Imagine for a moment that you leave behind the home you love, the life you love, in favor of finding something greater. An indescribable thing that’s more important than easy happiness or walks around the block with your mom or a group of people that have known you since you were little. Maybe it’s a way of trying to force yourself to grow up, or maybe you only tell yourself you’re going to leave to see if you actually will. Maybe easy happiness started to feel a little less satisfying and things needed to hurt for a while.
But whatever the reason, you leave. In the days leading up to the plane ride it doesn’t feel quite real. Still, somewhere in the back of your head you know that there’s a reason you are yearning to be somewhere where the time zones will be different and your ceiling will be different and everyone’s face will be different. You dye your hair lighter and wave goodbye to your parents at the airport and your breath still catches a bit when you see them turn around and head for the exit. From here on out, you won’t know a single person. You could be anyone you wanted- and still, you find, people have a way of ending up as themselves.
So what’s greater than happiness? Not better, but bigger? Where’s the meaning that you came out here searching to find? And when you finally make the journey after all those weeks of planning, after looking into the faces of people you love and trust and gathering all the encouragement you needed- when you arrive in this new country and it’s raining and you step up to your new house and place your bags down in your new room with the bare walls and the different ceiling, what’s left? You know you’re running, either away from or toward something, but have you gone far enough? Are you where you’re supposed to be?
This is what is left:
1. An email from your dad that’s been sitting in your inbox.
You text your mom constantly, with the slightest victory or worry, but Dad is different. When your mom looks at you, she sees you for the young woman you have become, and she loves you for it and doesn’t feel the pain of the versions of yourself you had to shed to get there. But when your dad looks at you, somehow you can tell that he is seeing a million of you at once- Shannon as a toddler with a bow in her hair, and Shannon who ran cross country in seventh grade, and now the Shannon who has decided to live as far away from home as possible. There’s something about you that he’s always been able to recognize, and so you don’t respond to the email because you can’t quite get it right. When you talk to your dad you are every version of yourself that he remembers, and you’re too close to crying out like the little girl he once picked up and carried all the way home.
You want to be okay. You want desperately to have made the right choice in coming here. So you let the message sit unanswered for a while. You’ll come back to it when you can say you’re doing well and mean it.
2. A dream that keeps visiting each night.
It’s vivid and leaves you gasping for air every time. You are on a bus full of people you don’t know, cruising down the coastline. The windows are foggy and your vision can’t focus for more than a few seconds at a time, but you can see that the swirling blue of the ocean is not so far away. The bus winds down a cliff and you busy yourself with your backpack- it’s yellow and stuffed to the brim. The bus stops abruptly and the other passengers begin leaping out of the front doors with full snorkel gear on. You can hear their splashes as they land in the water. The ocean rolls up all around the bus and slaps against the closed windows. You’re rushing to prepare yourself but you aren’t ready- your camera isn’t charged and your goggles don’t fit and you can’t find one of your flippers. One by one the other passengers climb back into the bus, dripping water and exclaiming over everything they saw. You rush to the entrance but the driver blocks your path. “Sorry,” he says, “but you’re too late.”
Whales start to jump all around the bus. You can see them through your window- four, five, six! You beg the driver to let you out, and he slowly steps aside. You leap out of the bus and crash into the water, immediately surrounded by every species of marine life you could ever imagine. Your heart fills up and it’s the happiest you’ve ever been, and then all of that joy turns immediately to icy dread. You turn your head and see an enormous shark swimming straight for you, moments away. In the distance you hear the bus rumbling as it drives back up the path. Sharp white teeth are the last thing you see before you wake up safe in your bed.
Your heart pounds anyway.
3. An imaginary holiday.
One that you instate when you mom sends you a text that reads tell me one good thing going on with u. You think hard before responding. There are plenty of good things- the frozen coke you buy daily from McDonalds on your way home from school, the three questions you answer correctly in lecture, the extra cup of berry tea EJ makes you before your flat settles down to dinner.
You glance at your calendar and notice that you’ve circled Thursday’s date and marked it as your thirty-ninth day in New Zealand. You text your mom back and explain to her that in Survivor, the show you’ve watched religiously since arriving, castaways are stranded for thirty-nine days. You both agree that’s a long time to be away from home. so how will u celebrate? she asks.
You let your flatmates know a few days in advance that Thursday has been turned into a holiday: Survivor Day. You plan to screen the season finale on the projector and force your friends to watch it with you, but as the day approaches everyone loses steam. Your friends have plans, they want to drink, they want to go out to the parties. Finally, it’s only you and Patrick left. You shrug, tell him to go out with everyone else. “I’d rather just watch it in my room, anyway.”
But Patrick refuses to leave. And soon EJ comes home and fires up the projector. And, of course, along like clockwork comes Carly, then Julia, Sam, and Billy. Katie comes home with her cousin in tow, until your friends are all surrounding you, piled up on couches and pillows, hooting and hollering and making bets for the winner. “Happy Survivor Day, Shannon!” they shout up until midnight, when day forty begins.
The next time your mom asks about the good things in your life, you send her a list of their names.
4. A mini-fridge full of syringes.
The refrigerated box that your medication is mailed in weighs twenty pounds. You’re at your doctor’s office, struggling to get a good grip, when the nurse looks at you and asks “You have a car, right? To drive that home in?” For no reason, you nod, and hobble out of the clinic. You have no car. It takes thirty minutes for you and the box to walk home.
The truth of the matter is that you’ve never given yourself your shots before without help. Yes, you’ve done it alone once in preparation for coming here, but you had someone on the other end of the phone to coach you through it, and your mom on the other side of a door. And now who knows what time it is where ever your mom is? You draw the blinds and drop your pants.
In the back of your mind you always assumed that you would be forced to stick the needles in your legs someday. But you thought maybe that day was many years in the future, and you’d have to do it alone out of necessity when your kids were at daycare if your husband happened to be out of town.
Instead, you’re twenty one, alone in your room, and you have a syringe in your shaking hand. You tap the bubbles out, sterilize your thigh, pinch the skin, and then slide the needle in. You’re on the other side of the world, and you’re growing up in smaller ways than you were expecting. But you are growing up.
5. A reason.
Still elusive, but present. Hiding in the walks to and from class, between aisles in a grocery store stocked with brands you don’t recognize, or maybe up on top of one of the mountains you were dragged in to hiking, is the reason that you came here.
You don’t know what it is- it might be easier to find if you did- but you can feel the weight of it all the same. It curls up in bed with you at night, and shakes you awake in the morning. Before your eyes have a chance to open, before your thoughts have a chance to rationalize, it’s there, the beating heartbeat of every one of your days here.
It’s what you’ve traveled all this way to find. The greater thing, the bigger thing. The thing worth trading in all of the comforts of home for a couple of months. It’s the undercurrent of all of those emails from your dad: whatever it is, Shannon, have you found it yet?
Thirty-nine days is a long time to be away from home. But you have longer. Keep looking.