Alone in a Crowd

 I’m on my own at a festival that I’ve been so excited for and yet now I’ve arrived I don’t feel I belong. Everyone seems to know everyone, or at least someone, and then there’s just me. I sit cross legged on the wet grass reading and a few people accidentally step on me, like I’m invisible. The new kid at a school camp.

I know I shouldn’t feel this way. That I should be open and brave. I should comment on that boy’s rainbow teeshirt and ask that girl if she needs help with her tent. I can be good at that. But instead I’m shutting down, curling into my shell like a snail.

I walk through the festival. It is so much smaller and more grassroots than the festivals I toured in the states. Strangers smile at me, revelling in the excitement of everything to come and I harbour a guilty wish to be elsewhere. I sit by the lake and make myself match each negative thought with a positive one. It helps.

I drink rosé from a camping mug covered in pictures of dandelions. It is cold out and it warms my bones and begins to pull me from my shell. I follow the sound of the music. I see a good friend in the crowd, Zal, a glimmer of light. He introduces me to a new friend, a tall freckly boy named Al. Weeks later we will sit on his living room floor crying for the brothers we both recently lost to suicide. For now I just know from the kindness of his eyes that he is a good human.

Then Bee’s best friend Honzik comes out from nowhere, lifts me off my feet and swings me in circles. The dark feelings seem ridiculous now. It grows colder as night washes over. There are bonfires dotted across the festival and hands stretched out over the flames. It rains and I huddle under a shelter with Zal and Al, hugging them both to keep warm. A little tipsy, very happy.

I walk alone to the bathrooms and a girl asks me for a hug so I open my arms. She nuzzles her head into my shoulder and I kiss the top of her head like she’s a close friend. There is an air of easy intimacy here, like we are all already friends.

We weave through crowds with her boyfriend, her fingers threaded through mine. We stop at bonfires to connect to more strangers, all of us linked by the simple fact that we’re alive. We find Honzik and when he hears her apologising to me for being so affectionate he laughs and tells her she couldn’t have found a more loving person here. That makes me happy.

It gets late. We lose each other. Rain falls harder. I feel my chest growing tight and I try to push away my anxiety but it pushes back harder. As I walk to my tent I pass Zal alone by a fire. He knows my anxiety, has answered so many of my anxious phone calls late at night. He listens as I tell him how terrified I am of it getting worse. How out of control I feel. He doesn’t offer advice, he just listens and loves and it makes it a little easier to breathe.

I bury myself in my sleeping bag but even with my warmest clothes on it is too cold. My shivers start out small, little things I can consciously stop by imagining I am warm, but they get stronger until I am shaking. I curl up tightly and long to call Bee but there is no reception out here. For hours the festival is loud and beckoning and I am alone and shivering.

Eventually Honzik whispers my name outside the tent. “Please come in here and keep me warm”, I beg. He emanates warmth like he’s made of fire and I defrost beside him. We talk until he falls asleep in the middle of a sentence and a moment later I am fast asleep too.

The next day begins just fine. One of Bee’s friends cooks me porridge and I eat it from my mug. I walk into the festival and sit beside Zal as a panel of women tell stories of times they were taken advantage of by men. The parallels open old scars. Things I like to forget.

I sit in a circle of strangers and I am telling my own story. The way I hoped the hits would leave bruises so he would be sorry and love me. The way I thought I deserved it. The way I protected not only him, but the story I told myself that everything was fine.

I thought that it was okay to share this but it doesn’t feel okay. It’s not like writing. It’s stark and ineloquent and uncomfortable. Eyes burn into me, my nails cut into my palms and people I don’t know ask me impossible questions. The circle moves on and there is a deafening ringing in my ears. I can’t stay and so I leave abruptly and run through the mud all the way back to my tent.

I curl up in my sleeping bag and I cry. I feel raw. I feel ashamed for the story I told. Did it seem like I was trying to be impressive? To shock? To elicit sympathy? Was I? Honesty and vulnerability is supposed to be my thing. I did it because I thought it was me. Then why does it feel so painful?

The festival rolls on happily outside, oblivious to my tears. My period decides it is a good time to come and my belly is tight with cramps. I am desperate to contact Bee, my mum, my friends but I can’t. I do the only thing I can do, I take my journal and write Bee a letter. My right hand is injured and wrapped tightly in a bandage but I write through the pain of that too, it’s my only outlet.

I resolve that I won’t leave this tent; not today, not tonight. Like a stubborn child. Resolute to my sadness. Feeding the hurt with more and more hopeless thoughts. Longing to be home and safe in my bed with a hot water bottle on my belly and my family beside me. Desperate to not be the girl crying alone in her tent at a festival, ashamed that I am.

Honzik climbs into the tent and sits in front of me with that kind, perpetual grin on his face. I don’t pretend to be okay. I tell him about the circle, about feeling alone, about my worsening anxiety. I don’t remember what he says but I remember how it feels when he hugs me. Like he loves me.

He asks if I want to draw a mandala with him. So we draw and we draw, beautiful patterns spiralling out of control, until the anxiety passes. “Should we go see who’s playing?” He asks me gently, and I know that even if I say no, he will still stay. Still choose to keep me company in this cramped tent instead of joining his friends at the festival.

I lace up my doc martins and he wraps his warmest jacket around me. It’s about five sizes too big but it keeps away the rain and the cold. We eat vegan nachos and listen to bands play. The night stretches on like some great adventure.

The rain comes and goes. We dance. We watch an outdoor film about the invasion and I feel ashamed for my white ancestors and furious for my indigenous ancestors. A girl paints my cheeks with glitter. We find friends and warm ourselves by the fire. I feel like I’m floating in a warm sea, totally at peace.

It’s easy to forget that I am a mother and imagine I’m just like the others here in their early twenties. I enjoy telling people about Alba, I pull out my phone and show them the photo of her I’ve set as my background. It’s the one where she’s bursting into laughter while she’s pretending to meditate.

It’s late when we climb into our tent. Honzik is still grinning in the torch light. I feel grateful that Bee chooses friends with such good hearts. Maybe I would have gone home if it hadn’t been for Honzik. We say we’ll stay awake cuddling and talking but we don’t, sleep pulls us so quickly. When the sun warms the tent and wakes us, the music is still going and people are still dancing.

The drive home is glorious. We pass fields of wildflowers, herds of sheep and small towns. I curate a playlist where every song feels longer and fuller than usual. I wind the window down and feel the gentle heat of the sun on my arm. I keep thinking of all the people who cared that I was hurting and how wrong I was that I was all alone. I keep thinking of Alba and Bee waiting for me back home.

Alba wraps her arms around my waist at the front door and professes her love in the incredibly sweet way she does. Like she’s a little doll that’s been programmed to say the sweetest sentences possible. “I missed you so much mama, I hope you had a good time, I was so good, you look so beautiful, I love you mama!”

Bee is in the kitchen and Honzik and I burst in with our stories, interrupting each other to fill in the blanks. I explain that I had struggled at times and Bee says, lovingly, “I was waiting to hear what went wrong, you couldn’t go away for a few days and come home telling me you just had a nice, uncomplicated time.” Now I’m home it’s easy to laugh about.

The stories continue when it’s just us. The tiny, insignificant details only interesting to the person who loves me most. The exact lines of banter from Boat Show, the state of the toilets, what every food truck was serving, the number of hours I slept. He soaks it all in. Eager for new stories after years of hearing them all.

I like that Bee doesn’t fret over me. I like that he doesn’t wish he’d known I was hurting so he could drive hours to get me and that he doesn’t promise to never let me go anywhere alone again. There is a sense that while he knows that things go wrong for me often, I am always okay in the end. He’s not fighting the dragon and rescuing me from the tower, he’s handing me the sword and telling me, “I’m here for you, but you’ve got this.”

This used to bother me more. I like being rescued. I like the sympathy and the cosiness of being wrapped in cotton wool. Others I’ve dated wanted to be needed, and I thought it was normal, even romantic, to need my partner. But Bee doesn’t want to be needed and it’s showing me, slowly, what it’s like to be okay on my own.

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