A short story
I was in a university English class, doodling in the margins of Death of a Salesman and secretly listening to “Take the Long Way Home” with headphones slyly tucked in my ears.
My professor’s voice intruded more and more into my harmonious world, as he jabbered on about my generation’s deluded, self-perceived “special snowflake” syndrome. This, he explained, is where we all assume we’re brilliant individuals on the cusp of the self-actualization that will propel us to stardom. Yada yada yada. Inherently fallacious, he wheezed.
It changed my life.
I knew I had to get away from such an environment that made me feel worthless. I knew I didn’t want to live in the spawning ground of mid-life crises, great inverted eureka moments of all that one has failed to do. Fuck that.
Have you ever read Eat, Pray, Love? Neither have I. But when I was a kid, I read the front and back of the book and even a couple pages in between, until my mom took it away from my grubby fingers. I came to the conclusion that the author was an average woman who was depressed for no apparent reason, so she travelled the world trying to liven herself up with new and fabulous things like $50 pasta.
Well, I went on a similar journey. Except that I looked for the opposite of the exceptional: I looked for people who were content with their mediocre and stale life. To me, exceptionality seemed like a sham. It’s exceptional for a reason — it isn’t normal, and trying to base a life off of it is unsustainable. I also didn’t have the money for plane tickets and $50 pasta, anyways.
I first thought I found peaceful mediocrity at a hostel in Scotland. I arrived there late, my taxi’s headlights illuminating lines of tire-pressed grass and bugs shooting about the night. My driver pulled up to the hostel, a big wooden house that was old and leaning slightly to the right. Inside the house, the lights were on. Outside, one beer-bellied maniac sat, slapping and swatting and swearing at the murderous bugs.
After telling my driver he parked in the wrong spot, the leather-skinned grump ushered me inside the home, away from the damp cold outside. As I stepped into the room, my eyes widened, and my cheeks flushed with delight. In two words, it was hot and hippy. Books lined the walls and people with beards, beads, bracelets, and bright colours wandered about the house, eating kale and chatting about depreciating water quality.
The house was formless. It was my oasis, a pool I could plunge into and drown in satisfaction. It was a pool of bullshit and belonging. It was a dream.
The oasis dried up the next morning while I ate my fair-trade granola and yogurt. There were two young men from India eating their breakfast with me. One of them was talkative, the other was quiet. They both looked and spoke the same, down to the same spacer earrings and same calm, deep voice. Our conversation evolved rapidly. We talked about travelling the world, hostels, and soccer (“No, it’s football”). We talked about brothers, curry, and school.
His voice quickened as he talked about this last subject: “My brother and I, we studied to become engineers.”
I asked him how school was in India, how it was different.
He beamed. “Our last exam, we competed against 3000 applicants. 20 people passed the test.”
I was stunned. “Did you pass?” I asked. Stupid me. I shouldn’t have asked such a dumb question. Who tells a story of themselves where the odds are against them and they fail as expected? What kind of story is that? The story of my life? Sheesh.
“Yes, my brother and I, we both passed.”
I couldn’t help but feel jealous. As I left I hoped he and his brother would be like Ben Franklin and go fly kites in a lightning storm.
The next day I checked out early and faced the disappointed frown of the hippy at the register. He looked at me sadly and I glared back. I needed to keep moving; I had to find some place where unexceptional qualities like “working hard” were praised (Oh Russia, where art thou?).
So I went to Russia. I knew nothing about it, except that it was home to many strict and angry obedient people, all stereotypes of themselves (Hello, the phone is for you. Why yes, it is Cold War propaganda calling). On the plane, though, I rethought my decision to travel there. I couldn’t even speak Russian — but Scottish was basically a different language anyway, and I was fine there.
Before takeoff, while the flight attendant was making light of probable death in her pre-flight safety demonstration, a ragged woman crashed into the seat beside me. I don’t know why she sat beside me. The plane was half empty (take that, optimists), and the woman seemed to hate people. She sat beside me and snarled softly when I asked her if she had bathed in the last three years. She smelled like moldy dirt. She smelled like a memory of when I was 7 years old, in the garden, with my mom.
I’d found a sharp piece of clay that was rounded like a bowl, with some rain water in its bottom. I dropped a worm into it to see if the worm could swim. It danced around the imaginary currents like those blow-up air people, with the crazy arms that boogey in the wind.
Mom was watching me. She had looked up from her court papers. “Tim,” she sighed.
I looked at her, holding a dandelion in my hand. I was going to hit it with a rock when she stopped talking.
“I thought that since you were born on Mothers’ Day you were going to be special.”
I crushed the dandelion. I felt as hollow as its bleeding stem. 15 years later, I still felt like I was bleeding.
I fell into another Russian hostel. Options were limited when I had looked online for places to stay (maybe Russia doesn’t get very many visitors?). The place I did find was unexceptional. A single light, its cover filled with flies, hung dimly above the wooden reception box. Off the walls, strips of paint peeled and flung themselves upon the floor, where they lay unnoticed among the yellow dust and grime that covered everything. The rats squeaked and the stairs creaked, and I could hear an old man breathing slowly in dark.
All of this made me very hopeful to meet many unexceptional and content people in the morning. That night, though, I slept somewhat uneasily: I dreamt I couldn’t find my car keys, which was especially strange because I hadn’t ever owned a car. I had been the victim of many dumb dreams in my life, though, so I wasn’t particularly astonished.
Russia held many things for me: mysterious urban environments, beautiful countryside, cold weather, strong vodka, and a tough crowd. The one thing it did not have, though, was a lack of remarkable people.
One young man I met, he couldn’t have been much older than me. He was a brilliant student with a background of extreme poverty. The kid was right out of that damn book, Crime and Punishment. Save for the fact that he didn’t murder an old lady (as far as I know, at least).
The night I met him, the sheets of my bed were about as placid as Tornado Alley mid-season. I floundered under the sheets, bouncing this way and that in an attempt to get comfortable (and apparently piss the hell out of my downstairs neighbours, for they banged on their ceiling and kindly inquired if I would shut the fuck up).
Questions scattered about my seething brain. Why has it taken so long to find boring people? Do I fit in anywhere? Why do I ask myself so many rhetorical questions? I started crying softly into my sheets, then wept loudly, confused (my neighbours responded with a reiteration of their shut-the-fuck-up policy), and then fell asleep. In the morning, I noticed a snow globe on the bedside desk. I shook it, and the thousands of artificial snowflakes fluttered in the glass. It was all so depressing.
Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t have the money to keep travelling the world. I never had it in the first place.
Yeah, my memories are still melancholy manatees that drift about my deep blue ocean of indifference. And I still wander about the world when the fluorescent lights are too much for me. But I travel slower now. I don’t think I’ve found what I’m looking for; I don’t even know if I’m looking in the right places. But I think I’m close. I think I’m close to home.