Rusty Prose

Working it out…seeing where it goes….

My grandma digested my grandpa’s death within a week. A marriage like a long, satisfying meal that would remain a warm memory for her empty stomach. She wore black for the funeral and never again. She stopped pulling her hair tight and let it cascade like spider silk down her back. She grew more flowers and said fewer words and kept reading the Bible before bed and in the cool blue hour before dawn. I was eight, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.

I remember every moment I spent with my Grandpa because there were so few of them. He preferred my tomboy sister Emmy and looked helpless when I asked him if he’d like to join my stuffed bears for afternoon tea. But I lied to Grandma and asked her questions about him, pretending to be interested in the answers. She responded to this line of questioning by brushing my hair until every knot was combed out and my scalp tingled. On the best days she would use her nimble fingers to make a plump French braid down my back.

She lived in another time, but we did too. It was 1988, but the town was running to catch up with a decade that seemed to move faster than the others. My big brother wanted technology that was straight out an HG Wells novel while we were still battling with a 1956 Maytag refrigerator. When we got our first flea market Atari, Grandma would squint skeptically (jealously?) at it, as her story time shrank in favor of 8-bits and achy thumbs. Even I started to pull away, favoring Teen magazine and self-inflicted make-up demonstrations in the bathroom.

Dad took her to the clinic on Fat Tuesday. The widower doctor flirted with her while listening to her heart so that a good flutter could not be distinguished from a bad one. All her life she was surrounded by boys – she still called them that even when the hair sprung from their ears and they shot spittle from their mouths. She was diagnosed with nothing but a bum knee that forced her to sit every hour or so, and the boy doctor gave her a prescription for when the pain was bad.

To celebrate her clean bill of health, Dad took her to buy the Easter ham. She cradled it all the way home like a new grandchild wrapped in swaddling cheesecloth. Easter was grandma’s favorite holiday as far back as I remember.

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I’m Still Here

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I haven’t put away my passport. I’ve been turning its pages and running my fingers over its stamps. At the airport in Baltimore, the customs agent pointed to a red stamp and a blue stamp and asked where they were from, since the ink was too light to read. “Oh, those are from Morocco,” I said, trying my best nonchalance, saying it all through one feigned sigh of impatience.

I chose baptism by fire. I planned a month of travel without ever having left the country. And I did it. I can say I did and no one can say I didn’t. Unless the laws of the universe reverse themselves, I will have always been there, and there, and there. I can tell a future child, or cat, or niece, or goldfish what it was like to walk Tangier’s Kasbah in the early evening, smelling fresh-baked rose water and pistachio cookies. My trip is a true and real thing.

Traveling for weeks at a time without the stress of daily life did do some weird things to my brain. I had lots of dreams about Jimmy Cat while abroad – in most he was alive and I was petting him, though his skin was still covered in the cancerous tumors that eventually killed him. I watched my life over the past two years like I was screening a movie with a flaky female lead. I’d think about events and people that hadn’t crossed my mind in years and years. Traveling also brought out my worst bouts of anxiety – having panic attacks and lashing out at my husband over things out of his control. Every train station and airport made my breath quicken and my body tense. Every attempt at ordering dinner in France was filled with worry and embarrassment. It took about two weeks before I just let the trip wash over me.

We made an agreement to travel light, given that we’d be hopping from city to city every 2-4 nights. While coordinating my wardrobe, I assumed I’d do much of my travel in airy dresses, imagining Indian summer weather in most places. After six days of walking in rain through Amsterdam and Paris, I decided that just about every dress (6!) could kiss my ass. Most of the trip was spent in a denim shirt, two cotton tees, one wool cardigan and two pairs of jeans. I lived in my black New Balance sneakers. Once you get into a rhythm of traveling, you just stop caring what you put on your body. There’s a reason why tourists wear what they wear, and it’s not because they actually want to look like total dorks. In fact, the condition of my body seemed less and less important along the way. My leg hair grew long because there was always something more exciting to do than take long showers. Dry shampoo became my best friend and hid the days of unwash and grease. My eyebrows looked like two black caterpillars on my forehead. Our sore feet traveled over 100 miles in the course of four weeks.

The question I keep getting asked is if I’m sad that it’s over. I’m not. I’ve taken little pieces of this journey and sprinkled them on top of my life in ways that seem permanent and good. Like the Paris jazz radio station I’ve been streaming while reading and writing. Like my impulse to cook tapas for everyone in my life, and watching their faces when they take their first bites of jamon de belota and aged manchego. Taking time for a slow lunch once in a while. Eating croissants on the weekends, waistline be damned. Continuing to hone my Spanish and French, while feeling proud that I learned a few words in Arabic. Realizing that the world is HUGE – so, so, so much larger than I ever imagined. Knowing that despite my tiny place in it, I need to continue giving back in big and small ways.

So now what to do? Well, I had no major revelation during the trip, other than I should do what I do, but better. Explore more. Read more. Give more. Share more. Love more. Take all the good things I hope to do in my life and put them on steroids. I’m ready to give all of myself with no expectation of return.

I didn’t diary during the trip, though I had hoped to have the time. Instead I stored moments in my head that felt particularly special, which seems like a more honest way of remembering. So, here are a few to close it all up:

Walking through Buckingham Palace’s paintings gallery and being shocked to see Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” on the wall. While I knew what to expect in most museums we visited, this was a sweet surprise.

Strolling the Amsterdam canals at night, full of beer and bitterballen.

Biking through Amstel Park in a parka in the pouring rain and never wanting it to end.

Packing a full picnic for the Musee D’Orsay, only to be rained out. Instead finding shelter under the Pont des Arts and making ham and butter sandwiches while drinking a full bottle of Bordeaux until the storm let up.

Avoiding the crowds at the Mona Lisa so I could spend half an hour admiring the five other Da Vinci’s in the adjacent gallery, unbothered.

Witnessing a genuine French restaurant fight in Avignon between a waiter and a hostess that included screaming in the kitchen, angry exits, and a resigned return to refill our glasses of wine.

Drinking wine and smoking cigarettes on the patio of the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles and feeling its history in my bones.

Discovering L’isle-sur-la Sorgue, with its water mills and world’s happiest ducks.

Running into the La Mercè festival in Barcelona and being fascinated and creeped out by the “gegants.” Feeling like a lucky witness to something old and special.

Having the best meal of my life in Barcelona (white chocolate foie gras!), followed by some seriously potent chupitos.

Picnic lunch at Retiro Park, where I swore I saw the moment where summer became fall in Madrid.

Seeing two of my favorite paintings, Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” and “The Third of May.”

Driving down Tangier’s beautiful, empty, unspoiled coastline.

Watching late-night dancers in El Morocco Club – the uncovered women we never saw on the streets of the city.

Successfully negotiating the price of a Moroccan rug.

More stories in the hopper! Now back to my regularly scheduled short fiction programming. Stay tuned…