I met a boy in a car and he asked me if people were born sane or insane. His name was James. He was twenty-four, from Florida, and had a slender build. He had copper, messy hair and a burnished red beard. It was six and a half hours to Belgrade and he was, the entire time, beautiful.
But it wasn’t just that. His personality was magnetic. He threw off immediately any suggestion that we were destined to be strangers. And he told stories with his emerald green eyes. They spoke with equal parts intensity and indifference.
By the time Sarajevo faded in the rearview mirror, he had confessed how he found his way into the backseat of that beaten up Peugeot crawling over this once-war torn country. He self-described as a member of the Entitlement Generation and said he couldn’t imagine being forty, divorced, and trapped in a corporate office in Orlando. So he quit his job, broke-up with his girlfriend, and boarded a plane to Portugal. He started heading east and he’s mostly out of time in the Schengen. He plans to keep heading east and is thinking about Australia next. From there he tells me he wants to sail to South America.
He talks against a canvas of countryside zipping by out the window. I sit next to him and listen with purpose. I don’t want him to stop. The harder I listen, the more transfixed I become, and I begin to see someone who has a depth of understanding about who he is and his place in the world unlike most I’ve met—even if he’s not sure where he’ll end up eventually. Introspection is a rare thing nowadays.
We discuss decency and how to be a good person. I say that I try to be good person but don’t always succeed. So I try to do better. He nods deeply. We talk about what we did when we weren’t working. He admitted that he didn’t do much. I told him I used to paint. He said I should start again.
When he asks about sanity and insanity, I don’t know how to answer. “What do other people say?” “I’ve only asked one,” he replies. His chary discretion makes me feel special. I answer like a lawyer, explaining that there is clinical insanity—your schizophrenia and the like—and then there are people who just break. So “both,” I say. He disagrees. He thinks we’re all some part insane from birth and that we just learn to control it. He admits the substance of some of his insane thoughts with a strange candor. I sit there and I listen, intent not to appear to judge his thoughts, the ones he is telling me of all people.
I pull up the map as we inch closer and closer to Belgrade. I don’t care about Belgrade. Just keep driving, I think.
Somewhere along the way, we realize that we have two different stories. I surrendered to the real world and he decided to run away from it. He admits that he doesn’t know if he made the right decision but is content in the thought that it doesn’t much matter at this point. The decision has been made. I tell him that things tend to work out no matter what we do. The natural pull of the universe rights most wrongs.
I tell him how I got a call from a friend in the parking lot of some restaurant in rural Mississippi. He was supposed to move to Louisiana with me. He pulled out at the last minute and I was angry, boy I was angry. Yet that one phone call set off a chain reaction ending with me becoming a fancy lawyer in a fancy building in New York City. I like giving him advice. I like stealing glances of him.
Belgrade is building in front of us.
Winding through the gray, sad streets, we pull up at his hostel first. I want to ask him for his number. I can’t. As he climbs out of the car, he says, “Take my number.” I do. Within hours we’re sitting across a table from each other, drinking beer. We sit out in the cold because he hates smoke, and there’s smoke everywhere in this city. We pick up where we left off. Our conversation is driven by a liberating preface now: “If this is too personal you don’t have to answer.” We answer anyway, even after the cold and the rain get the better of us.
We eventually find ourselves at some other bar down an alley off an old shopping mall. The way in is marked by violent teal cracking off its plaster, where a ladder to nowhere in particular hangs off the wall. Liquor on his lips, I see him start talking to this girl and my heart flutters. I’m jealous. I wish he was talking to me.
The rain keeps falling and the beers keep coming. And then something happens with the girl. “Am I being scammed?” he texts me. “Maybe,” I reply. He disappears with her around a corner but I wait standing sentinel at the bar as the others we picked up throughout the night cash out. He comes back, finally, and we leave through the same violent teal.
The rain is still falling. The street lights—I remember them bouncing off the slick cobblestone. He’s standing in the middle of it all, framed by the crooked buildings on the crooked streets, crying. His eyes are still telling a story, but they’re red and swollen. “Matt, can this be real?” he pleads through the tears and the rain. I can’t tell which is which streaming down his face. His stare cuts through me. “There’s nothing you can do,” I say.
I hug him as he slumps into me so far away from both our homes. He can’t comprehend the cruelness of it all. “This can’t be the world,” he manages. I don’t know what to say but I know I want so badly for him to forget all this. Forget the rain, and the girl, and that teal plaster hallway.
I tell him I like him. I do it matter-of-factly. He says it’s fine. We both know it’s irrelevant.
I walk him back to his hostel. I don’t remember now if I hugged him again but I hope I did. I think I did. As I walk away, he turns the corner after me. “Matt, where’s my hostel?” he says through his glazed eyes. I walk him back again to the door, wiping the tears from my eyes that subsided when I heard him yell “Matt” after me. It was beautiful; he was beautiful.
As I walk away for a second time, I wish silently to myself and without tears this time that the cute boy who climbed into the backseat of that car with me in Sarajevo still existed. But inside I know he doesn’t and I know he never will again. And it hurts.
Image courtesy of Christine. Some rights reserved.