Island Life, Travel by Air & Brain Melt

Kaitlyn Cumming

Island Life

I once travelled to an island, telling no one my plans. In the era of 5G, a mass of land surrounded by a wild ocean can still provide a whisper of escape, if only through the weight of myth.

Self-imposed exile was my aim. Jutting and grating against my circle of familiarity had become a herculean ordeal in my raw and fragile state. The competing noise of outer expectation and inner calamity jumbled my thoughts. There was danger that this friction would cause a scary kind of damage, one that would require amends. I wanted to wreak havoc. Instead, I put myself into a time out.

There is something enchanting in taking a trip on your own, freed by the opportunities of anonymity. It is one of the only ways to let suppressed identities breathe without the threat of reactivity from your well-meaning peers, who are always asking you without knowing they are to stay the same.

Solitude becomes separated from the self-conscious pang of loneliness. On this island, where the fall leaves were just beginning to turn and the world was slick and alive with juicy rain, there was room to enjoy being alone, to take on what most pleased me. The island had many nourishing things to offer.

On my first day, I walked through trees couched in thick, rolling mist, and felt enveloped by the silent, ancient forest, a little afraid of lurking animals. I stood in the rain, watching the sea lions loll around, damp but in no rush to be on my way. Day two gifted me sleep for as long as my body would allow, writing notes on the beach, and lessons from the rhythmic crashing waves in the ways of peaceful coexistence. I took my time and chatted with an enthusiastic and congenial café owner, drove on quiet roads just to see what could be seen along the shore, and indulged in a whole pizza and crisp draft beer. On the last day, I imagined myself a weary but curious explorer, charting the coast hundreds of years ago, exchanging a moment of humanity with the original inhabitants of this land.

The whole ordeal was pleasant. But more than that, it gave me room to suppose that I might one day lead a life where each part of me fits into this jumbled jigsaw without being squeezed or suffocated. It showed me it was possible to break free from the moulds handed to me, created only from the material of social construct whittled into rough and jagged shape through the years. It was a lesson in being the same but different.

Not much changed in my life once I left that island: some things got better, others got worse. But it did give me an inch, enough to stave off collapse.

Travel by Air

Travelling by air is the only way I can be myself. Weighed down by luggage that hangs heavy off my shoulder and makes my arm go numb, but nothing else. Even in my hometown, the airport terminal is another dimension, one where the puppet strings that push and pull my existence are severed. The looping security line is the only thing that stands between me and freedom.

Flying solo gives me full range of motion. Want to have a beer, or three, at 6:00am? No problem. I mean, it’ll cost you at $9 apiece, but no one thinks you’re an alcoholic or anything, just ready to let loose and enjoy a well-earned vacation after getting that bread. Doesn’t matter if you’re really on a business trip — they don’t know, and they don’t steal a second glance and wonder: does she have issues?

Maybe this trip I’ll buy the latest edition of The Economist and be a worldly intellectual. Or Cosmopolitan so I can masquerade as a basic bitch. On a longer haul, I’d get a paperback with a garish cover and play the undiscerning consumer — something that would thrill and chill me, but all by the estimated time of arrival.

It’s not like air travel is glamorous: Nothing but herds of grimy and whiny livestock being shuffled through the atmosphere. Sharing air with a bunch of mouth breathers in a claustrophobic pressurized cabin. The burping man on your left grazing your leg because the seats get narrower with each new batch of Boeings. Personal space trumped by some amoral profitability calculation.

On and on they complain. Now a charge for even your first checked bag? No complementary in-flight meal? Cancellations, overbookings, lost luggage, and no recourse. Ornery passengers gripe to bleary-eyed flight attendants with righteous indignation. There’s no point — customer service doesn’t exist in this parallel universe, same as out there.

But I don’t care about any of this, not like they do. I can stave off these trivial affronts in so many ways: Plug in my headphones and finish a book that’s collected dust on the shelf for months. Flick on the in-flight entertainment system and learn all the names of the Real Housewives, of where, Atlanta? Go to the washroom during the layover and spruce up by washing my face, sprawling travel-sized things across the counter like I own the place. Then, a quick whore bath in the cramped stall with my bag — I can’t leave it unattended — before throwing on a new pair of underwear: Behaviour that would make me a derelict in any other public washroom. Here, I’m a world-fucking-traveller.

By my gate, I can lay on the ground, my carry-on a pillow and my sweater a blanket. I’ll be asleep in minutes, even as crowds hustle by and final boarding call sounds on the PA. Back at home, a breeze rustles the leaves of a tree miles away and it keeps me up. At least, I blame the leaves.

I wake up, like magic, with just enough time for another beer and snack before Zone 3 boards. During a long day in transit, I can gorge on four meals, five drinks, and a whole bag of candy and not feel tubby. Well, I do, kind of, but it doesn’t matter. Somehow, the bloat doesn’t pair with shame that eats away at me as bile rises in my throat. My time here isn’t real. Not part of my life, where keeping up appearances is key to my suffocating cause.

My easy existence in this place is a mystery. Could it be a spell cast by the departures board? All reaches of the globe, one tidy list: Seoul, Houston, Vancouver, Sao Paulo, London. Endless possibilities within my field of vision. I’m ten, maximum twenty steps away from the airline counter where it’d be a simple matter to change my final destination to Bali for a fresh start — to the land of sapphire blue water and peaceful slumbers on the beach, Mai Tais, and inner peace.

Instead, I get on the 747. All zones are now boarding. Window seat: jackpot. I can nap leaning on the cabin wall, mouth agape and releasing a dribble of drool. I'm a card-carrying member of the mouth breather class. Drifting in and out of consciousness, a crick in my neck, this flight is taking forever. Who cares. Let’s stay at 35,000 feet forever.

We don’t. Our descent begins. The glowing seatbelt sign won’t let me move; it wants me to stay on this plane, too. Wheels down, flight mode off in unison — a chorus of dings and buzzes. Their rides are waiting for them, expectant and eager. The herd shuffles down the aisle, and they carry me along in their slow-motion stampede. A hint of the chilly world as I pass from the plane’s threshold to the Jetway. A rift in my alternate dimension.

Baggage carousel 2 spins around with nothing to do. One wheelie bag drops from the heavens and now it has purpose and meaning. More add to the load until the carousel is overworked and forgets what it ever saw in this job. Not my bag; it’s trying to delay the inevitable.

The inevitable comes. I drag my wheelie, arm numb from my carry-on, and I’m at the giant revolving door to reality. It sucks me in like a tornado and spits me out the other side. Chilly. I can see my breath. Loving reunions all around. They don’t seem so cold.

Out in the world, I’m all these secrets all at once: addicted and alone hang off me like luggage tags for damaged cargo. The only thread between my realities is that I’m still a mouth breather.

No ride waits for me. A cab takes me home, I puke my brains out, and down a whiskey. The leaves keep me up all night. In two weeks I can be somebody else again, even if it’s just for a short-haul. What would I do without it?

Brain Melt

It all started when I took the world in my little hands and I thought oh, now, that doesn’t seem quite right? But that’s not quite right, either. It began earlier than that. The thought itself was born from a twinge of doubt located somewhere between the gut and the heart that slowly floated up.

Once the thought met my brain, the journey that followed resembled a babbling brook joining with a meandering river. The humble river swallowed the brook and travelled, at times daring to erode its well-defined channels, and picked up momentum until it came up against some rocks. It fought against them to become confused and rushing rapids. This process shook up the water a great deal, and it began foaming at the edges.

Then everything fell away. The water went straight down over the edge as a giant dark wall, suspended itself in freefall, then crashed down below at a million miles an hour. The process was violent and sudden but very energetic. Once the water had composed itself, it became clear that the once babbling brook would never re-emerge. It was at this point that my brain melted.

Once I took the world in my hands once again, I saw that it had melted too. It was still the same world, I was pretty sure. It had a world-ish look to it, except that it was malleable and semi-translucent.

My melted brain was the same way. Still, through the gooeyness I could just make out a new thought: you can shape it now, like you can shape me! But I never forgot the hardness that came before and how it had made me twinge.

I knew I had to handle the world with care, so to prepare I got to work tuning up my gooey brain. Its first task was to look back on the waterfall that had created it for what it was: a glorious, passionate force of nature.

Kaitlyn Cumming is a 29 year old graduate student from British Columbia, Canada who researches access to justice reform and its relationship to structural inequality. She writes creatively about meaning, identity and affective experiences to help her navigate through an uncertain world. Her dog, nature, family and friends also show her the way.

 © 2020 þ (Thorn) Literary Magazine                                                                        

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