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Cleaning the Mirror

Stay Wild

How to Tell The Truth

Story by Charlotte Austin // @charlotteaustin

Photos by Kathleen Carney // @katcarney


Upon recently cleaning the inside of my Toyota, I found one crampon, eight kinds of lip balm, three empty cans of wine, one (unused) tampon, one (unused but expired) condom, three ice axes, one ice tool, nine cubic inches of dog fur, 11 topo maps printed on 8.5 x 11” paper, two sleeping pads, one Cheeto, and twelve different kinds of currency. 

Shit was jammed between seats, wedged under floor mats, hidden in crevices I hadn’t known existed. A uniformed man stood watching me, and I palmed an unopened sample-size packet of Astroglide into a black plastic trash bag. He tapped his pen against a clipboard, and I realized why I was ashamed: I had turned my car into a HazMat zone on purpose.

The truth, frankly, is that I’m not a slob. I prefer living in spaces that are clean, with room to spread-eagle on the floor and cook things and have ideas. My apartment has white walls. I zero-out my inbox at least once a week. When my shit is clean, there’s room for fresh thoughts, not reactions to the things around me. I’m not immediately funneled into a perfunctory activity (cleaning dog hair from the passenger’s seat at a stop light) (collecting little scraps of trash into a plastic bag) (doing anything, dear god sweet motherfucking anything but thinking about that recent breakup).

I bet you’ve been there. You know, that strangely balanced mental state where you’re okay, sort of  — you can buy groceries and answer emails and get out of bed — until you’re alone, and then something breaks in your chest. It’s the time I cried in a yoga class, sobbing face down on my mat through a 60-minute child’s pose for a reason I didn’t understand. It’s the six months I spent trying not to remember the cruel and true things my ex-boyfriend said to me on the day we broke up. It’s that time we had three or seven extra drinks on a weeknight, then tried to forget it the next day. It’s pot, or cell phones, or sex, or Instagram, or [insert your drug here]. It’s all those things helping you avoid that idea of some forever emptiness, the realization that no matter who you marry or what you earn or do or make, it’ll always just be you, alone in your own head. And sooner or later, you’ll have to learn how to sit with that vast, quiet, terrifying mirror. You have to learn to walk alone.

So I cleaned out my car. I called a girlfriend, hooked my trailer to a borrowed truck, and drove south for a thousand miles. I wanted a place with wide open spaces, no cell reception, unsympathetic rocks to climb. “I’m going to the desert,” I told my family. “I need to remember how to tell myself the truth.”