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Shortlisted for The Art of Reflection Competition 2022
I didn’t leave home to cut ties exactly, but perhaps to weaken them. It never occurred to me those old ties could grow so thin, the threads would finally tear. I suppose I wanted to find out who I was alone. Here in Nice, standing in front of a French trash bin, I find all I am is alone.
In the late nineteen-eighties, it’s easier to get lost.
I stand in Gare de Nice Ville train station, plucking sweaters, jeans, bottles of lotions and soaps from my backpack, dropping them into the trash bin. To save money, I plan to sleep on the night trains between Paris and Nice, carrying my pack with me throughout the day. I could stow my pack in a locker in either city, but an Australian woman I met on the ship to Crete told me she once lost everything in a locker in Florence. I can’t risk it. What I have in this backpack is all I own in the world, the weight of myself, which I have to bear alone now.
I left Nisse, my boyfriend, with his family in Sweden weeks ago, unsure if I will ever see him again, even more unsure what it will mean if I do. In Athens, I left the Australian woman, who had lost her backpack. I think it was Patricia I left in Brindisi, Pietro I left in Rome, Kathy in London . . . Traveler friendships are intense but shallow like a hot spring only deep enough to wet the ankles. For a time, we share everything, our food, liquor, sometimes our bodies, often our sexual histories and family secrets, knowing that despite exchanging addresses, we will probably never be held accountable for what we say in the humidity of an overstuffed train car, in a hostel room crammed with bunk beds, fending off boredom beneath the fist of the sun or in a deluge of rain, huddled and waiting for a scheduled bus that never shows.
We are the proverbial trees no one hears falling because we never land. After months of moving around London, flat to flat, bedsit to bedsit, after precarious months in Sweden with Nisse’s family, after weeks of travel, I barely remember the faces I’ve seen. I have rolls of film I took with my red Canon Snappy. But developing photos is a luxury expense, hauling them around just as costly. Sometimes I splurge and send a roll of film home, asking my mother to hang onto it until I return. When are you coming back? she responds via postcards, bearing the images of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the russet wood of the bridge in Grant Park, the statue of Patrick Cudahy on a horse. I wonder if they were the only postcards in the local drugstore across the street from the post office, or if she selected the local scenes to jog a nostalgic sense of home. Her question is a version of the one passed around like a joint among travelers over Nescafe-and-hard-roll breakfasts: How long will you stay? I answer my mother, When I’m ready to leave. I answer fellow travelers, Until they kick me out.
I tent my t-shirt and reel up the string around my neck. Attached to the end of this string is my rail pass, good for three more weeks of train travel to most of the countries in Western Europe. Pulled tight, the string irritates the sunburned skin of my neck like the snakebites my sister and I used to give each other on the forearm. I both wish my sister were here and am glad she’s not. I long for her company and sense of humor, but alone, I’m nobody’s youngest sibling for the first time in my life. Still, I miss her. In my mind, I compose letters to her, and to my other four siblings, to my three best friends, who are themselves scattered around the United States, and, despite myself, to Nisse, who may well be back in London by now although I won’t know where to find him when I return there.
I touch the spine of my address book as if reaching for a rope. Each entry links me to a face, a place, a sense memory better than any photograph could. It is a fraying umbilical cord to everyone I know. In the last year, I’ve only spoken to my parents on the telephone a handful of times. These few calls are short because of the cost, which is greater than that of a pub meal and a beer, greater than a night’s bed, greater than the few coins for the cheap sandals laced to my dirty feet. Phone calls or food? Food nearly always wins out.
I slide the address book and the postcards into my pack, hungering for any new cards waiting for me in the London BUNAC office while I travel. Please, someone, remember me and write. Yet it is my own fault. I cast myself adrift
A knife of pain between my shoulder blades screams that my pack is still too heavy. I toss away the pebbles I’d gathered from Kamari beach on Santorini. I keep a couple of small shells from Crete, but I discard the other souvenirs, consoling myself, They’re only reminders of what you already know, right?
My pack drops from the seat to the station’s grubby floor, and I drop too. Every language but English flies around me. Unfamiliar gazes skim over me as if I am no more than a bench. My loneliness is so keen, I feel it split me at the throat.
Suddenly, I’m desperate to reach out to someone who cares what happens to me. I want to laugh with someone who gets my sense of humor; I want to share food with someone, drink with someone, huddle for warmth although my skin burns. I want to kiss and fuck and play like puppies in a lagoon.
I look around at the busy French people going about their daily lives. No gaze acknowledges mine. They put up with me and my kind as if we were mosquitos in summer, a pesky necessity of the season. To them I’m just another grimy kid, privileged enough to travel by choice. I am, after all, not a refugee, not driven out of my home by poverty or persecution. I’m in a self-imposed, self-chosen, utterly selfish moment of dislocation. And however rugged, however Spartan and alone, however educational, mind-expanding, self-expanding travel is, it is also and always selfish.
Self-consciously, I run my hand over the pocket containing my address book, hoping for some ropey tug, but this time I feel nothing.
So it has happened.
I am untethered.
I float in the zero-gravity atmosphere of anonymity. No backpack, however heavy, can keep me weighted.
Tears trail my cheeks, and for a moment, I consider going back to London, where at least I have fledgling roots. I could try to find Kathy. I could retrieve what mail may be waiting there for me. Please, someone. I could get my old job back, work illegally, cleaning or in the wine bar.
But as quickly the thought flashes it dies. Even fledgling roots feel too much like settling. As unsettling as this liminal state of dislocation may be, I realize too there is a purity in it. I may never be more absolutely me than I am right now.
Having decided to press on, I turn my attention to the heaviest things left in my pack. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Portrait of the Artist, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Crime and Punishment, and To the Lighthouse. I’ve read each book ten times. They’re stained with sausage juice from Frankfurt, coffee from Venice, wine from Naples. I should ditch them. I should leave them in a neat pile for someone else.
But right now, the characters in these books are as real as anyone in this train station.
They may not know me, but at least I know them.
As if to make an offering to the gods, I select one book, Down and Out in Paris and London, and place it on the seat near me for someone else to pick up. It won’t go to waste. A traveler who needs it will find it and read it, and this will be a kind of connection too, for travel may be selfish, but it is also about sharing what you bring with you.
The other books I put back in my pack. I wipe off my tears with the hem of the red t-shirt that is still smeared with dirt from Rome and Athens. I’ll wash the shirt on a topless beach, I tell myself, glancing down at my paltry breasts and wryly assuring myself that any friends I make on a topless beach will be sure to be genuine. I slide the pack’s zipper closed and lift the pack onto my shoulders. Testing the weight, I decide I can carry it myself.