People who've been at this longer than I have told me it'd come. They told me to be patient with myself, to recognize the effects, to understand the process, to keep perspective and push on, even if it meant faking it for a while. I trusted what they told me but I didn't really ever quite believe it. The whiplash, perhaps one of the most highlighted aspects of the international humanitarian experience, is well documented, but I can be stubborn in my moments, allowing myself the think that maybe I'm different. I'm not.
It's the unseen approach that's the trickiest bit. There's really no way to know. Like that unexpected burst of manic, overwhelming energy that flattened the city I called home for two years, the whiplash just hits. I've gotten in the habit of trying to avoid it through movement. A body in motion seems harder to knock down. Maybe that's completely wrong.
I'm walking down the street, fast, boots echoing off the pavement. I've been doing a lot of this recently. Blisters on my feet. Bandaids on my pinky toes. It's dark and crisp, and I can see my breath when I exhale. I'm wearing a lot of clothing, but the cooling sweat under it makes it cold. My iPod is in, set to repeat my "Rollin' in the Deep" playlist. There are no Adele songs on it. I'm thinking I'd like to be drinking right now. Bottle of red or a few cans of beer? Red would keep me warmer, but the beer's cheaper. I go for the beer. They tell me you can drink on the streets of London. No problems yet, so I suppose I believe them.
I walk in a direction with no destination but proximity. I know there's no point to it, but I do it anyway. I walk along the south bank of the Thames, past the London Eye and the OXO Tower and the Tate Modern. I like the look of the Millennium Bridge and tell myself I need to walk that too. I do, a few days later. I continue down into the darkened shadows of Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market, one my favorite places in the city, and linger there, indulging a few memories. I finish the beer, find a trash can, and keep moving. I'm headed south, closer now, and cross the street.
The pub has a little window at the top, connected to what I imagine might be a little room. The window was open a few days ago, but it's closed now. Through the larger streetside windows I can see there are a handful of people left inside, but they're just lingering, easing down the final sips. I'm tempted to stop and study them, but I don't. It is cold. I don't stop walking. It's something akin to morbid curiosity that brought me here, or maybe just a deep loneliness, and now it's time to go.
I'm down a side street, doubling back in the direction I came, headed back to the river, moving west this time. It's all in reverse: Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, The Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, the OXO Tower. I almost make it to Waterloo Bridge before what I've been trying to stay ahead of catches up. I sit on a bench under a tree, feel the wet through my jeans because it's raining now, and it comes. I'm quiet about it, not that anyone's around to hear. I can't even hear myself for the headphones. It doesn't last long, a few minutes, and then I'm still. The moisture is collecting on the edge of my beanie, which I keep pulling as low as I can. My nose is running, and I taste salt. I'm cold, but the release leaves me feeling peaceful. I'm OK with just sitting here for a while.
Big Ben looks pretty big. I walk under it a few nights later. It is big. Not New York City big, but this is London. It doesn't need to be that big. I think that this city is beautiful at night. I feel like I could love it, and at the same time want to fast forward through it all. I ask myself questions that are impossible for me to answer, and feel OK in my unknowing. I'm off balance, but collected, and it's time to move again.
It's slow now, the boots don't make much noise, a light scuffing along the ground. I keep the playlist going. I'm on Waterloo Bridge, looking at Somerset House, and next to it my university. I feel incredibly lucky to be there. I take my time in the middle of the span, looking down at the water. It moves faster than I would have thought.
Underneath the city it's warmer, and I've caught one of the final trains headed north to Manor House. Coming up again I can see it's rained here too. Harder, by the looks of it. My boots splash along the sidewalk. I hope the off license is open. I want a few more cans, and I like the German Shepherd puppy that lives behind the counter. It's not. I consider getting a kebab, mostly because I know I should probably eat something, but I'm not hungry, and I don't.
The temporary roommates have given me a key so I don't have to wake them. I let myself in. A few blinking lights illuminate the place, but it's silent. Opening the fridge I see an open bottle of white. I know I shouldn't but I pour half of it into a glass, and head up the stairs to the room I sleep in. I try and be quiet when I put the mattress on the ground. There's a little sleeping bag too, but I'm too big for it. I fold the pillow over itself in the silence and tuck my arm under it, the ringing in my ears amplifying and the wet of my beanie on my face as I put my head down. In the morning I can see my boots are water stained and have dirtied the sheet, but they've kept my feet warm through the night. I take a shower. It's really hot, and I like that. I use someone's shampoo. Some bandaids fall off. I flush them down the toilet, and put on new ones.
I'm outside and headed south again, back to the city. It's sunny. It feels like it could be a good day. People ride bikes past me, and I'm moving fast, my boots hammering the sidewalk, one hand rolling through the playlists, the other jammed into the pocket with my phone in it, hoping it will vibrate.