I’m sitting on the roof top terrace of a hostel in Long Island City, New York. It’s one of these new style hostels, big open spaces, draft beer on tap and huge sofas for the guests to lounge on as they recover from their days. up here on the terrace, there are wicker seats with soft white cushions. I wonder what they do when it rains unexpectedly, there’s no shelter. My muscles are cramping and my eyelids drooping, but I won’t let myself give up until I’ve seen the sun set across the intimidating Manhattan skyline. I wandered along the river this afternoon, watching children play and helicopters fly, but I bet it’s another experience from up here. I’ve come this far, it’s my final stop. I can make it another hour.
The last time I was in this city was two months and a day ago. We flew into JFK as the sun was setting, I had just finished my first year exams, it was my first time coming to America, and I had the whole summer ahead of me. I could feel the excitement building as I waited for my luggage, biting my lip with nervous thrill as I waited for my friend outside of the airport. I’m back here now, but everything feels different. I feel like somehow, I am different. I don’t mean just physically, although I’m sure I am. My skin has browned to an olive glow, my hair has become dreaded, I wear a bandana and a dream catcher hairpin everyday to keep it out of my face. I have a new tattoo, a sun, in memory of both home and away, and the brightest personalities I know. Freckles creep across the bridge of my nose, threatening and yet restraining from breaking out entirely, as they did two summers ago in France.
No, it’s not just physically. Something has changed within me, something that is hard to pinpoint. On my walk these evening I stopped to pass the time with two elderly men, one American and one British. They both lived in Massachusetts, one only 50 feet away from the house where Lizzie Borden once lived. I spoke with them about politics, about Syria, about Donald Trump, about England. When I left they seemed happy to have met me, as I was to meet them. I don’t know why I did that, but I’m glad I did. Just knowing that that those men were at that age and still didn’t understand was a comforting thought.
Being here, my faith has been challenged, my values have been shaken and my core beliefs rocked. I have met people who on any other day I wouldn’t have looked twice at, and they have become important memories for me. I remember when I arrived in North Carolina two weeks ago, in Fayetteville. After drinking an excessive amount of coffee after my 12 hour bus journey, a cafe agreed to look after my bags for me whilst I explored the historic town. At one point, I had walked away from the old town, across the slow river and rusted train tracks and found a small park. It had beautiful fountains and floral displays, similar to a park back at home. I started taking photographs of the central fountain and the roses and within a few minutes later a woman came up to, suggesting that my photos would look a lot better if she was in them too. She was wearing all red and had short, possibly shaven, hair underneath a baseball cap. I smiled and her and agreed. She didn’t look like she was in the right mind set to have a conversation, so I started taking her photograph on the edge of the fountain, after a few, she came over to see. She smiled so widely. I thanked her, wished her a pleasant day and started my walk back to the centre of town. Turning around as I reached the end of the park, I saw her jumping and splashing in the water, I had never even asked her her name. It didn’t matter.
I think when we grow up, we create an identity for ourselves so young. We teach it to our family and friends, saying ‘this is me, this is who I am.’ We get so trapped in creating an image for ourselves and a trying to find a personality which fits, that we never remember to wait and get to know the person we have become. When I pictured myself, I used to see an awkward, overweight and angry person, angry at the world and herself for not letting her be who needed to be. Now when I picture myself, I see myself walking, in an unknown place. I see myself strong, and confident. I see an inquisitive and curious girl, one who now understands that she never will understand herself, nor the world. But she’s happy, and that’s all that counts right now.
Written by Bethany Naylor