The skin of his forehead had deep set rivulets that reminded me of the valleys melting glaciers leave behind on a mountainside. I wondered if I could stick pennies in between their folds. Would they stay? How many could I fit across the great expansion of his neanderthal-like skull?
“There’s obviously the problem of induction, among other things…” the man droned on.
I watched with rapt fascination as a single loose piece of flesh dangled off his top lip. I bet whether it would drop into his mouth or fly across the room towards me the way his spittle did as he prattled on about his philosophies on life, taxes, and shoulding me to death.
“Maybe you should take a hike,” he suggested.
See? That word again. Should. It might as well be the word shame because that’s what it made me feel every time he threw it at me like a hot javelin trying to pierce my thick, dim-witted skin.
A tug at my pant leg brought me out of my reverie.
“Come on, Dax, let’s go for a walk,” I exclaimed, scooping up the leash of my emotional support dog. He was a mix of different hounds and had an excellent sense of smell. As well as emotional upheaval. Thus, his timely tug.
“But where are you going? We just got started!” exclaimed the man with the glacier face.
“I’m taking your advice!” I rejoiced.
“Which piece?” he countered, seeming affronted by my abrupt departure.
“Does it matter?” I shrugged and stomped out the door.
With the sun beginning to dip below the horizon, I ambled along the sidewalk, keeping pace with the soft thumping sound of my canine companion’s feet in the dirt. A slight breeze wafted past and rustled through some trees to our right. It smelled sweet and clean despite its coolness.
“Some people take themselves way too seriously, Dax. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean, it was almost like he didn’t even see us there until I stood to leave. Just rambled on about a lot of nothing. Liked to hear himself talk, that one. But he was our last option in this town, boy. And I’m still utterly lost. What are we going to do?”
Dax answered by stopping to lift his leg on the tire of a car parked along the curb.
“Oi! Mind your dog!” The owner shouted, wagging his finger at me.
Great! More shame. “Why is this world bent on crushing me with shame?!” I cried as I tugged at Dax’s leash.
We moved further down the road, headed toward some unknown destination. I just needed to breathe.
Continuing to talk to myself as we walked, I cheered myself up some with more anecdotes about this latest therapist and the decision to leave the session. But my problems remained. And the thing about talking to yourself while walking outside in public is to make sure nobody can hear you.
“Excuse me? I couldn’t help but overhear you,” a voice called behind me.
Just my luck! I could feel my body curling in on itself as my cheeks burned hot. The heat spread to my ears and my chest. The hives would come next. I picked up the pace as I fanned my hair in front of my face in a sad attempt to disappear. With my eyes fixed straight ahead, I tugged Dax to pick up the pace.
“Excuse me?” I heard the voice again. It rushed out as if they were running behind me.
I quickened my step, hoping whoever it was would lose interest and continue on their way.
“Is everything alright?” the voice called.
My face grew warmer, which I didn’t think was possible. Could someone actually spontaneously combust from shame? But why was I ashamed? Shouldn’t they be embarrassed for eavesdropping? Was I obligated to answer? What harm would there be in simply thanking the person for their concern and dismissing them?
My head was spinning, and I turned around without meaning to. I’d never been in this situation before, I realized. “Everything is fine. Just a bad day,” I blurted out louder than I intended. “I mean, I’ve had worse. So much worse,” I sighed, holding back a sob. Dax barked sharply, snapping me back to reality. What was I doing?!
As the person stopped in front of me, I had to look up and look up some more before reaching the cool gray eyes of the most beautiful human I’d ever seen. Their posture screamed authority and a hint of condescension. Maybe it was the way they frowned while looking down at me or how they stuffed their hands into their pants pockets and blew out a puff of air. I felt like a child who’d been lost roaming the neighborhood for the umpteenth time, and they were annoyed they’d have to walk me home to my parents yet again.
Dax growled a low warning as he inched forward to sniff the stranger’s left loafer.
“Holy Moly!” I barked, startling all three of us.
“What?!” the stranger asked, ducking and looking around as if to check whether we were under attack by creatures from Mars.
“Look at the size of your feet!” I blurted out. Then I stuffed my fist into my mouth to prevent oozing any further foolishness.
They threw their head back with great gusto and laughed hard enough their body shook. The outburst startled Dax, and he began barking and jumping at them to make them stop. Or to join in, I couldn’t be sure.
“Dax! Stop! Down!” I commanded, yanking my companion by his leash in short, authoritative bursts. Because he was so well trained and the smartest dog on the planet, Dax’s response was immediate, coming to sit by my feet in a show of protection and ownership.
“I’m sorry. Obviously, my mind is not in the right state. And my dog is trained to react to my emotional needs…” I drift off, looking down at my loyal companion and rubbing his ears to soothe him and myself. My hands tremored out of nerves and embarrassment.
“No need to apologize. I do have large feet. But I’m six-eight, so it would be weird if they weren’t right?” the stranger smiled a closed-lip smile that made a dimple appear as if by magic on the left corner of their mouth. I wanted to climb inside and curl into the fetal position.
I nodded absently at their commentary and then turned to go.
I pause in an awkward half-turn, “Yes?”
“Well, I heard you before,” they paused, “and well. I’ve been there before. I might be able to help.”
I looked them up and down. They were well dressed. Designer, for sure. Bespoke, maybe. Not a hair out of place, not a hint of wrinkles or errant facial hair. Then I looked down at my legs and feet. I wore ten-year-old denim, shoes whose soles were worn into the shape of my foot, and mismatched socks, because they were the cleanest in the pile of dirty clothes heaped onto my bedroom/living room/everything roomed floor.
“I doubt that very much. But you are kind to at least stop and ask. I think everyone around here has just accepted me as the weirdo recluse that can’t get their shit together. I might as well cross the street, buy a bottle of their cheapest stuff in a paper bag, and go hang out in the park.”
“But you and I both know that won’t solve anything long-term. Even if it will feel pretty good at the moment. How about instead we walk to the park and talk.”
“Umm. No. I don’t know you! You could try and rob me. Or worse,” I replied, trying to sound strong when I felt small and weak at that moment. I really wanted to trust someone with my problem.
The stranger laughed at my accusation. “You’re right, of course. I’ve been missing the smallest pair of worn-out Converse to add to my collection of oddities. You’ve caught me!”
I turned to walk back in the direction Dax and I had come from. It was more populated with storefronts and streetlights.
“Wait.” The stranger reached out their hand. It was the largest hand I’d ever seen on a human. But on instinct, I gave mine in return. I was surprised by its lack of warmth yet softness, much like the person. They appeared all hard-edged and unapproachable, yet they had stopped me, a stranger on the street, simply because of something they overheard that concerned them.
“I’m Abe. Dr. Abraham Milton.”
“A doctor, huh? What kind?” Now I was being rude, but I didn’t care. I was suspicious. Did my mother put them up to this? She was sick of supporting me while I struggled to make it as an adult. Every time I told her about a failure, and there were many, she’d verbally kick me while I was down by telling me how disappointed she was. ‘Where is my ROI?’ she’d say. As if having a child was an investment like one of her financial portfolios.
“I’m a geologist. Well, really, an orographer. I study mountains.”
“And you were named after Abraham Lincoln because of your giant-like physiology?” I laughed, trying to take away some of the sting of my previous question.
“No. Maslow. The psychologist. Both of my parents were psychologists,” Abraham explained.
“So, were you a disappointment to your family, too, when you didn’t take on the family business?”
“You could say that,” he answered, stuffing his hands back in his pockets and turning to walk with me back in the direction we first met. “You know what it’s like to disappoint your family with your life decisions, I take it?” Abe asked.
“You could say that,” I echoed his reply.
Then we began to walk. Despite his long legs, he easily matched his pace to mine as we chatted. He filled me in on why he was in our little town and I gave him a little history lesson on its origins. More importantly, he brought up what he heard me say.
“You should come hike with me up the trail. I could use an assistant while I collect some soil samples. We could talk more about your struggles. Leave your worries on the mountainside.”
It was tempting. Abraham seemed genuine. His authenticity reminded me of an article my therapist, two therapists ago, had given me. It was about having the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable in order to discover your true self. But still, was it safe to go off mountaineering in the wilderness with a stranger?
“You can bring Dax, of course. And I suggest some bear spray, just in case. You never know what you’ll encounter on your climb.”
I liked both of his suggestions. If he got out of line, both of those things would come in handy. “Can I think about it? I mean, we just met. And well, look at me. I’m not exactly Everest ready.” I emphasized my comment by displaying my relatively puny legs. As a kid, I was teased about my size or lack thereof. My gran called me her little pixie, but it never felt like she meant it lovingly. More another disappointment in a long list of disappointments.
“One of the things that helped me fall in love with geology and orology was what mountains stand for metaphorically. They are these massive piles of earth, mysterious in origin, often threatening in what secrets they hold. But once you step foot on one and start climbing, you realize all sorts of things about what it’s made of and what you are made of. The results are many times surprising. And when you reach the top…The reward! All you need to do is decide to put one foot in front of the other. If you get stuck, you can call for help. If you go with someone, you can rely on each other to reach your destination together. And if you decide it’s too dangerous, you can always switch paths or even switch mountains! You are in control.”
“Yeah, until a bear tries to eat you or a poisonous snake bites your ankle. Then your S.O.L!” I chided, rolling my eyes at his dreamy description.
“Well, that’s why I go prepared. Of course, there is always something I might not have thought of…extra food and water in case I get lost…things like that. But, I find in those instances is where I grow the most as a person.”
“You must have been unprepared a lot! You’ve grown a little too much,” I teased.
“And you could use a little growth, Hobbit,” he retorted, patting me on the top of my head like one would a child.
Boy, was he right about that. On so many levels. “Okay. Let’s give this a try. Give me a list of what I need to bring, and I’ll see what I can rustle up. I’ve got nothing to lose at this point…” other than my life, I added silently. And it hasn’t been much of one up to this point.
Abe, Dax, and I ascended on our little adventure three days later. I learned that the type of footwear you have affects how many blisters you end up with. And you shouldn’t pack more than your body weight of supplies in your backpack, no matter what size the pack the adventure store clerk sold you. I also discovered that the local mountain I had taken for granted my entire life was home to a rare salamander species important to the area’s ecosystem. Dr. Abe showed me the different striations of the soil and what that could mean for its age and formation origins.
But most importantly, our adventure taught me that a good distraction and getting outside of my head (and limited environment) could do wonders for my outlook on things. I’m by no means cured of all my self-diagnosed afflictions, but I’m grateful for the people who tried to help me along the way. Especially Dr. Abraham Milton, who, through his own self-discovery and grace, could pay it forward to someone who really needed his help that night. For what he overheard was my plan to end my life.
I had reached such a low point that I did not see any other possible outcome. If I had not spoken those words aloud without thought of who might hear them, I would not be able to tell this story. So do yourself a favor, dear reader. Find yourself a mountain and go for it. Or maybe even a nice walking trail to start, especially if you’re like me and have no idea what to bring on such a journey. Having just a little empathy for yourself will go a long way in dousing your shame. And get you on a path moving forward, upward, to a place where you can see beyond what seems insurmountable. One foot in front of the other. And don’t forget to pay it forward.