The summer after I graduated high school, I left home. I worked on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ with Israelis, Moroccans, Canadians, French and Russians. Those people did crazy things to me. They introduced me to the world. They pulled at my insides, sparks flew, something felt very right, like a calling to turn my life over to God. I was eighteen and still remember sitting in Frieda’s tiny, one-room apartment on Young Avenue. She was a woman with whom I sold t-shirts. A ton of Israelis, after their stint in the army, would live in a kibbutz and would have connections to others who were making tons of money ironing decals on t-shirts at the Jersey shore. Word of mouth sent her here. She knew she could make money under the table for the summer while getting to know America. In the winter, she, along with everyone else, migrated to Fort Lauderdale, and then back again, year after year, never entirely settling down. There was something familiar in the ebb and flow of the way she lived her life. But I could never put my finger on it.
On a hotplate plugged into the wall she made me “Israeli coffee” and poured it in a tea glass, with sugar. We talked about life on the kibbutz, Shimon Peres and the Palestinians. “We are all human,” she said. She taught me how to say I love you, in Hebrew, which incited me to go around to all my other friends and ask them how to say I love you in their language. By the end of the summer, I could say I love you in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and Hungarian.
It may have begun then.
When I turned 20, I moved to Paris and lived in a one-room chambre de bonne on rue Rimbuteau. I read a lot of Henry Miller, got laid, dropped out of my French classes at the Alliance Francaise and existed in such a state of poverty that my friend Karen and I would steal food from her stepdad’s house during the day, and then at night, we’d flirt with rich exchange students at the Violon Dingue trying to get them to buy us free drinks. I was even homeless for a few days and spent a good 24-hours with a transient, tattooed, pierced, skinhead named Will West who kept me laughing through my vagrancy. We would stay at free night clubs all around Les Halles and dance like zombies until seven in the morning, until the cafes opened and then, we could sit for hours with the alcoholics and street people, drinking cheap coffee and toasted baguette for ten francs. Je ne regrette rein.
When my mother dragged me home in the fall of ’89, I applied for a job as a cashier at John Wanamaker’s. The woman who interviewed me read my application and saw that I had just come back from France. She smiled and said, “Coming back to reality, eh?” It wasn’t long after that that I repacked my bags and took a bartending gig in Greenland. I’ll show you reality, bitch.
Sondrestromford, was a US and Danish military base right below the arctic circle. It was cold as hell. Thirty degrees below zero could turn a flower to shattered glass. There were no trees. Just gray, monochrome hills with dark skies and the occasional aurora borealis. A fjord the color of wet cement cut along the base. I served drunks at the Officer’s Club and dated an American bodybuilder who taught me how to lift weights–there was nothing else to do up there but use the indoor gym, hunt musk ox and make money. I did that for a good five months before realizing that some realities are rather dim. So, I came back home.
Part of the experience of being away from home, was longing for home. There was a weird dichotomy there. It was like what someone said to me about living in Paris. The only way to continue to love Paris, is to leave. So, for many years, I lived at home to the point of wanting to vomit, I hated it so much, only to pack my bags, and live somewhere else for a time, until I missed home again. Back home, back out again. Back home, back out again. Just like that.
The older I got, though, the length of time it took to get to the point of missing home shortened. Until eventually, I did the unthinkable. I married and settled down. Granted, I married a Spaniard, which afforded me several costly trips back and forth to Madrid. Kids have to visit their Abuelos, you know. But the truth is, for the first time in my life, I actually liked home. I no longer wanted to run away. Making peace with the idea of stability, continuity, and permanence was a trip in itself. Something I had never known. The drawback is that kids force you into such a state of routine that you end up feeling trapped. At least I did. Drop off, pick up, drop off, pick up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed-time at exactly eight. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Nothing to jostle the monotony. So, you join the Junior Women’s Club. You go to Longaberger basket parties. You volunteer at school to serve lunches. You ask your mother to babysit so you and your husband can actually be alone and scream during sex. When that only happens once every six months, you go back to school and get a degree and have an affair. Well, you don’t have an affair. He does. And well, then you get to a point where you kinda fondly remember the monotony. But, that’s another story.
Permanence wasn’t my thing anyway. And so, in 2004, three events occurred which, even in their bad sad miserable way, allowed me to reclaim my inherent nature: my father died, I divorced and I finally got my college degree (the last was a direct consequence of my years as a stable New Jerseyan, and while this in itself, was not a bad event, there is something paradoxically safe and pleasing about having a dream that never comes true). When these three things happened, my tether broke. And when a tether on a hot air balloon breaks, there’s no telling which way the wind will blow it.
Do I even bother to mention all the road trips I ultimately took across America in those post-divorce years? Twenty eight days on the road? Long stays with my kids in the Utah desert? Twelve hour car rides that had me fantasizing about the practicality of wearing a Depends undergarment so as not to make so many damn pee stops?
Travel is in my blood. Which gets me thinking. It probably didn’t begin with Wildwood. It didn’t begin with Paris or Greenland or week-long trips to Long Beach Island, or summers in Philly, or any of the trips I actually took to simply get away from home, get away from me. It began much further back than that.
In ’67, my mother and father eloped. They packed up my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova and headed to Vegas. A year later, they made their way back to the West Coast, to Anaheim, where my father wanted to write jingles for TV commercials and become a famous singer in a band. Hollywood, Los Angeles, the West Coast–they never amounted to much, save one thing– I was born there in May of ’68. In November, we came home to Jersey–to whose home I do not know. I’m guessing we stayed in a spare bedroom at my grandparents’ house until my father found a job and made his first down payment on a place in Cherry Hill on Browning Road. We never took trips after that. Heck, we never took them to begin with. By the time my brothers were born, we never hopped on a plane as a family and went to Disney World or the Grand Canyon, let alone two states over to visit the local attractions. Day trips we took. I think we made one jaunt out to Chicago to visit relatives. And there was a week or two on LBI almost every summer. But, we were broke. And when my father did have money, he spent it paying off bad debt, instead of “wasting it” on vacations.
And who needed a vacation anyway when life itself was a vacation?
Which brings me to this: we moved every year, for fourteen years. A new house every year, sometimes less than a year if my father couldn’t pay the bills. Adapting, readapting, not adapting so well. Moving in anger; moving in fear. Moving with our tail between our legs. Moving out of shame and necessity because we had burned our bridge. We had failed. We weren’t moving to anything, now that I think of it. We were running away. Well, I wasn’t running away. It wasn’t me who couldn’t pay the bills. I was just along for the ride.
But a funny thing happens to a child whether she likes it or not. She inherits her parents’ hopes and fears and everything in between. The circular reasoning that makes up 90 percent of the gray matter in her head. There was, in fact, a box of dolls I no longer played with that remained packed for many years because my mother was sick and tired of unpacking them. This frustrated me for a time because, of the few friends I was able to make, most had a wall of pretty little knick knacks, dolls, and porcelain (or plastic) horses on display with which they no longer played. I did not. My walls were bare. And so, when I was finally old enough to take these dolls out of the box, to pull them from their captive bundle of newsprint and bubble wrap, I didn’t even like them anymore. And so, I ended up throwing them away or maybe giving them away to another little girl who might have appreciated them more than I. Their traditional spot on a dusty, permanent shelf, where they could have sat throughout my entire childhood, held no meaning for me. And yet, I was embarrassed for so long at the transience of my life. Even now, when I explain my past to people (because traveling 14 times in 15 years is a bit much for a kid, don’t you think), they ask, “Was your father in the military?” I can’t say that I’m not slightly ashamed to have to say, “No, he was not.”
And I won’t get into why we did move all those years. My childhood was a rich fabric of insanity, joy and adventure. I’ll leave it at that.
But here’s the thing. Every house was a home, a world unto itself –like a country, with a different language spoken within its borders. Each closet, to my child’s eye, was a landmark, a monument; each new kitchen, served a new regional cuisine. Every backyard was a continent, a varied landscape with fields that stretched to the horizon, or snowcapped mountains, or dark forests; seascapes, city lines, quiet, fenced-in corners pulsing with tiger lilies and skies broken to pieces with big white clouds. We traversed New Jersey, then up to New Hampshire, then back again. We lived in farmhouses, big houses, small houses, ranchers and even, what my mother not-so-fondly called, a cardboard box. My life is thusly divided into fourteen different worlds, with a myriad of experiences. The cliché “home is where the heart is,” aptly applies.
In less than a week I’ll be in Holland. A month ago it was Bear Creek for work. Then Sedona. Followed by Baltimore and now NYC. The instability of all this travel wears me out. Some days, I’d simply rather stay home. And yet, there is the eternal, inborn wax and wane, the coming and going, the internal rotating door that can’t be tuned out. An opportunity to adapt, readapt, not adapt so well. At the heart of it, I suppose, I’m used to the discomfort, the inconvenience. It has meaning. It’s who I am. The doll on the shelf can’t shake a stick at the story I will tell and retell. And to me, the significance of that is far greater than any gift I may bring back home to decorate my walls. More importantly, the child in me is finally OK with the idea that there’s no need to unpack.