Anyways enjoy if you wish to keep reading. It was quite a cathartic exercise I suppose in a way, sometimes it helps to just not limit yourself or force yourself in any direction, but to just write.
It was the worst kind of feeling.
They talk about the calm before the storm, the quiet eeriness before chaos hits hard, but they don’t talk about the calm afterwards. The silence settling over the destruction, the ruins, the sort of numb shock that comes from something happening too quickly and too strongly, that hits too deeply and you can’t really scramble up to your feet properly afterwards. And even if you can, you walk with a weird sort of uncomfortable feeling-something is off, but you see no scars on your leg, no broken ankle, no pulled muscle, but something is off and you can’t walk properly and it just isn’t the same anymore.
They don’t talk about dealing with the aftermath, they don’t talk about looking around you and seeing everything in a different light-or maybe nothing has changed but you have.
That’s how I felt in that week. Maybe longer, I had stopped keeping track after a while. I remember school was closed off because of some protest, so we had some time off, which normally I would have enjoyed, but during that time, having so much free time scared the living hell out of me. I didn’t want to look at the aftermath, I wanted to read my textbooks and write my essays and I wanted all the mundane distractions that gave my life some kind of routine and meaning, however futile they may be.
I brought no phone, no laptop; half of my bag was filled with music CDs I had been collecting from record stores since I was fourteen, the other half contained money I had gotten out from my savings working part time at a convenience store, a few books, some schoolwork, pen and paper, a bottle of water, a homemade tuna sandwich, and other routine amenities. My guitar laid in its beaten up case next to me and I placed a protective hand against it.
I reached the lake at a quarter past ten, one of the last passengers off the bus. The old man and young woman with earphones on ignored me as I got off. The bus drove off and I was left on the small road with one lamplight every several meters barely illuminating the pavement, but I had walked this path so often that I had no problem finding the forest trail that led to the cabin site.
For some reason I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t-or I wouldn’t-so I simply readjusted my grip on my guitar case and continued down the darkened path I was so familiar with. The soil was soft underneath my torn sneakers and far away came the sound of an owl hooting softly. I reached the lake fifteen minutes later, and the small cabin sitting, lonely and empty, near its shore. A small village was barely visible at the foot of the mountain around a twenty minute walk away. In the summer, we would go there to buy food and eat at the small cafes.
I reached in my pocket for the rusty key and walked in, turning on my flashlight, its weak beam travelling around the room. There was a simple stove, a couch and a fireplace, and boxes stacked in the corner.
There were two bedrooms and I walked into the one I had stayed in since I was eight. It had two single beds, and a rug and a small study table and chair between them. The other single bed had belonged to my older brother, before he turned eighteen and went overseas to university. He stopped calling two weeks after the move. I dumped my stuff on his old bed, causing dust to rise, fluttering, anxious in the air. Without doing anything else, I walked out of the room and collapsed on the couch, turning off the flashlight. The silence was startling and terrifying, and when I closed my eyes I could hear my own heartbeat and almost feel the blood running through my veins. Shaking-because of the cold or something else-I closed my eyes. It took me a long time to fall asleep, and when I did it was only to be greeted with strange, hallowed nightmares; the crashing of thunder and the barking of a blood thirsty dog, I was running but the water was rising, the ground was cracking, someone was shouting and shouting, and I woke up with a jolt just as the sun was rising, nearly rolling off the couch.
Lethargic, I headed to the bathroom, a small room in the corner of the cabin, where there was no running water. I ended up heading outside and returning with ten buckets of fresh, cold water from the tap, rinsing my mouth and face and pouring a cup of it over my head and soaking my shirt. Grabbing a pack of dried fruit from one of the boxes, which held what could be half a year’s worth of food and bottled water-in case of emergency-I grabbed some of my CDs and the bulky radio in the cabin, and headed outside. There in the half light I watched the sky gradually grow lighter, the brilliant glow of the sun spill over the valley, shining on the lake’s surface, which glistened and lapped gently at my feet. I ate my dried fruit and put on the first CD my hand reached for, which turned out to be an old indie rock band from the 80s; buzzing guitar riffs and thudding bass lines and fast drum beats rang outwards, swallowed by the trees and distant mountains. I continued sitting on the shore for what felt like forever, the stones digging against my skin and my feet cold and numb from the cold water. I briefly thought about the fact that if I were at school, I would be in my world literature class, analyzing those dozens of texts and replacing the characters’ lives, their problems and issues and personalities, with my own. I grabbed a stone next to me and throw it into the water. It landed with a quiet, despondent splash, and I wished I was in school instead of here, alone with myself and my thoughts. But I made the decision to come here myself, with full knowledge I would regret it. And here I was, regretting it.
Gradually, unconsciously, I began thinking about the past few years. I couldn’t help it; whenever I had free time or I was in a state of quiet, somehow my mind would always wander down that path, like a stream of water that would always travel down the channel it carved for itself in the dirt if there wasn’t a force consciously there to force it to travel another way. You thought about something too much and it became habit to return to it. It didn’t matter how much you detested it, it became too comfortable to be able to leave familiar paths and too exhausting to carve new ones. Or maybe you were just too tired to try.
I saw my past the way a passive history student would; objectively, apathetically. No matter how hard I tried to feel something, I couldn’t help but see the blurry events from the seconds that had ticked by a long time ago as a broken film in which I had no connection. I saw what was happening, I understood, I recognized everything, but I couldn’t put myself back in my past self’s shoes-the way it would be impossible to emphasize with a stranger passing on the street. Although I could acknowledge how I felt back then, could see the emotions I had felt so intensely and thoroughly, I couldn’t feel them. I could only recognize they were there the way someone would see a character on TV bleeding out on the ground, all bruised and bloodied, but couldn’t feel their pain and could only acknowledge it from afar.
I threw another rock in the water and changed the CD after the first one finished.
Most of the day was spent the same, not really wandering from the spot unless to return to get some schoolwork to do or to fetch more CDs, or an occasional pack of food and bottle of water. Eventually, I had gone through most of my music, finished all the schoolwork assigned, and beside me lay five empty packs of almonds and dried fruit, and two half finished bottles of water. The rocks dug hard against my back when I laid down, crossing arms behind head and staring silently up at the evening sky.
I took in the storm clouds on the horizon and felt an uncomfortable animalistic instinct to run for cover; as the sun set, the clouds drifted ever closer.
A lot of the past was a storm to me, raging and reigning chaos with no concern for its surroundings, only that it must keep raging on and on, an aggression that cannot be sedated, a beast blood hungry, with no aim to maim but somehow it does out of its instinct anyways. At some point, it became futile to fight and I could only watch as everything was ripped to pieces.
Everything was overwhelming, then underwhelming, or it went back and forth between being unbearable to being too bearable and mundane.
When I used to cry almost every night, now I couldn’t even care enough to shed a tear. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
But in reality I was very much deeply affected, an affection that hurt so deeply in the bones that it only manifested as bitter apathy and numbness on the skin. So not only were they inaccessible apart from brief moments of honesty, because they are so inaccessible I couldn’t even cry or talk or punch walls in frustration like before. I could only sit in silence.
I had become so deeply shaken as well, in a way that a fisherman who had his boat wrecked by the storm would be hesitant to return to the sea as he was thrown back again and again against the sharp rocked shore. The first time, he would proceed with some courage. The second and third, more caution, then the fourth and the fifth, a simple gust of wind, a looming dark cloud, would send him scampering backwards to shore, even if the breeze passed without incident, the cloud drifted by peacefully. Everything was a sign, a reminder, and everything would hurt like a jolt in the bones. Eventually, the sea itself would be too much a reminder and too much to fear to return. The fisherman would remain on shore, feigning apathy, never to return back to the water.
Perhaps that was why I felt that retreating was so comforting. That cabin offered a place on shore, unaffected, away from any possibility of exposure and change, of another storm coming along and tearing everything down, maybe not literally, but figuratively. I was safely on shore. But I was also far from where I wanted to be.
As the sky darkened, the clouds drifted past overhead. I gathered up everything and carried the radio and rubbish back to the cabin, where everything was silent, and the only source of light came from the dim light bulb that swung from the ceiling. I dropped everything into a corner and curled up on the couch, listening to the rain’s muffled shower against the cabin windows. It was ironic how the rain pelted and the thunder roared outside, but inside, I felt so indifferent, even bored.
I fell asleep hours later.
The next day the water had crept up the shore, and I sat on one of the logs, throwing pebbles into the lake. In one hand I held a packet of beef jerky, while a notebook with some unfinished writing laid in my lap. The sky was clear now, no sign of any thunderstorm that had passed last night except for the soaked shore. It was always strange how one second it could be so calm, the next it could be chaos, and seconds later it would be so quiet and serene again, with little indication that there had been any change at all. I slid so I was sitting on the damp stones in my underwear, leaning against the log and writing aimlessly, pen sliding across paper into illegible text, feeling nothing but my soft, slow heartbeat against my chest.
That night the sky was clear and dark, an indigo canvas dotted with specks of light shining down to earth from thousands of light years away. I took my shirt off and walked downwards towards the water, the cold shock of the waves jolting me to the bone but I paid little attention as it rose to lap at my neck. By the point my toes could no longer reach the bottom, I began to swim forward, slow, tired strokes until I was floating in the middle of the lake on my back, staring at the lonely stars above. I spread my arms out like I did in swimming pools when I was a kid, but everything was so different now.
I had to feel something, I told myself. Again and again, as I floated there, with my body spread upwards, the water around me threatening to swallow me whole.
Feel something, feel something, feel something.
I took a deep breath and ducked my head underwater, and all I could feel was the silent darkness around me.
Feel something, feel something.
My head bobbed up again. The isolation, the middle of the lake and the water stretching out all around me. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the lake bottom unreachably far below me, and the expanding water on all sides, and the emptiness of the sky above, and the awareness came as a punch in the gut.
I turned and began swimming back to shore with a frantic urgency, panic rising in my chest, jolting through my bones as I swam with an urgency of escaping something deadly coming from behind. As I got onto shore, onto solid ground, I stumbled on the rocky banks and ran into the cabin, into the corner of the bathroom and huddled there with my arms around my legs, soaking wet. I tilted my head back against the wall and closed my eyes.
The next few days were spent in what could only be described as a deathly flu without actually being physically ill. My head pounded and the world spun when I attempted to get up, and I was shaking all over for hours on end, but there were no other physical indications of something wrong. I didn’t cough or sneeze yet my light headedness confined me to the couch for three days straight, only getting up uneasily to go to the toilet or to get another pack of dried food.
It was increasingly difficult to fall asleep, and no matter how much my skull was about to split open and how much my chest was going to cave in with what felt like exhaustion, I could only stay awake with thoughts racing, but no thought was tangible or made any sense.
I could do nothing but lie still and hope that things would die down.
Sitting cross legged in the middle of the cabin, I got out my guitar and like nothing had happened, began strumming and writing out simple chord progressions in my notebook. Writing still barely legible, I scribbled ideas down and although there was still that distance between whatever was happening in front of me and what I felt-or didn’t feel-in me, my hand felt steadier and breathing calmer.
Later that day, I decided to head to the village off in the mountains, leaving everything behind except for a half empty wallet and my notebook in my pocket.
The trees towered apathetically around me and the damp soil sank underneath the soles of my ripped sneakers as I headed through the forest, hands deep into my pockets. Twenty minutes later I was on one of the small roads in the village, passing by one or two people who walked past silently. It was very quiet and calm as I entered the usual café. Everything looked exactly the same as last summer, with the paintings hanging on the wooden walls, the same waitress taking orders, comfortable quiet cubicles, and soft orange lighting. The smell of freshly ground coffee and toast brought back waves of memories that rolled violently over my shoulders.
I took a seat in the usual family corner, glancing at the little plastic menu with the cursive writing and decorative hand drawn sketches. Flipping it back and forth in my fingers indecisively, I called the waitress over after ten minutes of sitting there in silence.
Her eyes lit up as she recognized me, and we chatted for a little bit. Small talk; she asked how I was doing, I lied, she asked about school, I told her that it was closed for a while, I asked her how she was doing, she smiled and told me that everything was good and business was still good, she took my order and went off to the back.
I leaned back into the hard wooden seat and stared at the paintings I had never quite noticed before the previous dozen times I came here. They were simple and calm, watercolor washes over ink drawings-of the beach, the mountains, the lake. I studied the details and wondered if I could make something similar if I started trying again.
The waitress returned with my order-my usual croissant and cup of cappuccino- and asked if she could sit down. I shrugged and sipped the drink as she slid into the seat opposite me. She studied me for a while, clasping her hands and eating her chocolate bar.
She made comments like how mature I’ve gotten, and how the first time she saw me was when she was only nineteen and I had just started secondary school. There were a lot of questions posted, and I answered them shortly, careful to reveal little, my hand tightly clutching the cup in between my palms like an anchor, something solid to hold onto.
My eyes flickered around the room, looking at the art again and fidgeting my feet quietly under the table. Eventually the conversation took a turn. She finished her chocolate bar and crumpled the wrapper into her pocket, and proceeded to ask about my creative endeavors-something which I had shown off quite a bit when I was younger. I regretted showing so much of it, I regretted sharing almost anything personal about myself with anyone; it had become almost a safety precaution to keep everything hidden. It was easier to saunter around as someone I was not than to be who I really was and had to face the very real reactions of everyone around me. Easier, but ultimately in the long term so much more damaging.
I didn’t reply, only put down the empty cup of coffee and started on the food.
She asked if I had brought any work she could take a look at. She had always loved my work.
My heart began to thud uncomfortably against my throat. I felt the beginnings of cold sweat build above my lips and I didn’t know how to respond. I just didn’t understand how someone could be so closed off yet so desperate to open up to someone completely simultaneously. Everything in me felt like a contradiction.
It’s just some writing. She’s just a stranger you hardly ever see. It’s fine. I reassured myself again and again.
Somehow, after what felt like several minutes, I mustered the courage-or stupidity-to dig into my pockets and retrieve the notebook. Like it held in it the difference between my life and death, I slid it forward.
I heard her make a few comments, then her finger brushed mine.
For some reason, my lip suddenly started trembling and everything fell, shattered into pieces, fine china on a hard wood floor.
The walls closed in; the floor rushed upwards; the distant solidity of my surroundings crumbled around me into fine dust, it clogged my airways and made it difficult if not impossible to breathe.
“Hey, are you okay?” I heard her ask, but it was like her voice was coming from miles away. I saw her close my notebook and slide it back, and her hands rested there near mine. “What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t bring myself to reply, and it was several moments before I realized that my cheeks were wet. A tear landed on the back of my palm and I jerked backwards like I had been electrocuted. It had been so long since I last cried-months and months-and everything felt so foreign and so wrong.
Shockwaves vibrated in my chest and a storm raged furiously inside of me; waves were crashing and the wind was howling, yet outside I barely made a sound.
My vision blurred and I ducked my head down; I felt my cheeks grow red and my heart tight in my throat. I wiped my nose on a napkin and hurriedly crumpled it in my hand like I was fighting back, but the tears kept coming. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe.
“Let me get you another drink, on the house.” The waitress stood up and I sat alone at the cubicle for several minutes, feeling like a movie cliché and a pathetic second rate mess. I could almost feel the pitying glances in my direction, even though there were only one or two people there in the café. They paid me no attention, and I almost wished they did. I almost wished they stared and whispered and pointed fingers, but they too were entirely absorbed in their own worlds, while I was sick and tired of mine.
She returned with a extra large cup of hot chocolate and handed it to me. I took a sip, only to give myself something to do. It was delicious, warm and sweet as it slid its way down my throat. I nodded my thanks and she half got up to leave like she wanted to give me space but I waved her back again.
“You want to talk about it, hon?” she asked gently.
To my own surprise, I found myself not shaking my head but consenting quietly.
“There’s just been a lot going on,” I told her simply between my gulps of breath, gripping the handle of the mug tightly. “But it doesn’t matter. I don’t even know why I’m-” I swirled the hot chocolate and downed half of it in one go before placing it back down on the table again.
She didn’t reply immediately but only watched me sympathetically for a while and moved to clasp my hand. I flinched-out of reflex-but she didn’t seem to mind. She only withdrew politely. I glanced back up gratefully.
“Don’t invalidate yourself before you even begin to understand yourself. You are you. And all you feel and all you are is okay. It’s all okay, even if you don’t know what the hell you feel and who the hell you are,” she told me and somewhere deep inside that resonated with me, but I had spent so long just pushing everything out apathetically that I didn’t even understand what I was feeling anymore. I didn’t understand what those words even could mean to me, but they meant something.
I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had grown cold, but I could barely taste it anymore anyways.
A few minutes later she had to get up to serve another few customers, and I was left sitting there, head bowed. I was no longer crying. I just couldn’t anymore. I felt exhausted, simultaneously like my bones were dry and all drained out, but also that a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Or that a veil had been lifted from in front of my eyes. My surroundings felt surreal, like someone had painted it for me but had left out details or misplaced objects so that everything was a bit off. But as I continued sitting there, taking deep breaths and letting my breathing fall even again, I felt the misplacements shift slowly back to their places.
Nothing had really changed, and I was never one to believe in miracles. No field trip that would miraculously solve all your problems, no epiphany on a mountain top that would fix every issue in your life and make everything pristinely perfect. But I did believe in finding the strength to deal with whatever you had and the courage to face everything that you had to.
The waitress returned with a clean wet towel and I nodded, dabbing my face. The cool water startled me, but in a good way. I wiped my face and blew my nose into the tissues she handed me. A wave of warmth and gratefulness welled up inside me, and I knew I wouldn’t have felt that a few days ago.
But I allowed myself to smile at her and take her hand briefly.
She shook her head modestly. “I didn’t do anything.”
“There wasn’t any need to. I think I just needed some time to settle some things in me, and then just to let everything go. Thank you.”
She smiled and cleaned up the drink and food in front of me. “Glad that you’re feeling better.”
We bid goodbye and I let her keep my notebook. She wouldn’t take it at first, but after my insistence and my promise that most of the stuff in it I had copied down elsewhere as well, she took it, looking honored. I knew I had done the right thing.
That morning, I walked out of the café not feeling healed or all happy and ready to conquer the world, but I felt a bit better somehow. And I felt that I had regained some of the strength not only to fight my battles but ultimately to first face and acknowledge them. And that was enough.
I took a deep breath and walked back quietly to the cabin, my hands in my pockets. Birds chirped and sing-songed above, the wind whistled gently through the leaves, and I listened for the first time in weeks. Properly listened and looked around me, at the towering trees, the soft dirt beneath my feet, the flowers budding quietly in the bushes, the glittering serenity of the lake down the path.