During the week of January 7, we’ll post a new installment each day. Use the TOC below to find your place.
Heading out of UCF’s Colbourn Hall from a late-night class, I wait for the flow of conversation to ebb. My Tribe, I say to myself, the same name a fellow classmate called our MFA cohort hours earlier. The way he said the words stuck with me. Sometimes, real or imagined, my gut can sense a higher level of tenderness coming from people in my life, and it’s always jarring to realize when people might care.
It’s chilled out, 40 degrees or something. My Tribe heads to their cars, passing lawns and sprinklers to get to the parking garage. I hide behind a hedge of bushes, afraid my Tribe will see me walking home. It’s illogical to be afraid of walking in this context. We are humans. We were made to walk. Plus, I planned for this. Before enrollment into the Master’s Program at UCF, I chose dorm style apartments that were close enough for a walk on a bad day. 1.8 miles. This distance resided within the bounds of reasonability. I’ve dealt with worse. Just walk.
A cold wind cuts through my green canvas bomber jacket that I stole from my big brother over a decade ago. My back muscles involuntarily clench from the cold. Walking through street lights on campus grounds, I write in my phone notepad, breathes like a ghost. I’m the only one out here walking. I walk through lawns. I walk past the University President’s house. I breathe, reciting an inward mantra that popped in my head after reading The Book of Five Rings, meditations from Miyamoto Musashi, a legendary and undefeated samurai from the 1600s.
No judgment. Fear without fear.
No judgment. Fear without fear.
I’ve been repeating the mantra for the last week while walking to class, reading, writing, and doing whatever a lonely boy does, trying to calm myself and provide my actions with the confidence to make big things happen. I hope the repetition of the mantra paired to deep breathing will somehow elevate me to a better version of myself, one who can write and finish an enlightened novel that helps people heal from our collective sin.
I walk, and the rhythm reminds me of a deeper solace, because walking is like church for a lonely boy without a car. Blood flows and my heart softens with a slight release, a heart that always feels like it wants to burst with anger and violence until I train martial arts, until I’ve let the screams out, until I’ve pumped so much oxygen through my veins, through my body, through my brain, that some core of me thinks that maybe I deserve some peace. The quiet was earned from the struggle.
You don’t even work that hard, a voice says, clowning me, the same voice I hear most days when I write, the desperate voice that seeks approval. I whine that I work harder than almost anyone out there.
“No judgment. Fear without fear,” I say. I sigh. I walk over crabgrass, over sandy spots of soil, and enter a winding path of palm trees that funnels out into the main road, Alafaya Trail. A jolt runs through me. Someone I know might see me and be like, “Hey Iljeen, what the fuck are you doing out here? Why are you walking in the dark through trees?” But I breathe easy knowing I could run into that enclave of trees down yonderand deny the interaction for the rest of our lives.
Poof. Ninja Vanish.
I take the winding path. Headlights blind me. The palm trees and the lights remind me of the north coast in Honduras. One time, I walked near the mountains in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa, through a pitch-black highway. My first week in country, I stumbled for three hours down a gravel-studded shoulder, slipping like a tightrope walker, semi-trucks thundering past, the cherry on my cigarette and the moon the only other light guiding my path. Part of me is proud of this, because at the heart of my stories is a clown, someone who desperately seeks a laugh, someone who may be destined to be disappointed by even so humble and degrading an ambition.
I keep walking the Florida road. Orlando has been going through a cold snap. I figure since I am cold, this is a good opportunity to try the Wim Hoff Technique and test whether or not I can increase body heat through the regulation of breathing. After a few minutes, my armpits sweat from the heat generated, and I am not sure if the heat is from the walking, the Wim Hoff Technique, or some combination of the two. I swipe my armpit and sniff. Smells like I don’t exist. Ninjas are scentless.
The deeper solace that comes with night washes over me, the kind that can be experienced only when no one is around. I smile because of deja-vu, because I am adding another brick to my spiraling wall. My life from the days I used to walk to elementary school, to figure skating practice, through alcoholic stupors in college, blissful mornings in Honduras, dirty mornings in Brooklyn, a cold snap in Orlando, and through life ever after.
A shadow darts behind me. I glance. Nothing. I keep an eye on my side, to be aware of someone trying to sneak up on a ninja. Honduras reminds me to never get too comfortable in my surroundings. Safety is an illusion. There are places and times when no one cares who you are or where you come from.
Back when I was living in Brooklyn, I heard about a game kids were playing called Knockout. A video of an Asian woman walking to her car plays in my head. Some kid runs up and cold cocks her. She drops. I fume. You could kill someone with a punch to the back of the head. The video continues. The Asian woman looks so lonely, slumped over on the concrete with no one but a camera to see her fall, making me wonder if maybe the truest loneliness is a violent death no one can see.
If some punk kid came up behind me, I would slip the punch and murk him in the face, stomp his nuts… or maybe I’d keep the interaction peaceful and try to talk some sense into him. Be a mentor or something, take him to a diner and buy him a meal, seeing as his violence is most likely a product of his own loneliness.
I pat myself on the back. Pat. Pat. Pat. Good job for doing something, even if it was just your imagination.
I pop in my headphones and click for Norah Jones on Spotify. I need to get away from myself, and I like the idea of a beautiful woman singing to me about my loneliness, linking the desire for beauty to something greater and beyond. Nostalgia fills me temporarily, but pretty soon, the high fades. Human emotions, sometimes they are so small.
I wonder if that’s why I spend most of my days pondering the fantastical, reliving life through a magical lens to provide me with a sense of wonder that reality often fails to. Listening to Norah Jones, I let my heart reach rather than compress. I think about how sometimes, my loneliness grows so wild, part of me writes with the prayer that someday, my words will reach a woman who can love me the way I need to be loved. But I know this is a trap. Because one, I don’t want to get married, at least not in the traditional sense. Two, I think the only way to truly be able to love and be loved is by not needing to be loved. And what kind of fucked up shit is that? Am I right?
Walking Alafaya Trail, I understand that death has taken the same path. A stuffed rabbit that looks dead sits in an artificial flower wreath, tilting wilted and grey on the roadside. A sign tells me the shrine is a remembrance of a kid bicyclist who got run down. The dead girl’s spirit, in a way, is doing her job. The shrine reminds me to keep an eye on traffic, to never assume a car will stop because I have the walk signal. I thank her for reminding me that I can get clipped at any moment. Celebrate the life I have. Lonely is only a state of mind. Find the deep undercurrent that rides so sweet that it becomes a high. Cycle in and out.
I maintain deep breaths for the rest of the walk. Oxygen buzzes through my body and brain. A three story, cream-colored building with fake owls perched on the roof comes into view. Before I turn into the entrance of my apartment complex, a 104 Lynx bus drives toward me. I make eye contact with the driver. He slows down because he thinks I need a ride. My heart races. I don’t want to be the reason he stops. Waving my head “no” doesn’t seem definitive enough. I do the throat slice motion to be clear I don’t need a ride. The bus driver speeds up. I wonder if he thought I wanted to slice his throat. I sort of laugh. Sort of cringe. Then I post what happened on Facebook.
Friends from my MFA Tribe like the post. Then I get the idea to write about this walk.The piece begins with wondering some things. Wondering about the splendor of life and the cosmic cycle of death. Wondering how much loneliness is self-inflicted, how much is healthy, and if somehow, this seclusion connects us to something greater than ourselves.