Death, and the Grand Canyon

It was light outside her dorm room but dark inside her soul. She always thought that way: poetic, if not a little bit melodramatic. She had been orbiting around this plan for weeks, but had never landed on it until today. She had taken the drugs from her parents’ house in Nebraska weeks earlier, a combination of her leftover painkillers from her wisdom teeth surgery, her mother’s muscle relaxers, and something her father had been given when he hurt his back. Even when she took them, discreetly, piling them into the bottle with her name on it, leaving enough in her mom’s bottle so that theft would not be suspected, she had not thought definitively that she would kill herself. She had convinced herself to take them, the idea ruminating in the back of her mind as she drove the pills, tucked in with her freshly cleaned laundry, across state lines and back to college.

She lived alone in her dorm room, though the bathroom she had was connected to the room next to hers. Two perfectly lovely girls lived there, girls that looked up to her as their RA, thinking she was a good student, a pretty girl, someone who had her head on straight. She thought about this, and about how they would likely be the ones to find her body after the deed was done. She didn’t like that idea, but, again, she forced the thought into the back of her mind like she had done with the notion of suicide so many times in the last months.

She was wondering if she should write a note, she even sat down at her desk and opened her journal to do so. But she couldn’t think of what to write. Everything that was bothering her seemed so trivial, so unimportant. She had the notion that suicide should be some sort of grand gesture, a finale in a play with decisively laid out acts. Brutus, Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia; their deaths were the results of actions. Hers was a result of nothing in particular; she was just sad. Of course, she thought, it stemmed from the fact that her two best friends liked each other more than they liked her, that her job as an RA took her away from them and the rest of the group that they hung out with, that she hated everyone she worked with as an RA, that school was really hard, that they guy she had been making out with for over a year didn’t want to be her boyfriend, and that she had lied to him — and everyone else — when she told him he wasn’t a virgin, that her parents had moved out of state six months ago and this place no longer felt like home, that her dog’s health had taken a turn for the worse when they had moved him to Nebraska, that she had been accused — rightfully, so — of cheating on a take-home test (though she believed that “take home” warranted cheating), but above all, she was just really fucking sad. Still, the acts in her play, she thought, did not warrant this finale, but perhaps the critics would declare it “modern,” “avant garde,” “pushing the boundaries of playwriting to its finest.” She laughed as these thoughts entered her head, and put down her journal, deciding against a note. She thought of her parents talking to her friends at her funerals and piecing together all the lies she had made up to construct her collegiate life, and putting together the fact that she wasn’t happy. That idea comforted her, somehow.

In lieu of a note, she took her cellphone and texted her best friend, part of the duo that she felt was pushing her away, and she finally felt free to let loose all the hurt that had been building up inside her over the last couple of months. She said she was sorry she didn’t grow up in the same place as them (a fact that had bonded them together more deeply than she could ever hope to match up to), she was sorry she had to live on campus and that she had less money than them, she was sorry that nothing she ever did was good enough for her to be anything but a third wheel to them. She looked at her phone, rereading her masterpiece of emotional expression and pressed send. She left her phone on the radiator of her dorm room, looked out the window onto the parking lot. It was getting dark, and she felt prepared now.

She sat on the vanity and put her feet into the sink, pulling the stopper and letting the basin fill up with warm water, something she often did before going to bed as her feet were always cold and often kept her from falling asleep. She took a handful of pills — maybe five or six — and with a glance at the mirror, she put them in her mouth and guzzled down a large portion of her water bottle. She did that twice, three times, and she finished her water bottle. She had to pee, so she took her feet out of the sink and went into the shared bathroom to do her business. It was while she was on the toilet that she thought to herself that she hadn’t taken her birth control yet today, and if she was taking so many pills, she might as well go take her birth control.

It was this thought that saved her life. She walked back into her dorm room, found the pack of birth control, squeezed out the tiny pink pill from its packaging and pushed it into her mouth. She was beginning to feel dizzy, but the thought rang clear into her head: you take birth control because you intend to live long enough to not want to get pregnant. So she stumbled into the bathroom, and threw up the contents of her stomach. She threw up three times, flushed the toilet, checked her hair in the mirror, and knocked on the bathroom door that connected to the adjoining room, housing the two lovely girls she had supposed might find her dead body. She told them she felt very sick and asked if they might drop her off at the ER. They were happy to. She told the doctors at the ER the truth. She told the friend she had texted minutes before she’d done it the truth. She told no one else.

Now, three years later, she is sitting on a boulder on the side of a downward sloping path in the Grand Canyon. Her hair is matted with sweat under her baseball cap and her two big toes are throbbing in her shoes with unimaginable pain, constricted by boots that had seemed perfectly sized (and on sale!) at the sporting goods store but had since either shrunken or decided they loved her feet so much they wanted a boa constrictor-like grip on them at all times. This is the first time since that day in her dorm room that she has considered her own death, but it seems different now.

There is nothing connecting that day to this one. It was spring then, it is October now; she was in Colorado then, Arizona now; she was utterly alone then, and surrounded by three good friends now; it was dark then, and now the sun in so bright it seems closer to the earth somehow. And yet, under the surface, she knows something is similar. Most days, people do not think about death. But on these days — years and miles and mountains of anti-depressants and therapy apart — for some reason, death feels close, a possibility.

She looked around. Everything here was beautiful. The way the red rocks jutted downward and contrasted against the bright blue sky. The way plants had found a way to grow in this deprived soil under this blistering sun, the way it feels so vastly far away from anything humans have built. And yet it was frightening. This was the first time since that day that she felt like she might die. She was hyper-aware that she could snap her ankle and be unable to walk out, she could fall off the next jutting look-out, she could be swept away in the fast-moving waters of the river and her body would never be found. She could get heat-stroke, wander away from her group and die of starvation and thirst. She even felt as if she could die of toenail pain at the current moment, though, logically, she knew that wasn’t a valid possibility.

She is thinking about that day on this day, the first of four to be spent in the Grand Canyon, and thinking about how similar they feel, and yet the difference screams through her thoughts. On that day, she had wanted to die. She had thought that being dead might be serene, peaceful, without problems or even emotions. She had wanted that. On this day, her mind gets stuck on the physicality of death, how, here, her body would most certainly be picked apart by scavengers, her eyes eaten out of their sockets, her abdomen ripped open and hosted by hundreds of maggots. There are no two sweet girls to happen upon her corpse here, only nature withering away her form into bones and dust. She cannot imagine her afterlife being peaceful when that is happening to her dead body.

She is thinking about how those two deaths would be so different, and yet, inside her, she knows that all deaths are the same. The next day, when she and her friends reach the bottom of the canyon and swim in the muddy brown waters of the Colorado river and wash two days worth of sweat off of their bodies, surrounded not by paths winding downward but by skyscraper-high cliffs on all sides of them, basking in shade and good company and cheese sticks wrapped up in tortillas, she will feel a joy exceeding any other moment in her life, the pure simple act of being alive.

Two days later, safely out of the canyon, her muscles tired and sore, her body scrubbed clean and the dirt washed out of her hair, while inspecting her damaged feet, her toenails, blackened by blood, will come off into her fingers and she will cry — from pain, from release, and, above all, from a sort of unspoken thankfulness she has for being able to feel these things. Her toenails grow back in the years to come, and though they never return to their former glory, every night, when she soaks her feet in the sink to warm them up before going to bed, she looks at her mangled toenails and smiles, happy to be alive.

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A Year on the Road

People in Iowa never turn off their brights until it’s too late. I’ve been driving for ten hours; I’ve been in this state for three hours, it’s only been dark for one of them, and I’m done, I’m done, and I’m ready to sleep. I have another ten, twenty minutes ahead of me. And people in Iowa never fucking turn off their brights until they’re going past you and you’re squinting your eyes and gripping the steering wheel too tight and trying hard to focus on the white lines of the road rather than the source of cornea burn.

No one prepared me for life after college. I think that exact thought several times a day. Literally, no matter what I’m doing during the day, I have the conscious thought of that exact phrase: “no one prepared me for life after college.”

Maybe they did prepare me, and I wasn’t listening. Maybe someone, somewhere told me, “Someday, you’re going to be driving down the road, blinded by a stranger’s impoliteness, heading toward your parent’s house, praying for the illusion of safety and the comfort of a bed you didn’t have to make for yourself.”

“Someday, you’re going to be eating half an avocado with just your teeth and hands as you barrel down I-90, listening to a book on tape you spent your last ten dollars of cash on, thinking about how much weed you have in your possession and what you’d get charged with from taking it out of a state where its legal into a state where its illegal.”

“Someday, you’re going to call your friend who is in grad school and she’s going to tell you how much she fucking hates it, but a little voice in the back of your head is still going to wonder if you made the wrong decision by not going to grad school.”

You’d think flashing my brights at oncoming drivers would help them understand that I’d like them to turn them off, but, no, it doesn’t seem to be showing positive results.

 

In Arkansas, there are no guardrails on the roads that probably, legally, should have guardrails on them. There are twists and turns and corners begging to be run off of if your eyes leave the road for even a second. Leaving the highway had seemed like such a good idea an hour ago, but it’s clear now it was an ill-advised move. Not only because of the lack of guardrails on the road, but also because the truck in front of me is sporting a large confederate flag draped over the lift gate.

In a year, anytime I hear any song from this album — which came out a week before I started this monster haul of a drive and was purchased excitedly at a Target for $12.99 — will remind me of this drive. The leaves are changing and I think that maybe this would be a really nice drive, a beautiful one, if I wasn’t so fucking terrified of every corner I turned.

I pass an island. In Arkansas. A literal island, in a lake, with a road — well, kind of a road — leading right to it. It’s a beautiful because its unexpected, though in another setting — one where you might rightly expect an island — it might seem less striking.

I wonder if beauty is always situationally dependent. Next winter, when I am in London for one night only, I’ll ask myself the same question as everyone fawns over my own beauty, beauty that certainly seemed ordinary in every other place I’ve been.

 

Driving into Colorado always feels like coming home, even though my parents and siblings, even many of my friends, no longer live there. It’s a feeling that was engrained in me from the caring attention of loved ones, but lingers even now that their houses are hollow, filled with strangers.

I always head to the same place – the house I lived in my last summer here, with my best friend and a red-head with chronic urinary tract infections that responded to a Craigslist posting. Neither girls live there any more, my best friend half a world away in Uganda, the red head teaching French to rich prep school students in the desert. Rather, it is occupied by my best friend’s older sister, who lets me crash there for the same reason I want to crash there – memories of my best friend, her sister.

I think the same thing as I drive this same route, every time. I wonder if places store memories. I want it to be true. I want the Walmart I drive past to remember the late-night trips to buy hair dye and candy; I want the liquor store to remember the time I spent an entire two weeks’ paycheck there; I want the dorm I worked in sophomore and senior years to reach out to me as I drive past it.

Maybe these places don’t hold memories of me, but the streets certainly do. They welcome me home with open arms.

 

Driving in Montana in the winter is terrifying. Logically, I know that the all-season tires I’ve just purchased and the speed I’m currently traveling at, an over-cautious 20 miles under the highway speed-limit, put me in a relatively safe situation, but the way the wind blows the snow over the dark asphalt leaves me feeling uneasy.

Really, everything about Montana leaves me feeling uneasy. The mountains here are different than the ones I grew up with, more severe, more dominating. At home, we built houses and malls right up against them, but in Montana the mountains make the rules, and towns are small, dwindled by the size of behemoth rocks jetting up behind them.

I thought I was ready to be alone, to travel to a place where I don’t know anyone, but it’s too far from my old home and too spacious to feel like a new home. I have made long drives like this before, even across unfamiliar distances, but always with the promise of an old friend and a warm bed at the end of the journey. This drive feels like ice through my veins, and not just because its fucking freezing outside.

Six months later I make this same drive, returning to Montana, but this time the sweet summer air wafts through my open windows, I’m safe and comfortable traveling 5 miles over the speed limit, and I’m headed toward friends that feel like old friends by now. The distance between these drives feels like years, miles, continents of distance between them.