tagNon-EroticRunning Against the Current

Running Against the Current

byMessengerOfDreams©

I used to glamorize the life of a loner until I became one.

This is not an adventure. I do not feel like the One with No Name; I just feel like a nameless soul. I am not some cowgirl. I am not a prophet. I am just confused.

I've been launched into the world and all I've done is try and land on my feet, trying to find a new home, staying on the Greyhound to hope sometime I find it. I guess some would call it running away, but I'm trying to run towards something, because I have nothing to run back to.

Try and find my place in this world. Drop by a big city. This isn't it. Too many people, the streets are flooded with talkative people living a million lives. Too much noise, too many lights, too many faces. I can't take it. They're all judging me, I know it.

So I leave again.

New place. Small village I'm surprised the bus stops in. Not enough people, the streets are empty; the town doesn't even house a ghost. I may as well be alone.

I leave again.

Find another place. Small riverside town that looks too quaint to be honest. This one feels like home, with all the skeletons in the closet chasing me away.

So off I go again, trying to find my place, my role, myself.

Faith keeps a soul strong, after all. Isn't that what I was told? It's what the preacher used to tell me before he told me what was wrong with me. What my teachers told me before they told me all the things I couldn't be. What everyone told me before they told me that I wasn't welcome there. What my momma told me before she used the faith in her soul to break mine.

That's why I left; why I keep leaving, because I'll find more people like them. I just know it.

The roads are the same, but the surroundings are different. Skyscrapers trade in for water towers, department stores for mom-and-pop shops, cities for vast, empty fields. Sometimes I am tempted to hop off a bus in whatever town I'm in. Just walk around and never get on another bus again. But I can't do it. Don't have the confidence to start again. Don't have the patience to see whether or not they'd accept me.

So I get off another bus. Didn't bother to check where it was, but it's a bus stop. There's no sound but the wind. I hunker down and eat at Jimmy John's. Tastes like lowliness and loneliness. Wash up in the bathroom. Stare myself down in the mirror. My green eyes have no light. My black hair is abandoned. My face has no definition. My breath is my only sign of life. I still haven't found that something more.

I'm still running. Not away, but towards nothing.

Finish up, return to the stop. It's empty. The bus that was there isn't. I'm alone. Again. The race is over. I want to scream, but that would scare people.

Screw them, I'm scared. People have scared me for too long. I want to scare them back.

I settle for kicking the vacant bus stop pole a few times and shouting cuss words at it. It's the sign of all that I hate about my life.

That's when she finds me.

———————————-

The woman I used to call mama always said to never take candy from strangers. We had our fair share of weird strangers where I was from. They'd be begging for change, spitting nasty compliments about our bodies, or drinking straight to hell where I was from. My momma would never let me around them, telling me they were dangerous people.

Then I became the stranger. People reacted to me worse than they did any of the strangers I ever met. I wasn't dangerous. I wasn't hateful. I wasn't going to steal children or burn bibles. I wasn't a criminal.

I was just in love.

My momma still doesn't talk to strangers.

She told me to never take candy from strangers, but here I am, a stranger among strangers. Guess I'm a stranger to every stranger too. It's a dangerous game I'm playing, but when I got off the bus in St. Cloud I had nothing left to put into keeping myself safe. When I saw a young black woman with wide brown eyes and wavy green hair beckon to me, asking me what was wrong, I didn't have the energy to care. I didn't ask myself if she was dangerous, didn't care if I died that night, didn't know what would come afterward.

I just needed to know someone was out there.

———————————-

"You're not very talkative."

She's brought herself back to my attention. I've been sitting by her for about five minutes, not even paying her any mind. She found me kicking the shit out of a Greyhound stop pole and asked me what was wrong in a distinctly non-Minnesotan voice, one foreign I couldn't place.

"Everything," I said in a hollow tone with no ability to lie. She motioned for me to join her on her bench in the terminal, and I did. Since then, I've been nothing but a quiet bundle of nerves, wondering why I listened to her and not to myself and what on Earth to say now that I've opened the wound.

"Yeah, I guess I'm not," I try.

"What's your name?" she asks, giving me a sideways glance with those exceptionally large eyes. "Mine's Amber."

"Rachel." The name feels foreign on my tongue; I haven't used it for so long. I almost forgot that I had it.

"Rachel." She repeats it as if she's musing on it. "A strong name. Has some spice to it. I like it. It fits you."

I raise an eyebrow. "But... you don't know me."

Amber smiles, just a tiny bit, and it's somewhere between amused and sympathetic. "Well, you don't know me," she points out, "but you listened to me when I asked you a question. And you don't strike me as the type one can corral."

"I'm not," I admit, and I should be proud but I don't think it's a strength anymore. "Haven't really gotten to know anyone for the last..." I let my sentence drift off. I shudder at the thought of counting time. "You know... not any meaningful talk. Like, just asking what time the bus leaves. How much it'll be for a ticket. Any good places to eat around here. Any odd jobs I can take up. Things like that. Not any conversation that's actually..."

"Human?" she finishes where I left off.

"Yeah." I fall quiet again. Her words really take it out of me because she understands. I don't need to speak before she knows.

The green-haired girl with the large eyes gives me another look, and I turn away because it's just so much to take in, that this human being cares so much.

Out loud, Amber begins to put it together, speaking hesitantly. "So you've spent so long on the bus that you couldn't quite piece together how long it's been. You've been a wayward soul, and it's been like a... masochistic solitary confinement around... millions of people. Is that... right?"

"Sure." I shrug, trying to play it off as normal. Maybe trying to pretend I understand all those words. They just feel right.

Amber's next move knocks me even further off guard; she wraps her arm around my back and places it on my shoulder. It's as if she turned a switch that turned all of my nerves back on. I feel like she's trying to put all of my pieces back together and make me human again.

Before I know it, I've rested my head against her shoulder, sighing at the world.

"So now what do you want to do?" she asks.

————————————-

As it turns out, I wanted to stay.

St. Cloud, Minnesota. What was so special about it? After time I'd realize that there really wasn't much overly special or offending at all about this town. It was pretty, sure, and it didn't over or underwhelm me, but I didn't have that a-ha moment where I decided that St. Cloud was the perfect place for me.

It wasn't the town, it was her. I guess it shouldn't have surprised me, or anyone for that matter, that the one person on Earth who cared to listen to me would be the one I was most attached to. What surprised me was that she kept listening, even when all I could give her was a signal-jammed silent buzz, searching for words that have never hit me.

What astonished me was that out of the 65,000 people in St. Cloud, I got off the bus next to just the right person.

—————————————-

"You really don't have to let me stay here," I insist, because she really shouldn't.

"It's okay," she insists in return. "I don't really mind having visitors. It makes life a little more interesting for me."

I would retort, but I'm walking into her house with my only suitcase and the clothes off of my back, so I decide not to press my luck any more cause just by being here I'm doing a lot of that. She flicks on the light, revealing an open house with tall ceilings, light blue walls with little on them, and very specific furniture.

"Wow," I say. I'm overwhelmed by two things; the fact that I'm in an actual house and the fact that this house is very lovely.

"Thanks," she replies. She shuts the door and throws the pillows off of her couch. "I actually don't have a guest room so for the time being you'll probably have to stay out here. Hope you don't mind."

"It's more than enough." With that, I fall flat onto the couch. Muffled by the cushion, I thank her.

"You're more than welcome," she replies. "You're a sharp girl, so I'm sure I can trust you to behave, put things back where they go, don't invite all the people in the neighborhood over to an orgy. In return, I promise that I'll keep you taken care of, help you back onto your feet, and I won't kill you in the middle of the night."

"S'all good."

"Splendid!" Finished, she leaves the living room, and I stay where I am, embracing the couch and all it symbolizes. I use the cushions to block out my inner voice from telling me that I'm insane, I shouldn't be taking from her like that, I should have taken the next Greyhound bus out of there. There's something exciting in all of this, and it's the risk I've been waiting to take.

My peace is broken by her singing. It's not her fault; she has the right to sing in her house, and her voice is lovely. It's melodic, emotional, alive, and it's singing a song about things that I could never stand hearing about again.

Hold my hand, ooh baby, it's a long way down to the bottom of the river.

"Stop!" My shout is a lot more broken than I intend it to be, but I'm desperate to close off the memories. She yelps sharply, clearly surprised. Embarrassed, I'm forced to push myself off of the cushion and explain. "I'm sorry... just... maybe sing something happier? You have a nice voice."

She gives me a puzzled look that reads me like an open book, but she doesn't cause a fuss. "No worries. In fact, I've got some nice music I could turn on. I'll play that for us. It's midnight, after all. Start of a new day and all that." That's the end of it, and whatever music she decides to play is none of my concern. I remember how exhausted I am and collapse back into the couch, not thinking of much of anything until I wake up the next morning underneath a small throw blanket, realizing how empty this house looks and how lonely it feels. It doesn't last long, because I hear her singing again, a much happier song this time, and I relax.

I see a picture in the living room just above my head. I stretch over to get a clearer look. It's of a woman clearly older than both of us combined. She's dressed in garments I guess are religious, but I only remember them from some old NatGeos about Africa so I guess no one should ask me. Beneath her is Amber, at least a decade younger. I don't know what to make of it, but by the time the scent of food hits my nostrils, I already forget.

——————————————————-

"You're good at that."

I barely even notice that I've been drawing. I've been using it as a means of not talking. Amber's funny in that, unlike me, she loves to talk. She loves words, loves speaking, loves using words that are so long and complex that I haven't a prayer in the world for answering them.

Next to her, I may as well be mute.

"Thanks," I reply, still face-down in my paper, save for the moments I take a look across the river at the island before me. I'm facing my fear of rivers; she doesn't know that, she just thinks she's showing me the town. I used to love the Mississippi River because it travels across the nation before quietly finding its way to the end in Minnesota. It's funny how much a river can remind you of yourself, even when you hate it.

I wish I could fall in love with it again. Maybe then I can see what's so great about me.

With that, I return to my drawing, trying to ignore the strange, ticklish feeling of someone else's hair on my shoulder as she looks over at the drawing. With every sketch I make, she hmms and ahhs. I try not to get distracted by the heat in my chest or the strands of green hair in the corner of my eye and eventually finish up my drawing of the island in the river. Still feeling funny about the attention Amber is showing my paper, I mumble a "ta-daaaaa."

"Wow," she whispers, awed. "How in the hell do you do that?"

"How in the hell do you know so many words that I don't?" I retort.

"Touché."

I give her an annoyed look. "Like that one."

She laughs for a moment before she thankfully draws out of my personal space and relaxes at her end of the bench. "You know, I just have a lot to say. People have said before that something like half of Americans are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death, but I think that's because they've never had a true reason to speak up. I like being able to speak up. It's liberating."

I nod. I don't know what it's like to say exactly what I want to say. It's not my talent. I know I should ask about her, but I still don't feel like I have the right.

We fall into silence again so she repeats "You're good at that. An incredibly talented artist. I've tried drawing before, but I just can't do it. I end up with a confluence of stick figures and shapeless platforms."

I crack a smile. "I've been there before."

"When you were three," she fires back.

"Well..."

She laughs again. "I guess it's just natural talent."

"Learned talent," I correct her. "I mean, I've always had a flair for it, but I spent three years on the road, where..." It's hard to talk about it as it's always been, especially in retrospect, where present me looks back on zombie me with so much disdain. At least now I can admit how long it's been, so I guess that's a start.

She gives me a look and a soft pat on the back. She wants me to finish my sentence.

"...where I really had nothing else better to do than to stare at the people around me, take mental pictures of where I was passing through, and just... draw them. Draw what you know. Draw what means the most to you." It's the truth; the remnants of my journey. I'm not a good writer or a speaker. I don't have Amber's way with words. I am not adventurous. I am not that attractive. But I know I'm alive and I can draw, and I've filled this sketchbook with drawings that represent a year of ugly history. I also know that I'd drop dead before she even saw one of them.

She hums again. "I still think it's natural talent, like my way with words."

"Sure." Since I'm trying to learn how to accept a compliment, I end on that.

She looks out on the Mississippi again. I do too, because I'm learning not to blame the river. It's not as strong here like down by the Gulf, but it's still powering through St. Cloud. It's got a ways to go; it's not finished yet. Just keeps winding all the way through Minnesota, through thousands of twists and turns, breaking into larger lakes and smaller ones, until it finally reaches a peaceful destination. Of course, it runs the opposite direction, towards the ocean, but I didn't.

I guess I'm hoping my skeletons can't swim upwards.

It's strange how things work out. I started by the Mississippi River's south end, bawling my eyes out, and throughout all the zigzags and loop-de-loops I took to get here, I've found my place at the north end, and I'm still not finished yet. It's okay, though, I think I know my destination. I just might know where I want to go from here.

I turn to the right and meet the gaze of my destination. This time, I'm the one who smiles.

————————————-

It's strange, how things develop, how they change. How I go from feeling like a stranger to feeling like a friend. How we never look for another place to stay and I become her roommate. How she never questions me despite my strange behavior continuing. How I'm able to find a job, a place in this world. How I find something good in silence instead of the emptiness I used to feel. How being with someone else becomes typical instead of strange. How fast five months can fly by. How I never look at any of the girls in my workplace the way I expect to. How I slowly become human again.

I'm still not sure if we're at peace up here or if we're hiding from where we started.

————————————

She's playing her music again. She doesn't have a TV. She never really needed it. She had writing, she had movies, and she had St. Cloud to keep her occupied. Why waste the money on cable?

Sometimes I believe her. If you don't look too closely, Amber has it together. She's strong, charismatic, caring, and speaks her second language better than I ever spoke my first. There's still something worrying me about Amber when I pay attention though. It's the way she stares off into the distance when she doesn't think I'm looking; the way she forgets that I'm here sometimes and only realizes it when I've burnt the eggs; the way she doesn't stop talking and the way she frowns when I say that I need to go somewhere. Sometimes, Amber can be right in front of me yet still not be there, and I wonder if she's running from something too.

For now, here she is playing some band called M83 out of her stereo at a respectful level while I'm sketching and she's reading not even two feet away on the couch. I notice that there's a gleam in her eye and she's drumming against the side of her book. I've been working on a drawing of the picture on the wall, the closest I've been to acknowledging her struggle, but I can't focus with Amber next to me, because I'm drinking in her presence.

I try not to stare at her too long. I ignore that burning in that chest again. I'm trying to ignore it, and when I can't, I try and rationalize it. I know my limits. I know what my momma told me. No, I don't. I don't really. I'm in a stranger's house. But I do; she's not a stranger, not anymore. Yet I still don't know her. I don't know anyone.

This is all too dangerously close to reaching the point I want and don't want it to.

"I gotta go," I blurt, standing up and letting my sketchbook fall on the ground, its pages spread open like the wreck of the day. Of course, I'm not leaving for good. I should, but I'm too selfish for that. I'm just gonna get some fresh air; maybe jog to Casey's General Store and get more food I shouldn't be eating. Whatever it takes to clear my mind, I'll do it.

"Wait." She stops me, and I'm surprised that I'm stopping despite every other cell in my body trying to pull me out like I'm hog tied to another bus. She sets her book down and stands next to me. I know that she always seems unhappy when I leave, but she's never tried to stop me.

I look at her. She isn't frowning, but she's not smiling. She looks terrified out of emotion. "Uhm, I'll be back," I insist. I didn't mean to scare her with my abrupt nature; it's just how I know to operate. Make decisions and turn on a dime.

"It's not that." She laughs, but it's not the same. It's shaky with the movement of a million tight springy nerves. She's high on instinct, but I am too. It's not pretty, but that makes it beautiful somehow.

In that moment, I feel human again.

"Uhm..." I don't have anything to prelude to this, just blind bravado and no idea of the consequences of my actions. It's like I've never lived until I set foot in St. Cloud; that's all that I can confirm was real.

I'm about to make a big mistake, so I make it.

I kiss her. It's strange to be doing it, but it was always gonna happen somehow, I figure. It's at that moment where I stop ignoring myself and force myself to face the truth, the same truth behind the burning inside my chest. I wouldn't even care if she didn't follow through and kiss me back, but thankfully she does. I guess I shouldn't be feeling foolish then, but I want this so badly it makes me feel punch-drunk.

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