The sun was setting over Underberg, a small cattle farming community in the Mzimkulu River valley of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The sun was almost surreal, like a giant ball of fire drifting slowly below the horizon. I was sitting beside a pool drinking Spier Pinotage, planning my hike in the Drakensberg mountains, the highest mountain range in South Africa. The guidebook suggested to hire a guide since hiker deaths were common on the 40-mile trail which crossed some of the most exposed alpine terrain in the world.
The lodge where I was staying stood alone in an open field at the foot of the mountains. In the distance, a Zulu shepherd boy slowly disappeared with his herd to join the setting sun. Behind me, the bustling of the tourists at the busy resort took over my senses. In the courtyard, someone was burning dead leaves, and the smoke entered my nostrils through the dry, thin air. I heard the sounds of people pouring wine, talking, and laughing. I sat quietly at the edge of this activity, but in the darkness, my heart veered like a bird with broken wings into the wall of my loneliness and abandonment. I tried to stay focused on the logistics of tomorrow’s hike.
I heard a voice nearby. I looked up and saw her: a woman in her early twenties, with blonde hair and big blue eyes. Her wet hair was pressed against her forehead and her eyes were like a cloudless sky.
“Hey you – yes you – the guy with the beard,” she laughed.
“Me? Umm, I don’t know…” I stuttered.
“Get in the pool; you can daydream later.”
I left my bottle of wine and eased my way into the pool. The water was warmer than I thought.
“I’m Laura,” she said with big smile on her face.
Damn, are you gorgeous.
“Ilia,” I replied quietly.
“We just arrived from Durban about ten or fifteen minutes ago: Pier, Antonino, Suzie, Jonas, and me. We’re staying in the last dorm room down the hall. How long have you been here?”
“Since this morning.”
“Oh, what’s your plan? Anything fun and exciting for the next few days?”
“I want to go hiking on the North Drakensberg Traverse. It’s a backcountry hike with no real trails and requires some familiarity with the area. I haven’t been hiking here, though, so it could be quite an adventure.”
“Wow, that is exciting. I’m going to Lesotho tomorrow.”
“Laura!” called one of her friends. A guy with a goatee was waving her over. ”It’s time to eat.”
“I’m coming,” Laura said, and jumped out of the pool. “You should join us. It would be fun. Think about it Mr. Messner,” she said, and left with a chuckle.
I stayed in the pool for few more minutes, then finished my bottle of wine and went to my room. I lay on the bed and started reading Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised. At some point I fell asleep, and when I woke up, my mouth was dry from the wine. I looked at my watch. It was 2:15 a.m. I tried to go back to sleep without success, although I was tired and a little hungover.
Ugh, I need to wake up early. I just need to sleep and not think about anything. I need to forget everything for a moment…please. Oh almighty Hypnos, please let me sleep for few hours.
After another hour of tossing and turning, I finally gave up. I opened my eyes and stared into the blackness thinking about Houellebecq’s inglorious loner Bruno. A stream of words and images entered my mind from the book and beyond: the arabesque of a loveless life; Michel Djerzinski’s insinuation on elimination of sexual reproduction; iconic Michel’s horror-filled face; sexual liberation hanging like the sword of Democles. Ahh, thoughts…thoughts…
“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.”- The quote from Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre was more relevant than ever. Sure, I think, therefore I exist. And my thoughts are definitely my Ariadne’s thread; my escape from reality.
My eyes slowly got used to the darkness, and it began to feel peaceful. I craved coffee. I searched the room without much hope. There was no coffee machine, no single-serving pouches. I got up and carefully opened the door, trying not to disturb the sleeping residents. I was walked softly and slowly. After reaching the end of the hallway, I went down a small stairway that lead me to the yard. I felt a pleasant cool wind on my face. I sat on the ground and consciously breathed in the oxygen-rich air like a prisoner after a long imprisonment. The cool breeze invigorated me and took away even the slightest remnants of sleep.
“Can’t sleep? Neither can I.” Out of nowhere, I heard Laura’s voice.
I squinted into the dim light and watched as she came closer and sat on the ground beside me. She was wearing a long, white dress and it covered her knees. Her blond hair was messy, and her eyes a little swollen, probably from the lack of sleep. It made her even cuter.
Oh my gosh, you are so beautiful.
“Hey, What’s up?” I mumbled.
“Not much, I can’t sleep, and I was wandering around sleepless. You?”
“I’m just chilling…thinking…”
“Thinking about what?”
What am I thinking? Hmm…good question. I want to stop taking life so seriously, and break the chains that keep me in this routine banality. I want to stop caring and worrying about unimportant things. I want to stop trying to make everyone around me happy, as a wolf would stop howling after seeing the corpse of a decomposed body. I want…I want to yell! I want to yell at the top of my lungs about the absurdity of existence. I can’t take this anymore!
Why? Why do I want to scream in the middle of the night? I want to see the response of the people who are here in this hotel. I want to see them wake up angrily and look out their windows to see who this annoying guy is who is breaking their comfort and coziness. I want to stare at their faces, look them in the eye, and I think it would probably snuff out a fake I-don’t-want-to-hurt-your-feelings cliché like another case of socio-political deconstruction.
That’s all. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an angry sociopath or misanthrope, even though I think everyone experiences some kind of misanthropic feeling at some point in his life. I still believe in honesty, kindness, and altruism, and I think it can change people – change society as whole. But change requires dedication, a fight, ignoring your basic needs, leaving your comfort zone. However, I don’t think I can do it; it’s not me. I can’t even tell you how I feel. Not now, not ever. I will not say a word. It doesn’t mean I don’t care; I’m just not strong or brave enough to say out loud something I believe in. My silence is my last insurrection, my Battle of Waterloo.
“Some boring stuff. I don’t think you would be interested. What are you up to?”
“I’ve been in South Africa for more than a month now. I felt homesick today; I miss my house, my parents, brother, and friends. I’ve been thinking about my life in general – my future. What I should do with my life when I go back. I left a waitressing job in a small town in the Netherlands. I want to do something else, but I don’t know yet what that is. I’ll figure it out. The problem is that I often avoid thinking about it, but I know that someday I’ll have to face reality. Nothing lasts forever and my honeymoon in South Africa will be over soon.”
Nothing lasts forever; everything fades, dies, becomes dust and ashes in time and space.
“Yes, true,” I said quietly and glanced at her. She was looking into the dark sky, holding her legs with her arms.
“How long will you stay here in South Africa?”
“Probably two more weeks.”
“I don’t know. Probably until I am dead. That’s my fate.”
“Aren’t you tired of always being on the road?”
Yes, I am tired Laura. Sometimes I feel so exhausted that I don’t want to leave my bed. I am tired not from the road, but from the weight of expectation. From the feeling that everyone always wants something from me: love, commitment, vigilance, circumspection. Everyone wants to be the only person in the center of my life. Maybe it’s my fate, I don’t know, to live like a caged zoo animal who walks back and forth all day dreaming about the life beyond the iron bars. I don’t even know what I am looking for in my life. Maybe I want someone in my life and to feel her presence even at these times when she is not with me. I would like to have her with me while my soul is in some other place, searching for unknowns. But, wait… Do I really want someone in my life only to be an oracle of my weaknesses and vulnerability? I don’t know. Perhaps the only thing I know now is I’m not dead yet. I can still find the essence of love in my dry soul. You are the proof of that, Laura.
“Yes, it can be tiring sometimes.” I turned to look at Laura. It was dark, and I could not see her eyes. I only saw the silhouette of her face. Slowly, she stood up.
“I need to go now. Maybe I can get a few hours of sleep. I hope I see you tomorrow.”
And she left.