Alex recalls in vivid detail the moment she stepped out from her busy office. It was a Thursday afternoon marked by hot overcast clouds that felt and looked like they were being pulled closer to the ground with invisible cables. She used to stare out the window by her cubicle, but the claustrophobic atmosphere outside repelled her. She found solace in speeding up the days. The more she focused on the work on her computer screen the faster the hour hand seemed to move. Then, on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of May, even work time did not move fast enough for her. If she had not picked up her purse and stepped outside, she might have screamed holy hell or have frozen into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Either way, her life would have been reduced to spectacle, and a woman with a lifetime worth of hopes, dreams, and fears would have become little more than a callous punch line offered among winks at the water cooler.
Alex had committed so much of her life to doing what she had to do. She had to get married, because she had fallen in love with a boyishly handsome face and a cryptic smile. She had to get a divorce, because she found out that that cryptic smile too often transformed into a petulant frown with a vicious backhand. She had to get an office job, because she had a fine arts degree that had too little street value in her Midwest town. She had to stay in that job year after year, because she had to pay the bills the mailman put into her box each month. She thought about taking a hammer to her mailbox. Once, while still in her nightgown, she even stood in front of it early in the morning with a hammer in her right hand. She would have done it, if she had not heard the obese paperboy at the last moment huffing and puffing on his bicycle. The boy had enough problems with his route. He did not need to witness a deranged woman in her forties turning a mailbox into scrap metal. So, again, she did what she had to do under the circumstances, and she walked back inside without denting her quaint, curbside inbox. A little piece of Americana survived that cold, blue morning, and as a result the mailman did not have to waddle all the way up to her doorstep to leave another batch of invoices for her to pay.
When Alex stepped outside of her office building, and took in a deep breath of muggy car exhaust from the boulevard in front of her, she opened the small cage in which she had been living for so many years. Life changing events are not always accompanied by beautiful sunsets and sea scented air. Sometimes, it is the metallic growl of an ornery, old bus, or a middle finger spray-painted onto a fast food chain billboard, that switches on a long dormant light bulb. Alex crossed the intersection without waiting for the light, and walked up a street she had never before explored. She did not find anything up that street except more unremarkable office buildings, but they were new to her. Inside those concrete and glass monuments were people she had never met with stories she had never heard. It was like she was strolling at her own pace down a brand new aisle in a library as large as the world. She did not check out any of the books she passed that afternoon, but she really learned to love the new carpet smell beneath her shoes.
Alex is not Forrest Gump. She did not just keep on walking up new city roads for days on end. When the sun started to set, she headed home, and she slept well in her own bed. Nevertheless, she ignored the voicemail messages from the office that started off as inquiries but quickly descended into veiled threats. After all, the slave is not supposed to roam away from the plantation before 5:00 PM, even if she goes out and about while wearing a nice skirt and keeping her hair in a bun. Though she may look the part of a self-assured professional on the outside, her life belongs to a cast of mostly invisible men who sign her paychecks and send her invoices. As much as she knows this to be the case, she stopped caring about those guys before she got home that night. She threw her iPhone into the ocean the next day, and purchased a ticket for another continent with money from her retirement savings. She could not remember where she was headed, when she boarded the plane with nothing but her purse, her passport, and an extra pair of hiking shoes. All that mattered was that she was headed to another aisle in that vast library. This time, she intended to check out one or more of the new books. She would scan the pages of whatever caught her eye.
That was a long time ago, but it was not a galaxy far, far away. It was another continent on this same planet, but in the twenty-first century nowhere is more than a day’s worth of air travel from anywhere else. In theory, Alex could return fast to a semblance of her old life. Another zombie typist is sitting in her cubicle selling what is left of her soul for a paycheck, so Alex cannot go back there. She could update her resume, ask a favor from a friend, and find a similar job elsewhere, though. She also could get back into her old apartment building. Her landlord always grinned, when he caught a glimpse of her from behind. Hell is always near enough, and that is why Alex keeps on walking. She knows deep down just how fast and easy it would be for her to stagger back into the plantation. Though the gate has to be forcibly opened in order to exit, it is always wide open when you come back home. That is how the tired and suffocating routines from yesteryear work. They are forever inviting you back with an affable nod and a grin, like friends with outstretched arms; and it takes a lot of hard miles on scuffed hiking shoes to keep away from them.
And so with that thought in mind, Alex finds herself one morning beside old Roman ruins somewhere in the middle of Europe. She thinks the Romans called this place “Gaul” back then, but of course different folks have had different names for the same patch of earth over the centuries. The grey rocks ascending into the sky do not seem to care what this place is called on a map. Certainly, the earth does not. It holds up the boots that walk on this path regardless of what the boot wearers think. Great civilizations leave their temples behind, but nature invariably reclaims them. There are still stacked bricks on the downhill side of the path, and Alex is pretty sure they date back to when a gloomy Caesar in sandals walked this way with his whispering entourage in tow. The rest of the path has eroded back into rock and dust, and what remains of the earthen walls on the uphill side seem ready to crackle into the warm air when the sun reemerges. Likely, that will be another day, for the clouds out here are as low and overcast as when Alex left her office. She can feel the heat baking into her worn flesh, and she knows her skin will be even more tanned tomorrow; but no matter how far she scans the heavens, she will not see the sun now lighting her path.
That is fine. The more she walks the more she can light her own path. It feels a bit like a candle fluttering inside her eyes. It scared her when she first experienced this inner light, but like a persistent toddler she has learned to walk on her own two feet and with only herself as a guide. The clouds may fall completely to the earth and shroud the ruins in a dust sprinkled mist, but Alex will not feel the bars of that small cage in which she used to reside. She simply needs to keep walking to keep hell from nipping at her heels. This constant motion is a small price to pay to remain free from her past, even as she walks by this graying cemetery of dead ambitions and tall tales barely whispered in the wind. Death is everywhere in this still, rocky place up close to the pagan heavens, but it cannot put out the flame she has been nurturing since she left home.
Or so Alex presumes. Continuing down a sharp turn in the rock hewn path, as she looks up from her feet she sees a man dressed as a Roman Centurion walking up the slope towards her. He is staring down at his weathered boots, and a deep hunch in his upper back suggests an unseen weight burrowing into his spine. His outfit, so glorious in battle long ago, is little more than an assortment of tattered rags picking up dust and grime. Even his plumed helmet is cocked to the side of his head, like he has been knocked hard and silly one too many times. This man seems to have been wandering these trails much longer than Alex, and yet he is not at all free. He seems to have figured out how to carry his hell along with him, and so his heart labors in a soul long cold and dry. He walks, but he does not escape; and though he is ascending now this very mountain, there will be no ascent for him away from these old ruins.
Alex steps out of the way, as the tired man passes. He does not notice her; or perhaps does, but does not care. She listens to his boots grinding the pebbles behind her, while she stares back out at the expanse of endless hills before her. Is she really free out here? Is her fate so different from his? Does hell catch up with us no matter the scuffs on her hiking shoes? She shivers, though the air remains dry and hot, and continues on her lighted path around the bend.