“Perhaps, after all, we shouldn’t take our lives so personally, shouldn’t think of them as the monologue of busy and insistent and separate selves. Perhaps we are made up of landscapes and events and memories and genetics; of the touch of those we hold dear, our oldest fears, the art that moves us, and those sorrows on the other side of the world that make us weep at the breakfast table.” ~ Joan Sutherland
I need a ride to the Denver airport at 4:30 in the morning.
The Uber driver who arrives is a young bearded man in stained jeans, an oversized flannel shirt, and a baseball cap, his car dirty and full of empty cans of Red Bull. It’s dark and I’m not sure I’m getting into the right vehicle, but it’s the only car out there with lights on, so I put my bag in the back seat and climb in.
“Do you know how to get to the airport?” I ask.
“Of course. I’ve lived here my whole life,” he answers.
“That was my attempt at a joke,” I say, apologetically, “I mean, I assume you have navigation in here.”
“Ha! Yeah, of course,” he admits, “Want to sit in front?”
“Sure,” I say.
I climb out and back in again. I ask him if he’s always lived in Castlerock.
“Born in Aurora, but close enough.”
I tell him I used to live here for a few years, so I know the area.
“You lived in Castlerock?” He seems genuinely surprised.
“Boulder,” I correct.
He shrugs, “Tried it up there for a bit. Not my people. I’m more of a small-town guy.”
“Ha! Yeah, well, Boulder’s a small town by California standards, but you’re right, it’s kind of a weird granola enclave. Not everyone’s thing.”
He explains to me the three types of Boulderites and I listen politely while he makes fun of people who are overeducated and care about the environment and prefer bikes to cars and don’t like meat. He asks me what I’m doing in Colorado now. I tell him I’m just here for a few days working on a circus performance.
“That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard,” he tells me.
“Does that bother you? I’m sorry. I’ve never even been to a circus.”
“Seriously?” Now it’s my turn to be surprised. “Never?”
“Nope. But I’m gonna get me to one next time one comes into town.”
“You totally should. Where do you live now?”
“I just moved to Aurora.”
“I thought you said you were born in Aurora?”
He pauses and mumbles something about years of foster care, moving around a bunch of places before his family adopted him.
“Oh, wow, yeah, that’s a lot to work through,” I say, warmly, I think, “You hoping to figure out something about your birth parents?”
“Never gonna know who my dad was. Doubt my mum does neither. But I don’t know why mum called my sister when she turned 18 and not me.”
My eyes widen, “You haven’t heard from your mom at all? How many years has it been?”
“Nope. Don’t know how to find her. My sis didn’t want to talk to her, so I didn’t get any ideas from her, but I feel like it would help me to know why she disappeared. Haven’t seen her since I was three, so can’t say I remember much. My name’s Luke, by the way.”
“Hey Luke, I’m Michelle. It’s very brave of you, sharing this stuff. Do you mean, why she had to leave?”
“Why she chose to leave. She was a stripper y’know. Had all of us with different men.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to know her. She must have had a very hard life, trying to support all of you.”
“Well, my new family turned out okay. All that stuff in our past, it makes us who we are, y’know? I’m a strong guy now.”
“Yeah,” I say, “Clearly.”
“Nobody’s ever asked me stuff about myself on a ride. Kinda weird, telling you all this. You have a degree in psychology or somethin’?”
I shake my head. I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. I tell him, “Really, you shouldn’t take anything I say very seriously. I’m just thinking out loud, asking questions. I can stop.”
“Nah, I like it, thanks,” he says, “Keep on keeping on.”
“Okay, well, here’s the thing. Even if you find your mom, she might not know why she didn’t fight for you. These things can be complicated. She might not have ever been loved herself or thought she deserved you or worried she wasn’t a good enough mother. She may have had substance addictions, or other demons she couldn’t face.”
The road is dark and I look at the meter. We have 37 more minutes to go. He is watching the road, silent for longer than I’m comfortable with, but he looks contemplative, so I can’t tell if he wants me to continue. But I take the risk.
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? You can ignore it if you don’t want to talk about this stuff.”
“Sure ‘nough. Go ahead.”
“Do you feel like even though you have intellectually moved past all the various displacements of your childhood that you still have abandonment trauma? Like, when you get close to someone, like it triggers something, like you panic? Like maybe you run away? Or you push them to leave?”
“I push them away. Yeah. For sure. When it starts to get good, I freak out. I just got divorced, y’know.”
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Nah. Been really depressed. Didn’t really know what depression was before now.”
“Yeah, I say, “Grief does that sometimes. It triggers a bunch of stuff.”
“That’s happened to you?”
He hands me a Coconut Berry Red Bull. “Want one? It’s a new flavor.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
“Buy two, get one free. I got too many, y’know?”
I open the Red Bull.
“I pushed her away, its true. But I didn’t file for divorce. I wouldn’t have left, not for real. I don’t do that. I never leave. But I wanted her to fight for us, y’know? I was always the one doing the work, begging her to love me.”
“Some people don’t know how to do that.”
“I’ve never been with no one else. Not ever. Never even wanted another girl. I got depressed. Have you ever had that? Like heavy depression? Like you can’t move? I went to my buddy’s house to sort things out. I just needed a little time.”
“And that scared her?”
“Guess so. She don’t talk to me no more.”
I watch the meadows blur as the sun begins to peek above the horizon, as we move across the empty highway, flowing down like a river.
“I just wish I knew why my mom didn’t fight for us. She was a stripper, y’know? We all had different dads, ” he repeats, “but I don’t s’pose she knew who they were. My sister is just one year older, so yeah, probably not. Don’t remember any men around. Don’t think I’ll ever know. Wish I could.”
He takes a sip of his Red Bull and I look out the window, waiting for him to continue.
“Something happened and those, what are they called, child protecting people came,” he explains, “I was too young to remember that. We all stayed different places, waiting for her to do whatever she was supposed to do to make it right, to get us back. It took a few years, so I remember the waiting. Finally she gave up, I guess, for real, and they put us up for adoption. So that’s good.”
“Yeah. It’s good to have someone real to belong to.”
“Yeah. For sure. You have kids?”
“I know you raised ‘em. I can tell.”
“That’s so cool. I want kids. My new family raised me Mormon, so yeah, I don’t know where I stand on that, but that’s where I found my girl. There’s some rules there, and she didn’t like me drinking, y’know? I thought that’s something we could compromise on if I didn’t do it around her and her family. I mean, she likes to smoke weed sometimes, so that seems fair to me. But I dunno, she didn’t want to compromise on the drinkin’ thing. Even though it was just somethin’ I did sometimes with my friends. Never had a DUI or nothin’. She wanted me to do things her family’s way, maybe cause she don’t think I know much about real families. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I don’t know nothin’. What kind of girl do you think I should go for, you know, when I’m ready? I’m not ready, but when I am…maybe not a church girl?”
“That’s a tough one. Considering, I don’t know you well enough to know what’s important to you.”
“You kinda do.”
“Hmm…,” I pause, and he lets the silence hang gently between us, “Well, you really want to hear my spiel? It’s just speculation. You won’t take it as gospel or anything?”
“There are a lot of people who only know how to love small. When you come from lack, it’s tempting to attach quickly and love thick, and that scares a lot of people, which is fine. Let them walk away. But it also attracts the kind of people who don’t know how to love. They use thick love like this for fuel, maybe because it makes them feel better to rely on it. Maybe your wife was like that, I don’t know.
Sometimes those of us who come from lack, give and give from that huge well we’ve spent years trying to fill, and we give our loved ones everything we never got, and they take it because it feels good when someone loves you like that. But they don’t have reserves like that and they can’t handle it when we need something in return. If you need something real from someone who loves small, when you’re low enough to cry and really beg, they’ll call you needy or act like you got no right to expect anything from them, that it’s too soon or you should have more patience or faith in God or whatever.
But the truth is, they got nothing to give you. It feels personal to us, but it’s not, really. They just have nothing to give.”
“Woah. That’s so true. That’s crazy true. How do I fix that? I’m gonna work on that. I’m not gonna ask for nothin’ next time. I can get over that, right? When I’m ready? I’m not gonna love no one til I’m not needy no more.”
“Maybe it’s okay if love makes us needy,” I ponder, “Maybe everything in the universe runs on interdependence and love shows us that.”
“Like us needing mum.”
“Yeah, like that. Some things you never get over. I don’t know much, Luke, but here’s what I wish someone had told me when I was young. In fact, I wish someone had said it over and over, ’til I could hear it. You don’t need to be fixed. The stuff you struggle with, that anxiousness, that need for reassurance? That’s always gonna be there. And it’s okay. Maybe you just need to accept it. My yoga teacher told me it’s like gravity. When you know what you’re working with, you can lean into it and use it, rather than try to change it.
And even if it causes you trouble, that weight, you can learn to work around it, like a lever. You don’t have to pretend to be relaxed and easy—the way some privileged people are. When we pretend to be like them, it’s just a performance, and no one will love us for who we are when we’re performing. They’ll just love the performance.”
“Is that why you perform?”
I stare at him. Who is this kid?
“Yeah, probably,” I say, “I know how to do it. It’s easier. I’m not sure I even know who I am when I’m not trying to make someone happy.”
“That’s okay. I can tell you’re not performing now. So that’s somethin’.”
We both watch the road, and I wonder if it’s my imagination, or if I’m hallucinating the way the sunlight is striking a blue horse reared up on its hind legs in such a way that its red fiery eyes look like a demon. I ask him if that horse is about to lazar attack us.
“Oh yeah, the demon horse of Denver, Bluciver. Killed the guy who made it and the guy who put it up.”
“What? For real?”
“Yeah, that’s what they say.”
“That’s super creepy. Why is it out here?”
“Scare people like you away, I s’pose.”
I laugh out loud.
“Gotta be tough to live here,” he says.
“Gotta be tough to live anywhere, I counter, “Life is f*cking tough.”
“Got that right.”
We begin to pull into the airport and he asks me which airline. I tell him Frontier and he capably maneuvers into the right lane.
“Or maybe it’s just hard for the broken people,” he says, clearly putting me in that category.
“Everyone’s broken, one way or another,” I offer.
“Is that true?” he asks me.
“I think so. Sometimes people with strong families who have always let them in, who have always cared for them, no matter what sort of mistakes they made, who have never had to fight for belonging, have more layers of protection. But don’t let those people convince you you’re not enough, for not having that. Don’t let them act like it’s your fault, that there’s something wrong with you. Don’t let them convince you they’re doing you a favor just letting you sit at the table.”
“Sometimes she wouldn’t let me around her family at all. It was like she was ashamed.”
“Yeah. That happens. What would you do when that happened?”
“Try harder. Try to be enough.”
He pulls up to the curb but doesn’t turn off the car or get out. He just looks at me.
“Hey Luke,” I say, looking at him intently, “You got a whole new chance here. Don’t ignore what you need. You don’t have to go back to working so hard for crumbs. Choose a girl who loves generously. Watch the way she moves, how she has so much love it falls on everyone. When she falls in love with you, let her. Test her early on, if you can. Tell her your story. See if she flinches, or if she becomes warm and generous and welcomes you into her world.”
He considers this.
“And when you push her away, don’t run too far. She’ll come back.
“Yeah, probably. Hopefully. But either way, come back to yourself. For yourself. Promise?”
He nods and then turns away, presumably so I won’t see that the tears that have been welling up on and off all drive have now begun dripping down into his mouth. He opens the door, and grabs my bag. Before he hands it to me, he sets it down and opens his arms like he wants to hug me, but I nod, instead, performing politely. I thank him for the ride. And for the Coconut Berry.
“Awesome new flavor.”
“Yeah,” he says, “Gotta try new things when you’re in new places, huh? Thanks for riding with me. You be safe on your travels, ya hear? The world ain’t got ‘nough of you yet.”
“Nor of you, Luke. Believe it.”