Lo Inesperado

Vivir no es sólo existir, sino existir y crear, saber gozar y sufrir y no dormir sin soñar. Descansar, es empezar a morir. –Gregorio Marañón

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Toledo, España

Hay veces cuando uno tiene que preguntarse si usar agua como metáfora por cómo se debe vivir es pragmático. El agua, después de todo, no planea su futuro. No piensa en dos movimientos adelante. No le importa las repercusiones de no dirigir su destino en avance. Solo se mueve—a veces rápido, a veces casi indistinguible. Solo sabe comportarse como agua, no importa si es líquido, solido, o gas. No importa si está bajando un rio, o formando una ola, o pudriéndose en una planta de tratamiento de aguas. Solo reacciona sin reaccionarse. Sin tener reacciones que sean negativas o positivas. No tiene emociones ni pensamientos en lo bueno ni en lo malo.

Hay mucho que aprender pensando en ella, pero también uno tiene que ser el ser humano que es. Uno tiene que vivir evitando consecuencias que puedan parecer más duras que las piedras que hay en los arroyos. La vida nómada suele tener etapas muy altas y también muy bajas. Experimentar los momentos más altos, los momentos de pura alegría y libertad, es lo que ánima a los que la viven, a hacerlo. Pero los momentos bajos también pueden ser extremos, y duros, y pueden durar hasta que uno no puede más. Ya he conocido a algunos que no tenían lo que hay que tener para soportarlos, pero tampoco no podían pensar en cómo cambiarlos, ni cómo vivirían sin esta libertad. Pero si alguien puede mantener la fe—aunque cada vez pueda ser más difícil—las cosas sí cambiarán. Solo hay que tener esperanza y enfocarse en salir adelante otra vez.

Entonces, cuando desde la oscuridad, alguien te dice ‘ven a España…’ tal vez tienes que pensar que no solo habla la persona, sino el universo. (Pero a este pensamiento, este alguien me respondió: ‘Eso es! Pero la persona también quiere que vengas…’) Hay que ser como agua, y no preguntarse para que estas siguiendo una ruta sin saber el destino. Hay que evaporarse desde el charco estancado, ir al aire, y bajar el rio otra vez. Sobre todo, y por lo menos, tienes que intentarlo. A veces la vida puede ser como un sueño. Hay que vivirla así.

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Barrancas de Burujón

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Nerja, Costa del Sol

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Year of the Snake

Rattlesnakes everywhere.

For me, at least, this has been the Year of the Snake, and I’m more than ready for those things to crawl under a couple rocks for the winter. I will say that I appreciate the rattlesnake for the ample warning it gives, rather than going straight for the biting offense as defense displayed by many venomous snakes in the world. I do, I do. However, having experienced the startling buzz accompanied by coiled strike pose only feet from my own—multiple times as of late—I’d prefer to have a few months free from further encounters. I suppose the body’s flight mode response does boost the heart rate while high-stepping to the side of a trail mid-run, but I’d rather hit those numbers climbing hills than leaping into cacti. I’m looking forward to looking up and out, rather than scanning vigilantly downtrail all the time.

Idaho has more rattlers than anywhere, as far as my personal observations have shown, though I started writing this in New Mexico after pulling into the El Morro campsite and spotting a small diamondback immediately after exiting the vehicle. Two days later, I was riding my bike in El Malpais and stopped to watch a very large diamondback work its way across a dirt road. On both of these occasions, there was no major reaction from either of the snakes or myself, but that has not been the case most of the summer, now officially fall.

A week before, I was in Utah canoeing a couple of canyons on the Green River, which I posted about (Labyrinth and Stillwater) including a photo and mention of this next incident. I was off on a side-hike up an abandoned meander near Bonita Bend; where the river once flowed is now a dry loop around a mile or so in distance. Earlier in the day, I happened upon a slot canyon while running up on the mesa above the river. I worked my way down the canyon for a half-mile or so, then went back to my boat with the intention of hiking the entire thing from below rather than going all the way to the river and returning. As I paddled down the river to what I thought would be the mouth of the slot canyon, I began to realize that the two weren’t going to intersect after all, and deduced that the entrance most likely sat at the back of the dry bend. It was a hot sandy walk in the old riverbed to where they met, but once I arrived, tall cliffs shaded a wide swath of pink gravel. The shade was a welcome respite from the sun, and I could see the slot canyon just ahead. Happy to have figured out the location, and relieved by the coolness of the air, snakes were the last thing on my mind. In the beginning of the trip, still maintaining the awareness I developed in Idaho, I’d been keeping an eye out for snakes of any sort. I only saw one little baby snake, and seemed to remember not seeing many snakes in Utah all the times I’d been there before—just hundreds of lizards running all over the place. It was now my 5th or 6th day on the river, however, a lapse in vigilance having returned as a result of  many uneventful hikes on the way down. Anyway, guard down, especially in the open expanse of shaded sand, a sudden BUZZ-BUZZ-RAPID MOTION in my peripheries, was followed by ridiculous vocal reaction from me and a hurried leap into the air. A freakin’ pink rattlesnake, exactly the color of the surrounding sand, shaking its thing while assuming an aggressively contorted coil only a foot from my walking trajectory. It was two-feet long and skinny as can be, but that multi-coil meant business and this thing was ready for action. I was not. Uuugh.

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If you have never heard the sound of a rattlesnake before, it’s actually kind of hard to describe, and nothing like the toy baby-rattle soundbites of old westerns. It’s much quieter and perhaps akin to a high-voltage buzz of electricity or a pair of overworked hair clippers. When I haven’t experienced it for a couple of years, I often forget what it is when I first hear it. Grasshoppers and grassy desert plants seem to mimic the noise once you’re on full alert, but before then it doesn’t sound too out of the ordinary, until vestigial instinct kicks in and you realize you’re being a dumb ass for not moving as quickly as possible in the opposite direction.

All of these recent snake sightings led me to recount my experiences this past summer in Idaho, which led to a reflection on all the times I’ve ever seen a rattlesnake. It was actually quite interesting as one memory led to the next and on to the next, leading me to consider how impactful brushes with danger, either real or perceived, can be. This, in turn led to reflection on topics pertaining to arguments for keeping top predator species in the wilderness, as well as some of the reasons many people venture into the outdoors in the first place. Unknown variables have the potential to create visceral experiences, heightening awareness and involvement and leaving formative memories. It’s certainly true that these incidents can lead to injury, horror, discomfort, and death, but for many, the greatest rewards often come with a certain amount of risk.

I digress. Back to the snake stories.

The first encounter in Idaho this past summer was on a dusky after-dinner run. A few minutes up the trail there it was, the buzzing, the coiled striking pose. This was indeed a time when it took a couple of seconds for my brain to connect the noise to the danger. I might also add that it’s an awkward movement to brake mid-stride. Once stopped, a brief staredown ensued and I almost turned around, as it was near dark anyway, but I decided to take the long way around instead, marking the spot mentally for my return. When the snake was nowhere to be seen on the way back, it was worse than if it had been, the obvious question being “where the hell is it now?” Never saw it again, however, though did see the second one of the season a couple days later at Veil Falls. After that, they were all over the place. Another week we saw four in one trip down the Middle Fork, including one menacing bastard at Tumble Camp which the trip leader decided to “flag”/cordon off, leaving it to its own desires even though it was only a few steps away from where the rafts were tied up for the evening. Bad plan. An hour later I was carrying some water buckets down the hill to be filled, when someone loudly announced that the snake was gone. I instantly found myself leaping over the refound snake from one rock downhill to the next as it gave impatient warning directly below. It then struck at one of the other guides a couple minutes later before someone was able to scare it into the bushes next to the kitchen where we could fret about it for the next 15 hours. A couple weeks later, now alerted to the possibility (or imminence) of their presence, I was running up Sheep Creek on the Main Salmon trying to avoid the unavoidable poison ivy and watching for snakes at the same time. Sure enough, there was one, this time more surprised to see me than I it, though every bit as ready to spring into a coil as I began to backpedal.

In addition to my own encounters this season, one of my friends down in the Big Bend was actually bit outside of his house one night. $80,000 dollars in hospital bills later, the anti-venom is not cheaply produced nor obtained, he is reportedly most thankful that he, not his young son who was beside him, was targeted. Just before leaving Idaho, I met a young family at a hot springs with a 12-year-old girl who had also been bitten this year. This time the snake was a baby rattler; having no buttons to rattle, it was unable to produce any noise to warn off potential threats, relying instead on striking as its primary defense. From talking to them, I did get a confirmation from what I’ve long heard repeated, which is that the babies can indeed be more dangerous than the adults. This is due to their inability to control the amount of venom released, giving their victims a full dose, whereas a large percentage of adult bites are actually dry bites free of venom.

The first rattlesnake I ever saw in my life was probably also the biggest, and I’m thankful that I haven’t run into any of its size since. I was probably around 10. We were on vacation in Guadalupe National Park and watched a fabled diamondback, at least 6’ in length, from the security of the family wagon as it calmly snaked its way across the dirt road. Terrifying and fascinating both, and easier to appreciate from the window of a car. Strangely, however, that is the only rattlesnake I remember seeing my whole time growing up—years of living in the panhandle of Texas and spending a fair amount of time in the woods and even wandering around looking for snakes to catch and handle. (I still remember being shat upon—a potato salad looking dollop with a truly repulsive smell, a defense I’m told—by a hog-nosed bull snake I picked up while working at a scout camp one summer.)

The next rattler I remember seeing after that, as an adult that is, was while walking on a trail in Durango, Colorado. I recall thinking then about how odd it was that I had managed to go all those years in the Panhandle without seeing a single one.

Back in the Panhandle years later, however, I inadvertently ran over a baby rattler with my skateboard while messing around in a massive full-pipe near where I grew up. A 25’ tall, 100’+ long section of concrete pipe surrounded by nothing but steep-walled concrete high above a reservoir seemed like the last place one would find a rattlesnake, but there the poor thing was with half its skin ripped off from being rolled over in the near-dark of the tunnel. A friend put it out of its misery with a quick chop from the tail of his deck.

I will note here, that this one and one other, a shifty lurker in an indoor shed full of plywood, are the only snakes I have ever harmed. I certainly believe in leaving them alone in their own environments, and in no way condone the killing of any species merely because it poses a trivial threat to humans. Snakes, an integral part of many ecosystems, should certainly be allowed to go about their business. From now on, however, when the situation dictates, I will always move them away from camp, which actually I’ve always done in the past before the previous mentioned Tumble incident this past summer. There was one that intentionally crawled into our camp one evening in Santa Elena Canyon, doing its best to slither up to the circle of clients, causing me to encourage it back towards the river by shoveling sand at it with a canoe paddle. It reluctantly swam across the Rio Grande and was not seen again. Another one at the old lodge camp on the Forks of the Kern in California received the same treatment from Tom P., which is where I learned the trick in the first place. “Go on, get on out of here,” Tom admonished while plying it with dirt. The snake complied and crawled into its den. An hour later an annoyingly arrogant client, already upset and embarrassed to have left his and his date’s sleeping pads at home, decided to set his tent up about 3’ from the hole. “What? You think it’s going to come back out of there tonight?” he exclaimed when we asked him if he thought that was a good idea.

One trip I did down the Dolores River in Colorado was particularly noteworthy for the wildlife. Our first night’s camp featured a group of big horn rams only about 200’ from the kitchen site. They spent all evening taking turns leaping onto a huge slab of rock to challenge one another to head-butting competitions. It was like their private boxing arena, and as the skull-bashing ensued, the rest of the group, freshly concussed from their own rounds, would simply spectate while the next pair went at it.  The following night, we camped in a stand of conifer trees. Pine needles covered the floor around us, though as we sat to eat our dinner, some of the ‘needles’ appeared to be in motion. Turned out to they were tiny baby rattlesnakes, only a couple of inches in length each one, the size of pinky fingers, perhaps freshly born as we counted at least seven of them working their way across the ground around us. It was reluctantly that I lied down to sleep that night, as I hadn’t bothered to bring a tent, my warm body surely a beacon for anything seeking heat. Speaking of seeking heat, there was also the time on the Jarbidge when Chad went to pack up his tent the first morning only to find two snakes snuggled below it. Reluctant to give up the shelter they tried to get back underneath the floor each time he moved it from place to place hoping to dismantle it.

There was the one time in the Grand Canyon when we were sitting on the ground in our Crazy Creeks reading. I saw one moving slowly along only a couple feet behind V, who was deeply involved in a book. ‘Don’t freak out, but there’s a rattlesnake right behind you crawling towards your chair…’ There was another time the two of us were walking on the Kern River trail and I ducked under a tree hanging over the path only to find one in full coil. ‘Ha, you jumped!’ she laughed. ‘Yeah, what the hell would you have done?’ There was the time KJ stepped on a rock going down a Salt River side canyon and the rock buzzed loudly beneath her. There was the one on my way back down White Canyon in Arizona just downstream from Lake Mead. I inadvertently found myself returning down the wash in near dark having had to escort a dehydrated and disoriented hiker a couple miles back to the parking lot. That one was close, I’d say. Flip-flops and what seemed like a few inches from unseen fangs at the other end of the caution. There were multiple encounters in the Dome Rocks wilderness while taking a group of high schoolers backpacking. The list goes on.

I do have a favorite story, however, which I will end with. A couple of years ago I was back in the Panhandle visiting. My dad and I went out for a hike near Lake Meredith one morning, hoping to find an obscure ruin site near the Canadian River. It was only mid-April, but it was hot out and had been a particularly warm spring. My pops had already seen several rattlesnakes out that year, and as such, was wary of seeing more. We waded across the river and found ourselves on a grown-over jeep track, which we planned to follow to the approximate location of the site. Somewhere along the way we wandered off the trail and suddenly found ourselves in dry calf-high grass. It felt kinda snakey, you might say. For some reason, however, we decided not to backtrack, but to instead move forward through the grass until we intersected the track again. It seemed like kind of a bad idea, but who wants to turn around? As my dad happened to be carrying a trekking pole, I fell in line as he began to methodically whack at the grass in wide arc in front of him. The motion was that of a blind person moving with a cane, but slow, deliberate, and increasingly tedious. Whack, whack, whack. Whack, whack, whack. One step forward. Whack, whack, whack… Another step forward. This went on for some while as we inched forward toward our goal, which we could see in the distance. Many minutes later, I grew impatient. We’d certainly walked through many a grassy field without the fanfare. Whack, whack, whack… Whack, whack, whack… Just as I opened my mouth to proclaim the ridiculous nature of the situation, one more whack sprung the snake, only a few feet to our left and from what must have been flat to fully erect and furiously buzzing in a hot second. The tension was released, the danger revealed and negated by distance, and it was unbelievably comical. I laughed on and off for the rest of the day, and will always have a rattlesnake to thank for the smiles I still get thinking about it.

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Ohio

Ohio gets a bad rap in my opinion. When I first told people I was going to be living here for a while, most all had a snarky reply. “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “oh God, why?” were common repeats. Most of these comments were made by people who, like myself, had probably never been to Ohio. It just has that kind of reputation. The worst part is, even lifelong Ohio residents, once they find out you’re not from here, are also quick to apologize that you’re spending time in the state—especially if they discover you’re from out West anywhere. While there is some regional pride apparent in the state silhouette stickers, shirts, and even tattoos prominently displayed by Ohioans, a very high percentage of them having lived here their whole lives, there’s still a prevailing attitude of inadequacy somehow. I think they should get over it.

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Spring on the Ohio University campus

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The Ridges Trails in Athens. Run here and you’ll know Ohio’s not all flat.

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For the past nine-months I’ve been living in Athens, down in the southeastern part of the state. Often, Ohioans will say that Athens is different from the rest of the Ohio, hence tolerable to an extent, but I’ve done a bit a driving around and cannot attest to have seen much of a distinction other than the rolling geography—which one can find all along the eastern border of the state as it cuts through the Appalachian foothills. I won’t speak for Ohio’s major cities, which seem to be following the national trend of downtown revitalization complete with local food and beverage culture and increased recreation opportunities, or the sprawling suburban strip mall excrescences at their outskirts. And the small towns look like small towns anywhere, of course, with the same repetition of box stores and fast-food places. But rural Ohio as a whole seems like a pretty decent place to live for anyone simply looking to have a place, raise a family, etc. Positives are: green lush landscapes, productive growing conditions, decent year-round weather, an excellent system of state parks, and significant biodiversity. Negatives: roads in dire need of repair, substantial poverty in many parts of the state, and intense levels of allergens.

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Bikeway along the Hocking River

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Fall colors and brick buildings

Athens itself is home to Ohio University, founded in 1804, the year after statehood. The campus, streets, walkways, and buildings, are made of red brick, much of it locally produced at the time of construction. It’s a beautiful campus replete with numerous species of towering trees and flowering plants. Downtown Athens consists of several blocks of local businesses and bars, collectively referred to as Court Street. The best parts of Athens, for me, however, have of course been the opportunities for being outside. One of my favorite features of Athens is the Adena-Hockhocking bike path, a 20+ mile paved trail running from the east side of town all the way to neighboring Nelsonville. Prospects for trail running, hiking, and mountain biking are also abundant, with several options beginning within the town limits. Most notable is the Ridges trail system accessible from campus, and Sells Park on the east side, with connector trails extending into Stroud’s Run State Park. Numerous areas for running, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking can also be reached within a half-hour drive: Lake Hope and Burr Oak state parks, and the Zaleski State Forest. And within an hour one has access to one of the more famous regions in Ohio, the Hocking Hills, an area full of shaded canyons and waterfalls.

 

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Rock work and scenery combined on the Hocking Hills trails

My time here has been busy, but I’ve still managed to check out a fair amount of this part of the Buckeye State. Not wanting to leave without seeing a few other parts of Ohio, however, a couple of weeks ago Erin came up and we set out for a few days of exploring. From Athens we made our way up north, stopping off for a run on the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444 mile loop trail marked by ‘blue blazes’ which circumnavigates the state. From there we cruised up to Akron and camped out at the southern end of Cuyahoga National Park. The park comprises a strip of greenbelt along the Cuyahoga River and remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also runs along the river, and one of the more popular activities is bike riding along the old tow-path of the canal. It’s a nice place, to be certain, but the experience is decidedly more urban than wild. I doubt there’s a square foot of the park where you can stand and not hear some attention deprived Harley owner revving up his ego. We spent most of the day in the park, first biking the path several miles into downtown Akron early in the morning, then loading up on the train. The ‘bike aboard’ pass is only $5, and we rode an hour-and-a-half north to the last stop in Rockside, disembarking there and riding many miles back to our starting point. From there we headed up to Lake Erie, finding our way to East Harbor State Park and an awesome sunset. The next day was a stop at the Marblehead Lighthouse, and a ferry over to Kelley’s Island, where we spent the night. This little area of Ohio was really cool, with a distinctly beachy vibe. I got a kick out of the travel ‘Coastal Ohio’ signs along the roads. The next morning we caught the ferry back, and headed south through central Ohio and lots of scenic farmland. That afternoon we checked out a few gems of the Hocking Hills, camped a final night, and got in a hilly run at Lake Hope before returning to Athens.

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Van life on Kelley’s Island

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Lake Erie

So yeah, nine months in Ohio. It was a pleasure to be here long enough to witness the four seasons, and to feel like I got to know the area a bit. Headed to Dayton this afternoon for a few days, then westward bound. Time to move on.

Let the Wind do the Greeting

Hanging out in rented indoor space on a slow Sunday afternoon. Chilly outside finally, and this week the leaves quickly turned fiery shades of autumn. A soft yellow glow reflects off the otherwise bare walls, courtesy of a vibrant maple outside the window. Apartment living has never been something I’ve desired, but more of an occasional necessity the three times I’ve gone to school now. I wonder if it’s the same for everyone here, or if most don’t mind at all. I think it’s very strange, and hard to deal with at times, the isolation in the midst of a shared environment.

Interactions, rare and disappointing both, exacerbate feelings of societal detachment, something I experience each day that I’m here. Most of it stems from spending significant time on a college campus, surrounded by hordes of downward drooling zombies. Everyone plugged in to one device or another, muttering away to no one in sight. Even in pairs or groups, it’s the same, which I truly fail to understand. I imagine that these same people, if instantly transported to be among whomever they’re digitally engaging with at the time, would immediately shift to messaging the one’s they’re walking with in the moment, ignoring the other sect mid-text.

At the apartment building, however, it’s more that I know there are people all around me, though rarely see them, only hear their footsteps, their laughter, their occasional bickering through the walls and vents around me. Most of the time, I don’t even know which unit the voices emanate from, the chatter of living ghosts. Graciously, that’s all I’m privy to, through the floors and ceilings and separations, though it’s hard to imagine intimacy occurring in a society where self-absorbed cellular masses sit across from significant others at romantic restaurant tables, unspeaking. Both of them staring down at screens, mindlessly moving fork to mouth, sharing more of the meal with Instagram aficionados than their lover.

I heard a quote recently, supposedly from nomadic tribes in northern Africa: “Houses are the graves of the living” – how long did I live with the same belief, now personified in my daily dealings and roundward dodgings with these inane ambulatory spirits. Yet I now pay a premium each month to dwell in a red-brick catacomb.

To these finger fidgeting ghouls, however, it is I who is invisible to them. And it feels that way, distinctly, when we pass in the hallways, as seldom as that may be. Their eyes averted quickly, perhaps a faint nervous mumble in response to offered greeting, a swift shuffling of steps followed by the sound of a closing door.

Perhaps the only life they want others to view is the one they produce for fellow screen lookers, that mad group of bent-necked mouth-breathers greedy for any life but the one they’ve been self-confined to. Ever scared to dream, to gaze into blue sky, to stare at the sun. To look up. Content, as it were, to passively consume the creativity of others, rather than fashion a physical life to be proud of, one to look forward from unashamed, and smile at a neighbor. Embarrassed, maybe, of what little lies behind those doors, of what happens when the screens go dead. Terrified of what horror might await in time spent alone, no incoming messages, a dearth of much craved distraction.

I’m sure I’m getting it all wrong. Perhaps it is I who should look to computer communities to alleviate my seclusion, no longer solitary or left behind. No further public embarrassment as I look down, constantly down, with everyone else, joining them in celebration of growing collective consciousness, rather than wallowing in pity at the loss of personal identity. Perhaps it’s about relationships and interactions after all. And what could I possibly know about anyone else anyway, without realizing their status, without proper recognition of their legions of friends and followers?

And how ironic, then, to write this in the first place. To consider adding this inanity to that of so many disembodied voices, a feeble whimper in the ethereal vacuum of internet. To imagine that my words might be skimmed by the bowed heads of enslaved automatons. To type these words with those intentions as I sit here alone, admiring the shimmering fall colors from behind the sterility of a glass pane, far removed from the breeze outside. It’s time, for me at least, to look up. Look up, and look out. To go and let the wind do the greeting.

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Up 9th Street

I wish I could lose all inhibitions.  I want to dance in front of three-hundred people.  I want to be the only one dancing.  Not performing, just not caring.  I dream of wearing red socks with purple shoes.  Or purple socks in red sandals.  I want to rock Euro swimwear on American beaches.  Sport a Mohawk when I’m fifty, handlebar mustache below impeccably groomed uni-brow.  I long to talk loud in restaurants and not be concerned about the intrusive ears of other diners.  I will be fat, skinny, drunk, straight-edge, unbelievably gorgeous, irretrievably homely, boisterous, flamboyant, pointed at or ignored, and I won’t give a fleeting thought as to the opinion of others.

Dahlia says she doesn’t want a boyfriend.  It’s true.  She doesn’t.

I mumble.  I’m a low talker.  I sit in corners and post up against walls.  Observe from shadows, stay out of the way.  I’m embarrassed about my shyness, afraid to expose a private persona in public places. Acquaintances label me as serious, stern.  Usually they modify the terms with ‘too’ or ‘so.’   As in: ‘Why are you always so serious?’  I make my way to the sides of classrooms, the edges of bars, hang out in the back of theaters.  I do not initiate conversations.  If people talk to me I am polite to the point of curtness.  My face presents as dour without my permission.   My posture is erect, my shoulders somewhat broad.  It’s been said that I’m intimidating.  Usually, that’s the last thing I’m trying to be.

Dahlia has black hair and an incredible stomach.  I could spend all day with her between soft sheets, smooth skin on skin, cool breeze, autumn rain outside the open window.  Or so I’d like to imagine.  We would be terrible for each other.

I would love to be perceived as approachable, affable, open, but the older I get the meaner I look.  There are strings of days when I speak to no one.  I long to have jolly good times, make new friends, forget about the future and past and live smiling in the present.  Forget about being self-conscious forever.  I am never the center of attention, yet I always feel like it.  Arms swinging awkwardly as I cross the street in front of cars. Bar patrons eyeballing my every action while I order drinks, checking out my clothes upon entrance of any establishment.  I imagine harsh judgments in abundance.  I truly want to never care again.  Never have another thought about it.

Dahlia is the worst kind of bad news.  She crushes men and claims she can’t help it.  She’d rather be alone.  She needs a lot of space.  She doesn’t even believe in the word boyfriend.  She will never get married.

Dahlia knows that she’s the worst kind of bad news.  She tries not to be, sincerely, but she can’t help it.

Everything is energy.  There is an underlying unity to the universe beneath forms of separateness.  The tiny particles that are me pedal tiny particles that are bicycle.  We move through all sorts of jumbled cosmic dust.  The air is filled with flying particles of inane cellular conversations, invisible molecules of high-speed pornography broken into little bits, waves of radio negativity from right-wing baby killers condemning left-wing baby killers and vice-versa.  I question what this does to my psyche.  To the collective consciousness of the world.  I wonder how these things affect the soul.

She lets me rub her stomach, which I’m infatuated with, but there are set  boundaries. No hands on the breasts, nothing in the ‘bikini region’ (her words).  For now, I don’t mind making myself a little miserable.  I’m the worst kind of bad news too.  We might be evenly matched.

I run for longer than I have run in a while.  I want to keep moving.  Nighttime and stepping through shadows, off curbs, into puddles. There are dark dogs in the park that want to chase and bite.  Cars without headlights and drunken operators at the helm.  There is a big bright moon and myriad stars even under the blanket of city glare.  I see Orion as I go.  I focus on breathing.  The stars do not judge me.  I am part of them.  They were once me.  Light shines into my eyes millions of years after it has left the surface of each individual star.  In a million more years the light reflected off my eyes will be returned.  When I look at the star, when the light hits the back of my eyes and lets me see it, we are connected through time and eternity.  We, It, Us, Them – all the same.

Still, I wait for phone calls, for poverty, for judgment.  I wait for food to cook, water to boil, letters in the mail, for death.  I cannot die, but I cannot seem to realize that I cannot die.  I listen to music, I cross my legs, ‘I am not I,’ I sigh. ‘We, are everything.’

Sometimes I am so bold as to kiss her on the neck.  I like to bite.  A diagnostic test to determine the extent of the damage.  Dahlia claims she is ‘dead downstairs these days.’  I look for a reaction.  It’s frustrating to touch someone without being touched in return.  Legs intertwined, at times, and never a significant response.  Maybe she’s right.

Dahlia does her own thing and I do mine.  She says we only want what we can’t have.  Right.  She has some quirks.  Everything in her house/truck/life must be just so.  The kitchen cabinets are empty and the salt and pepper shakers can only be arranged one way.  Maybe the pepper sits closer to the edge of the counter than the salt, holes aligned, two inches apart.  Maybe the dish towel must be folded in thirds, rather than in half.  The eccentricities aren’t exactly endearing.  I long to be thoroughly annoyed.

Never assume I know what I want.  The questions in my life are the same now as they have been for years.  Persistent little interrogatives these ones:  Where am I going?  What am I doing?  What do I want if it’s not to be secure, become sedentary and stifling and blend straight in to the suburban strip malls of middle class mediocrity where I reside?  These statements, these questions, are prosaic and unoriginal.  It’s all been said before, but I don’t think most people really believe in any sort of rebellion after the age of 25 or so.  Then it’s time to settle.  Time to get busy being busy all the time.

I’m late.  A late bloomer maybe or just a bad weed seed.  If the status quo had a gardener I’d have been plucked and burned long ago, or hosed down with poison pesticide so good and cleansing.  And still the problem is that I’m not passionate about anything.  Not money, not politics, not sex or saving the world, or living or dying.  I am only existing.  Breathing oxygen and expelling something else.  I am wandering without purpose because I can’t sit still with purpose and neither of the two is all that interesting.

This is what I think at least, when I wake up in the morning and before I go to bed at night.  The old why are we here is why am I here routine.  I do not believe in a higher purpose, nor do I condone lesser evil.  But if there is no figuring anything out, then why am I still so stumped?

Dahlia says relationships are drama.  She prefers to be alone.  I have spent long stretches of time by myself.  Sometimes I crave companionship.  Then I don’t.  Dahlia says I would get tired of her.  She’s right.  I get tired of everyone.  I say that she’d never be able to give me the attention I need.  She agrees.  At least we’re honest with each other.  Most of the time.

I hate to hurt people’s feelings, but I seem to have a penchant for it.  Relationships are misunderstandings, frustration, damaged egos, things said in anger, anger itself, too many other emotions, and worth it most of the time.  Living in this world is absurd.  Consuming, buying, believing.  Trying to stand out.  Trying to fit in.  The clothes worn, food devoured, plastic containers of liquid quaffed.  The insecurities, activities, the confusion of attempting to deal with oneself and all the rest of the species at the same time.

Dahlia is athletic, but never exercises.  And she never eats.  Her body is amazing to me.  Mostly because I’ve only seen it covered.  I get the occasional view of perfect legs extending out the bottom of tasteful dresses.  The rare glimpse of exposed midriff.  She tells me she has cellulite in her ‘hard-to-reach woman areas’ – under the buttocks, top of the thighs.  Her self-deprecation is usually exaggerated.  I want to find out for myself.  Her eyes are bright green.  They are alive behind the blackest of eyelashes.  Illuminated when she smiles.

It would be easy to fall in love with Dahlia, at least for a while.  When people begin to like me, I slowly grow bored with them.  Not always, but often.  Dahlia isn’t completely insensitive to the requirements of others, just not interested in sacrificing any part of her life to meet them.  She says she needs to have her heart broken, penance for the pain she’s caused.  But she says I can’t be the one to do it.

I wish she’d give me the chance.

I haven’t loved anyone for years.  It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t feel like it.  There is a letter, a remnant of a relationship long past, that lives in my heart subjected to constant revisions:

‘Could you know that I dreamt of you the other night?  That for the first time in five years I saw you in my sleep and when I went to kiss you – you kissed me back?  Could you know that in all of the dreams before you only hugged me half-heartedly, and when I tried to kiss you, to resume where we parted so long ago, that you turned your cheek and gently pushed me away, destroying me in the process?

“It’s not like that anymore,’ you said. 

‘Recurrently.

‘Could you know how it felt to kiss and be kissed again after so many years – even in a dream?  Could you know that I have never looked at a photograph of you since you got in your car and drove up 9th Street that day?  That I prefer, instead, to remember you as much as I can from memory?  But reluctant to re-open that part of my life in flimsy pictures – I still have pictures of old photographs in my head, along with visions ingrained in mental images.  I have glimpses of your face, of your innocent and sincere smile when I used to walk unannounced down the aisle of the natural foods store where you worked.  When you looked at me like that – time stopped for a second and the universe was reduced to ten square feet of a grocery and I knew I would love you forever.  And I do, though I dwell on it no longer.

‘That dream the other night brought it all rushing back.  Could I know that this letter is still being written?’

It’s hard being human and small and loving somebody too much.  It’s hard to resent one’s own frailty.

If we ever did have sex, the mystery of Dahlia might disappear.  Most days when I see her it’s in a new light of attractiveness.  She has a calming presence and a model’s smile.  I try to make her laugh, but we don’t always share a sense of humor.

After knowing someone for a while their imperfections, both physical and otherwise, grow more obvious and impossible to ignore. Maybe the tiny mole on her cheek will sprout hair.  Maybe I will obsess over imperfectly plucked eyebrows.  Maybe I’ll fixate on the ‘hard-to-reach woman areas.’  Dahlia doesn’t use soap in the shower.  If I make her dinner she devours it without thanks and she never makes me anything.

My own imperfections are easy to ignore from the inside.  If there is one word to describe my alter ego it’s petulant.  Dahlia politely refers to my quick changes of temper as moodiness and tells me she doubts that she would be capable of dealing with it if we were ever together.

Dahlia has studied martial arts from an early age.  She once kicked her sensei in the face when he lifted his head too soon.  His wounds were a broken nose and much embarrassment.  He admitted that it was his fault, not hers.  So will I, when the time comes.  I don’t look forward to the pain, I merely live in the present unfulfilled.

Dahlia carries a folding three-inch knife everywhere.  It is both disconcerting and ridiculous.  She used it once (or one like it) outside a train station in France at three in the morning, but refuses to outline the details.  She clips it to the waistline of jogging pants, gym shorts, blue jeans, the skirts she wears to work each day.  She knows how to hurt a person more ways than most.

I enter the Pacific Ocean by running down a beach and jumping into waves off the Mexican coast with the biggest splash I can muster.  I wonder if the displacement is sufficient to affect the morning tide in Japan.  That is to question: Am I significant?

I like Dahlia’s feet.  Sexy long toes and delicately curved arches.  Some days they stink when she takes her shoes off.  She doesn’t watch TV or listen to music or write or draw or paint or read.  I have no idea how she spends all that time alone.  She doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.  She neither prays nor uses profanity.  She doesn’t work out or cook or clean or sing (to my knowledge).  She simply IS, I suppose.

I think I might have to stop spending time with her.  It’s too much for me.  I can’t control myself.  Can’t contain the longing.  I go over to her house and she is outside washing her motorcycle in the sunshine.  She is wearing a black skirt and a white top that showcases the exquisite abs I want to gnaw on gently.  She smiles at me and I can only sigh inwardly as I attempt to smile back.  I’m not very good at forced facial contortions.  I’ll never win a high-stakes poker game.  I only want to grab her and hold her tight and carry her inside and love her forever.  I can’t.  Definitely not allowed.

It gets worse every time.  I say the stupidest things.  Ask the most ridiculous questions.  Tell her how much I like her and try to say why.  I feel like an incorrigible idiot every time I attempt to explain my emotions.  I can’t help myself.  I’m tired of feeling like this, and I don’t know what to do about it.

We spend the day together and go on a long walk through fields of sunflowers near her place.  It’s a beautiful day, but inside I am only being crushed by the immense weight of understanding that beauty is always transient, and that I am meant to appreciate it only from afar.

Before I leave I ask her to tell me why we can’t be together.  Until now there have always been allusions to the idea that it might be possible.  One day.  She tells me that I’m just not happy enough, and that she would feel as if it were her job to make me happy.  Then she says that it’s not that I’m not happy, it’s that I’m not ‘Hap-pY!’  As she says it she pokes her index finger into an imagined dimple and exaggerates a smile.  As she says it I’m thinking about how much I’m starting to hate the word ‘Happy,’ the condescending Ps slapping together, the long E at the end an additional insult to intelligence, a kick to the balls of the brain.  I’m thinking about what a subjective term it is, how utterly devoid of meaning.

I’m pretty sure she’s on to something.

There are days when I only want to melt into the afternoon light.  Days of contentment and inner stillness.  Days that don’t want to end with a night, with another day following.  Days that stand alone and unencumbered by ideas of infinitum.  There are days that call for something more: a silent explosion of particles, an infiltration of matter, a merging with the universe.  Myself and itself melded into more of a one than we already are.  I attempt to absorb the moment – the moment is indifferent to my longing.

Through eyes damp with beauty I crave to be part of fuzzy evening skies as the sun dissolves behind desert mountains.  Halcyon instants of such splendor that only evaporation could be a fitting end to individual existence.  I watch the air blend into dusk.  I breathe and let it all go away.

I go home and take a nap.  As I’m waking up, I have an epiphany and decide to call Dahlia on the phone and share it with her.  I tell her that I’m not looking for someone to make me happy.  That I have known for a long time the happiness of one individual cannot rely on another.  I tell her it would make me happy just to do nice things for her, to treat her well, to make her smile.  I tell her it’s been difficult for me to not be depressed when I’m around her lately because I can’t handle our relationship as it stands.  I know it sounds absurd, but it’s true.  Reluctant to hang up, still wanting to talk, I read her the first few paragraphs of this story.

She says she’s never heard me talk about myself before.

The last time I see Dahlia she comes over to my house with a vase of white, fist-sized lilies.  She’s leaving town for a week.  It is late at night and we lie next to each other for a while, on the bed, on top of the sheets.  Her flannel pajama bottoms are pulled up past her navel and she doesn’t have a bra on underneath a bulky brown sweatshirt.  I slide a hand onto her waist, but I’m still not supposed to let tentacles wander unimpeded.  The margin for error is slim.  I pull her close to me and squeeze tight.  Try to unify disparate masses.  I want us to be one.  This has nothing to do with sex.  This is about being lonely forever.

I rub her back and admire the tautness of her skin.  I stroke her belly, run my tongue along the length of her slender neck, follow it with soft bites down to the collarbone.  She allows me this privilege, allows herself the small pleasure.  But she is careful not to touch me in return.  She grants me these concessions and tells me they’ll never be enough to satisfy my desires.  She’s right.

Dahlia is going back to the East Coast for a wedding.  She’s fresh out of the tub and has just painted her fingernails maroon for the occasion.  Maroon is my least favorite color in the world, though a majority of women elect it as their nail color preference.  The smell of acetate is strong and nauseating.  It doesn’t fade for the two hours she stays.

Around midnight I walk her out to the car.  I hug a body reluctant to love and say goodbye.  I walk back inside and don’t turn my head as she’s leaving.  The odor of fingernail polish is gone.  In its wake there is only the sickly sweet smell of the flowers.  The air in the room is thicker than I remembered it.  I make myself and drink and turn off the stereo.  It is only this quiet late at night and early on Sunday mornings.  There is the sound of my breathing, of ice in the glass when I bring it to my lips, the occasional car passing outside.  Now is the time for silence.

(2009)