The Trail

On the fifth consecutive day of our afternoon walks, we pass a man on the trail behind the house. I don’t put the dog on a leash back here, so he has free range to go up to the man bending down to pet him, and he gladly accepts the affection.  

“He’s an old one, isn’t he?” The man says as the dog pants in his face. I’m not sure what gave it away—his labored breathing or the grey hair that’s infiltrated his once pure black fur. 

All I can do is agree. “Yeah, he’s turning fourteen soon.” 

The man doesn’t hear what I say. The dog is breathing too loud and I’m too far away. I repeat it, louder this time, and he’s nodding, holding the dog’s face in his hands. He’s saying something to the dog I can’t quite hear. A rendition of good boy, good boy, I imagine.

The dog’s tongue is hanging out, his saliva going everywhere. I’m embarrassed for a moment. It’s probably getting on his shoes. But he doesn’t say anything, he just stands up, begins walking again, and it’s over.

We stand watching as he gets farther away, listening to sticks crunch and break beneath his boots. We’re alone again. 

The dog is like a puppy again on the trail. I watch as his mind races, the smells and sounds overloading his brain. I let him sniff for as long as he likes, explore each inch of the ground, and pee on every tree. I call his name, but he isn’t listening—he’s caught up in a new smell and the need to mark his territory.

He is happy here; among the trees and squirrels he wishes could be his friends. I could walk for miles with him. I think he would like that, if we never stopped, kept our feet moving, and ended up in another state. He would be happy no matter where we were, or what we did. If he was next to me, he’d be content. 

But he starts coughing, and I know it’s time to stop. 

Once we’re home, he waddles down the hallway, course set for his water bowl. I hurry to it before he does, filling it up in the sink before he can get there. He’s thirstier nowadays.

I catch him drinking out of the toilet at least once a day, even when we’re constantly replenishing his water. When I catch him in the toilet, he panics and starts coughing, so I’ve started pretending not to notice.

I haven’t figured out which of his organs is failing now that’s causing the incessant need for water. It says online it could be his kidneys or liver. The articles I read always use the word “might.” It might be this, it might be that. 

I hear a trickle, and a spot on the kitchen rug turns dark. The dog hurries to his bed, keeping his head low and ears down. He can’t hold his bladder. He’s expecting anger from me, but I don’t say anything.

I grab the bottle of cleaner and paper towels from under the sink and scrub the spot away. He lays down, stares up at me with his big eyes: I’m sorry.

I cry into the dog’s chest that night. I sit on the windowsill next to him on the bed with the air drifting in. It’s cold out but I’m hot from the tears.

I put my blanket on him, tuck him in like a baby, and watch his swollen belly move as he breathes in and out. My mom described his breathing as wet—the fluid in his lungs, she said. That’s why it’s swollen. He watches with concern and waits for me to get over my tantrum. Once I’m done, he sighs and rests his head on his paws.

I wake up to the memory of a dream: I’m standing in a pile of rubble after our house has burned down. I dig through it, desperate to find something that may have survived, but there’s nothing.

I pace around the perimeter, alone. But it isn’t real—the ceiling is still above me, the room hasn’t gone up in flames. I look down at the dog snoring beside my feet, blissfully unaware of my nightmare. 

I rub my hand on his back, trying to memorize the patterns in his fur. White base coat, large black splotches swooping in and out. It resembles a splatter paint project, one I could’ve made as a kid. I touch his head, running my hands over his floppy ears, and that wakes him. 

He looks back at me with an annoyed expression on his face, and I greet him with a smile. His eyes look sad, dark with an expression I can no longer read. He turns his head, rests it on my leg, and sighs. 

The dog’s cough is bad the next day, and it takes him longer than usual to get out of bed. I’m not sure if I should bring him on our walk, but when he sees me reach for my sneakers, he becomes a puppy again–energized, and ready to go. 

I can’t say no to him anymore. 

As we walk, he stops to glance back and check that I’m still there. I find it adorable. As if he would freak out if he lost sight of me, just like when I lose sight of him. He sniffs around in a pile of leaves, getting one stuck to his nose. It makes me laugh and he glances back at the noise I make. I swear I see him smile.

It reminds me of the first time we met—glass barrier in between us, both young and naïve and small. The only puppy with black and white fur, already an outcast in his small clan.

I played with him, put my face into his and stared into his eyes, desperate for any sort of connection. He licked my nose over and over, confident in his plea like he rehearsed it a million times. He was on sale, already older than he should be. My clearance puppy. 

We only make it about a fourth of the normal distance before he starts coughing. His breathing gets faster, and his tongue is flailing. He starts falling behind, moving slower than ever. He looks up at me with his usual look—Let’s keep going. But I pick him up, hold him close, and carry him back home. 

I let him lay on the couch with me after. I’m not supposed to let him on the furniture, but I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about the extra heat as his body intertwines with my legs. I don’t care how loud he snores when he sleeps. I feel his heartbeat, and it’s the only thing that matters to me.

I sometimes catch him staring into space when he first wakes up. He doesn’t realize I see it, but he looks lost. It’s like he doesn’t believe it’s real, him still having me here, watching him as he dreams. 

We only have 3 more days. I’m leaving in 3 days. 

I’m crying again, listening to the dog wheeze, realizing how bad his cough sounds.

He was meant to be a friend. A companion to keep me busy while my parents worked, and my siblings moved away. There were years I cherished him, and years I forgot about him. There were moments I resented him, and moments I loved him more than I loved myself. 

My sadness and frustrations become clear to me. The time I’ve lost and forgotten, moments fleeting before I can even grasp it. Hopelessness, and the reality of things I can’t control. A world I don’t recognize. A dog preparing to die. 

His breathing finally calms, and mine starts to as well. I place my hand on his head and he reaches up, rubbing his face into my palm. We stare at each other, brown and green eyes opposing one another. He sees me as I see him—lives parallel to one another. One that will go on without the other.

We will say goodbye in 3 days. A goodbye forever, just in case. I’ll get a call, eventually, maybe in a month or two. And when I do, I’ll walk to the prettiest place I can find. Someplace where you can watch the sunset.

I’ll think about the trail and the old snoring dog. The black and white puppy in the kennel with a silly-looking grin, and the little girl who picked him. I’ll laugh, just a little, remembering how I gave him a middle name. Bacon. Cooper Bacon EllisonWhat a name. 

The Lake.

I spend every summer on a lake.

My family’s place is located two hours north of the city. Deep in the mountains of the Catskills, an area of New York I don’t attempt to pinpoint anymore.

We come up every year in a time frame of July or early August, when the weather is warm, and the blueberries are ripe.

The first time I came here I was 6 months old. I imagine my parents carrying me around the house and bringing me down to the water. A baptism of sorts.

But my earliest memory was when I was 5 years old. I had woken up early one morning, expecting to sit on the couch and watch television. Instead I stumbled upon a bowl of blueberries being ransacked by hundreds of rats.

I ran down the hallway as fast as my little legs could manage, abruptly waking everyone with my warning call— “Rats in the blueberries! Rats in the blueberries!”

It wasn’t until many years later I was told it was not actually rats that had gotten into the blueberries, but mice. There was only three of them.

This is still one of my parent’s favorite stories to tell. My mom will do an imitation of my screaming as my dad leans back in his chair, laughing for as long as humanly possible.

The house we occupy is nothing grand or fancy, but it’s steps away from the water, with enough grass for rose bushes and games of Wiffle ball.

Inside reflects the years of my father and his siblings growing up here—the worn-out furniture and decorations; diplomas and trophies with my grandfather’s name.

It’s here I think about laying in the yard with my sister, the vintage diners we sometimes go to, trees filled with birds and spiders, metal row boats and dark green hammocks. Pretending to be a pirate as I jumped off my favorite boat.

My imagination ran wild with stories to pass the time. Animals like toads and fish becoming my acquaintances for the time being.

My dad would help me catch chipmunks with peanut butter and tell me stories of how he spent his time at my age.

Once we caught one, I would sit and talk with it until it was time for dinner. He would make me release it at the end of the day of course, reminding me that it was not ours to keep.

It was always sad saying goodbye to a new friend.

I feel too grown up for my own good. And I think I’ve been desperately trying to speed up the process for years now. This lake is somehow the only place that can make me feel like a little kid again.

I wonder if that’s how my dad feels when he is here as well. He keeps a lifetime of stories from this place in his head just as I do.

And although his stories can be long, there will come a day when I’ll wish I could hear just one more.

I tend to forget that.

(In between writing and editing this my sister got engaged on the dock that overlooks the lake. The same place where our parents did.

Just another reminder of how much older I’ve become.

Someday, maybe, her future children will spend summers here just as we did. They will grow up with their own frogs to speak to, boats to jump off of, and blueberries to pick.

How odd.)

April 2020.

I saw a news article the other day with the title “After the Coronavirus passes, your world will not go back to normal.”

This seemingly straightforward sentence rings in the back of my head every night. Right around 10 p.m., when my dad switches on the news one last time before bed, and I hear the latest jumbled conversations on masks, ventilators, vaccines, and quarantine. Words I will never be able to look at the same way again. 

Your world will not go back to normal.

Six weeks ago, life was simple. So simple in fact, I hate myself for taking a single hour of a normal day for granted. I hate myself for dreading the long walk to class, for saying no to hanging out with friends, choosing to stay in for that night. I hate myself for having ever wished life could just stop for a moment.  

The way I used to live my life was a blessing. Five weeks ago, when someone asked whether or not I thought our school would shut down, I thought they were joking. 

It makes me wish I was still that unaware.  

Because as my mom leaves to drive into Boston to work as a nurse for a 10-hour night shift, I am so very aware. 

She has spent the last 3 hours before she leaves trying to rest. But she can’t. She runs around the house with a laundry basket, moving from room to room like a ghost. That’s how I know she’s anxious. 

I ask her if she’s okay and I only get a quick response, “Yeah.”

That’s how I know she’s scared. 

I know she’s afraid of what might happen. If she’s at the wrong place at the wrong time, if her hospital becomes overwhelmed (when it does) what will happen when equipment becomes scarce and her job becomes harder and riskier to do.

I know she’s afraid of bringing it home with her. Afraid of what will happen if she passes a currently incurable and virtually unknown virus onto my dad or me.

I’m scared too. Scared of what my future will be because of this. Because they’re right—the world will never truly be the same.

We will always remember this time and place, and the way our living room walls seemed to blend with the horrible things they talked about on the TV. 

We will remember the way the world used to be alive. Lighthearted at times, serious at others. Now, everything is scary and unknown and incomprehensible. 

I’ll remember painting, reading, even cleaning—anything to keep me from checking my phone to read the latest drop of news.  

I will remember the anxiety and frustration in my brother’s voice as he said to our parents over the phone, “This isn’t going to just go away.”

He was right. This was never something that was going to go away after a few weeks.  

I can’t help but mourn the way life used to be. I’m nostalgic about when I could lay in bed with friends and laugh about our day without being afraid. 

I wish I could turn back time, relieve certain moments from the photos I have acquired over the years. The ones that contain memories almost too good to be true.

I wish pandemics only existed in textbooks as echoes of history, and the idea of shutting the world down was still laughable.

Because nowadays, I rely on taking pleasure in the things only I can control. Like the way my room is arranged or the movies I choose to watch, even my morning routine and the way I brush my teeth. Normal and easy to remember.

I watch the news and the screen on my phone and mourn the time I have lost. The time that now consists of days that feel like minutes, and weeks that pass like hands turning on a clock. 

I watch as our President gives us a false sense of security, government officials make sure not to provoke irrationality and doctors who, in a time of the unknown, scold us for not taking it more seriously sooner. 

I am starting to feel as though we are trapped in a world that we are no longer welcomed into.

All I can hope for now is a future version of myself. One that has found her sense of ease and reclaimed her go-with-the-flow attitude she once prided herself with. I hope that she has reunited with friends and acquaintances and remembers the months she spent wishing for nothing more than this moment right here. 

Moments are the only thing I really want.

I want to squeeze into a bed together like we used to, retelling stories we have already told before. Sharing each memory while triggering the next one. 

I want to dance in a crowded room of strangers and hug my best friends without fear, only letting go when I can fully appreciate what I had temporarily lost. 

I want to travel the world, meet people and learn their stories. I want to write about them all. The ones who kept themselves company with only a book, a cup of tea, and hope that the world would get well soon. 

I want to sit on a park bench in the sunlight and watch as people laugh, and children chase each other through the grass and thank whoever let us bear witness to what came after. 

I just want to live. Even if its in a world still reeling from the worst, a world trying to place the pieces back together again.

College, and Other Revelations.

Fun fact: I used not to know how to spell college (look at me now mom!)

Right now, I’m a fully grown, eighteen-year-old, typical ramen eating freshman college student. I live in a dorm, share one shower with seven other girls, and have 8 a.m. classes every morning. It’s sometimes painfully overwhelming, but somehow I’m handling it just fine.

I haven’t cried yet, haven’t had too much of the viral homesick symptoms, and haven’t had any dark thoughts of dropping out and continuing my life in my parent’s basement. So, I’m basically killing it.

I’ve also met some of the best people here. I consider the girls I live with some of my closest friends. I have told them things it used to take me years to be comfortable enough talking about. I don’t have too many spouts of self-doubt (just barely enough to remember that I am indeed an anxious kiddo), but I’ve had some of my best days here, mentally, emotionally, socially. I am genuinely finding my place here.

My friends from home–weird to call them that–are all doing just as well as I am. We talk almost every day, if not multiple times a day. My fears of falling out of touch with them haven’t come true; honestly, it’s been the opposite. I feel close to them even when they’re hundreds of miles away (thanks, technology!)

But I do miss them. I miss everything.

I miss watching Gilmore Girls reruns every night with my mom, laughing like we haven’t seen this episode a million times. I miss my dad, and the time I showed him my favorite music on our drive to New York.

I miss the innocent way I worried about the future. College seeming like the top of a mountain that I would never, ever, be able to conquer.

I keep thinking about the old me. The one who swore she would never go too far from home. The person I was before I packed up my life and memories and moved to North Carolina. Seven-hundred miles away from everything I knew.

If someone told me two years ago where I’d be right now, I wouldn’t have believed them.

The girl who is terrified of life does not merely restart it somewhere totally unknown. She doesn’t walk alone with a smile, or start up conversations with strangers in line; she doesn’t dare to stand out, or dance at a party on her own.

You hear people say this often–but what I wouldn’t do to go back to the old me and tell her what I know now. Tell her that yes, life is terrifying sometimes. It’s awkward and confusing, and occasionally lonely–and it isn’t just you.

But people get kinder, and you start to care less and less about the superficial things. Hard work does eventually pay off when you want it to.

Getting out of bed will still sometimes be the hardest thing you ever have to do. Being shy is only a verb, and the world has more to offer than what your small town has ever given you.

Nowadays I worry about school and my future (shocking, I know), and what I could be doing to better myself a whole lot more than worrying about what people think of me. I unfortunately still obsess over my clothing choices more than I’d like to, but that comes with time I suppose.

And sure, I’m still expecting that little mental breakdown that is bound to hit me like a train soon enough. And I’m going to have many more terrifying moments of “what the hell am I doing?” for probably the rest of my life.

But being able to lean on good friends, and remembering that everyone feels lost every now and then (because we are all human), can surprisingly get you through most anything.

Life is changing and evolving so quickly, I don’t have a lot of time to reflect on who I once was. It’s all swarmed together into one big game of moving as fast as you can and never looking back. There’s no more time for me to be anxious or uncertain. It’s only forwards and onwards from here on out.

See You Soon.

Dear Best Friends,

Seven months ago you guys asked me to write about you. I thought tonight, after our last time together for a while would be a good time to do it.

I’ve felt stuck in time recently. Missing and yearning for something that shouldn’t have ended already.

Maybe it’s because I feel everything way too deeply (I am an Aquarius, after all), but I have a hard time letting go of the little things. Like the leaves that scatter on my lawn during the first windstorm of the fall, the songs I first learned to play on the piano. Memories that come flooding in through rose colored glasses–never really leaving me.

Letting go of people is the hardest though. Especially the people I hold closest to me.

As August slips away, as time moves along without us; falling victim to each sunrise and sunset that passes us by, we forget to cherish the few moments we have left to be just kids from a small town.

And as we walk empty streets, sit comfortably in the silence of a parked car with only each other as a distraction, part of me wonders how much it will hurt realizing I’ll never get these small moments back.

Oh, what I wouldn’t do for another year of safety. Another year hearing the same laughter I’ve committed to memory again and again.

But I guess we aren’t meant to spend our lives surrounded by the same people. People grow–we all grow–according to those we allow to be let into our heads and hearts.

But I let you in. Knocked down each wall built by the girls who laughed and mocked, just for you. And in return I got to spend some of my best, and worst years alongside you.

You let me say my stupid thoughts out loud (told me when they were a little too stupid), let me grow, let me live, and reminded me how to. I think you knew me better than I knew myself, really. (We also did some pretty stupid things too, most of which I can’t exactly write about).

Finding friendships as strong as the ones I have made in my youth is something I will take for granted as I get older. Someday I’ll find myself waking up in an overpopulated city constantly crowded with people, feeling completely alone.

I hope then is when I will remember driving along route 53, windows down, wind destroying our hair as we shout the lyrics of the song playing, with the rush of freedom keeping us from worrying about the future.

And I hope when we come back home—if everything we have come to know has changed, our friendship never will. Because really, all I want is to be able to laugh with you again.

Growing up is hard. But you have made it something worth missing. And I am forever grateful for that.

My Soundtrack.

I’ve recently been going back in time with the help of my Spotify account, since they have the songs I’ve saved from middle school up until what I’ve saved last week. On a few of my college applications they asked for my top three favorite songs of all time. I looked back in my own music time capsule, unintentionally opening up a memory can of worms which, in short, led me to writing this.

The earliest time I can think of was the old CDs my dad kept in his car when I was little. I couldn’t tell you the titles or who is singing, but for some reason I connected the songs to the love of my life at the time: my cat. The week after she was hit by a car my dad played his music during a ride to the grocery store and I burst into tears. I full on lost it in the back seat. My dad freaked out while still trying to drive the minivan, and my sister yelled, “how could you not know these songs reminded her of Ibby?” (because somehow she knew).

The songs I listened to in the spring time of my sophomore year–songs like “Promise” by Ben Howard–can make me feel as though I am drowning all over again. A much more difficult time to remember than my cat dying. The playlist I listened to during the summer of 2016 makes me feel like I’m back to being the complete idiotic, cliche teen again. It also served as the playlist for doing yard work everyday as my parent’s “community service” (didn’t really give off the same vibes though).

Good memories, bad times.

I have the songs that make me nostalgic for the summer when my friends and I could finally drive. The soundtrack to our freedom and inevitable responsibilities. Those late night trips to Boston just for some mediocre cookies and a short walk through the city. The mixtape to our futures.

“How’s It Going to Be” by Third Eye Blind is my anthem to each painful time in middle school. Although it’s technically a song about heartbreak and love, I interpreted it as a heartbreak of my own, the heartbreak of feeling undesired. When I eventually decided to move on from it all, it felt freeing. Even if that “soft dive of oblivion” was something I had to go through, I’m glad I did.

One of the many songs I grew up listening to in the back seat of my brother’s car–“Scar Tissue” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I rediscovered my love for this band while listening to them on my walks home from school freshman year. This was my brother’s favorite band when he was in high school, and it became mine too, even twelve years later. The band released an album in the summer of 2016, making it a big part of that very typical high school summer. Very full circle-y.

“Vienna” by Billy Joel was one of the three songs I included on my college application. I loved this song a few years ago, never fully understanding the lyrics, just relaxing in the vocals and instrumentals that made me feel like I was walking through the streets of Austria. The lyrics “dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true” hits way too close to home for it not to be on my list.

In the song, the city of Vienna acts metaphor for life, making the message of “your life is waiting for you, and it’s not going anywhere” difficult to accept as a little, tiny teenager. But if Billy Joel says Vienna is waiting for me, then I’ll make it wait. I like to tell myself I’m in charge, but that’s not very realistic.

“Is This Sound Okay?” by Coconut Records–my trip to Palo Alto. It gives off a very California vibe, making it appropriate for my trip to visit my brother. Palo Alto was a very cool place, even if our hotel was set up like a Motel 6, it was a very nice Motel 6.

I remember feeling small and insignificant, surrounded by palm trees and people much more cooler than a fifteen year old from a small town in Massachusetts. But at least I had good music taste.

“Bethlehem” by Declan McKenna transports me back to sleep deprivation on a bus, my peers and I from a little town in suburban Massachusetts driving through grassy fields of Germany. How far from home we were. Me, sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Olympic Park in Munich, dying for ten more minutes of sleep. The view was too good to waste on sleep.

I miss it all so much.

Nostalgia is a true killer. In fact, looking at my life and the various memories that have stayed with me, makes looking to the future tiring. I forget that the only reason I am able to remember the good times is because I pushed to make them. I lived my life–I’m living my life, and really, that’s all you can ever hope for. Living a life worth remembering.

Unfortunately, I remember the yelling, the tears, the desperation for safety that only the bathroom lock could give me, more than I remember my dad giving me my first sailing lessons. I remember my grandfather’s last confused glare more vividly than him holding my hand when we walked the beach together.

It’s beautiful though. The memories we keep and hold onto, the ones we are eager to get rid of. The experiences we wish to forget, but our conscience can’t. The way our lives change so easily while we struggle to keep up. The odd quirks we have–like constructing a timeline of our life using the music we love.