The Journey from a Couch to a Bench – Rowan MacDonald
I don’t leave home without it. The blue backpack contains my survival kit—the pills to slow a racing heart, the breath mints to calm a dry mouth, the travel sickness tablets for nausea. I’m not joining a vessel in rough seas, nor flying by plane—I’m simply leaving the house, attempting a task many take for granted.
The wallet and library card in my jean pockets are optimistic, remnants of previous abilities. I won’t reach the library, nor the shopping center. But to leave the house, to put one foot in front of the other, is to stand in defiance.
“Might as well go down swinging,” I sigh.
The neighbor’s fence approaches, which causes me to reach into my backpack for the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card—my iPod. To pause too long is to risk losing the afternoon, the momentum, my sanity.
There’s movement in a window and the flickering of a curtain. Shit.
My elderly neighbor, Mavis, loves a chat. She’s an independent 87-year-old who possesses more stamina and strength than I do—as a 32-year-old man. Society expects me to protect the vulnerable, to shield the likes of Mavis from those in society wishing to cause harm—to assist where possible. Society doesn’t expect a fifteen-minute conversation with Mavis to leave me weakened, light-headed, and forced to abort a short walk.
So, conversations with Mavis take place over the fence instead.This journey requires focus and steely determination, because with each step, a symptom will bubble away, occasionally rising to the surface. Such symptoms will need gentle acknowledgement and chess-game levels of concentration to push through.
Once I escape Mavis, I shuffle through my iPod, searching for the right track to propel me up the hill. My playlist is quintessentially 90s and brims with nostalgia. It’s a reflection of having checked out of 2023, of choosing to live in a simpler era, by saturating my media consumption from a time when life was happier.
I pause and look ahead at the inclining road. My focus mirrors the steely gaze I had in the 100 m blocks, back when I was a sprinter, back when I was healthy. Another life.
Despite possessing the name Redwood Road, there are no redwood trees in sight. The only trees are old maples, swaying in the breeze beside the nursing home. On a good day, I make it past the mailbox at number 28 before gasping for air. I require a pit-stop once I reach the entrance to the nursing home. It’s the same nursing home my grandmother took her last breath.
I hover awkwardly on the sidewalk, sucking in oxygen, feigning interest in my phone. I pretend to look for directions to hide the fact I’m spent—after walking just 800 feet. An old man pushes a walking frame on the opposite side of the road. He shuffles with confident determination, before stopping to check for traffic. He’s not out of breath.
Step by step I travel past the vandalized mailbox, the place I send mail to overseas pen-pals. These are low-maintenance friendships that don’t require me to meet them at certain times or abruptly cancel plans. It’s a social life via airmail, a way of traveling without leaving the couch. Whenever I drop letters in the box, I ponder the vast distances these envelopes will travel, and how it’s so much further than anything I’m capable of.
I feel good today, so I attempt the roundabout. It’s not much further, but the steep rise makes me feel like I’m climbing a mountain. It would be tempting to radio Base Camp upon reaching it, to beg sherpas for oxygen—but there is no assistance and no oxygen—just me, two jelly legs and a route home.
I swig from my water bottle, pretend to look for directions again—anything to prevent society knowing this young man is exhausted from the shortest of walks up the smallest of hills. I’m paranoid someone might ask if I’m lost, so I continue back down. Google tells me this distance is a measly 500 yards.
I never venture north of the roundabout. Life descends into anarchy above the roundabout. People get stabbed north of the roundabout. I’m dealing with enough pain and discomfort, without adding a stab wound to the mix. My slow walk is already accompanied by traffic noise that assaults my senses, overwhelming me. Reprieve is found in the short walkway that travels between houses. The fence is littered with more graffiti, but the array of bird calls provides welcome distraction.
A black crow struts up and down the wire, squawking for comrades to join him in afternoon hijinks. Occasionally, when ocean swell picks up, seagulls try their luck at taking over the wire.
The proximity of the nursing home is a godsend because they’re responsible for the array of benches lining the path that leads to the supermarket. The benches make life easier for elderly residents going for a stroll. It makes life easier for someone like me too. I use these benches every day, though if I feel adventurous, I may not utilize any.
I never know how far I’m capable of walking, but my goal is the bench overlooking the local supermarket (a.k.a. the Barn). It’s where I collect my breath and gaze up to clouds rolling over the snow-capped mountain in the distance. It’s where I wonder if a ‘normal’ body will return to me someday. The bench is where I mourn my pre-COVID life.
Knees-buckle, strides quicken, vision blurs.
Today, I make it. I sit down on the red wooden bench, nursing my backpack in my lap. An afternoon breeze whistles through the surrounding tall grass. Bursts of sunlight bounce from car windshields in the carpark below. A blue jay pecks at a pinecone adorning the tall pine tree. I close my eyes and ignore the cigarette butts and broken beer bottles at my feet. I meditate. I breathe. I give thanks for being able to summit Everest today, for reaching this graffiti-ridden bench, with the cigarette butts and broken glass—objects of a broken society. Because in making it here, I have overcome my broken body—for today.
This daily journey is the last precarious strand connecting me to society. I rarely go anywhere else. But I can walk. So, I do. I walk for my grandmother, who was wheelchair-bound for fifty years. I walk for all those bedridden in hospitals and homes. I walk for myself, so I don’t lose the ability to do so. And I walk for the many millions of others battling CFS/ME and Long Covid around the world.
Rowan MacDonald lives in Tasmania with his dog, Rosie. His writing has recently appeared in The Ocotillo Review, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Defunct Magazine, Black Fork Review and elsewhere. His work has also been adapted into short film by New Form Digital.