Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Tourister

When I graduated high school, my parents gave me a set of luggage.  It was a curious gift-- not anything I'd ever thought about.  Maybe it symbolized my coming-of-age Bon Voyage.  For me, I couldn't think of anything I had to put in there.  They seemed like things that adults had-- practical things, and felt like a sort of unfulfilled promise I'd made, accepting them.  In those days they hadn't invented wheels-- these cases were heavy and cumbersome. But I had no choice.  I packed one for college, and it was a pain to stow in our tiny crowded dorm rooms.

My college boyfriend gave me a puppy at school--- she grew up to be this graceful deer-like German Shepherd mix who followed us around, slept outside my classroom buildings, etc.  In those days there was a whole hippy culture of campus dogs.  Anyway, one day she was kidnapped by a hideous character who crashed parties and stalked girls.  I followed her trail of blood to the parking lot where he must have let her out, after slashing her.  We desperately tied ripped up sheets around her wound and tearfully hitchhiked to the nearest Vet who promised to cure her, but didn't.  Her violent death haunted me for years.  We collected her cold body, wrapped her in my coat, and buried her inside my blue suitcase at the Jersey Shore.  She'd loved the surf, the beach; she was so beautiful and elegant, and had used my case as a bed on many occasions-- curled up in there, with the blue satin lining.

Sometime during college I met the great love of my life--- that breed of bad angel with a jagged halo and a guitar who steals your heart clean.  It was a wrecking and passionate story… and in the end, each of us went our separate ways--me to New York, he to his childhood girlfriend who heartbreakingly stood by and suffered his indiscretions.  Once I'd seen her--- she begged me-- I couldn't bear her sorrow.  Anyway, the night before their wedding, he showed up-- drove down from Boston, with a packed suitcase in the trunk.  Let's elope, he said.  We'll get married and take the Canadian railroad to Vancouver.  The suitcase was half empty.  I was overcome.  We sat up all night in a diner, drinking hot chocolate, planning our lives… and in the morning, I said goodbye.  He was late for his church wedding, but he showed up.  All that next week I kept thinking about the suitcase; we'd always thrown our stuff into the back of the car, like gypsies… but that suitcase was so new-- so 'adult'-- I felt the same burden I'd felt  at my graduation.  And thinking about the suitcases he no doubt had left with his wife… packed with what might have become relics of the death of marriage… things she would never have been able to open… This helped me find some sort of sad closure-- and besides, I had New York to explore…

My husband was a British journalist I'd met briefly who flew over to see me on a whim with no suitcase at all -- just the suit he had on, and a couple of books.  He brought flowers and came every weekend to renew his proposal.  One of my older and wiser woman friends remarked that if her husband had ever once looked at her the way this man looked at me--well, she'd die happy.  So I gradually let him pack up my things and carry them back to London, piece by piece.  I followed, with no suitcase-- and married him, had his baby, as I promised.  My last night in London involved his tossing my packed case from the window of our perfect flat, after a typically alcohol-fueled soliloquy about my going on the road, my imagined indiscretions--- whatever.  A lorry ran it over, and I flew PanAm from Heathrow for the last time.  After a few more dramatic episodes, he exited the marital stage, final act.  My son has not heard from his father in 20 years.  I left everything in the flat, including empty suitcases.

For years I used to see this old scruffy man with a beat-up cheap guitar in the subway.  He had one of those little portable seats and a red-plaid suitcase with a zipper--- the kind you'd see in a Hayley Mills movie from the 1950's.  He had piles of cassettes, hats, scarves, papers in that suitcase which he also used to hold the coins and dollars people threw in.  He sang like a saint, with this sandpapery edge in the lower registers, and his eyes watered.  The last time I saw him,  gaffers tape was holding that suitcase together.  His eyes were cloudy and his face looked drawn and hollow.  I wished I knew where he went at night, with that suitcase and his guitar… he didn't talk much.

There is something sad for me when I see people with luggage… coming, going-- saying goodbye, leaving something or someone behind.  Traveling is happy for tourists--- but for me I can't help thinking I'll never see these streets again, these buildings, this airport… I hate packing and I hate unpacking.  I hate endings.  Maybe that's why I seem to stay up all night until the morning--- so I know the light has come, and I'm safely into tomorrow.  Today I helped this Italian girl find the room she is renting in New York City so she can pursue her dream of becoming a singer.  She was so filled with hope, with her heavy suitcases and her new shoes.  I left her in front of the YMCA; I watched while they frisked and searched her things for some long minutes before they finally showed her the elevators to her overpriced little cubicle-cell which I hope is not too depressing, where she will unpack her dreams and hopefully find her way.  She asked me for my number, to have a coffee, but somehow I couldn't bear another New York City heartbreak, another sad ending, another unfinished story on ragged old papers of memory stuffed inside a suitcase.

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