There and Back Again
I am now booked for four domestic and international trips over the next two months: Seattle, India, Boston, England. Some for work, some for pleasure, some for both. Lately, my life has seemed like a train on the tracks, rolling past the same people and places at the same time every day. I’m eager for change.
My plane touches down around 9 p.m. Seattle time. It’s midnight back home in DC, and I worked a full day before my coast-to-coast flight. Still, the lights sparkling outside my hotel window call to me, and all I want is not to be alone in a strange city.
So I do what countless lonely travelers before me have done. I cross the street to a bar. At first, I sit alone, enjoying the noise around me but feeling separate, my aloneness held close like a familiar blanket.
Soon, a trio around my age invites me to their table. One of the men is Australian, and he hits on me ruthlessly. I deflect casually. As time marches on and my eyelids begin to sag, he proposes buying a bottle of wine and heading to his room. He wants to have sex with me? I don’t know why I’m surprised, but the invitation is like a cold hand on a warm thigh. I recoil, and reality reasserts itself; I think of my fiancé Jack and I’m ashamed, somehow. For being here without him. I mumble a refusal and head back to my room, my loneliness only amplified.
I wake at 6 a.m. local time, and I hope to catch Jack online. For some reason, the events of last night have shaken me. It’s not the first time I’ve been hit on during a work trip, but each time, it affects me deeply. Without the usual layers of routine, I feel vulnerable, like I’ve left home without my skin. But Jack isn’t there, so I grudgingly leave for 12 hours of meetings.
I’ve barely seen the city, but after two days packed with lectures and breakout sessions and tête-à-tête over coffee, I feel too exhausted to do more than stare out my taxi window at a city sparkling through raindrops.
I have 5 a.m, flight tomorrow, but on an impulse, I call a couple that Jack and I knew in DC. They moved to Seattle a year ago, and invited us to hang out with them if we were ever in town.
Five hours later, after good sushi, great beer, and an excellent night of board games, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to go. I’ve seen the best of you, Seattle.
Back to work, feeling fuzzy around the edges. Not jet lag—I wasn’t gone that long—but fatigue. And I’m only getting started. In two days, I leave for India. The thought is terrifying; somehow, it still feels like the trip should be two months away.
Jack and I are five episodes away from the end of The Sopranos, season 2. We decide to wait until after I’m back from India to continue. I feel like I’m failing him; not only am I leaving for two weeks, but when I’m here, I’m not really here. I’m typing up endless emails about the India trip or feverishly finishing freelance stories before I’m MIA.
I’m a lucky girl, I tell him. Lucky that he cares about my writing career and supports me when my work calls me away.
Of course I do, Jack says.
My boss is anxious about missing our flight to India, so we meet at the airport at noon. We take off at 2 p.m. for an hour-long flight to Newark, and then we sit around again until an 8 p.m. flight to Mumbai. By the time we board, we’ve exhausted all sources of small talk, and I’ve finished reading a book. Now for the hard part.
I alight from the fifteen-hour flight utterly sick of myself. My hands smell like yeasty sweat and stale croissants, and I long for a shower. The air in Mumbai is smoky and spicy, like a kabob roasted over a trash fire.
I check into my hotel and plug in my computer. Civilization. Jack is on Skype, and we chat across the thousands of miles. It feels like any conversation we have after a long day at work, and the normalcy is reassuring. As we say goodbye, I remember it’s Valentine’s Day.
My work has not started yet, so I am left to my own devices. I wander the streets of Bandra, searching for cheap skirts and tunics. Ruth, my best friend, is due with her first child any day now, and I anxiously check my Facebook app for updates. I feel homesickness begin to gnaw at me, but I won’t allow myself to wish that I were anywhere else.
I am in India, for Christ’s sake. I allow my mind to be blown by the simultaneous grandeur and squalor of Mumbai and the radical optimism of its residents. I feel at home here among the smells and the colors; life is more vibrant. I wonder if I can convince Jack to move here. Maybe for just a year?
Ruth gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at 5 a.m. home-time. I am thrilled and I tell her so, but I am also heartsick and angry at myself. What could have been more important than sharing this experience with her?
I landed in Nagpur about an hour ago; it’s in central India. It’s much cleaner and smaller than Mumbai. I pace my new hotel room, which looks like any other anonymous room in the world, and I cry.
I’ve never felt farther from home.
I round out my trip with one last Indian meal and one last shopping trip. I’ve never looked forward to fifteen hours in a cramped space so much. I’m going home.
My taxi cab driver shuttles me along the toll road from Dulles International Airport. I stare out the window, and something nags at me. The road looks strange. Clean and sterile and completely devoid of people. No trash, no kids, no color. In Mumbai, it would have been crawling with sari-clad mothers carrying baskets and children dodging motorbikes and junkies passed out on the median. I miss it.
I’ve caught an unshakeable cold. In between dreams, I hover between home and the places I’ve been. India expands in my imagination and haunts every ordinary scene here. I alternate between an unreasonable terror that I’ve caught some fatal disease and a hunger to go back. India, land of extremes.
I wake up in Boston to the sun streaming through an uncurtained window. I’m here for a conference, and a friend offered her spare room in a quaint brownstone as a refuge. She and her roommates have all left for work by the time I wander downstairs.
I feel terribly free, alone in someone else’s house. Like I am someone else—not them, but not myself, either. I peek into the pantry and I count the toothbrushes in the bathroom and I read a list on the wall of the roommates’ resolutions. Run the Boston Marathon. Host more Wine Wednesdays. Don’t worry about boys this year.
I wake up early for a 7 a.m. flight from Boston to London. Jack will meet me there. I stumble out into the cold dawn and feel the world blur around me. I am here, soon I will be there, but I feel like I am nowhere.
We are here in England for the wedding of an old friend of Jack’s. This morning, we woke up to the whirl of a blizzard outside the window of our Holiday Inn. The snow continued through the ceremony and reception, surrounding us in a surreal brightness.
Jack caught a cold, so we’re sequestered in a boutique hotel in London. I venture into the snow, which is still falling in fits and starts, on a mission to find comfort food in an unfamiliar city. Chicken ramen at Wagamama, the ubiquitous London noodle chain, and boxed apple juice at the corner store.
Though I’m disappointed to put our weeklong vacation on hold for a few days, I take a perverse sort of pleasure in Jack’s illness. So often, I am the sick one; it’s nice to take care of him for once. We curl up under the covers, reading all the books that weighed down our suitcases.
Jack has revived, and today we walk to the Gherkin. We take pictures and made silly jokes and laugh at ourselves. It is, hands down, the best part of our trip. I can already tell.
Our last night in London. We have moved to a new hotel to try out a new neighborhood. When we checked in this morning, they upgraded us for free to a room with soft coverlets, showerheads that pour steamy water like a rainforest, and a view into the courtyard.
Jack and I buy a pint of gin and a bottle of “Indian” tonic water and stay up late, luxuriating in the room and in the last fleeting feelings of being on vacation.
It is a relief to return home, but it feels different now. I’m struck by how large the United States is, and how diverse. On the plane ride back, I look over the low marshlands of the east coast, and I begin thinking about all the places in the U.S. I’ve never been.
It takes leaving a place to understand just how little I know about it. The things I was so sure of before elude me now. In the midst of crossing a street, I realize that traffic comes from the other direction here. Even the quotidian things–being able to brush my teeth with water from the faucet, to understand more than half of the channels on TV, to cook my own meals again–delight me with their new foreignness. I buy a sandwich, and pause over my wallet, confused, trying to remember which currency to use–dollars, rupees, pounds? I wake up in bed, in the same room that once seemed to stifle me with familiarity, and I find myself wondering what continent I’m on.
It’s a delicious kind of freedom, this feeling of being in-between. And perhaps that is the greatest comfort of returning home: realizing that it is always more than you think it is.