“I don’t see much of you. Since you stopped traveling,” Laura says, and the words catch in my head and won’t let up.
Stopped traveling. Stopped traveling?!
Once I’m alone in my best friend’s ground floor apartment, I look at myself in the mirror. Plain, I think, winter-pale and doughy. So it’s true. Seven months pregnant and beached, if not barefoot. Milquetoast—a word, I’ve learned, that isn’t just the bread-in-hot-milk my mother used to make for me when I couldn’t sleep—milquetoast is what becomes of people who stop traveling.
There was a time when all of my journeys began and ended on Laura’s pullout couch in New Jersey. She has met my flights from Europe, Asia, South America—semesters abroad and a series of international teaching jobs—standing in a dingy terminal of Laguardia, JFK, Newark, a little back from the limo drivers holding signs. Her dark hair, I always notice first, is highlighted a little differently, curly or straightened—not ratted like mine, not coated in twenty-six-hours-from-Singapore grease. It is always so good to see her, the first sign that I’ve arrived, just as it is always good to wave goodbye to her, over my shoulder, rushing for a spot in line with my passport already out and open.
It’s not that I don’t go anywhere anymore; I’ve just flown across the country from my life Out West (which I pretend is as foreign as my past lives). But this doesn’t count with Laura—she knows, because she has visited me in both places, that New Mexico is no El Salvador. She knows the married, pregnant me is not the sixteen-year-old me, back from being an exchange student in Spain with a handle of tequila in my carry-on just for the two of us. Now her pullout couch has been junked. I’ve told her I will sleep on the floor, but three months behind me in her own pregnancy, she frets about my “condition,” goes out and buys an air mattress.
I am chastised, in any case. Pregnant or no, I never meant to dig in my heels and slow the wild ride of my footloose teens and twenties. I imagined—no, I still imagine—myself the sort of person who carries a passport as easily as a wallet, a person who looks around new-eyed, who exists in—without quite being of—the world I move through: a voyeur, perhaps, but always looking and moving and looking some more, a real traveler.
So I sit, sinking ever deeper into Laura’s living room couch, waiting for her to come home from work at the prison where she counsels men whose sexual (mis)behavior has curtailed their freedom of movement more completely than mine has done. The plan is for her to deliver me to the MetroPark train station (I’m due in New York City at suppertime). Stopped traveling, I think. And here, standing up to scorn, I’d made a bid to make the baby’s middle name Traveler. I pick up the remote control, watch the yellow bus dysfunction of Little Miss Sunshine, and wonder if a family really will make travel impossible. When the credits roll (the irony that the movie family is heading back to my hometown of Albuquerque does not escape me), I stand up, slowly, using my knees and pushing off with both hands.
Once, on my first day of high school in Madrid, Spain, I rode a bus to the end of the line and never saw my stop. I found my way home to my host family by drawing pictures of the fruit stand I’d been watching for. A decade later, stranded at pink dusk on a dirt road in Ecuadorian Amazonia, my now-husband and I, then volunteer teachers, flagged down a dump truck—the first vehicle to pass in an hour—and sloshed around in the mud of the bucket until we got to a town. I have traveled by barge, boat, chicken bus, and tractor across the Tibetan Plateau, the Central American isthmus, Old Europe. I have traveled on the roof of a train, in the bed of a truck, on horseback, and, equal in hours to all other modes, by foot.
Now, not yet thirty, I set forth again on foot, putting one puffy pata in front of the other, and waddle decisively to my corner of Laura’s nursery-to-be. I get dressed, gather my things, and drag my suitcase through the house to the backdoor (which I leave unlocked in case I need to retreat). It may only be Garwood, New Jersey, I tell myself, and I may be carrying a new, wiggling, kicking satchel within my skin, but I am a traveler, and I can get to New York, or anywhere I want to go.
You are making a bad decision, I tell myself, out loud, so that I know it has been said and can report as much to Laura, or my husband, or my own mother if I wear myself out or require rescuing. I don’t know anything about the public buses in New Jersey, a place where people wear their vehicles like overcoats; I do not know my way around Garwood, or how far the mile-or-so to the station will really be, or whether there will be smooth sidewalks—I picture myself waddling in New Jersey traffic, lugging my luggage.
Just wait, I think. Since when did I worry about sidewalks?! Thieves, yes, men who followed me through third world alleyways, too many guns on a city street where I don’t speak the language, scorpion bites and amoebic dysentery—these things worry the traveler me, not New Jersey sidewalks! With a huff, I thump my suitcase—a good one with wheels that my in-laws have lent me since pregnant ladies aren’t supposed to carry things—down the back steps and out into the street.
This is how I come to roll my suitcase down Garwood’s Willow Avenue with my chin high. It’s February, blustery but bright. I turn right on Central, where there is a lot of traffic, but not a soul on the smooth sidewalk, then I cross under the train tracks and hike up to the North Avenue bus stop, a concrete cubby under an old-fashioned clock. The bus stop is empty, but this does not surprise me. I sit down, just a bit giddy and seriously short of breath, and watch for the bus that I’m not altogether certain is coming.
The 113 to New York Via Salem Drive arrives at 1:57 by the old-fashioned clock, the exact minute that schedule says it will.
You are making a bad decision, I tell myself once more, but I know otherwise even before I climb on board.
It is no Ecuadorian bus. No one offers me fried fava beans or cake de banana. It is no Guatemalan chicken bus, either. There are, most importantly, no chickens on board. Nor is this one of those careening Indian buses, richly tasseled and honk-honking around ox carts, processions, and blind turns. No, this bus is plush and comfortable, not a single Sacred Heart or a Ganesha anywhere. The man across from me makes polite business calls in a light British lilt; otherwise, no one else speaks. It’s impossibly easy, as everyday as pregnant women, when you are not that pregnant woman in particular.
My husband, I think with no uncertain glee, would have my head if he knew what I was up to. He’s done his share of miles with me—together we have countered border guards and police checkpoints and would-be pickpockets—but he’s not one to throw himself to the wind the way I like to do. This difference almost doomed us at the very start of our relationship when I cavalierly waved goodbye to him in El Salvador and took off for La Paz, Bolivia, with no plans whatsoever for what I’d do when I got there, other than to find Cochabamba and in it my friend Jenny. He said the anxiety of imagining what could happen to me was almost too much for him. But that was Bolivia; this is New Jersey, U.S.A. Rooftops, graffiti bridges, train tracks, trash riding the breeze. Besides, even Bolivia had been easy (I’d found a midnight cab driver and made it clear I had no qualms about being overcharged so long as he found me an open hotel and didn’t mind being paid in U.S. dollars). Although I do realize that this time I’m lugging our unborn baby around with me—and my comfort zones aren’t the only ones that count just now.
Still. Stopped traveling?! It occurs to me as I pay my fare that the bad decision I have been making these past few stationary years is this: I no longer look around me because I think I already know what is there: good, old, reliably mundane and monotonous America, where the strip malls are the same from sea to shining sea, or from New Mexico to New Jersey, anyway. Worse yet, I now imagine that I know what’s coming (diapers, breast pumps, toys that ding and whistle, mountains of bright plastic stuff, and a whole lot less autonomy). Adventure, I decide on the bus via Salem Drive, must be a state of mind, a willingness to be lost, even in the familiar. I am suddenly determined to treat even my trip across this state—call it garden or armpit—as a journey worth my attention.
So I watch out the window as New Jersey rolls past in dump trucks and BMWs. I glimpse mallard ducks on a lake-out-of-nowhere. There are swaths of dry cattails curtailed by the geometry of shipping containers—in shuffled primary colors, stacked up six and seven high the way they are on the barges in Panama. Then we’re on a bridge over swamp water and more cattails. It’s not the Amazon, nor the Arno, nor the Ganges, nor even the Hudson River, yet, but it’s the same, connected system.
If I had waited for the train, I realize, I would have made this journey in the dark. I would have looked at my reflection in the window—winter-pale, doughy, and bloated besides, like a fish in a tank. I would have thought that once-upon-a-time I had long hair that spun up wild in the wind in the back of hitched pickup trucks, and sun-kissed skin polished smooth by black sand and fierce surf. I would put on lipstick, see if that helped anything, scowl. I would try to read my book and then not bother. I wouldn’t be traveling; I would still be waiting. Waiting to “get there.”
I am waiting to travel too. Soon, my husband’s international relations dissertation (the entity keeping us from international relations of our own) will reach the field stage—Peru, maybe, or Nepal. I imagine us then, baby in tow, with an apartment in a capital city rich with light for me to write in, for baby to toddle in, to learn language in, perhaps a first and second language all at once as I have watched other travelers’ children do. I know this is not, however, how my husband pictures field work (a solitary stint suffered away from home and those he loves). We all have our own traveling fantasies, I suppose.
I look out the window again. Below me are railroad trestles that pivot open for boats, but they are all closed and I see no boats. There are so many birds on a wire—doves, I prefer to think–like the doves in the ancient plazas of Spain. There are more cattails, all of them bowing the same direction like sunflower heads in Provence. Amtrak trains. Billboards. Warehouses. So many buildings without windows.
Frankly, I do not feel trapped—not by this belly, not by my everyday life. I know precisely where my passport is and how to use it. It’s just a matter of choosing to—and asserting my autonomy—just as I’ve chosen to set off on this bus. But travel is half in the head, half fantasy: the traveler looks out at what is everyday to those who live in a given place, and chooses to see the extraordinary. My complacency is self-inflicted, a certain ennui, like a wind-up toy that has run up against a wall and sits spinning its wheels in one place. I have simply been caught up in the minutiae of my routine, unconscious of my surroundings, of the scenery.
I try to see Manhattan as the view pulses with underpasses like pictures on a zoetrope. It has been five years, I realize, since I have drifted through this city heading elsewhere, five years since my husband and I stayed on the thirteenth floor of a five-star hotel overlooking the hole of Ground Zero—a real steal for New York, but a serious splurge for us. Five years since we ate in Little Italy the last night before we moved to Ecuador to teach in a town between volcanoes. Stopped traveling—five years since I’ve even been to Manhattan?!
It’s as though—no, I feel too alive, not one but two heartbeats thumping inside of me.
The sky goes out and we are in the Lincoln Tunnel, that feat the equal to any pyramid that burrows beneath the Hudson. Red brake lights reflect on the tunnel’s tiled roof. The stereo in some car pulses.
My bus moves abreast of another bus with its interior lights turned on. A middle-aged woman beside me through the window is reading a paperback. A young man in athletic clothes gazes ahead of him, slouching and dazed. They look like people in a dollhouse or perhaps a diorama at the Natural History Museum or wax figures at Madame Tussauds, posed mid-life but with frozen narratives.
This, I realize, is the mirror trick Laura’s not-entirely casual remark has done to me: she’s caught me in narrative hiatus. So I’ve “stopped traveling.” And now, to make travel more difficult, or different anyway, I’m going to have a baby whom I won’t name Traveler like a promise to myself because it’s a silly name after all. But in the meantime, between these plotted points on my lifeline, I am in myself instead of being in the world. Waiting, I suppose, gestating. And I am forgetting, even when I do travel, to look out of windows long enough to notice the birds and the cattails and New Jersey’s highway detritus.
At last—for it is always at last that we arrive, be it after a forty-minute bus ride or a twenty-hour flight—the bus corkscrews out of the Lincoln Tunnel and delivers its load at Port Authority. I step out into the afternoon sun on 8th Avenue and inhale bracing February air. New York feels almost foreign, but I know what to do. In the windows’ reflection across the street, I see a young, if graceless traveler step out into the flow of traffic and hail herself a taxi.
Photo by korafotomorgana