Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Monday, March 25, 2013

Call Me By Your Name

An exquisite excerpt from Andre Aciman's brief and beautiful book, 'Call Me By Your Name.' This passage towards the end overturned me:

I imagined being in his car asking myself, who knows, would I want to, would he want to, perhaps a nightcap at the bar would decide, knowing that, all through dinner that evening, he and I would be worrying about the exact same thing, hoping it might happen, praying it might not, perhaps a nightcap at the bar would decide - I could just read it on his face as I pictured him looking away while uncorking a bottle of wine or while changing the music, because he too would catch the thought racing through my mind and want me to know he was debating the exact same thing, because, as he'd pour the wine for his wife, for me, for himself, it would finally dawn on us both that he was more me than I had ever been myself, because when he became me and I became him in bed so many years ago, he was and would forever remain, long after every forked road in life had done its work, my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself. In the weeks we'd been through together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down from earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we've always known, and now saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.


Hope my readership is well and safe. Love, Kate

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Read on...

"Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of over-simplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a non-verbal source."

A. R. Ammons, excerpted from "A Poem is a Walk"


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beyond this road, another.

It's over now, those lucid, magic months. Those weightless nights of dreams; those roads that wove. Those empty rooms, those crested peaks, that coastline. It's over now, it starts again. In other rooms, Daniyal Mueenuddin wrote, there are other wonders.

1.

My three-year-old calico only starts to yowl when I bring her out of my mother’s warm kitchen and into our freezing garage. Until now, she’s been quiet in her carrying case; she huddles there. Even with the new electric door with its better insulation, we can see our breath in this garage, my mother and I. We arrange my down jacket on the front seat around the carrier so her spot will be soft, but Pants cries and squirms like she’s all of a sudden realized what’s happening. Does she know, somehow, that we’re going to be driving for six days and three thousand miles? I’ve told her so, and even though my mother says she can’t know, I believe otherwise. While we say our good-byes, my face pressed against my mom's thick sweater, Pants fidgets and I can hear the down being crushed. She knows, I tell my mother, and through my tears I roll my eyes. My mother doesn’t weep until I’ve reached the end of the driveway,  snow creaking beneath my tires. Then, her face crumples and mine does and I drive away with my mother’s tears in my mind, down the hill and alongside the meadow I’ve known all my life.

But by the time we’ve reached the intersection of John Brown, the road I grew up on, and Old Military, Pants is quiet. She is half-lying down, half-crouched, a position she will maintain for most of our trip. Her eyes are open wide, her pupils thin slats, and she gazes up through the mesh at the sky. She makes little noises when I sneeze or reach across her for my bottle of water, but mostly she is silent.

She’s silent, that is, until we drive out of Saranac Lake and towards Tupper and the road suddenly begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and Pants starts to fidget again. She begins, occasionally, to yowl, and eventually she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Her ears are pricked; she is angry with me. Pants, I say. She yowls. I want to blame my father for recommending this route—through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water and at the edges of steep mountains. Those are the last of the High Peaks, he had said, and then there’s nothing til you get to New Mexico. And so driving that winding route, slowing and speeding up and listening to Pants’ cries, I do not blame my father, because I am grateful. This is the last of it, I say to myself, and drive slowly past the stands of pines, the frozen swamps, the birch bark that peels from the leafless trees.

2.

We’re bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there, and a job. My dad thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother there, at Taos on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

I trust my father’s endorsement, because I know he’s seen much more than he lets on. He is one of the smartest men I know, but even if he weren’t, I’ve seen New Mexico, too. Twice I’ve been there, and once was sweet, and once was…well, once was terrible, but both were beautiful.  In any case, I know he’s right about the place, know that even if it doesn’t work out for me, I will try it. Something whispers to me from there, and it’s not just because he said it’s the least American. Something about the desert, the journey, the proximity to the border. The way Donigan and Holly told me, without hesitating, Go. There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting. There are two friends and a job, and they’re waiting for you there. Pants looks with wide eyes at the sky above us, and blinks. Soon, I tell her, we won’t recognize this country at all.

3.

On the first night we make it to Rochester. We sleep in the house of my aunt and uncle. He is my father’s brother, and of my father’s three siblings, Philip resembles him the most. They’ve got the same long nose, long face, even the same hairline. Philip is more technologically inclined than my father, however, and types away on his Smartphone as Mary Liz prepares dinner: mussels in white wine sauce. The food is delicious, hot bread and the small, chewy bodies of those mussels. Pants waits upstairs in my cousin Martha’s bedroom, a pink room with pillows embroidered to commemorate her graduation’s from high school and college. Pants lies on the bed but does not sleep, and purrs throatily when I enter the room and close the door behind me. She is tense through the night; my aunt and uncle’s dog is a wiggly, noisy cocker spaniel who lies waiting on the other side of my closed door, pushing her nose at the base of it. Pants’ tail is permanently fluffed, to make her look bigger, I guess.

We wake before anyone else, and while I wash my face and brush my teeth, the sky still dark outside, Pants paces behind the bedroom door. While I drink coffee with Philip and Mary Liz, I imagine her sniffing at her carrier and the blanket I tucked inside. I brought it from home; it was my childhood comfort blanket, and I pray that it calms her the way it did me.  When it’s time to leave, Mary Liz waves at me out the dining room window. A friend once told me that the nicest thing you can do for someone when they’re leaving is to wave at them until they’re out of sight, and I wave back beneath the January sky.

I’ve lucked out with the weather so far: clear, cold air, and only wispy clouds on the horizon. Rochester is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home; how strange it feels to get in the car for a second day, and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I've never seen the Great Lakes til now, which run alongside us for miles and miles, wind whipping over them and across the road and car.

We drive through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to reach Michigan. I hadn’t expected this, hadn’t realized so many states would break up our journey to Ann Arbor. The signs at the roadside take me by surprise: Welcome to Ohio, Now Leaving Indiana. The radio stations give the local news, which I listen to in snippets while Pants shifts in her carrier. How strange and familiar both it feels, to pass through places so quickly, catching only glimpses of the houses, those towns, and not a glance at the lives inside.

In Ann Arbor, we sleep at the house of a friend I’ve known all my life. She admits that she’d never be in this town—so similar to Cambridge, I think—if it weren’t for school. She longs for the mountains and is counting the days til she, too, can drive away.  We do our favorite things: walk and drink wine, eat dinner and gossip. In the morning, I get in my car and kiss her goodbye, and for the third day we start to drive farther from home. The sky is blue again and for that I am grateful, for beneath gray skies this flat land all around us would seem endlessly bleak.

We reach Chicago sooner than I’d expected, and stay this night with a friend who’s eight months pregnant. I haven’t seen her since her wedding, and she is transformed. She walks differently, she speaks differently, it is as if she exudes this child inside her. They have become a part of each other, and now Dante is different. The apartment she shares with her husband is immaculate and stylishly decorated, with a massive flat-screen in the corner and a Christmas tree decorated with coordinating ornaments. I do not recognize her life. I sleep in the room that will be her baby’s room while Pants sniffs at the walls, the floors, the L-shaped sofa, the thick coffee-table. She smells the other two cats that live here, and while I sleep they slink the night away, hissing at each other and chasing. We must park my car in a garage this night, and when I go to retrieve it in the morning, the man who runs the desk there laughs. You moving? He asks, chuckling at my jam-packed, dirt-stained car. I want to tell him no, just to see the look of surprise on his face, but instead I just nod and drive out of the city and into the farmlands again.

We drive into and out of St. Louis, a city I’ve always been curious about. I see the famous silver arch that stretches to the sky and, beyond that, the downtown, with its workers dressed in sleek black suits, coffee cups in hand. It’s lunchtime. All I see of this city are these moments: the crowded park, the brief stretch of tall buildings, the hot-dog stands, the houses that thin and then disappear and it is emptiness again. There is always this lucky blue sky. On our fourth night we sleep in a cheap hotel off the side of the highway, and all night I hear the cars roaring up and down it. I crack the window; the night is warm. Pants looks out onto the parking lot but does not make a sound, and I feel badly for making her stay in this tiny room that smells of disinfectant and, faintly, of cigarettes. She is good-natured, though, and sleeps beside me all night. I thought this would feel familiar—a hotel room, alone—but it only feels empty, too quiet, even with the sound of the cars and the drone of the television. In the morning sunlight falls onto the bed, and I drink the free, bad coffee at the front desk and leave.

Missouri is pretty—what we see of it, at least, which are the hills that roll, revealing more and then less of the still-blue sky. Dark, short shrubs dot the landscape, and there aren’t so many parking lots here, so many shopping malls, so many empty stretches of concrete. There are adult video stores that advertise themselves with illuminated signs elevated high above us, and there are caves for exploring. I know this because of the billboards that show eager families entering the darkness. There are massive tee-pees and warehouses with Indian handicrafts for sale, and huge wooden Indian chiefs who smoke pipes and glare at passerby through grim lips.

And then, Oklahoma, with its roadside warnings that abortion kills, and its megachurches. I shudder and drive faster. This night, we stay at the house of a friend I haven’t seen in ten years. She’s got two kids now and is expecting a third—she’s ready to pop, but unlike my friend in Chicago, this woman doesn’t discuss the pregnancy, much. Instead, she talks about her children, her husband, the way everyone here knows if you don’t go to church, and how her closest friends frown on her for getting rid of her unused embryos. She seems happy, though, and her husband is kind. We eat pizza and play Nintendo and I read to her oldest before he falls asleep. I am given the daughter’s room, and Abby sleeps with her husband and youngest girl in their bedroom. She is awake when I open my bedroom door at five AM to wash my face and brush my teeth. She offers me breakfast, I leave in the darkness, and we drive for hours, waiting for the sky to brighten. I think that I am happy for them, the way they’ve made such a sweet life for themselves in a city of housing developments and strip malls. We’d rather be anywhere but Tulsa, they tell me, but I envy their happiness.

The country gets worse from here. The sky gets bigger but not more beautiful, the land gets flatter and turns from earth-brown to slate-gray. The wind gets stronger and whips at the car, and when I stop to get gas I’m nearly blown off my feet. We, the gas pumpers, crouch against the wind, flatten our bodies against our cars, pull our hats down over our ears. I drive through ugly Amarillo, through the ramshackle towns that line it, past the massive billboards and the broken cars. The roads off the highway aren’t paved. Will it be like this from now on? I worry, and wonder whether I’ve made a mistake. Pants huddles, her eyes big as saucers, and watches the shifting sky. This is Texas, I tell her. She starts to panic, to pace as best she can, and I fret over her. We pull over into a gas station and I take her and her litter box into the dirty bathroom. But while the cars roar past and the door to this bathroom is all that separates, Pants begins to purr, to rub against my legs, and the litter goes ignored. After ten minutes I pack her back into the car, and from then on, she’s quiet again.

As soon as we cross out of Texas and into New Mexico, everything changes color. The shift feels to me miraculous. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant mesas. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep. The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but it feels familiar, for these are the mountains, these are the trees, this is the soil—all different, to be sure, but also the same. We make it to our new house before nightfall, and the air is clear but warm.

4.

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns. You aren’t from here, are you, he says, when I ask him a second time what they’re called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

The rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. Meanwhile, I hike in the woods and inhale the scent of it; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means. Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast.  Start with green.

The few friends I have here surround me, and the nights I spend with them taste sugar-sweet. Just before darkness, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see. We’re here, Pants, I whisper, and reach up to pull her towards me. Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’re a little afraid, but we’re tasting it all, and we keep our eyes open.


Pants at the Motel 6, being a good sport

Friday, December 30, 2011

Small crystals

Writing is a long process of introspection; it is a voyage toward the darkest caverns of consciousness, a long, slow meditation. I write feeling my way in silence, and along the way discover particles of truth, small crystals that fit in the palm of one hand and justify my passage through this world.

Excerpted from Isabel Allende's Paula

*

At night, when I get home very late from work, I pour wine into a short crystal glass and sit in bed, reading Paula. The house is silent, my feet are tired and my back aches, but the book lifts me up and draws me in for hours. Paula is a memoir, a biography, and it reads alternately like a fable, a love letter and a prayer. It's a beautiful, deeply personal book. Bits of it come into my dreams and my daytime thoughts, and I love the passage I posted above because it makes me feel like, as long as I'm writing, I'm still moving. My book-in-progress is an inner journey, and, like Paula, it takes me away from here. I love being home, and I can't wait to move west in just a few short days; my life is sweet. Still, without my writing, I'd be lost. As Allende puts it, I'd have a hard time justifying my passage through this world.

Dear readers, find Paula if you haven't already.

Missing you all and sending my love!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bless, Daniel

Today, one of my dearest friends read my most recent blog post, then sent me an email with a subject line that read 'Raising Spirits.' He thought I sounded sad, he wrote. He closed the note this way:

Finally, in the words of the great and wise Natasha Bettingfield (sic...I love you Daniel): "Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten... Feel the rain on your skin."

Loves, here's to the cheesy hit songs that goofily enough manage to resonate. Here's to amazing friends who lift us up, and to magical years that change our lives. Every day is a gift. Happy Holidays, dear readers, and my best to you in 2012! See you on the road,

Love, Kate


Monday, December 5, 2011

December 5, 2011

I have my last conversation in Spanish at the Buenos Aires airport. Outside, where I'm standing with my pack, the guy who ushers people towards their rental cars asks my name. He wants to know whether I liked Argentina, and he compliments my Spanish. Will you come back? he asks, and I tell him of course I will, I love it here. Soon, I hope, he says, grinning. Flirting. The sun is beating down; it lights his face. He shakes my hand. I hoist my pack and pass through the automatic doors, where the bright and artificial light of this airport, this one and every one I’ve seen, replaces the sunshine.

The woman at the Mexican Air desk pauses with my passport, pauses and frowns at it and then turns to her colleague, another woman with her hair sprayed into place and a red scarf knotted at her neck. Without stopping her typing, the second woman leans over and the two of them continue to frown at my photo and passport number. All those crooked, fading stamps. Is everything okay? I ask in Spanish, and without looking up the women answer, yes, in English. And that is all it takes; I’m brittle enough. Tears prick my eyes, because it’s over, it’s over, and now there’s a problem. I’m wound tight today—today is the last of it, the end of it—and there will be no more conversations in Spanish; these women are making that clear.

They don’t notice the tears in my eyes, or if they do, they pretend not to. I wipe them away, embarrassed, angry at them for ignoring me, for not saying what the problem is, for hearing my question in Spanish and replying, automatically, in English. I relinquish my pack to the scale. This is the last plane ride, I murmur to it, and I pat it like it’s a treasured pet, spoiled and scared. The women sort out the problem; I take back control of my emotions. They hand me my boarding pass, still warm from the printer, and we complete this transaction in English. I pass through another set of sliding doors, and then another, and then I walk to my departing gate, alone.

We lift up out of Buenos Aires fifteen minutes late; the pilot, his voice raspy and thick over the loudspeaker, promises to make up the time. We’re a packed flight, and I am crying again. Tears always did come easily to me, and now I am leaving, so what better time for them? I am looking out the window at my last glimpse of Buenos Aires, of the city that stretches in the distance and, beyond that, the line of my route, a crooked track all the way from Ecuador. The man beside me is kind; he pretends not to notice my tears, except to hand me tissues when I search through my purse and find none. Eventually, we chat; he’s an events promoter travelling with a thirty-man band. They joke with each other across the aisles in thick Irish accents. Darkness falls, we sleep, we eat. Eight hours later, we watch as Mexico City, enormous and glimmering, stretches beneath us.

I have six hours to kill in that city’s airport. Between nine PM and three AM, I walk up and down the long and empty halls, soaking in the last of it. I’m still not home; this is still the road. I know I should lie down and sleep somewhere, use my pack as a pillow and set my watch’s alarm, but I can’t bring myself to close my eyes, for this, however ridiculous the hour may be, is the precious end. In the bathroom, the cleaning ladies ignore me and gossip with the man who leans against his bucket and mop, right outside the door. Their Spanish sounds clear, impeccable, compared to the Argentine accent I’ve grown used to. I’ll have to drop the sh, I think, and try not to wonder when I’ll be speaking so much Spanish again.

*

In New York’s JFK airport, I am awed by the price of a cup of coffee. I am awed by the price of an Airtrain ticket; I am awed by the cold. How strange it is, to hear English all around me, to understand every word. To have an accent that matches everyone else’s. The wind whips so hard and the voices all sound so familiar, and I have not slept since Buenos Aires. I am exhausted and freezing; I am weeping again. Don’t cry, a man tells me, a tall black man in a yellow robe and a yellow hat. Life is a river. He smiles kindly and waits beside me for the train that will bring us to Manhattan. When it comes, bringing with it a whole new gust of wind, the man in the yellow robe helps me to haul my pack on board. We peer at the piece of paper I clutch, the one where, two nights and an eternity ago, I scrawled the address of a friend onto the lines. When my stop comes, he helps me off. Life is a river, he tells me again, and then the train whips him and his flapping, sun-colored robe out of sight.

*

A friend has invited me to stay with her, a college friend I haven’t seen in almost two years. When she opens the door, her hair unruly and her skin creased from sleeping, I forget to feel sad, for the sweetness. She crushes me in a hug; she smells just the same, like flowers and incense and the faint, expensive scent of her perfume. She makes coffee but we barely drink it; there is so much to be said, and we’re talking over each other, starting stories and then cutting each other off to start new ones. Our conversation runs this way and that; it’s as if we’ve spent no time apart. There will be dozens of meetings like this one, but now, with Claire, it’s the first. How long it’s been since I’ve spoken to someone so easily, someone who knows my family, my past, the way I bleached my hair blonde when I was eighteen and starting college.

She buys me breakfast in a café on the corner; a man bumps my shoulder and apologizes. I respond in Spanish, forgetting where I am. Claire and I walk arm in arm around the city and I marvel at the grocery stores, stocked tight with food that seems too rich to be true, too elegant to be so inexpensive. We eat dinner that night in a dive bar with another college friend and there I go, weeping again, too happy to speak, too shaky with gladness to laugh. Life is too rich, I think for the thousandth time. I eat a burger too fast—how juicy it is, how sweet and salty both!—and wake in the night, sick to my stomach. Claire laughs at me; just that morning I’d boasted of how strong my stomach always felt, the way it could digest strange fruits with unpronounceable names and too-large cuts of beef. 

Meanwhile, my skin breaks out after that very first day back home. For so many months it's been clear, and now it's like I can't control it. And I can't help myself; I open and sniff and test every bottle of shampoo, of lotion, every vial of perfume on Claire's bathroom shelves and in her medicine cabinet. I tell her I went months washing only with water and soap, showering every third day because of the cold. She wrinkles her nose. After spraying her perfume, I can't stop sneezing. She has a scale in her bathroom and I weigh myself every time I enter, suddenly conscious of how my body changes in the morning, in the evening, before lunch and after dinner. I report my shifting weights to Claire and laugh aloud at how silly I'm being, but secretly I'm disgusted with myself. 

*

I ride from New York to Boston by bus. The man next to me works on his laptop the whole time; when I look back, I see that most of the other passengers are doing the same. Everyone’s got their phone out; everyone is connected. The high of my New York visit fades a little bit, dims beneath the sight of all these devices. The bus ride is void of sound, save for fingers typing on keys, and I close my eyes and miss the music that blasts in Latin American buses. I miss the crowded aisles, and when my stomach grumbles, I miss the vendors that streamed on. My seat feels too big, the landscape that runs past us looks too empty. The trees have lost their leaves, the sky has lost its blue. I look down at my hands, which are still brown. The heat on this bus is on, but I’m shivering, and for the whole four-hour ride, I never get warm.

*

In my first week back, I drive to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, where I sleep on a soft, massive futon in a room all to myself. I sip coffee with my grandmother and admire my uncle’s gun collection. I stay two nights in the apartment of a friend who works non-stop; she’s an attorney, and when the office closes she takes her laptop home and works long into the night. She doesn’t hear me when I tell her things; she barely eats. She has money; she has a beautiful, sleek Beacon Hill apartment; she has a fridge crammed with expensive and delicious food. I have a red pack and a beat-up laptop and a checking account whose balance I’m afraid to look at. Still, when I leave this friend’s elegant one-bedroom, I breathe a sigh of relief. Before I go, I scrawl a thank-you note and place it on her unused kitchen table beneath the key.

I drive to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, through pine forests and frozen swamps to the house of another old friend. Since I’ve been gone, her boyfriend has come home from sailing ships in the Marquesas and now they live together in a big house with floors of polished maple boards. We drink beers and eat goulash late into the night, and I catch a glimpse of their lives together, lives so settled, so different from mine. I leave in the morning, missing them already, but I am not jealous of their happiness. See you soon, my friend calls, waving as I pull my car out of her driveway, and I think that soon is a relative term, and time a fluid and moldable thing. I am still not used to driving, what freedom a car allows, and on the way home, on impulse, I take the coastal route. Along the beaches of northern Massachusetts, I park my car and get out and walk. The stretches of sand are empty of people and strewn with mussel shells, dark and barnacled on the outsides and indigo blue or pearl white on the insides. I collect them in a plastic bag and lick the salty wind from my lips. The beach is a beautiful color, a mix of coral and clay. I’d forgotten.

*

A week after landing in New York City, I go home to Lake Placid. I arrive after the sun has set, so I do not see the peaks advancing or the snow that crests the sides of the roads. Curving off the Northway, up towards the Adirondacks, I do not see the Cascade Lakes to my left or the steep rock faces that rise beyond them. I don’t see the cliffs reflected in the water, or the bare, white branches of the birches. I drive the twisting, familiar route alongside the dark water, water that I cannot see but know is there, water that lies flat and deep and cold in the starless night.

*

I unpack the clothes and books I left in Boston, and the ones I stored in my parents’ house. Here is my jacket, here are my boots, here is my mail; it’s all been tossed—unfolded, unsorted—into taped-up cardboard boxes. How many things I own that I’ve forgotten; how many shards of my old life are left in these items I abandoned. My ex and I email over things I still haven’t gotten back, possessions I barely remember owning. I hate the clutter of it, the tense exchanges and afterwards, the deep pits that form inside me, remembering how ugly things turned. For so many months I haven't thought of that, and now these possessions bring everything back - the way I went for many weeks unable to eat or sleep, filled with self-doubt and ashamed of my own emotions. How terrible, objects, the way they can break you open, morphing into living things that keep you awake, reducing you to so little just when you think you've come so far. Just when you think you've forgotten, here they are, whispering into your ear. They're reminders you never asked for, and it's no ones fault but your own.

I wish, surrounded by my things, to rise up out of my body and soar away. I wish for the freedom of an unmarked hotel room, paint peeling off the walls and floorboards creaking beneath my feet. Strangers all around me, and every night, a different place. I begin to feel as if I now have two lives, two parts to myself: one half of me still resides in that free and blissfully frightening foreign, while the other lives here now, where my accent matches all the other accents. My mother comes and sits on my bed the night she catches me weeping, and she tells me it’s okay to feel sad. Look at all the places you’ve been, she says. Of course you feel empty now. She reminds me that I should also feel full, feel rich. My father brings the cat upstairs and sets her on the bed and the three of them hover over me, concerned, while I wipe my tears away and blow my nose.

*

One year ago today, I left the States. I drove in the dark and freezing morning to the airport, arriving before customs even opened. I knew no Spanish, I knew no people. I couldn’t even imagine the countries. Waiting in line that morning at the airport, I watched a little boy standing with his mother. The two of them were weeping without trying to hide it, sniffling and blinking tears out of their eyes, holding hands. They were watching someone go, someone they wouldn’t see for a very long time, and how sad they looked with their dark, wet eyes and tear-stained faces. I sit here, in my hometown in winter, and wonder where they are now, whether they’ve seen the one they said good-bye to a year ago today.

So many lessons I’ve learned since December 5th of last year, and I hope that my heart will manage to make room for them, that my memory will be able to save copies. I guess I’m in denial, for I still haven’t taken everything out of my red backpack, and it sits in the corner of my childhood bedroom, stained and smudged by a hundred bus rides, a thousand dusty roads, and uncountable, unforgettable miles. Once, that pack was all I had - that pack and those buses, those were my tickets. Now I'm here, and I don't quite fit anymore. I feel like less of a citizen now, less of a citizen and more of a stranger, and meanwhile there are worlds within me that only I can remember. Days pass, and I realize no one wants to listen, much, to where I've been. Don't lose yourself, the Irish girl told me in Cordoba. Don't lose the person you've found on this trip. I still dream at nighttime of travel: cruise ships, hiking trails, and rivers that wind along crackling, hooting jungles. Meanwhile, I pile my clothes, clothes I haven't seen in a year, into boxes for goodwill. I shred papers I saved for no reason; I donate books. All of these things are just shadows that don't match my body anymore; they don't quite move in step with my gait. I box things up, I send them away, I count the days til I can leave this place again, and travel south.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Last Day

It’s the fourth night in a row that I’ve woken up and not known where I was. In the darkness, I blink around the room, guessing. I know it can’t be home—that knowledge has become instinctive—so where am I now, exactly? Which city, which country, is this one? And then something gives the room away—the shape of the table, the light through the window—and so I remember. This is Buenos Aires, this is San Telmo, this is the hotel on Chacabuco where I checked in yesterday and the woman sat smoking in the kitchen, not getting up to hand me the keys. I was dreaming of rivers again.

At first, my dreams were of home, of the deep feet of snow in the woods and of the smell of my mother’s kitchen. I saw my father’s hands, heard my brother’s laugh, inhaled the scent of my lover’s skin. I remembered all that I’d left in the night, and in the morning I woke, the memory of home still heavy on my chest. Those dreams left an aching, an empty stillness, and I wept for how far everything felt.

After a few months, though, the dreams shifted and turned foreign. Now I was crossing a turquoise sea over fresh coral with strangers; now I was riding a train down, down towards the snow. Now I was entering an ancient city; now I was climbing a peak, where the air grew thin and my breaths came short and desperate. I stopped thinking, at nighttime, of home, and started dreaming instead of constant motion. Every possibility came in the night; the whole world arrived. I’d been thrown; no one knew me. This was freedom.

In these last dripping days, this room is all of the rooms that I've known. My dreams skitter away and I'm left only with the emotions they held and the vague outlines of places. Sometimes I am screaming, sometimes I am crying, often I laugh so hard I wake myself up. There are strangers in these nights, although I’ve heard that every face you’ve seen in your dreams is a face you’ve seen before—on the street, perhaps, years ago, when you looked and barely saw, never knowing you’d remember. There have been so many nights like this, so many shafts of unfamiliar light through curtain cracks, so many tables shaped the same. So many creaking beds, so many midnight trips for water. My dreams run together like songs, like a woven cloth of different colors, and when morning comes I wake again, unsure.

*

Buenos Aires is perfect now. Only in the afternoon does the air feel hot, heavy, slowing our footsteps down. The rest of the time, the jacaranas drop their purple blooms onto the street, the sycamores above us shade the sidewalks, and the wind filters into the train, cool and welcome. I sweat on the bus as it crosses the city, and I watch the sun go down from where I sit on the grass in the parks. Beautiful days, these are, each one longer than the next, each one just a tiny bit warmer. I let them run through me then leave me, because you can’t hold on to hours.

*

The last rented room has a door painted with peeling, mint-green paint. Morning glory winds up the banisters and there’s an outdoor pila, like the one Hilary had in Guatemala. (So long ago, that seems.) We can wash our dishes and clothes out here and hang them on the line that stretches over the patio so that our clothes flap against the crumbling cement of the building next door. There are shared bathrooms with drains in the floors and no shower curtains; there is a little kitchen with a two-burner stovetop and no fridge. There is a single bed in my room, a small table and two chairs. There is a cup and a plate and a bowl, a fork and a knife and a spoon. A glass, a bar of soap, a folded towel, an open window. It’s beautiful here, my last rented room. I close my eyes and breathe the wind; I think to myself, no one knows. No one could find me here, even if they tried; no one would know to look for me in room 49. The walls are painted two shades of pink, one old, one new, and I think of how free you are, when no one knows.

*

Nearly a year it’s been, and today the months are impossible to fathom. The flight tomorrow still doesn’t seem real, and I know it won’t be until I’m inside that metal craft, rising up into the sky and away from this place. How much I will leave behind: an invisible trail I’ve made, a knotted route down. How much I have seen; how many things I have learned. How many people I’ve met, how many words and kisses exchanged, how many good-bye tears. This good-bye, the one that comes tomorrow, I wonder how to bear.

For it isn’t what I leave, is it? It’s what I must take, and then where will everything fit? Will they stay with me, all those faces and conversations? All those touches exchanged? And what about the landscapes—the stretches of field and beach, the passes between mountains, the high-up towns where I knew no one? There is the way time passes, here in Argentina and everywhere else I've been—time can be molded, loosened, until it loses its shapes and curves to fit your life. There is the way people value their families above all else—above work, above money, family comes. There is the slow pace of walking, and there’s the way people talk to each other. Here, we all have stories, and everyone deserves to be heard. In these countries of immense poverty, of corruption and covered-up violence, I’ve never felt safer, I sometimes think. Never have I wanted for a place to sleep, a bite to eat, an ear to listen. 

There is the man on the bus while the rain pelts down; his clothes are patched, and he touches my hand and offers to help. There is the woman who wakes before the sun comes up to mop the floors of the place where I live, and even though she hasn’t slept much and there are bags under her eyes, she smiles at me while I wash my dishes. When I leave that place, she sits with me and my packed bags and talks with me over one last cup of coffee. There are the little kids who, on my last day at their school, bring out presents they made—a hat knit too tight, a purse with a broken strap. I can see them there in the yard as I take the bus home; it’s a schoolyard with broken glass and broken swings, and there they are, laughing. There is the girl I meet on the bus, the girl I meet when I most need a friend, the girl who stays with me two nights even though she’d planned on doing other things. After she’s gone, I found the bottle of wine and the piece of cake she’d left me. There are the two kind Americans who take me in as if their home is my own, who press money into my hand for a taxi when I say I’ll take the bus. They serve me dinner, they stay up late with me, and when I leave them, I’ll weep.

There is the boy who taught me that love can run smooth. He taught me that it doesn’t have to taste sharp on your tongue, and when he told me I didn’t have anything to fear, I knew in my bones it was true. He is the one who softened me, who spoke to me in patient Spanish, who took me on his bike to the orchard, to the water. He’s far from me now, but I still remember exactly the taste of his mouth, and I won’t give up hope that I’ll meet him again. He’s the one who knew all along that this journey was mine, mine alone, and after he showed me something beautiful, he let me go.

*

On my last day we visit the Chacarita cemetery. We wind through and out of Palermo and into the poorer barrio of Chacarita, whose main streets are lined with automotive shops, car dealerships, gas stations, and the massive, tree-lined central park. This cemetery is not for tourists; we’re the only ones who wander in with cameras to gaze at the streets and streets of tombs, of catacombs, of mausoleums and of graves. Except for the men who lean on brooms, squinting in the sun, and the women who walk, eyes straight ahead and lilies in their arms, we are alone. Alone, besides the ones who lie in darkness around us, uncountable souls in this massive place.

The sun pelts down; deeper into the cemetery we walk, until the pavement turns to cobblestones and pine needles litter the ground. Above us the sky is so blue. It doesn’t feel to me like the last day; it feels like a day, a day and nothing more, a day at the end of a long string of days. A place at the end of a long stretch of places; another graveyard, another blue sky, another old man leaning against his broom. Another old cat, who stretches in the sun and then looks at me once before turning and slinking away. Down she goes, between the rows of the mausoleums, and I follow. She’s gone into one, an old, cobwebbed tomb whose stained-glass windows were long ago smashed.

Do you live here? I ask her, and she blinks her green eyes, her pupils thin as crescent moons. She coils her body back, back into where the caskets lie, crooked and broken, looted many times over. I’m just another pair of feet walking past; I’m just another body. The cat disappears into the darkness; this tomb must be her home.

In the countries I’ve seen, death is not to be feared, not really. Everyone’s seen someone die too young; everyone knows their day will come. Everyone, mostly, especially the older ones, have seen war or known blood-freezing fear, or both things. For this, I think that they’re better at living for what matters most, and this is what I hope to take home. You can decide what the most important things are in your life, and those can come first. Your wife, your child, your bread, your bath; these can be what you prize, not money or phones or a car. As for the wind in the trees and the reflection of the clouds on the water—you can let those things surround you, if you want it badly enough. If you think hard about what you really want, you’ll find that it isn’t so much. You might even find that it’s everywhere, already.

And so I will go home richer than I’d ever imagined possible, for I have seen so much beauty, and I’ve known so much love. These places have filled my mind and spilled into my heart, and I pray they’ll continue to fall onto the page. I've learned so much about what makes life sweet and what makes it sacred, and so although I'm afraid, terrified even, to go back, I am mostly just awed, for how lucky I’ve been to have known all this.