It is mid-October in Bemidji, Minnesota. The colored leaves of a fleeting autumn are already fading, falling and forming piles on the soon-to-be snow-covered ground. The locals are hanging on dearly to these waning autumn hours. They’ve been through this before. Shorts, skirts, and shirts sans sleeves show skin; they are a quiet protest against the inevitable depths of a northern Minnesota winter.
It is one A.M. on a Saturday night, or rather, an early Sunday morning. On the corner of 3rd and Beltrami, I sit on a bench, trying to define an emptiness inside. Right leg is crossed over left thigh; arms are spread wide, the corners of my mouth rise slightly upward in a smirk. A flannel shirt is tied around my waist leaving arms bare. I, too, am part of the protest. I am unsure of the authenticity of my appearance.
People pour past me in both directions. The great bar migration has kicked in like clockwork, with the twenty-somethings of the city transitioning from the dank and sweaty confines of one facility to the next, a journey as sure as the falling of the leaves, the rapid creeping of the bone-chilling air. I was part of this migration the night prior, the weekend prior, the weekend before that. Tonight something holds me back; it is the beginning of a feeling I hoped I’d forgotten.
I am thinking back to late autumn in Durham, New Hampshire, also Saturday night. The daytime haze of marijuana-induced stupor transitioned into the nighttime buzz of cheap beer and the slight hope of some sort of variance, the longing to side-step dull familiarity. Strewn across the front lawn of my life are pursuits unfulfilled: the abandoned car in the tow-lot, the assignments unopened, the empty wallet, the pocketing of a cell phone right as I begin to dial home, afraid to tell anyone how I felt. I tie my flannel around my waist, feeling the cool air rush up Main Street and onto my bare skin as I walk, lip corners turned upward in a slight smirk, to the bar with the stickiest floors, the kind that sometimes makes you feel as if you’re permanently stuck in place.
These are the thoughts that haunt. They keep me awake during the night and asleep during the day. Mary Jane and Jack Daniels are enough of a distraction to keep me pushing through the hazy darkness that is depression.
Back on the bench, the smirk has slumped back down into a more neutral position. The positioning of my leg makes my knee ache. It is not natural. I keep the leg propped up anyway, hoping to not look like the lonely heart of a Saturday night. There are more and more people filtering past. There are laughs, smoke and stumbles. A queue forms at the door of the bar in front of me; bodies shiver in realization of nature’s counter-protest. The drinks and crowding that reside inside the doors will provide them a temporary warmth–the same temporary warmth I needed in New Hampshire to get through those drag-along days.
Minutes pass. The migration is mostly over. The streets are mostly empty; police cars form line on the opposite side of the road. Small groups of smokers trade sporadic stories outside the bar doors. I can make out some of their sentences:
“Dude, did you see…”
“Man, that guy was totally…”
“Yo, Shane, do you want to grab another drink?”
I find myself in the bar on Main Street. The people around me bump elbows, spilling and adding adhesion to the floor. It is twelve-thirty; the ringing of last call bell rises over the drunken clamor. I look at the bar counter; watching as elbows merge tighter. I look at my friend awaiting my answer, at my empty glass, back at the crowd forming around the bartender, back at my glass. I rise from my chair and add my elbows to theirs.
I receive a text from my friend inside the bar. He wants to know where I am. We left together at the beginning of the great migration. He and the rest of my friends had entered their final destination. Somewhere within the frenzy they lost me, or rather I lost them. Sometime prior I had even lost myself.
I want to tap the letters on my phone to spell out, “Honestly, I don’t even know”. It would technically be the truth, though tangibly I know exactly where I am: on the bench outside of the Wells Fargo, the place where I landed in an attempt to find out where I really was, where I really was going, the place where that old, heavy feeling told my legs to rest. All I can muster to type is “Outside.”
It must be a satisfactory answer. My phone remains silent. My body condenses as I bring my elbows to my knees, my hands to my face.
More minutes pass. Some late night migrators are beginning to exit before bar-close. They walk past me. Some laugh, some smoke, some stumble. Some shiver, and some have acquiesced to the oncoming change of season, wrapping their once-neglected garments around their goosebump-covered skin. Some remain seemingly unphased by the chill in the October air. They are accustomed to the kind of cold that locks doors. I feel the temperature drop; my flannel remains tied tightly around my waist.
Some of the passersby mumble incoherent thoughts. Not many seem to acknowledge or even notice the man sitting on the bench. Two girls walk by, arms folded—maybe in disgust, maybe for warmth—maybe both. They dart their eyes toward me for a few moments and then onto the ground in front of them. One says to the other “He’s got the right idea; we should have been out here instead of in there.”
It is one AM on a Saturday night in Durham, New Hampshire, or rather, early Sunday morning. The bars have closed; my friends and I traverse down Main Street. The autumn winds are now at our backs. As we walk, our paths cross with a girl. She is familiar, a friend of one of the friends I am with. My friend and the girl exchange greetings. She has a jump to her step. There is life to her voice. I can tell her motor skills have not been wounded by an ethyl-fueled army. She picks up empty beer cans strewn across the street’s lawns. I aim my glazed eyes at her in astounded appreciation.
It is now two AM in Bemidji. The police officers have stepped out of their cruisers and stand in observance of the late-night crowd dispersing from the bar. I notice a short blond girl who I had spoken to and danced with the previous weekend. She and another girl are being led across the street in handcuffs. I hear her hulking friend describe what had happened. “…leaned across the bar, threw the drink at her and slapped her right in the face!” The officers across the street focus their attention toward her, as other patrons stagger and stutter from the bar into cars and drive into the night.
More and more people are filtering by the bench. I am thinking about the girl in New Hampshire. The smirk has returned to my face. I extend my elbows and spread my arms across the bench once more, raise my right leg and cross it over my left thigh. I feel a twinge in my knee and put my leg back down to its resting position. Smirk turns to smile as I stare at the crowd ahead. This time, the position feels genuine.
I then notice familiar faces in the crowd.
“There you are! Were you here the whole time? Welp, ya didn’t miss much!”
I rise from the bench on the corner of 3rd and Beltrami and merge with my friends. Our elbows bump together, but I don’t mind.
It is mid-October in Bemidji, Minnesota. The wind blows gusts that chill my exposed skin. The change of the seasons is inevitable. Winter will come, invitation or not, but we can always prepare for the cold. As I walk down Beltrami toward the car, I feel a jump to my step and a life to my voice. I untie my flannel from around my waist, and wrap it around my skin. This time, I will keep the warmth within.