Crossing Over

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Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – September 21, 2018

I am surrounded by waves. Lake Huron on the right. Lake Michigan on the left. They roll back and forth across an invisible border. Becoming one. The unsettling hum of steel grates under my tires. Above, the iconic steel towers shudder. Below my wheels, the concrete sways. A lullaby motion that both soothes and disquiets. My eyes flicker side to side, then forward. My hands tighten on the wheel, not so much in fear as in determination. In 1989, a Yugo was blown over the side of the Mackinac Bridge. It took eight days to find the car and the driver, a thirty-one year old waitress from downstate. A life cut short by recklessness and weather. Tomorrow is the twenty-ninth anniversary of the accident.

My hands unclench as I approach the toll booth. A sigh of relief escapes. Days of sunshine or storm, it always feels like a victory to make it to the other side. It always feels as though I’m crossing over a point of no return.

I pull into the bridge view park and stare at the far shore, the Lower Peninsula. I push the door open and stride into the wind. Today is my fiftieth birthday. Half a century of existence. How on Earth did this happen? For most of my life, I felt like I was nearing the end. Wanted it to end. Now it feels like I’m just getting started.

Will Grant make it across before it closes? I left before he could drive up to meet me. The radio warned of high winds. The Bridge would surely close by afternoon. Now our meeting point is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We had planned to do a cruise, but Lake Superior is in turmoil today. It is not disappointment that I feel, but excitement. At last, I will witness one of the legendary gales.

Grant has no mobile phone, so we must revert to sibling telepathy to communicate. My youngest brother likes to be out of reach. As do I. I recently caved in to convenience and bought my first smart phone. In the world beyond, a flip phone was enough. Taxis, pizzas, and the rare text from students were the extent of my phone communications. Anyway, most of the Upper Peninsula is a cellphone dead zone. You are on your own.

The U. P. is as mysterious and daunting as any of the exotic lands that I’ve visited. It is a soul-swallowing place. Vast cedar swamps and impenetrable, claustrophobic forests. A place for those who wish to never be found. Plane crash sites remain undiscovered for decades. This territory is ruled by the beasts which wander within: bears, wolves, moose. Apocalyptic swarms of insects. And the Great Spirit of Ojibway legend, the Manitou.

It’s been eight months since my return to Michigan. The most difficult thing to get used to is being accessible again. Aunts, uncles, and cousins have re-emerged. Friends and acquaintances. The faces in my memory have morphed. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of younger selves. The in-between years that I lost. The people we were then and who we’ve become. Or, in my case, unbecome.

To them, I look the same on the outside, but I am somehow unrecognizable. You are so different. You used to be so judgmental, so condescending. You seem so content with life, with who you are.

The person I was really judging was myself. I pushed people away and withdrew into anonymity. A self-inflicted punishment for my nonconformity. I have no idea when or how the pieces of my life will reassemble. My adventures are now those of human connection. The most intimidating adventure of all. I’m not sure I have what it takes.

It is in the banalities of daily life that you truly get to know someone. The morning coffee, the home improvement projects, the errands. The female domestic rituals push me far out of my comfort zone. Bridal showers and weddings and baby showers. In this world, I am truly lost. However, I understand the vulnerability that parenting entails. Grant and my littlest sister Jessica were like my own children. I decided, long ago, that I would never allow myself to love that deeply. Ever again.

I add an hour to Grant’s promised arrival time. I have been on this Earth too long to put much faith in others’ timing. I find a tiny cafe in Grand Marais. The largest plate of nachos I’ve ever seen is set before me. The owner is from Bay City, where I was born. She mentions names of people she knows who went to my high school. People I used to know. People who never left. She’s had a hard time integrating with the Yoopers, the local people, and wants to move along. I ask her about Jim Harrison, the famous writer who lived in this tiny village.

“I never met him, but he frequented the local bar,” she says. She goes to the window. A wistful gleam lights up her eyes. Her voice drops to a throaty whisper. “The lake will be so gorgeous today.”

A chill moves through me. A thrill. Of all the lakes, Superior is my beloved. All those years ago, I stood on her shore, a child so lost and fearful. She taught me the meaning of awe and its connection to love.

Life is not segmented artificially by what we call days, months, years, dawns, noons, evenings, night; rather, life is segmented by our moods, impressions, traumas, odd transferences of power from inanimate objects- the aesthetic principle – dreams, linked by time spans of loves and hates and indifference, unexpected changes in the prism of our understanding, areas of passion or lust that disappear in a moment, lapsing into a kind of sloth, dread, and slowness. – Jim Harrison, Sundog.

I brace myself for the wind and push out the door. He better be there, dammit. I’m always on time. Let him wait for me for once.

The sinister downward slide of a car window. “Hey. I knew that was your car.” That goofy grin under those dark sunglasses.

I am unable to maintain my scowl.

Down to the lakeshore we go. He struggles to stand upright, to walk against it. His long, gaunt limbs ripple in the wind. For a split second, it appears that he might blow away. My breath catches in my throat. I restrain myself from reaching out. He doesn’t need me anymore. It is far too late.

Pictured Rocks to Munising to Ishpeming. We leave my car at the hotel and take his beige Lincoln Continental. I brush aside mechanic detritus and settle into the grimy leather seat.

“I never spend more than four hundred dollars on a car!” he proclaims. Several similar models, which he mines for parts, populate his front yard. “As long as you move them around every once in a while, the city can’t make you get rid of them!”

Grant has the IQ of Darwin, while also being a prime candidate for the Darwin awards, which honors those who die in the stupidest ways. His cigarette bobs up and down on his lower lip as he barrels from one topic of conversation to the next. He recently purchased a hundred acres in the same area as my parents, our brother Billy, and myself. His trail cam has captured elk and a seven-foot, five-hundred pound bear. He has big plans for his vast property. His future house will be mostly subterranean, built into one of the high ridges. He will hang huge speakers on trees and blast elk bugles across I-75 in hopes of luring more of the beasts onto his land. He will put up a billboard slamming his employer, one of the big Detroit auto companies, and then make them pay him to take it down. He shares his life with five chihuahuas. He works as a master mechanic. He subsists on a diet of Red Bull and organic chocolate milk. He scrapes his teeth clean with a razor blade. He was born on Valentine’s Day. He is thirty-nine years old.

His exuberant shriek haunts my memory. His favorite television show was the Weather Channel. Blazing brown eyes and a Koolaid mustache that reached up to his eyes. Life was a constant source of wonder.

His voice is deeper and quieter now, but still filled with exclamation. “If you see a dead porcupine on the road, call the local tribes! They’ll pay you up to four hundred dollars! Did you know that scavengers always go for the anus first?!”

Our conversation trajectories are as much of a surprise as the roads we meander. The comical sexual exploits of his coworkers, obscure economic theories, the origin of new slang of which I’m ignorant. All of it is interspersed with random, but relevant, lines from offbeat movies. Little is said about our childhood. He remembers the policemen talking to our mother on that night. He remembers nothing of the road trip around the U.P. that we took soon after. As soon as school let out, my grandparents loaded us up in their vans and ferried us across the Mackinac Bridge. To safety.

June 1982

We follow Highway 28 across the Upper Peninsula. For hours, we see nothing but the woods, gray sky, and road signs advertising homemade pasties, which Grandma says are tasteless, doughy meat pies that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I ride in Grandpa’s work van with Billy, Grant, and the dogs. The radio is tuned to an AM talk radio station, because it’s the only one that comes in. The weatherman announces that there’s no end in sight to the abnormally wet and cold weather.

Grandpa blows his last lungful of smoke out the window and stubs out his cigarette. “Cold weather keeps the black flies away.”

Billy sits on a large toolbox and reads a Popular Mechanics magazine. He hunches over the magazine and gnaws on his fingernails. He seems unaffected by the problems with our father, except that now he gnaws until his cuticles bleed.

Grant sits on my lap in the passenger seat and stares out the window. Slow motion blink of his big brown eyes. He mimics Grandpa. A deliberate slouch, a thoughtful nod. He takes phantom sips of coffee from his identical cup. Every day that he’s around Grandpa, he regains more of his enthusiasm. Joy replaces the caution that has crept into his voice.

My throat tightens. Please let him go back to how he was before. He is three years old. Maybe there’s time to erase all of the bad stuff.

Cruncher and Bigfoot lie at the very back of the van, next to the box that holds the air mattress that Grandpa and Grandma sleep on at night. The smell of wet dog and wood shavings fills the van.

I take the road map out of the glove compartment and secure the seat belt around Grant. I move to the back of the van, spread the map out on the floor, and trace my finger along the thin red lines that crisscross the U.P. Munising, Marquette, Iron Mountain, Ontonagon, Escanaba, Copper Harbor. Unknown places with unknown people. So many places to start over.

Grandpa glances over his shoulder. “Would you like to go everywhere?”

I can only stare at him.

“I can’t promise you that we’ll go everywhere this time, but we’ll see as many places as we can.” He winks at me.

I clutch the map and allow myself a smile.

I place my hand on the road atlas that sits between us. I haven’t gone everywhere, but close enough. My days of running away are over.

My mother says that Grant and I were the most affected. We closed ourselves off, lashed out. Turned our backs on the world, our middle fingers raised in defiance.

Our itinerary is different than the one we followed so many years ago, but no less mesmerizing. Tannin-tinted waterfalls. Mt. Arvon, Michigan’s highest point.

At Marquette, we encounter Lake Superior surfers. It is said that the best waves are in the deepest winter, beyond the ice that gathers at the shore. Crazy Yoopers.

Down old logging roads, deep grooves in soft dirt. The car bottoms out. The undercarriage scrapes the ground and then springs back up. Grant whips the car to the side as a trio of slick SUVs pass by, headed in the opposite direction. Faces turn to stare, heads shake. Grant and I look at each other and laugh. I’d so rather be us than them.

Silence falls between us.

“You never listen to the radio?”

“They play the same crap they’ve been playing for thirty years!” His lips pull tight for a quick drag. The cigarette snaps to rigid attention. He twists his mouth to exhale out the window. “I prefer to listen to my thoughts.”

Journey. Led Zeppelin. And, of course, the obligatory Bob Seger and Ted Nugent. It’s been decades since I’ve heard most of what floats over these airwaves. It was already classic when I was young. Shouldn’t more music have been added to the playlist over the years? Music from the eighties and nineties. What’s popular in America these days? I stare out the window. I don’t know who anyone is anymore. I lean my head against the cool glass. And I don’t care. An endless parade of forest fills my vision. Autumn’s first tinge graces the treetops. I’m not sure I know who I am anymore. But I’m getting there.

I flip through the atlas. Grant enjoys driving backroads for hours. Just to see where they lead. There is no such thing as nowhere. Before I left America, I would do the same on my solitary days off. In Michigan, Southern California, and Arizona. There was always a folded map by my side, such a perfect companion. Endlessly captivating, never judgmental.

I place the atlas on my lap and swallow hard. “Do you ever feel like you’re not one of them? I mean, not part of humanity?”

“Oh, God, yes! They did a study and discovered that two-thirds of people have no internal dialogue whatsoever! They call them NPCs, non-playable characters. Like in video games. They’re just running on a program with no self-reflection at all!”

I roll my eyes. “And no one wants to deal with the least bit of emotional discomfort. It’s character-building to have hardship, loss. It’s part of life.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Reminds me of that scene in Star Trek V, the one where they search for God. The Vulcan takes McCoy’s and Spock’s past trauma away, but Captain Kirk refuses. ‘Pain is what makes us who we are!’ he says. ‘I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!’”

I smile. Confronting trauma and regret is not for the faint-hearted. And there are some things you just never get over.

Grandpa died just days before my high school graduation. That long drive home from the Cleveland Clinic. How were we going to tell Grant? He was waiting at the door with a new card he had made for Grandpa. He was seven years old. We didn’t have to say it. He could see it on our faces. His hands crumpled the card. A hard sheen of rage snuffed out the soft ray of hope in his eyes.

A letter tucked into a casket:

Dear God,

Grandpa was very sick. I missed him very very much. He was very nice to me. He was a very good person. This was written by Mr. Grant W. Douglas II. God please give this to Grandpa when he’s with you. Please God. I’m sorry I said I hate you.

Dad went crazy. Grandpa died. I took off for California. My visits home may have caused more pain than happiness. The distant echo of his voice still tears through my heart. The serrated edge of rage. Please don’t go! Why do you always have to leave?

Why did I? My mother insists that they respected me for it. They were not my responsibility. Such a fine line between helping and allowing others to take responsibility. I sigh through the knot in my throat. It would have been worse if I had stayed. The alcohol and pills and other drugs I took to cope. The harassment from my peers which had started to involve my family. My departure certainly saved us from yet another tragedy. All I can do is cherish the time we have left together. Cherish the nows that remain. This is why I came home.

We emerge from the forest. The mouth of the Huron River gapes. Murky, sluggish, it bleeds into the lake, which now slumbers. A mirror-like sheen glimmers in the diffuse sunlight. Two campers sit side by side on the beach. Not a sound emanates from either.

We stare across the river, the border of the mysterious Huron Mountain Club. Grant breaks the silence. “Next time I want to pan for gold! Bring a kayak and go along the shore! Most of the time you’re escorted away, but sometimes people get invited inside! Or I can just parachute into one of the lakes! They don’t own bodies of water!”

“What would you do there?”

“Fish, probably. I’ve heard that there still might be grayling in the lakes!”

Back in the car, we creep along the perimeter of the Huron Mountain Club. Established by wealthy industrialists in the 1800s, there are only fifty members who are allowed to own cabins. The members are notoriously secretive. They refuse to speak to the press. The land has become one of largest tracts of primeval forest in the Great Lakes region. The only outsiders who are allowed in are seasonal workers and researchers. The focus has long since changed from hunting to conservation. The lakes and rivers and forests are absolutely pristine.

Henry Ford was famously denied membership until he bought adjacent land and stopped a highway from being built through it. This highway, Blind M-35, is the focus of Grant’s attention. We drive as far as we can and then park. I note the fresh ATV tracks in the sand. I tense up. This is the heart of moose country, but I’m more wary of humans than animals. We are unarmed. My heart begins to pound. Grant’s fixation is no different from my infatuation with forbidden places: North Korea, Transnistria, Belarus. One sure way to get us to go somewhere is to tell us we shouldn’t.

The silence is so thick that it muffles our words. The forest becomes sparser, otherworldly. Spongy moss underfoot. Fluorescent orange lichen is splattered on the slender tree trunks. Around the next curve, over the next hill. But the only thing up ahead is more sandy road. We have no choice but to turn around and head back.

June 1982

I walk along the lakeshore, collecting pretty pebbles. Agates have distinctive bands and glow when the sun is low on the horizon. But there is no sun today. Gentle waves seep through the pebbled shore and recede. A merry tinkle. Water chimes. The lake ascends into mist. Somewhere, a foghorn blows. The lonely toll of lighthouse bells. The numbness that has imprisoned me since Dad’s breakdown ebbs away. Tendrils of fog reach out and enfold me, obscuring the world. Something special is happening. Something only for me. My breath catches in my throat. I bow my head. I am so safe here, alone. The fog drifts into the forest, a procession of phantoms carrying my fear away.

At Big Bay, I walk along the driftwood-strewn beach, stepping over the contorted tree carcasses. The power of the lake surges through me. Messages are churned up from the depths, transported in the waves, and hurled upon the shore. What would I say to that skinny little girl with the freckles and braces and shoulders slumped with so much burden? So many things. Do the best you can with the choices you make, some of which you will regret. Others will fill you with wonder. There will be help from that which runs the show. Life will both annihilate you and take your breath away. One day you will stand on this shore again, a survivor of so many apocalypses. Every atom of your being will be younger than ever.

And you, beautiful girl, what do you wish to tell me?

Please don’t forget me.

Grant watches me from afar. With a look exchanged, we head for the car. So much said in things unsaid.

It’s not possible to have certain epiphanies before middle age. It is a point of no return. We can crow all we want about how we’re never too old to do whatever we wish to do, but choices narrow. Minds and bodies degrade. But it’s never too late to open our hearts and reclaim our souls. To face our demons and learn from them.

The driver’s side door slams, jolting me out of my reverie. I glance in the sun visor mirror and cringe. It will take me forever to comb the knots out of my hair.

Grant lights a cigarette and starts the car. “Hey, you wanna take logging roads back to Marquette? I’m pretty sure it’s possible. Worse case, we turn around.”

I smile and settle into the seat. “Absolutely. The only roads worth taking are those unknown.”

The Road to Bliss

Harbor Springs, Michigan – April 2018

Out of all the places to work, how can I be here again? The little white church, the quaint storefronts, the historic homes. This town hasn’t changed at all in thirty-two years. Such a long drive from my forest sanctuary. I felt a tug in this direction, but ignored it, and then a closer possibility fell through. The general manager greets me with arms outstretched. A welcome home, long lost gesture. I’m hired within five minutes and we part with hugs instead of handshakes. I should know by now to not ignore intuition. There’s a reason why I was drawn back here.

A cinematic clarity infuses this new old life. Then and now become a double-exposed movie. Circa 1986 in grainy, pink-tinged VHS superimposed on 2018 in sharp, flat digital. Sometimes the ghost of who I used to be passes through me. The rage-fueled ambition. The impatience. My whole life was ahead of me. It still is. More than ever.

I work in the pantry, making salads for rich people. I work six days a week, sometimes double shifts. I’m saving up to move to California. I would’ve moved out there already, but my grandparents said seventeen is too young for a girl to move across the country alone. The waiters and waitresses glide through the kitchen, so elegant in their black tuxedos. Working, doing coke, and screwing around is all they have in their lives. I have a chip on my shoulder, they say. Angry little girl. What the fuck do they know about my life? My dad went crazy and school was absolute hell. Of course the stupid bitches here hate me. People are always going to hate me.

This establishment has changed in almost every way except name. Except for a cook and a waitress, everyone I worked with is gone. The tuxedoed elegance has been replaced by rumpled, disheveled indifference. The dress code now is to simply be dressed. I work in the manager’s office, isolated from the chaos of the restaurant below. My job is to arrange the antique boat cruises that leave from the deck bar. Captains and first mates are my closest colleagues. First mate Taylor is seventy-five. She swears like the sailor that she is. There’s nowhere to hide from her ice blue eyes.

She loves to hear stories of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. “What did you do for work out there?” I rattle off the jobs I’ve held since I was last here: fine dining waitress, massage therapist, secretary, stripper, travel agent, French-English translator, voiceover artist for radio, and, for so very long, English teacher. For three years, I had a country music show on Radio New Caledonia. In French and under a pseudonym. Listeners adored my heavy American accent. That one makes people laugh, but they are most fascinated by the stripper years. The Hollywood dive I worked in and my encounters with the famous.

Taylor shakes her head. “After everything you’ve experienced, you’re now stuck in that shithole of an office.”

“You know what? I couldn’t ask for a better job to reintroduce me to America. It’s seasonal, unique, and I work with the best people ever. I’m unbelievably grateful and happy to be here. Really.”

She shakes her head in disbelief and putters away.

In their corner of the office, the managers discuss figures and strategies. Problems with staff and customers. I admire their passion. Small talk about television shows, the weather, and small town drama. No politics, thankfully. The world is all I’ve got to talk about. It’s the mundane that’s exotic. I participate, but eventually my mind drifts off. Simple things have their charm and lessons, but there is also so much more.

When people ask me what I plan to be when I get to California, I say, Free. Raised eyebrows, eye rolls, snorts of contempt. I think my life will always be lonely, but at least I won’t be like them.

Spring morphs into summer. The interns become my buddies. They linger in the office when the managers aren’t around. They confide in me and ask for advice. As if I’m an expert on anything. Luke’s broken heart. “Someone better is coming your way. You’ll see.” Allie’s crush. “Just go for it. Rejection is much easier to live with than regret over missed opportunities.” The anxiety and excitement about their future. “You’re going to make mistakes. Just try to learn from them and move on.”

TJ is my favorite. Our conversations involve Syd Barrett and Terence McKenna and what it means to be crazy in a crazy world. He gives me hope for the future. He can’t talk about this stuff with his girlfriend. He wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to hurt her.

“You’re so young. You need to have your heart broken and you need to break hearts. If you’re sensitive, it can be harder to be the one to leave.” A searing pain moves through my chest. “But it has to be done. Wait for the one who lights up your spirit, who sees you. Who scares you so much that you want to run away. That’s the one who will make you grow.”A flash of her face, of them together. “You have such an amazing life ahead.”

He beams as he strides out of the room. “You’re such a bright person, Julie. A light. You’re awesome.”

I lean back in my battered chair and stare up at the watermarks on the ceiling. I am the person I needed all those years ago.

He calls me his little witch, because I remind him of Stevie Nicks. He’s twenty-six and works as a cook. We were friends, but when I turned eighteen things between us changed. He’s only my second boyfriend. When he stays the night at the cottage, he picks wildflowers and lays them all over me before I wake up. I didn’t know that love could make everything bad melt away.

The things I pretend not to see: the stifled snickers and smirks that the waitresses shoot in my direction. The lingering touches they give him. The photo of his ex-wife that he keeps on his bedside table. She’s little, like me, and has long, beautiful hair and big blue eyes. A doll’s gaze, flat and filled with menace. When she calls, he goes running. When he returns to me, eyes wild with pain, he shows me no mercy.

In the quiet mornings before work, I walk out to the end of the pier. Vessels of various sizes float on the placid water. The transients that arrive with summer: the high-ranking politician, the rock star, the old industrial money, the wayward souls on the way to someplace else. I dive deep and conjure up a face from the watery depths of memory.

He’s sat in my section every day since he’s been here. Red hair. Soft-spoken. Eyes fierce with determination. He’s about to sail around the world. The night before he leaves, he invites me to his sailboat. I am also leaving for my destiny, California, in a few days. He makes margaritas, the kind with Grand Marnier. He remembered that it’s my favorite drink. After a couple of those, we say fuck it and drink straight from the tequila bottle. We bray along to the radio until the other boaters scream at us to shut up. I decide that if he makes a move, I will let him. Anything to kill the pain of my shattered heart. But he doesn’t lay a hand on me, except to give me a big hug goodbye. The next day, his boat slip is empty. A gaping void. Farewell, sailor. See you at the edge of the world and beyond.

County Road 77 heads north out of town towards a village called Bliss. Follow the signs. Destination: destiny. There’s something special about this area with its farms and bogs and impenetrable forests. Deep rolling hills ripple across the landscape. They’re called moraines, created when the glaciers from the last ice age receded.

The bliss that has taken hold of me these past few months. Effervescence like a pleasurable itch. Is it possible to have too much? When it ebbs away, I’m relieved. I don’t ever want it to stop being special, and I know it will be back. Primary emotions have transformed into subtle shades. Not faded. More precise. Fear, anger, and sadness have become uncertainty, discouragement, disappointment. The intensity is still there, but I rule it rather than the other way around.

In September, just weeks away now, I will turn fifty. Half a century. How is it possible to feel younger than I’ve ever felt, on all levels, even physical? My mother tells me that I remind her of when I was a little girl. My family and friends say: You have never looked better. Something in the way you carry yourself. Radiant. My God, what happened to you? It’s almost like you’re not even you anymore.

I’m more myself than I’ve ever been.

At the four corners village of Stutsmanville, I stop and look left. Do I really need to go down this road again? It’s shorter if I continue forward, but I’ll miss the most scenic area. Maybe there’s still something to be learned here, even after the forgiveness, the forgetting, the indifference. Will I even recognize the house after all these years?

We walk in the woods behind his place. Birch trees rise from the deep snow. A prison of white. Heavy boots under my waitress uniform that’s two sizes too big, but still the smallest one they have. Tears freeze on my cheeks. Why can’t those bitches just leave me alone? I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to California. He leans me against a tree and kisses me until I’m breathless. You can’t go. I’m not finished with you yet.

Stutsmanville Road ends at M119. Right turn into the Tunnel of Trees, one of the most picturesque roads in the state. A cathedral of green overhead. In the autumn, it’s like driving through a tunnel of fire. In the winter, after a snowstorm, it’s like passing through the gates of heaven.

Winter becomes spring then summer. August. The flicker of a bonfire against an aurora borealis sky. He’s there, in the shadows, making out with one of the summer transients, a fatass with crooked teeth. I grab his arm and drag him away. My frantic scream: Why? He throws me to the ground so hard it knocks the wind out of me. He stalks away. Over his shoulder, a snarl: get out of here, Jules. Her laugh. I pick myself up and dust myself off. The pain becomes cold determination, relief: nothing is holding me here anymore. A door in my heart slams shut. No one will have access to that part of me. Ever again.

Strobe light flicker of sunshine on the windshield. This deep blue ocean of a lake. My heart blooms in my chest. I enter into communion with the road.

We park by the ocean. Cold shimmer of waves under moonlight. We’re going to start all over, Jules.

I’m moving to Palm Springs.

Panic enters his voice. I can move there, too.

I shake my head. I’m not doing this to hurt you.

I know. I know. I really fucked up, didn’t I? He puts his head in his hands and begins to sob.

I stare at him. A shadow slumped over in defeat. Why is he so upset? He didn’t want me. Why is he even here? It’s just going to be the same thing all over again. Does he think I’m stupid? A wave hits me: disgust so strong that I swoon. He makes me sick, sick, sick. Why do I feel this? I don’t wish him any harm. The air thickens and I gasp for air. Take me home.

It was his self-loathing that I felt. All the women in the world wouldn’t have been enough to fill the void she left behind. There’s no pain more devastating than that of a broken heart. And nothing more difficult to forgive yourself for than loving so much.

At the village of Good Hart, the VHS halts. Now it’s only now.

Unbolt the door. Throw it wide open. After a lifetime of witnessing how selfish and cruel people can be, this takes the rarest form of courage. Shine the light in. Shine. Pour yourself into your void.

The ego will do whatever it takes to avoid dissolution, especially into love. It will find excuses why it won’t work, tell you it’s too good to be true, and, when it gets desperate, make you think that you’re losing your mind.

I walk over to the general store. A withered old farmer holds the screen door open for me with a shy smile. Faded overalls, John Deere baseball cap. I pause. Such a pure Americana image, surreal in its perfection. The door closes behind me. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd begins to play over the stereo. I freeze. My song, the one I named my blog and memoir after. I’ve heard it so often these past few months. I grab a lemonade from the cooler and walk up to the counter. The beautiful, unsettling longing. The come back to me. I pay for the drink and walk outside. The song’s final notes seep through the door. Deep breath. I’m here. I’m here. Look to the right: the direction I came from. Then left: the direction I’m going. I walk to the car feeling both harassed and guilty. Always the distinct impression that I’m being messed with and that I’m somehow bringing it on myself.

Onward. North, still. Through Cross Village to Sturgeon Bay. I sit on a low dune and watch the sun’s languid goodbye.

Some of us come into existence with a lot to learn. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve picked myself up and kept going. Even if it was crawling through the murk. The traumas have been dispelled. No counselors. No teachers. No gurus. They might be able to trigger something, but the real work can only be done in solitude. The black abyss that held me prisoner for most of my life is gone, gone, gone. In its place is a field of wildflowers. I couldn’t find it again if I tried. The darkness that remains is black smoke that thickens and dissipates. Wastelands of pain. Dark wonderlands of ecstasy. Not always easy to tell them apart. Wisdom and guidance can be found in the most unlikely places.

Reflection on the waves like a path illuminated. I will follow wherever you lead me.

I pass by the turnoff to Bliss. One final place to visit first: Wilderness.

I swerve around the camper that’s blocking the way and pull up to the ranger’s station.

The ranger’s eyes light up when he sees me. “You look like a lady who knows where she’s going.”

I roll my eyes and laugh. “Not really. I’m just following the road.”

“Follow it all the way to the end. There’s a nice beach out there and you’ll have it all to yourself.”

The Caribbean glow of Lake Michigan in the noontime sun. I lean my back against a piece of driftwood. Waves hiss through the pebbles. A male figure shuffles in my direction. Shirtless, sunburnt, panting. Face contorted with castaway anguish. Heavy southern accent. “Is there a trail back to the road around here? I seem to have gotten myself lost. I tried to cut across the marsh. Now my boots are soaked.”

“You’re almost there. The trail is just past the parking lot.”

He thanks me and shuffles away. When I look in his direction a couple of minutes later, he has already vanished. It doesn’t take long to find your way back, once the way is clear.

What was nebulous begins to sharpen. A purpose. A path. A presence so familiar. My heart begins to pound. I stare across the water. Send out a signal. Not an SOS. An invocation. Echolocation. I close my eyes. I’m here. Out of the silence, a reply. So very faint. It fades and returns. I smile. Not a missing piece. The mirror of my existence. A voice in my dreams. The flash of a face, but when I focus, it’s me that I see. A golden glow, a feeling of home. I lift my hand in front of me and feel the warmth of a palm pressed to mine. It’s enough to know that you’re out there. I’m enough.

Sometimes you have to go far out of the way to get where you need to go. Just keep going.

To Bliss. And beyond.

The Undiscovered Territory

Nineteen years gone. Sixty-six countries visited on six continents. Nine countries, on three continents, have been home for a while. Two passports, but I feel like a citizen of nowhere, not even of the world. The nomadic life is often romanticized, but the truth is that it’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you avoid the expat cocoon. The isolation takes its toll, even on the most introverted. Nineteen years gone. But here I am again, next to this beloved river. Michigan has always been a steady hand to catch me when I fall.

January. The Upper Peninsula beckons. A short road trip brings me to the shores of Lake Superior. Even the mighty fall silent sometimes. Frozen into submission. I may have grown up downstate, but in my heart northern Michigan is my homeland.

Return is only possible because I’m in this wilderness. So much noise, elsewhere. Communication with so many people at once is unnerving. I can no longer hide behind the language barrier. Not only was I physically away from this culture for so long, but there was also a deliberate media/pop culture blackout. I have only vague ideas of what I’m supposed to be enraged about and no idea who I’m expected to emulate. A young man who struck up a conversation with me before my flight from Paris found it hilarious that I didn’t know that there are new late night talk show hosts. I smiled. It is not ignorance, but strategic apathy. Ignorance is being unaware. I’m conscious of the poison that I refuse to consume.

The immensity of the reconstruction unfurls. The person I left behind no longer exists. What did my name used to be? It sounds so strange in my voice. Credit must be re-established. Bad credit is better than none, it seems. My driver’s license has been expired for so long that I must retake the written and road tests. It’s intimidating, being at the helm of a vehicle again after more than a decade.

How will I survive in a land where a person’s value is based on job title, income, possessions, busyness, offspring? Personal experience is worthless. No one is interested in stories of faraway lands. Or different observations of this one. When the despair wells up, I head into the woods. Conjure up the vast internal wealth that I brought back with me. Wrap my arms around myself and take deep breaths. I’m doing the right thing. I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I wish I could just take the easy way.

There were other options. I could have easily continued to move from place to place. Siberia. Peru. Italy. Opportunities beckoned. But it’s time to let go of the persona that I have so meticulously constructed. The perpetual nomad. A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go. So many need to conquer the aversion to solitude. I know how to be alone. It’s time to learn how to be with others.

But there is another reason that I’m supposed to be here. It looms on the horizon, an obscure and benevolent orb. Slowly taking shape. I patiently await its revelation.

February. The falling snow and silence of the woods around my family’s property. We have both changed. Dead wood has fallen and decomposed. The way is clear through regions that once seemed so impenetrable and sinister. The bends in the river are deeper. Its voice is still so recognizable. Welcome back, dear one. You have been missed.

I walk alongside the intense flow, my boots sinking deep into the soft powder. Scenes resurface. Chasing my cowgirl aunt through deep drifts. My little legs got stuck and I fell, knocking the wind out of me. I looked up at her for help. She stood there and snickered. The look on her face said, “C’mon, get up and dust yourself off. Falling down is part of the fun.” This tough love philosophy has followed me through life. Never ask for help. Ever. Asking for help is for weak people. But pride can be another, more devious form of weakness.

Books and articles have been written about reverse culture shock. The identity crisis. The alienation and inability to fit back in. Those who return often end up fleeing again. Forever exiled into a realm of ambiguity. I find this state of consciousness intriguing rather than distressing. The thrill of disorientation and shattered perceptions. Besides, I never fit in to begin with.

March is usually the worst. The suffocating gloom and inertia. But the veil of winter lifts, revealing the slumbering forest. Creatures reawaken. The snow recedes. So very slowly. It’s been unusually cold this winter. Color and smell returns. Naked forest under blue sky. The comforting aroma of cedar.

In recent years, my family has converged on this stretch of river. As if we’ve been summoned. Property becomes available at just the right time. My little brother Billy now owns the cottage that Grandpa built. Once again, we wander this wilderness, picking up where we left off so many years ago. How is it that I’m so much younger now than I was way back when? Billy shows me a beaver den. I point out tracks that may be from the lone wolf that was spotted in these parts. The river’s voice swells, drunk on snow melt and sunshine. I don’t mention the sparkle that I now carry within. Shining the way through an undiscovered territory. Home.