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.”