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Romance Sad Friendship

Into the forest, I go, or some bullshit like that to find my soul, or to fall off the side of a mountain, either is fine at this point. My roommate Griff was supposed to come with me on a hike to find myself, but he bailed on me at the last minute claiming I was in too much of a therapy session playlist sort of mood to be any sort of good company. It’s fine, a hike alone is what I need after the way I behaved two weeks ago at our annual summer house party.


My hiking poles got caught under the backseat when I reached for them, bringing me right to the edge of exasperation. Heat climbed the nape of my neck the way it does when the feeling of losing control overcomes my body. A hike up Jefferson in the warmth of the summer light is the kind of medicine I need to fix what ails me. I double knotted my boots and made sure I had everything I needed with me for the trek. 


When I was ten my family doctor told my mother, “Jay will likely grow out of this anxiousness. Teach him how to control his breathing and he should be okay.” 


Twenty-six years old and I still can’t turn my breath into a complete square, never managing my way past a second exhale or third inhale. The rush of adrenaline shoved a giant bark from my body as onlookers saw me toss the poles out of the car. Growling and throwing things is one way to find ease in my breathwork I suppose, and probably a bit safer than yelling at the squirrels and chucking rocks off the trail.


If my roommate Griff were here, he’d grab the hiking poles and tell me to take a breath, that the pole was still usable and that the day was still going to be great. Griff was my polar opposite, if he wanted to take it easy he just would. He possessed the confidence of a car salesman that could shake a person’s hand closing the deal on being liked in a matter of seconds. When I met someone new my gaze would dart for all of the exits in the room. My neck would twist as if it were incredibly sore from trying to hold my attention in place and beautiful Nova was witness to this the first time Griff introduced us.


“Jay, this is my sister Nova. You two have a lot in common. Jay here loves hiking and he loves tea the way you do. You’re both like a couple of old folks who might go bird watching together on a Sunday.” 


A coy chuckle escaped her rosy lips. “A fellow tea drinker huh?”

The mere mention of tea made me thirsty as time slowed down and Nova extended her hand my way. My palms held a coat of moisture that would make this handshake unpleasant, but she made no mention of it. A slow smile moved across her peachy lips. Without hesitation she made her way to the kitchen to fill the kettle, placing it over the gas burner. It was the first time I’d ever met Nova, and yet the way that she got two mugs down and unwrapped the tea bags allowed me to complete the fourth breath. An entire square. For once I could inhale and exhale like it was the easiest thing to do.


“Is Earl Grey good with you Jay?”

****


Griff was right, Nova and I did have a lot in common. She’d come over on the weekends to study in our basement because it was quiet and there was a kitchenette that allowed for easy tea access. It didn’t seem to cross her mind to ask if I wanted company in the study space I’d designated as my own for the last year. She was the type of person who had mozied her way in like a cat taking possession of what she wanted and I was too anxious to explain why I needed her simultaneously near and also far away. Nova didn’t do much studying in the basement, she’d simply think out loud about all sorts of things while I pretended to not listen to every word she said.


Plopping on the couch across from me she’d asked if I had any new hikes planned as the tea kettle hissed and spit in the background. 


“Jay, you know I should come with you sometime. I haven’t been to half of these places that you’ve hiked.” 


My insides screamed unanimously that I should tell her to come along, that I would love nothing more than for her to join me on a hike. I pinched at the side of my arm to self-regulate, bending my head closer to my laptop to hide the burn of my cheeks. 


“Nova, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” 


It was a good idea, the best I’d heard in a very long time.

It felt like the best idea in the entire world to have her alone with me on a hike where I could listen to her breathe with ease. The kettle whistled, breaking the trance of disappointment and confusion that masked her face. Nova hustled to stop the scream of the kettle and the air in my throat choked on my poor attempt at a second exhale. When she was close by the square was whole and when she was away it was just gasps of oxygen desperate to climb down my airway. 


Nova came back with two mugs of Earl Grey. She’d left the string tucked around the handle of my mug allowing me to steep mine just a little bit longer. 


“Don’t you love the smell of Bergamot Jay?” She sipped the citrus-laced tea lazily, showing no sign that my words had afflicted her.


I hadn’t thought about the smell of Bergamot, or much of anything else when Nova would come to keep me company. My thoughts spiraled like helicopter seeds heavy and light all at the same time caught up by wind with no clear direction when she was nearby. 


“I guess it’s fine.” 


Her knees cozied up to her chest allowing her to place the mug close to her face. The steam forced her eyes closed on a deep inhale as if it were the first thing she’d ever smelled in her life. 


“Bergamot is the embodiment of self-love. Drinking tea is so therapeutic don’t you think? I breathe in the steam and it’s as if everything inside of me opens up, and I’m good enough and I feel content.” She shook her head looking a bit embarrassed by her confession of drinking tea like it was a religious experience. 


“I guess I never thought about it like that."

****


The night of the party I found myself in the basement cleaning my space feeling frustrated that Griff couldn't respect that the basement was off-limits. Nova found me gathering bottles and cans and cursing under my breath. I knew the look on her face as I’d seen it a million times from people like my mom and my therapist. She wanted to help. She wanted to get close but I was lost in the heaviness of chaos in my space when she grabbed the side of my hand. 


“Let me help you, Jay.” 


Mortified by my weakness being witnessed I jerked my wrist away. I wanted to be loved and not seen as someone who so desperately needed another person’s help. I wanted to not lose all my nerve every time Nova was around and to feel normal for once in my damn life. To just let the day be good for once because I wanted it to be.


“I don’t need your help, Nova.” 


Help, that’s all she had wanted to give me. At that moment though I was someone she needed to bestow her charity upon and shame filled me to the brim, a cup of piping hot tea spilling over burning those that touched me.

****


“Jay! Hey! Wait up!”


Nova emerged in a cloud of dust hurried in my direction leaving me disoriented. Confusion wasn’t one of my finer character traits. I liked certainty and control. Griff had made me the party proctor two weeks ago for a reason. I’d gathered keys, assigned designated drivers, and separated glass bottles from the aluminum cans for recycling. I earned the title by keeping order in place and my anxiety in check. Sugary energy drinks mixed with Vodka and dancing on tables to “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” wasn’t my idea of a good time. 


The memory of that night felt fresh on my skin. “Nova, what are you doing here?!”


For the first time, I watched as Nova tried to catch her breath. 

“Hiking. Same as you.”


A gain of 4000 ft in under 2.5 miles might rob me of my chance to tell Nova how eternally sorry I am. Mountain air is thin, and if it’s required to move one foot in front of the other over the cragginess of the trail I’ll need Nova to be my two molecules of oxygen more than ever before. 


She breaks eye contact first making her way to the trailhead past the sign that says, “Only carry in what you plan to carry out.” Nova’s always been steadfast and I could trust her to mend any problem that comes her way. She stands upright when a rocky trail aims to break her, us, apart midway through. 


The memory of the fight she and I had rushed back to the center of my chest. I watched her move her walking stick through the uneven terrain as if doing hard things was her birthright. This is the first time I’ve struggled to breathe around her. I picture Nova having to schlep me down the trail because if I’m certain of anything it’s that I’ll asphyxiate on my anxiety.


I decided to follow her up the trail in spite of the elevation. I slowly learn every groove of her soul as I watch her move surefooted with each step. With every step I punish myself for my harsh words, and decide that I need to get ahold of myself and come out with an apology. The loosening of rocks under my feet catches her attention bringing her to an abrupt stop. I give her a sincere look, one that desperately wants to pour us both some Earl Grey and soothe this ache away. 


“Don’t look at me like that Jay, like you have something nice to say for once.”


Friends don’t look at each other like this, and yet here I stand with my head in the clouds, and my eyes lost on her face looking at me like she hopes I’ll say the right words for once. My head feels high from the ascent we’re both traversing and I want to scream that I love her and that I like her and that I’ve been a mess since I was ten years old and none of this is her fault. The words pour out of my mouth before I have time to reconsider. 


“You used to leave your tea bags in our sink. I hated it and also found it endearing all at the same time because they were yours. These tiny little bags of tea leaves smelled of bergamot and mushed over food scraps. The tea bags would just sit there completely lacking all their flavor. I couldn’t understand what was so damn hard about walking five more steps to throw a tea bag in the trash Nova.”


I committed to pushing through the square.


“You came into my contained little bubble and shook everything up and taught me how to breathe again. I haven’t taken a full breath since I was ten and then there you were, and suddenly I could complete the breathing square. You can’t know how difficult that is. Then you asked me if I needed help. I didn't want to be your charity, because you felt bad for me.”


I plucked the rich purple lupine from the side of the upright trail. As a gesture of goodwill, I tucked the flower behind her ear. The tension melted momentarily. Her grip on the walking stick said she wasn’t ready to forgive me. Rightfully so, I was an absolute asshole to her. Nova could tumble off the mountain top, gone forever and at least I’d have heard the words, “Let me help you, Jay,” from her perfectly bow-shaped lips.


She cranked her back to me and I waited for her to exhale so that I could carry on breathing again.


“I’m so sorry Nova. I didn’t need your help, I need-” The need comes out in a whisper.


Nova whipped around, her boots unsteady in the now uneven terrain. 


“What does a tea bag have to do with anything? With us? What do you need Jay, huh? If you don’t want my help, what in the hell do you need?” Her hands pointed swiftly back and forth from her chest to mine. 


“Nova, never mind what I need-” 


I carry my body to her for once, in the same way that she has carried me cups of self-acceptance every weekend for the last year. My fingers attempt to right my racing heart when I hike her hand up to my chest. 


“I need-” the muddy soil slips underfoot pulling me deeper into the breath that she gives so freely. 


The glisten of sweat on her cheeks brightens her smile, “Tell me, Jay.”


I can only focus on the rise and fall of my chest with her hand upon it. One, inhale. Two, exhale. Three, inhale. Four, exhale.


“You’re my oxygen, Nova. I need you to breathe.”


January 10, 2022 21:51

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33 comments

Deon Voltz
18:56 Jan 14, 2022

Loved this! Anxiety was spot on, especially him fumbling with the hiking poles. When I am feeling that anxious everything is aggravating.

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Shea West
19:23 Jan 14, 2022

I throw things, as long as kids aren't around🤣 But I usually say things I don't mean, and I dislike that a bunch😭

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00:51 Jan 12, 2022

I'm sure Jay is a very nice man, but I'm Team Nova all the way. He lost me at "hiking poles." (Are they a thing? Why are they a thing?) Are we sure Jay isn't just secretly hot for Griff? Either way, Jay needs to repair that Oedipal mess with his overbearing mother who still buys his socks and underwear (I'm not wrong here.) He did win me back at the end with the last line. I'd probably date him for 2 1/2 more weeks just for that, but then dump him outside a Dunkin' Donuts. But I'm cruel that way. Best verb use ever: mozied English teach...

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Shea West
03:15 Jan 12, 2022

Deidra, Anxiety is a real kick in the dick. I was hopeful that I'd conveyed that here. Jay is crippled by it and can't function around her😵‍💫😵‍💫😵‍💫 Also my dead grandma is likely chastising my poor grammar and rooting you on for reminding me where the eff a comma goes. This was a "Hooray I got words on the page!" Sort of week🤣🤣🤣🤣 Thanks for reading my temperate garbage😝

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12:20 Jan 12, 2022

I have a dear friend with anxiety (and really, two of my own adult children in this shite world we're "living" in). You did a good job at portraying sweet Jay, and I feel like a mean girl (Lori Greene!) for making fun of his poles. And now that sounds like a double entendre... I looked up square breathing and I LIKE IT. A great way to calm down before committing menopausal road rage. Love you. Love every word you put on the page.

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K. Antonio
21:52 Jan 16, 2022

Today I figured our that hiking poles are a thing. xD

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Anna Nonymous
17:05 Jan 25, 2022

Sweetest story ever. As a fellow hiker, lover of tea, and exceptionally anxious human being, this hit all the spots. Well done!

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Shea West
18:18 Jan 25, 2022

Thank you Hannah. I've navigated anxiety through most of my life, and I aimed to show how it can look different for some people. I appreciate the read.

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Zelda C. Thorne
16:12 Jan 25, 2022

Awwww a lovely story. His anxiety was done really well. I felt overwhelming frustration for him and also understanding for Nova. Love a happy ending too.

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Shea West
18:19 Jan 25, 2022

Always love a read from you Rachel!

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Fatima Jawaid
04:51 Jan 20, 2022

What an excellent story! Jay's anxiety was so palpable, I immediately bonded with him as a character. And the idea of Nova being his oxygen was so sweet. Nice work!

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Shea West
05:10 Jan 20, 2022

Thank you Fatima! We're all out here just trying to breathe I think, and when you find something to latch onto it feels like a win.

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Dustin Gillham
00:01 Jan 20, 2022

I really felt this Shea. Great work.

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Shea West
00:46 Jan 20, 2022

Hey thanks for taking the time to read😊

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Scott Skinner
20:08 Jan 17, 2022

I don't know about Jay :/ I think he's putting too much pressure on Nova. To me, what you captured here was the early beginnings of false security. From Jay's perspective, it seems that he thinks he's made some achievement by letting Nova in, but what he's done is set himself up to fail. Telling someone that you need them to breathe is overstepping. He should have consulted Griff about his apology and done whatever he would have recommended (i.e., the polar opposite of what he said). You could argue Jay's made a step by breathing the square ...

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Shea West
21:24 Jan 17, 2022

I wasn't prepared for how much everyone who has read this to say how much they dislike Jay. But I totally see why it's there for everyone. I find that anxiety is a total overstep in and of itself. No one wants it when it shows up, when folks are trying to live their lives etc. Really that's what I was trying to capture... That anxiety is a real dick and sometimes it makes people not very attractive in personality and can drive away those that just want to help. This is a blend of anxiety and co-dependency even though Jay insists he wants n...

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Lisa C
14:07 Jan 19, 2022

Like others have said, the description of anxiety was spot-on. Because of that I felt quite a lot of sympathy for Jay; anxiety makes you completely self-obsessed and you don't heed other people's feelings, but it feels that Jay is suffering much more than anyone else in this story. So, for me, you really captured how anxiety can affect people. The parts where Jay knows he needs Nova's help but, in the next piece of dialogue, rejects her help were very effective.

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Shea West
14:19 Jan 19, 2022

Thank you Lisa! I'm really glad to hear that you found the descriptions of anxiety believable and effective. Self obsessed is a great way to describe it for sure!

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K. Antonio
21:57 Jan 16, 2022

Oh, I hope this at least shortlists. That ending line was super cute. As someone who's suffered with depression and anxiety I totally get this. Funny enough, depression and anxiety makes a person extremely irritable. When I'm on a road rage literally talk to the air and start cursing, and throwing things, and just being very pissy, like Jay with the hiking poles (Honey, those poles would have snapped, they wouldn't have made it out of the car). I liked that this piece does something that I love, which was play with scene cuts and flashb...

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Shea West
00:19 Jan 17, 2022

Thanks K! I'm the same. I get over stimulated and my anxiety makes me ragey. I've drop kicked a few things, I won't even lie🤣🤣🤣 I knew you'd appreciate the flashbacks and scene cuts😉😉

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Charlie Murphy
02:56 Jan 16, 2022

What a sweet ending

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Shea West
03:37 Jan 16, 2022

Thanks Charlie for giving it a read!

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Charlie Murphy
03:46 Jan 16, 2022

You're welcome! Can you read mine

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Daniel R. Hayes
06:53 Jan 14, 2022

Simply wonderful, Shea!! You really shine a light on anxiety with this one and I applaud you for it. In this day and age, I'm sure a lot of people are dealing with these issues and I know a lot of people will relate to this one in some way. I thought the story had a great flow and I really liked the characters. I love your style and this was a fantastic read. Great job as always!!!!! :) :)

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Shea West
10:18 Jan 14, 2022

Hey thanks! This was originally a 250 word piece that I had entered somewhere that I ended up reworking. Sometimes the little stories beg me to make them larger. I did struggle with this piece and trying to find my flow with it. Words on the page am I right?! Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

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Daniel R. Hayes
16:25 Jan 14, 2022

I'm surprised this started out as a 250 word piece. With the way you reworked it, I would have never known! The struggle paid off though because I thought this was excellent!! And YES, anytime we can get some words down is a success story. Some weeks are harder than others, so I know what you mean. ;)

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Shea West
16:59 Jan 14, 2022

Here's the original if you get bored LOL (Genre: Romance, Action: Using a walking stick, Word: Right. You were allowed to use the word right within other words like "bright" or "upright" etc. I got decent feedback from judges but totally saw what I was lacking. It was a good exercise anyway in keeping it concise and impactful.) "Only Carry in What You Can Carry Out" A gain of 4000 ft in under 2.5 miles might rob me of my chance to confess everything. If it’s the mountain’s air that’s required to move my right foot in front of my lef...

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Daniel R. Hayes
17:09 Jan 14, 2022

Wow... I'm speechless! Thanks for letting me read that. I think both versions are incredible! You truly are a wonderous talent that shines through the dark clouds. If I were a judge I would have picked this as a strong contender to win it all!! I think it's great that your trying out other venues to get your work out there. I found some other sites that I thought about contributing to, but I don't have the time right now. I say shoot for the stars, my friend!! :) :)

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Shea West
18:44 Jan 14, 2022

I'm gonna go buy a badge maker today and make you a badge for my fan club. I'm starting the fan club today, hope you don't mind being the president... Bahahahahahaha! You can be my writing hype man any day!

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Francis Daisy
12:12 Jan 13, 2022

Your description of anxiety is spot on. It's everywhere and so hard to live with for sure. I do feel bad for Jay; I'm glad he is getting outside to enjoy hiking and exercise. And, that he has a friend in Nova. One quick typo to fix: "...and made sure I haed everything I needed..."

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Shea West
21:07 Jan 13, 2022

Hey Francis thanks for catching that typo! I appreciate you reading the story and for your feedback.

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Shea West
18:00 Jan 12, 2022

I've navigated anxiety and depression my entire life, and had a therapist who used to tell me to picture myself in a calm place in the woods to find my peace. I hated that dude so hard, because in the woods I was afraid of falling off of the mountain side, being eaten by a bear, or getting lost without rations and freezing to death. As I got older I realized that breathing helped, and now as a doula even more so. I see the tension leave laboring folks bodies when I show them how to breathe. We manage pain better, and feel more confident wh...

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