I MET JOHANN on a Greyhound bus going from Boston to the nation’s capital. I was, I admit, looking for small talk, and there’s a certain type of bearded friendly face that seems to invite that sort of thing. He was lounging in the furthest back seat, wearing a torn shirt, fully at ease, and the seat next to him was one of two empty. I sat down and went through the whereyafrom, more as a pleasantry than anything else. The past two days had put me in a mindset that welcomed any distraction.
It turned out though that Johann would have been a fantastic conversational partner whatever the situation. An effusively jolly Swede, he was returning via public transit from thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The beard was a mark of a good amount of months spent hiking twenty miles a day in wooded solitude. I’d never understood the monotone allure of the Appalachian Trail, considering all the other significantly more compelling very long walks one could go on in this wide world. I can appreciate the appeal of blunt masochism, but prolonged time in the head is a daunting prospect at the best of times.
Johann’s recounts made it sound practically cheery. Here was one of the most ebullient people I’d ever met – with bubbling and bumbling friendliness, he talked about what he ate, how discouragingly vast the state of Georgia can seem, who he met, how the beard seemed to be putting him in the Unwanted Characters pile of late, how he missed Sweden even though he felt no allegiance to it. We talked about the idea of rootlessness and argued idly about whether or not human nature was universal across cultures. He was all for it, the universal humanity of it all, man, while I said no dude, frames of reference and paradigm shifts and the untranslatability of some things. It was a nebulous and expansive conversation, with much arm waving.
The bus rolled in to some little gas station, one of those “food breaks” that long distance Greyhounds sometimes take, the concepts of food and break both being somewhat pliable. Wanna split two dollar curly fries? We did. They came with some sort of “special sauce” – again with the questionable word choices. I paid for them and he gave me one of those new dollar coins. “You’ll eat another day,” he shrugged, grinning that jolly Swedish grin.
To while away Connecticut (never go there), we took turns posing with a straw outing hat that we found on the floor below our seats. I still have the photo. Slightly blurred, Johann and I are laughing into the lens. I remember how little I felt like laughing that day, but a pragmatic upbringing suggests that laughter is more constructive than its opposite.
It turned out the hat belonged to the impeccably dressed black gentleman in the seat in front of us. He had either not noticed our little photoshoot or was far too gracious to mention it.
The bus finally rolled into the midatlantic states well past sunset. Union station. Nation’s capital, miles of marble, not a place I’d call home. It clearly wasn’t home for Johann either, so before we set off to our respective beds we made plans to meet the next day for an amble and some company.
The next day’s beer was distinctly un-European. Some DC happy hour place off the Mall – seven bucks for a pint is an affront, but the waitress was genuinely nice, in the affable American way. I had the daunting task of explaining to Johann why Americans sometimes think it’s okay to put a slice of orange in a beer, and that it wasn’t too common, don’t worry.
Two hours later, feeling the afternoon beer buzz, we wandered the national mall, looking for a place to vegetate in the afternoon heat. There was a small island of green outside the American History Museum that contained a few trees and a looming stabile, full of rivets and points and spires, a sort of metal tulip caught in static unfold – Alexander Calder’s Gwenfritz. I remembered visiting DC as a child with my father, eating Toblerone chocolate and marveling at Calder’s giant mobile in the National Gallery. My dad would point out the workmanship underlying the grandiose curves, the dynamic counterbalance, and because he thought it was cool, I thought it was cool.
We lay in the grass, slightly drunk, arguing about whether or not Gwenfritz was beautiful. “Look at that spire, look at the rigidity of the line, look at the balance, look at how it’s both massive and delicate,” I said. Somehow our hands ended up entangled, not a rigid line at all. “I guess, if you like lumps of metal!” I only half listened as he scoffed at how anyone could ever find modern sculpture appealing, thinking back to two days ago, right before I boarded the bus south.
Someone who had once been very important to me for reasons unknown was sitting with me in a different urban park, explaining carefully why we were no longer lovers.
“We don’t find the same things beautiful.”
I had wanted to yell that almost everything was beautiful, that a strong sense of beauty and wonder was a funny and powerful and triumphant weapon against the terror of the world, that that sentence didn’t make sense. I hadn’t. And now I found myself holding hands with a stranger searching for beauty in lumps of metal. In the face of a punch-in-the-face defeat on the battlefields of love, all I could do was hold the line and laugh and argue in favor of modern sculpture.
We got up shortly afterward and walked to Metro Center station. The red line train to Shady Grove was leaving in two minutes and I wanted to be on it. The most perfunctory of goodbyes, a brief hug. I swiped my SmarTrip card and turned the turnstile and my trajectory veered from Johann’s forever.
I think that if we had kissed or ventured any sort of tie or in short done anything more than hold hands, the earlier interaction would have felt fake and somehow forlorn. As it stood, we had just been travelers holding hands in an overwhelmingly big world, with differing opinions on contemporary metalwork. I’ll never see Johann again, but I’m sure he’ll do just fine on the long walks of life. Meanwhile, on that sunny and slightly heartbroken midatlantic afternoon, he served as a reminder – what of, I’m not sure.
I slept well that night. Feature image by Nicubunu Photos