Author’s Note: I started writing “From Here” years ago in Los Angeles, on the trip that the piece is about. I was processing a breakup, helping my sister move to a faraway place, and generally figuring out how to be alone. The piece is about gathering strength to live life for your own sake—and finding the courage to go forth into the unknown.
I’M TRYING TO DISAPPEAR. Trying to whittle myself down to a few basic things, and then to nothing. There is the warmth of my bare feet in hot sand. There is the ocean breeze off the Pacific on my skin. There is the static hum in my ears of the waves rolling in with power and indifference, splashing against shrieking families in swimsuits, lapping up on the sand to fill the moats of sandcastles and soften the surface of the earth, which drinks thirstily. Through my Jackie O sunglasses there is late August sunlight muted by the clouds, barely touching the water that is green then blue then navy as it touches the hazy sky and disappears into the next part of the world. The big waves roll up like wedding dress tulle; the small ones slide in like razors. Dots of birds soar in the distance and stern white seagulls strut along the beach, stabbing their beaks into the sand and jerking their heads at the disruptive sounds of people.
People are everywhere, the way people always are in the world’s beautiful parts, the way people are always claiming places. There are people in bikinis and swim trunks and soaked T-shirts running to and from the ocean. There are people under rainbow-colored umbrellas. There are people spread out on large aqua towels with sweaty arms around orange bags of Cheetos. Young families use neon buckets to shape wet sand into castles. Children run free and adults stand at the water taking pictures of the scene.
I have people, too. If I squint, I can see them standing in the water, bracing for the waves. They are people I love. They are people I hope will stay in the waves because when they return, I’ll smile. When they return, I’ll feel myself burrow behind the mask of an extroverted personality that has been growing more obnoxious every day.
We’ve just completed a family road trip from Minnesota to help my younger sister move from New York to Los Angeles, and each day of the journey I’ve more desperately needed a break from the person I’m being. I’ve been laughing too loudly, interrupting too often, talking too quickly. I’ve been hearing myself make jokes that cover a discomfort, snap retorts that protect a wound—the sound of my own voice like a ferocious dog barking at the border of its domain: Don’t you dare come any closer.
So I focus outwards.
Clouds break apart in one corner of the sky and sunshine falls like a single spotlight on the water. When I turn my head to stretch my neck, I see a lifeguard in a baby blue tower, and behind the lifeguard are brightly colored tents—red, white, blue, yellow, green—lining the back of the beach. Palm trees stand high on the hills in the distance, like strange tall animals dusting the sky. Up the coast, the land juts out into the ocean like a dark sleeping dinosaur. This is nothing like New York City, where the ocean was only a sliver of sparkles at the edge of compressed chaos; nothing like Connecticut, where the ocean shorelines were guarded and private and full of rocks; and nothing like Minnesota, where the ocean is unreachable.
I hadn’t planned to be part of this trip until the man I was planning to be with decided not to be with me. It was only then that the catharsis of the road beckoned, promising me this limit of the land, this space above the ocean—all the emptiness in the world.
FOR SO LONG, I’ve felt anything but empty. Life has been so full that I’ve felt myself squeezed into it as an afterthought. I’ve filled my time and mind with relationships, with work, with degrees, with worry about all of it, with perfectionism that wants to not only do but excel, and to excel is to obsess, and to obsess is to never be done. It’s the only way I know how to be—my mind so busy there’s no room for me.
I met the man who was supposed to be with me when I lived in Connecticut for graduate school. A year after I’d moved back home to Minnesota, he professed his love, made arrangements to move for me, asserted his intention to be with me—to me, to my family, to my friends. Trusting him seemed like the expected thing to do. Him deciding not to uproot his life for me also seemed like a thing that should have been expected. But I hadn’t had enough room for both expectations, and so it hurt, and so life paused, and the pause revealed this emptiness.
Every day of the summer since has been spent waiting for the next one. Time has been a slow drag. I’ve been feeling abandoned. Feeling alone. Seeing just enough men to fill the space. I’ve been a passive and observant dater. I only want to learn about people, uncover the laws they have for their world and for mine.
After a while, it’s like the waves coming in from the ocean—some are strong, roaring with power, but others lap up to the sand, timid and small. All of them recede eventually. I am the land, the great impermeability, that sends them back.
After a while, I realize I’m only creating storms of minor dramas to cover up the pain. I realize it’s not helping to do this, but I’ll keep doing it for a while, anyway—to delay the reckoning, to make it so cloudy I can’t see where it hurts
I BURY MY FEET in the heavy warm sand, overcome with desire to bury my whole self in it. I bury myself up to my ankles, up to my calves, scooping the damp sand, piling it on and patting it down. I lie back in my denim jacket to see the cloudy sky through my sunglasses. I close my eyes to the sea breeze, the children’s laughter, the squawking gulls. The sun bears down through the clouds and the clouds part like a curtain opening to a new scene. I feel the appeal of disappearing under the weight of everything. I think about one of the men I’ve dated. “Let’s get into the dirt,” he’d said. “What do you want?” Getting into the dirt is enough, I’d thought. I only want to be covered in earth, to be disguised, to be distracted from anything digging might uncover.
“I don’t know,” I’d said to him with a light shrug, as if it didn’t matter.
WHEN MY PARENTS DIVORCED, siblinghood became my only constant. My sister and I shared rooms and bunk beds and tears and car rides and goofiness and the need for everything to be okay. We fought and yelled and cried and regrouped and regrouped and regrouped. We were together, always. If I was going to my father’s for the weekend, of course she would be with me. If I was spending Christmas Eve with my mother’s family and Christmas Day with my father’s, she would be at my side. We were a package, moving through life as one.
A week ago—after my sister spent a month in Minnesota between her east coast past and her west coast future—we filled my mother’s old Fiat with our bags and my sister’s orange cat, and we set off on the midnight road to our first stop in Nebraska. There was a storm on the first night of our drive. Before the rain came crashing down, clouds raced over the moon like someone was pulling a screen too quickly across the sky. My mother, an expert at journeying through darkness, was driving. I wonder, sometimes, of the strength it must have taken to file for divorce all those years ago—to uproot us and replant her life in new ground, knowing it would take time for the tree to become sturdy, for the branches to grow strong.
My sister and the cat slept in the back of the car. I sat, depressed, in the passenger seat. As the storm broke out, I lamented the loss of the relationship that had been broken by the man who would not be moving after all. My mother kept her eyes on the white flashes of rain and dutifully pointed out the friends I have, the people in my life who I can lean on during this feeling of loss. I didn’t tell her that this is not enough. I didn’t tell her that I want selfishly, that I crave intimacy like a drug. That without it, I do not know who to be.
She turned the radio up as she drove us through the storm, offering music as the only answer to the feelings in the darkness, to the branches that—if they do not get broken—only grow to become further and further away.
FROM THE BEACH where my legs are half buried, I see the tiny figures of my sister and her friend being thrown down by the waves and rising again after each fall. My sister is laughing, relaxed. It’s her first full day of being a reluctant Californian. She’s here because her job relocated her. Her friend moved here just months ago. He’s here because he wants to be. He, like us, lived and left a life in New York City.
The years my sister and I lived in New York feel like a strange dream. I moved there for school, and two years later, she followed. We lived our lives independently, but we’d meet for midnight pizza slices in fluorescent spots on Broadway, go on winter night walks after the sweaty heat of shows, spend weekend afternoons getting our assignments done in crowded coffee shops, and stay with each other whenever our hearts were broken or our dreams felt impossible or our presents unbearable. I could crawl under the covers of her dorm bed whenever it felt like everything was falling apart, and we’d lie next to each other in the middle of Manhattan like we were little girls in Minnesota again, this time watching old SNL skits on a laptop and eating a package of Oreos for dinner while her roommate slept three feet away and the distant Empire State Building sparkled out the window. It feels like a strange dream, too, the years I lived in Connecticut, when I could still take the train to Grand Central and the subway to Lorimer, leave my bags in her small yellow apartment above the pulsing gay bar, and we would go out into the Brooklyn night and we’d walk and walk and walk—always until our legs hurt, until we hit the water, until the skyline of Manhattan glittered before us, silent and constant.
I visited New York less when I met him—him and his house and his giant yard with the vegetable garden and the firepit and the American flag. I traded in nights of rumbling underground trains and alcoholic swirls of lights for the open air of dark rolling hills under bright starry skies and a quiet that was so clear you could hear the insects in the trees. Stinging all the while, there was a wrenching inside me that wanted to go home when I finished my degree, that knew we were a couple that would never be.
MY SISTER AMBLES TOWARD ME now with her friend behind her. They are smiling, carefree, wet. Our mother stays out where the waves are, soaking everything she can out of this moment she can own—this one part of the trip that does not have to be about someone else, that does not have to be ruled by motherhood.
The two new Californians grab towels, catch their breaths, sit on either side of me and watch the changing scene. My sister’s friend is kind and good, a person I’m in awe of. He’s an east coast native who claimed sunny west coast happiness simply because he wanted it. I feel small in the presence of his ability to assert the life he wants. He asks me why I don’t go in the water, and I hear myself laugh—the ferocious dog is back, barking from the edge of my embarrassment. I try to explain my childish aversion to water, that I only like to be near it—watching it, hearing it, smelling it, disappearing under its open sky—but one step in and I would drown.
The three of us sit propped against one another’s shoulders and take selfies with my sister’s phone, our faces lit with sun, the colorful umbrellas and thin palm trees behind us. We text one of the pictures to our father back in Minnesota, where he lives with the woman he married years ago, in the life he claimed after the one that made us didn’t work. “Looks like you are having fun!” he responds, proud of his children being out in the world—having made it out alive, having survived. I wonder, sometimes, of the strength it must have taken him to keep moving forward when reality changed, when life was unexpectedly filled with so much space, pushed open by so much pain.
My sister returns to the glowing waves to rejoin our mother. They look holy, like saints. The bright sun silhouettes them, glimmers gold in the waves around them. Her friend and I stay seated on the striped towels, sifting sand through our hands. He is shirtless and we talk about his tattoos. One of them reminds me of a tattoo on a scientist I’ve been seeing.
“So, you are dating?” he asks, aware of the summer’s drama.
“Yeah,” I say, dropping more sand onto my feet. “But I’m not really over anything.”
“How long were you with the guy?”
“Two years,” I say. “Sort of.” I explain that for nine months we were only a relationship with an end date, and for the first year I lived back in Minnesota we were long-distance friends, and that it was only for a flash of six weeks that we’d asserted we loved each other and planned how our lives would merge before he called one night—after the house, after the job offer—to say, “I can’t do it.”
“We haven’t talked since,” I say, the embarrassment still hot around my throat.
“Damn,” he says, scooping sand.
I pick at a skin growth between my knuckles that has been slowly growing for over a year, multiplying into more growths and expanding into a bubbling need for a dermatology appointment. I’ve been too fascinated by it to consider razing it, this problem born from my body. Skin that grows from skin that grows from skin and none of it is supposed to be growing at all.
It was during those six weeks of I-love-yous and life planning that my sister learned about this job relocation. From my exciting new vantage point of relationship security, I encouraged her decision to accept. I respected the boldness of sacrificing a home she loved for a chance to see what more she could be. It was the same thing the man I loved was doing for me. It never occurred to me that I felt anything but happy for her until one hot night in the middle of summer—after his final phone call, after the embarrassment of planning a future and living none of it—I had a nightmare about a terrorist attack.
In the nightmare, my sister and I were hurrying through a packed subway station in Manhattan. The exits were blocked by terrorists. People were crying and screaming and struggling to breathe. My sister and I were fighting, yelling and screaming at each other with the intensity we’d had as children. We angrily separated. There was a car abandoned in the middle of the chaos in the terminal, and I crawled into it to sleep, to get away from her. When I awoke within the dream, I was still in the car, the people had disappeared with the rescue effort, and my sister had left me to die.
When I woke in the morning, summer continued its slow drag onwards, and I felt myself feeling more alone, less alive, shrinking—and this aggressive, annoying personality began to cover for me, to replace me.
And, yes, I chose to leave her first, but maybe without thinking I thought she would follow.
ON THE BEACH, she and my mother grab towels and sunglasses and clothing. They sit. Saltwater drips from their skin. My mother is giddy. She’s hungry. She wants to drive further up the coast before the sun sets, buy watermelon from a fruit stand. She’s claiming this day as her reward.
“Are you okay?” my sister asks me when we’re out on the boardwalk, waiting for the others to return from the bathrooms.
I think about how we won’t be able to eat Oreos together the next time I feel heartbroken.
I nod, squinting against the lowering sun.
My feelings swim in darkness and their articulation feels impossible, which is why it doesn’t occur to me to say the words: I’ll miss you.
The glowing sky is gorgeous like a jewel. Down along the shoreline, people pack up their umbrellas and their towels, but the darkening beach remains, silent and constant. I try to memorize pieces of the scene to keep it with me, this California openness. But this will belong to my sister, only. As we grow older, we find more and more things that cannot be shared.
We leave the beach and I have not whittled myself down. I have not disappeared. I’m still here to contend with. I’m still missing my personality, still feeling like an empty shell of something lost. I can’t disappear when I already feel like nothing. I can’t whittle something away that does not exist to begin with. And yet, contrary to everything I feel, I am here.
The sun glows pink against the cliffs and dyes the ocean orange and sets into the horizon to leave us in darkness, and we buy fruit at the stand, and we drive on down the coast. We stop at a restaurant, and I drink too much wine. We drive back into Los Angeles, and we put Jaws on in my sister’s new living room and I fall asleep after the scene where they cut open the tiger shark and everything inside of it spills onto the dock. I have dreams about things that are so unreal—mountains that are larger than the moon, a moon that is so close I can touch it—that I scramble to take pictures of them, only to wake up and realize that the pictures, too, are not real. I continue to feel like I can’t hold onto things, like everything is slipping away.
Two days ago, my mother and my sister and the orange cat and I were in Utah. We slept in a hotel at the entrance of Zion National Park and spent the morning hours driving through smooth canyons and jagged mountains. The scenery was like wet paint, like orange brushstrokes curving and swerving across the landscape. As we drove deeper into the mountains and stopped for short hikes along their roadside trails, I felt the expected sensation of becoming smaller and smaller as the mountains grew larger and larger. But the bigger the mountains became, the smaller they started to seem as it became clear there would always be something even bigger. As this infinity began unfurling itself, I felt how I, too, belong to infinity, and therefore I, too, contain an infinity of my own. No matter how big the mountains are and how small I am next to them, I—miraculously—never disappear. I’m still here. My mere existence extinguishes the threat of insignificance.
How overwhelming it is, to be so little and so much all at once.
ON THE PLANE BACK HOME there’s lipstick smeared on my finger, the oil of salted peanuts on my hands. I’m finally alone, free of having to be anything. I text my father to let him know the plane will land on time. My mother stayed behind, hesitant to leave her youngest alone with the car in a new place too soon, memories of a sobbing first-day preschooler embedded in her bones.
I’m being watched by a curly-haired baby two rows ahead who dangles a plastic truck over the back of his seat. I nickname him “Velociraptor Baby” because of the piercing way he screams from time to time, the pressure of the flight hurting his head, his ears, his face—the giant world pushing in on him. I rest my head on the frame of the window and look out. The plane’s wings slice the clouds. The roads cut across the land. From here, it looks like razor blades were dragged across the earth. Maybe I’m not alone in my discomfort with space, in my need to fill it, to draw lines across it. Maybe it’s some collective flaw that we try to claim space by filling it with so many things that we don’t leave ourselves room to breathe. Velociraptor Baby screams again, and I think he understands.
I IMAGINE MY SISTER DRIVING around her sunny neighborhood with the red-roofed Spanish Colonial apartments, commuting to work on the 405 every day, having an experience I’ve never experienced. I think about the change I was expecting—cooking with him, drinking with him, hiking with him. I think about the meaning this togetherness was supposed to ascribe to me, how easy it all would be—like the feeling of control gained by drawing lines across the land.
I don’t want to return home to my minor storms of dating. Maybe I should just let the emptiness be—for a while, anyway. Maybe the dating has only been about needing someone to look at me and say: Here you are. To me, you are this. Or else I don’t exist. To break free of this need is to venture into a life I’ve never considered, into a space I have no idea how to fill. It’s a perfectionist’s worst fear to not know, to have to create something that cannot be exceled at, shared, approved—a life that is only for you.
The pilot announces the beginning of our descent, and Velociraptor Baby awakens with the changing pressure. He looks pained again, lifted by a parent. He bangs his truck on the back of the seat and throws it into the aisle, frowning at all the tired faces watching him. The plane dips into a turn and he begins to scream. We emerge from the clouds over the land that is home, and it occurs to me that I chose to live here for no reason besides the same wrenching inside that tells me I’m alive. And maybe this is a start. And maybe when I emerge from baggage claim into the humid Midwestern air, looking for the familiar smile on my father’s face, I will not feel so stubbornly alone.
I take a deep breath. I glance around at all the other people crammed calmly into this vessel. An older woman catches my eyes as the baby screams and screams and screams. She shrugs as if to say, what can you do? and smiles. So, as the pressure builds, I shrug and smile, too, and I brace myself for the landing.
Lillie Gardner is a prose and screenwriter based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She studied creative writing at New York University. In addition to Delmarva Review, she has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Long River Review, Funny-ish.com and more. She’s also an essay-reader for Hippocampus Magazine, a book reviewer for EcoLit Books and a contributor for Feminist Book Club. In her writing, Lillie explores Midwestern voices, family dynamics, and musical approaches to prose. Website: lilliegardner.com
Delmarva Review publishes compelling nonfiction, poetry, and fiction selected from thousands of submissions annually. Designed to encourage outstanding new writing in the region, the nation, and beyond, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.
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Letters to Editor
Sheryl Southwick says
That is a most beautiful bit of writing that spoke to me this morning. Now I want to read more Lillie Gardner.