One year later, we were back in the hotel. It was my third trip back to the desert and his sixth, but there’s a certain emotion to it that he’d never experienced. He’d been going since he was a child, with his parents, in their bus-turned-RV. It was only his second year spending the entire trip with us. Each year there’s an indescribable tinge of regret that hangs over everything like a dusty curtain. Like a wind of change, some voice that whispers of the inconsistency of everything. Sometimes the voice comes out with tones of doubt, causing people to question why they even came. But other times—like this one, for other people—people like me and people like him, the voice is choked with tears.
It was just one of those nights where we all sat around on the basement floor, waiting for something to happen. There was a silence that screamed for someone to say something, for us to realize that there were things that needed to be said. We sat hopelessly, cross legged on the floor, our hair still wet from the showers, snuggling inside our pajamas after a long day in the sun. It think it was Tuesday. Everyone was tired. Some people were sad. And I was just angry.
So many things had happened that day, it had lasted forever, there was no rest from the endless stream of thoughts wrestling inside our heads. It was a struggle, a fight against yourself that you couldn’t win no matter how hard you tried. We were just tired. It had been the longest day of the entire trip, we were exhausted, and the prospect of sitting in a circle and telling everyone how our day had been was seemingly overwhelming.
Then Dennis asked us all about our doubts. He was sitting towards the doorway of the long room, half-slumped in his chair from the long day he’d shared with us. And that smile was on his face, that glinting gaze that said, “Tell me. You can trust me,” that only the most perceptive of us truly understood. So we went around the circle, one by one, with some of us older kids passing—the trusting ones, we kept our mouths shut, not for fear that he’d rebuke us but for knowing how pompous we all sound when we don’t hold back. There were some good stories told that I don’t really remember. Most people’s stories were short and emotionless, but there was one girl who told about her grandmother’s death and how it had been a catalyst—the moment in her life where she really had to choose which path to take. She had cried, and people had been there to comfort her.
Her turn had come just before Lucas, and I was right after him. He was sitting in one of those horrid plastic chairs and I was huddled against the fake-brick wall, and neither of us said anything. His reasons for silence were different than mine, but we felt the same tension rising as the conversation around us swelled and died. But at that moment, that breath between prayer and goodnight, I glanced at Lucas, and raised my hand.
And that’s when I remembered. It’s not that I had completely forgotten about it. I was immersed in the thoughts of doubt but my mind was graceful, and spared a second to montage over my entire day. It was a musical thought, something with subtle mandolins and an acoustic guitar’s sun-tanned tone to it—and it flowed like telekinesis from Lucas’ gaze into my head.
He had been there. Lucas had been there. My mind was a whirling hurricane of memory, each frame consisting of blurred guitar strings and grimy children…and his face. The flash back began in the morning, when little Alex from the previous year showed up and ran to Lucas with that great beaming smile. I had seen the fatigue lift from his shoulders when he lifted the boy into his arms. Then there was the fight, the girl screaming in the basement, people telling me to ‘go away’, and how he had been there smiling when my anger seemed the set the church on fire again as I walked in a panic through the halls.
And in that calm between the fight and the concert, he approached me with a song. A song I hated. The same song that we had argued about the second morning of the trip, and I recalled with bitterness the hurt on his face when I ridiculed the rhyme scheme. Karah was going to sing it with him, but that afternoon she’d lost her voice. So he came to me as I sat at the piano and said, “Don’t do it for me. Do it for them.” Perhaps it was how he looked at me as though I’d refuse, or the way his hands gripped the song written down in red permanent marker. But I accepted. We spent the afternoon singing it, working out harmonies, and afterwards we sat down wearily next to the church. And I told him everything. My anger came rushing out, my words stomped the dust into little clouds in front of us, and there he was—listening, agreeing, and even telling me where I’d gone wrong. For the first time in a long time, I was not afraid to be real.
So sitting there that evening, looking up at him and remembering, I decided that no harm could come from speaking on my doubts. I raised my hand, I opened my mouth, and everyone listened. I talked freely about my struggles with depression, my fears before the trip, my irritation at all the fighting and secrecy going on, and how terrified I was that the lack of communication in us all would cause something horrible to happen. Karah and Mia stared at me with those soft gazes, without any accusations, clarified with unshed compassion. I moved my hands around, fiddling with my pajamas, staring at the carpet sometimes, and wished unabashedly Lucas would just reach down and touch my shoulder. I told them everything. Then I looked up. And they said nothing.
But in the brief sliver of time where I threw my gaze back down, I caught a glance of Lucas at the edge of my vision. His hands grasped his journal with a gentle frustration, and at the last moment before I blinked and lowered my head, our eyes met, and I saw a glimmer of—empathy.