I remember well the day I screwed up my life for good. I was 25. I had been working at what I considered my first real job. Real because I wore a suit jacket and spent eight hours of my day in a grey cubicle. I caught the train every day at 7:45. We all held onto overhead straps, as the car lurched and screeched through the tunnels built in the 1800s. The lurching didn't matter to us because we were packed so tightly there was no way to lose your balance.
Twenty minutes later we filed up the subway steps, into a minute of daylight. Then directly into our glass-doored office buildings, toting brown bag lunches and gym clothes. Unless it was Friday, in which case our gym bags would contain dressy heels and a low cut blouse. Cosmopolitan magazine had taught us how to transition from day to night when there wouldn't be time to go home to shower and change before going out to try to meet stock brokers with BMWs.
The last day of my real life was not a Friday but a Tuesday, so I went straight home. I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at my apartment. Most days as I got home, I thought how in a couple more years, if I kept up the good work in the cubicle, I could buy a starter condo.
Then I wouldn't have to share with Ray and Carol, my current roommates, who weren't a couple but were secretly, or so they thought, sneaking up to Ray's slanty-walled attic room to fuck.
Carol would never have been caught dead with Ray as a real boyfriend, because he wore flannel shirts when he wasn't going camping. She had no inner resourcefulness for battling loneliness, though. I knew, because she clung to me also, albeit emotionally rather than physically, at weird girltalk-ish moments. And she didn't even like me.
I found out the part about the flannel shirts during one of these disconcerting teary chats with Carol, on a day we pretended to be more than roommates, when I allowed her to pour out her heart over tea.
I found it fascinating how little I cared: about Carol, Ray, the kind of shirts men wear when they weren't camping, and the other things I knew Carol would talk about when I went through that front door. She lived for real gold jewelry, the Clinique counter at Macy's, and finding a good-enough, no, perfect, man with whom she could buy a starter condo and begin building her life.
I don't know how long I stood before the front door that day, dreading to open it. I had always wished to want things the way Carol did. If I were honest with myself, though, I had to admit that I wanted dirt roads and unfamiliar lands, food I'd never tasted, probably wouldn't like, and hot winds at night. On that day, honesty was a sucker punch.
My junior year in college, I'd been signed up for a semester abroad. In England of all places. You didn't even have to learn a new language, except to know that sweaters would be jumpers and sneakers would be trainers. I still chickened out, though. I actually was afraid to miss something. A grand case of FOMO before that was even a thing.
In hindsight I knew that all I would have missed were high-level gossip sessions, frat parties with potential for what we now know unequivocally is called rape, and assuring my roommate she was not fat. In that moment at my doorstep, I was missing a foreign place, its people, its dirty streets and empty beaches. I could almost smell it. I didn't know its name and I had never been there. But I thought, now crying almost, that I had to go there or I might begin to die at 25.
This was the first calling of my soul that I remember. Like all lives, my mine has had its ups and downs. More up than down, though. I believe that's because I killed the life I'd mistaken for my real life, but was actually Carol's. I lived instead, the life of my own soul. So when the downs came, I knew they were actually lessons, because that's what happens when you choose the journey of spirit.
It took some finagling of paperwork that wasn't done on a computer, because those were just being born to the masses, but 9 months from that day I was wearing a flowered dress and boarding a plane to Washington DC. Three days after that I was sworn into the Peace Corps.
When I got to my final destination, it was all there as my heart had told me it would be: being pushed by the crowds and no strap to hold onto, and sharp syllables I didn't recognize. There were skewered pieces of animal turning on spits outside kiosks where you could also get a Coke. You saw these on the sides of the roads as you reached the end of a lonely turnpike. They signaled the approach of the edge of the new town that would be your home for the next two years.
No one was named Carol or Ray.