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

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.

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