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O LAX, demesne of frustrated desire and expectation. Daily, half a million await the arrival of love, departure from heartache, accidents of fate and baggage. They watch and wait. They sit and wait. They play video games and wait, and wait, and wait. If anticipation is indeed better than the goal, then bliss is American built.
I was stopped over in the airport terminal, standing in the madness of the mid nineteen-nineties. Around me, hair shone slicker than an oil spill, a watch glittered on every wrist, festive scarves bloomed over shoulders, necks, and breasts. Filled with prosperous people, the beautiful and the annoyed, it was like an enormous office party where the drinks have been watered down. I moved through the crowd, humming Sukiyaki under my breath.
The realization hit me: I, Charles P. Salt, bureaucrat, was alone, free. I had no debts, no diseases, my limbs were intact, my neuroses entertaining and my soul ready for love. No more gazing longingly into the glowing windows of family homes, watching as Biff and Betsy tucked in little Tammy. No more yearning outside hermetically sealed North American bungalows, where fathers, mothers, and children soaked in love and lamplight, like peaches in the golden juice of their lives. I was going to South East Asia. I didn't need them. I didn't need anyone.
I had decided to change my life. Until now, I lived in a condominium. I wore glasses and my hair was brown, brown, brown. I was tired of the little chases and flirtations, the daily grind of driving all over the city to rent tapes from perverts and slackers, staring at a tiny screen to read tiny print, excusing myself to jerk off after watching America's Funniest Home videos, tired, tired. You know how it is. Dreaming of domestic bliss, I would go to parks and observe little children and the vigilant mothers, who regarded them with eagle eyes, lips parted ready to bray out for danger. I waited and watched, hovering under trees, tying my shoelaces over and over again. My uncle Nate used to say, "There's no harm in looking if you don't touch." But then, my uncle had lost both arms in a plowing accident, so this much was easy for him.
One afternoon, I looked at the sky and decided that perhaps existence was getting too hard here. A five-year-old had upended me, sending me sprawling on the bike path. "I've heard that South East Asia is heaven," I said, gazing at the lovely, wary mother who helped untangle me from my bicycle.
"I can't go." she said, misunderstanding me completely. "I'm happily married."
"Of course," I said.
I offered her my hand and forgave her as she pulled me up. Even though she and all of her ilk had driven me to solitude, my enemies were so beautiful. There could be no rancor between us.
"But you hate traveling," Rhona, my girlfriend, screeched when I informed her of my impending departure. "When I wanted to go to the mountains, you said--you insisted--that the motels along the way were just fronts for human butchering operations--"
"A tad dramatic."
"--and our fillings would be melted down into charm bracelets for flat-chested, middle-aged socialites who wear Mary Janes and barrettes."
"I was wrong."
"Charles P. Salt, when I wanted to go to Vegas, you told me we'd end up in a bathtub full of ice with our spleens removed and sold to a man named Wan He, who would hawk them as aphrodisiacs on the streets of Beijing. You didn't want to go to Niagara Falls in summertime--"
"One false step and I'd fall in."
"They have guard rails," she screamed, flinging her Lean Cuisine at my head. "You just don't want to die with me."She was a perceptive, insightful woman. That’s why I stayed with her. But she was, as I said, a perceptive, insightful woman. Why she stayed with me continued to mystify.
When I got up, prepared to leave, Rhona reappeared, wearing a pink bathrobe. Her face was washed and her bangs had been brushed out of her eyes.
"Would you like to visit for a while?" she asked, standing in the doorway. It was a last ditch attempt to keep me here, and I had to admit that my heart, if nothing else, went out to her. "I don't think so," I said, getting up from the sofa. As I stretched, bits of pasta fell from out of the creases in my sweater. "Traffic is going to be a bitch," I added.
Rhona was right in one respect, at least--I hate travel. But a grand adventure was never my plan.
Every story is a journey, my high school English teacher once told us, quoting some unspecified person, which is a fine way of saying nothing about nothing, because if you think hard enough, every story is also like: drinking a bottle of tequila at a table in the middle of the night; playing poker; or, vacuuming an area rug. In fact, it's not so hard to imagine the journey-story or story-journey being a number of other things that contain enough repetition and sudden bursts of activity. English teachers are overrated, so are tequila and poker. And voyages across bridges leading to nowhere most definitely are overrated if they can be so many things and nothing in themselves. Only the discontented need to move constantly. They need the diversions that others provide, like bank robbers, stealing pieces of a life more interesting.
Unhappy people love travel and travel makes them unhappy. They long for it, they talk about it, they save their little pennies so they can go off and buy backpacks and water bottles and money belts, and little bottles of shampoo and rail tickets and rain slickers and ugly, ugly little hats that can be washed and wrung out in the sewers of Calcutta without losing their shape, as if that were a wonderful thing.
Old people, they travel because they have nothing to else to do. They migrate to Miami, or drive around in RVs with the blessing of their children, the modern equivalent of being pushed off of an ice floe. I loathe travel, and I despise people who profess to be passionate about it, especially the ones who shuttle around from one underdeveloped country to another, stomping on rare spongy plants, which they proceed to photograph and classify. I hate the way they rub coconut-scented sunscreen on the tips of their noses and twitter on about meeting "really interesting German girls." Travelers meet travelers. They talk exclusively to people with the same damn hobby. They might as well go to Star Trek conventions.
It is not a virtue to watch life from behind a camera, to move past vendors in a blur, to laugh at local custom, to drink, smoke hash, live your life at a remove simply because you can remove yourself. Motion is not depth, action, or feeling. It is what it is, and as long as you are in motion, the eating, the washing, the dying, they will mean nothing.
I do not want to be a spectator to a parade of foreign lives. I want to live mine calmly, and with ease, make it my own.
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