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 The tuxedoed elegance has been replaced by rumpled, disheveled indifference.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.

Return to the Garden

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Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012

When I knock on her front door, she doesn’t know who I am. “Dobrý deň, Pani.” I hold up the bag of tomatoes from my mother’s garden. She knows that I live in Slovakia now. “Would you like some tomatoes?”

Dobrý deň,” she answers, still no recognition in her eyes. “Come on in.”

I follow her into the dining room. Maybe she just isn’t that excited to see me. We talk about the weather and the changing leaves until my mother comes in a few minutes later. I asked her to wait around the corner for a few minutes so that it could really be a surprise.

I look at her and shake my head. Her face goes pale. “Mom, it’s Julie.”

In my grandmother’s eyes, the turbulence of muddled memory. “No, it’s not! It doesn’t even look like her!”

“You shouldn’t let strangers into your house, Grandma.”

“Oh, I can take care of myself.” She shuffles around the living room and shows me the weapons she has hidden in strategic places – a hammer, a letter opener. And there is her faithful dog Chaz.

Her eyes hold no recognition of me, even as I walk out the door.

A few days later, she calls me. “I’ve got some stuff that needs doing around here.” Her memory is back. I grip the phone and sigh.

“You don’t have to do it,” my mother says, her face full of hurt. “She hasn’t seen you for five years and she calls you up to work?”

“It’s okay,” I say, trying to stifle the resentment. The only way to communicate with Grandma is to work for her. It has been that way ever since I was old enough to hold a paintbrush. “She’s eighty-eight. This is probably the last time I’ll see her.”

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When I show up, she takes one look at my clothes and shakes her head. “You can fill the bird feeders.”

As I carry the ladder across the leaf-strewn lawn, I step in dog shit.

“Oh, calm down. Just clean it off with a stick.”

I fill up the riding lawn mower with gas, take down some tools from high places and replace others.

“Let me drink a coffee and think about other things you can do.” She goes into the house.

I walk down the long cement path towards the sunken garden. The hedges are now trimmed by a landscaping company. It is paid for by my uncle. Grandma nags the workers and eventually fires them, so my uncle keeps rehiring new people. Midland is not a big city. There are only so many landscaping companies.

Her property spans three city lots. It is one of the largest private properties within the Midland city limits. My grandfather crafted it into three sections: a vegetable garden behind the house, an open field for sports in the middle, and a sunken Japanese garden at the very back. An A-frame tea house, a heavy stone lantern, a cherry tree, a stone waterfall, a cement pond. He fell in love with this look when he passed through Japan during WWII. Each of his seven children had their prom and/or graduation photos taken on the bridge over the robin’s egg blue-colored pond.

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When I was small, I would lose myself here. It was no longer Midland, but Japan, or some unknown mysterious land. I crept along the stone waterfall under the bridge. Distant sounds kept me just barely anchored to earth. Laughter and shouts from my aunts and uncles playing baseball. The meaty thuds of horseshoes hitting sand pits. The older generation’s game of preference. I explored every hidden corner of this sanctuary. Behind every bush and tree. Even inside the tiny copse where no one ever strayed. I wanted to see and learn everything about everywhere.

One by one, the aunts and uncles drifted away to the mountains and the far coast. I became too big to fit under the bridge. My brother, my sister, and I would climb up the A-frame, and then afterwards dig splinters out of our feet and hands with sewing needles. As a teenager, during a family reunion, I outdrank my cousin Tom back here. With the help of Great-aunt Monica, we had unlimited access to beer. He puked in the pond. I continued to drink and got sick on the living room couch. This was the first story Grandma told when she met my friends and boyfriends. I probably deserved it.

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I doubt she remembers this now. Such is the physics of our own individual Universe. We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion. The only thing that remains is I. A bewildering isolation.

Maybe I’ll be gone by then.

I sit on the stone steps leading down to the garden and watch the languid tumble of leaves to earth.

There are things I wish I had never seen or heard or done or felt in my life. Why did I have to go looking for everything?

The A-frame has been replaced by a simple square gazebo. Violets have overrun the stone waterfall. The bridge railings are loose; the wood is rotting. The only beings that hang out back here these days are deer and partying teenagers. I remember some kind of crisp, pine-smelling bushes, but they are gone, too. The pond is full of leaves and stagnant water. I will ask her if she wants me to sweep it out.

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