unchartered

Be a caution, a reckoning,

Be a thing that breaks,

Before it bends

(Donika Kelly)

I broke my own heart this year. Which is a first in my new decade. I sat in an airport lounge at the height of the pandemic, trying to count, recount, check, and recheck again, that I had the right documentation. Test results, passport numbers, follow up codes, more paperwork then would ever be checked or accounted for. I watched the officials barely take one look at the flurry of papers being thrust their way through glass and over barriers. Straight into ballot like boxes, no doubt shipped to a warehouse to moulder and rot and be eaten by mice.

The officials bark us forward. In front of me were a huddle of students in full hazmat gear from head to toe, as if they were embarking on a tour of Chernobyl days after the meltdown. Behind me a father and son with their masks on their chins wearing Hawaii shirts and sporting oversized backpacks with sewn on badges heralding their conquered destinations CHICAGO! BALI! SYDNEY! I am occupying myself with my phone, my mask blessedly covering most of my face now – puffy eyed and tear streaked and furious. We shuffle forward while everyone desperately searches for ball point pens to fill out yet another form that needs inking.

I spend an absurd amount of money in the airside duty free, the usual lounge is closed, as are most of the shops now, the buzz and lightheaded fizz you feel when finally get through security is dampened, fewer flights and fewer passengers. A small child wails out of tiredness and boredom while being restrained with toddler reins, a few couples linger briefly at the booze and cigs concessions. I have found some solace in a booth right next to a smoking room which is both foul smelling and triggering waves of nostalgia. Damp pool halls, old man pubs, coffee shops at petrol stations, huge swathes of Glasgow, Berlin, Joburg. But mainly, I worry about stinking of Peter Stuyvesant for 12 hours on the plane.

I am not sure I can do this, typed hastily, one handed as I show my boarding card, my PCR results via QR code.

A notification almost immediately, You can, a flash, just then. Like adrenalin

After twelve days I am headed back to London to formally begin an ending. The finality of it feels crushing, and I am finding it difficult to breathe. A heady mix of anxiety, second-hand smoke, clunky cloth mask, all of it. I cry myself to sleep on the plane, whisked across time zones, through a turbulent free sky, to the beginnings of winter and the low setting sun

Someone told me my tone of voice had changed. More jagged around the edges, like rust.  I feel frayed, distressed like unfashionable jeans or true crime podcast branding. Burn holes and smudged edges. I like to think, in my heartbreak, I am maudlin and whimsical, like some 1930s glamour model, lying about on sofas in period buildings, smoking menthol cigarettes and writing intense and risqué poetry. But in fact, I am tired to my bones, my hair neglected, my leggings are saggy in every place they should be tight, and I never seem to be able to remember to drink my tea when it is hot. I have managed to not start smoking again. Almost out of spite.

I am coming to terms with the fact I am not who I thought I was. I am not good. I have been worrying this thought like a bad tooth, prodding it until it hurts. Not that I am broken, no. I am not that. I am surprisingly clear, coherent, comprehensively myself, or as much as I have ever felt it.  But good? Doubtful.  

Scrubbing the coffee pot, sorting my son’s uniform for the following day, planning the week’s activities I find myself distracted by this undoing, or unravelling, this needle of a thought, unpicking. What is the obsession with goodness? Moral superiority? Some antiquated need to please a god, who, at best is vengeful or indifferent, at worst. The betterment of a community? I think about the network I have carefully constructed; how does my goodness serve them I wonder? The striving for improvement, a better mother, wife, colleague, lover, friend, writer, photographer, daughter. This need to be good feels a non-negotiable, the very foundation. As if what constitutes what we think of as our personalities is not endlessly shifting, kaleidoscope glass twisting; the shapes we make dependant on the speed and light we are subject to.

In this moment, as I swipe anti-bac over the surfaces for what feels like the millionth time, I am vengeful and quick to anger, bored of my own whinging, excited to host a course and indifferent to my friend’s request for charity donations. Resentment shaking up my kaleidoscope. I have good intentions. I am good enough for a moment (twist), lacking in the next (twist), exceeding the day after (twist). But compared to what? To be good there must be a benchmark. What is mine?

‘You can just let people think you are the villain, if they need to’ she had said. The thought was both thrilling and appalling.

‘But I’m not.’ Emphatic. Finite. Definite.

I am driving home, tapping the steering wheel mulling over and over and over this idea. Be the villain. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. The narrative spins itself out with its own momentum, becoming something new completely. I could be villain or hero or both. I feel dizzy overthinking it. Really what I want is to feel vindicated, justified, right. Good can go suck it.

I am sick with the anxiety of it, the twist, twist, twist, makes me queasy enough that while I am walking to work, I must sit down on a bench and take a moment or I think I might throw up on the promenade. The Thames snakes its way past Battersea Power Station, out east to the sea. Its cold enough, the sun is low, I can see my breath in the air. Perhaps I am wrong too.  Somewhere in the process of breaking my own heart, I misplaced an anchor. Certainly, one I had taken for granted. Certainly, one that kept hold of my certitude. Nothing felt certain, or true, or sure anymore. Untethered now, it seems a given I am more likely wrong than right. I watch a seagull float quietly downstream. A few joggers huff past. The clipper cuts past the shore, leaving the seagull affronted in its wake, taking off now, its surprising wingspan past Vauxhall Bridge. I am going to be late.

‘You’re likely to make some questionable decisions’ she says, ‘and that’s ok’  

I can’t imagine a world where its ok to make questionable decisions. My cynicism is barefaced at this point. My meticulous planning, my careful considerations, my endless accountability. I scoff out loud.

‘God.’ She laughs a bit now, ‘Imagine. Just imagine allowing yourself to get it wrong’

The sun is lower now. Light flashes through the kitchen window at 3:30pm – golden hour hits so early, illuminating our washed up crockery, a post it note on the tiles. Our everyday. Chipped and sticky taped together. Coffee stained counter tops, the burn on the table where I put the pot down absentmindedly. The quirky shapes and rainbow coloured people pinned to a cork board. And my orchids – thriving in questionable conditions. The sun dips down past the horizon and the street lights flicker on. School bus at the door. Shoes in the hall. Coats on the hangers. The pulse of the day remains the same. A familiar pull, the anchor catches briefly but the tide has changed, this time I think I’ll let it take me.

I don’t know if I can do this

But you are

And I am

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