Thursday, February 21, 2013

The question

It’s raining. My first day in Montevideo, and it’s raining. I have a bloated suitcase, stuffed with sundresses, and I'm certain it will rain every day forever. I’ve brought all the wrong things. I brought a power adaptor for Europe, which is, of course, useless here.

I knew my Spanish was below toddler level, but I sound brain damaged, even to myself. The accent here is an ocean, a hemisphere away from Spain. 

My plane was late by several hours, so I had to take a cab from the airport. The amount the driver took from me seemed to bear no relation to the numbers on his meter. I don't know if I've been fleeced or not, but it's almost to be expected, a rite of passage in a new country.

These are small things. I have a place to stay, with a woman I met for the first time last night. 

A single bed, a desk. My own bathroom at the top of the stairs. 

I walk out into the rain, into the gray, gritty neighborhood. A van stops and hard-looking men in t-shirts muster out. They carry guns. I don't know what kind of guns they are, but the barrels are long. They hold them diagonally across their bodies, pointed down. It seems they're protecting a man who disappears into a cambio to my left. I pause for a moment until they seem to have settled into position, then walk by them, trying to look nonchalant.

Why the fuck am I here? Why did I come all this way, with my bulging suitcase? Why did I leave everyone I know and love? I don’t even speak the language. I’m ridiculous, too old for this sort of adventure. All the explanations I’ve given seem thin and self-conscious, now.

There are more men with guns in the little market. These men are wearing different uniforms, long sleeves. I have to edge by one. He smiles.

I know almost nothing about this place. 

The woman I'm staying with asks me what I mean to do here. Write? I say to her. I gesture. See the city?

"If I'm lonely"

This is what the tattoo says on my left shoulder. "If I'm lonely..." Day before yesterday, in Miami, a flirtatious boy on a boat said, "You'll never be lonely." 

It sounded like a curse. He didn't know, loneliness is what I want. What I need. It's when I get deep in, when I've felt it all through my body like grief, when I get down underneath it--that's when I find true things to write.

The tattoo begins on my left shoulder, then flows onto my back. The last four words are on my right forearm, so I can see it, remind myself.

If I'm lonely
it's with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it's neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

I don't know if I'll ever have a simple answer for why I'm here. But I'm here anyway. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Another morning in another unfamiliar kitchen. I open all the cupboards three times to find bowl, cup, tea, memory of the last place shifts over in my head to make room for this.

I like staying in someone's house, I feel bits of their identity cling to my skin, a daughter's painting, a framed poem, mismatched spoons from someone's mother, grandmother.

I like a kitchen stocked with sugar and flour and not a single meal in a can or a box. I bring those in from outside. I remember a time when I cooked from scratch, when I ground the wheat to make bread, when I boiled the carcass to make stock before making soup, and I loved every quiet step. I might have inhabited a house like this, had I taken another turn on the road.

This is where I am now. I sleep in other people's houses, in hotels, on futons or air mattresses or king-size beds. I bring in little ready-to-eat meals or simple cooking and try to erase my tracks when it's time to move on. I have time with only myself and I listen to silence or the people in the next room or the dog barking outside.

I am shedding the things I thought I couldn't live without, every day something new I find I can live without, I can thrive, I am becoming light and feel as if the next step I take could launch me into crackling air.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

This is what matters

The shoe on the roof of the house, a red Keds sneaker, girl-size, laces rotted.

The crawlspace, where you descended like a deep-sea diver when your boyfriend wouldn't, one of you had to rescue the phone, knocked under the house, you buttoned your sleeves and pulled your hoodie over your head and wrapped a bandana around your nose and mouth and bulled through the webs and creatures into that other world that always lives just under your feet.

The piece of paper with someone's name and phone number, someone you don't remember, can't place, a person you met the last time you wore that jacket, but there was a reason you wrote it down, folded it carefully into your pocket.

The coffee cup with milk scum making waves around the inside, imprinted foam bubbles.

Your favorite sweater, empty sleeves hanging bodiless from the back of a chair. The credit card bill. The dried flowers hung against your wall that send up a fluff of dust when you move them.

If you died today, slipped quietly out the back door of this world, this is what will be left.

Your mother's shoes in a paper bag, your ten-year-old lipstick, the Ramones t-shirt streaked with paint, the ninety-nine cent prayer candle, the drawing magneted to your fridge, your toothbrush, bristles blown out in surprise.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The city remembers everything

Back in San Francisco. Three new restaurants on Valencia Street, and the city is rubbing up against all my raw places. Just like home.

It's sunny and perfect and I walk through Dolores Park, everyone seems younger and hipper than I remember, there's a new fantasy of a play structure in the middle of the park, if I was a kid I'd know I'd found paradise. I walk all around the park and see again my other selves, I see the night when I stood at the upper corner and looked out at the city and every bright light was in me, I see the residue of past sins, the park remembers all of it. Just like home.

Like home, this place knows me and all my vulnerable spots, it knows me but still brushes off a seat for me at the bar.

I have my nails done, and the women petting my hands and feet ask where I've been. Tho shakes a finger, says I need to come see them more often. The place belongs entirely to women, even the kid running barefoot on the tile is a girl, it's getting dark outside but in here the lights are on and we compare nail colors or don't talk at all, it's safe here in our single-sex ark.

It's almost a year since I set off on my travels, and I still don't know where home is, unless it's here at the keyboard, there in the darkest corner of my suitcase. My Oxford English Dictionary and my father's artwork and the couch I bought not so long ago wait patiently in storage and I don't yet feel roots sprouting from my feet, but maybe that's because I haven't kept them still.

This place will do for a while. As much home as Barcelona, as Brooklyn, as Middletown, as Tangier, as Peterborough. As much home as Utah, with a memory almost as long.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

From the top

The day begins at the top of a mountain in Andalucia. No, it's already too much. I'm defeated, have been defeated, months now I'm defeated. But I have to begin. Why not on a mountaintop? The village where I've stayed for just over a week, and I know half the village, have finished the draft of a strange piece that's been my companion for many months. Time for something else.

Jose picks me up, then, and we wind down the mountain roads, goodbye to the white village and its Moorish arches, goodbye to the herd of sheep that block the road, the lovely people I've met. Jose soon learns the limits of my Spanish, so we're quiet as we go, quiet for an hour, more, until we pass through Mar Bella, and Jose points at the blackened mountainside. "Fuego," he says. Wildfires devoured these mountains last month, a vast field of black with a single tree, the leaves bright autumnal orange. But as we drive, I see the leaves aren't turning with the season, they've been burned that color. One tree is brilliant rust on one half, a swollen, tender green on the other. Other trunks are black halfway up, then white and leafless.

There's a spill of green down a slim valley between two black hillsides. The green is lush and violent and nearly obscene. 

"Fuego," says Jose, again. "Fuego."

And then and then I'm in Tarifa on the street. I ask someone in Spanish for directions, but he shrugs. No habla Espanol. But I hear an accent. Vous parlez Francais? I ask. He is thrilled to meet someone who speaks French, and he tells me where I can catch the ferry - he's driving onto the same one. I get to limber up my French with Johnny the truck driver on the ferry, and I go outside in the wind and get my first glimpse of Tangiers, my first glimpse of Africa, I feel like I'm fourteen years old.

The B&B is tiny, a dollhouse, exquisite stained glass and inlaid wood doors and rich fabrics. A slot door and a big step down to my dollhouse bathroom. The proprietors are Americans, former New Yorkers and Key Westers, generous and in love with Tangier. They take me on a small walking tour of the city and they know everyone on the street, It's a small town, they say. You almost stop believing that New York exists, they say, and I see what they mean, this city and New York belong in different stories.

I cover my shoulders and walk the city and speak French and Spanish and English and try my two words of Arabic and I follow my host's eccentric directions - turn left at the blue Telebanco, pass the golden door, don't go up the stairs, don't go into the lion's mouth - to wind through the Medina and find my way home in the soft night.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Biscuit, wrestlers, see the whale

Yesterday on the train, the conductors had a secret language. They came through the compartment speaking words, but I only knew I was to show my ticket by looking at the people around me. I passed them in the dining car, and they spoke this language with each other, exchanging occult information on halves of tickets, slips of paper printed from handheld devices, spread out on the table like gambling chips.

As we approached a stop, the conductor announced, "Biscuit, Seminole. Biscuit. Biscuit. See the whale. Donchalove a Biscuit." The sign at the station said, "Mystic."

Today, I'm in the foreign land called Brooklyn. A street is taped off, forbidding cars, and, oh, for real, the fire hydrant arcs a spray into the street. A baby sits in the stream, gummy grin. There is a horse, and a pony, each led by a smart young woman in a pudding-bowl helmet. The horse trailer says, Brooklyn Horses, and there's the proof, horses in Brooklyn. Kids wait their turn to put on their own pudding-bowl and ride a circuit up the street and down, clutch the horse's mane, bounce in the saddle with baby kicks.

A boy carefully sets up his own sidewalk sale. A cadre of muscle-bound action figures stands on one step. "Wrestlers. $3 each."

Tomorrow I'll be back in San Francisco, for two hectic weeks, and then I leave the whole continent behind. I don't know where I'll be after mid-July, or how long I'll be unknowing. I know every corner of my suitcase and today I love its generosity, its patience in carrying all the things I need. I'm learning to carry less, although in the subway I was helped, again, to lift my bag up the stairs.

Last night I drank good champagne on the roof of my friends' brownstone. We looked out at Manhattan, saw the in-progress memorial at Ground Zero. I felt I could see the curve of the earth from there, if I lifted just a bit onto my toes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Girls of Peterborough

They are carefully brushed and polished and earringed, tender cleavage and legs. It’s spring today, finally, an ease and kindness on the breeze. Their hair shines, I believe it would feel like heavy water in my hands.

Ugh, my hair, says one, as it blows across her face, I’m gonna shave it off, I swear.

Her friends know she doesn’t mean it. They make lazy laughs and she adjusts her Jackie O sunglasses, lifts phone to ear.

They glance my way when they think I’m not looking, here across the terrace. We’re outside the chocolate shop with coffee (me) and ice cream (them), the waffle cone passes around the table for a lick from each pink tongue.

I am easily identifiable as an outsider. MacDowell sweatshirt over skirt over leggings, tennis shoes. I rode a bicycle here, provided by the Colony. It has my name on a tag on the handle, and no lock. No locks needed here, not even In Town, we’re told.

I worry about my brakes on the steep hill down from here, worry about the steep hill back up to the Colony. I’ll doubtless have to face the humiliation of hopping off the bike and pushing, at least part of the way. I say hopping off, but I mean a cumbersome hitch of the leg. I’m awkward on a bike, haven’t ridden one that fit me since I was eight years old, and my red, banana seat bike, my beautiful Christmas-present bike, was stolen in the first week I rode it to school. After that I rode my dad’s too-big bike, was hit, twice, by two different cars. One didn’t stop and left me to ride home in shock and bleeding down one half of my body. The driver of the second invited me in to tea. She apologized while I shook on her couch.

This bike fits, almost, almost perfectly. I’m learning how to ride again. It fits like this Colony, this place where all I have to do every day is put words on a page. I have a little house in the woods with a little bed, and a wood stove, and a big window onto trees and trees. Lunch appears in a Red Riding Hood picnic basket on my doorstep, every day at 12:30.

My first week here, I sat at my big wooden desk, and cried, every day, in front of the picture window, squirrels and chipmunks quarreling in the trees. I did nothing at all to deserve this.

I did nothing to deserve this, but every day I write. When it is cold, I build a fire. I love my neat little cabin in the woods. But I’m happy today to be at the chocolate shop, with the shining girls and their high heels, the father and daughters with their dogs, the soft cheeks of springtime against my skin.