If you missed Chapter One, click here
Chapter 2 Stuck in a Moment ©Carrie Miller 2013
When you look into a mirror
Do you like what’s looking at you
Now that you’ve seen your true reflections
What on earth are you gonna do
True Reflections, Dave Matthews Band
Nicole’s mind zipped through the maze of her past as she tried to answer the question, “How did my life turn out like this?” Oddly enough, her first thoughts were of her trip to Europe the year after high school. At some point during her junior year when most high school students apply to Universities, she announced to her parents that she would postpone going to college for a year so she could see the world.
In her head, she had rehearsed wonderful arguments about the dumb college freshmen who don’t really know what they will major in and spend the whole first year of college partying. With a trip to Europe, she would gain life experience and discover more of who she was, while spending less money than a year’s tuition. Her parents surprised her by not debating. They actually loved the idea, at least her dad did. They agreed to pay for her plane ticket and match any money she saved for the trip. Her father had done a lot of traveling and he was thrilled to see this adventurous spirit coming forth in his youngest daughter.
The person who did seem to be disappointed about this decision was her cross country coach. Nicole was the most promising female athlete who had come through Riverside Ranch High School in many years. Coach Brown had put a lot of time and effort into training her and wanted to see her take advantage of possible running scholarships (not to mention leading her team into the state championship again.)
Nicole felt guilty for letting him down but while she loved to run, she felt like the competition took some of the fun out of it for her. Running was an escape. It was the only thing that ever truly cleared her head. She wanted to do it on her terms not someone else’s. The only reason she was even on the cross country team was to get out of regular P.E. The fact that she had won many competitions was just an added bonus.
Instead of becoming the huge cross country star her coach anticipated for her, Nicole’s last year of high school was spent dreaming of traveling the world. She quit the team and got a job as a barista working right through every senior year football game, school dance, and school spirit event. Every day after school, she would walk to the coffee shop and work from 3:30 until 8 every night. She worked 5:30 AM- 11:30AM every Saturday and Sunday morning. Every cent she made, she saved. Each tip and paycheck was put straight into her joint checking account. She checked her account statement online often and dreamed of the beach at the southern tip of Spain waiting for a boat to Morocco, or taking the train from Rome to a small beach town in the south of France. She put everything she had into the hope of her trip. For birthdays, Christmas, and graduation all she asked for was money and travel paraphernalia: a backpack, money belt, and Eurail pass.
She convinced her parents to cancel her cell phone plan and hand over the money they were spending instead. They didn’t know what to do with her. Her grades were fine, she wasn’t drinking, doing drugs or any of the other things kids usually get in trouble for. But they were concerned. A teenager who didn’t text or go over her minutes, and wasn’t out past curfew going to parties. She just worked. And when she wasn’t working, she sat in her room looking at travel books and maps, blasting obnoxious rock music. At least she did one thing that was normal for a teenager.
Even though her parents had agreed on the trip, her mother began comparing her to her older sister. Michelle, had been the senior class president and prom queen. Nicole didn’t even go to prom.
When the impending doom of an uncertain future entered her mind, she would focus on the trip, nothing beyond that mattered. When she was depressed because the boy she liked, asked her if she thought her best friend liked him, she told herself she didn’t care because she was getting out of this stupid town.
Europe was all she wanted and all she could think about. She replaced the posters of favorite bands with photos of gondolas in Italy, the coliseum in Rome, the lit up Eiffel tower in France, castles in Ireland, and a beautiful flowered countryside in Spain. As she studied her Frommer’s Travel Guide or gazed at her posters, she knew this trip would give her the completeness she yearned for.
Her parents had bought her a shiny new cherry red mustang convertible when she turned 16. She sold it a week before she graduated. She took her parents seriously at their word that they would match the amount she saved. She couldn’t wait to see their jaws drop when she showed them she had saved $15,000, not including the money she had made from selling her car. They were shocked and proud of her. They even agreed to double the amount from her car, which she wasn’t expecting.
Money wasn’t an issue. She had always gotten whatever she wanted, as far as material things were concerned. If she was spoiled, it wasn’t any different from all the kids she grew up with. They lived in fancy houses, had tons of toys, the best of everything, but rarely saw their parents. It was normal, but she hated it. She didn’t hate the stuff, she hated how her parents used it, her mother especially. If she missed yet another cross country competition, the next day Nicole would find front row tickets to a sold out concert on her dresser. Her mother thought a swipe of her gold card could fix all the broken promises. And back when Nicole was just a little girl and was into dance, she would be so excited about a recital and her mom would wait until that morning to tell her, “I’m sorry we can’t make it to your recital darling, but I did buy you a gorgeous new dress. I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
Why would you bother having kids if you were going to have them raised by a nanny, and only show them off to your friends when they were all dressed up and behaving properly?
Once her parents agreed to the trip she knew she didn’t really have to work for the money. They would have given her a credit card and paid for the whole thing if she had asked. But, the objective was to escape this kind of life, and she couldn’t do it on their credit. It was her trip. She would take their matched money, but not necessarily need it. If they tried to tell her she should or shouldn’t do something, she was ready to say, “Here’s your money back. I earned enough to cover my trip.” She was willing to take them up on an offer, but only because she worked her butt off to deserve it. And also partially to show them what she could do with their challenge.
She earned $15,000 of that money in a year and a half. That was a lot for someone her age. And even better, her job helped her stay out of the house and gave her an excuse to miss stupid high school traditions. She was so over those. All in all, her scheme was great. She patted herself on the back over and over about how she had done it the way she planned.
She had a plane ticket, a Europass, and $70,000 in spending money. She hoped to travel for an entire year. She didn’t need anywhere near $70,000. She would stay in youth hostels and live on $50 a day or less. At the most she would spend $20,000. But it was her money and she could do as she wanted with it.
And the trip was amazing; she saw places that most people only see in pictures. She smoked pot in Amsterdam, climbed the Eiffel tower in Paris, and celebrated Oktoberfest in Germany. She was a nomad with a map, a train pass and a backpack. Her days were filled with exploring ancient ruins, viewing priceless art, or sitting at an outdoor restaurant sipping cafe au lait while reading the most recent book she traded at a youth hostel.
At night she toured the pubs. It was easy to make friends. If she heard someone speaking English, she would introduce herself. By the end of the evening, she had new best friends. Sometimes they continued their journeys together, if they found they were both headed to the same city. Sometimes she would change her plans, if she heard about a new exciting destination.
As she arrived in each new city, she was eager to figure out where to go next, knowing the journey could take her anywhere. There were some main countries and cities on her itinerary, but she never had a timeline or schedule. She wanted to be spontaneous. She enjoyed the prospect of the next city almost more than she appreciated her actual location. As she arrived in Rome her thoughts were on what was next – the South of France – instead of the Vatican or the Spanish Steps. As she sat down with her gigantic beer in Munich’s famous Hofbrauhaus, she barely heard the polka band because she was so focused on her map, wondering if Prague could be as amazing as everyone said it was. She was excited by the unknown future she could plan – where the next stop on the map would be, who would be the next hot guy, what would be the next amazing story she would have to tell? The people she met were traveling for the same reason : seeking the perfect journey; the thrill of what was around the corner. They believed with everything in them that life was a journey; a series of unforgettable moments. They were always waiting for something bigger and better to happen.
Maybe that was how it all started. Her hope of something unbelievable and great slowly turned to apathy, as she was never able to satisfy, or even figure out, what it was she really wanted. The trip was supposed to be everything she ever wanted, but now it was just a memory. A year of her life just a moment in time.
And while most of the trip was jumbled together in her mind – like a movie you remember the name of but can’t really remember, she would always remember the end of her time abroad, even though she might not want to. She couldn’t help but relive the end of that year’s journey as she reminisced about her life.
After calling London her home for two weeks, it was time to move on. She may have stayed a little longer than she had in most cities, because she was so happy to be in a place where everyone spoke English. It was like a delicacy not having to take out her pocket translator to order lunch or ask for change at the subway station.
She had been in Europe for ten months. And not that she was being lazy, but she had heard great things about Scotland and was looking forward to keeping her pocket translator in the bottom of her backpack for a
few more weeks.
The second month of her journey was spent in Ireland, and for quite a while, for some reason, she thought the two countries would be similar. Over and over she met people who told her Scotland was one of their favorite places they had visited. From the beautiful mountains, hills, and lakes, to the castles to the extremely fun people.
She had heard of a place called the Isle of Skye that she was eager to visit. A quaint little village with cobblestone streets surrounded by water. It was said to have one of the most beautiful hikes in Europe. Even though it was April, she was hoping it had been cold and wet enough, to hike through the woods up to the snowy hills overlooking the whole town as she had heard a fellow traveler had done. With the snow, lakes, waterfalls, forest, rock formations and village below, there was no view more breath taking. She also hoped the snow was still there because the friend she had met said the best part was after such a long hike up, him and all his friends, slid back down the snowy mountain on their butts!
Before she would head to the Isle of Skye, her first stop in Scotland would be Edinburgh. The only way there was by bus. It wasn’t her first bus trip but it was the longest at 9 hours. Usually for a trip like that, she had a sleeper car on a train.
She settled into her seat and pulled out her worn copy of “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. The book waited patiently in her lap as she people watched as travelers boarded the bus. A lady and a baby – maybe traveling to visit relatives for the first time. She hoped that baby would keep quiet on the bus. A group of female Japanese college students, she also hoped wouldn’t chatter and giggle too loudly.
The next to board was an attractive, tall, surfer-looking guy probably about her age. She felt her heart race lightly as he made eye contact, smiled, and then sat down behind her. She picked up her book and stared at the page without reading for a few minutes, as she listened to him arranging his backpack under the seat and getting out what he wanted for the trip.
“G’day.” She looked up from her book. He was standing behind her seat looking down at her. She had to turn her head at a crazy angle to see him. He was cute and had a fabulous accent. With slightly messed up hair that was in-between nappy and curly, he looked like he had just gone surfing – although she doubted it since they were in London.
She returned the smile he was giving her and noticed his eyes were the blue green color of the ocean. She said a sheepish, “Hi. ” and their eyes stayed locked for a moment. It seemed neither of them had anything to say so she turned her gaze to the window. The green hills specked with ancient rock fences and sheep rolled by. Nicole’s mind wandered and she found it impossible to concentrate on her book. She had mindlessly read over the same dog eared page she had ended on during her last train ride from Amsterdam to London. Just as the words were finally sinking in the Aussie tapped her shoulder. Nicole turned around again feeling the heat rise to her face. He handed her a beaded bracelet he had bought from a street vender in Prague. “I knew I would find someone special to give this to. I’m James,” he winked at her. Normally, guys who wink are cheesy, but a surfer guy with an Australian accent can never be cheesy. After I few minutes of talking he moved himself and his bag into her section and sat down next to her.
It was an nine hour bus ride and they talked the whole way. They talked about everything. Nicole didn’t remember the last time she had a deep conversation with someone. After only a few hours he asked her, “Do you believe in God?”
Nicole had thought about that question a lot. She had thought deep and hard and had come to a conclusion yet had never said it out loud.
“No.”As the words escaped her lips she had a momentary fear that she might be struck by lightning or something, but of course, nothing happened. “What about you?”
“Me either. This world is just too ugly for there to be a god.” He paused for a moment looking a little sad. “My dad and my sister died when I was seven. He was a good man and she was only two. I loved them so much. We were so happy before the accident. My mom has never been the same. She blames god and she is so angry at the whole world. She is bitter and nothing is ever good enough for her. I mean, you would think, after losing two people you love, you would cling to the family you still had. But she alienated everyone. And she hates me. Probably because I remind her of him, or maybe she wishes I were in the car and not my sister. I don’t know. All I know is if there was a god, things would be different.”
Nicole tried to think of what to say. “You’re right. The world is ugly. People are horrible. Have you been to any of the concentration camps?”
“No.” He replied.
“A few months back I visited Dachu near Munich. It was horrible. To walk through there and think of the torture and death. To read story after story of families ripped apart. The worst part is there is still this awful burnt moldy smell. I couldn’t breathe walking through there even outside. And I just kept thinking; how can people even believe in God. I didn’t grow up with any religion or anything but I still always thought there must be some sort of meaning or purpose in life. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like there is no real purpose. We get however many years to wander around this planet. There isn’t gonna be anything after. Might as well enjoy life while we are here because today could be the last day we live.” They agreed that the belief most cling to is just a way of dealing with a reality that is impossible to live with.
“Death is like this awful joke if you think about it. We all know we are going to die eventually. We just don’t know when. And I can deal with that, but when I think about losing people I love, that is when I get freaked out. That’s when I can’t think about it. And I guess I understand why so many people cling to religion. It is like this little pill that helps them deal with an impossible reality. We are all gonna die and the people we love are gonna die, we just don’t know when.” He said.
The two continued to talk in the dark bus as everyone around them fell uncomfortably asleep. They drank wine he had smuggled on board, and bonded over the fact that they were brave enough to deal with the reality of life being meaningless.
“So do you think life has a meaning then?” She asked him.
“Honestly, I don’t think there is a meaning but I think each person can find their own meaning for the time we have here. For me, I love to surf. I want to travel the world looking for the perfect ride.”
“You probably should have just stayed in Australia! I have heard that is where the best surfing is.”
“It is, I am so lucky to have grown up by the beach. My mom and I fought constantly when I was growing up but I could be in the waves for hours and get away from all of that.”
“That’s so cool. I am from California but I have never been surfing. I love to watch it though. There is a little surfing town a little less than an hour away from where I live. I have been there so many times but I never even thought about trying to surf. And as far as meaning in life, I really like what you said. I have never thought of it that way before but it seems like everyone should just make their own.”
“So what would yours be?”
“I don’t know. This sounds like something I need to really think about.”
“It’s not like you are being graded or something.” He poked her in the side, teasingly. “It’s your thing. What matters to you the most?”
“That is the thing, I really don’t know. I mean I love to run, but not the way you love to surf. And I love music and I love to sing, but I don’t think it is the meaning of my life.” She paused for a moment deep in thought as he took a big swig from the wine bottle. A smile broadened on her face. “Adventure. Or maybe a better word is journey. You know, like this trip. I spent so much time planning it. I love the road ahead and not knowing what’s next. That is what keeps me going and gets me excited. I can see making the purpose of my life just enjoying the journey and making sure I always keep it an adventure.”
“That is awesome. Can I borrow yours?” They laughed together for a minute and then moved on to talking about what cities they had visited so far. She told him she would only be in Europe for another month or two.
“Money running low? he asked.
“No.” She told him the story about the money she’d saved. “I just have a few more countries I want to get to and then I’m headed home. It has been an awesome ten months but I am actually starting to miss my family,” she laughed, “never thought I’d say that!”
The bus was silent and their conversation came to a comfortable silence. He reached over and held her hand. She leaned her head against his shoulder and inhaled his musky smell.
So easy it is to fall in love when you have drank a bottle of wine and shared your life’s philosophy with someone who agrees with you, makes you feel smart, and has a beautiful accent. Besides, it was nice to feel like she had more in common with someone than just sharing a few beers. This guy liked talking to her and she loved talking to him.
They spent the last hour of the trip in silence holding hands and resting on each other. When they finally arrived in Edinburgh, he asked Nicole if she would like to stay with him at his friend’s apartment. A night away from the hostel sounded fantastic, and a night with him was even more tempting, but she liked this guy, so she declined. She wanted to see him again. Even after that long bus ride, she knew if she went back to his place, it would just be a one night stand. She felt smart and attractive as she watched him walk into the night after they had agreed on a place to meet the following evening.