Echoes in the Silence By Don Bernal
The satin press of the black sky hung over me, a final reminder of perspective in its many ways.
I was admiring the sky as the street became too dark, too noisy, dirty, mean, confusing, the stars echoed silence, stillness, with a bit of twinkling like a joke in their eyes. The joke was on me, though; I never realized that silence and prettiness and calm were so important to me. All those years of loud friends, messy rooms and haphazard living must have really ticked me off. And they did. Except I kept blaming everyone else for that. Even when I knew the problem came from me, I still blamed everyone who didn't help. Everyone who made me one step closer to being a recluse. Everyone who couldn't understand me because I couldn't say two words that made sense together. Everyone was to blame, the stars were telling me that it's okay if you were wrong, it's only you that got hurt.
So I looked away from the sky, back to the midnight streets of downtown. A different kind of busy, as from the kind when the sun was up and those stars were bothering someone else. The streets weren't as full, the sidewalks mostly clearer, yet it was still fast, bustling tonight. Streaks of brightness passed every few seconds, as cars roamed the night with abandon. It was as though when night came real work was done, work with no rules, suits or briefcases, just work to be done and home to be look-forward to. The midnight folk followed different rules: you don't stare at the sky for periods at a time, for instance. I was not a midnight person. But those who were had a kind of freedom I rarely saw in the daytime anymore. Less people in the dim light of lampposts meant less inhibition: scratch yourself there, throw away that can on the ground. Just an underground life in an above-the-ground city.
Normally, I found these streets harmful to my system. Cold, heartless, dark, vague. At night, my eyes go from worse to don't even bother. My head runs at speeds unheard of, but taxes itself, again and again. By night, I'm lucky if I can follow two thoughts in the same direction. That says I'm a morning person, which I am; I prefer to get at the world when my batteries are fresh, and so is my hair. So tonight I sat in the bench just outside the station, a cup of coffee in my hand and the other in my thick brown coat. I reminded to myself I'm a night person, I really didn't prefer this situation, but then I reminded back to the first reminder that this is how it would be done, and maybe a final night wouldn't be so hard to take.
I checked my hand for the time but that didn't know, neither did my wrist, or other arm. None of them knew where my watch was either, but that was okay, it was broken anyway. I turned around and saw the big clock outside the station's entrance. I think it read 11:52pm, but it was so high and so dark and so hazy that it could have also read "3432.AMBDOHELLO343" and I wouldn't have known otherwise. Just a bit before midnight, I guessed, just 23 minutes till my train got under way. I had half a cup left, which may or may not make it to the end, but it would hope for a valiant attempt at it.
I closed my eyes, trying to calm myself down before I eventually panicked, as I knew I always do, always when there's a clock and a deadline involved. I saw myself in a wisp of a cloud, reading a pamphlet. "So you're thinking of running away…" was on the front page. This was good, this was helpful; I like to have concrete, step-by-step instructions to difficult things. I saw myself turn the page:
"So you're thinking of running away. Life hasn't been what you expected. No one seems to care or understand. Tragedy and circumstances have robbed you of a better life. So where else do you turn, but to that street you're never seen, with a sling on your back and a new beginning just over that horizon…"
I liked the intro. So I turned again:
"Running away. It isn't for everyone. It's quite known that most problems have many solutions, some better than other, all not requiring this drastic act of leaving. Things can be worked out, friendships mended, opportunities taken advantage of. But if you're reading this, you know that already. You've probably spent most of your life trying the other solutions out. The vacations. The time-outs. The different characters you play in a day. If you haven't done these things, then stop reading and try them out right now. Seek some help, because this pamphlet isn't for you. But if you have done these things, if the idea of packing your most essentials and nothing more thrills you, the excitement of a new, unknown city, with a name you may or may not own yet, overwhelms your thoughts, then continue away. This guide will ease you through the tough spots, from the Initial Packing, to the Moment of Goodbye. We'll take you gently through the First Encounter in Your New Home, Getting Started-the Right Way, and most importantly, the chapter you most likely came to read, the pages you should put to your heart and mind, chapter 5, "How Not To Mess Up Again". Expert commentary and advice from veteran packers, stories that will inform you, make you laugh and cry, all true, all filled with experiences and emotions that fill you too. So let us be your walking stick, compass and weather vane. The road you choose may not be the safest or most taken, but it's the way for you."
I wiped a tear rolling off the corner of my eye; that was so beautiful, so breathtaking. I actually had to wait for my breath to come back before I realized I wasn't alone.
Standing in the shadow of a lamppost, which seems impossible, but trust me, they're there, was a hunched coat, in an assortment of baggy clothes. I presume a man was in the coat, a man only because I doubt a woman could get away with such poor posture. This hunched-over coat was looking in my direction, as looked in the direction of forward, across the street, to a wall filled with posters I couldn't read or recognize, thereby making them absolutely useless to me. I stayed still, merely a stone statue on a bench, till I felt it move a bit. I turned and he was sitting next to me, an elderly black man, in clothes that seemed too big for him yet appropriate for this weather. I stared back at the hazy posters, mixes of red, white, I thought, yet in the dimness of the night, they could be green and orange for all I knew. I knew so very little. Even less that night. Maybe that's why I was running away.
"Seems like a late night for you, son," he turned his head towards me when I did the same, a friendly smile that seemed to shine his white teeth like a flash from a camera. He held it for a second, just a friendly gesture, then faced forward as well, maybe at the posters on the wall, or a faraway world I couldn't even imagine of thinking of.
"I'm waiting for a train. Next train I mean." Conversation was another nighttime activity I failed so well, at least during the day I was funny and just had weird conversations anyway. But tonight was the last night, so I gave it a go, a parting shot at the city that laughed so well at me.
"A trip this late at night. It isn't an emergency, is it?" His voice grew worried, as though he had a stake in the answer.
"No, no, just a trip on my own."
"That's good. I mean, no tragedies or nothing." His voice seemed to gain that quality of being far-away, as though he wasn't telling me as he was telling his autobiographer. "I remember when I was a young father, and I had to drive my boys to the hospital every night they couldn't sleep cause of something was hurtin' em. An ear, a stomach, something in their throat. You know, me and my wife were helpless to that, you see; we didn't know how to deal with an ear or eye. A cut on a hand you can see, you can stop. But how can you help someone when they're hurting inside, where you can't get to it.
"So it'd be midnight, or one, or two, and I'd be driving one of the boys to the hospital, the emergency room, nurses looking tired and my boy trying not cry, but still doing it. There ain't no worse ride than riding your kid to the hospital. It's all you can do to not break the law, you're still helpless to that tiny child whose hurt you can't take away. Oh my, oh my…."
In the course of his story two buses passed by, a red fast-looking car, and a shopping cart across the street jangled away. I know all this because when he was done talking, I asked myself if I was here, and if I was, what did I notice? Because I had the weirdest feeling that I was thinking of a hurt inside you can't help on your own, a hurt you can't get to, pain that no one else can even touch.
I didn't have much to say after that; actually I didn't even have a few. Maybe a "Yes," but I'd save that for a preacher in a congregation. I looked at him, just so he would know I listened, managed a quick nod, and stared away at the sidewalk four lanes away. I remembered my coffee, but remembered too late; it had gone cold in this chilly midnight air, but still remained the last of my final meal here, so gone it went into my stomach.
He spoke again, after reminiscing about his boys, perhaps, with a voice that was meant for me this time: "I didn't mean to ramble on. Where you off to, young guy like yourself?"
I was about to answer him, then realized that I didn't know. I bought a ticket to the most farthest away I could get from where I was, hoping al least to give myself an opportunity to get off anywhere in between. In fact, to be sure, I only knew a direction.
"East. I'm going east, somewhere."
"Don't you know where you going? I mean exactly."
"No." I was about to add sir, but formality really makes me feel weird in a conversation. I hated using names and titles, I gestured to who I was talking to and that person usually got the message. "I mean, other than east, I'm not sure yet what town I want to get off at."
"You leaving from something? I mean, if it's bad, don't go telling me, but if you can, then…well, it's up to you."
"I'm leaving for the sake of leaving."
"For the sake of…what does that mean?"
"I'm leaving…to start… a new life."
We remained in awkward silence, which sucks because I left a lot of people in awkward silences before, usually following one of my weird conversations. Then he spoke again:
"What's wrong with the life you go?"
"Nothing. Nothing, really."
"Seems like you healthy enough. Wearing clean clothes. Eating, drinking coffee. What's there over east that's better than what you got now?"
Damn the old for their experience and wisdom. Those were the first thoughts coming out of my head. The second was how I usually come back with a smarter remark than the first one, but not this late at night, and not to someone who probably got smarter than me when he had his first kid. Besides, no one really likes a wise ass. The best they do is laugh at him.
"Whatever's east is what they don't have here. I mean…let me say…East isn't here. Whatever's over there, isn't here. I mean…"
"You trying to say you're running away."
I knew he was smarter than ten of me's. Or at least one for every kid he raised.
"Yes, that's exactly it."
"Now what's gotten to you that's made you go quits. That isn't a good thing, you know."
"There's a pamphlet I have….read…nevermind. It's just something…I have to do."
"How is running away something you have to do? Seems to me it's something you try to avoid."
"Can't. It's in me. What I have to do to survive…"
"No. Surviving isn't about running away. Running away don't help you survive. You'll just die some other place, cause you can't keep running forever. Surviving is about having the strength and will to face whatever. Listen to an old man, a father for a minute. You know how many times I thought about being where you are right now. Young guy, healthy, still full of life to be lived. Too much responsibility I didn't want. Responsibility to myself, my family. I didn't plan being a daddy at 21. Two kids when I'm 23. But it happened and I got scared, sure. I'll admit that. I didn't have the strength some nights to get through it all. Lord, I nearly went crazy some nights, lying in bed, four mouths I had to feed and not even going to college like my friends. Hard life, hard life for a kid. But you don't find a way to run away. You don't turn away from your problems. You got to face them. Stick it out. C'mon, boy, be a man. Ain't nothing over there east that can help you. You just got to get some strength and face life straight. Only real way to survive. Only way to make something of yourself."
The old man had finished then took some breathes for himself. His eyes were seeing stories again, images and memories from his own episodes. Finally, he leaned forward, till I thought he was going to fall, then he stood up, a hunched-over coat outside an old man again.
"Off home now. Wife'll kill me for wandering out late again. Good luck, boy, you go and have some good luck now."
He nodded off a good night, and walked down the street, another of the midnight people and their mysterious ways.
I leaned back in on the bench, then I knew. Panic would come soon, because panic knows my head like it's its bedroom. I turned around and guessed it said 12:08am. Back again across the street my eyes remained on the posters. It was so easy, fifteen minutes ago, easy as sin, easy as…
My eyes closed again, and the last thing it saw still there. The pamphlet and its serene-full cover. So you're planning to run away…easy choice, an easy decision to live with for me. This 'is' what I wanted, that I was sure of. Dreamed of, wanted so, ached mightily for in my worst days. Here's where my dreams have been spent, on an imaginary train headed nowhere, east, south, up, just away, always away. This is where my dreams are spent.
I opened my eyes and saw the dimly lit streets, dirty as the walls on the buildings. The darkness in the sky was vague, confusing, unreal, the cars menacing, loud, dangerous. This is what I wanted to leave. My heart ticked faster, because it knew I'd either go or stay. But if I stayed it'd be for the worse, because I'd be giving up on going, which was giving up on staying in the first place. There were no real good choices in this whole deal. But I wanted to leave, had to leave. That was where the peace remained.
12:12am. A deep breathe, but that told me nothing, so I begged at the sky to not laugh at me and tell me something I could use. Echoes of its silence, and yet it gave me something anyway. I can either say the sky's beautiful or laughing at me, it doesn't matter, it's always the same. It's always the same. God, Lord, Mercy, how depressing. No matter where I go, the jokes will be the same. I'll still drink the same coffee when I'm depressed. I'll still tell people how weird they look in that outfit. It'll be messy wherever I go.
Unless I decide clean up my own mess. Living or surviving…there isn't much choice, except to not run away. I tossed the pamphlet from my mind, a touch of regret but that'll pass in time. I walked back home, as the train made its departure. The hurt was still inside, where no one can help. No one, but a trip to the….no, not yet. Baby steps. Or otherwise I'll be falling on my face all over again. I wondered if I could be ever smart enough to know if I am right or wrong.
I decided to be glad I was at least a morning person, and dawn was only a few hours ahead.
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