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Yesterday was sunny and beautiful, and it should have been an amazing day. Paul and I woke up excited because it was the day the new Arrested Development series was on Netflix. Paul wanted to watch the first episode right then in bed, but I convinced him that we should spend the day outside and then binge-watch episodes that night.
I had to tutor Sergey at noon, but we figured we had time for a quick hike. We drove to the head of the nearby North Bank trail, which neither of us had ever explored before. The trail followed a canal parallel to the James River, going past Maymont Park and three cemeteries. I wished we could keep walking all the way to downtown Richmond, but after an hour I knew we needed to turn around so we could get back in time for my lesson with Sergey.
We’d seen on the map that there was a second trail on the opposite side of the canal that seemed to loop back to the parking lot, so we took this one, crossing over the canal and the train tracks on a pedestrian bridge and then descending down into the lush, riverside forest.
“I’m so glad we’re going back a different way,” I said. Originally I’d thought we would have to double back on the same trail, and I was glad we were seeing new sights instead.
“I know,” Paul said. “And this trail is beautiful.”
“I know! Look at this rock!” I pranced onto a flat rock at the edge of the river. “I wish I didn’t have to tutor. Then we could lay in the sun on this rock for a while.”
“Maybe we can come back this afternoon,” Paul suggested.
“Yeah! What time is it, by the way?”
It was a few minutes past eleven, but I figured I’d be on time for tutoring if we picked up our pace.
“I hope this trail is going back to the parking lot,” I told Paul as we crossed under the Nickel Bridge. I was getting nervous. The path seemed to continue on along the river without any sign of of crossing over the canal. “I think we’ve gone too far,” I said, my stress coming out as anger in my voice.
We pushed our way through some brush and crossed the train tracks. There, across the canal, was the parking lot. The only way to get over the canal was a bridge that led directly into the pumping station about 100 feet away from the parking lot. The bridge distinctly said “No Trespassing.” Of course, so did the train tracks we were currently standing on.
“Come on,” Paul said, approaching the bridge.
“We won’t be able to get out through the pumping station,” I said savagely. “The gates are locked –see?”
But he’d already crossed the bridge to check it out.
Afraid of getting in trouble for trespassing, but desperate to not be late for tutoring, I followed him, hoping he’d find a magical way to get to the parking lot. We walked around the pumping station, which was also plastered with no trespassing signs, but it was surrounded on all sides by a high, chain-link fence with vicious barbed wire.
“What are we going to do?” I asked. My voice was climbing into a horrible whine. We were literally a hundred feet from the car but had no way of getting to it.
We went back across the bridge to the train tracks and stared dejectedly at the parking lot, which was just a short canal-swim away. Paul pulled out his iphone to look at google maps, but technology was of little use.
“Let’s just walk down the train tracks,” he said finally, “and see if there’s a place where the canal narrows and we can cross.”
So we headed down the tracks in the fierce, noon-time sun, both of us feeling annoyed. I was anxious about being late for tutoring, and I felt bad for being so stressed-out and whiny. Paul felt bad, too – he felt like it was his fault that the trail hadn’t done what we thought it would — and the fact that he felt bad made me feel even worse.
“If I’m late, I’m late,” I said, trying to sound cheerful and calm. “It’s not a big deal. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter at all.” But those were just words, and their logic didn’t relieve the anxious feelings twisting inside my gut. If anything, it made everything worse. I chastised myself for being so negative, which, instead of forcing me to be positive, only made me feel more negative.
We walked and walked, with no sign of the canal narrowing. Finally it became clear that we were going to have to walk all the way back to the pedestrian bridge, cross over the canal, and then retrace our steps all the way back along the Northbank Trail.
“Well,” I said grimly. “I guess this is the only choice.” We marched quickly through the woods, barely speaking.
“I guess we shouldn’t try to go do things in the morning if you have a commitment at noon,” Paul said eventually. “We were cutting it too close to begin with.”
“Well, we shouldn’t try new trails anyway,” I said. “Lesson learned. Don’t try new trails when we’re pressed for time.” It felt sort of good to attach a lesson to my frustration. Things were going badly now, but I had learned my lesson.
We walked across the pedestrian bridge and got to the flat part of the trail. “Do you want to run?” Paul asked.
I didn’t, but I said okay, and we jogged three quarters of a mile back to the parking lot.
I got back home at one o’clock – an hour late for tutoring. “I’m sorry,” I told Sergey, picking a tiny leaf from my hair. He seemed annoyed. “Paul and I were sort of lost in the woods.”
“OK,” he said shortly. He seemed annoyed. “So I can only do lesson for one hour now. Let’s begin.”
This is the canal we would have had to swim across to get to my car.
After tutoring, I scarfed down some food – I was starving – and then I started looking forward to the rest of the day. Paul and I could lay in the sun and read and relax. Put the whole stressful morning behind us. I was imagining we could do our relaxing at the pool. It was nearby, and I was exhausted from our morning hike/run. I wanted to go somewhere quick and easy that would put me in the relaxing sun immediately.
But Paul suggested we go back to the pretty riverside trail, to that sunny rock we’d seen, and lay there by the soothing sound of rushing water.
I was a little worried that the trail would be crowded. We’d seen a few sunbathers that morning, and there would probably be more in the afternoon. On the other hand, I thought how nice it would be to lay on a smooth, sun-warmed rock and be lulled by the sound of rushing water. The trail was long, anyway. Surely there would be a vacant rock somewhere along the river.
So we put on our bathing suits, packed our towels and books and water bottles, and headed back to the North Bank trail. When we got to the parking lot, my mood immediately turned sour. The lot was full of cars, and the bike rack was jammed with about thirty bikes. Which could mean only one thing… Hipsters. Sure enough, the trail was packed with college-aged hipsters and trashy locals. Cigarette smoke wafted through the air, and on every piece of river front property (nice, flat rocks, and sandy little beaches) there sat a group of hipsters, wearing jean shorts and drinking tall boys of PBR.
“Why are there so many people?” My whiny voice was coming back, but even worse this time. Instead a high-pitched anxiety whine, this was the pouting, baby-faced, “why can’t I have what I want?” whine. Much more annoying.
“Maybe we should just go to the pool,” I mumbled/pouted as we passed a group of tattooed twenty-somethings sitting with their off-leash pit bulls. There was a note of accusation in my voice. I wanted to blame someone for the annoyance that was balling up in my chest, and Paul was the only scapegoat available.
“Well, we’re here,” Paul said. “Let’s try to find a way to enjoy it.”
Across a small creek was a little island, so I took off my shoes, and we forded across the water, thinking the island might be a quiet, secret spot. Instead, we found it overrun with rowdy dudes cracking beers and alternative chicks with hula hoops. We sat on a small in a shady corner trying to regroup while wet hipster dogs ran up to us, shaking their coats.
“What should we do?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know. You make the decision,” I said. I said this in a quiet, dejected voice that carried the suggestion that I was so frustrated I didn’t even have the heart to shout about it.
“Well what do you want?”
“I just wanted to lay in the sun.” I was tired and upset. My legs were sore from our morning exertion, and now my feet were sore, too, from the sharp rocks I’d stepped on while fording the creek. I’d been looking forward to relaxing on a rock in the sun, and now there seemed to be no place along all of the James River for me to do this.
“Let’s go back to the car,” Paul said finally. So we forded across the creek again and headed back along the trail.
“I had no idea it would be this crowded,” I said as we trudged along through plants that I hoped weren’t poison ivy.
“I guess we’ve learned our lesson,” Paul said. “Do our sunny activities in the morning.”
“I just can’t believe we’re back at the scene of our morning fiasco,” I said, trying to both sound and feel lighthearted.
“I know. We should never come to this trail again,” Paul said.
His words made me sad. It was such a pretty trail, and we’d loved it the first time we’d seen it. “Don’t return to the scene of your previous stress,” I said, again trying to sound cheerful, although not with much success. ‘We’re learning so many lessons today.”
“Oh no! Oh shit!” Suddenly Paul dug his hands into the bag he’d been carrying with all of our stuff in it. “Why is everything wet?”
It was because of my water bottle – it had leaked all over everything. We pulled out my Kindle and cell phone, both of which were damp. Paul’s expensive, hard-cover physics book was now soaking wet, the pages warping as we spoke.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I never should have put my water bottle in there. That was stupid of me.”
Another lesson learned.
In the hot car, we decided to drive to the duck pond, which was on the way home. We could lay in the grass there. Unfortunately, Paul had forgotten to bring his towel, so we both had to share mine. As I lay on my tiny strip of towel, listening to honking geese and screaming children, I tried to smile. Here I was, laying in the sun at last.
But I couldn’t smile. Not for real, anyway. I still felt horrible. There was a lump of frustration and awful-yuckiness sitting inside my chest that I just couldn’t make go away. Don’t cry, Eva, I told myself. Really. How childish are you? In the grand scheme of life, the fact that you didn’t get to lay on a rock by the river is inconsequential. It’s ridiculous and self-indulgent of you to still be upset, and you should stop being upset right now.
And yet, logic wouldn’t make the negative feelings go away. So I dissolved them the only way I knew how: I cried. Just a little. Just a few tears behind my sunglasses. And a few sniffles.
“Are you crying?” Paul asked, rubbing my back.
“Just a little,” I said. “But I feel better now.”
It was true. Crying had released the ball of negative energy inside my chest, and now I really did feel like I could relax. It was something I’d learned long ago but I always seem to forget: sometimes the best way to let go of bad feelings is to cry.
“We’ve learned another important lesson today,” I said a while later as Paul and I struggled to get comfortable on our towel.
“Two adults should never try to share one towel.” I smiled at him. It was a real smile this time. “Sorry for being such a grouch earlier,” I said. “Do you want to get sushi for dinner?”
* * *
We picked up some sushi on the way home and ate it on the deck in the fading sunlight. Afterwards, we settled onto the couch for a night of Arrested Development.
“Ahh,” I said, snuggling up next to Paul. “This is what we should have done all along.” The day had been a series of frustrations, but now we could just veg out and watch TV. Nothing could go wrong now.
So we watched the first episode. And then the second. “It’s not very good,” Paul said.
“No, it’s really not,” I said. “It’s lost it’s rhythm.
“It’s not very funny.”
“It’s almost boring.”
We were both disappointed. We’d been looking forward to this series for years.
“Well, that’s today for you,” I said, laughing. “Of course it sucks. Nothing is going our way.” I felt like the biggest lesson I’d learned today was not to whine about my frustrations, but not to pretend they don’t exist either. Instead, to acknowledge my frustration, but remember that it will go away in time.
“We just can’t catch a break,” Paul said, sighing.
“I know. Nothing is going right for us today.”
“Should we watch one more episode? Just to see?”
“Sure.” I rested my head on his shoulder and looked back at the computer screen. It felt nice to sit on the couch with Paul and know that even on bad days, there were still some things that felt good.