I watched the sea gulls dance across the sky in a natural ballet, their only music the sound of the ocean’s waves flowing back and forth upon the shore. They were so graceful that it was a shame that I was their only audience. I glanced around the rocky sand bar- yes, I was alone. It was miraculous that I was alone. How could it be, that a child of sixteen could set up a tent in a cave near the sea, and no would come to look for her, or send out a search party? Every time I went to work at the espresso stand, there were pictures on the wall of missing children, some of which were my age. Someone was looking for them, people who missed them, and wanted them to return. I envied them as much as I hoped that they were okay.
I knew as far as homelessness went, to a certain extent, I had made a choice of it. After a large fight with Sam three months previous, I had run away from him just as I had run away from my father, taking all of my clothes and books with me. Since I had nowhere to go, I had spent almost all of my available funds for the month on camping gear, and set myself up there, in a sandy cave overlooking the beach.
But I could return to Sam at any moment, and I knew he would accept me; I could go back to my dad, if I didn’t mind the steep price of both of our happiness, because I knew he didn’t want me around the way I was as much as I didn’t want to be around him the way he was. I could even potentially impose upon my sister, but I was not prepared to burden her with my problems. I had recently acquired a small red car which I used to get to and from work, and to store most of my belongings. Sometimes I even slept in it if I felt like a change. I felt lucky, for the most part, because I had work, and a car, and even a cell-phone, which my father helped pay for no matter where I lived. The only part that made living alone so difficult was the fact that, despite my belief that I was doing the right thing, no one demanded my return, or fought for me. Sometimes when I woke at night shivering from the cold, in my delirious state of mind I would wish that my dad would find me and say, ‘Kim, all of this isn’t your fault. I’m going to change; you can change; we can change together. It’s you and me kid, for better or worse.’ But I knew it was never going to happen.
As I watched the seagulls, the mist in the air began to thicken, and it grew colder. I gathered my sleeping bag around myself with a shudder. I glanced around my little cave; it was very small, and every inch of it encompassed my tent which was set up to capture body heat, keep my blankets dry, and protect my store of food. My collection of blankets had grown over the last few months; I had even started bringing all of my coats out from my car when I set it up, so I could make a sort of mattress out of them over the hard-packed sand. I could have brought more things to the cave to make it more home-like, but I liked the thought that I could clear out quickly in case a police officer came by and asked me to leave. As it was, with just a few things, I could pass as a kid camping out for the night, and if I needed to I could always sleep in my car until suspicion faded. But stuff like that never happened, not really. I had been out there in the cave for months now with no incident. Sometimes, pedestrians would walk by and ask what I was doing, and I would reply that my sister and I were camping out, but that she was at the store buying marshmallows for our fire later that night. I took it for granted that they always believed me; I suppose I was a good liar, even then.
My stomach began to growl, and so I crawled back into the tent and unzipped my large blue backpack which I had bought to keep my food safe from bugs and animals. Inside were nuts, a few water bottles, protein bars, and a couple of apples. I grabbed the bag of mixed nuts and went back to my post to watch the sea gulls. Most of them had landed and were attacking the seaweed closest to the shore. Well, I guess it’s time for everyone to eat, I thought, stuffing a few almonds into my salivating mouth.
Warmth spread throughout my body as all my thoughts suspended themselves and a rush of endorphins and other chemicals filled my brain. I no longer lamented being alone; I didn’t lament anything, because time ceased to exist. I wasn’t aware of any disappointment, or the chill in the air- all I felt was the pleasure of the crunch, crunch of the nuts against my teeth, and the satisfaction of feeling them slide down my throat. My eyes kept watching the birds, my body was still on the beach, but my mind was soaring in a place that only exists for those who have experienced ‘the high’. For, like a drug-addict, I was indeed high; and my world at that moment was slightly salty, nutty, with just the right amount of sweetness.
And then my hand hit the bottom of the bag. I swallowed my last mouthful of nuts. With a resounding crash, I came down to earth. Shit.
I sat in silence after that, watching the birds at their meal, but not really seeing them. I still felt hungry; at least, I thought maybe I was hungry, but also perhaps I wasn’t. I wasn’t good at reading my own hunger cues anymore. I can eat an apple from my bag. No, those were for my breakfasts before work. I can have a bar. No, those were for my lunch. You can go to the grocery store and use the rest of your tip money to buy binge food, suggested the oily voice in my mind. I shook my head: No! But… maybe, I can go to the grocery store and buy some more nuts. It seemed like such an enlightened idea that I immediately stood up, wiped some sand off my jeans, shouldered my backpack and headed up the beach towards the parking lot where my car was stored. I usually moved it every other day, but lately I had been lazy, and luckily it had never been booted or ticketed. When I got there, I shoved my belongings in the trunk, put my key in the ignition and took off towards town.
The road to town was covered in trees, so I made sure to drive at a safe pace to avoid elk, because an accident was the last thing I needed. Even as I took such precautions, I felt like I was functioning on automatic- I was driving into town to buy food with money I didn’t really have. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. Every time my brain tried to warn me it wasn’t a good idea to go to the grocery store, I had to shake my head in rage and keep driving. What was my alternative? Sitting there on the beach, hungry and cold, bored, hopeless. All of this flashed through my skull in a moment, and I suddenly felt a great, groaning need to feel alive, even if it was just for a while.
When I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, I sat in my car, taking deep breaths. I can still turn around and go back to the beach. I can take a nap. Goodness knew I was tired enough. I didn’t have to work at the pizza place until five o’clock that night, which was more than four hours away. I had already showered at the gym the day before, and I didn’t smell that bad. I had nothing on my to-do list. Why not rest a little?
Against my will, my entire body began to shake. My eyes saw it before I felt it- my hands shivering like leaves in a light breeze on the steering wheel. In frustration, I clenched them tightly. Stop it, stop it, stop it, I willed them. You’re tougher than that. After a moment, I slowly opened them, but they still shook. My eyes started to tear up. Why am I not stronger than this? Where do other people get their strength from? I remained seated, refusing to get out of the car, but not courageous enough to drive away.
I watched families come and go from the grocery store, some smiling and laughing, carts full of food to be eaten together around the dinner table. I especially took notice of the mothers and children, because to me, they appeared so alien and happy. One mother looked like she was scolding her very young daughter, but then she laughed as if it had all been a joke, and hugged her close to her chest. My heart ached at the sight.
Sitting there, I began to feel an urge to use the restroom. Well, I thought, since I’m here, I should use the store’s, instead of going in the sand. Plus, going inside doesn’t mean that I have to buy anything. I leaned over to the backseat, grabbed a well-used hair brush, and ran it through my long brown hair a few times, and then exited the car.
“Hi!” said the little girl who had been scolded by her mother, waving at me from her perch in the cart where she was kicking her tiny, sausage-like legs and waiting for her mom to finish loading their groceries.
I started, uncertain if I should reply or not. I didn’t know anything about kids. “Oh, hello,” I said timidly, while continuing towards the store.
The little girl giggled, and kept waving at me as I walked away. I glanced back a few times, and watched as her mother lifted her out of the seat and into the back of their luxury SUV. Had I ever been that little, and that open to smiling at strangers? It was depressing how the passing of time and the trials of life could change people.
Inside, I was assaulted by the tempting smells of the bakery. My head reeled with the aroma of sweets, but I made a bee-line for the restroom, refusing to look around. After I was done, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, meaning it to be only perfunctory, but remained standing there staring at myself for a very long time. I looked like shit. My hair, though I had washed it the day before, was already showing signs of greasiness. My skin was utterly bloodless, and my eyes were red-rimmed and one had a broken vessel. My cheeks were puffy from misused salivary glands, and I was covered absolutely everywhere with sand; it was even caked into my nostrils. I peeled off the layers of my clothing one by one and shook them vigorously, creating a beachy mess on the restroom floor. I washed my face in the sink with hand soap, and pinched my cheeks, trying to get some color into them with no success. After I was done, I analyzed myself, hoping to see some improvement, but in my eyes I was still a monster. I leaned my forehead against the mirror.
“You are so ugly,” I said to myself quietly, gazing into my own eyes. They stared back at me, dull and unresponsive.
By the time I left the restroom, my brain had shut itself off, as it usually did when I suffered an emotional overload. I went straight to the discount section of bakery aisle, knowing that I only had six dollars in my pocket. I gazed over the marked-down treats. A normally five dollar apple pie was on its last sell-by date, and it could now be bought for two dollars. I grabbed it and slid it under my arm. I also spotted a dozen questionable looking donuts, far from being fresh: three dollars and twenty cents. I grabbed it as well, and then headed to the register.
“Good afternoon,” said the cheerful, elderly female cashier, “Did you find everything alright today?”
I couldn’t look her in the eye. “Yes.”
“Oh, good. Isn’t it cold out there today? Brrr! That mist is awful!”
I watched her scan the items impatiently. “Mm-hm.”
She glanced at the total. “Okay, dear, that’s five-twenty.”
I dug into my coat pocket and handed her a five dollar bill, horribly crumpled, and a quarter.
“Thanks so... oh!” she ejaculated, bewildered. She had un-crumpled the five dollar bill, and from its folds had spilled a seemingly impossible amount of sand which dispersed itself all over her scanner. The customer behind me in line stared at the mess blankly.
Without pausing, I grabbed my bag of pastries, and blurted, “No change, thanks.” I ran for the door as quickly as I could, my pale face afire with embarrassment and shame.