City of a Different Sunlight

Carolyne Whelan

USA

Here is the spot on the highway towards Albuquerque, where I stood with my thumb out and my bike helmet held over my heart as in salute. I still love the open road. I hitchhiked for many years after this first time, but the pins on my map that led me to the gravel shoulder of I-25 on that Saturday night left pinprick scars in me like a constellation. I still find myself staring into them most nights, wondering what form they’ve taken. After the three sexual assaults that read like a bad joke: a security guard, a tour manager, and an anarchist walk into a bedroom, and the teenager says, get out; after a psychologically abusive relationship; after a time of near-homelessness when I spent the better part of a semester on friends’ couches and in my college library; after the thaw of the northern New Mexico winter that had surprised me with its wind and cold and the sunshine that held so much optimism despite everything, I walked slowly down the highway, not concerned with consequence. I was invincible.

There’s something about Santa Fe that still holds tightly to my heart. The first time my plane flew over that broad landscape, I stared out the window as the clouds cleared into that expansiveness that was nothing like my ‘thickly settled’ (as the street signs warn) Massachusetts home. As my plane nosed down into Albuquerque, the yucca and sagebrush had dotted the plains and the golden leaves of the quaking aspens had crept up the lush mountainsides to the north.

Despite the assaults, unsecure housing and the many mistakes I made that are more typical to young adulthood, it’s my favorite place on earth. I was reckless when I first lived there, though it’s where I learned—not that I wanted to live, but that I wanted to want to live. I was finally open to the idea. It’s that damn sun.

***

A year after this moment on the highway, I decided on a whim to ride my bike down the West Coast, from Washington through California and back to New Mexico. After so much time with no place I was supposed to be, and therefore so many places I could be, living in a house with flatmates felt like a ball and chain. I spent most nights sleeping on the couch outside, the one left out there to dry after beer was spilled on it at a punk show and never brought back in. I stayed up to near dawn some nights, staring at the stars and trying suck them out of the sky with heaving breaths. With skies so dark as New Mexico’s, one’s eyes can focus on the stars and dig further into the infinite abyss, plucking an endless number of stars and cosmic matter until the whole sky looks white with them. The bike ride was just something to do; I’d made no real plans, bought no real gear, and honestly had no set expectation of making it home alive.

One of my new flatmates was sensible enough to volunteer to come with me. We traveled my way, staying on the floors of strangers. I had a confounded insistence that optimism wasn’t naivety so much as necessity, that in order for humans to get along, we must trust each other. I needed the reminder as much as I needed the freedom of the road. I still survive on both.

I’ve lived with depression since childhood. In the days of bright New Mexican sunlight, that destructive illness was especially heartbreaking and confusing. I felt full of life and yet wanted to die; I had hope for the future but not for my place in it.

On the stretch of the trip that swept out of Redwoods National Park and onto a perilous ridge along the coast we couldn’t see through the morning fog, I came into direct confrontation with my own self-destructive thoughts. A massive lorry cut into me going over 60 miles per hour down Highway 101 and as we took a sharp corner together, I got sucked into his tail wind, then flown to the outermost reaches of the road, under which was a steep drop into the steel-coloured ocean. The sky was indiscernible from ocean except for the crash and roar below, what sounded like the ocean pawing at the highway’s support wall, a dog begging to be let in. As my wheels skirted the debris going around the bend, the sun suddenly appeared. I couldn’t see it, only its blinding reflection shown back at me through the polished chrome of the lorry’s exhaust pipe. I remembered, then, that I loved this. I loved the decision to live, and the wind in my hair, the goosebumps and salt water barely splashing against my skin from so far below. I loved the roaring all around me and the humming in my ears I feel when I’m excited past my body’s ability to comprehend the emotion. I saw that sunlight reflected, and I leaned to it.

I pedalled with all my strength out of that shoulder where I’d been whipped by momentum, and leaned back towards the road, into the speed ruts that could buck me off my balance, towards the truck that could, itself, kill me. Life is dangerous and I loved that too. I chased that sunlight back into the choice to live, and when I could finally look up again when the road straightened, I saw the miraculous beach beside me, the grey curtain lifted, caravans parked in the sand and what I chose to believe were whales, way out in the distance.

***

When I left on that bike ride to Albuquerque, it was early summer. With the long day to my advantage, I was convinced I’d make it to the Social Distortion concert on time, never mind at all. I rode my bike from wherever I was sleeping, through the mesmerizing adobe-lined streets of Santa Fe and finally onto the byway that led to Albuquerque, 60 miles away. I had barely made it out of city limits when the sun set, and my pinche lights were running out of battery life. I got my first flat tire around mile twelve, and at mile fifteen or so I suffered another and had run out of spare tubes. I locked my bike to a sign post, wary of the mice in the tall grass known to carry the hantavirus. I wasn’t afraid of the disease myself, but my friend Morgan had died recently of an allergy attack, and the last words I remembered her saying was that she didn’t move to New Mexico to die of the hantavirus. Since then, whenever I’ve walked in tall grass I’ve felt her caution, like her ghost’s hand is tucked in the curve of my elbow, pulling me gently away from some rustling I can’t hear.

I grabbed my helmet and the headlamp from my handlebars, and walked backwards along the side of the road, shining the light on my outstretched hand. It wasn’t long before a car pulled over. Like so many who pick up hitchhikers, this ride came with the lecture of, ‘I wanted to pick you up before a bad person did’. As if there is a way to protect ourselves from the evil of the world, as if the ‘bad guys’ are typically discernible from the ‘good guys’. Most often, they can’t even tell themselves apart, can’t pick out what parts of themselves (ourselves) are bad, what part is good, and when to leave which at home. Good guy and bad guy ride in the same car, we never know who has the wheel.

My driver, Bill I think it was, didn’t listen to the radio and it was a quiet drive through the wide, now-black New Mexican night. He was a recovered addict, though he didn’t say from what. He had seen bad times, had found The Lord. Had I found The Lord?

‘More or less’, I responded breathlessly. I had attended parochial school from first through third grade, which was enough to convince me there was no God, at least in that sense, or I anyway didn’t believe in the concept of ‘lord’ or ‘saviour’. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east of the highway always looked like dinosaurs to me, and I imagined them standing suddenly and erupting into a gallop beside us as we cruised down into the valley towards Albuquerque. Bill and I did relate on feeling like outsiders, on the fear and inevitability of disappointing our loved ones, on always, for some reason, taking the hard road. I think, ‘this is why he really picked me up’. It’s easier to help others than it is to help ourselves.

‘I might not have picked you up if you didn’t have that helmet’, he said out of nowhere. ‘It just said to me, you want to be safe, you just didn’t know how’.

So maybe I did believe in saviors, if only for moments at a time. But I hadn’t yet truly decided to live, hadn’t yet made the commitment to thinking of life as a joyride at which I was at the helm. Bill couldn’t see it, but under my sweatshirt was a handmade t-shirt that read ‘I hate fun’. It was sarcastic in my own way, but I felt in me that teetering. The sun was up; the sun came down. I felt it like an existential pendulum. Bill drove me into the darkness, the artificial flicker of Albuquerque slowly growing into a twinkle in front of us as we descended.

We pulled onto Central Avenue and as we passed the Sunshine Theater, where I was headed, a feeling of dread gnawed through my gut.

‘That’s it there, Bill. You can stop. Please stop. Bill, stop the car. Please’.

He kept driving for a block, then tucked the car into a dark alley.

***

The previous autumn, I had almost stabbed another man who had tried to help me. My friends had heisted me from the room where I’d locked myself. I was losing my mind. As the days shortened, I’d grown extremely paranoid in response to the previous year’s trauma, and it was compounded by my excessive workload and my waning health. In my paranoia, I didn’t trust doctors, so I didn’t have an answer to why I was gagging on blood that gurgled in large wads from my throat. Whenever I tried to socialize, I invariably excused myself early, not wanting my friends to see the blood-soaked bandanna I kept in my pocket and embarrassed at how often I snuck off to the bathroom speechless, my mouth full of a nauseating, iron-tasting mucus. My close friends thought it would be good to get away to the mountains of Colorado for a change of scenery, away from where the security guard had broken into my shower, away from where Sand Kicker’s tour manager crept into my bed, and away from the phone that incessantly rang with berating phone calls from my long-distance boyfriend. When KT’s VW Vanagon broke down on the interstate, it was Chuck who stopped to rescue us. I was in a haze of paranoia still, and while I had been the one to flag down help, I was also the one to pull out my switchblade and hold it at hip height as his silhouette approached, magnified by the headlights behind him and my overwhelming fear of men.

I didn’t stab Chuck. He called a tow truck for us, gave us a lift to his house, and let us spend the night. His wife was making coffee and eggs when I awoke on the couch in the morning, and Chuck was nearby, looking out the large window that took up almost the whole width of wall. He smiled when I sat up.

‘Look here’, he said in a quiet voice, and motioned to the glass with his coffee mug. ‘You’re from the East Coast and might not get why someone would live out here in the middle of nowhere, but this is why’. There was a family of deer in his back yard, maybe six of them, grazing in the space where manicured lawn turned to Colorado wilderness, illuminated from the sunlit frost on the fallen leaves. He told me the history of each of them, the struggles he’d seem them overcome, why the young buck was a three-point instead of a four.

‘I always get worried when winter starts to settle in, but they’re wild animals. I know they can handle it. Or they can’t, but that’s not for me to meddle with’. We sat there in silence, staring out the window as my friends woke up and joined us.

***

After that incident, I stopped carrying a knife for a long time, but still had a Leatherman and mace. I felt in my bag, uncocked the lock on the mace, and arranged my thumb on the trigger as we sat in Bill’s car. He cut the engine, killed the lights. I held my breath. I thought of Chuck and that frosted morning dew, those deer and the position of innocence in life. I am not the deer, I thought to myself. I am the wolf. Years later still, I would think about this moment with Bill, and the night with Chuck, while in a cab in Valparaiso, Chile, as the cab driver parked in a strange lot, locked the doors, and kissed me. By then, I had learned the brilliance and delicacy of life, the miracle not of living itself, but of wanting to live, and the prize of maintaining control over that one precious life I’ve decided to own and nourish. I am the wolf, I fought with my teeth, words, hands, spirit, holy grace. I fought with a smile on my face. But here in Bill’s car, I was scared and growing wild as we sat still in the dark. I could hear Social Distortion in the distance, so faint, start their set with ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’. Bill began to pray.

‘Jesus, please have mercy for your lost lamb sitting in my car’, he started, and I blanked out as I reset the lock on the mace, my heart in my chest like that wad of blood from months prior. I put my hands together and tried to suppress a grin.

‘Amen’, we both said when he seemed to be at a stopping point.

‘Will you pray for me now?’ Bill had a look of longing in his eyes like a teenager asking a crush to the prom, and I began to understand power as something fluid and delicate in its own right, something in the eye of the beholder.

‘I pray silently, but okay’. And we sat in silence again in the car. I don’t know if I was praying, but I thanked the powers-that-be that I didn’t stab Chuck, that I had been picked up by a good person as flawed as any of us, that I had held my breath waiting for the strike, rather than preemptively attacking. I thanked Bill, in my heart, for being so kind to me, for giving me a ride when he could have kept driving, for not wanting to be the evil in the world and sticking to that desire.

‘Amen’, we both said again after enough time had passed.

I stuck out my hand for a shake, then gave him a gentle one-armed hug before running out the door.

‘Be safe now! Find a ride home from a friend!’ He called out the window as I left him there in the alley. ‘Jesus loves you!’

I burst through the doors, bought a ticket, and ran to the front of the crowd where a group of friends were dancing as ‘Story of My Life’ began to play. I tore off my sweatshirt and threw it in a corner, feeling invincible to poor luck. As I danced and sang, my ‘I hate fun’ t-shirt was torn from my body and I tied it back on in knots by the arm holes.

‘I heard you rode your bike here’, someone said in my ear as they threw an arm around me to swing around the open space in the floor.

‘Well, something like that’, I yelled back. ‘Can I have a ride home? I promised someone I’d find one’.

I made it home late that night, to my friend’s broken papasan. I got up as soon as sun began to creep in through the blinds and hoofed the long walk back to my bike. I didn’t think anymore about Morgan and the hantavirus, about not having a real place to live or a job that paid enough for a security deposit. The morning shone bright on those golden aspen mountains, and the expansive possibility to live or die was mine, all mine.




Carolyne Whelan is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.