It was a couple years ago, in Asheville. My birthday weekend, Greyhound ticket, reservation at a hostel, but only for the first night. I hadn’t thought much past that. It was gulping air in that crowded bus, sitting in September Carolina heat, passing a jackknife on the way there that was halfway up a hill, as if the trucker was charging into battle but couldn’t quite make it all the way. I knew no one there, had no definitive plans, and my therapist wasn’t sure I should even go. I’d been in and out of the hospital at that point, meds wild, internal states uncharted and unchartable just yet. It wasn’t like it is now.
I heard drumming when I got off the bus. Drumming, and singing, and instruments, and laughter. I turned away from it and walked to the hostel.
Hitching in my chest at all the people inside. Hitching, and halted breath, and forehead sweat that had to perpetually be wiped off. Sitting on a couch in the common area with a book in my lap, unsure where to put my hands or feet or face. Sweet light coming in through the window, coming in past sleepy curtain, bathing window plants, vines and leaves of which reaching toward the floor, some of them collecting on the seats so it felt like soft fingers were touching the back of your neck.
Disconnecting from my body, then reconnecting, like a faulty Wi-Fi connection you’re siphoning from your neighbor, pulling me out of my body to dance on the walls with the shadows before coming right back to the present moment, this moment that kept telling me life was pointless, that I had no purpose, despite evidence to the contrary, evidence in the form of publication and friends and having the coveted opportunity to start my life all over again. Fog in my head, ripping out memories and thoughts like scrap sheets from a notebook, crumpling and tossing them so I had to chase after and retrieve them, only for another to be torn and crumpled while I’m hunting for the first.
A woman walks over to me. Maybe a year or two older than me, and I just turned 26. She wants to know what I’m reading. I look at the cover like I’ve forgotten, because I have. It’s “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse. Something I found at the library before catching the bus over here. I thought it seemed appropriate. She’d read it, and she loved it, and had I read anything else by Hesse? And her name was Stephanie, by the way. I told her no, I’d never read anything by him. I’d heard a lot about him in my fiction classes back in the day, but this was my first foray. She sits next to me, glances at the page, looks up at the ceiling to mentally catch up with where I am, almost says a spoiler but stops herself. She asks what I came here for, and I tell her that my brain isn’t always good at keeping me alive, that it’s convinced me a few times that I’d be better off not alive, that even after almost dying and seeing that I need to keep going, it sometimes malfunctions anyway. That I know logically, and in my heart, that I’m a human being with potential, that I add something positive to the world, but my brain likes to hijack that sometimes. She asks if that’s the reason why I have a semicolon tattoo on each arm, one next to each scar. I just nod, and it goes quiet for a second.
She says that we should go out busking, and it takes me a second to remember what that word means. Have I ever been? And no, I haven’t. Do I want to? She has a ukulele, and a couple shakers, and she has some lyrics printed out from a couple songs she wrote way back when. I don’t know I’m going to say yes until it comes out.
We sit on the edge of a planter on the street corner, and she takes out her equipment. The lyrics shake in my hands, and I try to memorize them so the shaking won’t be noticeable. It’s obvious, though, visible, because she places her hand on mine and waits for me to look her in the eyes. She says it’s okay, I’ll do great, and I decide to believe her.
We start with songs I know, songs by The Beatles, and my voice comes out from a ventriloquist who’s ten miles away. But she plays, and sings backup, and I imagine that I’m home alone, in my bathroom, singing and listening to the way my voice reverberates off of tile, the way it echoes like I’m singing in a vast and empty cathedral. Stephanie smiles when my voice picks up, when my words can be heard over the melody of her instrument.
We sing more covers, then some of her music, then we scat and improvise and make songs up on the fly till we’re both laughing and Stephanie can hardly play the notes. When it’s over, she tells me I did amazing and gives me a hug.
We make enough change to share a beer at the local bar, and we take it outside to enjoy the air as it begins to cool, the sun as it begins to set. There will come a time when things are consistently okay, a time in the future when faulty brain wiring has no power over me and I feel whole and okay, a time when I will find someone new who will accept me for who I am. This memory is a time when “happening” is still just “will happen,” but that’s okay. I can just sip a beer with a new friend and take in the late summer air.
Nicholas Olson is a writer from Chicago now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s 2016 Very Short Fiction Award, his work was included in Crack the Spine’s sixteenth print anthology, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. Read more at nicksfics.com.