A Rose and Cactus Valentine

Suddenly it was Valentine’s Day again, this time under the sun of Austin, Texas. Though I spent the day with people I love, with beloved old friends, the sting was still there, the ache, the loneliness of Are there people out there in this universe aching to find me the way I ache to find them? The Am I noticed? The I’m awesome, what’s with the universe being so slow about it? It was potent. It was annoying. It remains annoying. But that’s a topic for another day.

After a day filled with the openness of the Texas Hill Country and the wind that comes with it, I flipped through the local independent weekly newspaper as I lounged on the couch, feeling an unusual mental energy coupled with a physical and spatial exhaustion. Anticipation paired with peace. Curiosity paired with comfort. In the newspaper, I saw that the local independent bookstore was hosting a free (most importantly) reading by Sarah Kay that very night, the spoken word poet who first knocked me over with her (in my mind) infamous TED talk featuring her poem “Plan B.”

Because I’ve gotten accustomed to attending things alone as I travel through this country and find myself in new place after new place–always scratching at the shell of a city, always trying to find a way to get to the heart and figure out the people, at least a little b–I traveled to the book store on the bus alone. The sun had completely gone down; it was dark. The wind was still there; it was strong. I found my way to the bookstore and headed upstairs to the event space, feeling that familiar nudge of loneliness at always being alone at these sorts of things, of seeing people there with their friends. Of wanting to live in one place. Of wanting a community.

But there was poetry to be heard, and damn, was it some poetry. Two poets opened for the inimitable Ms. Kay, one female and one male, and they spoke of love, of lust, of longing, of coming alive and dying from the vastness of it all, too. Of brick under fingernails and bare backs, of exploding like Halloween in Detroit. This second poet, this man, the urgency of it all. It was raw, and rich, and I sat there stunned and aching and amazed at the gifts some people have. How people are born to do this kind of thing. There were couples there, but not overwhelmingly. It was ok being alone. It really was ok being there alone.

And then Sarah began, and the room simply became lost in the charm and power of her words. Her heartbreak. Her wit. Her triumphs. Her heart as a metaphor for a bat, eternally swinging. She finished with a poem called “The Type.” Oh, man.

“Know this.

Know you are the type of woman who is searching for a place to call yours.

Let the statues crumble.

You have always been the place.

You are a woman who can build it yourself.

You were born to build.”

Everyone chattered as the performance ended and the poets moved to the signing table. I contemplated buying a book, poked around the cultural studies section, felt excited and whole and lonesome and too, too quiet, yet reflective. Inspired. My hand itched for a pen, but to write what, I wasn’t sure. Phrases popped into my head at random and the pen scribbled bits of shit into my small notebook. I wandered around that bookstore, waiting for the bus to arrive, half focusing on the books but mostly just thinking thoughts that were too big for me to handle, too big for the language I possess to name them, as I’m attempting to do now. My heart swelled and shrank with the inspiration, the swell of, “Maybe I’m a writer!” and the shrink of, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

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I blinked, and it was time to head outside and catch the bus, and the odd balance of the loneliness and the wholeness was there, as it always seems to be in me, an odd, constant shifting and jostling of these scales inside me that can never just stay leveled: Loneliness and comfort. I was early to the bus stop. I sat on the bench. I plugged in my headphones. I felt an urge to listen to something emotional and raw. I chose “Cabinet Battle #1” from Hamilton instead. And as the song finished up and I mindlessly checked Instagram, checking on the photo I had posted earlier that day and reminded of my own vanity, I looked up, and a man was holding a drooping white rose out to me.

My eyes focused on the button on his shirt, and I read it, but my brain didn’t remember it because it was too busy frantically analyzing the situation like a young woman’s brain is wont to do when an unknown man hands her a rose at a bus stop in the dark. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said a little sadly, and he ran across the street to the diner on the other side. As he ran, I realized it was the male poet from upstairs. He had probably just finished signing books and was going to meet friends at the diner, or perhaps he was going to sit and write with a cup of coffee. That seems like something a poet would do.

If the rose hadn’t been tangible and real between my fingers, I would have doubted the interaction ever happened. But there it was in my hand, and here it is now, sitting on the table in front of me, and the 2-second interaction was real. Where had the rose come from? What was he planning to do with it? Had he decided to give it to the first lonely girl he saw? Or did something about me, out there on the bench with my headphones and my black dress, strike him? And what did he button say?

I got on the bus, my brain buzzing with an inspiration and craving to write it all down that I didn’t understand. The white rose poked out of my purse, drooping, the external petals dangerously close to falling off and dismantling the entire bloom. It felt like it represented something, as I walked onto the bus. An acknowledgment of the day. A symbol of being noticed. I’m not sure what. A check mark in a box.

And here I sit at a kitchen table that is not mine, in an apartment that is not mine in a city that is not mine, and I feel alive and I feel tired. Because it keeps coming back to that ache—is it an ache for a person? For a feeling? For an experience? I don’t know. But I just remembered that as the poet handed me that white rose in the dark outside the bookstore less than an hour ago, my first thought before grabbing it was to check and see if the rose had thorns.



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