Other Writing Index

Foreign Correspondent

Perhaps it is a result of the astonishing surfeit of survival shows on TV, or the fifteen year old holiday card I came across recently depicting my husband and his buddy, Bill, in hiking boots and do-rags, astride motorcycles in some remote corner of Thailand, or perhaps it is my secret love for expensive performance outerwear, but it has suddenly occurred to me that I may never have an adventure in a foreign country. I didn't have the guts to do it in college or in my twenties and now that I feel ready it's too late because I'm saddled with the husband and children I always wanted. And, coincidentally, as if the point needed hammering home, I seem just as suddenly to be finding myself in conversations with people who once lived in a hut at the base of Kilimanjaro, or hiked across Indonesia with only a Nikormat and a spoon, or thumbed their way through Ireland getting thrown out of pubs—people who dedicated a reasonable period of their young adulthood to adventure travel, the upshot being that their minds are expanded, their bodies possessed of certain intangible but unimpeachable foreign sense memories, their photo albums of serious interest. They are semi-fluent in several languages and have acquired a bevy of international friends and acquaintances whom they will visit and who will visit them for the rest of their natural lives. When you talk to them all their sentences begin with "I met Dominique in Budapest..." and end with "...so we climbed Machu Picchu."

Some of their adventures were actually altruistic. These trips were about following the conscience, wherever it took them. I didn't have any of those either. In the past three months alone I have discovered that friends of mine variously taught elementary school in the Congo, built bridges in Nicaragua, and gave out eye glasses to impoverished Mayans. Their sentences begin with: "Then, when we were with Medicins Sans Frontiers, sorry, that's Doctors Without Borders..." and end with: "...so that year we spent Christmas handing out Hershey bars to orphans in Colombia...sorry, it's just...(Sob.)"

Until now, it has never occurred to me to climb Machu Picchu, much less join the Peace Corps. Extreme altitudes make my head ache and I have a rational fear of reactionaries armed with machetes. While I have rallied to a number of causes I believed in, none of those rallies took me beyond a three mile radius from my home, unless you count the address on the envelope the check is in. I've never even worked on a political campaign, stumping around my own country, staying up all night to make signs or cold calls or blow up balloons. I didn't meet my husband at a caucus. I've signed a few petitions in my time, but I never traveled by bus to Washington and stood in the rain on the Mall waiting for Jessie Jackson to speechify or Pete Seeger to sing. I did stand all night in a freezing rain outside Madison Square Garden waiting for Springsteen tickets to go on sale. He sings that old song about war.

Anecdotally speaking—and what other way of speaking is there, really—I have nothing to offer these buccaneers in return. Which I resent. What else do humans do besides sit around and tell stories that make them look cool? (I've never heard of a dog rhapsodizing about a three year tour teaching English as a second language to children in Mauritius. "...and by then the flood waters were as high as the tree stumps they use for desks! Woof!") So, what I usually do instead, because I don't want to be left out of the conversation, is make a big deal about some little event, tell a grandiose tale of a weekend car camping or hunting for old doorknobs or some other pointless endeavor. And I put a funny spin on it. Then there was the time at the party for Bob's seventy-fifth birthday when my hair was attacked by a horde of freaked out Luna moths. Hah hah hah. Woof.

I am sure it is horrible when the only route out of the ancient ruins is washed away in a mudslide, and one might certainly have second thoughts about one's calling after moving to a third world country and wearing the same pair of underpants for a week while digging irrigation ditches. But there must be, or they all wouldn't talk about it so much, an enormous sense of accomplishment at having done it, survived it. I've seen the looks of pride on the mud-covered faces in the photographs, the shit-eating grins and sinewy, tanned bodies. (Sound romantic? Does to me!) The wages of sweat equity. And the wages pay dividends. For years to come these world-travelers/do-gooders will dine out on their stories, and do-nothings, like me, with neither the experiences nor the tales they inspire, will listen with a mixture of envy and annoyance.

I did not grow up in an adventurous family. We never went camping out West, or sabbaticalled in New Zealand, or walked the Appalachian Trail calling each other by our trail names: Gopher, Birdman, Princess Pine, Cranky Cuss. Neither my brother nor I was sent to live on a Kibbutz and harvest olives, which I am not even adventurous enough to like. I grew up in a family where the adventures were, thank God, tuh tuh tuh, over by the time my parents were born. Their parents had made the arduous trip from the Old World to the New World and that was certainly enough adventure travel as far as everyone was concerned. They had risked their lives for us and now we owed it to them to just stay home and enjoy the fact that we have carpeting.

My legacy.

Unfortunately, my subsequent experience of la vie Francaise lacked something, or, really, everything, of the romance so fondly recalled by my mother. In the winter of my junior year in high school I lived for a month with a family in France as an exchange student. I was the only student whose correspondent was of the opposite sex, and we didn't exactly bond. He did not find me attractive enough to try to have sex with me and I was obsessed with the fact that he wore the same outfit to school for an entire week. Everyone else became best friends with their host and even shared clothes, which, given what I now knew about French habits of dress seemed inexplicable. Still, the girls walked to school arm in arm, in the French style, and I trailed Jacques by several metres. They were having a different experience than I was, a happy one, a freeing one, and it ignited in them dually an urge to travel and a sense of perhaps belonging somewhere other than Connecticut. Some of them got Eurail passes and spent the summers hopping from city to city, seeing the sights, making friends, and having sex with men with foreign accents. One girl moved to France for the rest of her life. She became an expat. In literature, expats always seem to lead groovy, romantic, if slightly seedy, Somerset Maugham lives. They learn the language, eat sweetbreads, shower less often. When this girl came home for the holidays her conversation was sprinkled with clever little foreign expressions. Mon cher. Tant pis. Merde.

What has stayed with me, all these years later, a tiny souvenir of my brief sojourn in France, is Florence. Florence was Jacques' little sister. And while I remember little of her actual personage, and have no particular reminiscences of our relationship, sometimes her name just comes to me, out of nowhere. Not Florence as we say it: FLOORence, but Florence in the French way: FloorAHNCE-uh. FloorAHNCE-uh.

Another obstacle to my global emancipation was that sometime in my late teens I developed a fear of flying which has not diminished with the passage of time. Come on, how is it that we just get on airplanes, tra la la, as though it doesn't require, if we think about it for a second, a breath-stopping, life-shortening expense of will to suspend disbelief? And it's not just that I was afraid to travel, I was also afraid to actually leave. I was sure that if I left my little life, such as it was, something amazing would go on while I was gone. That the life that I had always hoped to live would suddenly start while I wasn't there. Party invitations would come in, men would call for dates, last minute acting opportunities attended by influential people would materialize. Of course, I stayed home a lot and none of this ever transpired.

In college, when other people were making plans to take a semester abroad, I assumed that if I left for that long I'd lose all my friends, or they'd become better friends with each other than they were with me, which I think they were anyway. They'd have all these outrageous experiences, urban myth forming experiences, experiences they'd spend the rest of college reminding each other of and laughing about in front of me. I wasn't just paranoid. All I had to do was go to sleep, and life happened without me. One cold winter night, after I'd yawned myself back to my room off campus, four of my friends ventured out in the pre-dawn freeze to paint the front steps of a house on Spruce Street pink and green, a mock tribute to the preppy boys who lived there. This prank became something of a legend which was told and retold for years after. Often people assumed I'd been involved, and I did not dispossess them of this notion.

Strangely, none of the men I know who are husbands and fathers feel the same way—that they missed out on something important, perhaps mind-altering or life-changing, before they settled down. They don't want to be anyplace or anyone other than where and who they are (except, maybe, on a tropical island, divorced, with hair) because they did the big things first. And perhaps they were able to do those things because, and here we go, there was no pressure on them to find mates and to get their careers started so they could have babies before the freshness date on their eggs expired. Sperm have the same half-life as a sea-turtle, somewhere between eighty years and oblivion. Of course, women, too, go on trips and to graduate school and have careers, but in the back of their minds (and if I'm not talking about you, or you've read any of the three gazillion books recently written on this subject, feel free to skip this part) they are tormented by the presence of a very persistent voice, a nudge. The nudge, who might sound a bit like your mother—that's not uncommon—says that it's fine to venture out into the world and make something of yourself, but while you're at it you should get married and stay home and have kids. The nudge understands the desire for freedom but is having a hard time living the dream. And the worst part is that the nudge speaks a modicum of truth: You can't argue with biology.

Now that I actually have, among other things, a husband and two children, meaning, I don't need to hang around trying to get them anymore, something else quite remarkable has happened. My fear of mudslides, guerillas, et al, has all but disappeared. My fear for my own safety has been supplanted by my fear for that of my children. The old worries have been replaced by an entirely new set, wherein windpipe-sized gum balls, nippy schnauzers and desperate, childless strangers lurking in department stores top the list. My body as I have known it has evaporated into the cosmos and its particles have been reconfigured and it has returned, post-partum, as the force field from Lost in Space. My job now is to protect my children, not myself, except to the extent that I, the force field, am obliged to remain alive and well and in the general vicinity of said children in order to be effective. But, also, or rather, more to the point, I have begun to imagine myself to be, in my new, unselfconscious manifestation, a buccaneer. Handing out eyeglasses. Joining that club for polar explorers. Flying on airplanes. As long as my children are safely on the ground, well, tra la la.

This revelation may account for the feeling I now have that I've been living in a snow globe. Maybe the kind with music, sure, but I have been, for most of my life, happy to look out on the world from the relative safety of my winter wonderland and gasp with amazement and admiration at the derring do of others, at their selflessness, at the ease with which they have inhabited the real globe. While I wouldn't trade my life right now for (almost) anyone else's, I'll say this, though it was recently the plot of a failed sitcom: I wish I could take how far I've come and go back to where I was, just for a little while.

Coda:

My 20th high school reunion began auspiciously; I was having a good hair night, and in the eyes of my former classmates, it seems I had made a reasonable success of my post adolescent life. I lived in New York City! I was a writer! And an actress! For the first time the popular boys showed some interest. (You'd think, twenty years later I'd have stopped caring, but no.) In fact, it appeared that I had been the adventurous one. I felt fine, virtually vindicated. A group of us settled with our drinks and hors'doeuvres at a large round table and everyone but me began reminiscing. I'd heard some of these stories before and that familiarity along with my new-found popularity afforded me a certain license to pretend I'd been more integral to them than I actually had been. Which was not at all. I nodded and laughed along like a pro. I took big slugs of my drink and mock choked on it. Ha ha ha ha ha. It was dangerous, I knew, but I was feeling bold, even cocky, and I thought I could handle it. Which is something drunks and drug addicts say after they wake up at three in the morning in a strange city. Anyway, I should have made a break for the steam table while I had the chance, and before an ex-soccer player named Chris Cahill posed the following question:

"Remember when Peg got her head stuck in the railing at McDonald's?"

The place exploded. People could barely speak. Bits of hors d'oeuvres spewed forth. This event was obviously one of the highlights of my senior year of high school. The story, such as could be relayed between fits of coughing and howling was as follows: One autumn night, after a soccer game against New Milford, a cheerleader named Peg Sealy poked her head through the wooden railing that separated two booths at McDonald's and got it stuck there.

One of the perks of going to an away game was the opportunity to have dinner at McDonald's before the bus ride back to school. If you played field hockey or girls' basketball, as I did, there was a certain amount of female comradery and bonding at these dinners. They occasionally turned raucous but, let's face it, all-girl events where neither drugs nor alcohol were present were not the stuff of legend. (As was, of course, Kathy Roger's all-girl birthday party where a cardboard tampon applicator was used as a bong. Memorable!) If you were a cheerleader, however, every away game was an actual social event. You traveled on the bus with the boys' team and then went out to dinner with them after the game. Furthermore, every game was a party to which you were required to wear a tight sweater, a very short skirt, and bobby socks. Amazingly, perhaps inevitably, it came to pass that on game days the cheerleaders wore their cheerleading outfits to school in the morning. Never in my life did I attend a party dressed like that, even on Halloween, when every girl I know dressed like a whore—not literally, but when my friends dressed as pirates, they wore eye patches, hot pants and fishnets. They were like pirate whores. Or punk whores or flapper whores or Native American whores, whatever. The year of the pirates, junior year of college, I dressed as a St. Bernard rescue dog. God knows why. Because I was a fucking idiot, that's why. Anyway, cheerleaders are just Department of Education endorsed Halloween whores.

But I digress. The rest of the evening I spent in a blur. The giddiness of the Peg Witnesses could not be simulated. I was a good actress, but not that good. Oddly, the seemingly central question of why Peg Sealy poked her head through the railing never came up. I realized this was because it was irrelevant. Maybe she was trying to talk to some boys at the other table, or just make a joke, but all these years later, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I, at this or any other point, would never be in the Time and Place Where Things Happen. I will most probably be stuck forever in the Place Where You Wait and Just Sort of Hope for the Best. Tigers don't change their stripes. Bearing witness to Peg Sealy's imprisonment at the New Milford McDonald's is not the herald of an adventurous life, exactly, but a connection can, and should, be made. You are either in the best year book group shots or not. You've either traveled to Bangladesh for the International Red Cross or not. You are either the subject of the story or the unfortunate person who has to hear it over dinner. It began long, long ago and it will probably never end; it has parked itself in the cerebral cortex and erupts, like an aneurism, at regular intervals. Key words set it off: any talk of foreign travel or selfless volunteerism, any anecdote that inspires either knee-slapping or worse, tears. Sometimes the internal hemorrhaging starts spontaneously when I am just sitting around minding my own business, walking on the street, or feeding my children, or shopping for a roll of duct tape. It floods the brain like a mantra: "Remember when Peg got her head stuck in the railing at MacDonald's? Remember when Peg got her head stuck in the railing at MacDonald's? REMEMBER WHEN PEG GOT HER HEAD STUCK IN THE RAILING AT MACDONALD'S?"

So what to do? While most of my peers lay awake at night conjuring images of larger apartments and luxurious vacations, I fantasize about all of the gritty, dangerous places I've never been and the perilous, character-building things I haven't done. I dream about a triumphant return to high school, although clearly it is way too late to learn to back-flip off a human pyramid. And maybe one day, when the kids go to college and I get a divorce I'll embark on a journey someplace to which Jet Blue does not fly. I will get a job as a foreign correspondent, wear hiking boots and a tan vest with many pockets. There will be others of my kind, smart-talking women, and probably, hopefully, men with English accents, and we will sit up at night in foreign hotel bars drinking whiskey and trading outrageous anecdotes. Oh, the stories I'll tell.