the trip of the century
Considering I’m not exactly Travel Girl, my trip to western Massachusetts to see Terry and Jean was a huge success. My extensive planning paid off, as did my years of therapy, which have taught me a thing or two about boundaries and about staying in my body when I have the impulse to flee.
I admit, there were times when the planning got a bit out of hand, such as when I was writing a note for Pookie’s temporary caretaker, Jean M. I wrote down instructions for what to do—the feeding, the watering, the scooping—plus the phone number for where I’d be, the vet’s phone number, the pet ER’s phone number, the office hours of the vet, the hours of the pet ER, plus special situations such as the vet is open certain Saturday afternoons so call him first, but all day Sundays or weekdays after 6:00, just go ahead and call the pet ER… and by then I had run out of paper and realized she probably wouldn’t need to call the vet anyway. Five days in the life of your average cat usually aren’t that exciting. Clearly, I was projecting my sense that leaving home for even a few days would create massive shifts in the earth’s infrastructure and permanent changes in climate. I tore up the note and wrote a new one.
Food—as you might expect—was also planned down to the last bite. I had snacks for the plane—popcorn, peanuts, energy bars—and even an alternative lunch in case the vegetarian lunch I had ordered was inedible (“vegetarian” turned to “vegan” in United’s computer—I’m sorry, but vegan is way too exotic for my tastes—if exotic is even the right word). Kate had advised me to bring a sandwich or a burrito, but I was too self-conscious to eat brazenly from my land-based food supply while fellow passengers picked at their foil-wrapped food-like substances. So instead, I packed a Tupperware container of roast chicken in bite-size pieces so I could nibble on the sly. (Yes, I know no one would question my supplementing a vegan lunch with chicken, but still….)
The night before the trip, I barely slept. The brain was all set to go, rehearsing the final steps that would have to be taken when the alarm went off, going over and over the plan. As usual, the body was left eating the brain’s dust. All it could do was lie there hoping against hope that the brain would eventually wear itself out with its thinking, and for a while it did, and the body took its few zzzzzz’s in the early morning hours.
Alarm goes off. Travel Girl—for she is de facto Travel Girl for the next 5 days—thinks there’s plenty of time to complete the duties on the last-minute to-do list, but the 2 hours allotted for final packing, eating, and bathing pass so quickly that the last few minutes are a blur, and she runs out the door without time for a final, careful perusal of every room in the house. The car does not break down on the way to the Marin Airporter, so that is good. (Each leg of this trip is going to be measured in such small victories.) She buys her bus ticket and manages to lose it between the service counter and the bathroom, a distance of about 10 feet. Panicking (so soon the plan starts to unravel? she can’t believe it!), she asks the weary bus counter man for another pass to get on the bus and is told she will have to fork over another $13. She retraces her steps and finds the pass lying on the floor of the bathroom stall. This lack of focus is not a good omen, she thinks.
(As the reader has perhaps divined, the out-of-body experience has begun, and all actions are being observed from a vantage point about 5 feet above Travel Girl’s head. Part, but not all, of the explanation for this is Dramamine, that miracle motion-sickness pill that permits the airborne journey in the first place but takes a toll on body, mind, and spirit.)
Before she knows it, Travel Girl has arrived uneventfully at the airport, has stood in the interminable, snaking line with the true Travel People (most of whom have learned from experience to pack everything on wheels), and is now seated at gate 75, boarding pass in hand, with a mere 2 hours to wait for the plane to take off. She spends the time alternately people-watching and reading the book she has brought, the perfect easy read for the circumstances, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener. Throwing convention to the winds (it is only 9:30 a.m.), she starts in on the snacks… first the popcorn, then surreptitious bites of chicken sneaked out of the Tupperware. (Like many other things about Travel Girl, her secretive nature passeth understanding.)
Miraculously, the flight is on time, and it’s nonstop to Hartford, so it feels like a small step for a woman, a giant step for this same woman to actually get on the plane and take her seat, a window seat right over the wing, so she has an unobstructed view (of the wing). She waits breathlessly for her seatmate to show up—will it be a Bratty Child, a Talkative Woman, or a Lecherous Man (the only choices, she fears)? Bingo, it’s a Bratty Child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy with a doting mother. Travel Girl’s heart sinks at the thought of spending 5 hours next to an active, much-loved, much-indulged child. The plane starts moving, but 10 minutes later it appears they are going to roll all the way to Massachusetts. Finally—airborne! Now the trip feels like it has officially begun. Mother and Child begin a series of games to keep Child occupied. The first game involves spelling, but while the Mother supplies various consonants for the Child’s edification, the only letters at his command appear to be “I?” “E”? “I?” “E?” spoken with emphasis, volume, and unrelenting regularity, with the counterpoint of Mom’s futile suggestions of “D?” “T?” for at least the first 200 miles. (Are they trying to spell DIET, or am I just paranoid?)
Fortunately, I have read Rob Morse’s column in the Examiner about survival tips for flying. His Number 1 tip is to block out the sounds of children and other living things. So I narrow my focus, concentrating on my book and resigning myself to a cross-country spelling bee. But gradually, I realize that this Mother is actually aware of when her Child is kicking or slobbering on Travel Girl and pulls him gently away. For this I am extremely grateful. It makes all the difference between occasional annoyance and all-out despair. (No, it doesn’t occur to me to interact with the Child, why do you ask?)
The vegan lunch consists of a container the size of a 3 by 5 card with soft, unidentifiable vegetables, an unidentifiable grain, and an unidentifiable sauce. I do, in fact, supplement the official vittles with my bootleg chicken. The Child has fallen asleep, the Vegans have provided me with a cookie that would not be considered edible on land, but something about being airborne—like being in the hospital—makes every little offering a mystery to be unwrapped if not savored. So I nibble on the no-wheat/no-dairy/no-sugar/no-kidding cookie and consider that maybe Traveling isn’t so bad after all. Besides, I’ve got plenty of peanuts.
While I succumb to leaden, Dramamine-induced sleep, time flies—ha ha—and before I know it, it is nighttime and we are approaching Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. I admit that I have spent a few short moments in the air worrying that I have miscalculated the geography of the eastern states and that when Terry said “Hartford,” she meant someplace called Hartford, Mass., not Hartford, Conn., where I am about to land. But no, it’s the right Hartford, so once again I feel my Travel Karma is right on track.
I wobble and lurch my way down the ramp to greet my friends (I had to take a second Dramamine over Nebraska to be sure that I would remain drugged throughout the flight.) My first words are, “You should be honored—I wouldn’t do this for just anybody.” It’s great and bizarre to see T&J on the other side of the continent—they have always come west—and it’s great and bizarre to be on the other side of the continent. The miracle of flight, to this fledgling Travel Girl, is still a mystery right up there with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Lo and behold, my duffel bag—which I had packed for Y2K seemingly a century ago and then unpacked to put it to actual use on this trip—which was like opening up a time capsule and marveling over the ancient artifacts—the dental floss, bank statements, and pulp fiction, the lost pair of black pants that I had been searching for for weeks—appears in the stream of rotating luggage, and I pluck it out gratefully, one more step of my journey successfully negotiated. We walk out into the cool night air and climb into Jean’s SUV, the first such vehicle I’ve seen that is actually used to navigate wintry dirt roads, not as a status symbol to drive to the grocery store. It’s unseasonably cold, I’m told, but I bought a microfiber jacket for the trip, and I’m snug as the proverbial bug. Planning Girl feels vindicated.
We discuss what to do about food for quite a few miles—it’s 8:00 p.m. for them but only 5:00 for me. (Over the next 3 days I will be constantly pointing out the time difference—“I can’t believe I’m eating lunch at 9:30 a.m.!” “I can’t believe I’m eating dinner at 3:00 p.m.!” What a delightful houseguest I must have been.) We end up at one of my favorite kinds of places, a real, honest-to-God diner. I’m thrilled to be sitting down on a solid chair on solid ground in the company of my friends. Suddenly all things seem possible, even Travel. (That might be partly due to the Coke I had on the plane and again in the diner—caffeine on top of motion-detector-deadening Dramamine makes me feel hopped up on goofballs.) My first moment of culture shock is when I smell the smoke emanating from cigarettes brandished by unrepentant customers in adjoining booths. I feel like such a California purist, not a citizen of the real world at all but coddled and buffered in her home state from Life’s Unpleasant Emissions.
Hmmm—I’m on page 4 and we haven’t even gotten to T&J’s house yet. I think I need to pick up the pace a little bit. Well, I’m thrilled and impressed by their new house—beautiful and spacious, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fir trees and reports of mountain lions in the back 40, with a huge dome of stars overhead. I have my own bedroom and my own bathroom. Finally I begin to relax after the months of anxious planning. The whole raison d’etre of the trip comes into focus—travel isn’t just about transportation, it’s about destination. I have successfully left my cocoon and soared across friendly skies to land in a friendly foreign environment. It’s a good feeling.
For those who don’t know them, Terry is an old painting friend—we’ve braved years of Esalen workshops and the intense teacher training together, and she is teaching now. Jean is her partner, whom I had met only a few times before but felt comfortable with instantly. They are like family to me.
After sleeping off the double dose of Dramamine, I awaken at 4:30 a.m. (body time) and try to reconcile the sunlight coming in the window with my creature sense that it should still be dark and (more important) that I should still be asleep. Jean has been called away early for an emergency meeting of a community board she’s on, so Terry and I laze away the morning, catching up on our news, taking a tour of the house, and playing with their new black kitten, a fireball named Gus, whom I rechristen Thugmuffin for his alternately Cuddly-Cute and Hell-on-Paws antics.
Western Massachusetts is a revelation to me—everything so clean and orderly, barely populated (or so it seems), hardly any traffic, cold, clear, and bright, with beautiful greenery everywhere. Shelburne Falls reminds me of my youthful days in Northfield, Minnesota—one of those small towns filled with college-educated folks who take classes in stained glass or stone carving and act in the community plays. I realize that one reason I haven’t liked to travel is that I’m afraid of awakening my desire, of wanting something new that will be inconvenient and require sacrifices. But with T&J I feel both expansive and contained, so it feels safe to fantasize. I let myself imagine who I will have to convince to move with me. (If you think I’m going to name names, you’re crazy.)
I’m excited by everything I see—the “bridge of flowers,” the Art Bank where Terry teaches, the tree-covered hills, and the brick architecture I’d almost forgotten about while living in the far west. T&J seem to know everybody in town. We run into the female owners of Margo’s Bistro, where we’re going to eat that night; their contractor; the head of the Art Bank; the editor of the newspaper. Despite the appeal of the small town, that’s one thing I relearn about myself, that I prefer being anonymous in my daily rounds.
Also, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fall, my favorite season, and the weather is basically like S.F.’s, only about 10 degrees colder. Easy to fantasize about all-fall-all-the-time and forget the twin tortures of winter and summer. At dinner, we run into a fellow painter, Deanie, who does a satisfying double-take at seeing me transplanted 3,000 miles from the site of our last encounter. I choose tofu and pasta for dinner—as with the airplane vegan lunch, I am making half-hearted strides toward a healthier diet—and the faux-meaty taste of the tofu links reminds me of my earlier attempt at vegetarianism, when the first tofu hot dog I ever tried seemed like a viable option, and the second one proved inedible—some strange chemical reaction, or else my mind catching on to what I was eating. But also, it’s only 3:00 p.m. Pacific time, and my stubborn body has rules about when it will eat what.
That night Terry and I try out their new hot tub—a wonderful shock of liquid body heat in the midst of a cold, starry night—and I don’t know if it’s the tofu or the full day of being introduced to strangers, or the release of tension after months of Travel Girl Planning, but my lower lip starts trembling and my eyes start leaking hot tears into the hot water. As always, I try to figure out what’s wrong, but the beauty of my long friendship with Terry is that there’s a mutual loving acceptance of each other’s idiosyncratic crying patterns, and so the storm comes and goes without very much precipitation and no storm damage at all.
The next day, we drive to Northampton, and I discover that this is my fantasy town. It’s like a small city or a neighborhood in a big city, with lots of colleges in the surrounding area so it’s a beacon of hipness and literary and artistic activity. The book Home Town by Tracy Kidder is about Northampton. I love the downtown with its lovely brick architecture and church spires, its independent bookstores, its cool kids on the street looking much like cool kids everywhere, but in the crisp fall air I am again reminded of my youth in Ann Arbor and Northfield, that carefree time of college and the few postcollege years when earning a living is less important than hanging out with the tribe.
We check out some shops. I buy a souvenir for friends back home and a book for myself and lust after all the things that I never want until I see them—like a cool folk-art car made out of wire. Along with the coveted artifacts are the so-called art forms that defy belief, like the framed paint-by-number pictures of birch-tree-by-the-lake landscapes. We can’t tell if they’re actual paint-by-numbers or are just painted to look like them, in some new-millennial campy homage to the “folk art” of the mid-20th century. Irony so ironic that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.
Speaking of food (weren’t we?), we eat a wonderful dinner at Mulino’s, a little Italian restaurant. My head is full of the pictures of me living there, in that small arty city, my computer and my cat all I’d need to make a cozy home from which to run my editing business. Once again, I have to remind myself of the Impossible Seasons that were one (two) of the reasons I moved to California in the first place.
The third day passes in a flash of talks and walks and more food and meeting some of their friends. Sunday morning it’s all too soon time to pack up and put my travel plans in reverse. Gus Thugmuffin “helps” me unmake the bed and pack my duffel bag—he cuddles up in the bag at one point, in his Cute As a Button persona, but besides the fact that T&J would surely miss him, Pookie would never approve. We take a last walk down their country road, watching geese land in the newly cut-down cornfield, me inhaling the final eastern smells before returning home.
Before I know it, I’m plunged into Airport World once again. I’ve been especially worried about the trip home, because I have to change planes in Chicago. Also, there is only going to be a “snack” between Hartford and Chicago and then nothing until “dinner” between Chicago and S.F. But the snack turns out to be a box lunch of white chickenlike substance on a white doughy bun, so that provides bulk, and once again I’m saved by a cookie. My seatmate is a taciturn woman who is either as unsocial as I am or is terrified to fly, because she only starts babbling when we land safely in Chicago.
This is getting boring, and there’s no more food worth talking about, so let’s skip ahead, shall we? I arrive in S.F. and spend an anxious half hour trying to get from the new international terminal to the north terminal. (Somehow we and the baggage have landed in two different places.) I survive the interminable bus ride from the airport to Larkspur Landing, pay for my parking, drag my luggage to my car—thrilled that it hasn’t been vandalized—and as I drive home at 11:00 “real time”—“real time” is now East Coast time, and I have no idea when I made that particular adaptation—I feel like a subject in a physics experiment. If my destination = x, then I am always at x – y. It may just be the Dramamine again, but it’s as if time has stopped and there exists only space—more and more space between me and home.
But the physics of everyday life prevails, and I am allowed to arrive home. First thing I do is call Pookie, and after a long pause, he comes bumping hesitantly down the stairs, meowing weakly. Five days in solitary confinement has aged him. He comes and sniffs me and the duffel bag, finding indisputable olfactory evidence of Gus Thugmuffin. It’s like being caught with lipstick on my collar.
Seventeen e-mails await me—10 of them spam. Oh well. It’s good to be home, but it’s disconcerting that I’m not desperately grateful to be in my own world again. I mean, I’m glad to be on solid ground, to have the Travel portion of the program come to an end, but I guess I learned that it’s possible to partake of someone else’s world and not give up my own—to take my center with me instead of treating it like a major appliance I can only plug in at home. Viva Travel Girl! Where will she go next??
big dyke with a blue head
Well, I could take my happy ending and stop right there, but life has an annoying habit of changing right when you have everything just the way you want it. After I’d been home for a few days, I lapsed into a deep depression, or deepressionTM, with a soupçon of smoldering anger. I spent a lot of time lying in bed watching TV and talking back to annoying sit-com characters. I was practically on suicide watch—had to get rid of all my belts and shoelaces. (Pause while I laugh maniacally.)
I was having all sorts of physical symptoms—stomach, foot, hip, you name it. I wanted to smother my sorrows in food, but I was still trying to follow the blood type diet. I had managed to change only a couple of things—drinking soy milk on puffed rice instead of cow’s milk on Grape Nuts Flakes. I don’t think this a revolutionary diet change makes.
When I saw J next, I could barely drag myself in the door. I was dressed all in black—color-coordinating my mood. I don’t like going to therapy when I feel that way, because I’m afraid she’ll get all chipper and practical on me, and I find both of those things hard to handle when I’ve already decided I have nothing to live for.
J asked how long I’d been feeling depressed.
“… Since I talked to the psychic.”
J, bless her heart, laughed. I love that about her—no poker face. I had to laugh myself, then, despite my black mood. We decided it was the perfect beginning to a short story—if only I were a fiction writer, which I’m not. I sobered up quick. I hadn’t planned to tell her about it, it was too embarrassing.
[I had called this person, a “medical intuitive,” about my stomach symptoms, just in case there was something the doctor and the surgeon had missed. She can give people readings over the phone, she said, because she “doesn’t believe in time and space”—she only needs your name to “locate you in the universe.” I’m thinking, “So there’s no time and space, but there are names?” The psychic was silent for a while, tuning into my frequency, and then she said my “adrenals had lit up,” and she rattled off names and dosages of several vitamins and various concoctions I should be taking. She also said that my back and shoulder muscles are constricted and pressing on the vagus nerve, which goes down to the top of the stomach. She said this was “psychologically caused by hiding, holing up in yourself.” Now if this isn’t a perfect description of me, I don’t know what is, but I contend she could have got that information just from my terse replies to her questions. If you look up the word “monosyllabic” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of me.]
A few days before, while sleeping the afternoon away, I’d dreamed about a woman with a shaved head whose whole head, including face, was dyed bright blue and had colorful tattoos all over it. In the dream, I thought she was strangely beautiful, but I wondered what she would do if she ever had to get a real job. The paint and tattoos were indelible—there was no going back. J pointed out that this was the part of me that I try to keep hidden—my exuberant dancing, painting self—and that I should focus on bringing that part out, rather than following depressive thoughts down the rabbit hole.
The thought of coming out of myself is terribly threatening—is it because my mother burst any bubble of exuberance that floated to the surface? J says the “why” is no mystery, but understanding is not enough. The important thing is to undo the somatic patterns. So we worked on that a bit—organizing and disorganizing the clenched fists, which reflexively returned to their clenching as soon as the exercise was over.
Throughout the session there had been noise coming from all directions, and it became impossible to ignore. There seemed to be a Noisy Man Convention coming and going in the hall outside the office. Someone in the construction company upstairs was banging on the floor as if trying to break through J’s ceiling. Loud motorcycles and cars revved up in the street right outside the window. I decided it was synchronicity in the classic sense—as in Jung’s story of the woman who was telling him her dream about a scarab beetle, and a scarab beetle came flying in the window. If there is no time and space but I am a name locatable in the universe, then it makes sense that I could be projecting all the inner noise of my body and mind into the surrounding landscape. A frivolous idea, perhaps, but no more so than many others I entertain.
At the end of the session, to get some energy moving before I left, J had me do some karate punches in the air. Usually, I “express” anger with a grunt and a muttered expletive. It felt good to be doing something physical, even if J wouldn’t let me use her as a punching bag. My assignment for the week was dancing, singing, deep breathing—movement of any kind. I promised her I’d start doing Taebo again. (Note to self….)
Afterward, feeling much better, I—no, I don’t go for a hike or run around the park—I treat myself to a beef taco and a margarita at Las Camellias and then stop for some Ben & Jerry’s on the way home. Plenty of time to start my exuberance training tomorrow. I watch “Freaks and Geeks,” stay up till midnight listening to “Loveline,” and feel just a little bit closer to being human.
But the good mood doesn’t last. The next day, I walk to the gas station to buy a Chronicle, and as I go to step off the curb—with the WALK sign flashing—a car screeches to a halt in front of me, half in the crosswalk. I veer around the car, thinking how close I may have come to being creamed, but before I can thank the universe for saving my life, the driver snarls, “You big dyke!” My stomach drops, but I ignore him, hoping he thinks I didn’t hear. My insides are like jelly, and I wonder why I let things like that bother me. Is it my own shame I’m reacting to? If he yelled “You big Democrat!” with the same snide tone, would I feel the same way? Obviously not.
I scurry home to my safe haven—if a big dyke can be said to scurry—and think about my dream of the woman with the blue head and colorful, indelible tattoos—the one who has put herself out there, who can’t get a real job anymore, who can’t go back. Is that person really inside me? And if she is, why am I hiding her, and what good is it doing me? If you’re already a big dyke, is it that much of a stretch to show off your blue head?
For the next two hours, I can’t stop thinking about that man and his casual insult. At first, I can only feel the shame of being different, of being despised by the world. But gradually the alchemy that began in the therapy session starts to do its magic, and I feel a stirring from within. I start to get pissed off. “Thank you, Mister Man,” I say, “for your succinct commentary. I hope you think I was on my way home to jump in bed with a beautiful woman. I hope I’m somehow a threat to your pathetic manhood, that you can’t stand to know there are women like me out here loose in the world.” As my chest inflates, my fists curl up. I sock the air. Take that, and that! I wake up inside. For once, I feel like a big dyke with a blue head—strangely beautiful—indelible—and I can’t go back.