stepping stones

IMG_0627It started in Las Vegas.

Face down. Massage table. Head cradled in a donut shaped arm. Oil so slippery it hardly feels like he’s touching me. Two hot stones, one in each of his hands, press up my back, around my shoulders, and land in my palms, where they rest until the next stones push them aside.

Actually, it started two hours earlier. Hotel room. Easy flight. The beginning of my adventure. Spurred by the smell of easy money and a suggestion whispered at work the night before, I call the hotel spa.

“Hot stone,” I read as the receptionist picks up the line. It sounds nice. “I’ve never had a hot stone massage before,” I tell the lady on the phone. “why not? No, I don’t mind a male masseuse. Yes, Tony is fine.”

It might’ve started earlier than that. October. The astrologer tells me that I will spend the year getting comfortable with loneliness. I assume he is talking about my own personal loneliness. I’m not worried. My loneliness is a stone rubbed smooth and worn down to a manageable size. I carry it in my pocket and feel for it from time to time. I’m not worried at all.

Maybe started earlier than that. The year I lug my cello from coast to coast on the train, and sit outside Berkeley, drinking coffee in the shade of my burden. The case casts shadows over the table and across my arm.

I could take it back to when I was born. Or when that egg chose that sperm. Or when I was star-dust. Who know what was written before I arrived? Or you arrived. Or that other person over there staring into space with a suspicious smile.

But, for our purposes, we’ll say it starts with me face down on a massage table in Las Vegas under the confident pressure of Tony’s hands.

The story is the river. Words are the stones.

Tony asks me about me and I tell him that I travel a lot. As much as possible. I tell him I meet people, dates, everywhere I go.

“Tell me one thing you’ve learned,” he says, his hands now on my neck, now at the top of my shoulders, pressing down.

“People are fucking lonely,” I mutter.

“And broken,” he says. “I am.”

He exhales and presses two hot stones into my hands, wraps my fingers around them. Lingers for a moment.

“You know what’s interesting,” I say, half asleep, half dreaming on the table. “People who love their lives are not afraid of death. But people who are miserable are scared to die. You’d think it would be the other way around.”

He squeezes my feet. I look up at him. He smiles at me and I know he doesn’t want to conversation to end. But here I am, covered by a sheet in a vaguely dingy spa in Las Vegas. He turns towards the door.

“Did they give you two right slippers.” he asks.

“They did.”

“Oh, god. I promise not to look down when you walk.”

***

Next, I am standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The majesty is in no way diminished by the scores of chattering tourist, more interested in their smart phones than the majesty that surrounds them.

I stand on a rock, look out, and listen for silence.

“Do you want me to take a picture of you,” someone asks.

I smile, still blurry from the early morning drive and shake my head ‘no.’ I already know what I look like.

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I scramble up a pile rocks behind an abandoned lookout post of and find a pocket of quiet. The helicopters are tiny red bees swimming along the canyon walls.

The sky is broad, the canyon deep. I am even smaller than I feel. We all are.

***

And then, I blink my eyes and am in Phoenix. A caffeinated guy at the coffee shop suggests I hike Camelback Mountain. A drunk guy at a bar suggests I hike Camelback Mountain. It’s a nice walk, they tell me. I have nothing much to do in the town, so I find a bus in the morning, pay my fare, and figure out, with the help of another passenger, how to get there.

“You’re not climbing in that,” she says, pointing to my skirt.

I shrug. “I’m traveling,” I say. “It’s what I brought to wear.”

“But the shoes,” she says, and points to my boot. I show her my sneakers in the bottom of my bag. That’s when she tells me where to go when I get off the bus.

The climb is only a mile and a half. I change my shoes. Boots firmly cradled in my tote bag, I start walking.

The path is rock. All rock. The incline points straight to the sky. And I pull myself up, hand over foot, tote bag knocking on my side, for a mile and half. Panting. Heaving. Climbing. A string of metaphors wraps itself around my boggled brain.

I try to convince myself with every step I take that it’s okay to quit before I reach the top.

Half a mile to go, on a steep patch, a handsome man in a soft fishing cap breezes by me and smiles. I wish I asked his name.

A quarter-mile left, facing a sheer stone, someone stops and asks me if I’m lost, even though there are only two directions to go. Up and down.

***

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I sleep on the dark side of Hawaii. Puna.

Black sand.

Volcanoes.

A jarring landscape of jagged rocks and sand

Witness, power of nature. Full of love, lacking sentimentality.

The last morning I wake up in Hawaii, I still don’t understand why I felt like I was pulled there.

A person I meet in Puna wants to show me something in Hilo my last day in town. A waterfall. We watch it from the parking lot.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

“Now I want to show you something else,” he says, pulling me up across the lot and up a crude set of stairs to a river.

I take my boots off once more and shove them in my bag. Barefoot, we step from stone to stone.

“There,” he says.

I look past him. We’re at the top of the waterfall, looking down. The water spills past our feet, over the cliff. The breeze is kind and we sit cradled in the rocks. The water pounds past us.

And he asks me about love and loneliness.

And I say, “people are fucking lonely.”

And he says, “and broken.”

And everything makes sense.

***

Days later, I’m with a friend, who’s like a sister, at the Museum of Natural History. New York City. A thousand little people with little hands and loud little voices run through the exhibits pushing and knocking adults out of their way.

My friend takes my hand and leads me through the museum halls and exhibits.

“We’ll look at the rocks,” she says. “No one ever goes to the rocks.”

When we reach the exhibit, rocks and minerals in a dark room that smells like the sixties, a thousand more little people chase each other around the room. Some of them cry.

She jets off to find a special stone. I sit on bit of a platform, rest head in my hands. The voices of children clamber through my fragile mind.

Her hand rests on my shoulder. I look up. Our eyes meet.

She nods. I sigh. She laughs.

And then, nothing makes sense all over again.

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