by Riley Ferver
It has come to my attention that every young person in a certain stage of life must experience some capacity of willing displacement in order to keep themselves alive. Children join scouts and go camping; it satisfies them. My mother incessantly quotes Eat, Pray, Love while laughing at the idea of her friends on Disney Cruises. We paint our lives in such a way that they look open, whether that be to adventure or hope or beauty, or maybe all of it, and then we hold off from the act of experiencing it for as long as we can. After all, how many garishly anecdotal experiences can one life hold? Don’t we want to do it right? If you’re going to find your “it,” after all, wouldn’t you want a perfectly timed sunset in the distance, a New Yorker Arts and Culture piece prewritten? We practice calculated restraint until it nearly kills us.
When I first saw the city I was nineteen years old. It was May and it was muggy and thick. I took my ultimate joy from the idea that I was running away and even if somebody had half the mind to care, they couldn’t stop me. I wore a lacey top and shorts I’d altered from a pair of my father’s old jeans. I’d begun taking a liking to the way my body treated clothes like a swimming pool. Through lack of choice, my nineteenth summer had determined itself to be the sort of period in a young person’s life very suited for baselessness, and in that I wanted every part of me to match. My internship had fallen through. The reasons were well enough beyond my control that I could blame God, so I did. Prayer was never a concept I could fully grasp–the act of speaking to an enclosed space felt mocking towards the mortality I hadn’t asked for–and despite my best effort to muster up my courage and do the damn thing, I didn’t seem to have it in me to approach God face to face. A bus ticket cost six dollars, though; I had a friend who had an empty apartment and a couch. If nothing else I figured my nihilism and I might enjoy the Smithsonians.
The question of why we leave, why we must, is one I have asked persistently, one I’ve attempted and failed repeatedly to loosen my grapple on. Ellie was leaving, this I knew with certainty, that when I moved back into school her apartment would not be her apartment, rather one overtaken by characters foreign to me. I knew she was not coming back, never fully, but it was never my plan to stay either, so how could I of all people be a hypocrite? I’d read Aristotle, about motion and animals. I thought maybe I could be one of the smarter girls in my class, set apart, taking a small chair at a table that seats one, lecturing to a wall painted with faces. I knew my family would love me, but I knew they didn’t know what to do with me. School would start again eventually. Ideally, Ellie would call, but I wasn’t too naive to know there was a likelihood that she wouldn’t. She left because the city got lonely. She couldn’t stand it. I leave because that artificial loneliness is exactly what I must need. Better to shed singularity among the masses, where there is known to be so grand a hope for a mere sliver of connection. I figure cities walk a tightrope of humanity: it’s one thing to be independent and another thing entirely to be truly and thoroughly alone, but worse even to be alone enough in the way I was, thinking that you must be the first person in the universe to experience an emptiness quite this vast…after all, I thought, if I wasn’t, how is anyone still here? All this to say I’m writing about summer and loss in the same way that I always do. I’m also feeling wordy, so this is the time to dig out the cheap wine. Drown yourself. It’s chalky at the bottom.
Contextually speaking, I did not come into the summer dreaming of a grand exit. Despite personal denial surrounding my return to the hometown I swore I would, in fact, never be returning to, there were attempts made to aestheticize the experience. I took my leftover pills from school on the beach at night and wrote bad poetry once they hit. I hid alcohol under my mattress only to promptly dig it out and drink it all, rapidly. There were half-assed job interviews, forty thousand step days, antique stores, whathaveyou. People talk about regression, but coming back is more of an edenic fall: a sudden, unprompted nudity. No matter who you are, who you may have turned into, if you were a lonely child, still you will be a lonely adult. So, as it was with most lonely children, I decided the crown jewel and singular redeemable trait of my town to be the library, and my sole task for the summer was to read the physics section in its entirety. Don’t let it sound too impressive. It was one shelf. Singular.
Youths are plagued with the notion that they can be the ones to save the world, each personally, individually. Most people can medicate themselves out of that. I could not, though I have tried copiously. I say this so you will know that I never actually believed I could build a time machine. I said I’d try, but I’m not even sure that was the goal. I’d like to sleep through summer, yes, but my solution to that wasn’t forward motion. I wanted to go back. I’d read enough memoirs to know that devastation, utter isolation, can be aided but never cured. Why move forward, if not only because there’s nothing else to do? Why go forth into the wreck willingly? Why not relive it again, and this time do it right?
Theoretical physicists have for years debated the possibility of moving backwards. Particle accelerators make it so, in theory, we should be able to move forward (with recognition that we’d be stuck in whatever future we travel to) but there seems to be even less of a scientific, logical way to move to a set past. I had a lack of dedication to the cause. I discovered the same thing that every scientist in the past hundred years has: there definitely is a missing link. I read the books and returned them and slept for three days, waking up to sob over the phone to Ellie. “I
am grieving so much.” I couldn’t enunciate the extent at which she was a part of that. The next day, I printed the time machine equations and put them in the chest under my bed. I packed a bag of clothes and a book about space travel. I’d exhausted the theoretical side of physics. It wasn’t going to be a bedroom time machine, but it was too early to rule out Mars, or at least a city of similar volume. I left.
It’s a very good thing to be young and in a city, I think especially when you’re poor. I suppose everyone does it once, whether they mean to or not, but I held my consciousness of the whole grand scheme in a very high regard simply because I knew exactly what I was doing and I was doing it with a very calculated purpose. I thought of what I’d tell my father, if he ever chose to call: I figured it must be making me smarter or more interesting or prettier, because every city girl had the kind of look to her where you know that if her degree falls through, modeling may have been the more viable option anyway. I texted my friend, “everyone is so kind here,” and she called me, confused. “The men in the street call me differently than the ones at home.” I’m not stupid, but I am gentle enough to be mistaken as such. Anyway, it’s all a neoteric kind of lostness until you look down from the apartment balcony and watch, as your vape clears, two people fistfight in the alley below. The neighbors downstairs are fighting. Somebody’s screaming and you can’t place any odds.
I have yet to find a home. It’s been a theme and it will continue to be one. But what I can find are places. This is to announce that I spent thirty minutes entranced on the second floor of the Air and Space museum. Yes, I cried at the planets, because everyone does, but the space suit made me numb. Thirty minutes I stared. What was it–something about the way an empty fabric body bag had seen more of the world than anyone gaping at it ever could? I couldn’t help but ogle, let my mind linger at what Neil Armstrong must have thought coming back to earth. How
can you come back after seeing so much? Is there a way to come back or forever will I be stuck feeling as though I grew out of something? Can a person grow out of their world, the whole world? I went back to the apartment late and applied to a space camp on a whim, hoping they didn’t see timestamps on applications. Alabama. I’d been a camp counselor before, it wasn’t too far a cry. I’m not the kind of person who could stay in the South forever, I know this. But I’m not the kind of person who can stay anywhere. I figured I’d never left the east coast–it wasn’t going to be a bedroom time machine or a trip to mars or the sheets I’ve had since I was eight and I couldn’t couchsurf forever either–for two months, it could be Alabama. It wasn’t exactly not a space suit. It could be Alabama.
You know how this is going to resolve itself. If you are reading this essay, you know I’m not going to get it and you want to see how that plays out, even if that may be pathological. Instead I’m going to do that thing writers do–you’ll curse at me–but I’ll tell you that the summer I was eleven, I decided bored and on a whim that it was my destiny to be a singer. I wanted to leave and I knew Taylor Swift had been going city to city for months. I couldn’t yet play guitar, but I figured out how to arrange my fingers so they mirrored a melody, wrote five songs and a letter to my parents and church leaders apologizing for leaving, but I really had to go. I put my dolls in a box at the top of my closet, sat on my bed, and sobbed. I took the box down. I brushed my hair. I still have the letter and it’s probably best that I never went ahead with my plan. I can’t really sing.
One June ago, fresh into adulthood, I bullshitted my way into a ticket to Alaska with a church choir. The idea of seeing the world and saving it seems synonymous to me, even more so seeing the world and it in some way saving me. I think there is something unexplainable so intrinsically wrong with me, and if there is no God, if there is nothing, there is still the world; if I am still here I can still be saved. I thought Alaska would take that place. The vision was something along the lines of me lonely on a mountain, screaming my problems into the open air as I hiked up, coming down empty and free. I guess I should have prayed more, or not used the words bullshitted and church in the same sentence: the point is I got covid seven hours before the plane took off. I cried until I slept, and I slept three days until I woke back up to mourning. It’s a party story now until I’m drunk. If I’m drunk I’ll still swear it would have fixed me. I have spent more days of my life wanting to be dead than alive, more summers wanting the sun to smite me, melt me into the earth. So no, I wasn't shocked when I didn’t get space camp, if not only because summers and I seem to have a sort of track record. It was the one thing I did not grieve for. I stole the keys and some hair dye from the store down the street, stained the shower and cleaned it, and then I went outside and thought about killing myself again. I called Ellie. I read myself poems and smoked and gagged down the side of the balcony. I went inside. The red around my eyes settled before my friend even woke up and I waited another day to tell her.
But I was in the city. I could not mourn inside. I smoked every square corner of the wharf, waiting twenty minutes for a swing chair and proceeding to not move an inch from it all day. I caught my reflection in a boat mirror and was shocked by my brightly dyed hair, my face losing its childlike puff. Adulthood had gotten up and shaken my hand and stricken me across the face with the other arm. I looked away from the water, in fear. I looked just like anyone else. A parent pulled their child away from my secondhand smoke, and a man attempted to seat himself next to me. He may have been kind but I was no longer safe, not to or from anything. Later that night on the phone I whispered to Ellie, “I’m not going to save the world.” It was the first time I’d ever told the truth on the matter and it tasted like vomit on my tongue.
Ellie cleared her throat. “I know. But I think there should be something that means more to you–for you–than that.” And I couldn’t tell you every word after even if I wanted to, but I remember how her voice got, subtly quieter and steadying. I will tell you the world cupped me in its cracked hands and the city lights were dim and flickering, car horns blared, people screamed. It was a place. Anywhere was just a place. It wasn’t going to be here, and maybe it wouldn’t be anywhere at all. The only thing acting as a savior had ever been me, constantly, unknowingly moving myself forward. A body is the only time machine, and constantly I am putting myself in drive and considering slamming the brakes. I am not a Christ. I am a nineteen year old girl who is losing the ability to play pretend.
Ellie asked me where I was. I told her I wouldn’t do anything rash. I still don’t know exactly how she meant the question–I find my travels so frequent and unsurprising that I forget to give updates. I’d been in the city for nearly a week, and time had moved so strangely it could have been a month. I remembered but an hour.
My sadness, I’ve realized, is senseless. I may be the only person I know who runs away with this frequency. I also know that when you’re running, things get blurry. It isn’t fair to wish the world would slow so I could see it but I’m going to wish it anyway. I’m going to wish that when I’d moved out a summer ago I packed my room in full so there was nothing to feel bad that I couldn’t go back to. I wish I could sit without wishing to move. I wish I could keep plants. I wish I’d said better goodbyes to people, right now to Ellie. She’s pensive, very thoughtful. I know she’ll be fine and honestly, I know she’ll be happier. This wouldn’t have mattered any more or less but I wish I could have said goodbye sober, looked at her and told her to be safe. Cities can be dangerous. I know she’ll be safe. I still wanted to tell her. Ellie, please. Be safe.
In a lot of ways I grieved, I grieve myself. There is a lot I could have been, or at least I imagined so. I spent the earlier part of my teen years feeling caged and now the latter part rebelling. I feel like somewhere there is a middle ground and if I find it, there I'd find me too, much older. I haven’t met myself in a while. I don’t look in the mirror much. I’m a size small and I don’t like what I weigh. I wonder constantly how unattractive I must look, nicotine in some form dangling off my lips like a pacifier. The fulfillment of one’s years spent as a teenager is an uncomfortable awakening: I am self aware enough to know I am brutally selfish.
I spent most of what I think deep down I knew were my last couple days in the city in that same spot on the wharf. Retrospectively I’d like to be the kind of person that thinks it’s sweet that even in the busyness of the area surrounding me that spot was always open, but I think it was probably just the fact that nobody else had any desire to sit in the direct sun. I walked around, realizing I’d picked up lyrics and street signs and I grow into things fast. I could get around the city with relative ease. It wasn’t shiny, it wasn’t anything. It was a city, and I wouldn’t see it for the first time again in many years. Neil Armstrong and Ellie and the city and me–every story is the same, every aftermath unspoken.
There is so much I’m going to experience, so many people I’ll meet and so much I’ll lose, and maybe that’s all life really is. Maybe that is the culmination of youth, why it hurts so bad. I am watching all of these lanes converge into one, but the loss and the gain don’t ever fully cancel each other. I’ll get back to school and meet people and miss Ellie. I will love my family but live with the inability to live with them, refuse affection from my mother but want to plead with her to give me a chance, people think I’m nice. I will not eat dinner but my friend will make two servings in case, call me and tell me she’s waiting. I’ll try not to forget my cigarette butts. I’ll try to move quickly so her food doesn’t get cold. This place and all of its tourists–slow goddamn walkers.
Every city is a small city if you’re expecting something to stay vast, and the anticipatory nervousness surrounding it is not a friend that lingers. You will get lonely. You will want humanity again. The cycle continues. Likewise, every person is just a person and I am just a girl without a frontal lobe. The city didn’t bore me but as July approached with its vapidity, I began to experience the nostalgia that comes with comfortability in a place: I missed the smell of cheap detergent. I applied for positions in the town where my parents lived. It was time. There was a desire to see the space suit again once more before I left, but I never got to it. Knowing how novel emotion is, though, that may be for the better. I never said I was going home. The whole point is that there is none. But in the way that I can catch a cheap train and sell all my clothes, the ways in which I am young and summers will stay long and dire, if it kills me, I will find it. I will, I will, I will.
So in this, there isn’t a conclusion, no definitive answer so long as I’m alive. This isn’t another essay about killing myself, but it isn’t exactly not. I’ll keep on going if I can, for as long as I can, growing as old as I can bear to. Maybe someday I’ll sit somewhere and realize I’ve grown up from nineteen: my “photos” and “baby photos” folders all convoluted and all the things I’ve seen will have montaged themselves into a sort of unreadable humid mist, every kitchen the same unreflecting stainless steel. I might not remember it, but I hope I see a lot. I hope the beauty, the knowledge of it, doesn’t fade too quickly. That will be enough. Now it’s enough. Maybe it’s all that ever has been enough.
Riley Ferver is nineteen years old and goes to St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Find her sporadic writing at Indigo Lit, See You Next Tuesday Media, and Energeia. Find her more frequent gibberish on twitter @mightjustbe920.