I lay down to go to bed. My head hits the pillow. I run fingers through my hair and find a layer of dry leaves. I look over to her with playful annoyance.
“Was that you?”
She smiles slyly and buries her face in my shoulder. I reach over her and grab a fistful of grass. I sprinkle it on her hair while she laughs. I hug her tight and look back at the stars above the city. The Space Needle blinks from across the water. Her breath is getting slower. Her arms relax on my chest.
“Are you ready to go home?”
She nods without opening her eyes. I kiss her forehead, stand up, and turn to help her to her feet.
I am alone in an empty room. My bed is messy. The clock blinks 6:30am.
I notice my packed suitcase sitting next to my backpack. The dressers are empty. My shoes are by the bed. Clean socks stick out of them. I sit down and pull my knees towards my chest, my back against the hotel bed. I slide the socks over my feet, tie a fast knot in my shoes, and use the bed to pull myself up. I tap my shoes on the ground, making sure they are tight, and start jogging down the bridge.
It’s warm. It always is here. I peek over the edge of the railing and watch kayakers drifting below. Vertigo brings my focus back to my run. Pretty girls run in the opposite direction. I jog towards the city. Today is the day I will finally make it to the capitol building. I pace my breath accordingly. I reach the end of the bridge and stop at the traffic light, jogging in place. The edge of downtown Austin sits before me. Traffic slowly moves past. I press the button to cross the street. An automated voice says
“Wait. The valet is bringing a car around now. You can sit over there.”
I pull my suitcase to the bench by the hotel entrance and take a seat. My stomach rumbles. The hunger pains always start after the second day.
I have to eat. I turn and look over my driver’s seat. Blue Jeans looks up at me from the back of the SUV. I consider taking some of her food. A car drives by us and stares through our windows. I wonder if they can see how hungry I am. I rummage through the storage bin that normally holds food. It is still empty. A homeless man pisses on the pavement outside of the car. I wonder how long before I join him. I turn back to face the steering wheel, my knees jingling the keys as I do so.
I take the jingling keys from the valet’s outstretched hand and pull my suitcase towards the rental car. It’s a white Toyota Camry. It is clean. I open the trunk. It smells like freshly vacuumed carpet. I lift my suitcase and place it in the back of the car. I slide my backpack off and set it beside the suitcase. I shut the trunk. I move to the front of the car, open the driver-side door, and sit behind the wheel. I pull the door shut behind me and start walking towards the beach.
It’s my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean.
In my mind, I know I can’t see any further than when looking out across the Gulf of Mexico. But my heart is aware of the vastness. I can feel the island of Japan, China’s coast, Oceania. The other side of the world. The water washing over my bare feet is the same water running against foreign shores. I feel Blue Jeans’s leash tug my belt loop in the opposite direction. I turn to look at her. A silent meow passes through her shocked expression. I worry she won’t like Seattle. Cars honk at one another along the PCH.
I look up and realize the light is green. The car behind me honks again.
I pull through the light and make a left. I merge onto the highway, the small Toyota racing south. I mentally run through the short list of my belongings, making sure nothing has been left behind. Water bottle. Laptop. Sweaters. Shirts. Jeans. Socks. Cables. Wallet. Phone. Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, headphones mouse journal pens-
I roll the windows down to drown the thinking. The wind deafens my ears and tears at my hair. Rain beats against my face. It’s loud enough that no one can hear me howling with the wind. I look down and watch the waves crash against the cliffside hundreds of feet below.
Everything that isn’t the ocean is a shade of grey or green. Pine trees surround me. The thin wooden railing rocks under my hands. I imagine myself falling into the ocean below, dissolving into foam. I lift one arm, thinking of Titanic. The wind is stronger than me, and I quickly re-grip the flimsy wooden rail. I look back at the swaying bridge that has brought me to this point, and imagine it blowing away in the storm. I wonder if it always rains here. I picture whales swimming beneath the choppy waters below. I am closer to Alaska than I am to Texas. The clouds break for a moment, and I see the sun peeking through. It’s blinding.
I reach for the sunglasses hanging from the neck of my shirt and carefully put them on, not taking my eyes off of the road. I read the signs, looking for Terminal A. Cars change lanes at the last second. I am careful not to wreck the rental into frantic flyers. I find the exit for my terminal and drive towards the heart of the airport. I park next to the other rental cars. A man in an Enterprise uniform approaches and takes the keys. He is smiling. I grab my backpack and suitcase out of the trunk and head inside the airport. I find the counter for my airline, but no one is there. A taped sign informs me of when they’ll be back. I take a seat next to a security guard. He is eating a sandwich. He looks up.
“Going on vacation?”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean I’m not going back to school. I’m done.”
“You’re just going to quit?”
I nod. He strokes his mustache.
“You realize what this means, right?”
“And can I get a name for that?”
“Charlie,” she scribbles my name on a plastic cup. “Gotcha. Alright Charlie, just wait right there and we’ll call your name when it’s ready.”
I nod at the barista and walk to the other side of the counter, dragging my luggage with me. I look at the other travelers. Everyone is tired. I grab my coffee when it’s called and head back to the counter for my airline. The security guard has left. I wait for the employees to return from lunch. I take a sip of my coffee and move to set it on the ground, carefully balancing the cardboard cup in the grass. My hand is shaking. She asks what’s wrong. I take a deep breath.
“There’s something I haven’t told you.”
The employees return and turn the light above the counter on. Travelers start forming a line. I join them.
“I don’t actually live here.”
The line shuffles forward.
“I don’t live anywhere.”
I finish writing my name on a paper tag and tie it to my suitcase. I move to the front of the line and place my luggage on the scale.
“Do you have a ticket?”
“It’s on my phone.” I reach into my pocket and answer my phone.
“Is this Charlie?”
“Hi, I found your number on Blue Jeans’s collar, I wish I had good news-“
BEEP. The digital ticket scans successfully.
“-don’t know how to say this, she’s… she was hit by-“
An employee grabs my suitcase. It disappears into the abyss of the airport.
“-so, so sorry. I moved her off the road, she’s across the street from the firehouse-“
I start walking through the airport, looking for the security terminal.
“-you probably shouldn’t see her like this, it’s- do you have a friend who can pick her up for you?”
I step onto a moving walkway and grip the rail with white knuckles. I wait to be carried to the other side, listening to the quiet woosh of the machinery. It sounds like
Ladybird Lake’s gentle waves drift against the shore. I watch them from the bench I slept on the night before. It’s strange to me, how no one else has asked to sit on this bench. Across the lake I can see downtown Austin’s skyscrapers rising up from the lake’s horizon. My heart catches, in apprehension and in awe. The unreality of the situation is overwhelming. I think of the house I grew up in, my parents. I wonder how long before they realize I am gone. I half wonder if I’ll be gone long enough for anyone to notice. Maybe I’ll go back home tonight and pretend this never happened.
I’ve been listening to the same song for the last four hours. I have no other plans for the day. It’s a song about love by the beach, sung by a stranger I barely know. I can hear the ocean in the background, and wonder if I’ll ever see California. The song fills me with fear and desire. It’s all my dreams wrapped into a melody.
I take a deep breath and look around. Runners periodically jog on the trail behind me, quickly disappearing in the cedar trees. Maybe I should take up running, I think to myself. The song loops again.
It’s my first day living as a homeless artist in a city I have never been to before. I spend most of the day listening to this song, imagining what the person singing it might look like. I picture myself working up the courage to venture into downtown. I don’t know that, soon, I will know every street and intersection in the greater Austin area by heart.
I look back on this moment with violent jealousy. I think about all the places I never knew I would go. The people I never knew I would meet. The goodbyes I hadn’t said yet. But none of this concerns me. I’m a stranger, a kid, sitting on the same bench I slept on the night before, listening to a song from a girl I’ve never met. I have no idea how long this will last. It has never occurred to me that it won’t last forever.
I will sleep here again tonight, I think.
A woman calls to me from across the crowded airport. She is waving to me from behind a help desk. I am standing at the end of the walkway, the rubber track rolling against my heels. I walk over to the waving woman.
“Hey, sorry about that, you just seemed a little lost. Is there anything I can help you with?”
I look around. To my right are crowds of people, moving through an airport. Behind them are the mountains of El Paso, the hills of West Texas. To my left I see Seattle. A girl is waiting for me in a churchyard, with a paintbrush and a cup of coffee. I feel Blue Jeans brushing against my legs, purring for my attention. Tears fall down my face. I smell the food trucks of Austin, making the pain in my stomach all the more worse. My friends and family stand beside me. They wish me well and ask when I’ll be back. In my pocket is a letter, from a friend I might never see again. My arm is covered in the tattoos of every place I’ve ever been. I hear the sound of a car that won’t start. I hear an ocean in the distance, cars driving by while I fall asleep. I see stars above a desert, graffiti in an alley, protesters at the park. Someone wraps their arms around me. There is a bullet of loneliness in my chest.