The glass of retrospect distorts, for a moment, a married man’s memories of his globetrotting single days .
I was recently having a conversation with a young guy—in his early 20’s—in my office. It had started out as small-talk. “You look tired,” he said. “Any reason?”
Yes, well—I’m sleep deprived. I have a one year old who still gets up in the middle of the night. Even though I don’t bring him a bottle (unless my wife is away), I still wake up. I’ve been fighting insomnia for years and will often lie awake, or I’ll fall into a frustrating state of half-sleep. Then I’ll finally get up to catch the early bus and put in an exhausting day. When I come home, I’ll meet my exhausted wife.
She’s a musician. To save energy, she won’t tell me about what concert she’s going to play, what rehearsal she needs to attend, and I’ll depend on iCal to know where she’s going. For a while, I’ll fight off blaming myself for her tired state, but I’ll eventually fail. I am constantly wishing I could relieve her exhaustion. I work more than I ever have (at a job whose daily tasks would insult the intelligence of a truffle hog) because we need more money than we’ve ever needed; at the same time, she needs me home more than she ever has because, well, there are two kids.
Prior to becoming a parent, I’d leave work late or wander off to write in a café, but now I always rush home. And if I am ever late—on account of delayed busses, dead trains, traffic accidents or other Chicagoland traditions—I’ll feel a noose of guilt around my neck. It is my greatest wish to provide my wife more money and time. Twice as much time and twice as much money all at once, out of thin air, like Superman who flies fast enough to spin the earth backwards, on his back the world’s most sophisticated money press.
The young man in my office asked me, “Don’t you miss your life before you got married?”
I paused to feel the weight of this question. I’m a student of Zen and have learned to tune into any feeling that rushes forth with more energy than a blithe itch. His question did bring me back, almost instantly, to the feeling I had when I was in my early 20’s, then my teens—even earlier, a child in the schoolyard. In those memories, tainted by retrospect, I breathed air of open freedom, as if springtime wind from an endless pasture was blowing over me.
I remembered the feeling I had—it is an event central to my consciousness—when I, only twenty-one years old, sat at a travel agent’s desk and picked Copenhagen to begin a backpacking journey. Another time I was in Urbana, Illinois and, growing bored, counted my last dollars, then decided I had enough to drive over 2,000 miles to Santa Barbara, CA. While living in Linz, Austria as a lad of twenty-three, I would, on any weekend, board a train without knowing where it went, and I’d ask the conductor, “How far can I go for a hundred shillings?” or whatever amount I could afford, a question shocking to most Austrians.
I ended up in unheard-of places like Windischgarsten, more famous cities like Nuremburg, and once trekked all the way up to Utrecht in the Netherlands where, in the winter, I slept in the train station, quite happily near the lockers, nothing on me of any value besides a good coat and surrogate pillow: my beaten messenger bag. It held my passport, a notebook, whatever novel I was reading, some clothes and enough guilders for food, coffee and weed.
I was, for most of my life, a wanderer. Most wanderers eventually learn—I feel this is particularly true for solitary travelers—that the curiosity or interest in culture we try to satisfy is a side note. In truth we are searching for something.
In my case, I wandered to indulge in abject loneliness, a form of masochism. As I did it, of course, I was also searching for companionship, surprising and sudden companionship, friendship with someone who, like me, would be out indulging in loneliness, wandering and sleeping in the cold.
I did meet such people.
They were almost exclusively men, often substantially (and very sadly) older than me, and they would wander off at the next fork in the road; our paths would cross again only in the craziest of coincidences. They came from every possible place: Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zaire, Morocco. Every country produces wanderers. Virtually none are looking for the aforementioned friendship all on its own. Sure, we’d play cards to pass the time at the Greyhound station in DC, and we’d have a good old time smoking joints outside the ferry dock in Kiel. There was romance in it, the romance of a Tom Waits song or a chapter from Paul Theroux. But that’s not the romance this wanderer sought.
As stupid as it sounds, I would wait for that boat in Kiel because I hoped—I dreamed, how embarrassingly hard, the fairytale foolishness of a boy who’d read too many books—that this would be the journey, this the destination where I’d finally find that girl. If I counted every daydream I had of meeting her in some coffeehouse or train car, in line at a youth hostel breakfast buffet, or stranded in Huntsville with no way to Toronto, they could form multi-colored beads to fill a kaleidoscope of flight and fancy. I wanted to meet that girl even as a very young boy. In high school, when I first started traveling, I wanted her to be the one who’d follow me on the next trip. We’d share cups of tea at diners and bowls of soup at cafés. And it would be enough just to sit there for a while without any plan or ambition.
The idiocy of this was that I knew, even as I got on the boat in Kiel or exited the train at Windischgarsten, that I was peering into the kaleidoscope. That girl didn’t exist. She was fiction.
Until, in the winter of 1996, I met her in a dormitory kitchen in Linz, Austria and, three years later, married her.
So when the young man in my office asked me, “Don’t you miss your life before you got married,” after that initial burst of pasture wind, I immediately remembered how it was to know that girl was fiction, a product of my imagination, and how terribly it intensified my loneliness. The feeling is annihilating, embarrassing and, for certain judges, unmanly. Real men, we’re told, don’t dream or pine, certainly not for a girl who doesn’t exist. They desire and conquer, if they are to be respected as studs, many women, as many as possible, and they should remain free of commitments so that they could have a little bit of Sandra in the sun and a little bit of Mary all night long. Never mind that you’d probably need more than a little bit of Mary if her company were to last the entire night. Just don’t get married, because if you do, you won’t be able to fuck lots of chicks.
I told the young man, “I was really lonely before I met my wife.”
“But it’s better to be lonely than to be tired and tied down.”
That’s to assume, of course, that loneliness does not tire one out or tie him down, even when he’s wandering.
Photo by Enric Martinez.