When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a new state of mind. Or at least it was new to me. My mom, her boyfriend Tim, my brother Johnny and I were on a road trip in the Chevy station wagon somewhere in California or Oregon. We must have gone on many trips with Tim because I still see them, two tangle-haired hippies up front, each with one tan arm propped in an open window and a pile of 8-track tapes on the bench seat between them: Jim Croce, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Doobie Brothers, or Paul Simon, we only had those five tapes and they’d play over and over, in a loop, until someone complained. We took long trips and when no one had spoken for miles and Johnny was dozing on the seat beside me and I’d been watching the nondescript landscape emerge at the left edge of the pane and disappear behind me, my eyes had fully absorbed the unending tangle of weeds, broken glass, and bits of trash on the side of the road, clusters of plain houses lit by bare bulbs materializing from muddled, undulating darkness, my body humming with the sound and feel of rubber against cement, I’d feel myself slipping away, or maybe the indefiniteness of the landscape slipping in, my past and thoughts dissolving, leaving nothing, leaving room for anything.
At first, when that feeling first came over me I felt lost. Later, after I noticed it enough to give it a name so I could write about it in my journal, I called it Other People’s Reality, or OPR, because I thought that’s what was happening; I was being invaded/inhabited by the collective unconsciousness of a place, as if I breathed the air of a strange place deep and long enough, it would take over my brain. After it happened enough to become familiar, I began to think of it less as a loss and more like a possibility. It’s a flat sensation, empty and flat: I am erased, a blank piece of paper ready for anything: fire, wind, water, a new story, a new shape. It happens when I’m between places, far from home, in an airplane or a car or a train, sitting still, lost in transition but open to a new reality, as if I might get off at the next stop or pull over on the side of the road and step out into a new life.
There are many different ways to lose yourself, if that’s what you want. You could travel, meditate, drink, do drugs, read books, have sex, or even watch TV, I suppose. It could occur in large crowds or vast expanses of wilderness. It has happened to me on a spin bike, dance floor, BART train, movie theater, Death Valley, and in dreams. By now I know it is a temporary feeling and since it won’t last, I can let myself enjoy it.
(Pour one shot of of Amaro Nonino, a bitter herbal digestif made of chinchona, galenga, liqorice, quassia wood, bitter orange, rhubarb, saffron, tamarind, and carmelized sugar, into a glass of ice.)
I have lost myself in relationships many times, the first at 18. “Hugo” was five years older than me, originally from the Netherlands, a Physics major with cold blue eyes, wry, pursed lips, Flock of Seagulls haircut, and an arrogant air which I found charming, mostly because he made an exception for me. In a throng of blasé Southern California boys, Hugo was something else entirely: a connoisseur of intelligence, symmetry, aesthetic, music, and German engineering and for a little while, I was thrilled to be included on his tidy shelf of trophies. His room was spotless as a hermit’s cell, his clothes were ironed, he warmed his car up for exactly five minutes before putting it in gear, and had a predilection for sex in the shower, from behind, involving a cake of Ivory soap, but by the time I learned the meaning of the untranslatable Dutch word “gezellig” he had already moved on, and although I never hated him enough to compare him to a Nazi, that’s how I remember him, like the Daddy in Sylvia Plath’s poem and still, after all these years, I suppress the stupid idea that if I could just get him to listen for once, open his eyes for a second and really see me, he’d finally know what he missed.
A person gets lost in a relationship when the recognition only goes one way. I’m thinking about Echo, the nymph who loved Narcissus for so long she disappeared. “Look at me, look at me, look,” she repeated until there was nothing left to see. I’m remembering all the boys and men I’ve ever slept with, the ones whose names and faces I’ve forgotten so thoroughly that if I met them again I probably wouldn’t know, sex that felt like masturbating with someone else’s body, like being erased.
(Add a shot of bourbon: sweet wood lit with cold fire emits a creamy cloud of smoke.)
After Hugo, I was tired of being invisible, so I tried something completely different. “Philip” was a pale, lithe, dark-eyed boy of Polish descent. He had not graduated from high school because his parents found some weed in his bureau and forced him into rehab. When I met him he was in the navy–he’d enlisted because he didn’t know what else to do–yet had somehow managed to hide his long black ponytail under his cap. Philip had no idea what he wanted in life and would probably still live with his parents if he could, but he loved me utterly, with a wet-eyed adoration I’d never felt and would never feel again. His sole ambition was ostensibly to be with me. He’d take my face in both hands and stare earnestly into my pupils until I laughed and pulled away. He’d watch me eating breakfast or brushing my teeth or doing my homework like it was television, like it was a mashup of the Simpsons (his favorite show) and great porn. When I was accepted at UC Berkeley, he followed me from San Diego and stayed with me in my studio apartment, bringing little more than the clothes on his back and a beat-up old truck but every morning, before he went to work at the lab where he took care of the rats they used for experiments, he’d walk up to Telegraph to buy me a latte. He befriended the homeless guy at the corner of Dwight and Telegraph and bought him coffee, too, plus the occasional six pack of fresh socks.
For me, a relationship ought to have the perfect mix of push and pull, see and be seen, my version of reality and theirs. Hugo gave me a centimeter on his shelf until the dust settled while Philip would have relinquished control over everything, forever. From them both, I learned a lot about the essential ingredients for balance.
(Spill in a shot of Aperol and the juice of three lemons. Cover, shake vigorously 35 times, and pour into two glasses. This is how you make a Paper Plane which is bitter and sour and sweet all at once, a shock to the tongue, just one more way to jet into another reality for awhile.)
I broke up with Philip just before the Shanghai trip. He drove me to the airport for a last goodbye.
In Shanghai, I met a lot of people, men, expatriates, businessmen, students, and sailors, including one guy whose name I can’t remember, Mike or Dave something, who was there to oversee the construction of what were to be Shanghai’s tallest buildings. He took me to visit one of his works-in-progress, a colossal shell built with surprisingly little steel and covered in rickety frame of bamboo scaffolding crawling with aphid-like workers.
China was the perfect escape. I was in a constant state of OPR. An ocean of people doing tai chi in the park. Cherry blossoms floating like snow. At the street market, a man pulled a snake from a basket, stepped on its head, bent over with a knife and stood up pulling its skin off in one motion. The smells were vegetable, visceral, and gutteral, smells that had built up for centuries until they developed their own gravity. Busses so full of people that the ones at the window grimaced with pain from with the pressure from behind. I was a vegetarian then, hard-pressed to find things to eat, even the rice had maggots, so went to the fanciest hotel and paid an exorbitant price for a couple leaves of lettuce floating in mayonnaise while the waitresses spied and giggled from behind a partition, and weighed 94 pounds by the end of our trip. The morning salutation and news crackling over a loudspeaker. Crickets in cages, plastic bags floating on the breeze.
Eventually, I ended up in Mike Something’s hotel room. After some unmemorable sex, he turned his already forgotten face to the wall and fell asleep. But I couldn’t sleep there in that beige reality so I pulled a sheet around my shoulders and went to the window. I thought I’d die if I didn’t get a breath of fresh air.
I was at least 20 stories up but the window louvered open. I wondered why, for a moment, as I pushed it as wide as it would go: do the Chinese appreciate fresh air more than Americans do or are they less concerned about suicide? But it didn’t matter, all that mattered was the slap of cold air on my face as I leaned against the sill and stuck my head out over the city.
From up there, the world was flat, empty and flat and distant, and so was I. I was erased, a blank piece of paper ready for a new shape, a fresh story. On a table I found a pad of paper embossed with the hotel logo. I pulled off a page and folded it, turned it over, folded again, until I had a paper airplane, which I sent flying out the window and watched until it was swallowed up by the sepia shadows below.
I sent another, and another, launching paper planes as if hopes were pinned, imagining how the air felt against the wings, curious where they would land, wondering if I wrote a message, what would it be, a poem or a riddle or a cry for help or a love song, would anyone find my extraterrestrial origami and if so, would they attempt to unfold it, and how would it translate?
A body in transition is a wonderful thing. The not-knowing is bitter and sweet and sour and dizzy.
In a moment, the body will find the ground again; soon enough you will know what happens next, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.
I want to hear your stories. What memorable trips have you taken?