A young woman stands at a well-lit intersection in Midwest America. Her male counterpart is beside her, burdened with a backpack towering his back. Her backpack is lighter, as she is smaller than him at about a hundred pounds. Above, the sun has dropped its burnt orange rays to flat line at the horizon, and she too is ready to rest for the day. Appearing distanced from her reality, it’s as if she wasn’t truly herself, but in reality she was me. I was that young woman.
Pushing matted hair off my suncaked cheeks, I watch traffic on that balmy evening in 1993. Eighteen-wheelers force their way in and out of a truck stop, releasing billowy exhaust. A suit-and-tie-guy in a sports car races to the on-ramp with the convertible top down. Station wagons with a full back seat of kids exit the interstate and drive out of sight, likely to their suburban homes.
Jake breaks screech and a horn sounds, one of many. I turn to my companion, seeking his familiar nod of reassurance. It is true that when in a situation of dependence on another person, our old life has been abandoned, in favor of complete trust in that person for how our existence will unfold. Locked into their era, we are bound and dated by their best judgment for our well-being. Only littered thoughts remain, scrambled by events of the day in which we were captured by complexities of surrender.
The crosswalk light changed, giving us the go ahead. “Ready?” he asked me.
I tugged at my pack’s straps, stepped off the curb, and kept close to him. I carried the lighter items, like a few clean t-shirts, dry socks, tobacco, and a deck of playing cards. His pack held the heavier items of blue jeans, dried food staples, small tools, a flashlight, and hygiene kits. A bedroll and a plastic gallon of water dangled taut at the tail end of his pack’s frame, fastened by bungee cords. Of equal importance, if only to him, his pack also held weathered childhood family photos, lest he forget where he came from. My pack held no pictures, no heirlooms, and no keys to the past.
Anxious, I pictured hope for a new tomorrow. As usual, we’d be back on the interstate, thumbs erect, for another unknown stretch of the highway to push us further from the place we once called home. I felt the bounce to our gait in our cumbersome ten minutes to reach the nearby underpass. From there, I breathed heavy in our walk up its steep incline to a leveled three-foot-wide space, which spanned the length of the overpass above.
At the top, I dropped my pack to the cement ground and then helped him maneuver out of his pack. He released the bungee cords, unrolling our sleeping bag, and laid it out flat. Our packs would work fine as pillows at the wall behind us. I sat down and let my lower legs dangle where the decline started. That’s how we’d have to sleep that night, but I was used to that. Just the night before, we’d slept on a tree-lined hillside, pinecones and all.
The foundation under me reverberated as a semi-truck drove the overpass. Over the big rig’s noise, he turned his head toward me and said, “Put another sweater on so you don’t get cold; the temperature is dropping.”
Rifling through his pack to find some sort of dinner makings, he first pulled out a bottle of rot-gut sweet wine. He took a sip, and then passed me the bottle. We’d need its warmth to keep from waking up shivering cold in the middle of the night. It wasn’t chilly out yet, but I thirsted for the escape to be found in that bottle. Two quick gulps were all it took for me to feel a warm buzz from its acquired taste for fruity potency.
Sheltered from the wind, I none-the-less felt my melancholy mood blow away. I was okay in letting him lead, but still determined to discover where I’d—not we—but I would lastly end up. Disillusioned, I lapsed into my thoughts, where I pictured Nana. When I was a child, Nana taught me to have a reason behind my choices, and to persevere, not limiting myself in opportunities. Back then I had relied on her approval and praises. Then, when a little older, I ran with her ideas, yet in a way which hurt myself and others.
My choices had caused a devastating wake in society with unwanted notoriety. I took another gulp of wine and followed his hand directions to help him. No words were needed between us over dinner, which left me to my own pivotal thoughts. I felt like a seaman who had gone overboard from a fishing boat. It is as if we try to push our way up to safety, but are met by the weight of the water. We argue with gravity; we argue with sharp waves; we battle with our own fears. When a situation is this dire, one has to take ownership of that reality. To gather one’s own wits, emotion must be set aside and action taken to save ourselves.
The past was only that; the past. I had a new life, filled with significance and value, to look forward to. If any remorse remained within me, it was because I hadn’t lived up to Nana’s high expectations. Resilience is our only hope to overcome what happened, whether it’s falling off a fishing boat, or falling from society’s grace. We have to make positive change. So too, did I have to overcome the choices I had made, which landed me at that spot, under the overpass. I had to make change, or else I’d be forever lost and fail to live up to my family legacy.