I can’t recall the last time I’d seen Mia and now here she was at my front door, head shaved, asking for a ride to the airport.
“Sure. When is your flight?” I asked, glancing at her smooth scalp. It was inviting, I wanted to run my hand over her creamy skin the hue of toasted coconut.
She laughed in apology. “I need to leave in an hour. I have all my stuff with me.”
There was no use reprimanding her. Something told me this was the final favor she’d ever ask of me. I let her in, and told her to help herself to something to drink while I cleaned up. I’d been in the middle of creating my daughter’s Halloween costume–last minute, of course. My seven-year-old had decided to be a caterpillar.
“What happened to your hair?” I asked.
“Oh…” Mia opened the fridge door to peek in, and ran a hand over her bald head. She flashed her girlish grin at me, the same one I’d known since we became best friends in sixth grade. “Well, I’ve decided to make a break with this world.”
“What do you mean? Are you joining a cult?” I joked in a flat voice. I kept my voice matter-of-fact, just as I always did when she picked up and changed courses, leaving the rest of us with our routines and mortgages.
“No, nothing like that.” She beamed. She was filled with the calm of certainty. “It’s just me this time. Whatever this ‘me’ is. I’m so terrible at explanations.”
As I put away the multicolored felt and pipe cleaners, Mia talked about a memory from high school. It was senior prom night. She showed up without a date, wearing a flimsy toga-like garment the color of bright coral. In her hair was a crude tiara adorned with shells. She’d made the outfit herself, telling me it was a secret, until the big reveal. In the middle of stares and snickering, she sat and studied her classmates with a serene smile, sipping punch, never moving from the table. When she tried to get up, someone had tied her dress to the chair and it tore in back. She acted like it didn’t matter. “This was when I knew I didn’t belong, and I’ve been looking for my place ever since.”
I’d forgotten the memory. Always protective of my friend who was like a sister, the incident was more painful for me than for her. I was never completely certain how she felt in any situation. She faced everything with the wide brown eyes of an observer.
“So what does that have to do with anything?” I asked. I was losing my patience. Halloween was tomorrow and time was slipping away.
“I think my entire life has been a series of those prom-night moments. No matter how I try, I don’t fit into any type of society. None of it makes sense to me. It never really did. It’s all been a bizarre game and I’ve never been good at it because I don’t understand the rules or the goals.”
“So you’re just running away?”
“Not running away. Going home. Remember that island I told you about?”
I sighed. “You’ve told me about many islands, Mia.”
“The one where I slept on the beach for a month. Where I forgot everything.”
We shared a silent moment, and I understood. This was it. I wouldn’t see her again. But instead of feeling anxious as I had for her in the past, I felt a profound relief shadowed with loss.
Her face was far from sad, however. As we drove to the airport–just one small hemp carry-on in the back seat–Mia spoke in a quiet, content voice about the island, her voice rich with a deep emotion that I couldn’t comprehend. And within those few moments I felt the gap between us widen, her part of the world breaking free from mine and drifting away.
“Most people feel tied to someone or something–it’s what keeps them together, keeps things going. I envied this for a long, long time. Why didn’t I feel this connectedness with other humans? Why didn’t I have a sense of duty, of purpose, or ambition? Why did it all matter less as time passed–the need to accomplish, possess, strive, proliferate, leave a legacy, a lasting mark on this earth? And finally, on that
island in the Pacific, the only place where I’ve ever felt at home, I understood. My bond is to that place. Not to people or history or things. I belong there, the same way the rocks and trees and birds belong there. Facing the sea and shaped by the elements until I become part of them. That’s all.”
I nodded and listened, to her words and the silences between the words. I saw her carefully shearing away her long, glistening, dark hair. Hair that was the envy of every woman who didn’t understand her and the idealization of every man who couldn’t touch her. Dropping the final human bonds to this way of being.
“It’ll grow back. Then, who knows,” she laughed. “Maybe I’ll grow feathers instead. Or palm fronds.”
I laughed with her. The image of her sprouting a head of palm fronds lingered with me and even now, makes me smile.
Time has passed since that day. My daughter is nearly in high school. I think of Mia less every year. Of course, I still dream of her. She has less and less to say in my dreams, as if words are fading from her. I don’t know if she’s happy. Maybe it’s not about happiness, but belonging.
In my dreams she continues to haunt the shore, at times ethereal, drifting like flotsam on the surf, at other times solidly rooted like a tree between land and sea, gazing across the bay at the shimmering city. Eventually the city itself carries no meaning, and is nothing more than a mirage of light on water.