Last month my friend Jess announced, “I’m going to a festival in Barcelona and I’ll be doing MDMA for five days straight.” I pictured her covered in henna tattoos, lit on Molly, dancing on a moon-kissed beach. The romancing of her life and drug use was jarring—in part, because I’m sober and also because, it’s just not my life anymore. I’m a mother, I go to work, I do my dishes, I drink tea, and go to bed early. After 18 months of sobriety and nearly two years of diapers and schedules and routines, rocking my daughter to sleep nearly every single one of those nights, this scene, her destination and its impact, felt so otherworldly.
When the words settled a bit, I thought, “Oh yes, I remember.”
I remembered doing MDMA on the beach, the feeling that nothing else mattered, but the flash, the sensations of a moment. There were no mornings or tomorrows, just those screenshots of fleeting faces and images, sound bites of laughter, a rush that could never be sustained. I had done it, all of it, and even though, it was behind me, I could still feel it, taste it, touch it, and hold it. And because Jess knows me, she knows that there was no need to give me the censored version. She told me about rooftop sex parties, blackout Tinder dates, and the other adventures of a single twenty-something, living in Berlin.
Jess is a full decade younger than me (9 years and 11 months, to be exact). We met in Berlin a few years ago after she moved to Germany from a small town in Iowa. Despite the age gap and life changes, we’ve always sustained wide overlay in our interests and tastes—writing, film, books, television, and travel. Most notably, we share that painful, dull ache, the spell of wanderlust and searching that drove us to leave home in the first place. We’ve had countless and ongoing conversations about becoming expats, leaving our friends and family, and really, how much life would have been easier if we could have just stayed home.
Why couldn’t we be those types who were happy to stay put?
It isn’t lost on me that Jess is living my old life. She is a freelance writer, sailing overseas, bouncing continents, crossing borders, weather patterns, and time zones, hitching and unhitching to the lives of others. There is such chaos and momentum to her journey, I can almost feel the energy when she comes back into town. It is a manic life, one that feels so vivid in my memory. Some days you are overflowing with so much love, energy and experience, you are going to burst and others, you worry, you will never find land, you will always be searching, and never have what it takes to just be where you are.
The month after we met she was in a drunken bike accident and I went to visit her in the hospital. I brought her snacks from the Spätkauf,and cheap magazines and old books to keep her occupied. With a severe concussion, the doctors kept her in the hospital for nearly a week. She never told anyone from home or her parents what happened to her and it was the first time I remember worrying about her, but more remembering exactly how that felt to be alone in a foreign country, alone in a foreign hospital.
I had my last drink with Jess sometime in early 2016. We were at a shitty Irish pub in the touristy part of town. She was drinking cheap red wine, I was drinking cheap white. Though I told myself, just one or two glasses that night, we probably had 6 or 7. And, even after I tripped on my platforms in the middle of Friedrichstraße, we thought it was a good idea to find a club. We stumbled around for a few blocks until I realized I was too drunk to keep wandering around aimlessly. Also, somehow it did still occur to me, I had a three month old baby to take care of in the morning. Jess jumped on her bike and swerved away.
It was a life I had to say goodbye to, and I did.
We flew to Sicily last week, both escaping for different reasons. Jess was looking forward to a kind of sober, detox weekend with me, and I was looking for an adventure, a break in the parenting doldrums. We bought cheap flights to Catania, took a bus to Teormina, on the Eastern Coast of Sicily and rented a budget AirB&B in the center of town, with a hard bed and a windy air conditioner. From our private balcony we still had a wide, striking view of the Mediterranean from the town built into the island cliffs. We had a simple plan– hike, swim, write, read, and eat Sicilian food.
Our friendship sometimes feels like worlds and time colliding—who we are, up against who we were and who we will become, like the seas that smashed against the rocks. There was part of me that worried—would she get bored of me and my 11 PM bedtime? Or worse, would I be tempted by the fantasy of my old life, the freedom and the booze and that feeling like true escape was only a cocktail away. It was the first sober vacation I had taken away from my daughter and my husband, so even though I felt comfortable being around alcohol, I wasn’t sure how I would react to being thrown into proximity of an old me, the semblance of my old life—no responsibilities, no one to wake up to, the romance of travel and nostalgia co-mingling in a dangerous way.
The first morning we woke early and hiked up to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca, a 500 stair climb. We did switchbacks on the trail, and in our conversations, alternating between the terrains of our lives. I talked about family life, whether or not we wanted a second child, how to balance career and artistic aspirations with child-rearing. She talked about a recent Tinder date, what country she is going to go to next, and more pressing, her brother’s recent Facebook post that confessed he was suicidal. We were similar in that way, still feeling connected to home, worrying about other people a lot, yet still so far away that we felt helpless. Our conversations gave us some distance, the distraction of the other, and differences between us, offered perspective on our own lives.
I should be more accurate in painting a picture of Jess. Despite her proclivities for a secret and bawdy nightlife, she maintains a fairly productive day life. She is brilliant and bookish, graduated 4th in her high school class and got a full scholarship to college. She is a novelist, a professional romance author who writes a novel a week for a client-publisher. I’ll repeat that—she writes a novel a week. Her books are top-rated on Amazon and she has a widespread following in her pen name. I want to say, despite her exploits, she is successful, driven and grounded in a way that I never was in my twenties. She can also be shy with a soft, childlike voice that requires you to lean in. Though I know she is bright and worldly, it is easy to dismiss her as passive, because of her stature, her kind eyes, and her uncanny ability to just sit and listen.
“You’re a good listener,” I told her while we were at dinner, sitting on one of the tile squares, next to a church set against the backdrops of the Sicilian cliffs and the Mediterranean skyline, “People might take advantage of that,” I said, worried that maybe I already had.
“They do,” she said with an upspeak, seeming to accept this simple fact about who she is, in the same regretful way she once said to me, “I’ll always be the small cute girl, not the sexy one,” even though she is. Jess can pull off the string bikinis and chest baring V-neck onesies that would make me feel old, naked, and silly. Later that night, two American men passed by us, glanced down at her, and, assuming we didn’t speak English, one of them said to the other, “Are you looking at what I’m looking at?” It was one of those things you giggle at because it’s uncomfortable, and common, and dealing with the crudeness of men is always a form of female bonding.
In the morning we took the cable car from city center and decided to hike out on one of the jutting rocky peninsulas from the beach. We walked to the edge, climbed a steep path and then crawled over the railing to get to the first inlet. We got to the first peak and looked out, the waves crashing below us, before we decided to keep going up. I managed to move fast, nearly skipping through the first part of the climb, but then I had to stop. It was steep and vertical, requiring some skill, the right foot placement, finding a well-fingered grip. I looked up at the ascent in front of me, then down at the jagged rocks below, the waves crashing, the crevices of rock and patches of water, none safe for landing.
Jess was already over the ridge when I heard her yell, “It’s nice up here.” I paused, wondering if I should keep going or just turn back. The sun was reflecting from the rocks in front of me, the winds whipping my hair, the sound of the wind and water rolling in, tumbling and breaking below. I thought about my daughter and some fears took over–maybe, I couldn’t afford this kind of lifestyle, these types of risks. Just in time, I stopped thinking and started moving, keeping my gaze in front of me, pulling myself up, one step, one wedged foot at a time. When I finally launched myself over the highest rocks, I stood tall, looking over the sea from a flat rock.
Both of us had some nervous energy so we sat down and I told Jess a story I recently heard about these two hikers in California who strayed from their trail. They kept going further and further up, thinking they were on the right path, edging around these narrowing cliffs until it got dark, and they finally had to stop. Stuck on a rock and waiting for the sun to come up, the one hiker heard his friend slip and just as he woke to catch him, he was gone, without a sound. All night he told himself that his friend must have survived, he was just waiting for him below and he continued to call to him, talk to him through the night. The next morning he hiked down and found his friend’s body at the bottom of the trail.
It was a harrowing story, but what I remembered most was that after he reported the accident, the cops wouldn’t drive him back to San Francisco and he had to hitchhike home. The woman who picked him up said something like, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I don’t know if that last part is true, or if I made it up, but that’s what I remembered, and that’s the story I told Jess.
She was wide-eyed and for the first time since I have known her, she looked terrified, “I want to get down now, I’m scared.” I was scared too. I knew we went up too far, and we had already climbed over barricades to get where we were and there wasn’t a clear way down, and that going down would be a lot harder than going up.
I also knew I fucked up telling her that story and decided I owed it to her to go first.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, even though, my legs were quivering.
I gripped a rock with my right hand and turned around to begin my descent, carefully each place to hook my fingers into the rocks, to jab my toes into the hallows and crevices, calculating the loose stones and debris. I wrapped around the bend and could no longer see Jess but kept focused on my feet, my grip, the space closing between me and the ocean. I tried not to think, just move each hand, each foot, one at a time, slowly moving closer until I hit the granite below. Still 20 feet above the sea, I caught my breath, the heat burning my cheeks, and shoulders. It seemed so long ago that I was up at the top looking down, already just a memory, as I looked up to see Jess, on the same bend, slowly, steadily, making her way back.
Before we left the beach that day we decided to cliff-jump from the same rocks. It seemed intentional, less reckless somehow, to go down, rather than up. From the ridge I could see the bottom of the ocean through the green water below, exactly where the rocks formed beneath the surface, the negative spot, clear to the bottom where I would need to land. I kicked off my shoes and stepped towards the edge, waves of adrenaline coursed my stomach, my limbs, and reached my fingertips. I could see the peaks of the mountains we climbed the day before, the cross on the ledge, the layers of town that folded into the distance, the crowds on the beach splayed before me. And in those seconds my feet between rock, air, and water, I was alive.
I had to swim around the island to crawl back up to the rocks where Jess was waiting. She was eager but hesitant. Her shoes were off and she was standing at the ledge, “I want to jump but…” she stepped back, “I just need a minute.”
“Just go, you’ll be fine,” I told her, “It’s clear, I promise.” She stepped to the ledge and back again, “Just go,” I urged her again, “You will be glad you did it.” I tried to think about what I would want to hear, what I would want someone to tell me, to give me strength and comfort about what lies ahead.
Jess reminded me of where I had been, but also all of the chaos, mishaps, fails, and pains that got me where I was. There is an insecurity in youth, and it lies in the not knowing, the standing on the cliff, before you jump, before decisions begin to stack up behind you. There was nothing I could say, nothing to save her from life or protect her from mistakes, or regrets, or the pain that would inevitably come. It was all there in front of her, and I knew it would be beautiful and wonderful however it happened.
“Jump,” I tell her, “It’s more dangerous up here than it is down there. Just go,” I said. It was the only thing I could tell her, that I knew to be true. It’s always harder before the decision, before the fall, before you know what happens next. She looked out over the water and up at the cliffs, and without saying a word, she jumped.
Life is always an easy metaphor for life.
On the flight home our seats were a few rows apart. We were still texting when the plane took off and she was jittery about a boy she likes.
“You’re a strong girl,” I texted, “You can handle both love or heart break.”
I have to stop myself, from sharing too much, from telling her too many stories, trying to impart my many ideas about life and my experience. And there’s always a chance that I’ll tell the wrong story, or say the wrong thing. I want to tell her to be reckless and free as long as she can, but never to ignore her suffering. I want to tell her to please, please, please love her body exactly how it is. And, don’t waste time with waste of time guys. I want to tell her to forgive her parents and try to love them exactly as they are. I want to tell her to enjoy the excited and scary feeling of not knowing how a romance will turn out because someday, you’ll miss that mystery. Mostly, I want to tell her not to worry about what will happen next, that everything will be okay, that none of this matters, but all of it matters.
I want to be reassuring somehow and give her words she could hold on to, but I know I can’t save her, and I shouldn’t. I know that really, there is nothing for me to say. There are no words to explain youth.
This beautiful and unknown, this life, it is hers to unfold.