Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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.

1 comment:

  1. You must come back and admire my new hairdo! I miss you. Please keep writing to make it easier - and let us know you got home safely. How did it feel, flying over all the places you'd gotten to know by bus?