On the pleasures of being alone…
The first time I travelled alone I was nineteen years old and I went to Spain. Or, this is the first big trip I took alone, by then I had ridden countless Greyhound buses between New York and my grandmother’s in New Hampshire, between New York and college in Providence, and I already knew the exquisite pleasure of a solo bus ride on an off day; the bus mostly empty, two seats to myself, headphones, a book, the window, sometimes a bag of M&M’s, always plenty of water. On a bus, on a train, the land unspools beside you, for you, and you can pee whenever you want and your brain is soothed. My brain is soothed. My restlessness stilled by the fact of being in motion. Once, tucked into the back of the bus, I secretly masturbated while hidden under a giant shearling coat that had belonged to a man who had almost married my mother when I was ten but decided instead to move to Austin, Texas. (I had loved him, and cried when he told me he was leaving, and after him I vowed never to get close to a boyfriend of my mother’s. Something I pulled off until she began dating the man who became my step-father. But that would be later, when I was out of college, 23 and 24.) It was not even dark on the bus, only a grey afternoon, and the climax was a teeth clenched, muscle bracing, moment of complete stillness, which sent the sensations pulsing through the muscles of legs and back and neck. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a Greyhound.
But this trip to Spain…I took a semester off of college because currents of anxiety were pulling me under with frightening frequency and also I was smoking too much weed, drinking too much, all of it too much, and I had not seen nor heard from my father since I turned my back on him when I was fourteen years old and I thought it was time to explore that. I arranged to live at home, work, do therapy, but also to travel alone for a month. I extended my loan money to pay for it, and they sent me a glorious check. Spain is the land of my father’s parents and it was my first step towards him. I bought a round trip ticket. I had not been out of the country since I was six years old and visited my cousins in Norway. (That’s my mother’s side.) As the weeks brought me closer to departure, a pattern emerged: The very rich parents of the very rich kids at the after school where I worked looked at me with envy, with longing, wistful to the extreme, and said to me, “Do it now while you can.” Said, “This is the right time to go, soon you won’t be able to get away.” Said, “This could be your last chance.”
My last chance! To me, it was my first chance, the first of what I hoped would be many trips, a future dotted with movement and places and packed bags. But this too; these parents were so very rich, and yet felt so very locked in. They saw their own lives as limited, finite, without options for such adventures, and this most of all: They felt that they had no say in the matter. They were sure that outside forces were locking them out of things they might want to do. Not one of them saw, or could say honestly, that it was they themselves preventing them from those adventures. How much better it would have been to hear, “I used to want to travel, but now I’m content to be at home with my kids.” I wouldn’t have understood it for one second, and probably would have made fun of them to B., but I hope some part of me could have heard the honesty in it, the embracing of one’s own life and choices.
Everyone has warnings for me these days. According to the world at large it’s going to hurt a lot; i should definitely get an epidural; I will never sleep again; B. and I will never be alone again; moving is not a good idea; everything’s going to get harder; my breasts are going to be destroyed; and I better start wearing smarter shoes.
I bought my ticket to Madrid for October. On September 11th, September 11th happened. I lived about a mile away, but was protected by the span of the East River. The ash coated the playground, and we prayed that the parents of all the children would appear to pick them up. They did. And Christa’s husband didn’t go to work and survived, and somehow Danny’s three brothers survived, though he would not know it for hours. At sunset I stood on the Promenade, beside me a man with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head, and watched the ribbon of ash blow over us and further into Brooklyn. We’d breathe it in for days.
On October 1, I flew. I had thought I was scared of flying, but I’d learned that death comes and that miracles and tragedies are lightening bolts that can strike two people standing inches from each other. That we truly have no say. I decided simply that to fly was to risk death but that it was worth risking death to get me to Spain, to live a life I wanted to live. And then when I saw the clouds below me, it was only confirmed: to fly was a foray into the afterlife. And ever since, flying has become the same as embracing the fact that I can die at any moment. Over a decade later, every time I board a plane I think I am risking death in pursuit of a full life.
I swear, it feels like an optimistic perspective.
Here is one prediction that does seem true: Once this babe is born, I am never again going to be fully alone in the world. I am bound to B., my friends, my family, yes, but I have a hunch this is going to be different. I am housing her. Him. This babe. I am its first home, it is literally forming inside me, and won’t my heart always be lodged a little inside this new person? Won’t this new person take a portion of me wherever it goes? My fears, my love, my hopes: I will want so much for it, and yet it will have to go forth without me and won’t it pull my heart along with it…aching, celebrating, worrying, exulting? I really don’t know what solitude is going to mean to me in a few months. And I am quite sure I can’t know until it comes.
In Madrid, it took me about two hours of chain smoking to leave the airport. I rode the metro, a monumental achievement, and disembarked into the center of the Plaza del Sol, an immense expanse of stone in the middle of the city. It was morning, maybe nine or ten, and throngs of people were criss crossing the pavement around me. The sky was a brilliant blue (every blue sky a reminder of that one Tuesday blue sky; that knowledge never leaves us, does it?) and the sun both warm and sharp. The buildings were white stone and grey stone, and intricately carved. I stood and it felt as if sky and stone were rushing through my legs and arms to meet in a long denied embrace. I was humming with it. I was exultant. I am in Madrid. I am in Madrid. I am in Madrid. The fact of it, that I had lifted my body out of New York and landed it there, in that city, in Madrid, in Spain, it was a miracle to me, and absolute proof that anything was possible. In my life, it was all possible. I am going to be ok. This is going to be ok. Life is going to work. It is still the moment I return to when the currents return to tug at me. Whatever else happens, that day happened.
I am at the close of a two night solo vacation all the way across the river into Manhattan. I’ve spent two days and two nights eating alone and walking alone and reading and writing and sleeping. It was a much shorter trip than that first voyage across the Atlantic, but it was still hard for me to get myself here. I thought of a million reasons I shouldn’t go, shouldn’t spend the money, and on and on. But I did. And when I checked into my room alone and thew my bag on the bed? Total bliss.
A last chance? A first? I’ll let you know in a decade.