End of an Era

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I remember Eastern Mountain Sports, EMS, back when it was at Martketplace Mall. My dad and sister went to gear up for their upcoming Adirondacks trip and I, the youngster, stomped up and down the small incline used to test out shoes.

My first backpack was from there. I purchased it in fourth grade, a pale green pack that felt fancy because it had a lined sunglasses pouch and a removable side bag. It went from a school pack to a hiking pack, which lasted me until I was 23 and the fabric began to flake off in my hands.

EMS’s doors closed for good last week, and I was part of the crew that worked in its final waning hours. We threw the remaining clothing and shoes into huge laundry bins, used a lift to stack them onto one another, and then wheeled them up a small incline to the loading dock and onto the truck. It’s amazing how quickly you can destroy something. How in a couple hours everything will be gone and in place will be a vast emptiness where there used to be objects and meaning.

I only worked at EMS for a cumulative total of maybe six months—a winter season and a half. It’d be dishonest of me to turn this into a bloated metaphor, something poetic about endings and closure (haven’t I written enough of those?). But the store that was a beacon of otherworldliness to me as a child was a place I ended up working, and I got to see it in its twilight hours. And that means something.

What I’m trying to say is that sometimes you’ll become the person you always wanted to be. Sometimes you’ll pause and take a breath, look at your surroundings, and whisper to yourself, I’m here; I made it. And that place will be different for everybody. And sometimes it takes us longer to get there. But it’s out there for everyone, I know it is.

Working at EMS was a positive feedback loop for me, a balm for my insecurities. It was hard walking away from a job, ignoring my academic background, forgoing a teaching gig abroad and plunging head first into wilderness. But at EMS, all the things I did post-college, post-work, those were what counted. My evenings spent curled in the back of my car. The solo hikes. The time spent trouble-shooting malfunctioning camp stoves as kids looked on anxiously. My choices made sense to my coworkers. We were all cut from the same sap-stained bark. Whereas friends and family often questioned what I was doing, why I was leaving certain things behind, no one at EMS cared. I was the girl who worked seasonally at the gear store, spending the rest of the year teaching kids about trees. That was it. That was all.

It’s a gift, I suppose, to be viewed in a specific, slanted light. For your history to not matter. For your tangled past and jagged edges to be deemed inconsequential.

I wish I had a great final moment to leave you with, a moment of satisfaction as the doors were locked for the last time and we all cried tearfully, hugging and remembering the beloved customers we’d sold Microspikes to. But that didn’t happen.

If I had to choose one final moment to encapsulate my time at EMS it would be this:

It was the last night the store was open and we had just locked the doors. The two managers were in the back counting out all the money, leaving my coworker and I alone at the front. After we’d exhausted ourselves trying to squeeze her into a duffel bag and making a bracket of all our fellow coworkers we thought we could take in a fight, we gave up on distractions and turned to our phones. It was quiet. The store had closed forty minutes ago.

I noticed it first. My head snapped up and we locked eyes.

Do you hear that?

She paused.

Oh my god.

Outside in the plaza played the worst Christmas song of all time. A song I’ve only ever heard at EMS and pray to god I never hear again. We’d been making fun of it all day, waiting for it to come on. And it had. In the final moments of Rochester’s Eastern Mountains Sports chapter, perhaps the last song to ever blast through its speakers, the worst song in the world came on.

And, I don’t know, it was kind of perfect.

 

(If you want to read some other stuff about my time at EMS, here ya go.)

(And, if you’re a total sadist, here’ s a link to that miserable song. The music video is equally horrifying. DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.)

To Joanna

nighthawk

Nighthawk, Edward Hopper, 1942

The start of this story is really the ending.

Here’s how it begins and ends:

I was at the end of my road trip. Three months spent driving around the States, sleeping in the back of my car, hiking up mountains, dunking my head in wild rivers. This was the falling action of the story, the tide that brought you to the end. The climax had already happened. The hero cycle was complete and the protagonist was on her way home a new and different person.

That new and different person was me. There wasn’t one specific change. I was still the soft, firm, overthinking, excitable prism of starlight I’d always been. But I’d opened myself up to the world and world had rushed in and somehow everything was different. The wind, the rain, the scent of freshly peeled oranges. You know how it is. Don’t you?

Don’t you?

I was spending the day in Vegas, wandering down the Strip during the sunlit hours, weaving in and out of casinos and getting so lost I had to ask security guards for directions. I didn’t buy anything. I didn’t gamble. I splurged on Shake Shack and popped in my earbuds and daydreamed about Cirque du Soleil acrobats as I roamed the wild streets.

But enough of all this. You’re here for Joanna.

Joanna was a waitress at an Indian buffet located off the Strip. She had a curtain of dark, thick hair and subtle lines on her olive-toned face. She spoke with just enough of an accent that I struggled to understand certain words.

Where do you think I’m from? She asked me as I sat at a corner table eating aloo gobi and rereading a book. Guess. Just guess.

The Middle East…?

Greece, she said.

Here’s what happened next. Here’s what you need to know: Joanna revealed herself in fragments, flitting to my table like a pigeon to a park bench, leaving only when her stern-faced Indian boss gave her disapproving stares. She was Greek. She lived alone. She hated Vegas and was moving to New York City shortly, which she was looking forward to. Her parents were dead. She had no close family.

Let me help you out with the imagery, the plot:

Me: 25 years old, alone and proud
Her: middle aged, alone in a foreign land, spilling her life story to a buffet patron

Picture it like that Edward Hopper painting. You know the one. Nighthawk. Where customers sit inside a glass-paneled diner at some dawn-speckled hour, shadows stretching long on the ground and in the mind, the whole thing reeking of dust-crumb loneliness.

It was like that. But it was daytime in Vegas. And it was me and Joanna and her frown-faced boss. And it was a gush of words that was more than words and was maybe profound unhappiness, and I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to hold all of it in my hands, so I sat there and ate palak paneer and asked her questions and tried to fight off the darkness, tried to be someone for this stranger woman, this woman with no family in a city she hates, and god I wish there as a handbook for times like those, when everything you do feels inadequate and you realize you are in a situation much larger than yourself.

I drank chai. I drank water. Eventually it got busier. It was time to go.

We should talk more, Joanna told me as I asked for the check. She slipped me her number–discreetly, her grumpy-cat-faced boss was still watching–along with my credit card. I promised to text her.

And then I left.

What I struggle with are the people I’ve intentionally left behind. The doors I’ve closed because someone was dragging me down and I couldn’t help them. The list isn’t long. But there are a couple. A few. Enough that if the current of melancholy is particularly strong I will think of them–their names, their hands, the way their eyes pinched up in a fight–and I will wonder if there was more I could’ve done. If I could’ve saved them.

This is something I am learning about myself. That I care so deeply that sometimes I don’t know when to step away. That if some people texted me, after all this, I would still answer. After all this.

Joanna reminds me of those people. Barely. Just a little. The skein on a lake of sinking bodies.

And now this is actually the end. I left the Indian buffet and drove to my spot in the desert and woke up early and I drove away. I stopped in Moab before driving to Des Moines, where I spent a long, cold winter. I drove away. I left.

The last time I texted Joanna, she didn’t answer.