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?
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.