FIND ME AT THE EDGE
I am alone in the most beautiful place in the world. I am seventeen and thinking this as I sit at the peak of Yosemite Falls, starring out at the blue panorama of mountains and sky, sobbing uncontrollably. The hike up was only five stupid miles, but every step felt vertical and unrelenting. After the first mile I was already heaving, my face flushed red and dripping with sweat. I passed a woman at least 60 years old who told me I had to take it slower or I’d never make it. She looked at me with a mixture of concern and triumph of having already been to the top. My friends raced ahead, not a drop of sweat between them, blissfully unaware of their effortless agility I so envied.
Fast-forward to three miles later and higher and my body is pissed off. “I’ll wait for her this time,” Jessica says, sitting on a rock 20 feet in front of me with pity and kindness. I reach her, my lungs crying out in pain. I have to stop but I cannot stop. Why is this so difficult for me? I’m shaped like a healthy person. I don’t have even asthma. I’m just weak.
“You guys can go ahead—I’ll catch up. It’s fine, it’s fine,” I say, not wanting to hold them up for any longer or have witnesses to the slow collapse of my being. After much protesting they agree and go on ahead. I watch them disappear up the path. I sit on the rock and drink the warm water from my bottle and convince myself that eating seven almonds will really help me power through. I briefly consider turning back—back down the mountain, back to our hotel, back home across the country, back into my mother’s womb. My hair is in two braids and drenched in sweat. I am a disgusting red-faced monster, and great! Here comes Mr. Marx, the teacher chaperone I tell myself I’m not hardcore crushing on. Hey! Yeah, I’m doing great. We really did get a beautiful day for it. What? Kehan Bomkamp is already at the top, in under an hour? Wow, so cool. Yeah, see you up there. Bye.
The last two miles of the hike are through “death valley,” a straight incline without any trees for shade. I adapt to ignore the salty sweat dripping over my face and off of it, taking one step at a time, repeating in my head the phrase One Step at a Time. I can hike five miles. I can do it without crying, definitely.
There is a constant stream of hikers who pass me on their way down. I try to smile at them to signify my vitality, but even as I do I feel it come across as a pained grimace.
“Are you okay?” a woman who looks like my mom asks.
“Yeah,” I say, “almost there, right?” Her smile turns somehow more sympathetic.
“There’s quite a bit left to go…”
“Okay, thanks,” I say, wishing I didn’t have this information.
Once finally at the top, I discover that my friends have come and gone down another trail. I continue to follow hand-drawn signs for the best-of-the-best lookout and climb up a few more rock steps against my body’s protests. And then I see it: a stretch of rock jutting out into the blue. One step at a time I go to it, and quickly—it’s now late afternoon and no one is around that I can see. I maneuver over the boulder formations until I finally come to the edge. The vastness of all that is now visible is unbelievable. It is as if the world was one size smaller or lesser until I sat on the edge of that rock and let this expanse of earth wash over me. Half-dome and other peaks in the distance, the late-afternoon sun in a cloudless sky, my aching legs at rest, I am completely alone against the gigantic stretch of earth. Naturally, this is when I at last break into sobs. I see myself from afar, as almost nothing. A silly, stupid, sweat-drenched human all alone. The beauty might devour me, and I might let it. I take a picture. I leave.
It was sometime in high school that I saw a picture of the white cliffs of Dover and knew I would go to them someday. I didn’t think it would be so soon—I didn’t know I would be only 20 years old and completely on my own in the country. Nonetheless I’ve managed to make it into the photograph, the cool salty breeze on my face reminding me this that is real, I am really here.
It is early morning and the sun is hazy over the English Channel. I say the words out loud just to feel them, “English Channel.” I say them normally and then with a bad British accent, but neither way seems right. I can only think of elementary school and learning about a woman who swam across it—maybe she was the first woman to do it, or person, I can’t remember, but I know that is was something spectacular that happened. I don’t even come close to remembering her name.
From the cliffs I watch as giant ships leave the port one at a time. I can hear the announcements that boom one after another: WELCOME ABOARD! BIENVENUE À BORD! WILLKOMMEN AN BORD! 歡迎登機！ The ships are massive until they float far enough away into the distance, then they are small enough to hold. I image the tourists taking in the same view that is painted on their souvenir coffee mugs and postcards and T-shirts, the chalky white rocks jutting out into the ocean like they’re biting into it.
I’m sure they can’t see me at the top in the long grass, following the muddy paths with my brown school backpack and oversized rain jacket. I planned the trip to last fewer than twenty-four hours, taking the train three hours out of London to stay in somebody’s attic for a night. The day before had been all rain and fog, so these precious morning moments are all I am allowed. The train back leaves in an hour but I want to stay. There’s not enough time.
The long grass sways over my legs with the gentle wind. By now the ships have faded almost completely out of sight. I try hard to imbed the whole scene as a perfect memory while it is happening, while I am still here and a part of it. This will be the place I come back to in my mind to when I want to find calm, I’m sure. I lie on the damp green ground and think maybe this is what it’s like to feel whole.
I am once again alone on the edge of something; this time it is a blue room. I am lying in a bed and the room is blue because the sun is outside but the curtains keep most of it out. I am in a far away country. I am in a house that belongs to someone else. I hang a few photos on the wall but then am told to take them down, so as to not make any marks. Everything I do in this faraway land is wrong; I am made up of mistakes. It makes me want to go home, but that isn’t the plan, that’s quitting, and I must stay.
There is a balcony off the bedroom I am in. Some nights I sit out on it and watch the sun dip slowly behind the mountains. It is beautiful but I am lonely in this faraway place. They speak a different language here, one I do not know well. When I watch the sun it is acceptable to say nothing.
But today I do not want the sun. Today I don’t want anything, maybe ever again. The room is very blue, and I think maybe I am under the water—that would explain why no one can understand me. It would also account for how difficult it is to breathe.
The balcony is hidden behind the drawn curtains but I can picture the four stories to the cement below. Without moving from the bed I imagine the sensation of falling, and then of not-being. Nothing in the blue room moves. For no reason I understand, I take a picture of the blank wall.
This edge is different because here it is difficult for me to feel anything, or even imagine feeling anything. I am only another part of the room. I realize the picture of the blank wall is a self-portrait. I try to back away from this edge very carefully. It is a place I do not want to visit again.
I lean forward and press my forehead against the glass window. Down below, taxis slide past each other honking all the time, the sidewalks are flooded with fast people and slow people, and I feel the tranquility that comes with watching from a height so far removed.
This is Manhattan, and I am sometimes a part of it and sometimes not. When I step back and watch, like now, I am purely observer, someone from a different world where the words New York City are still shiny and mythical. Yet I live here, or, more precisely, in Brooklyn, in a shared sublet bedroom with plaster falling from the ceiling. I have a blue and yellow paper card in my wallet that allows me to nervously take the subway to this office each day. While I sit or stand for the thirty-five minute ride I must concentrate on keeping my expression indifferent, which is the opposite of what I feel. This is a place where anything might happen at any moment. A saxophonist might get on at the next stop and croon a song I used to know; a pseudo-preacher might reveal to the car that the end is coming quicker than any of us think; a woman might pretend not to be crying even though she is; someone might just barely make it through the closing doors and someone else might not, his fists pounding on the dirty windows as we pull away.
No matter what happens in those minutes, however, I always emerge from Columbus Circle Station; I always remind myself that this is not an amazing feat even though every day I am amazed. My parents have never been here or any place like it, my grandparents either. In this way it feels as if I have discovered a secret world that just happens to be inhabited by eight million people.
Once at the correct skyscraper, I flash my personalized ID to the security guard. It does not matter if I’m not being paid to work here because they have given me a laminated badge with my face on it and that means I am important. I press the button for the seventeenth floor, standing between two tall women in pastel-colored business suits and a man who I’m sure I’ve seen in an infomercial for a multi-use breakfast griddle. No one says a word.
In the office I have my own cubicle. Madeline, a cool woman with straight dark hair shows me how to photocopy magazine articles and fill in spreadsheets with varying amounts of dollar signs. She is not much older than I am, maybe 25 or 26. One day we walk to Starbucks, the sound of her heels on the concrete lost in the commotion of the humming city to everyone but me. She buys a latte and I buy a latte. When I ask her if she likes her job she says, “I think so.”
I like to watch from the windows of the seventeenth floor whenever I get to the office too early, and on my lunch breaks, and before I go home. Adult people aren’t supposed to hide in their places of work but I figure I don’t count quite yet.
The sun rests low in the wintery sky and its light touches all the other buildings just like this one—tall and dark and cold. I peel my face from the glass and wonder what I want, what a life looks like. A pigeon leaps from the ledge of a nearby building and lets its wings catch in the wind, soaring down towards the busy streets, gray into gray.
Finally, I find a quiet place. Here at the edge of the playground I can think my thoughts in peace, without being bothered by the dumb loud kids. Yeah it’s cool that Leah found a bunny’s nest under the bridge, but everyone’s already seen it so it’s not that cool. I don’t feel like playing freeze tag or going on the tire swing, I feel like sitting, and this is my spot so go away! I like to look out past the train tracks and the corn at the cemetery up on the hill. It’s really far away so the headstones look teeny tiny, like skipping rocks. I don’t know who’s buried there but I decide I want to be buried there when I die so that some kid will sit in this exact spot someday and wonder about me. Yeah, that’s a good idea.
The sun is hot on my neck and I can hear them calling me back to play, but I like this spot so much. I guess it’ll still be here next recess, so I’ll come back then. No one else better sit in it, though, cuz it’s mine. It’s the only place at school I can be alone and think. No one else can come. Sometimes I just have to think.
Today isn’t special but it is good. It’s the kind of spring that’s almost summer; I’m reading a book on a bench that has seen my very first kiss and my very last drink; the warm breeze spreads a calm over everything around—including, miraculously, my mind. There is a mountain in the distance far away enough so that all the trees growing from it blend together to form one smooth summit of green, but close enough to never forget its name.
The book isn’t one I should be reading—that is, it’s not one of the many assigned readings sitting patiently on my desk. I picked this book out from a friend’s bookshelf and she said, “I’ve been meaning to give that to you.”
It’s about a writer who is not writing what she is supposed to be writing. Instead, she is going through the Penny Saver, calling the sellers up and asking if she can come see the item he or she is selling and interview the person about his or her life. The book is half photographs of these people: a 60-year old man in the process of becoming a 60-year old woman selling a leather jacket for $30; a teenage boy selling bullfrog tadpoles from his back yard for $2.50 each; a woman living in a trailer outside the city selling Bengal leopard kittens for varying prices. Each true story is, of course, stranger than fiction; it seems unbelievable that all these lives could exist without me ever knowing until I picked up the book from Katie’s shelf. The title on the front is in all caps: IT CHOOSES YOU.
The author writes, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” At these words I hold the book to my chest and close my eyes, hoping maybe they will sink from the page and into my body so that they can become part of me even more than they already have. Maybe if I hold it close enough, tight enough, I can merge effortlessly into this writer with a book in the world, a woman with a husband and a baby, a person with a life that she chose ever so purposefully.
Out between the mountain and myself I see two dogs sprinting across the long field, their bodies brown and slender, hurtling through the tall grass. Even though they are flying fast, it seems like they will never make it across such a great distance. But I watch, and their bodies push on minute after minute. My eyes are frozen on the dogs, racing one after another without ever slowing down.
And then it dawns on me: they have already crossed the distance, and now they are running back across it to return home. I look to the house they are headed for and their owner appears, the figure of a man clapping his hands and calling out. He is waiting for them and they will make it there soon; the man knows this, the dogs know this. The distance between them is growing smaller; the dogs are running faster than ever. They have done this one thousand times and will do it one thousand more. They will always go shooting out into the distance. They will always come home.