By Jen Pastiloff.
I got up before the sun this morning. The room was dark and I didn’t know where I was. I am in a twin bed, I am shivering and sweating, the sun is not up, where am I? I’ve been grinding my teeth really badly. I unclenched my jaw a little and felt my plastic night guard in my mouth, but still, I couldn’t quite place where I was. It’s funny when that happens, isn’t it? You wake up and have no idea what day it is or where you are or if you are late to work or what the fuck? Do I even have a job? Am I still waitressing? Am I late for school? School? I am a grown-ass adult, I don’t go to school, where the fuck am I?
Okay, okay. I am in Aruba. I remember. Calm the fuck down.
We are going on a sunrise hike and I have set my alarm for 5. Just 5 more minutes, I lie to myself. My mouth guard cracks inside my mouth. Are you kidding me? I still lay there with plastic pieces in my mouth, refusing to swing my legs over the edge of the small bed. This night guard that cost almost $500 and I just bit it in half. I still don’t get up. Just don’t swallow the plastic and die here on this twin bed in Aruba, Jen, I say to myself, and also, Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?
Who clenches their jaw so hard they bite their night guard in half? What am I holding on to? I don’t panic though. I lay there calmly chanting don’t swallow don’t swallow and then make myself laugh because it reminds me of blow jobs and I feel like a teenager for laughing. Like when someone’s name was Dick and we’d laugh. Dick and blow jobs and plastic in my mouth. I better get up.
At least I can laugh because this piece of crap plastic is going to cost another $500 unless I want to crack my crowns. I recently got two crowns, one of which is gold. Classy.
Now I am on the plane. I am nestled against the window with the best $20 investment I have ever made (EVER): a pillow and blanket I purchased in the World’s Worst Airport otherwise known as Ft. Lauderdale.
I went to Chili’s in my 3 hour layover and got a vodka soda and salmon. My waiter was very accommodating and gave me black beans instead of rice and when I asked for salsa, brought me a huge Styrofoam container of it and some plastic cutlery. It brought back visions of the people I used to wait on who would ask for plastic silverware. (I guess it was a germ thing?) It also brought back memories of those skinny women who would come in shaking and saying, It’s so cold, when it was 65 degrees, Can I get a hot water with lemon? I hated those ladies. I wanted to tell them to eat a sandwich. (They always ordered the Tuna Deluxe, no rice, no dressing, and they never finished it.)
Anyway, I took a bath in my salsa and drank my drink and ordered another because 3 hours. Ft. Lauderdale. I asked the lady at the table behind me if the chips were any good.
“They’re greasy but they’re okay. Have one.”
I reached over and had one. She was right. They were meh, at best. I would just eat my salsa out of the Styrofoam with my plastic spoon sans chips. This is my first time in a Chili’s. They play good music. I’ll give them that. Steely Dan, Hey 19. A little David Bowie.
The hike was 5 hours long. We started before the sun came. Rooi Tambu, a long trail through a dry riverbed within the Arikok National Park of Aruba. I poured coffee into a plastic cup and spilled it all over myself in the car. The sun was still not up when we began.
I read a sign that explained that the dry riverbed was named after the sound of the tambu, a musical instrument used by inhabitants from African descent who were brought to Aruba to work as slaves. They used to hide in the dry riverbed to perform their dance rituals and play music, as it was forbidden by the Spanish catholic colonists who occupied Aruba from 1499-1636.
Isn’t it amazing how humans have the capacity for self-expression and creativity, no matter what? How art is so often born of brutal circumstances? How survival is contingent upon the making of that art? I bent down low to touch the earth, dirt on my fingers, on the backs of my calves, this is holy dirt, I thought, and wiped a streak on my face. The sun was rising. What was once forbidden flourished here.
We continued to walk until we reached the coastline. I climbed up on the rocks and tried to do a yoga pose but it was slippery and I was scared so I stood there with my arms in the air as my friend Yulady took a picture. I was wearing a tank top that said Be All In and was I ever. My feet were aching, my skin was filthy, I was soaked from a wave that had crashed on the rocks, but my god, was I all in, knee-deep in, waist-high in, up to my neck in, I was in, and I would keep going in, deeper.
I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey as I stood on that rock
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
I read that poem a lot in my yoga classes so I could almost hear my own voice speaking it. God, I’m so dramatic. I climbed down off the rock, pleased with myself that I got up and did the hike instead of sleeping, that I stood on a wet rock on the beach and heard a poem in my head as if the sky was talking to me, as if I hadn’t been laying in bed just a couple hours before with plastic pieces in my mouth and a deep confusion as to where I was in the world, as if the clouds were reminding me to go out and make art, no matter what, make art, create, stand on rocks, recite poetry, get up and climb on rocks and forge your way through the world and do not be confused as to where you are: You are here. You are here. You are here.
Yeah, I was all pleased with myself. I am not a hiker. I hopped down onto the sand and laughed at myself for thinking the clouds could talk. Then I remembered that the minute I stopped believing the sky could talk, I was dead, I was no longer a poet, I no longer had an imagination, I would no longer make art despite the unflinching pressing of time on my body- that if I believed the sky went quiet, I might as well swallow the pieces of plastic and confine myself to a life of quiet choking, of relentless blockage, a life of words being stifled in the back of a throat. I would suffocate. So yes, the sky can talk and I can fucking hear it despite my near deafness. I can hear it and I am all in.
I am happy I came on this hike. I fly out in a few hours, to go home to L.A. and this will tucker me out for the plane. It will stay with me for days on end, the Manzanilla trees and the crabs with the big eyes, who looked dead until you got close and they scurried away. The way the ghosts of the music-makers from long ago lingered like any good art will. Art does not disappear. The clouds do talk.
My friend Yulady and her husband Gerry are also with me on the hike.
Yulady had breast cancer and now has a colostomy bag. She doesn’t complain. She made a video for me the other day where she says, I poop in a bag, and yet, she doesn’t complain. I learn from her.
My legs hurt so I squat down and my friend Mike says, No pooping, Jen. This makes me laugh and I think how poop jokes always do. Like swallow and the name Dick. No pooping, Jen.
Yulady has to poop in a bag. She is my inspiration. Amazing, like I said, how art is so often made through brutality? She tells me that life has not been easy for her. But she doesn’t complain. I want to rub her skin and take some of her back with me to Los Angeles.
I complain that my feet hurt and I have get home to finish packing. That I am hungry. That I am getting sunburned. I tell myself to shut the fuck up.
We finally finish the hike and get back to the house.
I thought about how I got quiet during the walk. Real quiet. It was nice. It was needed. How unquiet we are sometimes. Me. I am. With the constant ringing in my ears and my own chatter and the nonstop information and distraction of social media- how unquiet. During the hike, you couldn’t look up because of how rocky and uneven the earth was and that was okay.
One foot in front of the other, paying attention, getting quiet. How needed it is. I got soaked as I sat on that rock and I thought life is good. At least in this moment.
It’s good to get quiet. My legs covered with filth from the walk, my hair tangled with sea water, salt on my skin. Maybe I’ll stay like this a little longer. To remember.
I place my broken night guard carefully in its blue container and put it at the bottom of my backpack. I wonder if I can superglue it?
At the airport the long is long and women with heavy blue eye shadow and t-shirts that say Aruba: The Happy Island wear too much perfume. My bra strap breaks in line and my boob starts to hang out. I ask a stranger to fix it. (Not my boob. The strap.)
She kindly does. She is flying to New York with her husband. They have arrived at the airport almost 5 hours early. I, on the other hand, am worried I will miss my flight and my bra has just broke.
Two hours later, I make it though all the lines and my bra strap breaks again. I get in line at the Happy Bar and order a white wine, which he gives me in a mini bottle with a Dixie cup of ice. I take it to the gate. Thank you, Happy Island, for allowing me to walk through the airport with a plastic cup of wine. In the States, we can do no such thing.
Night guard breaking, bra strap busting, what next, Jen? Your head going to roll off?
I sit down next to a big guy who is partly in my seat. He sleeps with his head pressed into the tray table in front of him, from takeoff to landing, while his wife absent-mindedly traces the hair on his legs with her French manicure, as she reads a paperback. He lifts his head only once, to turn around and yell at (I am guessing) sons, “There’s enough room back there. Knock it off.
In Ft. Lauderdale I somehow have to go through security. Again. Fourth time in one day. I am so cold that I feel like one of those women who ask for lemon water. I am freezing. I buy a pillow and blanket in the airport shop and attempt to find a place to eat. This brings me to Chili’s. The Ft. Lauderdale Airport really does blow. (Ha ha blow jobs again.)
I am sad to leave Aruba. I wish I took more photos. I close my eyes and rest my head on the table at Chili’s and start to make art in my head. I rearrange words and create sentences out of fragments of stone and wind and blue, blue water. I remember a poem I wrote 12 years ago.
I am in awe of the things that cause change.
The forces, natural and apocryphal, that cause us to evolve-
The catalysts, those things working in our favor-
The impetus for us metamorphose, to mutate and transform.
Whether being trapped inside the earth in heat so blasting
A Guatemalan volcano has to spew its ashy breath-
Or having an old friend come to stay for a week.
We change shapes and figures over and over again.
We exchange one body for the next, one precious
Stone for a different one.
One pleasure for another.
I wonder about the things working in my favor. How I have been changed by this trip? By the Rooi Tambu? By other people’s pain and how their music settled into the bones of the earth so that when we walk over it, our feet touch their hearts. I wonder where my waiter is with my drink. I wonder why I clench my teeth so badly. I wonder what life would be like if I went all in, like really all in, like I stood on that rock as if I could never slide off. As if nothing could stop me. I wonder what being all in felt like. I checked to see if my boob was tucked in, if my bra strap was hooked. Yes. I was all in. I made myself laugh. This is important.
I wonder if I will make my flight.
I get home eventually.
Meanwhile, I cuddle in my blanket and pillow next to a Chinese man with a mask over his mouth. He eats peanuts and I eat salsa out of Styrofoam and I think that both of us are all in. He nods at me as if to say hello with his eyes and I turn my head to the clouds out the window of the airplane because they are speaking. Of course they are. I must get quiet to hear them. Shhh. Goodbye.