I got a response from a young, attractive artist lady in need of a volunteer to assist with her large-scale art piece. The piece was impressively intricate and beautiful in both concept and design – each of the many moving parts was colorful, shiny, and functional. I was excited to contribute to the actuation of her idea, and at the prospect of working with someone who I really got along with right from the beginning.
Over the coming months, I spent much of my free time at her house. The goal was always to put checks in boxes on a long list of to-do’s (very few of which actually got done as the smoking breaks were so frequent), and I quickly agreed to help her take the piece out to the desert for Burning Man that year. The money she raised would be paying for my ticket, so in my mind, I was an employee, and I was still having a fair amount of fun helping out.
As time wore on, it became more obvious why the previous assistant wasn’t on the project this year. She was largely very fun to be around, but if you decided to have your own ideas about the project or life in general, it was easier to just keep them to yourself. It was around the time this started dawning on me that we learned her friend – my predecessor – was shot and killed by the police in Northern California. He had been uncharacteristically violent, and it was alleged that he stabbed the two officers arriving on the scene of a break in, and they shot him in self defense.
Understandably, she was torn apart by the news. The already-glacial pace of our work together slowed to a near standstill as the smoking breaks doubled in length and frequency, and long talks peppered with crying and hugs became the norm. Given how long I had been acquainted with her and her friends, I had a hard time committing to caring about everything on an emotional level. I was able to reason that it was terrible, and I could see the obvious impact it had on the community, but as a brand new member of that community, it just didn’t hit me the same.
I found myself withdrawing both emotionally and physically from the project as the looming deadline of the actual event approached, which didn’t help with her anxiety, which didn’t help me reengage. I thought about quitting every day, but I had promised I would help, and for whatever reason I decided that meant something.
My friend and aunt came to help me assemble to piece for a trial run and final fundraiser before the trip to the desert. Everything came together, she only snapped at me once, and my aunt, friend, and I excused ourselves for dinner.
“Good Lord… she’s a lot, huh?” my aunt said as we sat down. My friend and I laughed. I explained all that she was going through and why it made sense, but we all ultimately agreed that volunteers should be thanked more than scolded. We let the beer and barbecue sauce wash away the bad taste she left in each of our mouths that day.
I was able to put off quitting long enough to make it to August. Luckily, I had another person to sidelong glance at when she said nonsensical shit, and to help me actually get the piece and our sundry camping gear packed. Per usual, we were rushing her and doing everything wrong, but we got the shit in the truck, so “whatever” was very much how we both felt about it. At this point, I was also in trouble for not having an unrestricted license. I figured that the stipulations of my driving were clear, but if you weren’t familiar with the way restricted licenses work, that could be a sticking point (especially because she chose to rent the truck through her company – a contractor for the military, which was probably illegal enough already without adding my license/insurance situation to the whole thing).
She was pissed, but it all swirled together into the general haze of her second-hand smoke, anger and frustration that I had been surrounded by for the better part of two months, so it was hard to make out my hand in front of my face, no less discern what it was I had done wrong this time. We got on the road much later than we planned to, and argued about everything from how we don’t understand her vision, to what music to play, hoping silently that the dust would wash away the animosity.