It was the Summer of 2007 and I was 23 years old. My first relationship had ended only a month before, leaving both he and I emotionally wrecked, reeling from the intensity of a love lost and the all-too-fresh anger we had inflicted upon the other. I didn’t know what it meant to be defeated until that Summer. The world felt heavy and dark, a hopeless place that I was destined to float through, eternally sad, eternally alone. And whether on purpose or not, people tend to attract a world that reflects the way they feel about themselves. I was no different. It was this law of negative attraction that introduced me to Rider.
What follows is our story or, more appropriately, the story of our paths briefly crossing.
Part One: Sweet Meet.
I was draped over my futon, an open box of Peanut Butter Crunch on my chest, my eyes bloodshot, staring dazed at the next episode of Will & Grace on Lifetime. Lord knows when the last time was that I’d shaved, showered, or left the house. I couldn’t have told you the day of the week or the number of times my friends had tried to call or text, to see how I was doing. They angered me, my friends. Partially because of the thought of them perceiving me as weak; partially because I knew that I was weak. Their calls were left unanswered.
As in many situations in my life, it was my mother that moved me to action. She stormed into my bedroom and threw a newspaper at me. She’d circled the address for a temp agency and told me to go. I cleaned myself up (enough) and dragged myself out of the house, into the car, and signed up to be a part of the temporary workforce.
Within a day or two I’d been hired to do small tasks around the area, but it was my last job that matters to this tale: One of the packaging machines had broken down at the old Hershey Chocolate Factory and they needed a bunch of people to count and package Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey’s Kisses into tins. We were separated into two lines and were given our orders. My coworkers for the next week were mostly older black women or black men in their twenties and thirties, covered in tattoos, dressed in oversized clothes, jeans hanging well below their waists. I stood out as I always had amongst my fellow Harrisburg inner-city locals in my bright colors, nerdy graphic tees and fitted tech vest. I was ready to be the black sheep. I was used to it. And then Rider came along.
Twenty minutes late, he strutted in, head held high, a frown on his long mouth. His brown hair was styled like a wave frozen just before it crashed against the shore, and awash with highlights. His shirt and jeans were impossibly tight. From top to toes, he commanded attention with his attention to detail and style. Our boss gestured for him to join the line opposite my own. A good thirty feet between us, for the entire eight hour day, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
While the attention I’d offered this boy was nothing short of fascination and sexual attraction. Such was not the case with the other workers. Suspicious and annoyed by something so different, they muttered “faggot” under their breaths, would laugh at the sight of him or sound of his voice. I was seething at their unwarranted hate. My temper was so short then, my emotions so raw, but I said nothing. That was day one of ten.
On the second day when Rider entered the warehouse I waved to gain his attention. “Stand with me,” I said. He did. “I’m Trystin,” I said. “Rider,” he replied with a smile. A big beautiful smile. I felt a wave of accomplishment then. Something within the shadowy wilds of my mind shone like a dull light. In Rider I found a kindred spirit in a way I could not put to words. We shared something I couldn’t put my finger on. That small moment was the first since the breakup that I’d felt…life…inside of me. All I knew is that I didn’t want it to go away. And what I failed to know was that the something we shared was the very parts of myself that I feared the most.
Part Two: Chaos Kiss.
Rider and I hopped in my car almost every day to grab lunch at one of the many fast food restaurants in the area. We’d park and sit, chomping on burgers and listening to music. We’d talk comic books and how much we hated our job or how much our coworkers sucked. He’d complain about his boyfriend. Part of me loved that he had a boyfriend because I was terrified of getting too close to anyone and that made things easier.
Our time at the warehouse came to a close, but my friendship with Rider was stronger than ever. I’d pick him up and we’d go on rides or grab a bite, see a movie – stuff like that. Not long after he and his boyfriend broke up. He moved in with friends farther away. I’d still pick him up, of course. I’d travel anywhere to be near him; to feel like I felt like someone else.
It didn’t take much before our night drives, the emptiness and the quiet, caused us to open up to each other. Historically, at first. Rider would light a cigarette and the truths of his past would flow out as smooth and hypnotically as the smoke from his mouth: He couldn’t drive because he was on probation because of a DUI. His mother had kicked him out of the house because he was “too crazy.” They’d once gotten in a fist fight on their front lawn and the neighbors called the police. On an ecstasy trip, Rider had sex with one of his friends and she became pregnant and had a son. Rider was in the process of signing away all rights to the kid. During one ride he received a call that his father had passed away – a motorcycle accident. I asked if he was okay and Rider only replied, “I hate him. I’m glad he’s dead. He left me 20 grand in his will. That’s all I care about.” He was 19 years old.
It became abundantly clear that this person was not what one would refer to as a “good influence.” He was wild, trouble-prone, unapologetically himself, and fiercely flawed. At any other point in my life someone like this would seem alien to me. But when I could only see myself as weak, as lost, as broken; a creature mangled by the pain of week after week of screaming, of crying when I was sure no one could see or hear me. At that moment in time, to look upon Rider was to look upon the person I was becoming. This was my new and inevitable dark trajectory…and he would be the one to lead me there.
Our night rides were the thing I looked forward to the most in all the world back then. Chaos and freedom combined. Soon being near him wasn’t near enough. My hands would explore his body and his mine. When his lips touched my skin, the lingering pieces of the person of sadness I was peeled away, leaving only him and I. Empty. Content.
Part Three: Down the Rabbit Hole.
I pulled up to the baby blue single-wide late one night, to the sight of Rider racing out with a woman shouting behind him. He slipped into the passenger seat and slammed the door. “I probably won’t be staying here much longer,” he said and took a drag of his cigarette. I pulled off and he asked, “Can we visit a friend of mine?” Of course I agreed to it. There wasn’t much I wouldn’t have said yes to at that point.
Rider guided me into Carlisle, a town close enough to Harrisburg that I’d known of it, but too out of the way for me to have ever visited before. I drove down empty, snake-like streets lined in rundown townhouses, doused in the eerie yellow from the flickering streetlights. Save for a stumbling drunk or a pair of kids standing on a corner, the place appeared a ghost town. “Park here,” Rider said.
We walked down the cracked sidewalk and to the front door of a house that resembled the rest; paint chipping, porch littered with old toys. There were no lights on inside. Rider knocked. Silence. “I don’t think anyone’s here,” I whispered. He told me to wait. I took a deep breath and took in the scenery. Seconds late a pair of eyes peered through the venetian blinds and the door swung open. Standing before us was a girl, no more than fifteen, and very much pregnant. She and Rider shared a friendly, excited hug, then Rider introduced her to me. We stepped inside.
The living room was dark; the only light coming from the cellphones of a pair of girls texting as they sat on an old mattress on the floor. “Hi, Rider!” they chimed in unison. A couple, maybe seventeen years old, were squeezed together on a recliner, whispering to one another as the girl, skinny, blonde, and pale, typed poetry into her laptop. It took a little more focusing on my part, before I caught sight of the man passed out on the couch. He was wiry, shirtless, and a cigarette butt remained between his fingers. His arms and torso were covered in only the most questionable tattoos: demons, flaming skulls, Confederate flags, and swastikas.
This guy, Alvin was his actual name, woke up, cursing under his breath as he climbed to his feet. He noticed me immediately and said, “Who’s the nigger?” At that point just about everyone in the room except for me gasped or shouted “Alvin, don’t!” …which is, of course, what people like that want. He repeated the word at me, fueled by their protest, then burst into a rant about how all the girls should keep their mouths shut; how he’s more of a father to them than their actual dads and they should be grateful. Shortly after that he passed out onto the couch again. All the while this was going on the boy on the recliner gently caresses the cheek of the girl who is on the verge of tears, promising, “Kristen, we graduate next year, baby. One more year and I’m taking you away from this forever. I promise.”
A normal-enough woman enters through the back door, into the kitchen. She’s wearing a business suit and toting a twelve-pack of Bud Light. Rider introduces me to her as the mother of the pregnant girl. Rider then hoists himself onto the kitchen counter and grabs me close. We make out like no one’s there.
Another character in this seemingly endless span of introductions, a pudgy man with a trucker cap and a thick mustache stumbles in through the front door, drunk. He approaches the mom, slaps her on the butt, downs one of the Bud Lights and starts to make out with her not three feet away from Rider and I.
The mood changes when the pregnant girl’s phone rings. She answers, “Hello?” Something about the way she said it sends her mom’s boyfriend into a rage. “That better not be who I think it is!” he says over and over. The girl darts up the stairs. Rider takes me by the hand and we follow her into her room. The heavy thuds of someone coming up behind us is clear, but the three of us are safe behind a locked door before it’s an issue. The girl talks to the father of her child as her mom, her mom’s boyfriend…and Alvin bang on the door.
Through all the shouting, I deciphered the details of the situation: The father of the girl’s child was in jail for a number of crimes, one of them being beating up the very girl he impregnated. Her mom’s boyfriend wasn’t only an over-protective father figure, but also the father of the girl’s jailed boyfriend. The girl was still in love with her ex-boyfriend/abuser and no one was too pleased about this.
Somehow everyone calmed down. Rider and I left that place and I snuck him into my grandparent’s house and spent the night there. Laying naked in bed, my body entwined his, already lost in peaceful slumber, I could not help but think how utterly unphased I was by the evening; how unphased and uncharacteristically calm I had been ever since I’d started this journey as the lonely worker at a Hershey factory. Remember how I said that we attract a physical world that reflects our mental state? I had accomplished that that night. I smiled, kissed Rider on the forehead, and drifted to sleep. Fulfilled. Content.
Finale: The Point of [No] Return.
The following days were great. Long gone was the sad, lump of a human I had been. A new era had dawned: One where I wasn’t a slave to loss or depression. Nor was I a slave to the arts, to the perceptions of how others perceived me; to constantly caring and concerning myself with the well-being of others. I was of the moment, in the moment, and I loved it! Rider and I would eat at fancy restaurants, guzzle a bottle of rum curbside, watch movies with friends, express our feelings for one another pretty much anywhere in whichever way we saw fit, addicted to the present and never taking anything too seriously.
And then we made a return to the pregnant girl’s house.
It was a pleasant enough Summer day. We approached the house and, before reaching the door, one of the girl’s opened it, ordered us to, “Come inside. Hurry! Hurry!” and slammed the door shut once we had done so.
The tension in the dark home was palpable with the two girls and Alvin peering out of the window as if in wait. In the dining room, the young teenage couple sat in the dark, the boyfriend listening to his girl read aloud dark poems of sadness and fear. Upstairs something crashed to the floor. The door slammed. And then an argument erupted.
One of the voices was that of the pregnant girl. Rider grabbed me by the wrist and we charged up the stairs to see her. She was in a shouting match with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. It turned out that her ex had been released from jail and was planning on coming to take her and his unborn child away. The girl seemed to be open to the idea of running away with the guy who beat her – a fact that infuriated her mother’s boyfriend (aka the father of the abuser). He stomped into a bedroom down the hall with the mother and the daughter (and Rider and I), then back out and down the stairs, seemingly to separate himself and calm down a bit.
There were a couple lines of what I could only assume was cocaine on the nightstand. Empty beer cans littered the floor. The pregnant girl was red in the face, tears flowing. The mother and Rider were attempting to console her. I stood in the corner and watched this display of compassion; of terror and grief, feeling like a mere spectator watching a scene from a film. This was a moment I wasn’t living in with people I didn’t know and, like that, the loneliness found me once again.
Rider kissed the girl on the forehead and hugged her mother then, to me, said, “We should go.” I nodded and walked out of the bedroom and down the hall. As I approached the steps the father/boyfriend was ascending them. He stood close to me. It seemed as though he was towering over me while we were almost exactly the same height. I looked into his bloodshot eyes and saw a deep-seated anger and drive inside of them that sent a chill through me. The man, drunk or high, looked at me and growled through clenched teeth, “If that boy comes here I’m gonna do what I should’ve done years ago. I don’t care if he is my son. If he sets foot in here I’m gonna drag him into the basement, tie him up, and shoot him dead.” To dispel any doubt around his words, the man then reached and lifted the edge of his shirt, revealing a small shotgun pressed between his old jeans and his gut.
I only saw Rider a couple more times after that enlightening afternoon. More my doing than his. I remember going home after dropping Rider off. My home without racist, alcoholic uncles or coked-out mothers or murder-minded fathers. My bedroom with the X-Men action figures and the Looney Tunes posters and the shelf loaded with Gamecube games and philosophy books. My silly and short-tempered, but ferociously loving mother. My sister and cousins and friends who I had been absolutely pulled away from, who were all right there and ready for me upon my return. And of course, the loneliness, the heartache, the longing for things never to be returned- they were waiting for me as well.
The current state of my life could have been a lot better, to be sure. But in the stark juxtaposition between my own world and that of Rider’s, in having escaped into the darkest corners of his own escapism, I returned to my life. A life that had, I was reminded, beaten me down before…and would again. And each time, as I had done before, I learned, I grew, I made art.
I returned to college a week later. My last semester. Another in an endless field of opportunities to question and embrace my world. My life. One month later I made a new best friend; every bit the counter to Rider. Two months later I wrote and co-directed that year’s children’s play. A couple weeks after that, I graduated. Back in Harrisburg, I hopped back into fascinating world of temporary employment where I met a pair of married hippie managers who took me under their wing, stressing meditation, inner calm, and trusting in my inner strength (and the Universe) to provide my life’s next step. A few months later I visited my father, only to have a teenager girl ram her car into mine, totalling it. It was the resulting insurance check (and those hippies’ words) that financed my move to New York where I, six and a half years later, continue to live no one’s story but my own.