When I graduated from college, in the spring of 2001, it seemed to me that where I situated myself, where I’d been and wherever I went next, indicated who I was. Place was like fashion, a signifier like a college sweatshirt. But place was also a passport, a record of collected stamps and visas, sure, but a ticket elsewhere. And since I had always admired beyond limit those people who had been to far off places, most of them characters in books, I had to follow suit.
But it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined.
For one thing, I had a bad case of wallflower, and, for another, I suffered a conflicting urge to get a job, be a grown up, live in the real world, whatever that was. But what really had me dizzy was the sheer vastness of options. I had reached this thrilling moment in my life, a threshold, with my spanking new college degree. It was as if I stood at the top of a great mountain—a peak in history coinciding with that peak in my own life—outfitted with the very best skis. All around were trails that I might choose: sweeping, soft trails; complex, wooded trails; rough, rocky trails with vast cliff-top views. I knew some would intersect below, but once I started down, I would never have this array before me again; I could never return to where I stood. The breadth of choices, and my correspondingly great indecision, all but paralyzed me.
When the summer ran out and I had failed in my half-assed attempts to find a job, I essentially closed my eyes, spun around, and when I opened them again, pushed off. In other words, I bought a plane ticket to Portugal, and sent a deposit to an ESL teacher-training program in Galicia, Spain. Galicia, I’d read, had been invaded by Vikings, Visigoths, Normans, and even Julius Caesar himself. So what if Christopher Columbus himself hadn’t been born in Pontevedra, as some locals maintained; his ship the Santa Maria was built there. For someone who couldn’t decide where in the world to go, it seemed as good place as any to launch an adventure, or at least spin out for a while. And it was, but not for the reasons I’d expected.
Portugal was predictably stunning—a wash of blue sea beyond white stucco and an abundance of morning glories. But it wasn’t sightseeing I had come seeking and because I knew that the ineffable thing I sought wasn’t there in that endless picture postcard unreeling around me, I couldn’t make myself focus on anything I saw. I wandered distractedly around Lisbon for a day or two, then caught a northbound train to Oporto and wandered there until finally it was time to cross the border and make my way to Pontevedra for my first day of yet more school. By this time, I was breathless to get there. I loved first days of school, but I botched this one.
Galicia is directly north of Portugal, but for the sake of a unified Spain, it doesn’t use Portuguese time. When I realized my mistake, I was in the lobby of the institute, a full, mortifying hour late. With my stomach creeping up my throat, I cracked open the classroom door and stepped in.
The instructor was flustered by my arrival, and perhaps more so by my gushing apologies, but since I’d broken his train of thought anyway, he decided to introduce me the other students who all sat around a long table. I scanned their faces, a wide smile upon my own. They looked back at me with flat expressions.
“Hi,” I said too brightly, making a vague waving motion with my hand. “I’m Molly. I’m from New York.”
This obfuscation that Upstate farm girls like me have at our disposal was meant to dazzle them. But it backfired from the very beginning.
The ten others introduced themselves as Welsh or New Zealander or Australian, and I began to realize that it wasn’t my tardiness but my conspicuous Americanness that I’d put on display for them when I’d flirted for my teacher’s forgiveness, asking to be exempted from the rules, to be granted special privileges, as if the rules did not apply to me.
Aside from a snow-haired man in the corner who had lived in Japan for over a decade, I was the only one in that English-speaking room from the U.S.
I pulled up a chair and sat down, willing my body to disappear.
They’d see, I told myself. I wasn’t loud or belligerent. I didn’t intend to be loose or easy for the Spanish boys. And I knew that I didn’t subsist on McDonald’s hamburgers and Heinz ketchup or flutter my little pom-poms every time my president cleared his throat. I was a nice girl, and I would damned well show them. Then I raised my own bet: by the time they were done knowing me, I decided, they’d all think differently about the U.S.
I got my first chance to prove them all wrong as soon as class let out for the afternoon siesta.
“Is your luggage here?” the director asked me, glancing around. “Maybe one of these young men can help get you to the flat.”
“Yeah, all right,” one of the Aussie boys agreed, his tone only a click above put-out.
“Thank you,” I said, flashing my only-in-America smile, laughing with my eyes.
I unshouldered my backpack—a black canvas thing that was more school bag than traveling pack and was more than half filled by the Canon camera I’d bought one year earlier when I’d been a student in Katmandu—and handed it over.
He weighed the bag with his hand, disbelieving. And then he actually said it: “But you’re American!”
“Indeed,” I said, laughing, reaching to reclaim my bag. “And I can carry it myself.”
As he led me out of the school and into the streets, I gazed around me to see what I could of Pontevedra. In the cobbled walking avenue outside our school a string band played “Strangers in the Night.” In the plaza by the Iglesia de la Peregrina there were pigeons swirling in flight. Portugal hadn’t caught my attention; I’d just been passing through. But I would stay in this town for six weeks at least, and so I saw it differently, wondering where I’d sit in this picture, what landmarks would resonate later in my memory, what narrow streets would be the backdrop to whatever would happen to me here in Spain.
It was ridiculously easy to win my classmates over: not one of them could cook, let alone clean up afterwards.
I started simply, with fresh bread from the market, olives, sliced apples, and Galician teta cheese (so called because it is shaped like a tit). Once everyone was eating together, vino tinto was required. Someone ran out for a few bottles. When the party moved into the living room, trailing tobacco smoke tinged with hashish, I stuck candles into the emptied wine bottles and set them on the table. Then I slipped away and opened the sponge and dish soap I’d picked up along with the food. When I came back in, the two Aussie boys were strumming guitar, the New Zealander was blowing smoke rings and singing out of tune, the British girl was falling asleep on the couch. Without fanfare, I set before them fruit, white chocolate, a just-opened bottle.
“You’re a real American sweetheart, aren’t you,” the real Irish barkeep told me as I topped off his glass.
ACDC came on the radio. Knocking me out with those American thighs.
Then, just as we began to fall in love with one another, everything changed.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I’d just arrived back at school, my mind still mossy from my siesta. Maybe I was late, or maybe they were just looking at me strangely, but I came fully awake to the sensation that I was again the only stranger in the room.
“Did you hear what happened,” our instructor said, stammering a bit. He was Scottish. He pronounced “what” as if it were spelled “h-what.” But the “you” I knew, was me.
“H-what” had happened was not any more clear than it was believable. A plane had flown into a building. Or two planes into two buildings. He wasn’t sure, exactly; it had only just happened. In New York.
It was as if the room were on a ship and we had struck something. The floor bucked, tilted, and stayed some forty degrees off-kilter. To keep from tipping over, I sat down. Outside, the string band was still playing “Strangers in the Night,” as it had done for weeks, over and over again. “H-wat” were words. “H-wat” could they mean. …Exchanging glances, wondering in the night, what were the chances… Was that hashish smoke in my eyes? New York has green hills as well as towers, herds as well as hordes. That song, again!
I blinked up at my teacher, begging clemency for not knowing the correct answer to his question, promising good behavior in the future. Not knowing what else to do, he granted me my wish and class began, but far away and muted by the thudding of blood in my ears.
The next thing I remember, I was in my room, a dark space as close as a closet, really, with one grim window overlooking the building’s ventilation shaft. It was probably designed to be the maid’s bedroom in that otherwise sprawling and sunny apartment, which I supposed was apt given the role I’d filled as the only one in our household who dared clean the bidet. But now I liked the little room for all of the reasons it was undesirable, for its airless closeness, for its darkness. But because it was near the kitchen, the voices drifted in, and as hard as I tried not to listen, I couldn’t help but hear.
“Well, America had it coming,” one of my flatmates said.
“It’s America’s problem,” said another.
No one argued with either point. Why would they? Who would want their own country embroiled in the mess everyone sensed—no, everyone knew—was imminent? It was the tactless sort of thing people say graveside: well, what besides a heart attack did Old Fred think he’d get, eating all those cheeseburgers? But I retracted from my friends; I reestablished our borders.
As their dirty plates and wine-encrusted glasses piled up in the sink, I walked. For days I wandered aimlessly through the old city, forever circling back to the same central plaza, even as I tried to avoid it. Everywhere there were the headlines; there were those pictures. I looked away and hurried onward, with nowhere to go. Back to the plaza again, and again. Pigeons still swirled past the Peregrina, their wings flashing white in the sunlight. There was some relief in that.
When the sun began to feel too hot, I sat down at a café in the shade and ordered a liter of mineral water, which I nursed as afternoon warmed into evening, and with evening, the people of Pontevedra came out. Baby carriages were parked beside outdoor tables upon which glasses of vino tinto gleamed like scattered rubies in the golden light. Little flocks of children scattered pigeons from the cobblestones. On the low wall by the old church tower, lithe girls sat upon the laps of boys, laughing and sometimes kissing. Elderly couples strolled slowly past.
It used to be, I recalled, that the sun never set on Spain, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula, to Africa, the Americas, and west with the day to Oceania. Back before it never set on Britain. Back before the United States made its own damned light and called it progress instead of conquest, influence instead of empire. After centuries, the Spanish Empire had fallen, and look what had happened: life went on beautifully. I drank in the sight of it.
One day, instead of walking, I went shopping. I bought a dark knee-length skirt, high tan leather boots, and a cowl-neck mohair sweater the color of the cafe con leche I sipped from bowls each morning in the plaza. I paid obscenely for these items—80 Euros for the sweater alone—considering I was an unemployed teacher-to-be. But I didn’t care. I felt changed, and it became imperative to look different too.
Of course, the fashionable clothing were hardly a salve for—what was it exactly that I felt? A not-unfamiliar keening of grief mixed with a new tearing sensation that I vaguely understood to be related to exile. None of my efforts to hide or lose myself in a crowd of strangers or the maze of old streets or the tangle of history were very successful either. In those suspended September weeks, no matter what I wore or ate or whom I loved or how much wine I drank when my roommates set the glass in front of me and kept it full until I finally wept, I was Pontevedra’s resident American girl, the one Spanish women approached on the street and hugged long and hard against chests that were universally maternal, before showing me snapshots of their sons who lived in New Jersey, in Queens, who were safe, gracias a Diós, but what a tragedy.
As with any tragedy, the gestures of sympathy were sweet, but hard to take. The British girl wrote home to her mother for a recipe for cauliflower in cheese sauce. The Welsh boy, who it turned out could cook, made moussaka, and in his sudden flush of generosity and compassion would have gotten down on one knee and offered to take care of me always if the others hadn’t discouraged it. The New Zealander who smelled of sandalwood hand-rolled cigarettes for me, sprinkling each with the street medicine she used to mute her own grief.
At the darkest point, I went with her and the two Aussie boys to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral where the pilgrims have come for over a thousand years. My own spirituality has never been an indoor creature, and churches have rarely moved me to more than an inflamed fascination for architecture, but over 3,000 souls were being laid to rest across the Atlantic, and they were only the very first few casualties in what I was convinced was an imminent and catastrophic war. It was an all-hands-on-deck moment, and although Americans were going home, I was there in the house of the apostle Saint James. So I sat down in the pews, bowed my head, and gave God my best shot, adding my clumsy prayer for peace to all the prayers that have echoed from that stone, that perhaps on some infinitesimal level still do echo. I thought about the fall of the Spanish Empire, about the first and second world wars, about a teacher who’d urged those who would follow him to turn the other cheek. I thought about Pearl Harbor and its bookend, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought about my college friends—all safe—in New York. I thought about all of the strangers in that city across the sea who weren’t safe.
When I couldn’t come up with anything more, I got up and walked out of the church and found my friends on the steps outside. One of the Aussie boys took my hand and held it.
Later, back in Pontevedra, I would reach for him in turn, in the middle of the cobbled street where we’d been caught in a downpour, and he would kiss me, a kiss so faint, so fluttering and fleeting—not at all satisfying to the starving passion I suddenly realized was in me—that I knew it wasn’t real, that he wasn’t really there and neither was I.
In a week, we’d both be gone. But first, he sketched a drawing of me, a memento of his own American-girl love song to carry away with him on his walkabout.
The strange thing was, in those final weeks of September, as my American-ness became even more apparent and important to others, it seemed to be slipping away from me. In the papers I read that Americans abroad were returning home in droves. But I felt as if my internal compass had been reversed, its magnetic charge flipped so that the U.S., my family, all that fertile earth I’d been raised upon, no longer pulled but repulsed me.
A war was coming, I was sure of it. I felt its vibrations beneath my feet like those of a train. I could not join it, could not be a part of it.
I was a nice girl. I wanted to win over the whole world—feed it, clean up after it, kiss it goodnight—to prove to all who doubted what I still believed America was, at its big, generous heart.
At least, I had to do something. But what?
Instead of doing anything at all, I lingered in my expat romance, poured more vino tinto into the hole in me and then sang the blues from some unknown place within me so that my friends stopped at stared.
“Where have you been hiding that?” asked the boy who kissed so gently it was as if he weren’t there.
The next morning, I left for Lisbon.
Portugal had blue morning glories and tiled roofs and glittering seascapes, but it had no flights to New York. Schedules were in upheaval, no one was flying, hadn’t I heard? The airline agents tried to shoo me away: there was nothing they could do, no flights, no schedule, nothing.
Without realizing what I was doing, by habit really, I let tears well. What was I supposed to do, I asked, my fingers taking hold of the counter. The agent was exasperated at first—surely she was not to blame for the world’s bout of insanity, but when she saw the brewing tears she sighed, clearly lacking the wherewithal to watch another girl from New York cry, and started to type.
The next thing I knew, someone was running me in my loud Spanish boots past the confusion of new security protocols, down the long terminal corridors, to the gate of a flight just departing for Madrid. When that flight began its descent, an attendant asked someone in the front row to switch seats with me so I could deplane first and maybe make my connection. Then I was running again, a boarding pass pressed into my hands, to a jet-way door held open for me on the only flight that day into New York.
As I settled into my window seat, breathless and harried, I could feel eyes on me. The whole plane, it seemed, was watching me, the girl they’d been waiting for. I fantasized that they mistook me for a celebrity, an actress perhaps, or maybe a diplomat’s daughter. But I knew what it really was about. In those wrecked weeks there was great collective affection for an American girl on a plane to New York, and I rode the wave of it all the way across the Atlantic.
Then, descending into Newark, I gazed across the river at two limp spires of smoke. A few minutes later, I deplaned in a country I hardly recognized, from its proliferation of flags to the armed National Guardsmen prowling the airport. I felt as though I was visiting my homeland in a hospital bed, and as happens sometimes with hospital visits, I was revolted, not by my old, dear friend, but by the abject creature that had supplanted her.
Dazed by the extended daylight, I fought an urge to reboard that plane from Spain, or step over to any other counter offering a destination on the board behind the agent. It was a silly impulse. I should pay my respects, I should be with my family. Then, just when reasoning didn’t seem like enough to force myself forward, it was as if the old America winked at me through all of the bandages.
Before me and the paltry flow of arriving travelers stood a redcap, a stout gray-haired man with dark-rimmed glasses, up on a box with his arms spread wide. I realized he was singing, his tenor rich and operatic. When I began to listen, I realized that it wasn’t a song he sang, just words, ad-lib, that he put to music.
Welcome to this country, he sang, throwing his voice as best he could into the cold, cavernous space that contained the rushes and eddies of the river of us newly arrived. Welcome, welcome, welcome. Welcome to you and welcome to you. Welcome, welcome. You are welcome here.
The flash was white: here was what I wanted to do, to throw open my body and voice.
Ten days later I sat aboard another international flight, heading for the first in a series of places with reason not to love my country, trying to be my own version of the Newark Airport redcap, to teach, to hammer, to help, but more than that, to learn by doing to stand in the current with my arms open.
A lovely story. Touching, insightful, inspiring and extremely well written.
Beautiful. I’ve been the non-Americans in those rooms. We’re quick to criticise and I’m sorry for that. You are still a nation of individuals and I do count many Americans among my good friends.