I went to the bank, frustrated by a ridiculously large deposit required when I tried to sign up for a cell phone plan. They told me that because I’ve never had a loan or a credit card solely attached to my name, I have no credit. Years of paying rent, paying bills, never buying anything I couldn’t afford, means nothing – it only counts against you, not for you. I went through three layers of identity theft protection, with the last woman finally apologizing to me. “We can’t sign you up for anything, because even though you’ve verified your name, birthday, address, and full social security number, we can’t find you.” I don’t exist, according to my bank. I’m invisible.
A few hours later, I spotted a boy across the street who I’d had a bad run in with a few years back. I very recently cut my hair into a pixie cut and have had friends not recognize me. Wearing sunglasses, I walked past the boy. He looked straight at me and straight through me. I was invisible.
I continued on my way to meet with my therapist. I started seeing her months ago as I wrestled with depression, lost in my own head, apathetic to the world around me. In the world, but not a part of it. Surviving, not thriving. People passing me by, accepting platitudes of “I’m fine.” In a highly visible position, but floating on by. Invisible.Invisibility.I could run away.I can hide.I can be lost.In a world so technologically connected, it would be easy to pull the plug. Vanish from social media. With people so wrapped up in their own lives, tell your physical friends you’re moving one place and disappear elsewhere. Invisible. Fresh, new, clean. The scary part, though, is trying to be seen again.Because that is far, far harder than being invisible.
I’ve spent essentially the entirety of my working years in the service industry, and the last two years have been in a coffee shop.
I adore coffee. I adore working in a coffee shop. The smells, the customers, my shiny machines, the constant education and only sort of joking snobbery. Techniques and questions and critiques and striving for better, more elaborate, more wonderful. Working in a shop like this is the discovering of a craftsmanship.
But you know what?
Sometimes I just want a cup of coffee.
Sometimes I want to rise in the wee hours of the morning and instead of bustling about to open up the shop, I want to savor the sunrise with steam tendrils rising from my mug of coffee. One of my favorite memories took place about three years ago with such a moment.
Mariah was working at a camp out in Colorado for the summer, and some of my friends decided we should go visit her. Four vehicles, 24 twentysomethings, and a 14 hour drive later, we found ourselves breathing in the fresh mountain air, sipping from the streams, and marveling at the expanse around us. We only stayed for a day and a half before whirling back around for another 14 hour drive, but those days were precious to me.
It was my last weekend with my Des Moines friends before moving to ‘enemy territory’, as my home town referred to the University of Iowa. My last hours with people I loved, and we were traveling together. We went swing dancing under the stars, big band music blasting from car speakers. We watched a meteor shower from the warmth of a hot tub. We climbed mountains.
But my favorite moment was early in the morning. I’d finally slept and rose before the sun. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat outside on the porch, watching the sky lighten and wrapped in a blanket against the cool air. Sipping that coffee, I was at peace. Uncertain of the future, but content in the moment with my friends spread out all over the house still dozing.
That is what I miss about life outside of the coffee shop: the ability to pause and drink a cup for pleasure and not critique every sip. I miss summer mornings, sitting with fellow early risers and quietly taking in the beauty of the world around us with a mug warming our hands. Basking in the fellowship and enjoying the aromatics rather than being distracted by them.
I don’t know how I’ve let myself get so distracted, so caught up in feeling antsy or the idea that something else is important to forget to savor the early mornings. The solitude, or partnership. I find my mind constantly racing, trying to solve puzzles for work or figure out the big What’s Next question, or do the math to see how soon I can pay off my debts. When I get bored, I get dangerous – when I get bored, I buy plane tickets.
I think I need to stay still. Not for boredom, but stillness. I think what I really need is just a cup of coffee and the great outdoors.
My first marriage proposal took place in the wee hours of the morning on the streets of Florence in April 2012.
I was wandering around Europe after my semester in Germany ended and found myself tagging along with some near-strangers to a new city in Italy. On that first day, I was able to get a hostel but was warned that it was booked the following night. “No matter,” I thought to myself and began to sing, “Just a small town girl… living in a LONELY wooooorld. She took the midnight train going aaaaaanywheeeeeere.”
Eleven o’clock rolls around, and my mobile phone hasn’t been allowing me to make calls all day. We wander back to the hostel, exhausted, and I go to check if there are any rooms available. No. Well, my friends have a private room. Can I pay to stay there? No. Are there any other hostels in this area? You don’t know. Okaaaay…
I picked up my bright red suitcase and made my way on foot to the nearest train station, only to discover that the tickets to purchase machines were locked inside the building. With no smartphone and little sense of direction, I began an hour and a half trudge in the dark hours of a Saturday night towards the main train station, getting turned around, staring at bus maps, and starting again. I stopped at several hotels along the way, but everything was full. Finally, the main station came into sight and my relief quickly turned to horror when I realized that not only was I locked out of the building, but out of the tracks.
The homeless population was lined up along the side of the building, so I double checked that all my money and forms of ID were separated and hidden, and laid down to try sleep outside. A construction worker woke me up after a few minutes because he needed to work at my wall space, so I shuffled further down. By this point, I had been awake for about 20 hours, so I quickly passed out again. This also didn’t last long, as a woman woke up and started yelling at me in Italian. Bewildered, I stared at her and she shuffled off. I lay back down to sleep, and was once again awakened by a small, middle-aged man, also yelling. He, however, realized that I didn’t speak Italian.
“Oh, oh, uh, sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he pleaded.
“Ja!” I responded, ecstatic. German, I could get. Sort of.
The man, clearly homeless, went on to tell me that some young men had been trying to steal my suitcase. “But I told them, ‘no’! You leave her alone! I’ll call the police!” Sleep-deprived, when he told me that we needed to get away from the train station, I thought it was a good idea to follow him. After about two blocks, I finally realized what I was doing and that I was about to get lost.
“I’m going to find a hotel,” I told him, still mumbling in German, and knowing full well that all the hotels were booked. He argued with me, and kept offering to carry my suitcase or backpack. I shook my head and went to the nearest hotel, praying he wouldn’t follow me.
“It will be expensive!” he argued, and looked altogether too pleased when I was turned away.
“Look,” I told him. “I’ll be fine. Please don’t follow me.”
“Are you and your boyfriend fighting?” he changed tactics. “Is that why you’re traveling alone?”
At this point, I was single, but as many women in our culture often do, I quickly invented a fella who was stationed abroad – naturally, this is why I was traveling alone.
My Italian guide looked crestfallen. “Oh,” he sighed, and continued, “You see, my wife and I are divorced, and I was hoping you would be my frau!”
With this tempting offer under my belt, I quickly excused myself and found a rank, shadowed corner on a one-way street and huddled up until the train station opened a few hours later, whisking myself off to Venice and leaving the memories of my night on the street behind me.
Over the next 18 months, I also was proposed to by a man from Ghana wanting a green card, an American soldier jokingly wanting to get married so the government would give him more money while he was deployed, and a Brit who wanted an American passport. Apparently I just have one of those faces that looks gullible enough to get married for fraud. But in case it wasn’t obvious – I never said yes.
Not all of them were good. Not all of them were bad. The point is that I felt something.
Fall semester was rough as I learned that depression takes many forms. For me, rather than actively being sad or lonely or upset, I was… nothing. I felt nothing. I cared about nothing, no one. If I made plans, I hoped people would cancel. I discovered delivery, spending more money on Papa John’s than I think I’ve spent on fast food in my life. I became glued to my couch, apathetic. I shut down the supper club I had once cultivated with joy. I withdrew from friends. I thesised without passion. Wake, work, school, Netflix, sleep, repeat.
I became nothing.
The lack of emotions, lack of style, lack of interest, lack of anything… That was who I fell into.
It took flying half way around the world for my soul to finally revive, and as I stared at the stunning blue lakes of New Zealand, I felt the last wisps of depression slip away in the breeze.
To feel emotions today, even as cruel as they can be, is a beautiful thing. I feel alive, even if I am unhappy. I feel growth, even as I look at my immaturity and know that in two years I will look back and cringe at this moment in my life. (Literally, I think that I will recall this day and roll my eyes – it’s been one of THOSE.) But I’m learning. I know that as slow and painful as this is, I AM learning. I AM growing. It’s frustrating now, trying to sort out adulthood and learn how to take on this new position in life. But you know what? I can feel it. I’m alive. And that is a beautiful thing.
“I’m not trying to hit on you or convert you,” the rabbi assured us as he amiably gathered up his things. “Are you from around here?”
Mel grinned, her curly blond hair flouncing as she turned her hair to look at the gentleman who had been sitting at the next table over. “I am.” He glanced at me, then. “I’m from out of town.”
“Nice to meet you,” he responded. “I’m the rabbi at the synagogue right around the corner and my wife and I just came for a coffee. I just wanted to say hello!”
Nodding his head in a final farewell, we watched him disappear out of Zanzibar.
For half a beat, we tried to return to our conversation that had been interrupted.
“Nope,” I said. “Gotta talk about that.”
“I love everything that just happened there,” Mel agreed. “Absolutely everything about that.”
That’s one of the best things about travel, I’d say: simply the people you meet along the way.
In seventy-six hours, I traveled an absurd 1274 miles visiting with friends that I have known ranging from six months to seven years. I once couch surfed through the formal website, but this was my favorite style. A futon one night, a wooden floor the next, a proper couch the next. The temperature soared from the 60s to nearly 100, and my mind was happily engaged in audiobooks about science and history.
Three days, four states. Friends who love languages, friends who love nature, friends who love aviation, friends who love Des Moines, friends who love wanderlust. People with souls that are larger than life.
We sat outside new restaurants and watched the sun go down. We watched meteor showers from untouched observation decks and plotted the (un)likelihood of a tornado that day. We drank coffee. I chuckled at my Polish friend’s disgust at Americans’ use of ice in their drinks. I successfully navigated Kansas City, but hit a snag in Des Moines less than a mile from where I’d spent a summer (it’s okay, I forgive your directions!). We laughed, we were serious, we learned from each other and of each other.
It was a whirlwind, and even though I am utterly exhausted (and will not try to do such a long trip by myself in such a short time frame again), it was worth it. It makes me feel so alive.
Stories are snapshots of time, capturing a moment and filtering it through the lens of the present. Adding a spin, connecting it to the conversation and the moment.
I rather like snapshots.
My friend Mo waited patiently for me while I used the ATM this evening. Two freshman boys walked up to wait for their turn, and one started lighting up a cigarette. Distracted by my own accounts, I paid them no mind until I heard Mo strike a deal.
“I’ll give you five bucks if you don’t smoke that one.”
The taller boy looked startled.
“Not even quit smoking, just don’t smoke that exact cigarette,” Mo clarified.
The tall boy grinned. “Hey, sure. I know smoking is bad for me,” he pushed the barely-lit end against the lamppost. “Look, I’ll even break it in half.”
“I’m a man of my word-” Mo started.
“Hey you don’t have to give me five bucks, really.”
“No, no, I keep my word.”
“No, a buck is fine,” the tall boy conceded.
“No, really, it’s fine! I have to pull it out of the machine anyway.”
The tall boy smiled in astonishment, and his friend looked on bemusedly. “Wish I could quit smoking,” the other muttered. Neither quite seemed to understand that this was really happening.
And Mo kept his promise, the tall boy introduced himself, and Mo happily handed over $5. Vince walked away, thanking Mo profusely with his friend still shaking his head in astonishment and murmuring about how he wished he could quit.
As we took our leave, Mo explained himself. “The tobacco industry has hurt so many people I care about. Any little f-you I can give to it is a great victory for me.”
A great victory indeed, for my friend and a few random strangers by an ATM. Something tells me I’m not the only one who will remember that interaction.