Abigail D. Malik

Category: Uncategorized

Short fiction: Sister Stella

washing machine

Every morning for the past seven years, except on Tuesdays, Stella suited up in well-worn sneakers, baggy jersey shorts, and a blue scrub top with her name and the WashCity logo embroidered on the front.

“Hello there!” a young woman rang out on a Sunday morning. She burst through the laundromat’s front door, one leg holding it open as she maneuvered inside with a lime-green plastic basket filled with clothes and a grocery bag filled with hangers.

“Well, hey,” Stella said, squinting at the woman and wiping down the basin of a washer. Stella could never remember anyone’s name. The customers all seemed to look alike, even the ones she knew had been doing their laundry there for years.

“How are things?” the young woman asked.

“Oh fine, just fine,” Stella said. She closed the washer’s lid gently and wiped down the outside of it before lifting it back up and moving on to the next one. “This morning I found $200 in someone’s pants pocket.”

“You did what?!” The young woman dropped her belongings on the floor in front of a washer and turned around to look at Stella.

“Oh, Mr. Jenkins is always leaving money in his clothes pockets,” Stella said. “I’ll call and tell him we found it, and he just goes, ‘Oh huh, wow.'”

“That must be nice!” the young woman said.

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. So good looking. It just makes my day when he comes in here,” Stella said. “He’s Irish, and he has that Sean Connery accent.”

Stella shook her head from side to side.

“So good lookin’.”

The front chimed. Lately Stella had noticed so many people liked to do their laundry on Sunday morning these days.

“Good morning, Stella!” a man said.

Stella looked up from her folding table at the back of the laundromat.

“Good morning, sugar! Got everything you need?”

“Sure do, thanks,” he said. The young man pulled his hood off his head. Stella wondered when he last ran a comb through his hair.

For a while it was just Stella, the young man, the young woman, and the soft sounds of the Parkers Creek Road Baptist Church morning sermon coming from Stella’s small television in the office. Stella liked to take her folding to the office so she could listen.

“Right, right,” Stella whispered every few minutes. “That’s how it is.”

By the time Stella finished her folding and the preacher had done the same with his sermon, the laundromat hummed with activity. Stella walked out to her table and began to iron.

On the opposite side of the building, a large man stood before a row of dryers. He was well over six feet tall and seemed just as wide. His smooth, pink face made it hard to determine his age. Wet clothes were piled high in his laundry cart, and he painstakingly selected one piece at a time to toss into a dryer. Stella watched him. He methodically did it with five dryers, going down the line and then returning to the beginning. He was so big that even that short back and forth made his breath a little heavy.

It’s going to take him forever to fill up those dryers, Stella thought. She stepped into the office and took a sip of coffee. She returned to her ironing.

“You know buddy, you don’t have to use all those dryers. Just put all those clothes into two. You’re wasting your money. And hogging the dryers.”

A gray-mustached man in his 70s sat in one of the orange plastic chairs bolted to the floor along the laundromat’s front windows. He leaned back, his legs crossed at the knee, and he punctuated every other word by tapping his cane on the floor. The cane’s rubber tip was worn through, so every time it connected with the tile floor, it made a “click” sound.

The large man at the dryers looked at him, startled. Then he returned his attention to his wet clothes.

A minute later, the older man sat up in his seat, uncrossing his legs. Firmly placing his feet on the floor and pushing his glasses up on his nose, he leaned forward.

“Just how big are you?”

Stella’s head lifted from her ironing, and her eyes searched around until she found where the question had come from.

“You gotta be at least 600 pounds,” the older man said.

The young man’s face exploded with pink.

Using all the strength in his cane-wielding right arm, the older man pushed himself into standing position. He stayed near his seat, but his demeanor made it feel as if he was nose to nose with the man at the dryers.

“You know what you look like?” the older man said. “You look like one of those young paid preachers. Is that what you are?”

He glared and waited.

“Got no use for them.”

Stella sighed, sat down her iron, and switched it off.

“Sir, can I help you with anything?” she yelled across the room.

“No, honey, I’m finished,” he said. He switched his cane to his left hand and picked up a white garbage bag full of clean clothes that had been on the floor near his seat. Slowly, he hobbled toward the front doors, his cane click-click-clicking on the tile until he was out of sight.

Stella sighed again, switching the iron back on. The mega-church in town had a Sunday morning worship service on television, and it was just starting. Stella shut it off. That would be enough for this Sunday.

 

Advertisements

10 Pop Culture References The Golden Girls Can Teach You

GGWhy on God’s green earth would anyone today enjoy watching a 30-year-old sitcom about four older women’s lives in Miami? That’s a joke question, of course, because the answer is, “There are infinity reasons why anyone should love The Golden Girls.” One particularly good reason is the abundance of pop culture references peppered throughout the seven seasons that aired from 1985 to 1992.

The references to film, music, television, books, celebrities, and more offer learning opportunities for those who weren’t around then or are too young to remember anything besides Care Bears and slap bracelets. And for those who rocked it loud and proud during those two decades, here are some humorous flashbacks.

Before Snuggie and ShamWow, there was Amazing Discoveries.

In season seven, Blanche is imploring Dorothy to get up off the couch and join her at her favorite bar, The Rusty Anchor. But Dorothy is staring at the television, absorbed in Amazing Discoveries: “Look at that,” she says from the couch. “The thing just shucks the corn off the cob. It just shucks it off.”

Hosted by Mike Levey, Amazing Discoveries ran from 1989 to 1997 and is said to be the pioneer of “direct response television” (today’s Proactive, PedEgg and others). According to Direct Marketing News’ 2003 story on Levey’s death (he was only 55), the Amazing Discoveries host was once known as “the most watched man on television,” and throughout the nearly 100 episodes that aired, many fans tuned in just to see what style of sweater he’d have on.

Donald Trump has always kind of been disliked.*

The show makes many references to media mogul Merv Griffin, the force behind, among other things, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. In a season-seven dream, Dorothy is a contestant on Jeopardy!, and when Merv Griffin (who plays himself) emerges at the end of the dream, Dorothy says: “Mr. Griffin, please, you are the most beloved man in America. You are bright, you are charming, you are the anti-Trump.”

According to Forbes, in 1992, the year this season of The Golden Girls aired, Trump filed for corporate bankruptcy, the second in what would be four times between 1991 and 2009. In addition, 1992 was the year Trump and wife Ivana divorced after a 15-year marriage. Rough year, Donny. Griffin, on the other hand, was enjoying the success of the two game shows in addition to his own increasing wealth from hotel and gambling business ventures.

*This essay was written well before Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2016.

Oprah Winfrey has always had to deal with the haters.

In season four, Rose was convinced she witnessed a UFO when she was out on the lanai. Dorothy, the sensible one, refuses to believe it and tries to convince Rose that what she saw couldn’t have been a UFO.

“Well, it wasn’t a plane,” Rose says. “Planes aren’t that thin or that bright.” To which Dorothy responds, “Neither is Oprah Winfrey, but that doesn’t make her a flying saucer.”

Ouch. Season four of The Golden Girls aired in late 1988 through mid-1989, and The Oprah Winfrey Show made its debut in 1986, airing for 25 years. Oprah’s famous “wagon of fat” episode happened in 1988: for months she starved herself on a liquid diet, and after losing 67 pounds and fitting into size-10 Calvin Klein’s, she wheeled a red wagon piled high with fat onto the set to represent what she lost. According to a 2005 USA Today story, she said that’s the television stunt she regrets most.

You know actor Raul Julia’s face, but you probably don’t know his name.

In a season-seven episode, Stan and Dorothy are accused of being slum lords of an apartment building they co-own, and they are forced by a judge to spend the night in one of the bug-infested apartments as punishment. When Dorothy returns home the next morning, Sophia thinks she has escaped illegally and starts planning Dorothy’s future on the lam: she can obtain a fake birth certificate, go into hiding, and get plastic surgery. “By tomorrow morning, you can be Raul Julia,” Sophia says.

Julia was a Puerto Rican actor who had notable roles on screen and on stage, but for many, he’s probably most recognizable for his portrayal of Gomez in the 1991 film The Addams Family. This Golden Girls reference is from the 1992 season, and Julia passed away two years later at the age of 54.

Never forget that at one time, tanning beds were pretty widely accepted.

Dorothy’s daughter Kate gets married in season two, and she invites Stan, Dorothy’s ex-husband, to the ceremony. When Dorothy calls to invite Stan, he explains why his new wife, Chrissy, won’t be able to attend, to which Dorothy responds, “No, no I didn’t know that could happen from a tanning machine.”

Sometimes it’s hard to believe there was a time when tanning-bed use was generally accepted, but this episode aired in the show’s 1986 season, in what could be considered the heyday of the “tanning machine.” According to a Huffington Post article, tanning beds were becoming increasingly popular in the early 1980s, and by the 1990s, they were becoming even more popular with teens. It’s shameful to admit, but there’s a good chance many of us can remember hitting up the tanning salon before prom back in the day.

Don’t let whatever happened to Chrissy happen to you.

You know Chef Boyardee, but do you know Mama Celeste?

In season one, Sophia spends an episode striving to upstage and up-cook her arch rival, Mama Celeste, whom she was childhood friends with in Italy. After giving Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy a taste test of her own pizza versus “Mama You-Know-Who’s,” the girls don’t choose Sophia’s. “You can’t pick pizza, and you can’t pick men!” she exclaims.

Celeste brand frozen pizzas are still around today, but the brand started out as Mama Celeste. In 1970, the frozen pizzas were top sellers, but then distribution was restricted to regional markets, Florida being one of them. The pleasant-looking Mama Celeste – which is the actual face of founder Celeste Lizio – is still on the box, though Sophia wishes it was her face “in every freezer in America.”

Televised talent competitions did not begin with American Idol.

In season five, Blanche’s daughter decides to get artificially inseminated. As usual, the girls discuss this drama around the kitchen table. “You know, I’ve read that you can even buy the sperm of Nobel Prize winners,” Rose says. “Or is it Star Search winners?”

Star Search was an awesome show hosted by Ed McMahon that aired from 1983 to 1995. Performers competed in several categories, including singing, dancing, comedy, and spokes model. The show was the first of its kind at the time, and it gave a bazillion current pop culture figures their first exposure to the limelight, including (to name a few) Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Rosie O’Donnell, Drew Carey, Justin Timberlake, Alanis Morissette, and Usher – and they all lost!

Vanna White really did write an autobiography.

In season five, Stan’s cousin Magda, a communist from Czechoslovakia, comes to visit. In order to teach her about the American experience, Dorothy recommends Magda read two books: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Vanna White’s autobiography.

“I think it’ll give you some idea of what freedom is all about,” Dorothy explains of Paine’s book. And of White’s book, Magda asks, “Why should I read this?”

“It’s just a hell of a book,” Dorothy responds.

And indeed, around two years before this Golden Girls episode aired, White authored an autobiography, in 1987, titled Vanna Speaks. The book came four years into her career role as wheel turner on The Wheel of Fortune, and, according to a 1987 Chicago Tribune story, the book was White’s response to her growing reputation as a “dumb blond,” “real-life Barbie doll,” and “Marshmallow Fluff.” You keep using your letters, Vanna.

It wasn’t always just Sonny and Cher. It used to be Cher and…. a lot of people.

In a late season five episode, Rose is having trouble choosing between Miles, her current boyfriend, and Buzz, a long-lost love from St. Olaf. At one point, Sophia walks in on Rose and Miles talking and exclaims, “Oh god, now she’s with the other one, it’s like living with Cher.”

Cher is pretty well known as the other half of “Sonny and Cher,” but that relationship (which only lasted for 10 years) is, well, not even the half of it. In 2012, the 67-year-old married her third husband, and in the 1980s, according to The Daily Mail, Cher had at least eight prominent relationships, which included famous musicians, actors, producers, a professional hockey player, and a bagel shop worker.

General Hospital was the reigning queen of daytime soap operas. And once upon a time, there were a bunch of them, so that meant something.

Sophia, in a season four episode, volunteers at a hospital. In typical Sophia fashion, she argues with one of her fellow volunteers, a man, loudly and in front of everyone. “What’s the matter, don’t you watch General Hospital? This place is a passion pit.”

In 1988, you were hard pressed to find someone who didn’t watch General Hospital. The show began in 1963, making it the longest-running daytime soap still currently in production. In 2012, it experienced a cancellation scare, but avoided it after the show’s plots, twists, turns, and characters were altered to appeal to a younger audience. Interestingly, according to a Los Angeles Times article, the show originally was the soap opera “that brought young people to daytime television” when it first aired more than 50 years ago. In November 1981, an on-screen wedding with characters Laura and Luke gained 30 million viewers, which is still a record for biggest daytime audience.

General Hospital is one of only four daytime soaps still on the air, and, as of 2013, it has remained the top daytime drama for 25 consecutive years.

Personal Essay: Wrestling Mania

wrestlingShe leaned across her seat, tapped me on the arm, and pointed to the WWE Live ring in the center of the arena floor.

“If he can crawl over to the edge and touch the rope, he’ll be free,” my mom whispered excitedly, as a grown man in a mask tried to get his head out from between some other grown man’s pretzel-twisted legs. I didn’t know which was more fun: the professional wrestling match or my mom’s knowledge of it. Who knew beneath that sweet personality and gentle smile there was a woman who got her kicks on body slams, trash talking, and men in tight pants?

Funny thing is, she always has. It’s a family tradition: in the 1970s, my mom would travel with her mom and aunts to the big city of Charleston, West Virginia, to see professional wrestling matches when they rolled through town. It was a big to-do for them, and so for her 62nd birthday, I wanted to experience with her what she had so many years ago with her mother and aunts.

The woman was pumped. My dad half-jokingly said he’d be on standby in case she got out of control and had to be escorted out of the arena.

She was well behaved, but she wasn’t quiet. Completely unfamiliar with modern wrestlers like Randy Orton and CM Punk, we mostly booed and cheered and shook our fists according to what the crowd did. Sometimes, though, we based our cheers on which wrestler was better looking.

“Oh, come on! Get up, you wimp,” my mom growled throughout the night. She slammed her hand on the armrest in frustration. “Yeah, hit him harder!”

During intermission, she reflected on the wrestlers she saw in the 1970s and 80s: Andre the Giant, The Million Dollar Man. Then, in the 1990s, when Pay-Per-View was something fancy, my mom’s family gathered at someone’s house to watch a match, everyone chipping in some money and plenty of food to spend an evening with “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts – with his real snake, Mom reminds me! – and so many more.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a resurgence in the popularity of professional wrestling. Who can forget “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and his infernal t-shirts? Every boy in my high school had one.

That night at the arena with my mom, it was easy to suspend disbelief. It was escapism at its best, and I haven’t spent such a unique Friday night since. That WWE professional wrestling match was fun. We’d both do it again in a heartbeat, only this time, my mom said she’s going to brush up on today’s wrestlers, so she’ll know at which wrestlers to really direct her screams.

Personal Essay: Ode to the Boot-cut Jean

jeansRack after rack of jeans fills my local Goodwill store, a sea of discarded, heavy denim to wade through in search of a good-enough pair. Shopping makes my arms hurt, as my left one holds try-ons and my right one screeches hangers rhythmically down the line. To the left, away you go – wrong size, weird color, too long.

And boot cut. Mostly, they’re all boot cut. On one hand, the sad thrift-store sea of discarded boot-cut jeans is puzzling – what exactly is wrong with that style? It clearly used to get a lot of love. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter why they’re there en masse because they now present themselves as an opportunity to the forward thinker: buy a bunch and hoard them until the style returns.

And the style, like so many others, will come back, raging and loud, perhaps just as strong as the skinny-leg fad it feels like we’ve been experiencing for quite some time.

Unaware of it until recently, I’ve been sort of preparing for this revolution. Folded reverently in a dresser drawer at home is a pair of 2001 Calvin Klein’s: dark blue denim, the most flattering back pockets you could imagine, and boot cut. I even remember saving the money to buy them at the mall that summer after high-school graduation. During my first year of college, I rocked them almost every day, and then, as happens sometimes, they started to feel a little too tight. But I kept them; something in the back of my mind whispered, “Just in case.” More than a decade later, having toted them from city to city and season to season, they fit again. They look good.

Except, of course, for the legs. Those poor Calvin’s seem almost bell-bottomed compared to the straight-leg pants folded on top of them in my dresser drawer. Sorry, Brooke Shields, but something has come between me and my Calvin’s.

Depending on whom you ask or what you read, this most-recent skinny-leg jean fad (that is, since the 1980s punk-era fad) has been in mainstream culture since around 2005. Yet it has hit cultural saturation, it seems, in just the past couple of years. It’s a level of saturation that makes you grumble “Oh, come on!” when you can’t find a pair of jeans that will stretch over a strong, muscled calf you once thought was an asset.

In these moments, I look longingly toward my bedroom, where my 13-year-old Calvin’s rest, nestled snugly between newer pairs of denim. A decade from now, I wonder, how many 30-somethings will sort through a sea of consignment skinny jeans, arms aching, and think, “What in the world…?” before pushing them on down the rack.

Maybe, Brooke, I should wiggle back into my Calvin’s. Maybe the time for a boot-cut revolution is now.

Personal Essay: Basement Blues

basementThe suspicious feeling in the back of my mind insisted every now and then that living in my friend’s basement was too good to be true.

The monthly rent was more than fair, the house was in a nice, side-walked neighborhood, and the adjacent garage had ample room to store all my boxed- and bagged-up belongings. Besides, as my previous landlord, as well, my friend had decided to sell that house, and I needed to find a new home quickly. This temporary landing pad gave me time to search and her a few extra bucks.

And so for the first couple of months, when friends asked how the living situation was going, I was pleasantly surprised and happy to answer with “It’s great! Can you believe it? Things are great.”

Until that weekend I went out of town and returned Sunday evening to find my friend perched on the living room sofa waiting on me.

“Hey! You need help with your things? Hey, so. You’re either going to really love what I did or really hate what I did.” She spilled it out in one long breath, smiling tightly.

“Okay…” I replied, instantly worried she’d taken on a weekend wallpapering project. She lead the way as we trotted down the basement stairs.

“I was down here cleaning, earlier today,” she began. “And I moved your bookshelf to vacuum. Then I saw your clothes on the bed, so I started folding them, then when I noticed your books still packed, well, I thought, I should unpack those for her…” Her words became just a buzz as I took in the basement and realized what she’d done.

The neatly stacked boxes and bags filled with my life were no longer safely stored in the garage where I’d left them. Now, all of my belongings were unpacked, and she’d gone through every item, placing them around the basement where she though they belonged. Like a parent touring a preschool for the first time, I followed her from station to station while she explained why she put which item where.

We both knew, I thought, that me crashing in her basement was never a permanent living situation. So I’d decided in the beginning to unpack only the necessities. But my books, previously tied up neatly in plastic grocery bags, now lined the shelves. She had rearranged the little living-room area I’d created, and clothes folded in stacks on the bed two days ago now hung in a closet on hangers that didn’t belong to me. My DVDs, unpacked and mixed with some of hers, were lined up on a shelf in alphabetical order.

Then she told me that she put away the basket of laundry sitting on the floor. She folded what needed folding, hung up what needed hanging, and put away underwear that she decided now belonged in a nightstand drawer labeled with the typed phrase “Underwear, etc.”

All of the laundry in that basket was dirty. And the nightstand that was beside my bed when I left for the weekend is now what holds my dirty underwear.

“Wait,” I muttered, as I fumbled through the drawer. “If my underwear is here, then where is my…?”

Everyone knows that the top drawer of a woman’s nightstand is the goody drawer. She has been in my goody drawer, and she has seen, touched, and moved my goods.

The word violated flashed across my brain. I felt sweaty and weird.

By this time, she had gone back upstairs, leaving me to explore this brave new world she’d created. Before she left, she said by way of explanation that once she started going through and unpacking my things, she just couldn’t stop herself. And before she knew it, this had happened, and she waved her hand around the room as she scurried up the basement stairs.

Grabbing my phone, I burst through the basement door that leads to an outdoor patio. Pacing like a caged tiger, I called every friend I had.

When I finished sharing, in near whispers for fear she might hear me, I reluctantly went back inside. Everything felt slightly off kilter. That voice in my mind knew the basement was too good to be true. Curling up on the couch, I couldn’t make myself sleep in the bed on which she’d, for some reason, changed the sheets and comforter and added some throw pillows.

Things weren’t really the same between me and my friend. She’d seen too much in her basement, and I had, too.

I moved out as soon as I found another place. It was probably time to leave, anyway. No self-respecting 26-year-old woman with a full-time job should live in someone’s basement. Nothing good happens to anyone in a basement after, at most, the age of 17.

But I always hoped that maybe spying my goody drawer inspired her to get her own. If anyone was ever in need of something to occupy her hands on the weekends, it was her.

Travel: Guatemala’s Semuc Champey is Heaven on Earth

10151612885471742The decision to backpack around Guatemala was a surprisingly quick one. My best friend and I had batted around the idea of traveling internationally to celebrate turning 30. The intent was real, but the discussions were vague, until one day she received a text from me.

“We should go to Costa Rica” was my suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip. “How about Guatemala?” was her suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip.

Four months later, I departed from Lexington, Kentucky, and she from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and we arrived around the same early afternoon time at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City to begin 10 days of backpacking around the country.

The night before, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

My 12-year-old L.L. Bean backpack was stuffed with just enough to sustain me. (Once home and unpacked, I proudly realized I had packed two shirts too many.) I registered our trip online with the U.S. Department of State and emailed pictures of my passport and credit card to my most level-headed friend.

However, I hadn’t brushed up on my Spanish nor had I done a recent Google news search on the country. My public-library borrowed Frommer’s Guatemala was only halfway read. And while I’m normally able to effectively shut out my father’s isolationist commentary, his concise voicemail from a few weeks ago reared its ugly head in my own: “Did you know that Guatemala borders Mexico?!”

Guatemala was my first time traveling abroad.

Exiting Aurora International Airport, I closed my eyes and savored the hot Central American sun on my face and arms, a luxury after a long Kentucky winter. Guatemalan women, men, and children rushed about, many anticipating arrivals and others pushing their wares. Trips to Chinatown in New York City came to mind as I received offers to purchase disposable cell phones, handmade bracelets, and round, gold foil-wrapped pieces of chocolate. Leaving the country nine days later, I’d be searching for them all, eager to share my unspent quetzals, but then those people were nowhere to be found.

We decided early on that this trip wouldn’t be held captive by a concrete itinerary, but we did make a list of the places we had to visit. Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan national park, was on that list. And on day six of our journey, after hours of sitting on a bus and miles of standing in the back of a pickup truck crammed with other tourists, we found ourselves there.

Semuc Champey is an isolated, hard-to-reach area located in the Q’eqchi’ Maya town of Lanquín. Nestled in the valley of a jungle, turquoise freshwater-filled pools have been etched atop a natural bridge of limestone, under which rushes the Río Cahabón. The pools are full of warm, barely moving water, and visitors spend hours basking in the Eden, sliding down perfectly formed rocks, and jumping from cliffs. Fish swim in the pools, their nibbles on your legs and feet a bit unsettling, actually, until you get used to it.

With my snorkel and mask, I spied fish big and small living their lives, and I wondered if they knew how lucky they were to be there. After I popped up from the water, a young Guatemalan man walked determinedly along the slippery bank toward us.

He pointed to my face and shook his head from side to side.

No molesto were the only words I could decipher, and he pointed to my face again impatiently. My snorkel, I realized, wasn’t allowed in the pools. It was a disturbance. I put it away on the bank, hiding it underneath my towel and feeling a little ashamed.

Aside from the pools, the park’s other incredible feature is El Mirador, an outlook located 1.7 kilometers (a little more than one mile) through the jungle that overlooks the limestone pools and the Río Cahabón. The only way to reach El Mirador is by hiking a narrow, rocky path that is, in places, nearly vertical.

Less than halfway up the path to El Mirador, my travel mate decided not to continue the climb. Perhaps it was the day’s heat; perhaps it was last night’s many cans of Gallo, the country’s official beer.

My heart sank. We hadn’t gone anywhere alone since arriving in the country, and I automatically assumed I’d also be sitting this one out. We stopped at a level, wooden bridge.

“You could go by yourself,” she said. “I’ll just wait here, maybe I’ll take a nap.”

She did take a nap. And I went by myself.

Wiping away the sweat stinging my eyes and ignoring the occasional thought of passing out, I continued the mile-high climb up to El Mirador. I rested often and took small sips from my bottle of hot water.

Crawling on my hands and knees up the rocky path alone, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

When the ground became level again, I started to jog. The outlook was just ahead. I came out from under the forest of trees and into the sun, stepping, almost like it was a stage, onto the small wooden deck with the engravings of lizards and so many Spanish words I didn’t know.

The blue-green, crystal-clear ponds unfolded below, and for five minutes, I couldn’t stop crying.

Boarding the plane back in Kentucky, everything had seemed so uncertain, so questionable. I was traveling with someone who had been my best friend for more than a decade but we’d lived 1,000 miles apart since graduating high school. We hadn’t spent more than three or four days together at a time. And on the other side of the globe, my long-term significant other was on a research trip in South Africa. It was the furthest we’d ever been from each other, and the actual continents separating us were both terrifying and liberating.

None of it mattered now. From that wooden perch high in the jungle, I peered down into the valley at the turquoise pools dotted with tiny humans and those even tinier biting fish. No molesto, I whispered, releasing those fears into the jungle and embracing the peace that came from being completely alone.

Turning my face toward the warm Central American sun, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

I had found heaven, tucked away in Guatemala.

Travel: The Unique Opportunity That is a Van Ride

photo by A. Malik

In the van waiting to catch the ferry on the way to Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Van rides have meant something special to me ever since returning from a 10-day backpacking trip in Guatemala where so many of my hours there were spent crisscrossing the country in vans with travelers from around the world. The Israeli grandfather wildly snapping pictures, screaming madly at the radio during a soccer match, being gently scolded by the driver for exiting the van during a very short ferry ride – he’s a small piece of my van crew that’s such a strong part of my travel experience in Guatemala.

Even pickup trucks played a vital role in traversing the country, particularly in my attempt to successfully complete the last leg of an eight-hour trip from the Tikal ruins to Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan national park located in an isolated, hard-to-reach area near the small town of Lanquín. Nestled in the valley of a jungle, turquoise freshwater-filled pools have been etched atop a natural bridge of limestone, under which rushes the Río Cahabón. It’s an Eden, and in order to trek the narrow, bumpy path from Lanquín to El Portal, the hostel at the edge of the park, I stood up in the back of a pick-up truck. My body jostled against a dozen others, gripping the truck bed’s side metal bars for dear life (or at least to keep my teeth in my head) as six kilometers (almost four miles) felt like six years.

For me, now, van rides are opportunities. Is there a shuttle involved in this trip? I’m in. Can we take the bus? Yes, we should. Want me to climb in the back of your pick-up truck? Well, let’s talk first.

Even the shuttle van at the car mechanic is an adventure waiting to be had with travelers from around the world. One morning, months later, back in Kentucky and at 8 a.m., I hopped into the backseat beside a young woman with long blonde hair. We exchanged good mornings. Her father, gray-headed and likely in his mid-60s, sat up front next to our driver, Kim. Less than a minute later, we picked up another passenger.

“The last time I was in a van,” I said as I scooted to the middle seat, “I was in Guatemala. It didn’t have such nice seatbelts.” The man turned around in his seat, and he was smiling. We began to discuss Guatemala, a country of which he is quite fond.

“Did you go to Chichicastango?” he asked, referring to the well-known market that brings nearly the entire country together for buying and selling handmade goods and homegrown foods. It was, I had to tell him, the one thing on the travel to-do list that went unaccomplished. The market is open Thursdays and Sundays only, and we couldn’t sync our travels to make it either day. He said I should visit Oaxaca, Mexico, and this time to make sure and visit the market.

“Where are you originally from?” Driver Kim asked him, after he began to speak and we heard his soft accent.

Originally from Munich, Germany, he lived in Caracas, Venezuela, for several years. Eventually, he ended up in Chicago, where, he tells us, many German immigrants, including his family, landed when they came to America. He currently lives in San Francisco, and his daughter, the lovely wide-eyed blonde who has now moved behind me to make more room – the passengers keep coming, just like in Guatemala! – is doing clinical rotations in physical therapy at a university here.

Before she arrived in Kentucky – she is very fond of horses, she told me, which is why she chose to come here – she lived in Portland, Maine. Driver Kim, we learn, used to live in Portland, Oregon, and for the rest of the trip, I remain confused as to which Portland is being discussed at any time, except for when they’re talking about weather.

Portland-in-Maine and her father traveled to Kentucky together. He first drove from San Francisco to Maine, taking ten days to enjoy the more-than-3,000-mile trip across America. The two of them then traveled from Maine to Kentucky. It’s no wonder they were at the car mechanic.

We all gave our two cents about the value of the adventures of car travel and segued into high-speed rail daydreaming. All three of my van mates, come to find out, have lived in the San Francisco area of California – “It really is a small world, isn’t it?” Portland-in-Maine kept saying – and so they spent some time trading what California cities they’ve traveled to and from by rail.

“Well, you know, high-speed rail in Europe is how they get around,” Portland-in-Maine’s father said, and Driver Kim’s eyes lit up in the rear view mirror.

“My daughter, the worldly one, lived in Madrid for a year, and she traveled to 14 countries in that one year! Using the train, of course,” she said as she turned right into the parking lot of my work. Driver Kim, of course, visited “the worldly one” in Madrid. “I took 1,700 pictures of doors.” We all laughed because we knew she probably wasn’t exaggerating.

As the van stopped and I got out, I looked at each member of my tiny new van crew. “Thank you so much for the lovely morning.” They returned the sentiment, and as I walked away, I turned around and waved at Portland-in-Maine’s father. He smiled and eagerly waved back. I will definitely get to the market the next time I travel anywhere.

Personal Essay: Whether it’s Urban Appalachia or Southern California, Quality of Life is All Relative

photo by A. MalikRay Garcia moved from San Diego to Ashland, Kentucky, about two years ago. He and his two brothers, Sergio and Ron, own and run a restaurant in town that offers locals a Southern California-Mexican style of cuisine not found in Ashland or, as Ray said he’s discovered, in Kentucky.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, I interviewed him for a magazine article about the restaurant and its influence on Ashland. As a native Ashlander whose parents and sister live there (and probably always will), I leave Lexington and head east 120 miles on Interstate 64 about once a month to visit.

With a population of about 22,000, Ashland isn’t at all as urban as the urban Appalachian cities of Chattanooga, Asheville, Pittsburgh, and others. It is and always has been, however, a Mecca of sorts for the northeast part of Kentucky, with its two malls, city park, and dining options.

Something Ray said to me during our talk stuck in my head. He said he’s noticed that people in Ashland are “down on themselves” and where they live. Young people are eager to leave Ashland for bigger and better places, and some almost apologize to him for Ashland when they learn he’s from a much bigger, more cosmopolitan place.

But after living and working in the Ashland area for almost two years, he doesn’t see it that way. “What’s wrong with this place?” he always asks the naysayers. He said he thinks those in Ashland should feel prouder of where they live.

Ray’s a pretty observant guy. For me and my friends, it didn’t matter if we were in fifth grade or preparing to graduate from high school: we were eager to leave Ashland and never return. In addition to the usual “it’s so boring here” and “there’s nothing to do,” we latched on to a supposed truth that living in the same town all your life was very, very uncool. This, of course, isn’t a supposed truth exclusive to Ashland or even to urban Appalachia as a whole. I do wonder, though, if it’s more prevalent here.

The more I thought about Ray’s observation, the more I realized two other supposed truths exist when it comes to establishing roots, whether it’s in urban Appalachia or Southern California.

Any place is what you make it. Ray and his family are from San Diego, so they grew up in a town very different from Ashland and even the larger urban Appalachian cities. But as we chatted, it was obvious he’s happy to be in Ashland. Plus, he works so much, he told me, that it doesn’t matter whether he’s in San Diego or in Ashland – his focus is on his restaurant and his family.

Often, living in a city is like choosing which college to attend: on some level, they’re all very similar, and how you spend your time there is what matters.

It’s all relative. I have a friend who grew up in Louisville, went to graduate school in Boston, lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for a while, then moved to Lexington – and thought she’d descended into hell. On the other hand, before moving to Lexington two years ago, I lived in Danville, a Kentucky town of about 16,000. In Lexington, it felt as if a whole new world had opened up.

What if Ashland’s residents became cheerleaders for where they lived? Large and small cities across urban Appalachia are learning to celebrate themselves with city magazines, festivals, and other local community initiatives. Pride and hope in anything – yourself, your friends, your city – serves as a big agent of change, and change can often mean improvement. Ray and his family have brought a unique style of food to Ashland and are helping to uncover a small community within the greater one. If most of Ashland’s residents could believe in it the way Ray does, there’s a good chance he’ll need to stop asking, “What’s wrong with this place?”