I walk out the door and turn to watch it shut on James.
He moves to the window—all the kids do—for one last wave. I stand just below them and pull out the lighter James smuggled in for me. Then I hold up Meeks’s card and set it on fire. I watch as everyone, James especially, cheers.
“You’re going to do great!” he calls after me through the steel mesh screen.
He sounds so sure.
I START DOWN the hospital drive, glance back one last time at James in the window. Then off I go, rolling my suitcase behind me through the high gates and onto a main thoroughfare where the loud whoosh of cars is startling after so much time spent inside. All at once and shockingly, I am back in the world.
The bus stop is on the corner. A large woman is spread out across the bench, two shopping bags at her feet. She stares straight ahead and clutches her purse when I sit down on the edge beside her. I wonder if she knows where I’ve come from, if she can smell the hospital on me the way certain dogs can sniff out a tumor.
“Do you know if the twelve thirty to Newport has come yet?” I ask. She looks at me and then away. I am suddenly certain that I will get on the wrong bus, find myself in some strange place—Siberia, maybe, or worse, New Jersey—where I will be forced to cap bottles in a hair spray factory, never to be seen again. I think of James hopping a bus from this very spot yesterday, hopeful and free and full of dreams before something made him change his mind, go back in.
The bus arrives with a squeal and a hiss. I step up to it. “Is this the one that goes to Newport?” I say. The driver grunts something that I can only hope is a yes and then sighs as if the effort to deal with such an idiot has taxed him tremendously. I climb aboard and hand him a ten from the large wad of guilt-money that my dad gave me on his last visit. It’s a struggle to get down the aisle with my suitcase, and I feel the need to apologize for my presence as the other people on the bus stare miserably at me. Finally I make my way to an open window seat, the bus lurches forward and we are in motion.
For the next two hours, I watch the moving landscape provide proof of my freedom as the hospital, the town, the city, the state all fall away behind me. I stare at myself in the window glass, trying to recognize the girl reflected back at me, to make a friend of her, to make the hope stick. But worries bully their way into my brain, insisting that I am not equipped for this adventure, that I will be completely lost amid a world of strangers with no one to offer direction or guidance, that I will ultimately collapse and break apart beneath the unsupported weight of myself out here on my own. The absence of love, that barren, hopeless place revisited, will destroy me once and for all. I’ll end up back in the hospital. Or worse, on the wrong end of a looped rope.
“Next stop, Dunton College,” the bus driver says, jolting me from my thoughts.
I grip the seat in front of me as if bracing for a crash. The moment I have been both waiting for and dreading is finally here, only now the roar of terror that has reared up completely trumps the excitement. All at once, it’s way too real and I just want to stay on this bus with these harmless strangers, close my eyes and go to sleep, wake up when life no longer feels exhausting.
Suddenly, the Atlantic Ocean comes into view. “Can I jump off here instead?” I ask, standing abruptly. The bus driver sighs again, pulls to the curb and deposits me on a street corner across from a beach. Then the bus is gone and it’s only me.
It’s windy and cold for August. The air is different here, dense and heavy with the sea. I walk up to the small, rocky beach, eager to answer the call that pulled me here. It all comes back to me like a once-elusive dream: the welcome of the ocean, its wide arms reaching. I breathe the whole of it, the smell and the size and the melancholy beauty of it into my lungs. The Atlantic has had a hold on me since the first time I saw it many years ago. I am drawn to its detachment, its mercurial nature, its violence. In these things I find a comforting familiarity.
The coastline is empty except for two homeless guys sitting shoulder to shoulder on a nearby bench, sharing a drink from a paper bag. Their friendship makes me think of James, of how connection can lift people out of their circumstances. They ask me for a cigarette and I give them two. Their gratitude is so genuine, their two rotten-toothed grins so drunkenly cheerful and thrilled that I immediately hand over the entire pack.
Then I start toward the water. The sky is stone gray and sunless, all the light wrung out of it like wet from a cloth. In front of the empty lifeguard stand, a few surfers zigzag up and down the waves, black as birds against the gloom. I watch them for a moment with yearning, imagining that graceful unity with the world. In the distance, I recognize Dunton’s famous clock tower from the college brochure, its stately brick buildings sitting high on a cliff. I keep walking down the shoreline until I’m far enough away that no one should be able to see me. At any moment kids from school could show up, and I don’t want anyone to see me with my makeup washed off. After all, if I have one hope for my first year of college, it’s that I can rid myself of my ugly past, maybe even find love. Not that I’d ever openly admit that I want it. Or that I have the remotest clue how to get it.
The sea is the color of metal, the white waves disheveled and sloshing in a tantrum. The ocean calls to me with its baptismal promise. I shed my jeans and sweater. Today I leave my history behind. Make the past the past, as James always said. Today, right now, I start over. A new me. Or something like that.
The water is a shock of cold. It knocks the breath out of me before it reaches my knees. I look out at the wild, breaking ocean and take a deep breath, summoning all the hope I have in me for what is possible. Then I charge the surf and launch myself toward a wave about to crash. The instant before it does, I dive. For one moment my body is anesthetized. My thoughts frozen. Everything still and cold and silent. I emerge on the other side like something new, whooping with the rush. A second wave follows, mountainous and fast, and I rush into that one too, laughing as I go, the child in me released by the sea.
I move a little farther out where I can still find the bottom. My tiptoes are attuned for the brush of a crab as I lean my head back, let the water rinse my hair, rinse everything. I imagine my old self pouring out of me like octopus ink, black ribbons slipping into the current, disappearing into the depths.