7.13 Austin, Texas

When I stepped off the airplane, the first thing I noticed was the band playing. Austin is, after all, the live music capital of the world.

As the music faded and the closer I got to the exit of the airport, another band waited for us at the end of the escalator that led towards the front doors. At the baggage claim, four men in dark suits held up signs with names written on them. A fifth man held an iPad who, unlike his comrades, seemed to have embraced the advantages technological advancement provided to his job. I stood around the baggage claim, but all I had was a carry-on hanging from my shoulder. I was scoping out the five men with signs as they collected their passengers one-by-one. The last man, shifting from one foot to the other, anxiously checked his phone. I approached him, looked at his sign and said, “You’re looking for Wilson?” He nodded, offered to take my bag.

Inside the car, Nick the Driver blasted the air conditioning. He asked me about what brought me to Austin. With little sleep the previous night, combined with having to wake up early, I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. However, in my current situation, a certain amount of small talk was necessary.

“Work,” I grumbled.

“What kind of work, Mr. Wilson?” Nick asked.

We sat at a red light, Nick looking at me through the rearview mirror, waiting for an answer. His phone beeped, he checked, his eyes returned to me.

“Get out,” he said.

Instead of protesting, I grabbed my bag and stepped out of the car. Along with my current disdain for small talk, I was all out of excuses for justifying my decision to deceive a man who was only trying to do his job.

When I stepped out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the heat. Nick peeled away in a cloud of dust, thickening the already thick air. The sun immediately burned my skin. I was on the side of a highway, somewhere between the airport and my first stop of the day. The plan consisted of meeting some people at the Austin Film Society for a series of podcast interviews. There was only one thing left to do: start walking.

A sauna is supposed to be relaxing, but you’re sitting unmoving in a sauna with only a towel. You’re not walking for over an hour fully clothed with the sun beating down on the back of your neck. By the time I reached the Austin Film Society, stars bounced along the borders of my eyes. I had to get over my small talk hangup and get into character. I mean, this time I was essentially playing myself, but I needed to make an impression on them. I guess sometimes it’s best to just be yourself. Sometimes it works.

The bed and breakfast I had booked was a two hour walk according to the GPS on my phone. This was doable, I thought. And it was, except for the sauna I walked through and the fact that Austin consisted of more hills then you’d think there would be in Texas. There is something about walking and sweating. The experiences of the last few months seemed to be dripping out of my pours. A certain amount of delirium set in around the halfway mark. You start to challenge your decisions. Not big decisions, just say, the decision to walk to your destination instead of just taking the bus or a taxi. You start to doubt whether you are even going in the right direction. Maybe this will never stop, you think that maybe you will just have to keep going, that you’ll pass some threshold, some point of no return and you’ll join the old Austin hippies and just walk around for the rest of your days.

According to my map, up that hill right there, that goddamn big one, was where I’d be staying. My confirmation email said that around the back of the house, there should be a key box with the key to my room. I doubt I can make it up the hill. When I made it up the hill, I doubt that the key would actually be there. When I unlocked the door and the air conditioning hit me, I wondered if this was some kind of sick joke. That when I removed my drenched clothes, someone would burst into the room and tell me I had to leave. After a much needed shower, I lay down on the bed, my mind a soup of heat and sun, my head throbbing, my brain on fire.

The next morning, I walked over to the attached building where breakfast was being served. The proprietor of the place, a young friendly man, talked with me about my plans and made suggestions on what to do. I forgo my usual displeasure of morning small talk because he made me breakfast.

For the next two days, I ate too many tacos, take note that people really like tattoos and walked up and down famous Sixth Street as music poured out from bars that have bartenders who are either beautiful blondes or bearded hipsters. I went to Zilker Park, hiked in the heat trying to even out my sunburn, went swimming in the freezing cold spring, pretending that I was just another resident of Austin. I watched a group of hippies stand on top of a hill performing some type of ceremony, thanking the sun for the life it gave to the earth.

On my last morning, I walked into the breakfast area to find two other places set up. I’ve actually enjoyed talking to the young man running the bed and breakfast. We had great conversations about the local music and movie scenes. A couple around my age entered the breakfast area and the young man offered a hearty ‘Happy Birthday’ to the woman. The couple paused when they saw me and awkwardly sat down at the other end of the long table. We sat there in silence as we all thought the same thing: What’s with this weirdo guy sitting alone ruining this special birthday breakfast that had been planned? Bed and Breakfasts are not for single people.

I made the much wiser decision to take the bus to the airport. No more pretending to be someone else. The flight delayed, I paced up and down the long gate area. I came across a group of people standing completely still looking out the large windows. It was as though they were all frozen, experiencing some communal moment together. One man stood straight saluting, tears running down his cheeks. Another woman was crying. Young people snapping pictures with their phones. I looked out the window, a coffin draped in an American flag was being taken off an airplane by several soldiers. Black SUVs and police cars flanked the scene. Four sobbing people rushed to the coffin. This was all a powerful display, but one that unfortunately represented several different perspectives depending on where you stood. There was too much grief in my life the past few months to participate in someone else’s.

I walked on, boarded my plane and thought about all the people I pretend to be. A desperate plea to understand who among those people was me. As the plane sped down the runway and lifted into the air, I thought, is there the danger of trying too hard, only to lose everything?

Paul Dore