The truth is that I have been clenching my jaw for close to 7 weeks now and that I am scared most of the time. It started in Cuba, and has continued unceasingly as I have moved through Nicaragua. So much tension. Fear. Stress.
I thought that I might die twice. Maybe not exactly twice, but definitely once.
Firstly, I couldn’t jump.
Sietske invited me to go with her up north to Somoto and float down the canyon. She was on her way to Honduras, and I was on my way to nowhere, so I said “sure,” and off we went. That is how I came to find myself standing on the edge of a small cliff in the northern reaches of Nicaragua, staring down down down, at the black water below.
I tried over and over again.
“This time I’m really going to do it!” I yelled, “One, Two…”
But every time the count reached 3 my legs pushed me violently away from the edge and I laughed manically in surprise at the sudden surge of adrenaline and terror that vibrated my whole body.
Sietske did it. She was scared too, more scared than me. I thought that I was going to be the one who was so brave. But in the end, she silently disappeared from my vision, splashing into the water below, while I had to walk back down.
It was hopeless.
I couldn’t do it.
There was simply no way.
The truth is that two days later I did something that was possible very stupid. Sietske and I had gone our separate ways. I wanted to go the beach to the west and she was continuing on to Honduras and Guatemala. After 11 hours of bus travel, I had arrived at Rancho Esperanza in the darkness, unable to see with my eyes, the clearly audible waves of the ocean.
In the morning, I awoke too early, with the sun. I wanted to see the beach so I went down to look at the waves and to swim. I had my bathing suit on, my pink bikini that may or may not fit me anymore, the one that I bought to bring to Africa two years ago.
The truth is that after I got in the water and swam past the point where my feet no longer touched the floor, I turned and looked back at the beach and realized how far from the shore I actually was. The same terror rose inside me as on the cliff, but this time I didn’t laugh. When I tried to swim quickly to the shore I could feel the current strongly pulling me back out to sea. I felt weak and dazed. Immediately exhausted.
So many things passed through my mind. I thought of Austere telling me that it was almost impossible to drown if you float on your back and relax. I remembered the same fear had choked me while swimming in Costa Rica three years ago, and the fact that I didn’t die then. I remembered that I had had to get used to the waves there, that eventually I came to know them as my partners and friends who sometimes would push me under and sometimes lift me up, but never kill me.
None of these thoughts calmed me.
My breathing quickened and I thought to myself “I’m going to die. I can’t believe this is how I die. Just like that. You can wake up one morning and make a split decision to go swimming, walk to the beach, get in the water, and die. Every step that I have taken to get me here right now was moving me closer to death. I handed my life to the ocean. This is how it ends.”
But I didn’t die. I was overcome by a large wave and pushed under. I let my body relax as the belly of the wave wrestled me beneath the surface and pounded my head into the sandy floor. That contact gave me so much relief. It was proof that the ocean was not in fact bottomless, as I had feared moments earlier. I remembered learning in Costa Rica that it would take longer than I expected to swim back to shore, but that I would get back, and not to panic.
Don’t panic, Eliza. Just because you can’t readily see your progress as you move through the liquid and changing body of the world, doesn’t mean that you are standing still.
I arrived back to shore out of breath, with sand and water in my ears, eyes stinging, salt in my sinuses. I was talking to myself out loud, calling myself stupid and saying that I should have known better than to put my road-weary and half asleep body in the ocean first thing in the morning at the tail end of high tide.
I went back to Esperanza and showered, washing the sand off myself and catching my breath. No one knows what just happened, I thought, standing beneath the cold stream of fresh water.
I’m the only one who knows.
I am also the only one who knows that two days earlier when I failed at jumping off a three meter cliff into the profundity of the river below, I had reflexively laughed and laughed at myself because I was so embarrassed at my own cowardice. Minutes later as I rejoined the peaceful currents of the river, I tried to overcome my shame and forgive myself. Looking Seitska in the eye took so much courage. I told myself that I would try it again some day. I thought that maybe I would be able to do it at a different location, in a different time. I granted myself a second chance.
In Somoto, after Seitske and I arrived back at the filthiest hostel known to man, we sat around the communal kitchen table talking.
“Did you see that guy on the bus yesterday?” she asked me, “He was so disgusting.”
“The one behind you, you mean?” I said. “He kept giving me creepy looks. He was sitting right behind you, but then he stood for a while before getting off the bus.”
“Yeah, well,” she continued “After he stood up I could feel him bumping up against my shoulder as the bus moved. Finally I looked over at him and he had his dick out. It was nothing too impressive.”
“What, NO, gross, what????” Unbelievable.
We laughed a bit and then she said to me, “Do you think that this traveling alone is doing you any good?”
“I’m not really sure,” I answered.
“Me neither.” she said. “Everyone told me that I would learn so much and that I was going to become this wise person, but so far I feel like I’m just moving along from place to place waiting for something to happen.”
“Yeah I know what you mean. But maybe it’s the type of change that you don’t realize until later. When you go home you understand that you are not the same. You don’t fit into the same hole as you did before.”
Later that night as I washed my face in the filthiest bathroom known to man, I heard singing. It was Seitske, performing a ukulele rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” Next she played Adel, and after that George Michael.
There is no sweeter sound than a Dutch traveling partner singing clearly and slowly “Cause I’ve got to have faith faith faith, I’ve got to have faith.”
Listening Seitske’s beautiful powerful voice, I felt so grateful to be alive.
The truth is that earlier that day, as I stood at the top of that cliff and looked down at the dark water, I was, quite unexpectedly, thinking of all the people who had ever hurt me in my life.
I was thinking of all the other times that I had jumped into the darkness, having been assured that nothing bad would happen. I was thinking of the many instances where I had trusted that I would be ok and, in the and, was not. The times that I had been so sure of something, only to find out later that it had been quite wrong. I thought that I would be able to jump if only I could see the bottom of the pool. If only I knew exactly what I was jumping into. If only I could look into the future. If only I had faith.
I was wondering how many times you have to forgive someone before you can stop forgiving them. Before you have forgiven them completely. Why does it come in pieces? If you’re still angry, if you’re still scared, does that mean that you have not forgiven? There have been so many moments where I have know that I was fine, complete, clear, and healed. Known that I could come out from hiding and breath again. So many times. So why does it come back?
I knew that if I chose to jump from that cliff it might be some sort of symbol. I knew that it might allow me to break through and heal myself once and for all. I knew that it was a mind game and that one hundred percent of the danger was a construct on my imagination. I knew that absolutely nothing bad could possibly happen to me if I just calmly stepped off the edge and allowed the water to carry me, and that I might rise from the depths a changed person. A warrior. Maybe it was that which actually scared me more. But how could it scare me more to be healthier. Less afraid. More free? Was I more scared to let go of my fear? Did I think I needed it? I can’t understand it.
After the morning when I thought that I might drown in the ocean, I decided not to swim anymore but instead to walk endlessly, day after day, on the shore in the space where land meets sea. In the space where nothing nothing nothing is ever the same.
The first day that I walked, I took with me a hard green fruit from a tree on Esperanza property. I practiced my pitch as I walked north across the hard saturated sand. I threw the fruit over and over again. I pretended that I was my own coach and critiqued my form. When I got tired of pitching I walked closer to the water and drug my feet through the sea foam, watching the bubbles popping on the sand until a boy rode up next to me on his bike. I was scared at first because he slowed to my walking pace and was looking intently right at me.
Finally I yelled over the pounding waves, “What are you doing?”
“You don’t remember me,” he said
“YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME?”
Then I felt like a real jerk because I realized that he worked at Esparanza and I had talked to him for some time earlier that day. He lived two villages to the north and was undoubtably headed home.
“Sorry,” I said, embarrassed. “You look different.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I pointed north, silently.
“Do you want me to show you around my town?”
“Yes. Sure. Thank you.” I said.
So he took me to his house and introduced me to his mom and dad and sister and grandpa. We walked to the estuary and he told me about the fishing industry and the changing ocean and the depletion of the fish. We played 2 games of pool at a bar 100 meters from the beach, on a table with a roll so bad it was more like bocce ball in a friends back yard.
When it started to get dark he walked me back down the beach. We traced the edge of the earth, me walking, he riding his bike slowly beside me. Eventually he asked if I wanted a ride.
“Do you know how?” he said, and I shook my head No, so he showed me how to sit side saddle on the top tube, and there we went gliding down the beach. I didn’t know where to put my hands so I grabbed the handle bars. I was holding on so tight that I was afraid I was making is hard for him to steer. I laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Have you ever done this before?” he asked.
“So this is a new experience for you.”
Later I asked if he was getting tired, and he admitted that he was, so I suggested that we change positions.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes yes, of course. Yes.”
So he straddled the top tube, crossing his ankles in front of the fork, above the front tire. I peddled as he steered. My hands rested on his shoulders and I laughed and laughed and laughed again.
“Have you ever done THIS before?” he asked.
“NOOOOOO,” I howled, fluting my lips into the shape of an O.
“Another new experience for you then,” he said.
“Every day,” I replied. “Every day.”
The next day I walked south at low tide. I pounded my bare feet on the sand as if it were the sidewalk of a large city. I clenched my jaw and released it only to notice seconds later that it was clenched again. I tried to stay present. Then out of nowhere I said out loud, “I just don’t know what happened.” And with those words came the sensation of a giant egg growing inside my throat. The pressure made me cry out suddenly. I’m not even sure what those words meant, I just don’t know what happened, but there alone on the beach I cried for all the things that can’t last. For the confusion that I have of being here now, occupying the space that is my body. The sole lone participant in my one weird life. The muscles of my throat seized and spasmed in such a surprising way. I told myself to let it out because I was alone and no one was watching, but in the same way that my legs involuntarily shook and pushed me away from the cliffs’ edge some days prior, my own throat decided to strangle itself, pinching, and pushing everything back down.
Walking back to Esperanza, two boys fishing in the surf waved to me as the nearly full moon rose to the east. I waved back.
That night I ate dinner with the other guests at at the long communal picnic table. It was eggplant parmesan over spaghetti. I ate it without fear, knowing that I was eating wheat and cheese, two things that have been on my list of foods to avoid since the bulimia days.
I stayed up late talking to the boy who gave me a ride on his bike. He told me that he dreams of being able to afford college but feels trapped in his abandoned fishing village with no resources or clear answers as to how to better his life. No one in his family had ever been to college. He told me that he remains optimistic.
I bought him a coke in a glass bottle and he started to asked me questions.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“It’s a long story”
“Cuentame.” Tell me, and also “Do you feel lonely?”
“Sí, sometimes. Yeah.”
“Why are you alone?”
I had no answer for him.
The truth is that I don’t know the why of anything.
I really just haven’t a clue.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve just been trying to get the hang of being alive.
I have been trying to get the hang of being myself.
That’s the truth.