Stuck in a Moment
©Carrie Miller 2013
“Things can go bad
and make you want to run away
but as we grow older
the horizon begins to fade away”
The Horizon has been Defeated, Jack Johnson
Nicole wrestled with herself through another sleepless night over what she knew she needed to do. Avoiding reality was her specialty, but the feeling inside her wouldn’t leave. She had to face to truth after years of deception. It was inevitable, now or later, she had to do this.
A permanent knot lingered in her stomach that could only be eased temporarily by a few drinks, which is what she normally reached for when she started thinking this way. The bottle made her forget. What was the point of trying to change? In the past, she had tried everything to fix her problem and all it led to was failure. At some point she had truly given up and let herself live in her own personal hell. One indulgence had turned into many, becoming a lifestyle, which seemed like a lifetime.
Could she really hope that something was different about this morning? Before the sun had even made an appearance, in a rare moment of clarity, she returned to reality long enough to see what she had become. She was repulsed. She couldn’t live like this anymore. Despite her fear of failing again she knew it had to be now. She could not wait another minute – not even until the light of day.
She knew where she had to go. She got up suddenly and ran into the cold black. There was no moon, and her eyes had to adjust even as she ran through the dark night. There were very few street lamps, although a few houses were glowing with Christmas lights, and even though she knew these streets better than anything, she stumbled, but kept running. The cold urged her faster. The only thing to warm her was the fact that her heart rate steadily increased as she ran.
In the real world, there might be a few crazy people who got up at this ungodly hour to run before they went off to work for the day. Maybe those training for a race or trying to lose some weight but she didn’t live in the real world with those people.
Nicole ran as if she were being chased. She was terrified she’d change her mind. Terrified that she would stop and turn around before she got there. She ran faster. Down through allies and side streets. Everything around her was dead. Nothing stirred at this unnatural hour.
The familiar excuses entered her mind. “Wait until morning.” “You can always do this tomorrow, or next week.” “It’s just too cold.” “You don’t really even need help, you can do this by yourself.” She ran faster, as if she could escape her own mind. She ran right through the middle of the street. There were no cars. And even if there had been someone out this early, not one person would argue with her if she turned around and changed her mind.
That was the worst part. She knew she had a small window of time to hold onto this decision. The clarity in her mind would wear off like a drug. A whole new state of being but she knew it couldn’t last. It never had before. She felt obsessed. She had to make it to those doors. If anyone saw her, they would probably have called the police. A woman running down the middle of the street at 4AM. Did she steal something? Was someone chasing her? No, she was just running – running like a madwoman, although she was sane for the first time in as long as she could remember. She was running from her own worst enemy – herself – and she knew only one place where she might have a chance of escaping.
The ancient brick building stood there waiting for her. It looked the same, but she saw it differently now. It had been so many things to her: a joke, a prison, a watchtower. Now it seemed a refuge, a lighthouse, calling to her – making her feel safe. So much time had been spent avoiding even the streets that surrounded it, but now, she stared, waiting for the double wooden doors to stretch open their arms.
On her tiptoes, she tried to peer into one of the high barred windows, but she wasn’t tall enough. She wondered if anyone was even there. She jumped to see if there was any flicker of light coming out. Darkness and nothing were all that she could see. As she landed from her jump with a sharp painful thud she realized with shock that she had left in such a hurry she had run only in her socks.
She sat down on the sidewalk to catch her breath and stared across the street at the closed downtown thrift shops with prom dresses and children’s toys in the windows, the laundry mat and Chinese Deli. And the store she was most familiar with. Uncle Eddie’s Liquors with its glowing bright red sign. All of these were dead places. Not a soul in sight.
Leaning against the cold brick wall under the window and next to the door, she laughed to herself. It was funny. She had been in such a hurry, and now the doors were locked. Of course they would be. She looked at her wet socks and laughed harder out loud. Funniest of all was the fact that all this time she had never actually been inside the brick building. She had been invited countless times, but she had never entered. And now she was ready but couldn’t get in.
It had been Lisa who invited her, and it was Lisa, she was anxious to see. She wondered if she was there yet. Did she live there or take the bus in?
As she rocked in place waiting, Nicole became increasingly aware of the pain in her bleeding feet and the biting cold. Her whole body convulsed in shivers and her teeth chattered. She hugged herself into a ball and rocked.
Finally, in the distance above the building frames, she could see the darkness turning to deep crimson, like rust or blood. Slowly though it continued to change. The bright stars faded and then the sky changed into beautiful hues of orange, purple, and pink. Finally the sky showed the colors of morning instead of the colors of transition. Again she laughed out-loud – not even thinking about how crazy she must seem. It had been the darkest, longest night. And now, this beautiful sunrise. How many had she seen and not appreciated? No matter how spectacular a sunrise or sunset had ever been, none could compare to the brilliance of the beginning to this new day. Darkness to beauty; maybe there was hope for her too. Just maybe.
As soon as she thought it, the doubts came whirling back. You really think you can change? You can’t change. You have tried a million times. You are not worth changing. Just buy yourself a drink and you won’t have to think about this anymore. Why try when you are just going to fail again?
She turned towards the two mighty wooden doors. They were beautiful and solid, as if carved directly out of a massive oak. They were engraved with names in graffiti-like etching. No organization or order. But at least 200 names were carved into that door like an old bridge. Next to each name there was a date.
She got up to look at it more closely. There were no last names. She traced her finger over the different sizes and styles of men’s and women’s names. She needed these doors to hurry up and open. Not because she was freezing, though she was colder than she could ever remember. It was that even though she knew she wanted this more than she had ever wanted anything, she was on the verge of turning around and leaving.
She had no idea what time it was. No watch. No phone. There wasn’t a line forming yet but she knew that soon there would be a hundred or so people waiting to come in for a hot meal. She couldn’t care less about the food, but she needed to get inside. How much longer would it be until those doors opened?
She traced the names on the door with her finger. Alice ’99, Robert 2005, Mike 2007, Stacy ’84. It was then she noticed the quote that was carved in a circle in the middle of it all. ““Everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.” Ha! She knew it meant something spiritual or philosophical, but for a moment she felt like a hobbit in a fairytale who had found a secret passageway.
Without thinking, she pounded on the door, and she heard the desperate words coming out of her mouth, “Please, is anyone here? Please, open the door!” she repeated, over and over.
By the time the door finally opened, she had fallen down to her knees and was weeping. “Please,” she repeatedly uttered in a hysterical whisper.
Lisa stood there at the entrance looking at her for only a brief moment and then dropped to her knees to embrace her. Nicole sobbed as she felt Lisa wrap her arms around her. “It’s okay, Nicole. You are going to be okay.” She didn’t know how long she cried, but as she caught her breath, Lisa gently took her hands and helped her to her feet.
Nicole followed Lisa inside. It was not what she had expected. She had imagined it like a high school cafeteria, maybe doubling as an auditorium, with a stage and massive felt curtains. She had even imagined the smell of an old library or drab museum.
But this was more like a coffee shop mixed with a youth hostel. It was a very large, open room surrounded by massive brick walls decorated with a variety of obviously local artwork – from black and white photography to canvas abstracts. The ceiling was high and supported by heavy wooden beams intertwined with white Christmas lights. A massive stone fireplace was in the corner surrounded by six unmatching couches forming a semi circle. Bookshelves lined the walls, and behind the couches were two pool tables, a ping pong table, and a foosball table. There wasn’t much space separating this area from what must have been the dining room.
If Nicole hadn’t known better, she would have thought she was walking through a restaurant in Berkeley or San Francisco. Thirty to forty tables filled the remainder of the room. Typical wooden kitchen tables, tiled patio sets, and even comfy looking booths. Even though nothing matched, it all seemed to fit. It was obvious the place was well cared for. It was clean and smelled of scented candles. There were personal touches all around the room like mason jars on each table with garden flowers.
Nicole followed Lisa towards the semi-circle of couches. “You can sit here,” she motioned Nicole towards the couch, “I’ll be right back.”
Nicole watched Lisa walk quickly across the room and through double doors into what looked to be a kitchen. Now that she was alone again, she heard her own voice in her head say, “RUN! Get the hell out while you still can!” But something else inside her whispered, “Here you will find peace and rest.”
Nicole collapsed back into the soft, deep couch. She had this new feeling inside her she could barely recognize. It was as if she had been stranded on a desert island for years waiting for rescue, but had given up at no specific time. Coming into the building was like hearing the sound of a helicopter in the distance – a foreign, confusing noise, the beginning of joy and relief. It was hope she was finally feeling, and it was replacing the dull ache of emptiness she had lived with for so long.
And even as she realized she was ready to let herself hope, she realized her tiredness. Maybe she knew she would finally rest, truly rest as she lay her head back into the pillows of the couch. She had hardly any strength left – for walking, for thinking, for anything. How had doing nothing for so long worn so heavily on her body and soul? She had lost every bit of energy – of life even. There was nothing left in her. She had become nothing. She had been alone and lost for longer than she could remember in a town she knew like the back of her hand.
She knew Lisa would be back in a minute or two. Probably with a blanket and coffee and maybe even food. But even though she was tired, hungry and cold, sitting there – in the place where she never thought she would be – all Nicole could think about was her life. How had it come to this?
In another lifetime, she painted her toenails and got excited about getting dressed up to go somewhere nice. She remembered looking at herself in the mirror and seeing her reflection. She spent hours getting ready; putting on make-up, trying on outfits and doing her hair. Back then she always wore heals to give her petite size an extra boost. She had always wished for long legs, but instead of being tall like her beautiful friends, she was described as “the cute one,” a phrase she loathed.
For years she tried to grow her dull brown hair down past her butt, thinking it would make her look exotic. She even dyed it black, but no matter how hard she tried, she always thought she looked plain. She blended in. Boys didn’t pay attention to her. She tried everything to stand out – to be noticed.
When she was younger she begged her parents for a perm and later turned her eyes from hazel to blue with contacts. The best she could do was adorn herself with clothing that gave her a certain style; that made a statement. She went through many phases before she eventually stopped caring; from trendy, to slutty, to punk but she never found a style that was “Nicole.”
When she finally stopped caring, it wasn’t just about her appearance. She developed a complete apathy for life. This Nicole was unrecognizable to the people she’d once been close to. Eventually she scarcely thought of herself as a person. She was the thing people walked by and tried to ignore, because of the guilt that came if they acknowledged her. They probably thought, I’m not giving her money; she’ll just spend it on booze, or drugs. I’d buy her some food, but I won’t give her money. But they never bought her food, or hardly ever. Sometimes she would wake up and somebody’s doggy-bag would be sitting by her head. Oh, the philanthropists of La Playa! Those do-gooders must have slept well that night, knowing they had given up half a meal that would have sat in the fridge until it crawled away, until someone pulled its moldy remains out with tongs.
But there was one lady who did treat her well – Lisa – she smiled and looked Nicole right in the eye seeming somehow to care. They were about the same age, mid-twenties, which was even more embarrassing to Nicole since they were in such different places, alternate universes almost. But still, Lisa would hand Nicole a sandwich and say nice things, in a nice way. She remembered Nicole. The second time she saw her in line for sandwiches, she asked her name. Everyone on the streets called her Nick or Nickie, but for some reason she told Lisa the name she went by as a kid. Ever since then Lisa, called her by name. Even when months had gone by since Lisa had last seen her, she always remembered. She would say, “Hi Nicole, how are you doing?” or “Hey there, Nicole, good to see you today.” Or “Nicole, it getting cold, I have a jacket for you.”
Nicole never responded with much. It was humiliating, and she didn’t really get why Lisa was always so nice to her. Why would she want to help her, when no one else did? Nicole did not want to be remembered or known, so she avoided the place most of the time. She hated having to come to Agape for food, but sometimes there weren’t any other options.
When she was out of options, she did wait in the outdoor Agape line for food, but she never went inside. If you wait in the line out front, they give you sandwiches and hot soup. If you go inside, they give you a big hot meal. Nicole always said, ‘there’s no way I’m going in that place.’ Not because was a church, she’d been in churches before. She even toured a bunch of huge cathedrals when she backpacked through Europe, even the Vatican.
It was something more than the church building that kept her from going in. Some people who went in for a hot meal seemed different when they came out. Not all of them, by any means, but some. And she believed it was important to stay true to yourself, not let things change you. She saw people get their lives together and stop living on the street. That was actually a good thing, but she felt like they must have changed who they really were to do that. How could they change so much? Maybe she had been scared to go in. She had this feeling she might lose something she held dear.
This morning was different though. As if a tiny spark in her that she normally smoldered out as soon as she noticed it, had incited a forest fire in her overnight. Instead of thinking she would lose part of herself, she realized how much she had already lost – almost a year of her life. She had awoken with this need that was deeper than hunger and she knew what she had to do. Now was the time, now or never. And now, she sat on the couch in this place that looked nothing like a church, watching Lisa come back in the room with towels and spare clothing.
Lisa approached with a friendly smile. “I am guessing you would feel better after a hot shower?” Nicole nodded. She thought Lisa was going to start asking her questions and maybe even give her a breathalyzer before she let her in, but instead she was offering a shower and Nicole could think of nothing better than that.
She followed Lisa through a hallway that was next to the fireplace. “We have shared showers here, kind of like a dorm. This is the ladies side of the building. There are just three of us girls living here right now. I had to get you some of my towels and clothes from the dryer which is over there next to the kitchen.” She motioned back in the direction she had returned from. “Sorry you had to wait. I put them in the dryer before bed last night.” Nicole shook her head, not quite understanding how waiting for someone in a warm building for five minutes could possibly be an inconvenience.
They continued to walk down the wide hallway and then down a staircase. The place was a maze. Lisa led her to a door and opened it for her. “All of my shampoo, body wash and conditioner is in that left cupboard under the sink. Help yourself. Here is a towel and a washcloth. You might need to let the water warm up for five minutes or so before you get it. Early in the morning it takes a while. Please take your time with the shower. When you are done you can go down there.” She motioned towards a bright green door at the end of the hallway. “I’ll be in there. Oh, and here are some clothes you can wear. They will probably be a little big on you, but hopefully they will be comfortable. I got you some warm, fuzzy socks. It looks like your feet are a lot smaller than mine, so we will have to get you some shoes later today. These socks should be fine around the mission though. Do you need anything else?”
Nicole looked at Lisa in awe. A shower, clean clothes, shampoo, soap, a towel – this was more than she had had in a long time. Her voice was barely audible as she squeaked, ‘Thank you.” Lisa saw the emotion in her eyes and swooped in for another hug. “You are very welcome, Nicole. It is truly my pleasure.”
Nicole walked into the bathroom and placed the clothes on a large off-white cabinet. This bathroom didn’t seem dorm style as Lisa had said. It looked like something from a bed and breakfast. With shear curtains on the window, antique fixtures and even a sweet smelling lavender plant near the sink. She took the herbal soaps out of the cabinet and placed them on the tile floor of the shower. As the shower was warming up, she locked the door and took off her clothes. Her jeans were tattered and black. Her once thick flannel was so thin it barely kept the wind out. She truly had no idea how long she had been wearing these clothes. A month? six months? A year? She shook her head in confusion, as she threw all the clothes in the trash. ‘How did it all come to this?’ She melted into the clean, warm water.
To see Chapter Two, click here