I cleaned out some old boxes in my office last week and found an old postcard from Australia. Then I remembered where it came from:
Student comes to see me. He says he can’t handle the pressure of school. I tell him I think he’s a good student and he says yes, he can do the work, he just can’t stand it. He hates it, he says. He gets bored fast. It’s a good conversation, honest. Had we been somewhere else we would have talked over beers. He looks at his watch and says he has to work in a few hours and sighs. He runs his own roofing company but hates that too. He has six grand invested in equipment and no help and he just dreads doing the work now. He says he’s at some fork in the road, two paths that look the same so he’s frozen, easier to just stay put. He gets quiet and stares at a photograph on my wall of a village in Africa. Looks nice he says, like he wants to say anything to forget what he’s really thinking about. Then he remembers and sighs again. He’s quiet for some time and I find myself drifting.
I worked at a bar. No bills but good money and mindless work; the kind of work where if you don’t think too much about what you’re doing, you can keep on smiling. I know I spent a few years there but it seems like it was always winter, all grey and bone-cold. One morning I woke on a bench near a lake in a park and didn’t know how I got there. I had to work a few hours later but never made it. I drained my accounts, stuck a little aside, then bought a ticket to Africa. Turns out changing my life, kicking my own ass out of the same ‘ol same ‘ol, was as easy as jumping off a cliff knowing you’re either going to land on your feet or learn how to fly. I landed on my feet and boring disappeared from my life.
But this student has trouble talking about it, so I talk: I get that feeling in my chest too, I say. Tight, constricting, difficulty breathing. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the sense that something needs to change. It’s the Philosophy class with five minutes left of three hours and the prof starts another chapter because there are still five minutes left; it’s the meeting you can’t tolerate but you’re in a row of seats with too many people on both sides so you can’t leave; it’s that this-homily-is-way-too-long feeling. It’s the feeling you’re just one day away from something else, but then that day comes and you find yourself one day away from something. It’s the Whitman poem about astronomy; the wide awake at three am feeling and you can’t move so you stare at the alarm clock. Exactly, he says. I’m always staring at the clock, he says. I’d love to know what you’d do, he says.
I tell him about a bar somewhere I didn’t belong. I remember working and then not working but I don’t remember what happened between the two. I just recall waking up one day in the peace-of-mind of another world, centuries away from being behind bars; like I could finally breathe on my own. I remember dreading the moment between what was and what was next so I just kept pouring drinks, but then one day I didn’t. He looked at me like I was looking in a mirror. Then he says he’s going to work and he leaves.
Six months later he sends me a postcard from Australia. Don’t know when I’ll be back, it says. When I am, let’s get some beers and talk. I look forward to it but, of course, way leads on to way, and I doubt he ever came back.