“How was your weekend?”
Ah, yes. My first camping experience. Forty-five hours spent with dozens of strangers. There were countless stars in the nighttime sky. There was a thunderstorm. There was a big campfire. There were bugs. There was always the comforting sound of people singing and playing their guitars and ukeleles and celebrating the joys of being together. And there were heartbreaking headlines.
Day 1. Friday. A three-hour MegaBus ride to Albany. A two-hour drive from upstate New York to South Vermont. Trippin’ the fuck out.
I had many fears going into this weekend trip. They included:
- What if I get my period DURING MY FIRST EVER CAMPING TRIP where there are no bathrooms, but only one outhouse?
- What if I get an irreversibly bad tan?*
- What if the bugs really come after my sweat-drenched, salty skin?*
- What if I get poisoned by accidentally stepping on the wrong plant?*
- What if there’s a cult?
- What if I’m so much of an anxiety-ridden mess that I ruin the fun of this communal festival and end up raining on everyone’s parade long before the expected thunderstorm arrives on Saturday evening? Also, what if everyone is sorely unimpressed with where I am in my life right now? What if these kind-natured souls discover that a large percentage of food in my house are Monsanto products, WHICH I ONLY JUST RECENTLY DISCOVERED AND BIG LIFESTYLE CHANGES TAKE SOME TIME TO IMPLEMENT??
(BONUS: Anything with an asterisk can be immediately followed by the clause, “and Evan thinks I’m too ugly and dumps my spoiled, suburbia-girl ass?”)
These were just some of the many questions that invaded my brain during the bus ride. I relayed them to Evan, and he simply laughed them all off and said, “That’s ridiculous, Zennie!”
To which I thought, “That’s exactly what a cult member would say!!” Also: “I’m most likely going to be the only non-white person there! Help.”
Hours later, we arrived at the site of the weekend festival (of which there is no exact location, and the only thing Evan offered my dad was the address of the nearest house miles away — to which my dad said “nah, it’s okay”) ((DAD?! C’MON!!)). As we carry our backpacks and duffel bags and coolers to Evan’s dad’s camper, I look up and around and feel totally okay with the fact that I only see brown dirt and green trees and dark blue skies.
But then we see… people. And I’m terrified. You know, because I want to impress them and show them how much of a cool person Evan is in love with right now, but also… this is my first time ever doing something like this, and I don’t want to fuck it up. For my sake and for theirs.
I introduce myself dozens of times and attempt to say something fresh with each new meeting, and every person is so darn nice.
You guys. Usually, the idea of meeting a bunch of people at an event makes me feel prematurely exhausted. It all feels so perfunctory and obligatory.
But at this festival, I got to meet some of Evan’s friends since childhood. One of them lives in Brooklyn and designs games for Escape the Room. Another is leaving for Japan in a few months to teach English. These are nice guys — no, truly. They were good guys. They were kind. They were sweet. They liked me enough to joke around with me, and told Evan that it was rather easy to pick on me (and, of course, never to a degree remotely close to offensive or hurtful) because I was “so open.” It was really nice getting know them. I can’t wait to see them again, because that means I get to see them laugh and joke around with Evan, and that’s something that makes him smile so much, you get to see the glory of all his pearly whites.
I got to meet some family friends of the Cohen clan. They had, up until Evan went to NYU, seen my boyfriend at least once a year, growing up and growing facial hair. They knew him when he was an infant to when he could throw around a frisbee to when his voice dropped to when he got a license to when he returned after a few years away, sporting a full-on beard with a wide-eyed girlfriend in tow. They were so excited to catch up with Evan, but they also seemed stoked to hear about what was going on with me, even though they just met me!
And I got to meet strangers. Some whom even Evan didn’t know. They offered us hugs, scotch, and a seat by the campfire.
Genuine warmth from smiles, and legitimate curiosity from questions. Holy mackerel, I could hardly believe it.
So I did what any young, insecure person trying to fit in would do: I drank. Maybe a bit too much.
BUT THEN, I MADE THE HORRID MISTAKE OF DOING SOMETHING ELSE. EVEN THOUGH I BARELY DO IT NOWADAYS. AND I WAS IN THE WOODS. AND DESPITE HAPPY INTRODUCTIONS ALL AROUND, IT’S NOT LIKE YOUR ANXIETY CAN JUST EVAPORATE IN A MERE HALF HOUR OR SO.
It was not a good high. Even Evan, retrospectively, said he felt fucked up for getting so cross-faded.
But, boy, was I worse. I think the only appropriate term I could use to describe myself was paranoid. My mind went to a very, very dark place. Level thirteen freak out. Everything was bad. And it’ll sound so laughably stupid, but hear me out:
I’m not used to this much goodness from strangers. I’m idealistic, sure. But in my day-to-day life, during my morning and evening commutes, and pretty much in every instance where I’m not in my own house, I am a skeptical person. When strangers in Union Square approach me to sell me something or ask for my signature, my immediate instinct is to walk faster. When it’s dark out and PM turns to AM, I know that it’s better to scowl than smile if I’m heading back home myself. If people who have just met you are being nice to you, they probably want something from you.
I am not used to resting or relaxing. Or giving in.
Evan does not think this way all the time. He’s rational, but he believes in the inherent goodness of humanity. I, on the other hand, want to feel optimistic about members of my fellow species, but am increasingly reluctant to do so, especially when around a ton of strangers.
So, I freaked out. Luckily, Evan was nothing but a gentleman. In the seeming blink of an eye, I was in my pajamas with my retainers in and my contacts off, sleeping rather soundly despite the presence of bugs in the camper and the constant sound of hella leaves rustling. He was asleep next to me — ah, classic Cohen. Always there for me, ready to be my knight in shining American Eagle.
Day 2. Saturday. “We need to talk.” / “What’s going on?” / “Hey, is that the Milk Way?!”
I woke up on Saturday morning and turned towards Evan. He, in turn, turned away, his back to me.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you mad at me?”
“You don’t trust me.”
It was true. It is true. I trust pretty much no one.
When my heart is filled with joy and my lips curl into a gracious grin, anxiety infiltrates my mind and starts to ask innumerable questions designed to fuck up my mood, fuck up my day, and fuck up my relationship with whomever I’m with. My mind tries to find instances that didn’t feel one hundred percent perfect, blow them up, and showcase them as examples of why I’m not smart, not funny, not charming, not capable of genuine generosity, not worthy of love. “You laugh too loudly!” “You don’t listen enough during conversation!” “Your nose is too big and off-putting!” “You’re too out of touch with the world, you privileged moron!” You know, all of these things.
According to Ev, I veer dangerously close to making things up. If there isn’t a problem, I get nervous. I ask myself: But… why isn’t there an issue? There’s always something that’s supposed to be wrong, because that’s life!
Evan: “Or, sometimes, things can really be this good and perfect. Even if only for a little bit.”
Anxiety: “Do not ride that wave.”
My heart: “Zennie, just let yourself fall…”
Evan: “…in deeper love with me!”
Anxiety: “Shut up.”
My heart: “I’m tired.”
My body: “I’m tired.”
My mind: “I’m tired.”
Zennie: “I’m tired.”
Evan: “It’s okay.”
Zennie: “I do want to trust you. But sometimes it feels like I physically cannot.”
Evan: “Wanna head out?”
I’ll have you know that Saturday in Vermont was good and perfect. And happy.
Because of that, there isn’t really much to describe, because conflict was almost at an astounding zero. The biggest bit of drama was my internal struggle of listening to that voice in my head that says, “Let’s make a problem out of this!” versus the rest of my body that is yearning to immerse myself in beauty, community, and undisrupted joy.
(This is why I get slightly bewildered when people ask me how things are with Ev. With minimal drama between us, there’s no juicy gossip to really share. It’s often all just… contentedness, warmth, and appreciation. Not exactly the kind of stuff that could constitute a play, movie, or TV series.)
Here are some of my fondest memories of the afternoon and evening:
- By the communal tables of food were a bunch of coolers, most of them without names or labels. I ask one of Ev’s friends why this was so. “You bring food and drinks to the festival and it’s all up for grabs.” I was shocked. “Wait, so if I just wanted some cheese and crackers from the table, I just… go get some?” “Yep, that’s what they’re there for.” Amazing.
- My phone lost most connection, so I left it in the camper. No phone in my pocket means no continuous sense of time. It was heaven.
- I finally let myself walk around on the soft green grass with no shoes or socks on. Childhood beckoned, after all.
- Afternoon nap in the camper with Cohen. I used to be actually scared of naps, because I’ve been known to not wake up at my designated time (as in, sleeping for fourteen hours instead of taking a mere two hour nap). No time limit meant that we could have our majestic slumber last for however long we wanted. It was glorious.
- Making food for everyone. Ev and I were responsible for all those scrambled eggs, you guys! I like that Cohen loves me even though I don’t know how to hard boil an egg. I also wore my Justin Bieber tee shirt during this weekend trip, and Ev and I are still together.
- As predicted, the big thunderstorm came! It arrived right during the annual talent show, where the husband of one of the festival creators literally rode a mountain bike through a flaming hoop. It’s his actual career. We cheered him on, then all ran to seek refuge from the intense rain and winds underneath the E-Z Up canopies. (The next day, I helped to take down one of these canopies!! You guys!!!)
- During an intermission in the storm where the rains and winds dropped to less intimidating levels, everyone retreated to their respective campers. Those that didn’t want to stick it out in their tents (that’s a scary thought) went to other people’s campers. I found myself in the Cohens’ camper with seven people, and we played card games and drank gin and tonics and ate chips and salsa (or with Nutella) for our first dinner. Swell.
- When the storm was over, second dinner was served! I ate some of the best and richest fettuccine I’ve ever encountered in my life.
- I’ve seen stars before, but not as much as this night. I looked up, and there seemed to be an infinite amount of brilliance in the midnight sky. A woman answered affirmatively to my Milky Way galaxy question. I was so amazed, I cried. I felt so small and insignificant, and it felt great. It felt wondrous to have all my problems and anxieties become trivial, because I am the type of person where everything is sacred to me, and there are only ever mountains and never molehills. Nothing felt like a big deal this night, except that I was enjoying myself and I felt loved and safe and in the presence of something far bigger, greater, and assured than myself. That something, of course, is the universe itself — beckoning me with its grace and fury and selflessness.
- Sitting around the campfire and thinking about… nothing. I literally just sat there, watching the flames slowly but surely engulf a number of logs and coals. I can tell you guys right now that there is no better warmth on your face than when you’re sitting just a few feet away from a fantastic campfire, and your boyfriend’s dad is playing guitar and singing with a bunch of his lifelong friends and even a few strangers, and you look over at your boyfriend and even though you definitely don’t want to die, you think that if this happened to be the last day of your time on planet earth, that would actually be more than okay with you.
Day 3. Sunday. Wait, what? Is it really over? Already? What a weekend. Short, but undeniably sweet. As in, I really couldn’t resist it anymore. I had to do it. You know: cry those sweet, sentimental tears. In broad daylight. In the wilderness. By the campfire, where smoke is getting in my eyes and marshmallows are getting roasted and it’s all too pure and beautiful — just like this good, green earth.
When I awoke next to Ev on Sunday morning, his loving arms wrapped around my waist, I wanted to burst into tears. Of course I did, I’m such a cliché. I did not want this to be over so soon.
We played Euchre by the campfire while the sun shined playfully on our foreheads. Others were packing up and getting ready to go; some were already leaving. Tears welled up in my eyes; Evan asked what was wrong. I said nothing. He understood, and probably would have jumped with glee if we weren’t in the middle of a card game.
So, the reader may ask: “How was camping this weekend?”
It was… the best. ZERO BUG BITES!! I loved it.
I loved that I did something this far out of my comfort zone. I even peed in an outhouse! Actually, according to Evan, I even peed in the woods in the middle of the night — because that’s what people at this festival do, because they’re drunk and it’s at night and everyone does it!
Zennie: “Was I freaking out??”
Evan: “No, you actually didn’t seem to mind it at all!”
Evan: “I’m so proud of you.”
When it was time for us to go, we bade farewell to so many kind, generous, and beautifully tanned comrades. Many of them said to me, “See you next year!” It’s nice to think that after less than forty-eight hours together, they totally thought that my romantic prospects with Cohen are still looking pretty solid for the next twelve months. I’ll take it, and I won’t let them down.
The MegaBus ride back to Manhattan is one of those stretches of time that seem to be without flaw. One the one hand, you can’t wait to get back home — and shower and have a toilet and sleep on a real bed. On the other hand, you are so happy on this liminal public transit ride, you almost don’t care if there’s backup on Route 17 or a delay going into the Lincoln Tunnel.
It was on this bus ride that I had to switch from reading my printed-out articles to perusing my phone. The sun was setting, and I didn’t want to completely fuck up my vision, so I caved and checked my usual websites.
I could no longer put off reading about the tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia. The day prior, Evan’s dad had mentioned it very briefly in passing. I feel bad to even recall this, but Evan and I had our moment or two of feeling bad and immediately condemning the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists responsible for such crime and harm and toxic ideology.
Then, we went back to our weekend festival of laughter, wine, and acoustic covers of John Mayer songs.
But the weekend was nearing its end, and it was time to get back to reality, however harsh or cruel it may currently exist.
Back to work — back to my part time job to pay my bills while continually trying to work towards a bigger goal.
Back to the daily grind.
Back to the unhappy faces of grumpy, overworked commuters on subway platforms and crowded trains — such a contrast from the faces I had seen these past few days.
Back to reading countless articles and simultaneously trying to keep myself afloat from drowning in hopelessness.
Back to standing up for myself, justifying my existence as a minority, as a woman, as an aspiring academic and artist, as a person prone to both paralyzing neurosis and emotional maelstrom.
I felt guilty for having happened to “get away from things” during such a tumultuous weekend for this country that I was born in and for which I’ll always feel a certain love. But appreciation without critical thought is blind adoration or infatuation — I love my country, but it is fucked up right now. We are fucked up.
I got to take a break from things for two or three days, but I’m back, and it’s time to work even harder.
Back to writing the scary pieces and having the difficult conversations and calling out people for their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic jokes. No, these jokes are not harmless. You’re perpetuating the worst of humanity with those careless remarks.
All those fears that I had taken with me into this trip — and that caused me to drink and smoke too much out of a panic — came back. But now, they were actually justified.
Back to the fight.
During the last stretch of the bus ride, when the Manhattan skyline came into view and I was listening to my crappy Top 40 playlist (that’s right, it’s either Apple Music’s “Pop Workout” or “Global Pop” because I suck), I knew I was coming back to a place that truly felt like home.
I looked over at Evan, also listening to music and also admiring the view of New York City. The Big Apple. New York, New York. The place where dreams come true.
He’s my dream come true. Every day I open myself up to him, putting my heart in his delicate hands and hoping that he’ll treat it kindly with the utmost respect. He has not let me down.
My mom and sister arrive home in the next few hours from their three-week trip abroad in Hong Kong and Vietnam. In the next few days, my soul mate of a best friend will return from her extensive, spontaneous trip in Europe.
My sister starts her undergrad career at Pace for an accelerated masters program in Education next month, and my best friend will begin grad school at her alma mater Columbia University within the next few weeks. It was a perfect time for both of them to, respectively, leave this mess of a motherland. Experience something new. Immerse themselves in different cultures. See their worlds — both foreign and domestic — through unique lenses.
I wonder if they feel like they missed out on a lot, or if they were fortunate to escape certain events. But this will always be their home, and I cannot wait to greet them upon their returns with open arms and a welcoming smile. You know, just like those amazing people at MatomiFest 2017.