She was at least three years younger than me, but was as tall or taller, and had a bigger build than my tiny skinny frame. I hugged her back. I swear I heard her sniff and take a breath. “I’m going to write my name on your jacket too,” she said, and to this day her name is still on the shoulder of my long-sleeved jean jacket.

The next thing that happened is confusing because it was so quick and I observed it from a headlock position under Ty’s arm. She grabbed me, telling me she was going to carry me back to the van. I laughed and asked her to let go but she dragged me, yelling “Make way for my new best friend.”

My team was taken by surprise; some of them laughed and took pictures, others ran after me yelling my name, as if I could break free of the kid’s iron arms. My ex later told me she was afraid I’d been hurt because she couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.

“No one else got that close to Ty,” she told me when we talked about it later. “She picked you for a reason.”

Ty dragged me to the vans and finally let me go when I said I had to leave. She hugged me again and watched as I got into the van, watched us as we drove away, and I swear I heard her yell “I love you” before I closed my door.

 

A week later I pulled out my razor and rolled up my sleeve, but when I saw Ty’s name still scrawled across my arm, I stopped. I stared at it, I shivered, and got up to throw the blade away.

A day or two after that I found her on Facebook. She accepted my friend request. She immediately messaged me, “wyd.”

I smiled to myself and took a deep breath, and started typing my reply.

(The name of the student in this post has been changed to protect their identity)

 

 

A Bowl of Chili

A Bowl of Chili

I walked towards my First Nations Studies professor’s office, found the door ajar, and knocked. My hand shook a little because I knew one way or another this conversation was going to be emotionally charged. It had nothing to do with academics, but at the moment, it seemed to have everything to do with my life, my future, and my relationships with some of my closest friends.

My professor was squinting hard at something on the screen and looked almost angry, which made me even more nervous. I knew she didn’t like the root behind the topic I was going to bring up, and I’d felt she was a bit disappointed in me when she learned I had been a part of it last year. She was a small, curly-haired, powerful Ojibwe woman, with a large voice that could be remarkably soft when she needed it to, and the greatest sense of empathy I’d ever experienced from a professor—or any adult, really.

She looked up at my knock and her scrunched-up look of displeasure smoothed into one of pleasant surprise when she saw me at the door.

“Well, hello! What brings you here?”

First things first, I decided. I held up the can of Folger’s coffee that Stacie had asked me to bring in as a gift for the Elders in Residence. My professor was delighted, rising from her chair to receive the gift. She welcomed me in, thanking me and telling me to thank Stacie next I saw her.

But she could tell there was something else on my mind, and asked me about it.

Here it came.

“I have to cook a pot of chili tonight,” I told her. “And I’m not sure if I should.”

She could have laughed, as others had; she could have immediately offered suggestions without knowing the story behind it. But instead she met my gaze and nodded, straight-faced and interested, and asked me to sit down.

“Tell me about this pot of chili.”

I took a deep breath and told the story from the beginning. The Inter-Faith organization at our school had been leading a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation for one week during spring break, each year for I don’t know how many years. The trip was extremely controversial. The man behind the Inter-Faith center had refused help from the First Nations Department when they reached out, claiming he wanted his students going on the trip to enter as “blank slates” as they were immersed in the Lakota culture.

“But it doesn’t really work like that,” another of my FN professors had explained to me. “Just by virtue of being a part of modern American society, each student has already developed prejudices and stereotypes from their exposure to popular media.”

So each student that went, went in uneducated, unsure, culturally awkward, and relatively clueless, unless they had background in First Nations cultures. But student with background in the culture tended to be excluded in favor of the “blank slate” concept.

I’d gone on the trip last year. My ex had convinced me to go. It was our first conversation after meeting each other. As soon as I told her my parents would never let me go, she was on me, forcing me to go. But in the end (as I sometimes forget) it was really my sociology professor who convinced me, telling me how much I would learn, and how much I could grow.

I was the only one on the team of fifteen that decided to take a First Nations class the semester of the trip in order to better prepare myself for interacting with a culture I’d had no prior contact with. That’s how I’d met this professor I now sat in the office with. I’d been naive. I’d had no idea that the FN department had been rejected from making the trip a better one, and that my professor was extremely bitter about the whole thing. I’d sensed her reaction when I talked about it, saw her awkward anger, and never brought it up to her again.

I went on the trip. The goal was to finish staining the porch of a mobile home belonging to a family on the reservation our school had been working with for years. Years, mind you—one week each of the past six or so years to get this home up and running. And the family patiently waiting. And our group feeling so proud of themselves for this miniscule accomplishment. I’ll be the first to admit that there was some of the White Savior in me too.

But what I was really looking forward to was meeting the kids at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. The other part of our project had been raising enough money to buy them art and sports supplies, and we bought a decent amount of each of these. Kids had terrified me for most of my life after some experiences of accidentally hurting them, and I was determined to shake that. This was the trip that would define my life and my passion for youth advocacy.

It started the moment we walked into the school. It was a large and colorful building, with bars, stripes, and circles integrated into the wall’s color scheme, and a medicine wheel on the floor of the very center of the building, where hallways branched off leading into the dorm wings and the recreation areas, and the two large front and back doors, leading respectively to the parking lot and to the playground and basketball court.

Our team was greeted by the dorm mother of the school. We were informed that a twelve-year-old girl had hung herself that weekend.

It was then I realized that there was nothing I could do here.

There was no way I could be a savior. No way could I help these kids. Nothing I could possibly do to bring that girl back and stop the next one from killing herself.

The only thing left for me to do was observe, and learn, and see what I could do. I was shaking for almost the entire day and into the night. By the third day of interacting with heartbroken, energetic, paranoid, hyperactive, troubled, wonderful kids, my mind and heart had begun to fill with a desire to help them and all the kids like them. The kids in my city. The kids I see each day in my textbooks, on the news, in my social media feeds. 

Kids who were like me when I was their age. 

I wanted to learn how to help suicidal kids, depressed and anxious kids. That’s what started my work in youth advocacy, lead me to change my major, and prompted me to get involved in local service projects while remaining in contact with a few of the kids I met on the reservation (a notable one being described here).

The trip was being planned again for this year. My ex, having been the team leader the year before, told me I could go again and serve as an advisor to the new team lead. That was before we broke up. I didn’t think the breakup would have any effect on my participation in the trip. What I didn’t know was that during the time we were not speaking with each other, my ex had continued organization without me, picking her friend and my roommate as leaders, and all of them had begun planning without me. So by the time we considered each other friends again it was apparently too late for me to jump on board.

The fact that our breakup was now the only thing preventing me from going, no matter how many stupid excuses m ex made about my previous behavior or lack of team ethic (all of which were wrong according to everyone else in my life), infuriated me beyond anything I’d ever felt before. I fought to keep myself on their radar, offering my time, ideas, experience, input, and by far doing the most outreach via classroom presentations (I’d have to say almost half, if not more, of the people who applied did so because they saw me present about it in their class).

I offered to cook chili for a dinner fundraiser they’d planned. That was before other things started happening.

Before my roommate told me I could not go on the trip, despite the fact that my ex was in a different country and no longer had influence.

Before I found out from the other leader that the Inter-Faith supervisor hated students to go more than once unless they were leading. That his main focus was not building support for and connections with the Lakota people on the Reservation, but exposing students to what was basically poverty porn and voluntourism if it wasn’t pulled off right.

Before I found out that their next project was to build a coffee house on the Reservation.

When she heard me say that my professor leaned back and drew a hand across her face.

“A coffee house?” she said. “Who’s going to travel miles and miles across that huge Reservation to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee?

“Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it?”

“It’s not part of their culture,” I said.

“It’s such a middle-class, white thing to think of!” my professor exclaimed. “If they want to help they could just build a generic rec center, not restrict it to a particular use.”

“And it has nothing to do with what we learned last year. No one we talked to said they needed a coffee house. They all focused on their youth—they need more resources for their youth. I can tell they’re going to frame it as a way to build community and have an alcohol-free space, but first off, it’s not going to work—it’s not part of their culture, it’s going to be expensive, who’s going to buy coffee when they could buy whiskey, and the kids aren’t going to be interested in it. And second, it lets me know that the one big takeaway they all had last year was that Pine Ridge has an alcohol problem. Not that they’re taking great strides in providing for the next generation, not that they’re building themselves up.”

The issue was that I wanted to say all of those things, but I had been given the opportunity to lead the trip next year. If I put myself in a bad light by criticizing the current teams’ every move, it was unlikely I’d gain favorable rapport and be able to lead.

But I also wasn’t sure I even wanted to lead anymore. It was not the trip I’d signed up for; I’d gone in with a completely different perspective on what it was supposed to be. Did I really want to be a part of bringing a bunch of “white saviors” to perform tasks I didn’t agree with and work with people I was coming to resent?

An alternative was to start a project right here in my city, helping out the local kids. As my professor pointed out, “You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota if you want to help out the Natives.”

“There’s porches to paint right here,” she said.

We talked about launching a mentorship program or coat drive with local schools. We generated a few ideas; I got excited; my professor spoke to me again.

“You were put on this Earth to do big things,” she said, resting her elbows and clasped hands on her desk. “The trip you went on, the impact it had—that goes beyond you. You were meant to go on that trip. And I didn’t say anything when you talked about it, because I didn’t want to interfere in your learning process. You got to this point by yourself. And I’ve seen the work you have done since then, and what you took out of your experience was good.”

South Dakota 18

I breathed slowly, and she leaned back in her chair again. “You came in here to ask about a bowl of chili,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not sure if I want to make it. If I don’t agree in what the trip stands for anymore.”

“I can’t tell you if you should make it or not,” she said slowly. “I can see it would be difficult to make something if you don’t agree with it. But I can also see that you gave your word, and keeping your word is very important.

“I can tell you if you decide to make it, make it with good thoughts in your mind. Make it with positivity, and that positivity will go into the food, and everyone that eats the food will feel it. Because if you make it with bitterness, and put your frustrations into the food, then everyone who eats the food will take in that negativity.”

I nodded.

A few more things were said, we thanked each other, and I walked out. I felt lighter. Hearing her speak and the method with which she used her words, the patterns and rhythms of her thought, always calmed me, always helped to guide me.

I want to believe what she said. That I was put her to do big things.

I know the effect of this trip goes beyond me, and that’s why I can’t let it go. The trip influences every person that our students interact with on the Reservation and everyone that we talk to about it. It affects the kids that I met, the ones who want me to come back and see them again. The ones I told I wanted to come back. The ones who would not see me and who would add me to their list of people they could not trust to hold their word.

Because that’s the kind of relationship this trip is promoting.

I walked back to my apartment and into the kitchen. I pulled my tomatoes out of the cabinet. I started cooking onions. I thought good things as I stirred, and when I hugged the pot as I carried it to the Inter-Faith Center, I felt its positivity.

My impact goes beyond this one pot of chili and I’m determined not to waste it.

Erik

Erik

The first time I saw Erik was when he asked our tour guide at the Bundestag to speak in English. The second time was when the guide stopped the entire tour because my shoe was untied, and Erik stooped to tie it for me before I even noticed why we’d stopped. Our brief exchange in that moment was in German because neither of us knew yet the other spoke English fluently.

The third time was when we paused for a break and we sat in couches across from each other and he asked for everyone’s name and major. I told them about my plans for a Social Justice degree and wanting to work with children. I told him about my summer camp. He listened intently to my stories. He nodded eagerly when I explained how I preferred to explain the rules to the kids rather than just enforce them, give respect rather than just demand it, and learn from the kids rather than just act as the “sage on a stage.”

“What you’re doing, that’s what the world needs more of,” he said. “It’s amazing that you took the time to stand on the same level as your students.”

I smiled, self-conscious but pleased that someone was finally appreciating the extent to which I strived to help my kids. I went on the tell the story of how a group of the kids had started throwing a banana around until was brown and splattering against anything it touched; how that was the only time I spoke sharply to the kids, scaring them all a bit with my sudden firmness as I explained the food they ate was free and they needed to respect it.

“See, I hate that,” Erik said, leaning back on the couch. “You should never tell a child they have to do something. It shuts them down.”

I thought about that—he had a valid point, but I still believed what I had done was appropriate.

“Maybe I could have gone about it better,” I said. “But from my perspective, food is a precious resource. And I know a lot of these kids come from low-income homes, where food is not always easy to come by. For me, food is a task. It’s a commitment and a struggle. And I know a lot of the kids face the same things. So when they come to summer camp all the free food seems phenomenal. But I don’t want them to take it for granted. They have to understand that it comes from somewhere, too. And they’re lucky to have it, just like I was lucky to have free meals three times a day for taking that job. I appreciated every single one. I wanted them to, as well. And since it was the only time all summer I raised my voice at the kids, I think most of them didn’t shut down—they took me seriously, because they knew if I was yelling it must be serious.”

Erik looked at me keenly and leaned forward again. “You know, you’re right,” he said slowly. “Thank you. I take back what I said.” He reached over to shake my hand. I accepted the gesture, a bit taken aback by his graceful but significant redaction. I couldn’t remember the last time someone told me I was right about something like that.

Erik left a good impression on me then. I saw him here and there throughout the course of the trip, but it wasn’t until I almost got left alone on the train heading back to the hostel that we had our next, and last, significant interaction.

He waved at me through the window, already outside with the others, and seeing him out there I quickly jumped off the train right before it started off again. The others were a ways ahead of us now, leaving me and Erik alone amid the city throng.

“You almost got left behind,” he said, leading the way out of the train station. “That would not have been a good thing.”

“No, probs not,” I said, a bit uncomfortable by how close he was walking to me. I tried to inch myself away but it was difficult as we wound through crowded streets and up and down stairs. He had a habit of grabbing my every time I stumbled or tripped, and I found I had to shake myself free. I knew it was a cultural difference in spacing and contact preferences, but I couldn’t help feeling violated by how many times he grasped my shoulders or clutched my elbow to steer my around corners.

“Do you know which way to go?” he asked when we were about halfway to the hostel.

“Kind of,” I said, afraid that he didn’t and we were going to be lost. I hadn’t been paying much attention to directions to and from the train station during our excursions. I was irritated to be caught off guard.

“I ask you because I want you to be able to find your way back, if you are walking back by yourself sometime,” he explained.

Of course, that is totally logical and makes perfect sense, and it’s nice he was looking out for me. But his method was so annoyingly like that of my ex that I instantly became pissed off and defensive. I stepped away from him again and quickened my pace.

“I’m pretty sure we go down this street and then turn left,” I said, which was fairly accurate.

“Look, here’s the street sign. Boxhanger Strasse,” he pointed out. “You can always look for Boxhanger Strasse.”

“Boxhanger Strasse, got it,” I said, hoping we were almost there. I hopped off the curb and made my way across the street, half zoned out with thoughts of consent and exes, and half used to the small-town world I grew up in where pedestrians have the right of way and crossing lights aren’t a thing.

“Whoa, whoa!” Erik snatched me back again as the cars barreled towards me. Still irritated as hell, I yanked myself free of his grip and snapped, “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but we have this rule about no touching in my country.”

I couldn’t tell if he was offended or just annoyed. To be honest, I didn’t care. We crossed the street at the green light and he told me that I looked “irate” when I jumped into the street like that and people would think I was crazy or going to get hurt. All I could think was You mean erratic. But I didn’t say anything.

We made it to the hostel and for the rest of the Berlin trip I saw very little of Erik. Maybe he was avoiding me because I’d offended him. Maybe it was a coincidence. Either way, once we got to Kassel he seemed to have forgotten about our escapade. During a tour my shoe came untied yet again and he smiled at me, saying it was a habit my shoe seemed to have. I said only “Yeah, I guess.” At one point he quoted me in his notes during class and made sure I saw. I was confused but also pleased that he once again made a point to show his appreciation for my opinions. I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t have many more opportunities to test my feelings.

The last time I saw Erik he was surrounded by people and music and laughter and tears. He was a popular guy in our group. His smile seemed genuine and his farewells were touching. I even appreciated the poem he read at the talent show. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was wrong. Or maybe we both learned from each other, since that was what this trip was about.

People flicker in and out of our lives and I always wonder what impact those short-term relationships have on us. I’m still figuring out what the definition of Erik is in my life. For now I’ll just appreciate it as it stands. Annoying, yes. Uncomfortable, yes. Touching maybe, and funny. The man who stooped to tie my shoe on the front steps of the German Capital building and didn’t know about consent in touching and holding hands. People are a lot more complicated than I was raised to think.

 

 

 

Cultural Experience

One of my favorite things so far is being able to meet people from different countries and cultures from all over the world—not just Germany. I’ve met people from Hong Kong, Australia, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Jamaica, The Dominican Republic, Panama, and probably others (I wasn’t able to catch all the names). The people from California and Australia talk about how cold Germany seems while I’m thinking how it would be much colder in most of the Midwest right now. The students from Hong Kong (many of which, interestingly, are studying in Queensland right now) very emphatically informed the entire group multiple times that Hong Kong is not in China or Japan. The man from the Dominican Republic (to whom I dedicated an entire post, for various reasons) was shocked to find that most of us had heard of his country. I loved listening to the various accents and languages and words, and eagerly answered questions about my home and culture when I saw others were as curious as I was. I hadn’t even begun the educational portion yet and already I was learning so much.

At our New Year’s Dinner, though, I was stuck at a table with various students from America and one Australian who didn’t say much. For the past two days I had enjoyed the feeling of being on equal footing with most of the students there—equally lost, equally stupid, equally fascinated, equally curious. But at this table I found myself back in the same old boat. It was like I’d never left the States. Here, once again, my limited experiences in certain areas prevented them from acknowledging my expertise in others. My input was rendered invalid because I disagreed with popular people. My preferences were ignored because they were unconventional.

After a while I shut up and sat quietly seething at the table listening to the Americans banter around me. I had come on this trip partly, if not mostly, to escape my stupid self-centered individualistic non-inclusive fast-paced culture, and yet here I was smack in the middle of Berlin surrounded by fucking American privileged middle-class white college kids. Just like back home.

When I’d talked to my Australian friend about ethics and gun control we exchanged ideas and opinions on equal footing and listened to each other’s experiences and input. When I’d talked to Erik (see other post) about my summer camp experience he listened in fascination and applauded my methods, asked me a lot of questions, and supplemented my narrative with his experiences and input. The one time he mocked my method I calmly explained my thought process, and he went so far as to apologize for passing judgement too quickly, and shook my hand. But when I asked Grace to be respectful of the food she refused to eat, she and the other Americans acted like I was pushing it after the second time. The three girls from my school act so petty sometimes, but I feel like I can’t say anything testy to the people who were nice enough to give me a ride.

People are actually judging me because I don’t have much money. I’ve experienced subtle prejudices against lower-income folks in general but so far I’d been lucky enough to avoid direct jabs against my personal financial situation. These people were mocking me for not bringing money I didn’t have, and making me feel stupid for getting cheated out of almost half my Euros at the conversion kiosk at the airport. Most days I didn’t have enough money to buy water or go to the bathroom and had to ask people for loose change or favors, which made me feel horrible about myself and my situation.

I miss tutoring International students. I miss their open curiosity and eagerness to learn, and I miss talking to them in that nonjudgmental environment. I learned a lot about language from them and them from me, and neither of us made fun of each other for cultural differences or previous experiences. Honestly, sometimes I feel more similar to non-Americans than to Americans.

Terminal

Terminal

I’m walking around the darkened, quiet airport terminals at 2am because our flight has suffered a 24 hour delay. Normally, unconventional sleepovers with friends are my jam, but tonight my only company is the three girls from my school whose courtesy doesn’t seem to extend beyond the occasional pleasantry and having agreed to give me a ride to Chicago; and one other guy, an annoying tag-along from another school going on the same trip, who no one had bothered to introduce me to. I couldn’t sleep and was tired of listening to their petty, privileged complaints and ignorant comments. One of them was so angry that we had to sleep at the airport, complaining about not being able to shower or do her makeup. While I was just glad we had a place to stay for free and pleased with the food vouchers they gave us as compensation, she spent quite a bit of time whining and ended with “I think this is the saddest I’ve ever been.” I sucked in my breath silently, thinking, Oh, honey. I’m so glad you’ve apparently never cried yourself to sleep because society hates you, or because you hate yourself, or because the one person you trusted the most broke your heart.

I decided to wander by myself.

The stilled airport was like an enclosed city, an independent ecosystem encased in modern conveniences. There were food courts and restrooms at each terminal, and the lounge areas populated themselves like tiny cities with people sharing common goals and destinations. People lay wrapped in their coats and scarves on the floor and on benches. A few walked around as listlessly as I, but never made an attempt to interact with their fellow ramblers. Humans bedecked in security garb huffed occasionally into walky-talkies, and workers in neon orange or green pushed carts, dragged buckets, or joined the sleepers on the benches, though always in an alert upright position.

I took whatever turn seemed to hold the most surprises. I found a yoga room and itched to practices my poses, but there were people asleep inside, so I walked on. At one point I found an outlet and charged my barely conscious phone, taking a quick nap while I waited for the numbers to tick slowly up. I tried the Internet kiosks, checking email and social media to see if anyone missed me yet.

At one point I passed a small exhibit of an airplane taking off. Pausing to examine the model, I noticed a sound effect of a bird chirping. It was too stereotypical and generic to identify the kind of bird, but the natural sound seemed so out of place in this very modern, very square, very grey structure, I paused in surprise to listen. It sounded so—nice. I’d only been in the airport for ten hours but it seemed like years since I’d listened to a bird…

Well, of course, it had been a few months. It was winter after all and most of the birds were gone…but it was more than that, wasn’t it? I continued to walk, thinking. I tried to remember listening to the birds this fall, or in summer or spring…I couldn’t remember a single moment when I’d sat in the grass and closed my eyes to focus on the gentle chirping. I could pull up plenty of memories from previous years, but nothing from this year. An entire year? An entire year without really listening to the birds? Was I too old? What was different?

Then I remembered.

When you fall in love with someone, it should be someone who makes you appreciate the little things more. Like the rain or the way the sun rises or pinecones or birds. Not someone who—distracts you from those things.

I’d been crying off and on for the past two days, and it seemed like I was going to start again.

How did I let her become such a parasite? Six months after the breakup I’m about to leave the country on my first big, semi-solo adventure and I still want to call her so much it hurts.

So many things remind me of her. A snippet of a word or voice. A flash of an image. Familiar sayings or jokes we may have shared. Or the feeling that if she had been there with me, I wouldn’t have been so lonely.

Despite the fact that being with her distracted me from being myself, from doing what I wanted, from my friends, from the things I used to love.

Despite the fact that our last conversations, if they moved beyond casual life updates and hey-how’s-it-goings, always ended in anger or tears.

Despite all this, she was still someone I thought of as I prepared for my first flight.

I just got over being proud of myself for not wanting to call her the last few times things got really rough. It’s not like I’ve been pining for her non-stop. But the fact that I’ve relapsed into yet another of my bad former habits made me want to end everything, and I’m not even joking. I’ve been more suicidal in the past few days than I have since the thought first occurred to me when I was sixteen. If I wasn’t going on this trip, I’m almost sure I would have done something to act on it. While we were walking around Chicago I thought about “accidentally” falling into the street or waiting till I was alone to flip myself over a bridge. Before that, I’d considered walking alone down the nature trail to the walk bridge or the tower with my razor, two bottles of Advil and the last of my anti-depressants.

Christmas had sucked. My family situation was getting worse—now my mother wouldn’t even hide her disdain for me and my life choices. I know I’ll never be able to tell them that I’m non-binary, and if I get an s/o again my parents won’t even care, but not in the good sense of the phrase. My friends seemed once again to be slipping away, and having seen my ex once more as she prepared to leave still left me shaken and sore. All I could think was her spending time with the family she was becoming closer to and working so hard to preserve while looking forward to train adventures and winter break with her beloved boyfriend, a trip we had almost taken together, a trip that would definitely have destroyed any remaining desire for self-preservation on my part. And despite all that I still wished I had said yes, still wished I was with her right now instead of three almost-strangers with barely any way to contact the people I loved.

How can someone so wonderful, so understanding, so gentle, so comforting, so calm and so kind be such a toxic presence in my life? And why do I want to talk to her about that when all that could possibly do is make things worse?

As much as I want to hate her, I still love her. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. But I need to. I need to move on. I need to be able to open up to others. Maybe if I hadn’t been so afraid, maybe if I hadn’t forced myself to move so slowly, that sweet freshman my sister had tried to set me up with might have been the one I was texting in the hotel and pining for in the airport terminal.

They say there are stages of grief. “Stages” implies that they eventually will end. Mine seemed to keep going in circles, from sadness at my loss to bitterness to regret to anger to acceptance, but almost as soon as I move on to acceptance the fucking universe throws a monkey wrench in there and makes us cross paths, forces us into the same room, lets me hear about the tornadoes in Texas so I frantically message her asking if she’s okay on her train to the bf. And then the sadness comes back. The bitterness. The loss. I tried to make myself angry that night, tried to speed up the process, but the tears came instead, and I sat in the middle of a lounge crying in a pathetic little ball on the floor.

I need to accept it again, and leave it there. I need to let go. I need to move on. I need to let the light back in.

But as I prepare to get on a vehicle no one in my family has laid eyes on, and set foot in a country I’ve never been in and surround myself with strangers speaking a language I barely know, clinging to what I know best seemed like a safe and comfortable defense mechanism. As hurtful as it is in the long run, in this moment I find comfort in thinking of her, no matter how tormented the thoughts may be.

I think it’s weird these places are called terminals. Terminate means end, and terminal implies an ending to something. An end to a journey, maybe, but for me it’s just the start, and for others, it’s somewhere in the middle. The building itself doesn’t even seem to have an end. My initial goal to walk from one end and back again was thwarted when all I found was turns and circles. No end in sight, but loop upon loop of people and places and left-behind feelings. People come in with so much baggage and clutch it to themselves protectively and comfortingly. And then they walk in circles, under the illusion they will eventually find the end, not knowing the place they are looking for might be right next to where they started.