How Did That Happen and How Did I Get Here?
By Gretchen Kast
I sat at the kitchen table most mornings, unemployed and drinking a now-unnecessarily large amount of coffee. Perched across the room at the breakfast bar, one of my roommates and I read the same articles on separate laptops. Occasionally we’d share comments. Occasionally we’d apply to jobs.
I walked a lot, despite the harrowing temperatures. I knew the city layout by instinct alone, but couldn’t give anyone directions; on a pretty regular basis, I would accidentally send people in cars hurdling the wrong way down one-way streets. Walking meant that I was pretty consistently slicked with a thick coating of sweat, but it also meant that I was moving. Testing out my muscles to make sure they hadn’t yet calcified. I was still alive, heat-stricken and aimless.Oftentimes I looked up, noted my surroundings, and wondered how I got there.
As the days crawled on, my mind grew fevered with the idea that everyone was in suspension, holding themselves above their heads as they waited for the wind to blow. And then it did one night. Earlier in the evening, I sat along the river, listening to a free concert with friends. “You guys better get going,” a passing police officer hollered at us, gesturing to the sky. “There’s a storm comin’.” We laughed, but heeded his warning, ambling to a nearby apartment to make poorly mixed mojitos as the heavens opened up outside. When we returned home later that night, tree trunks littered the streets of our yuppie northwest neighborhood. We looked at each other, baffled. How did we miss that?
“You keep saying stuff like that,” a boy informed me one night. “Like you have to decide everything now. Like every decision is so final. You can still change your mind about all of this. You still have time.” I sipped my margarita and considered the advice. He had a way with words, but I could never tell if he was lying.
I got a job and bought a pencil skirt and learned how to sit in a cubicle and send emails.
I drank gin and tonics on rooftops. I drank ciders in basements. I drank wine on balconies. I saw good concerts in crowded rooms. I accidentally went to Sign of the Whale so many times that claiming it to be an accident stopped being a viable excuse.
In August, a friend and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment, just down the road. I lived in the living room and our furniture was either plastic or free or both. The third time the cable company failed to show up to install our Internet, I called their 800 number in a fit, but after an hour of back and forth with a stern woman in Texas, had gotten nowhere. She could only offer me a $60 rebate and no assurance that anyone would ever show up. “But why doesn’t the system work? Why can’t you promise me anything will happen?” I hung up the phone and cried ugly tears on the edge of my bathtub.
The thing about summer in DC is that it doesn’t end. The transition between it and fall feels laborious. Summer lingers until one day you look up and realize the leaves have browned. Oh, you remark and go home to unearth the sweaters from under your bed.
Sitting on the floor of our apartment, my roommate and I signed up to run a half marathon and drafted training schedules we then didn’t really follow. I tried to balance my caloric intake with my monetary expenditure, realizing the two often worked inversely. I ate gluten-free microwave burritos, rice noodle ramen, SmartFood popcorn, lightly salted deluxe mixed nuts (no peanuts), open-faced grilled cheese and fried egg sandwiches and called it a draw.
I perfected the art of sneaking a bag of wine into outdoor concert venues. (The trick is to always have a backpack and an earnest face.)
The curtain that separated my bedroom from the dining room fell down one evening. My roommate noted that I probably needed a stud finder. I Googled it, but grew bored and watched a video compilation of the best X Factor auditions on Youtube instead. The curtain lay in a pile on the floor, half tethered to the wall, and collected dust for the remainder of our lease.
My life, which was once best described as an absurdist play, had become an elaborate rouse.
On New Years Eve, I took it upon myself to reorganize my system of vices, shifting from bad to good or bad to not-so-bad or boring to exciting. For a brief period of a week or so, I took up a vitamin addiction, popping B12 every morning in hopes of aiding my nervous system. When I got to work, my fingers tingled and buzzed along the computer keyboard just like they did those nights in college when I gulped down paper cups of murky coffee and annotated thousand-page books until the sun shone over the library roof. The B12 was an easy replacement for the highs of all-nighters. Both made me feel powerful and not so hungry. But the feeling was fleeting and I abandoned it when I realized the pills always made me sneeze, which I found mildly alarming.
I spent a weekend visiting friends in Brooklyn and ate tacos for every meal. When it rained, I walked around with wet socks because all of my boots had holes in them. It always rained when I was in Brooklyn.
As I was falling asleep one night, my phone buzzed with a text message from a friend from high school, relaying a story from earlier that day: driving along the winding Concord roads, another friend had reminisced about the younger versions of ourselves. “My memory of the two of you at 18 is just shouting. Not angry. Just excited. You guys were just so fucking PUMPED about life. About everything. “ I sat awake that night, trying to remember when I had stopped shouting.
In a bar I hated I met a boy named Josh who was from Florida. He gave me his number and I never called. In a bar I hated I met another boy named Josh. He gave me his number and I never called. In a bar I hated I met a boy wearing iPhone speakers in a fanny pack around his waist. “Want to go outside and listen to my music?” he asked. “OK!” I shouted. I think he had a girlfriend. She lived in another city.
I re-watched Garden State while lying on the floor of my apartment when I should have been folding my laundry. When I got to that scene where Zach Braff is sitting in the fireplace with Natalie Portman and he goes “And I like you, so there’s that” and she smiles and says, “Do you want to see me tap dance?” I paused the movie, realizing that was everything I thought I knew about love.
I joined OkCupid as a social experiment but didn’t actually interact with any of the eligible bachelors. I instead wordlessly monitored a growing list of messages. Friends spoke of it to me with encouragement. They shared stories about friends of friends who met fascinating and beautiful and kind people via the site’s algorithms; they raved vicariously. I laughed along and continued to hoard digital love letters from strangers who were intrigued by my “1988 Berlin rebellion-esque” photo and my affinity for wandering.
I watched all of Dawson’s Creek. I watched all of Breaking Bad. I watched all of The OC. I watched the first 20 minutes of a handful of movies before deeming the time commitment too burdensome and abandoning them. I watched all of Parenthood. I watched every One Direction interview on YouTube. I watched all of The Newsroom. I watched the first half of the first season of the West Wing before realizing the sun had come out and I wasn’t sad anymore. I went outside.
On a Thursday, I turned 23 and came down with a bad cold. That Saturday, I woke up at five in the morning, took a Sudafed and ran 13.1 miles through the streets of DC. Around mile three, my roommate and I had figured out a plan for her entire future. Around mile 11, I thought I might die. I didn’t. I finished the race a half hour sooner than I expected.
Still, I struggled to keep things in order. The numbers I was supposed to keep straight were consistently jumbled, my to-do list frantically scrawled, my inbox always too full. I never remembered to get the mail. I found myself standing at the bathroom sink every afternoon, just trying to breathe. Just trying to get a grip. I turned to strangers for guidance and learned phrases like executive processing and attention deficit without hyperactivity. I slowly began to put numbers in order. I slowly learned how to breathe again. The first time I actually finished cleaning my room, I almost wept.
I discovered one afternoon that the organic grocery store where I often shopped sold a $17 jar of peanut butter. I stood and stared at the label for a solid minute or so, put it back on the shelf and bought the one avocado I planned on eating for dinner.
When my mother came to visit, she surveyed my apartment, noted the piles of books on the floor and suggested I buy a bookshelf. I explained that I didn’t want to have to deal with transporting one when I moved. “When are you moving?” she asked. “Eventually,” I said.
My friend sat beside me, the TV turned to CNN, as I watched the Boston police search the streets of Watertown. It was pouring outside and we didn’t really talk, but he made tacos and refilled my wine glass until they caught the boy. We went out that night and a guy at the bar tried to tell me it wasn’t really that big of a deal. “You don’t understand,” I yelled. “The Marathon is sacred.” His friend found me later to apologize.
I took a week off of work and flew to Paris and stood with three friends I met the very first day of college atop the Arc de Triomphe. The city streets somehow still familiar, I led them to old haunts and fumbled over phrases I once knew so well. Sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur, I figured out a plan for the rest of my life. Hours later, after meeting up with a few old friends and misplacing the ones I had come with, I found myself sitting with four French boys, drunk and eating McDonald’s on the opposite side of the city. They introduced me to a man in a parka who must have been seven feet tall, later explaining emphatically that he was a famous Parisian rapper. I got back to the apartment where we were staying around 6:30 in the morning and woke a few hours later to get on a train. In Angers, my friend guided us around the place she had called home for a year. We all had head colds and ate too many gallettes; but we traipsed around the town nonethless, bouncing from breathtaking landmark to museum to café.
A few days after returning home, I sat on my balcony and talked to my mom on the phone. She inquired tentatively about how I felt being back and I said I was fine. And I wasn’t even lying. The last time I came home from France, I sat holed up in my childhood bedroom for a week, overwhelmed by all of the noise and space, trying to decipher what everything had meant. This time felt different. I went back to work and made a note to think about meaning later.
But I never really got around to it. Twelve months had somehow rushed by despite the languid pace of the quotidian. It had been a year of looking up and thinking, How did that happen? and How did I get here? which was at times thrilling but more often not. I looked back at my accumulation of false starts, patterns and returns to the beginning, and drew no conclusions. When did I stop paying attention? When did I stop shouting? A year ago, I waited patiently for the earth to rattle, the ground to cleave, the universe to catapult me into the gleaming “real world” with a ceremonious cymbal crash, but instead life crept along among of the shadows, taunting and teasing, until one day I looked up and finally realized that I wasn’t surprised at where I was standing.