I’m walking into Wang’s Chinese restaurant in the desert town of Blythe when it hits me. My ride-or-die-boy, Flannel Jack, and I just went to Phoenix and bought a school bus to live on full time and take an endless road trip. We spent the day rolling across the Arizona desert as happy as we have ever been. Wearing nothing but a flannel shirt and my favorite knickers, I danced in the back of the bus with all the windows open. Elated by the best 360-view and thoughts of our new life on the road, Jack and I experienced pure freedom.
So why am I now feeling so fucking trapped and scared?
I feel like I might have a heart attack. My knees buckle, the floor beneath me is giving way and I look for something on Wang’s walls to grab a hold of amid the plastic flowers, pictures of the Orient, posters with inspirational quotes and neon signs pushing Tsingtao beer. “Table for two?” asks a woman sitting nearby with a plate of General Tso’s chicken. The two women are the only people here. Jack asks if they are open, then looks at me strangely. I’m clutching the back of his vintage t-shirt like it’s a life raft.
I slide into the booth and the back of my thigh is covered in warm sticky General Tso sauce that fell from her plate. “I’m sorry, let me clean that for you” she says, scurrying off to the kitchen. “And some water,” Jack calls after her. Above our table is a picture of a sailboat with a Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”
“That’s what we’re doing,” Jack says excitedly, before seeing the look on my face. “Are you ok? You look a little lost.”
I’m more than lost; my mind has been hijacked by some very negative, painful thoughts. I know this internal journey, having taken it so many times. They arrive at the same destination every time: I am a horrible person. I’m thinking about 15 years ago, when my ex-boyfriend had a stroke and had to drive himself to the hospital because I was working late at my office. His whole life has changed since then, and not for the better. I worry about him constantly.
“Give me a minute,” I tell Jack, trying to navigate out of this dark forest in my mind. “I just have to figure something out.”
“What is going on?” he asks a minute later. Only it’s not a minute later. We have a table full of curry, pad thai, rice and beers. There are chopsticks in my hand, my thigh isn’t sticky and the restaurant is full of patrons. I’ve been mentally whipping myself for the entire dinner.
I’ve never shared this story with Jack before, or anyone else for that matter, and I am horrified that he will not love me anymore, once he finds out that I am such a bad person. He squeezes my hand, reassures me with his eyes and says, “you can tell me anything.”
I start from the beginning and tell him all about what happened to my ex. “I’m scared to leave and not be there for him when we are away on our road trip,” I say, the tears beginning to stream down onto my spicy cashew tofu.
Jack asks me if I think it’s my fault, and it is a revelation. I do! All this time, I have blamed myself. I feel guilty that I wasn’t there when my ex was admitted to the hospital, even though I cared for him while he was in the hospital and have continued to in the years since. But the narrative in my head is a steady drumbeat: I was not there for him when he needed me most. Jack confides how he felt the same way when his wife died following a heart transplant. It’s heartbreaking and …Every … Single …Thing he says resonates with me. By telling me his story, it’s as if he is guiding me out of the dark forest. It isn’t logical. I didn’t cause my ex’s stroke.
I have felt this way for so long, it’s as if the road has such a deep groove and always leads me to the same place, where I get stuck. I could never take a different route with of all these self-punishing thoughts trapped in my mind. It’s as if I needed to get them out of my head so someone else could show me the way. Jack was looking at my own map and telling me to take a right turn before the road inevitably turned into quicksand. It always had before.
I wipe the tears from my eyes and look at the poster with the Mark Twain quote above our booth. Sometimes the “safe harbor” that you need to cast off from to “catch the trade winds” and experience freedom is not what you think it is. What makes us feel safe and reluctant to leave is not always our comfortable bed and familiar routine, sometimes the comforts we are most attached to is old thought patterns and tired stories. Our first road trip has already exposed my own paralyzing, old thought pattern — feeling responsible for my ex-boyfriend’s hospitalization and health. Even today.
We step outside of Wang’s Chinese after dinner and I feel a hundred pounds lighter. Suddenly, I am filled with so many ideas, creativity, energy, joy and profound peace.
Jack and I stand hand-in-hand and gaze at our beautiful new school bus, our future tiny-home-on-wheels.
“Don’t look through the eyes of your head. Look through your heart. Then you’ll know the way,” Jack tells me. My eyes tear up with his wisdom. I give him a soft kiss and whisper “thank you” in his ear.
The school bus, even sitting still here in the California desert, and thoughts of where it will take us already have lessons to teach: A new road is needed, and that the comforts of the old one, the tried-and-true one, the deep-rutted one have been no comfort at all.
“Stop crying and get used to this, Kitty,” Jack says. “The road is calling.”