Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
Again, the train brakes, coasting into the station. Engine exhales and tracks metallically scream. The sound of bats taking off outta hell.
I look to my left, and there’s another night train regular. Mousy and thoroughly unthreatening, he’s an ageless man who wears turtlenecks and oversized jackets that hang loosely from his shoulders. His frame is nearly 2-dimensional, his moustache frayed like a well-used toothbrush. Blond skull sits cartoonishly on lanky shoulders.
He’s got long-ish hair, messenger bag, tiny rosebud mouth, blonde eyelashes and wire-rimmed glasses. Hopelessly unfashionable. There’s always a knowing, friendly glint in his eye when he sees me. He’s a regular that recognizes other regulars.
The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
Sunday was day 0 in Amsterdam. I never count the day you arrive as a full day. You’re lost and disoriented, cars and trams beep, bikes plink bells at you, men seductively catcall in multiple languages, you’re surrounded by hordes of idiotic bumbling tourists, and you hate yourself for being one.
Stumble along on the sidewalk. Clouds of marijuana smoke explode in tufts from the mouths of eager testosterone-ridden men. They leer through the haze of the window and the weed.
Dragging my stupid suitcase, squeezing myself through narrow spaces between tourists, flattening myself against buildings to avoid bikes. I’m squinting into the sun and scuffing my sneakers on the uneven pavement. Bakeries are abundant and fragrant, and there’s music and movement everywhere.
I’m dazzled at this new, different city.
That feeling is reserved for Day 0. There’s none other like it.
My stomach sinks, then jumps into my throat. I can’t breathe. Braced for impact, eyes are gritted together, and bitter tears start to eke out. Is this my fate, to die with shitty airline food in my stomach? Clutching to F’s sleeve, dampening it with my anxiety and dark imagination. I’ve lived a good life. I hope everyone knows I love them. I hope my mother-in-law doesn’t lose respect for me when she’s forced to go through my dirty laundry and bed-side table… Our plane is rocking side to side as the captain tries to land in a rainstorm. The French couple behind us sound nonplussed as they contemplate their lunch options. Two feet away, I’m having an existential crisis, regretting my shortcomings and life choices.
We finally touch ground, and the passengers give a round of applause. I’m short of breath, wiping away tears. Screw this plane, I want out!
For the second and final leg of the journey, the sun has come out.
Turns out Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson bring the funk hard enough for me to forget how much I hate takeoff. This time, I’m too busy bopping like Carlton to notice the horrible airplane engine revving. The sky is a perfect prism of rainbow, sitting above perfect Bob Ross clouds. Happy little clouds.
I’ve passed through the doom of my turbulence, and I can find humor around me once again.
I have seven hours to kill. I start by watching the people around me and judging them based on their in-flight movie choice. The dadboner to my right is cracking up at The Hangover. Hair parted down the middle, checked button-down, corduroy pants: check, check, and check. He’s taken off his shoes, and his little toesies wiggle in their comfy socks. Sitting in front of him is a nerdy scruffy dude watching Casino Royale. It’s a series of sculpted, eternally sweaty men gazing intensely at each other. So hot.
Me, I’m jamming. Lipsynching to Mariah Carey one minute, then pulling an Elvis lip when nobody’s around and I can get away with it. Hell, if everyone on this plane were asleep, I wouldn’t be against the idea of practicing my Michael Jackson flair leg kick. “Bad” comes on, and suddenly the cabin lights dim. You know I’m bad, dah, jamon! In my mind’s eye, I’m wearing a jaunty fedora. I sling a suspicious gaze at every passerby; the scowl transforms into a knowing smirk. Heh… I eat punks like you for breakfast. Then my profile slides neatly out of view. The song in my ear changes, and in my imagination I AM Lady Gaga’s background singer, wearing a velour onesie, saucily wagging my finger and hollering about my fill-in-the-blank. Yeah, if I wanted to, I could totally sing like that.
It’s a flight that arrives just in time for Christmas, and I appreciate the effort they’ve put into making it feel festive around here. Flight attendants wear earrings with Rudolph and candy canes. Buttons that read “Michief Maker.” Somehow, I doubt that. Garlands (admittedly a bit scraggly) have been hung, crookedly designating the bathrooms. One is awkwardly draped, the shape reminiscent of a middle-schooler’s tentative drawing of the road map of a woman’s reproductive system. No matter. It’s got a certain charm to it.
At the moment, we’re just off the southern coast of Greenland. Traveling back in time. We left Dublin at 3:00pm, and arrive on the East Coast just before 5:00pm. I’m almost home! I’ll be laughing about all this in no time…
The house is quiet. Slide the wooden door closed, sit on my tuffet. Turn on my flashlight hanging by a string above, and open up a book. The inside of my closet door is decorated with song lyrics and stickers. This is my space.
Later, I expanded my territory to the basement. Despite the fact that I was on an ever-vigilant watch for the boogieman coming around the corner, it was my quiet hideout. I had a carpet that was older than I was, and the oil tank took up half of the room. One yellow bulb illuminated the space. But it was mine.
I’ve always appreciated solitude.
When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher say the words: “Choose a partner.” I enjoyed working on my own. Team sports made me anxious. I preferred individual sports. Solo activities like reading, drawing, painting, doing crafts, music, sewing, and writing were what made me feel happy and fulfilled.
Later, this would embolden me to satisfy my curiosity and see the world. Why wait around for someone else to join me? I am capable of fulfilling this dream on my own.
Now, I’m 30. I stamp my train ticket, find a seat to plonk myself down in. I watch the world pass me by, and imagine myself flying over the fields, frolicking and dancing around barefoot. I see my reflection in the train window, and I can see those other Mes in a kaleidoscope of brilliant reflections. I nod, they nod, we all nod. This feels right.
I am free to do what I want, travel where I want, and live how I choose.
The question is: Where to go from here?
It’s my day today. I’m taking off, all alone, to have an adventure in another city.
I get on the train while the sky is still black. It slowly fades to blue, then pale yellow when I step off the train at my destination. The morning is spent poking around the quiet walkways, before shops even open.
It’s lunchtime. There’s an inviting café that serves tapas, and my stomach is starting to rumble. I sit in the back, surrounded by funky art: psychedelic cartoon faces wink at me while I consider the menu, which is written in chalk on a large piece of slate.
I choose a mild Catalan saucisson, with sardine rillettes, a creamy fish spread that I enjoy on crusty brown bread. Last, the server brings out hot spinach puffs in flaky pastry, served with lamb’s lettuce (mâche) and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve got a glass of beautifully robust red wine to enjoy with it. The meal is deeply satisfying, and there is nothing to distract me from savoring each tasty morsel.
After, I continue walking through town, getting lost in small side streets, following no particular direction. I appreciate the care and attention each shopkeeper has put into their window display. Light, texture, color, and movement are all incorporated to attract and delight the passersby. I make my way to the central square, where the Christmas market is in full effect. Artisan truffle products stand next to gleaming handmade jewelry and leather-bound journals. Now this is a market.
I order myself a cup of vin chaud and rest it on a barrel to take out my notebook. The hot spiced red wine goes down smoothly and sweetly, and I’m absorbing the scene. Above my head are pine garlands, clusters of gold ornaments, and twinkling lights. The carousel with grinding pipe organ music is a fine backdrop to the squealing delight of children.
The sun is so brilliant, my eyes start to water as I make my way back to the train station. Stamp my ticket, step up from the platform onto the small local train that will bring me back home.
I ease into a seat next to the window. A group of teenage girls giggles into the car, bringing along a typhoon of pink sparkles and flowers. They speak unintelligibly fast about some incoherent, yet apparently highly important, subject. I am unmoving in the midst of this thick fog of unbridled youthful female naïveté. It’s almost painfully resonant and familiar.
In a flurry of hair flips, they disappear at the next station. In their place, a woman about my mother’s age gets on. She quietly sits in the seat facing me with a journal and a book about food, puts on some sunglasses, and gazes out the window.
This local train is pulling us through endless green fields, sensuously illuminated in the golden sun. The trees are bare, except for the clusters of mistletoe that are suspended in their spindly branches like Christmas ornaments. The sunlight is so warm and inviting, one could easily imagine it was spring or summer.
I’m brought back to a childhood memory: visiting a relative’s house in the summer, and running around the seemingly endless back yard. There were no obstructions, nothing between me, the grass, the hot sun, and boundless lightness within myself. That is the feeling I want to go back to. The source of life. Pure joy, safety, warmth, freedom, possibility.
I notice my reflection in the glass. I’m smiling to myself. The woman’s reflection is just next to it, facing mine like a time-lapse mirror.
Later that evening, F and I are around the fireplace at our friends’ house. The wind outside thumps at the windows, but we’re cozy and safe inside. We’re toasting with some bubbly, and just enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a day of quiet fulfillment and loving kindness. My heart and soul are full to bursting, and I am overcome. I smile into my glass of bubbly, and my eyes well up. Where I’ve been, where I might be tomorrow, are not my concern.
I am living Now, which is just where I belong.