A Semi-Autobiographical Story*
*) The events in question are fictionalized only insofar as my brain failed to recall them in the correct order and context. So to stitch it all back together took some narrative embellishments here and there. I recommend that you check out the first post I made about summer camp before delving into this one, so click here if you haven’t read it yet.
Only a few days after I had arrived home from camp, I found myself walking up a hillside, wheezing audibly with each step. I had been going by bike for as long as I didn’t mind passing over asphalt but quickly resorted to hiking after I had spotted a more appealing route at the roadside: an opening in the woods. I locked my bike to a post that was also a bus stop, crossed the road, and sped up the incline.
The day before, I had started feeling a sickness rising in my throat — a delayed stress response, I told myself. Now that I was trying to ascend to the top of this sandy slope, my chest heaving in protest, I began to feel light-headed too. I didn’t exactly get into a runner’s high, but I was content with the effort each laboured step demanded from me, an effort quantifiable not by tears and sweat but first and foremost by deep, gasping breaths. (Although to be fair, sweat did factor in quite a bit.)
I pause to put my wallet into my backpack. It will be of no use to me now; it would just gather more sweat if I kept it in my pants. I zip up my backpack. Something occurs to me. I walk on. I keep thinking that I’m doing this because I’ve come to crave exhaustion. By some divine intervention I’ve become someone who willingly challenges himself — no question about it. Some part of me chooses not to linger on the fact that I do this every time I return home after a prolonged absence because I always find that I can’t bear looking at the dull interior of my room. Deep down I know that this craving is nothing new. It’s related to the terror of deciding to turn your back on your home, closing the door behind you, and suddenly realizing you’ve got nowhere in the entire world to go. This time I knew where to go: I just needed to get away.
After some 20 minutes of walking up an incredibly steep, anything-but-well-trod path, I reach a plateau on the hill. I catch sight of a hut — a rest stop — next to a small crossroads with signs for hikers and bikers scattered around it. Most of the signs aren’t fastened to a post, though; the intersection is marked by rocks with directions engraved on them. I sit down on one of these rocks to take a break. The occasional biker passes me by.
I’m leafing through the notebook I always carry in my left back pocket as it occurs to me to jot down a list I have been meaning to write, entitled “What I miss”. The top item on that list reads,
Leaving the house with nothing but the key to your room in your pants.
I don’t know why I opted for the second person there instead of the first. But that’s no matter. The point is that for some time, my mind has been sculpting this mundane detail of my camp routine into a symbol of the informal way of life I indulged in while I was in South Tyrol. Emptying your pockets makes you feel lighter, quite literally. Your body becomes less encumbered, your mind less cluttered. You don’t even have to wear a belt most of the time.
Leaving your phone, notebook, pen, wallet, and tissues on your bedside table means that your priorities don’t revolve around accessibility and just-in-case thinking. I learned that being accessible is irrelevant as long as you have the privilege to already be right where you’re most needed. That place only calls for you to keep your eyes and ears (and arms) open. There are no “emergencies” that could be counteracted with a couple of bucks swiftly produced from your pockets. (Aside from that, somebody might decide to throw you into the pool in the backyard at any given time, so it’s a safe bet not to carry anything water-sensitive.)
After spending the majority of my break sending text messages, I finally decide to trudge on, this time on one of the wider, “official” walking paths of the intersection. Although I never reach the top of the hill, I wind up expanding my little hike by several hours. I never get quite as exhausted again as I did during that first half hour, though. I take it easy. The strain doesn’t weigh on my system as much after that initial adjustment phase. I should have learned that lesson by now.
I’m taking a shortcut downhill that leads to the southern edge of the Old Town, and it dawns on me that I will have to take a detour to pick up my bike from the side of the road later. That makes my way home even more uncomfortable a prospect.
There is a certain luxury in being far from home for someone like me. Whether it be due to the daily grind of researching for papers or the ceaseless pressure to be “in the know” about everything, life at university can take a serious toll on someone who doesn’t fancy himself a particularly qualified member of the human race.
On my way down, I get to see the setting sun surrounded by a boldly pink sky peering out from behind the trees. I keep on pondering my return, dwelling on how cut off I am from the all-around commotion at camp — the white noise of children talking, laughing, yelling, complaining. I wonder what the next month of semester break will be like.
It comes as no surprise that nothing whatsoever has changed about this place. Well, except that my housemate of almost two years has moved out. And the colour of the bedsheet covering my couch is different. You see, it used to be plain blue, but when I came back I noticed that because it had sat unused under my bedroom window for three weeks of glaring hot summer, the sun had had nothing better to do than bleach it. That’s why the folds I didn’t bother to straighten out before departure are now forever imprinted on the surface in the original shade of saturated blue, whereas the rest of the sheet has taken on a light, sandy tone. What results is an irregular pattern of stripes and ellipses that resembles some calm body of water reflecting patches of sunlight (which is a flattering description for a fairly damaged-looking bedsheet). I’m sure there’s potential for a metaphor there, but I think I’ve bothered you enough with that sort of thing.
It’s getting darker and darker. On my way across town that will eventually lead me back where I came from, I occasionally have to fish out my wallet from my backpack to do some shopping. I walk on. I stop. I shove the wallet into my back pocket, just in case.