Rice cooked in the bamboo. The smoke kept the bees away. So she hovered by the smoke and waited to eat.
She was leaving the rice farm the next day. She had been the eldest person working the farm by a decade. She was both proud of that fact, and lonely that she had to do it alone. She drank the water from the ceramic urn that the farmer’s wife said came from the mountain. She only saw a tub of water and made sure to pick the bugs out before she drank. She loved the chili paste. She was partial to her family’s recipe—the family with whom she lived. She didn’t know how she would live without rice three times a day and the smell of chili heat on her skin. She didn’t mind the beetles who lived with her in the hut. She liked her mat better than her mattress at home.
She didn’t like the man who asked her to marry him. A man from a nearby village who helped at the farm. He mimed putting a ring on her finger; he mimed rocking a baby; he mimed going away to live in his village. At first, it had been charming. She mimed that she was too old. She mimed that she was in a relationship. But she had no ring, and he did not believe her. She mimed, no. No.
He was persistent: taking over her work at the farm; sitting next to her at dinner; insisting that she sit behind him on his motorbike on the way to the furthest rice field. John, the farmer, waved him away, but that did not stop him. She began putting her backpack against the door of her hut—there were no locks and just in case. She began to look through the slats of the bamboo wall when she peed to make sure no one was watching. She stopped smiling. The man spelled baby in English in the dirt. She crossed it out. One night he came to her and showed her an official document that mapped a plot of land. She supposed it was a deed. He gestured to her again. Marry me. She saw his loneliness, but she was tired and angry and ached for home.
She was grateful John hadn’t let him come on the hike that day. The man had insisted, but John took him aside. She watched their arms wave at one another. The man left on the motorbike and she would not see him again.
John prepared the rice and smiled at her. Had he known she was bothered? She would never know. All she knew is she felt safe, and for that she was grateful. Yet it didn’t take that sadness away: Half way around the world from her home and decidedly middle-aged, she still had to be wary of men and grateful at times for their intervention.
“Dude, don’t ask for my water. Not cool. You shouldn’t have drank yours so fast,” he said.
His sister had banned plastic water bottles from her home. She said it was the right thing to do. He agreed, but he still drank the free ones at work. They were free, after all.
Before he left, she gave him a lightweight canister and tablets for the trip. She warned him about plastic bottles and the delicate ecosystem. Both the canister and the tablets were sitting in his Los Angeles apartment. His friends had made fun of him. He was weak and he hated himself for it.
“We’re going to so party tonight,” he said. “Are there ping pong shows on this island? Dude, I can’t believe we didn’t go in Bangkok. Too hungover, what does that even mean?”
His friend laughed.
And he hated himself just a little bit more. He thought he’d get away from that in Thailand. That he would land his feet on exotic sand and feel free. But traveling only sharpened the rough edges of his worst self. He was a man who followed.
His sister believed in spirit animals. And his would surely be a sheep. Hers would be a dragon. Sure, he was curious about the ping pong show. But he didn’t want to go. He didn’t think he could watch a woman shoot a ball out of her vagina and not just feel overwhelming despair. Who thought that was sexy? Who came up with the trick? He really thought about that. Was it a woman? He hoped at least it was a woman. But still, he thought, there was no way it was empowering. It was a side show of degradation. His sister would punch him in the arm and say, “See? Mom did make a difference in your thick head.” He thought about his mother and bit back the tears that always came to his eyes when he thought of her. She always smelled of vanilla. She always told him the truth. He bit back any emotion at all.
“Damn, see? Ahead of that monk? That sign says live show. And you know what that means?” he said. Ping. Fucking pong.”
His friend nodded and laughed.
And so the edges hardened.
He stood under the blue sky. The forecast said rain. The sun warmed his face even as the crisp air forced him to shiver. He didn’t care. Here he was on January 21, 2017. It was going to make history and his wife had the flu.
He had planned to watch the game.
Fight ensued. So here he was. His young daughter wearing a Future President tee-shirt over a thermal shirt. Already as stubborn as her mother, she refused to wear a jacket.
He swore he thought it had already been done. Equal rights. That was the past, like the Vietnam era. He swore he studied it in a college class, a class, he had to admit, he took to fuck the smartest women. Crass and sexist, his wife would scold, but then she’d crack, “I was one of those women.” That was one of the reasons he loved her. And the reason she loved him? He evolved.
So here he was at the edge of a swell of human protest. He waited for violence. He’d seen the movies. He smiled at the police officers. They smiled back. He clung to the curb and read the signs. They didn’t have one. His daughter pointed at the colors.
Hands off My Uterus.
Love is for Everyone.
Women are People.
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
Be the Change You Wish to See in the World
He laughed at some of them. The vulgarity of them didn’t matter; those words she couldn’t yet read.
If I Wanted the Government Involved in My Vagina, I’d Fuck a Senator.
Just Because You Have a Dick Doesn’t Mean You Have to Be One.
If Men Got Pregnant, Abortions Would Be Available at ATMs.
His daughter would not have to roll her eyes in just such a way that would anger no one when a man much too old for her bought her a drink. She could just say no. She would never have to feign docility.
His daughter would not have to decide on her own unique approach to the man in the street who said, “Nice, eyes. Yeah, baby, nice tits.” She wouldn’t need to decide: ignore, frown, engage, or smile.
His daughter would never sit in an interview and wonder if the person interviewing her was staring at her in the wrong places. His daughter would never feel a stab of uncertainty in her intellect and ability when offered the job.
His daughter would never wordsmith a polite answer when a well-meaning relative said, “just wait until you marry a man and have kids of your own.” As his wife told it, she’d be talked to about her impending motherhood since she was 17. He didn’t want that pressure on his daughter.
He didn’t want her to have to rise above the rumors and innuendo of her being too smart or too beautiful or too loud or too assertive or to anything at all.
He didn’t want to be in a crowd of almost a million people, all of them greeting each other in manners that suggested a secret handshake. He didn’t want his daughter to have a knowing nod or a handshake he wouldn’t understand.
He just wanted his daughter to look up and feel the sun’s warmth on her face. He just wanted his daughter to be.
She believed in Santa. A man who jingled in the skies. She did not necessarily believe in the chimneys and Rudolph, but she believed in the magic. She heard the bells and said to her parents, “Don’t you hear them? I can hear them. I hear the bells.”
She was never quite sure who Santa was, but the world was small to this seven-year-old and she was certain she could figure it out.
Once, she thought he might be Frank Sinatra. She just pretended Santa was a fat man with a beard to make her parents happy. She wanted him to be dapper even if she didn’t yet have the word for it. He sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and he seemed to want to travel back to another time, a magical time. She would stand on the front porch, smell the cold and look up toward the stars, and yearn. This meant something to her even if she didn’t yet know the word nostalgia either.
Her parents would slow dance in the living room, the seven fishes cooking in the kitchen. Family would come. There would be presents and laughter. She would wear her favorite burgundy dress with a pink ruffle hidden inside the sleeve like a secret. She thought it elegant, and no, she didn’t know that word either. Her uncle had brought it home from Germany. She didn’t understand what he was doing there, but he sent her books and beautiful clothes. He didn’t have children yet and she felt special. Like maybe, just maybe, he was her Santa.
And now each Christmas, she sets up the tree and hangs up the lights. She pauses with each ornament before hanging them on the tree. A red sparkly glob of painted string; a plastic elf that looks as if he ate children for dessert; a chipped nutcracker; a crumpled felt drummer boy; and even a shiny plastic Muppet character whose name she can’t recall. She would never get rid of them even if she could no longer remember where they came from. Only that they came from before. They all came from before.
She cooks the seven fishes; she had long ago given up believing. She listens to Frank Sinatra and tears up. I’ll be home for Christmas, he sings. If only in my dreams.
There is no Santa. Still she steps outside and looks up at the stars.
Her seven-year-old self whispers, “You aren’t alone.” And for that moment, she is comforted.
Whenever I tell people that I went to the Yucatan in the summer of 1983, that I slept on a beach in a hammock, that I ate live conch cut out of the shell, that I hiked into the jungle led by a machete-wielding man named Alamon, that I crawled deep into cenotes not fully excavated, they tell me, “that’s how you got into travel.”
I say yes and let the moment pass. It’s the cool story.
But it’s not the real story.
I was 15. My parents said I could go on the trip if I saved 150 dollars. I still have the passbook. I permed my hair so it would look good wet. No one told me it wouldn’t look good dry. I was battling an eating disorder, but that really wasn’t a word everyone knew back then. I managed my life on 700 calories a day and threw up the rest. I still put baby oil on my skin and got almost as dark as my hair.
For three weeks, five teenagers led by two high school biology teachers and a professor from Texas would travel the Yucatan in a white Volkswagen van. O the privilege!
There was a popular boy—the son of my father’s best friend—whose older brother I had crushed on since I was ten. There was a boy with hearing problems with wavy brown hair and tawny skin, who was definitely going to be handsome, but like any teen in the 80s who was different, well, he was different. There was a girl who flirted between popularity and toughness. She was Italian with permed hair too, but she carried herself like a jock, and somehow made the bad hair and the over-tan look good. Plus, she talked to boys like they were human. Let’s face it, she scared me. The last girl, a quiet girl, a girl I had never heard of (after all, we were in a school of about 2000), was, well, she was going to be my friend.
To see the weeks slipping away, was to watch me become invisible. My breasts were big and I was all bones. I was so uncomfortable in a bathing suit, in my skin, I used any excuse not to disrobe. I snorkeled, mostly, with a tee-shirt. While the boys ignored me, I felt the eyes of men on me. I curved inward. The two boys and the popular girl became fast friends—they quoted movies to one another like witty banter. I didn’t get it. But still, I tried to think of a quote from a cool movie, a pretentious movie, any movie, Bambi, and I just couldn’t. (I still can’t.) The other girl and I ignored them and looked for snakes and scorpions and iguanas.
We all drank strawberry soda straight out of the bottle.
The other girl, the quiet girl, was long-legged and without curves. Her hair was long and unpermed. In the heat, it grew big and wild. She chewed straws when she was bored. She tied her baseball shirt up around her waist in a way I had not seen before. She found a baseball cap and plopped it on her head. Sometimes she wore it backwards. (Remember, this was 1983 and just not done.) She looked for iguanas and she quoted movies. She was my first hipster.
And soon, she quoted movies more than she looked for wildlife.
I was alone.
My journal entries from that trip are full of loneliness, but there are glimpses of insight. I celebrated the day I talked to the popular boy about a book he was reading. “He laughed at my joke and it wasn’t that funny. But I bet this changes nothing at school or when our families get together,” I wrote. I was right.
I began taking my photographs more seriously. At first, I had used the camera to hide, but soon I just began observing. One of those photographs I framed and gave to my mother. She hung it in the kitchen. Now it’s in my studio.
The night we slept on the beach, I had my period. This was not Venice Beach; there were no bathrooms. So I buried my tampons outside, saying a little prayer to a god I didn’t believe in that a pelican wouldn’t dig them up and choke to death.
My heels blistered from a hike and I fashioned mole skin from palm leaves. I never once complained like the other girls did.
Not seeing the value in the tee-shirts and the tchotchkes, I came home with my journal and my pictures; they were my memories, they were my gifts. I had more than fifty dollars left when I arrived back in the States.
Maybe that trip is the origin of my love and need for travel. But what I learned on that trip was how to be alone and be okay with it. It would take much longer to learn to love it.
The trip was the beginning of me.
When I was sixteen, we went to visit the Italian family who had sent their daughter to live with us for a summer; she had been our exchange student. She wore her jeans faded and tight. She once sat in my Dad’s lap as a joke, or at least that’s how we choose to remember it. She had wavy dark blond hair and wore the high-heeled sandals I begged my mother for. When staying with us, her chatter was ripe with stories about Milan and fashion. She was 18. I was 14. My parents dragged us to the sights we’d seen dozens of times. We lived here, we didn’t want to be tourists. Yeah, yeah, that’s the Empire State Building. Yeah, yeah, that’s Washington Square. Yeah, yeah, this is what New York pizza tastes like. Here, try a bagel. She was a nuisance, not an educational experience.
Then my parents made my sister and I take her to our community pool. She wore a purple string bikini. She didn’t bother with a tee-shirt.
Italians girls in the 80s didn’t shave.
Her purple string bikini bottom was outlined by blond-ish black pubic hair. She didn’t notice anyone staring. She seemed all too happy to be there showing off that bikini when my friends and I weren’t yet allowed to wear them. (Although in retrospect, do I really know what an 18-year-old Italian teenager from Milan is thinking when visiting a suburban community pool in New Jersey? No I don’t, but at 14, I hadn’t learned empathy.) She threw down a towel just like any other teenager and slathered on baby oil. She looked at my sister and I who were busy trying not to notice her full breasts, narrow waist, and round hips. “Ciao,” she said and pulled out a book with a couple kissing on the cover. She got lost in the sun. My sister and I (and our friends) stared at her pubic hair and the ease with which she laid there.
I pulled my shirt down to my knees.
Two years later, my family visited her family at their summer home in Lake Como. It was a old storied home carved into a hill. Her mother served us chicken in aspic. I remember candles, dark wood, and lace. It was an event, I remember. It was gourmet, my parents told me. It tasted like chicken-flavored jello.
That is my only memory from the visit.
In the faded album I’ve carried with me from home to home, there is one page allotted to the Lake Como visit. Not one person. A sixteen-year-old’s vision of travel. And the only notation in the album? “A good time! I guess!”
Today, I concentrate and try to conjure the smell, the sights, and whatever transpired to make it “A good time! I guess!” I cannot even remember where we slept or what we did. Even at 48, all I see is the teenage girl so confident in her purple string bikini.