Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Travel

After the divorce Rachel, at fifty, patronized a few of the new speed-dating services in the city. She had made up her mind how to handle these. She was going to tell the truth.

"I should tell you this up front," she said matter-of-factly, the good and unflustered businesswoman she was. "I don’t travel. Not ever. I don’t have to travel for my business, thank God, and I don’t travel for pleasure. Not ever." And she laughed, and said, "I get this out first thing. My daughter thinks I’m nuts."


By this time, the man was usually gazing at her and half-grinning in mild perplexity. Some were fascinated. Then she would sip her wine or coffee. "Tell me about yourself."

Usually the man said, "Uh ... wow. That’s interesting. Why don’t you travel?"
She stared out of hard, bright brown eyes. "Because nothing about it is pleasurable. Not the anticipation, the planning, the expense, the packing. The commute. The anticipating going home. Not being able to go home. All it is, is one long, glorified commute. You go someplace and look at people who are home." Once, the man was so quiet that she went on, looking out a window into a tree-filled courtyard as she spoke quietly. "I have this deep urge to put my fingerprints on things, on hotel light fixtures, to go for a walk in someone else’s neighborhood and pull up one weed in somebody’s yard, or see the waitresses after hours when they’re home relaxing, just see what they do. I want to make myself felt somehow, I want not to feel like a ghost in someone else’s world." She turned back. "I don’t travel. Not Paris, not London, nothing. It’s not worth it."

"Have you ever been to Paris or London?"
"No."
"No desire to go?"
"To go and have a good time in a perfect universe, if that were possible, yes. But to go knowing what I am? No. I’ll look at pictures in books. All I can think of, when I travel, is that I can’t be home now. That, to me, is too freakish for words."
"You’d make a lousy pioneer."
"No kidding. I’m a lousy traveler. I don’t know how anybody does it. Sometimes I think we just do it so we can tell combat stories afterward. So we can be like everybody."
"So obviously you’ve traveled."
"Sure. My parents took me lots of places when I was a kid. Florida, California. I went to Europe on a cheap-o tour when I was seventeen. The Caribbean for a honeymoon. Iowa, to visit family. San Francisco. I know whereof I speak."
"There are marvelous things to see in this world."
"Who ever really sees them? I overheard a black guy once in a waiting room tell somebody not to go to Paris because ‘ain’t nothin’ there.’ Go to the Riviera, he said. I know a guy who was charged one fee to ride a camel up the Pyramids and then another fee to ride the camel back down or something. You’re in these people’s world."
"That’s just one ignorant person, and one person who wasn’t used to the Middle East.."
"Who needs to get used to it? How is that pleasurable? I’m fine with books."
"Some people would say that’s kind of sad."
She shook her head and sipped. "Tough. I know myself. So. How about you?"

Oftentimes it happened that at this point, time was up and everyone moved on to the next prospect. She shook hands with a new man and sat down to tell her story again. In this way Rachel learned very little at first about any of the men she met, but was herself the most memorable woman in the room. Men gathered afterward to talk about her.

One weekend at a speed date she met Richard, and something new peered out at him from behind her bright brown eyes. The proverb says women choose men who choose them. She liked the way he looked at her. She had known two kinds of love, apart from the early love of having been raised and spoiled by four adoring older brothers. She had known the excited polite and disbelieving love between twenty-year-olds, amazed at handsomeness and physical pleasures, amazed at being considered grown-ups by the adults, and at being able to summon them to the wedding. This was the love of sweet and inexperienced people, deeply alike, not daring to fight and hurt each other’s feelings – deeply wise, in its own way – spending the decade of their twenties growing up all over again. This was the love she had spoiled, at thirty, because after the birth of one child and the attentions of new men at work, she had reflected one day that it was almost as if she was sitting around her husband’s house, waiting to fall in love the real way. Like in pop songs. She forgot the times she and Hank sat together on the porch, laughing, while Jennifer ran laughing between their knees. She forgot the nights when they were finished, and whispered things into each other's ears that no one else in the universe would ever know. She forgot all the good times, or wondered what they would have been like with the perfect man, really. The pop songs about fire and desire, and missed perfection, annoyed and alarmed her. Hank was a good guy, but was one man among millions. She knew him through and through,as he knew her. She forgot that he made her happy, and wanted instead the lightning bolt, the rescue, the sureness – the dark and handsome and almost but not quite fatherlike stranger who commands armies, ignores other women, and is putty in her hands. "It is hard for me to give up the sweetest dream I had," she wrote primly in her journal, while Jennifer played, and Hank mowed the lawn.

She felt the dream with a man at work, a dream safe and sweet and snug as wrapped candy, ready to be unwrapped and savored at leisure. He reciprocated -- it was so exciting, so proud -- and then she confessed to a girlfriend who advised her she had better tell Hank, because half her life was over and the time was now to decide whether or not she wanted to be happy for the rest of it. Hank wasn’t sweet and forgiving. He was devastated but retained the strength to leave her before she left him.

She married Dennis, and felt for a while that thrill of effortless triumph that skims love’s golden surface but doesn’t bear roiling too well. The moment they came out for their first dance at their wedding reception was the highlight of Rachel’s life. Love: he wants me, even though I came into his life and upset it. He threw over things for me, he hurt people, his children, for me. I worship him. I’m the one he was really waiting for. My knees got weak once, in the early days when he approached me and asked me out. That’s the way it should be. We weren’t shy good kids living almost as brother and sister, but grown people who smashed up the world and remade it in our image. My daughter has had the example of seeing a woman totally desired. Nothing he says or does embarrasses me.

In a few years the age gap alone told. She found that another proverb was true, the idiotic one about the man who marries his mistress creating a vacancy in the position. She had not been Dennis’ mistress and he did not take one now, but he liked and approached women friends, at work, at parties, at gas stations. "My gaggle," he called women friends sometimes. When he became a grandfather and men and women who were his contemporaries embraced him at parties, she felt sick and desperate. She found herself having imaginary conversations with Hank. For his part, Dennis had no interest in training another wife to put up with him, all his half-swagger and half-kindness. Because Rachel had been the new one, the desired one, she had no interest in being trained. He was supposed to be perfect, to have been stunned by her, to want only her. He was supposed to have changed.

They hung on for close to ten years, while Rachel persuaded herself that they would soon be middle-aged together. Then they split up and she lost weight, fought off bitterness, and moved into a town home with her daughter. The salon was doing very well and she and Jennifer were surprisingly well off. She tried not to "overthink" things, because her therapist had warned her against it – why is the tape playing so loud in your head, he asked – but sometimes, at odd moments, phrases of blackness and desperation came to her. Spoiled time. Spoiled blessings. Regret, stupidity, inanity. There were people in the world with real problems, people starving or in prison. There were people creating art. As for her, she was learning what it meant to have a lot of her character and, worse, memories formed by crappy choices that had been all her own and all, she had believed, to the good. A lot of them had been terrific fun at the time. When most of that changed, it was like having a new person inside you who was ill and petty and corrupted, and only at best recovering. There were times, alone in the bathroom especially it seemed – bright domain of filth and a mirror – when she was sick to death of being herself. She hated her own hands and arms even as she looked at them. Didn’t maturity mean you became selfless and peaceful, and thought more about other people? Weren’t old people, doddering about in the grocery store, calm and untroubled? When a girlfriend invited her on an Alaskan cruise she declined. Thoughts had jelled, and she decided she hated travel.

After a long time in solitude, and a few bright brittle attempts at speed dating, she met Richard, who saw what was glancing out at him, as it were, from behind her eyes. What might have been the soft or comic look of his bright bald head and blue eyes was hardened by a hook-tipped nose and stocky figure reminiscent of some anonymous general in a crowded Renaissance painting. He looked as if he had just dismounted and taken off his armor. He looked at her in public in that way women love and women choose. Here was love, again. Love for the third time, the love of a man who had met her after she had survived, who looked and seemed to say, I can make you want to travel. I’ll take you to Paris, and it will be as it is always for everyone, the City of Light. She understood him, and was thrilled in a tiny spot way deep down in her insides. She waited.

He planned a trip to Paris for them, and she allowed herself to become excited by it. Maybe she could do it. Maybe Paris could be magical after all, change her and make her better, more normal. He mentioned places which she then looked up on maps and in books. The Place des Vosges, the Musee de Cluny. Vaux le Vicomte. She saw herself as beautifully relaxed and having what everyone called "a good time," strolling across bridges and so on, in the city that all civilized people must see, must want to see, at some time in a life. Maybe Rome after that, maybe Venice.

Richard and Rachel went so far as to make hotel reservations and buy airplane tickets and talk about it to their various friends. She marked it on her calendar in red. The night before, she lay in bed thinking in terms of hours. In a few hours, we’ll be on our way. It’s morning there now. We’ll arrive this afternoon, their time, or will it be tomorrow? We’ll eat, and see the palaces and streets where historic people lived intensely, suffered and killed kings, never knew if they’d be guillotined the next day. She thought ... what if I should run into Dennis and a new woman in Paris? She smiled a little. He liked Paris, it’s possible. He may even be back with Sheila. Imagine it. Or what if I met Hank?

In a flash a scene played out in her mind. She and Richard ran into Hank in Paris, and the spoiled blessings of her whole life flooded into her and turned everything inside her skin to water. She saw herself running down a Paris street, sobbing, out of control. It was possible. She began to sweat and had all she could do to struggle out from underneath the blankets and stumble in the dark to the bathroom. She almost didn’t make it. I can’t go, she thought as she sat there. Relief and incoherence battled within her. Of course I’m not going.

Richard came to pick her up. She had been up since midnight. To her, it was still yesterday. She told him. It was ghastly and humiliating but the sweet relief was worth it. All her possessions and furniture, the suitcase, unneeded now, the very walls of her home seemed to look at her and breathe, it’s all right. He’ll soon be gone, and you can stay here and not have to wander Paris, smiling and counting hours.

He was furious, of course. He tried to josh her out of her panic but she said something bitter to make him understand. The look of love in his eyes died away. It might come back, who knew; she didn’t care. She quoted Dodsworth at him. "You know Dodsworth?" she asked. Again she was the businesswoman with hard, appraising eyes.
Don’t give a fuck if I do, he thought, looking at her with clenched-mouth patience because he never intended to see her again. He also didn’t want to miss his flight.
"No."
She raised a glass of orange juice poured at one in the morning and warm now, which she had loaded with gin, and assessed it as if it were a prize. " ‘Since the days of Alexander the Great there has been a fashionable belief that travel is agreeable and highly educative. Actually, it is one of the most arduous yet boring of all pastimes.’ "
"I gotta go."
"I’m sorry. But I did tell you this on our first speed date. Remember?"
"Whatever." Her door slammed.

In another thirty seconds he was gone. He peeled out of the parking lot below in his new black BMW. Rachel finished her drink and added this to her life’s store of crappy memories, things that formed her that she wished did not. The store seemed to be piling up so. Now she understood people who wished they could be eleven again, forever. That bright simple confidence in an eternal summer-world, that feeling of loving oneself because one is naturally marvelous. The future stretching out forever, clean and perfect. At eleven, you don’t even put it into words. You simply know you’re a god.

She picked up the phone to call Jennifer, to tell her she would be home for the week after all. Then she remembered, Jennifer was spending the week at her dad’s house anyway. So Hank couldn’t possibly be in Paris. What a fool. That still left Dennis, but still, what a fool. She replaced the phone, and bent her head and laughed softly. Then she put her empty glass in the sink, took a shower and got dressed for the day. Planes flew overhead as she was out and about in town. Her lack of sleep didn’t seem to affect her. She wore a low-cut blouse.

That weekend she gave herself a long-deferred treat, and went to the local animal shelter and adopted a little dog. She named him Dodsworth, and bought him dishes and a leash and toys. She took him out to the park and sat on a bench, while he leaped about and panted happily into the breeze, or squirmed in her lap. The whole story lay rehearsed, on the tip of her tongue, ready to be told to anyone.

The End

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