“Don’t be mad,” I telegram Steve, care of the American Express office in Amsterdam. “Heading off alone. See you in India.” The telegram takes a startling $4.50 out of the $70 I have left after paying for my hotel. Steve has the other $600. I feel some concern about this, but I stuff the $65.50 into my jeans pocket and walk out of the telegraph office into the streets of Luxembourg. It is a cold, drizzly, metallic winter day. I am scared, but I like the feeling. The city is just waking up: Delivery trucks park on the sidewalks, and men in wool jackets lower boxes and crates down steep stone steps to men waiting in basements below. Bare bulbs hang in the gloom; voices come in bursts of yelling and laughter. I can’t understand a thing they are saying. I shoulder my new, red backpack—56 pounds, including the lumpy cotton sleeping bag I bought at the Army/Navy store—and shift its weight on my small shoulders until it feels less painful. The men on the street stop their work and turn to watch me walk by One of them smiles and tips his cap. There is a murmur among them and then laughter. I am 22 years old and afraid. I feel shaky and powerful, recognizing a reckless potency as it takes over decision-making. Nothing can hurt me. I smile back at the workers, lean forward against the weight of the pack and choose a direction. Luxembourg is silver in the morning mist. Men and women come out, one by one, onto the sidewalks to make their way to work. I walk among them, the human stream, but I have been outside that life for a long time and make my way alone now.
Steve and I had been playing for a few months at the edges of love. It was winter, 1972. I lived on Dartmouth Street in the Back
Bay section of Boston, in a small, shabby apartment with high ceii-ings and stained-glass windows in the bathroom door. At night, I sat in the big bay window at the back of the house with the lights low, watching rats take over the nighttime alley. A man, across the alley and up a story, stood each night at his window, watching me through binoculars. I stared back. Sometimes I filed my toenails for him or read poetry out loud. 1 returned each night after work to the rats, my books, the man who watched me. I resisted spending time with Steve. He was a good and earnest boy who wanted me to love him, but I had little to offer. Sometimes I left a note for him on my door, saying I had taken off for a while and would call when I got back. But when he came one snowy December night and asked me if I wanted to go to India with him, I immediately said yes. Maybe, on the road to a faraway country, I would find release from the griefs of my past.
The plan was that Steve would fly ahead to Amsterdam. I would follow two weeks later, flying to Luxembourg on a cheap flight and taking a train to Amsterdam, where I would meet him. He would simply wait at the station on Jan. 6th until I climbed off one of the trains, and we would start our four-month hitchhiking trip, joining the flow7 of American and European hippies, young people seeking adventure and, maybe, enlightenment in India. I was nervous as I flew to Reykjavik and on to Luxembourg, anxious about getting from the airport into the city alone and finding a place to spend the night. I decided I would just sleep in a chair at the train station, but when I got there, it was locked up. It was a very cold and damp night. I didn’t have the right clothes; I had packed for India, forgetting the continents in between. As I made my way into a nearby hotel, I felt inept and alone. I went to sleep worried about the train ride to Amsterdam the next day and what would happen if Steve, for some reason, never showed up. He had almost all our money and our maps. Our only line of communication was through American Express, the hub for hitchhikers in Europe. Our plan seemed, in the damp, lonely room, flimsy and uncertain.
Before it was light, I was up, frightened. I washed in cold water at the stained sink behind the door, watching myself in the mirror. I was a girl in big trouble, and I knew this as I stared back at myself: at the guarded, haunted eyes; at the tight, closed face—a record of loss.
I had a baby when I was 16. My mother kicked me out. Then my Either kicked me out. I gave my baby away.
My baby, 5 years old now, was somewhere, maybe loved, maybe not. Mourning with no end and a sense that I had lost everything— my child, my mothers love and protection, my father’s love and protection, the life I had once imagined for myself—hollowed me out. Every day, I floated alone and disconnected, and could not find comfort or release. I understood clearly that my history had harmed me, had cut me off from the normal connections between people. Every day for five years, I had been afraid of this disconnection, feeling the possibility of perfect detachment within my reach, like a river running alongside me, inviting me to step into its current.
Something shifted in the early morning’s coming light as I looked back at the broken life reflected in the mirror. In that moment, the river swept in close beside me, the current smooth and swift. I stepped in finally, reckless and grateful, a calm giving up. I had nothing more to lose. I walked toward the telegraph office. I did not care what happened to me anymore.
The winter air is heavy with sweet coal smoke as I walk and hitchhike, following the Rhone River through eastern France. I am walking blind, with no maps, and learn the names of the cities I am passing through from small, brown signs: Nancy, Dijon, Lyons, Montelimar, Aries. Everything—buildings, fields, chugging factories, workers’ faces and clothes—is gray. Snow falls and turns to slush. I am cold and wet, but I am strangely excited. My money is going fast on bread and cheese and hot soup. Each late afternoon, I have one purpose—to find a dry place to sleep where no one will find me. I am furtive as each day closes, slipping into farm sheds and factory storerooms and derelict warehouses. Sometimes I am caught, and an angry or indignant man or woman sends me back into the night. I sleep lightly, listening for footsteps. If I am near a town in the morning, I like to find a public place—a cafe or market—and spend a few minutes warming up, my backpack resting against my legs near the sweaty windows. Often, the owner realizes I have no money to spend and shoos me out. Sometimes a man or a young woman—a mother with a small, wide-eyed child, perhaps—smiles and motions me to sit
down. My French is poor: “Yes, I am walking to India,” I say. “Thank you,” I say, again and again. I eat a pastry and drink a bowl of steaming coffee. Sometimes the men who pick me up in their green Deux Cheveaux or blue Fiats or black Mercedes pull over at a market and buy me bread and tins of sardines and cheese. The world feels perfectly benign, generous even, and I go on my way, following the river.
I think of Steve, hoping he did not sit long in the train station waiting for me before he realized there was trouble, before he made his way to the American Express office and ripped open my telegram. I half-expect to see him waving at me across an intersection where roads meet and part again. I have no idea where I am.
One cold, windy day, as I walk through another little town with no name, I meet a man named Alex, who is absent without leave from the British Army. He is tall and very, very thin, with hollowed-out cheeks and sunken eyes. His boots are rotting away; he has tied newspapers around the soles, in his dirty, wet canvas satchel, he carries a brown wool blanket, which is thin and filthy, and a miniature chess set. He has no passport. He has not contacted his family for over a year. He looks haunted, as if he no longer belongs to the world. He teaches me to play chess in the back stairwell of an apartment building. He is curt with me and never smiles. He smells unwashed, but, more than that, he seems to be fading from the world. 1 feel as if I am looking at myself a year from now.
The next morning, Alex points down the empty road and tells me, “Go that way until you reach the Mediterranean Sea. Turn left there. It will take you to a warmer place.” I leave him sitting on a heap of stones at the edge of a field and head in the direction he pointed.
My backpack is lighter. In dirty Genoa, I sell two pairs of Levi’s; my tall, red suede boots; a black lace shirt; and a bra to a girl from Chicago who is hitchhiking with her boyfriend. She gives me $20, and the rising worry about money, which I have been trying to ignore, eases. I have lost weight in just three weeks and think about food as I walk.
Now that I have reached the warmer Mediterranean coast, I see lots of kids traveling together. Like me, they carry heavy backpacks and stick out their thumbs for a ride. They look happy and well-fed, and each night, they sleep in youth hostels they have chosen from
their “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” guide. They congregate—little international communities—in cafes and clubs and parks in the centers of the quaint southern towns, finding a common language and sharing tales of their adventures. I avoid them, feeling detached from their youth and the ease with which they travel through the world.
The hole in me grows. I am becoming more and more isolated and recognize that I am walking my way into perfect disconnection. ¡ think of my baby, a boy, every single day now. I make up stories: My baby is a boy named Anthony, with black, black hair. My baby is a boy lying on his back under a maple tree, watching clouds—¯just like these above me—spin by on an easterly wind. Like me, he has blond curls and crooked fingers. He is shaped like this hole in me. I think of my mother. I think of my father. Under the weight of my backpack, I walk away from home.
The cobbled sidewalks in Florence have been worn down in the middle by centuries of people walking to the market or to work and back home, people who have carried burdens on their backs and in their string bags and in their hearts. The ancient stone steps of the Palazzo Medici and Pitti Palace are worn so deeply they seem to sag in the middle, as if the weight of all those lives has made its mark forever. I am at peace here, trudging down the center of the sidewalks.
I learn to steal oranges and bread and dates from indoor markets, leaving my backpack outside by the door so I can make a fast run with my day’s food. At night, I comb my hair and present myself as an American college girl at the doors of albergos. Skeptical women in black dresses and stout shoes size me up, but each night, someone agrees to take me in. In rapid-fire English, I refuse to leave my passport with them, arguing that I am going to meet friends later and will need my identification on the city streets. I cannot understand their answers, but if I get away with it, I find myself in a clean room with stiff, white sheets on a high bed and windows looking over a quiet side street.
I request that the hot-water burner in my room be turned on, an extra cost. While the widow turns the gas valve and lights the match below the heater, I smile my gratitude. The woman doesn’t smile back at me. Left alone, I put the lamp on and ease into the long tub. I soak clean in the deep, steaming water, easing some of my aloneness in its
embrace. I climb out then wash my clothes in the tub and lay them across the chugging radiator for the night. In the morning, the woman brusquely brings me a tray of hard-crusted toast and sweet butter and strawberry jam in a little white pot. Later, of course, I lift my backpack onto my shoulders and quietly take the stairs past her rooms. Clean, my hunger appeased and troubled with guilt, I enter the day in Florence. The beautiful old city wakes slowly while I watch, the red tiled roofs catching the coming sun as it rises over the Arno River.
1 make my way toward the rising sun. I no longer care about India. I have no destination. Most days, I speak briefly to one or two people, but I am worlds away. The road is leading in. The walking is a drug.
I cross mountains and find myself again on a sea. Rimini. Ravenna. Ferrara.Venice in the springtime—a liquid, pink city. I am a reluctant but accomplished thief in these cities, stealing food and a bath and sleep. I sell a red dress I like very much and black tights and four T-shirts. I put the $15 in my pocket. I study a French girl’s map and see that I am headed away from tourist cities, from food and beds, a roof. Worry nags at me. I linger in Venice, sitting in San Marco Square or on the boulevard looking across to the Lido. Men on the freight boats in the canals call to me with white smiles. Sometimes I smile back, and a man throws fruit and small parcels of nuts or olives to me. I wave my thanks. I am thin and wonder if they see, yet, the hollowed-out look I met in Alex,
My child turns 6 on Memorial Day as I walk out of Venice. I will not try to hitch a ride today. I feel my son with me, a light, and I want to be alone with him.
It has been several months since I have had a real conversation with anyone. I am not at all lonely. I choose this way of being in the world. I know I would scare people at home. But I have nothing to say to anyone. I have not been in touch with rny family since I left to meet Steve in Amsterdam, and their voices are finally silent in my head. My backpack is lighter. I hum Bach’s “Partita No. 2” and head through Trieste to the next place that waits for me.
Beograd: I am up to my old tricks—thieving food, a bed. I hoard the $36 in my pocket. Summer has come to Yugoslavia. I like this
enormous country very much. Tito watches me from posters and framed photos in every building and home. The Danube makes its lazy way past the city, to mysterious places far away. I get rested and ease my constant hunger. My jeans hang from my hips. My legs are strong. I ask a soldier, “Which way is Greece?” and follow his finger. There are fewer and fewer hitchhiking kids as I move from farm town to farm town. Boys drive oxen with goad sticks, stopping to stare open-mouthed as I walk past. I sneak into barns and sheds at night, pulling my old sleeping bag snug against my neck because of the rats and mice I hear in the hay and chaff. The nights are still cold, and my Army surplus bag offers no warmth at all. I curl my legs tight to my chest, trying to get warm enough to slip into a tired sleep. I have learned the arc of the sun: Each morning, before the roosters call the day to a start, I slip out into the dewy, gray light, orienting myself, continuing on my way.
Athens is beautiful—crisp green and white in the brilliant summer sun. it is crawling with travelers, and after weeks in the quiet countryside of Yugoslavia, I feel thrown back into a forgotten world. People speak to me in English and French, and I understand what they want of me—momentary connection, shared experiences. I pretend I don’t understand and back away without smiling.
I sell my boots to a shoe vendor on a dead-end street and buy a used pair of sandals from him, giving me an extra $7. I sell my red sweater and all my socks and a yellow jersey. I have $21 left. I sit for long afternoons in the little parks lined with orange trees, considering what will happen when I can’t raise more money. Going home is not an option I consider.
I have lived inside my brain for months now. The walking is an underlying rhythm for my thoughts, like an obbligato, persistent and reassuring. I have accomplished the disconnection, and my wanderings are entirely solitary, free of any voices from the past. Grief is my companion. As the child grows bigger, the hole carved in me grows, too. Silent, solitary, moving—step by step, I measure the distance between me and the woman I thought I was going to grow up to be.
Three times I try to cross the Bosporus and enter Istanbul. Gathering speed in Athens, I sweep up the coast of Greece, through
Larisa and Lamia, up through Thessaloniki, through Alexandroupolis, walking, catching rides, and each time, I balk at the border, unable to broach Turkey, I am hungry. I have less than $10 left. Each time, at the door to Asia, facing the dark mystery of Turkey, I stumble at the threshold, afraid.
Asia lies behind a curtain, masculine and remote and secretive, having absolutely nothing to do with me. In northern Greece, as Europe gives way to Asia, dark men sit outside their shops, smoking hookahs and drinking tea from small glasses. They stare as I walk past. I feel naked, lost. There are no women anywhere. Small, dusty-legged boys run in packs beside me, screaming their excitement as they jump to touch my sun-bleached hair. I am all white, a floating apparition; their dark hands and shrill voices chase me in the village streets. Nasal prayers blare from minarets, and the sun sears the land.
I slide back down the coast to Athens, confused and worried because, even here, there is not enough room to move. I feel trapped. Remembering the freehand maps we drew in seventh grade, I know the world opens and extends beyond the Bosporus, and I want to be lost in its expanse. Again, I roar up the coast. I walk fast. Sometimes rich men in Mercedes pick me up. They feed me at restaurants hidden in the hills and smile at me, baffled and aroused. Again and again, I approach the shadowy world that sprawls beyond Europe.
Finally, too tired to turn around, I slip into Istanbul at night and let a kind, young student lead me to the cellar where he rents a room with four others. I do not go out for three days, paralyzed with fear. And then one morning, sliding to recklessness again, I leave the dark hideaway. Muezzins chant their minor-key call to prayer from the minarets of the mosques. I gather my things and enter the old bazaar. It is dark and dreamy and heavy; wool rugs and pungent spices and dates and plastic dolls tumble from doorways into the alleys. I spend $1 on a length of dark cloth and a needle, and, sitting in a wavering pool of light within the gloom, I sew a shapeless shift, long and loose. I sell my last blue jeans and my bra and my sandals and, finally, my pack. I save my belt, which I pull tight around my rolled sleeping bag.
I have heard I can get $300 for my passport. I make my way slowly through the labyrinth of shops and paths, watching for men who might return my gaze and invite a deal. I wander slowly in the maze, making eye contact with the dark men who embody danger.
Everywhere, men slide next to me, touch my arm insistently and whisper, “Hashish? Hashish?” “No money,” I say, emboldened, and then, “Passport? Passport?” The men move away quickly. I know I have scared them.
I am lost. The bazaar is an ancient city of stone tunnels, roofed with great vaulting domes. It is dark and very noisy. Children run past, barefoot and dark-eyed. They pull back against the scarred walls when they see me, so different from the brazen village boys. I walk slowly, watching the men. “Hashish?” “No. Passport?” Finally, a man stares back at me and signals for me to follow. A small man with a sharp nose and scuffed shoes, he leads me through the maze for five minutes, without once glancing back at me. He stops at a stall selling spices from big wooden barrels; the bright orange and green and yellow and red and brown spices fill the alley with a rich, heavy smell, mysterious and seductive. The man speaks to a younger man sitting high behind the barrels. That man stares at me coolly. I make myself stare back. He nods then says something to the older man, who turns to me and says in English, “Twenty-five dollars.”
“No,” I say. I am shocked. I know that what I am doing is a serious crime, it has to be worth it. “No, $300.”
Both men return my look of shock. They shake hands with each other, and the younger man motions me away. I hesitate, but he yells something at me, and I turn away. I am shaken. My plan seems naive and unworkable. Later, I spend $4 on a large, peaty chunk of hashish; 1 sew it into the hem of my shift to sell when I need money.
I need food. A fat man watching me from his stall with serious eyes calls me to him. He doesn’t smile as he puts me in a chair and lays a tin plate in front of me. He hacks the head off the lamb roasting on his brazier and places it on the plate. I spend an hour picking and sucking every sweet bit from the skull. The man shakes his head when I offer him money. I wander through the bazaar, watching the end of each tunnel for the light outside, the path out. Then I head south with $17.
Beyond the city, across the Dardanelles, I am free in that vast far-off space I remember from my childhood maps. This is where I want to be. Nothing here is like home. The disconnection is complete. I sleep alone under the trees at night. It rains some nights, and I am cold and wet. I share dark sheds with small animals—rats, I think—
and I sneak out before dawn when men come to do their chores. The land is spare and mimics my stripped life. Voices—shepherds as alone as I am—call across the hills. Goat bells answer. The call to prayer. Wind. Everything has slipped. I am not me anymore.
It is mid-summer. I have been walking since January. In southern Turkey, it is warm and very dry. I am always thirsty. My bare feet are strong and calloused. The land is beautiful, rolling and arid and silent. This is an enormous place. I am lost in it.
For several days, I have been following a dusty track that winds south. I don’t know how far away the coast is and can’t remember how it fits on the planet. I think the Middle East comes after Turkey, and I head that way. I have forgotten about India, the hitchhikers mecca. I am wandering. The track has been getting smaller and smaller, and now I know I am on an animal trail or maybe a shepherd’s path. It winds up and over the dry, brown hills. I have not seen a house or shepherd’s hut for two days. Sometimes I hear the heavy tonk of goat bells on the distant hills. I am not lonely. I hear my steps muffled in the stone-dust and the pulse of blood in my ears. I hum a fragment from Bach, the same bit over and over. I am hungry.
Night comes quickly here. In the near dark, I feel the clinking of pottery under my feet: I am walking on tiny mosaic tiles. Fragments, brilliant blue and yellow even in this erasing light, stretch for hundreds of feet in the sparse grass. I know nothing. I know no history. When did Homer live? The Trojan War—could that have been here? Cretans, Minoans, Phoenicians—did they lay these bits of clay? I have no sense of what belongs where, or when. I am old, an old woman walking across time in the dust. Other women have walked here. Other women, I know, have been alone. I feel a momentary jolt of connection, of steadying order.
A small, stone bunding, round and low, rises in the dark. I feel my way to a door. I have to step down three feet to the floor, where more tiles crackle each time I step. It is damp and smells green inside. I feel for the roof—it is a low dome, and tiles clap to the floor when I touch them. There is a raised platform in the middle, an oblong, covered in tiles. I listen but hear no rats. Pleased with my find for the night, I spread my sleeping bag on the platform and wrap myself up as well as I can against the coming cold.
I wake abruptly, knowing suddenly that this is an ancient tomb. I am a trespasser. I am in over my head. The old, deep shame creeps back to me. Glued to the altar all night, I stare straight into the pitch-black dome. At dawn, I crawl up into the faint light, the air, the patterns of lives etched for millennia in the soil. On my hands and knees, I study the mosaic design, searching for clues, a map for how a life gets lived, how it all can be contained, how the boundaries can hold against the inexpressible and unnamed. How I can hold against the past. People called to God in this place, a god who was, I think, furious and harsh. I am not ready. I may never be ready. I gather my sleeping bag and walk toward the rising sun.
Night is coming. I am somewhere in southern Lebanon, on the coast, in a place I can’t name. I need to find somewhere to sleep before it is dark. On a narrow beach, I discover a cement-block house still standing, its roof and one wall blasted away. Its whitewash gleams in the dusk, and it is oddly tidy. The shattered glass, the splinters of wood, the furniture and clothes and dishes that must have been left behind when the Israeli mortar shells flew through the night—everything has been scrubbed clean by the winds and shifting sand. Eddies in its corners have left tiny dunes. I push them flat with a sweep of my arm and drop my sleeping bag. It is all I carry now, this bag rolled and bound with my belt; my passport, my pocketknife and matches are tucked into the foot. I shake out the bag, dirty and musty, and lay it neatly in the corner of the ruins. I slide my passport back inside and lay the matches on top. I keep the knife in my hand. In the deep dusk, I wander the beach, gathering driftwood. The little fire whooshes up, and I am home.
I have not eaten today and have no food for tonight. The bats are out as always, their syncopated bursts felt but not seen. The Mediterranean Sea is not dramatic. It pulses in and out softly in the dark. Sparks snap and rise. Although it is August, the nights are chilly, and I am cold. I am always cold at night, my body too thin now to generate enough heat. My bag is lumpy with wadded cotton batting and only serves to keep the bats from touching my skin. I am almost content. I am free from most things. Recklessness has become a drug, and I am walking stoned. I have not had a conversation with anyone for several months; I live in my head, all eyes and ears, a receptor with nothing to return. I have no heart anymore and cannot be afraid.
I hear men shouting suddenly. They come nearer. I can hear their pant legs swishing up the beach and the clatter of what I instantly know are weapons. I wait in the dark, hoping they will march past me, past my small fire, past this already ruined house. They stop in the gaping hole that was a wall. There are six of them: soldiers in camouflage with automatic weapons drawn. I stay seated, wrapped in my flimsy bag. They are very young, some with no hair at all on their cheeks. One of them, short and thick, is older, my age, maybe 21 or 22. He shouts at me. I cannot tell if they are Israeli or Lebanese. Maybe I have walked out of Lebanon and into Israel along the shore. I don’t know where I am or what the soldiers are protect-ing, but I knowI am in trouble.
“Passport?” the stocky one demands. I know enough not to hand it to them. It will bring them quick cash, and I will never see it again. My answer is long, as if there is a logic to my presence on their beach, as if there has been no War of ‘67, as if I know what I’m doing here. He shouts at me. I don’t know if it is Hebrew or Arabic. “Passport!” I hear in English.
Suddenly, one of the boys jostles another, points at me with his elbow and says something. I know what it must be. They all laugh, excited and a little embarrassed. I flare to life after all these months, and I am afraid. I do not dare to stand up. My dress is thin, and I have no underwear.
My fire has died to a glow. They shove each other and giggle and jostle as if they are drunk, but they are not. They are soldiers, a team, and no one knows I am here. They sit in a semicircle around me, their rifles across their laps, their smooth, olive hands and cheeks luminescent in the night. They are quiet for minutes at a time, watching me. Then they burst into joking laughter. I sit silent, tense, surprised that I suddenly care so much what happens to me. The bats flick down onto our legs and heads and shoulders. The stars are out, the Milky Way stretching across two seas to my other life. I am sitting on my passport, my little knife gripped in my hand. I stare back at these boys, these boys with guns, and I am puffed like a frightened bird to make myself seem brave.
I sit, stiff and cold. Suddenly, all the walking away from my past—from my home; from the baby, just born and alone, that I abandoned in a hospital; from my mother, cold, her love evaporated; from
my father, his love withdrawn; from the child I was myself—all the walking has taken me nowhere. Here I am, alone and scared. I remember the days after my baby was born. My young breasts, still a girl’s, were large and tight and hard, swollen with milk. My shirt was soaked. 1 stood over the bathroom sink, crying, pressing the milk from my breasts. I could hear my lost baby cry for me from someplace far away, as if my own cry echoed back to me. My milk flowed and flowed, sticky and hot, down the drain of the sink.
I clutch my arms tight to my breasts and face the soldiers who surround me. The night goes on slowly, hour by wary hour. The tides are small here, and the creep of the sea is no measure of time. Occasionally, the stocky leader shouts at me, asking for my passport. “American?” he asks. “Yes. American,” I say, emphatically. “Passport!” he demands, again and again. I shrug my shoulders, gesturing no, as if these are my lines in the play we are all rehearsing. Not one of us moves. The constellations reel around the polestar, and we sit through the deep night. In the quiet minutes, one or another lifts his rifle, clacking and clipping metal against metal as he opens and closes the breach. The sound bangs against the bombed-out walls and echoes back to us. They laugh.
At the first seep of light, the leader suddenly rises. The other boys jump to their feet, brushing sand from their laps. They all look frayed with sleeplessness. The leader stands upright and nods to me. They all turn without speaking and move back down the beach in a slow, drifting line. I shake my bag out, place my passport and matches and knife in the foot, and strap my belt around it. Images rise: my mothers face turned from me; the white and metal hospital where I left my baby; my swollen breasts; my milk slipping slowly, in thick lines, down the sink. The sand in the bombed-out house is scuffed in a half-circle around me. Suddenly, I don’t know if these boys spent this long night threatening me or protecting me.
I don’t know where I am. My fear settles again as I walk. I head north, pretty sure I’m in Lebanon.
It is my birthday. I want ritual. This place in Lebanon is called Jbeil, “the beautiful place.” I wash slowly in the Mediterranean Sea at dawn, dipping my head back into the cool, still water, an anointment. 1 wash my dress and sit for the rest of the day on a long, smooth
ledge that falls away into the water. I have been feeling the silence acutely, the absolute lack of attachment. It frightens me because I know I have slipped into the deepest current and may not come back. But I like the narcotic of walking and will not stop. I know the roads to Damascus and Latakia and Tyre. The walking claims ground as mine, and I am as much at home here as I have been anywhere since I was 16.
Between me and my mother, me and my father, me and my castaway child, beyond this quiet sea, is the dark and raging Atlantic. The sun on the Mediterranean stuns the mind. I am blank. I am here in this beautiful place. I am 23.1 am alone. I have nothing.
It is late summer—dry, brown, peaceful in the hills. I wander from Syria to Jordan to Lebanon to Syria. I am among Palestinian refugees. Soldiers with machine guns lie behind sandbag bunkers on every corner in every country. The low, flat roofs are sandbagged, and soldiers train their rifles on the dusty streets below. I know that Israel invaded Palestine in 1949.1 know that Israel occupied Jordan s West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights in the War of ‘67; armies of American kids joined the kibbutz movement to help Jews come home. 1 don’t know anything else, except that the Palestinian refugees suffer. They live in vast tent cities along every highway and in crowded warrens of shacks in every town. Everyone, Arab and Jew, has lost someone; some have lost everyone. They try to tell me their stories and weep. My own grief feels smaller here.
I walk, with no plan, through Baalbek and Masyaf and Saida and Sabkha and back through Masyaf. In every place, men and women greet me with hands extended. They smile, drawing me in as if I belong to them. I have no idea who they think I am. They share food with me: flat bread and warm, tangy yogurt from the bowls on their door stones. It always means they leave their own meals hungry. A woman beating a rug in her yard calls to me as I walk by her house. She looks sad and tired, like all the people here. She holds up her hand: Wait. I sit against the low cement wall surrounding her dusty yard. In ten minutes, she comes to me with two eggs—fried warm and runny and lifesaving—and flatbread to sop them up. She stands, smiling, while I eat, her black skirt and thin, black shoes powdered with dust, her hens wandering near us, pecking in the dirt.
Several teeth ache. Sometimes in the city I steal packets of aspirin from vendors. When I can’t sleep, I lay one against the gum. It burns the tissue, but I sleep.
I sell my blood to the Red Cross whenever I am in a city. I get $3, enough for a visa to cross back into Syria or Lebanon or Jordan. I try to hide the bruise from the last time. Sometimes they scold me and send me away; sometimes they need the blood badly and reach for the less-bruised arm. I feel vestiges of a familiar shame, broad and deep, with these American and European workers. They ask me if my family knows where I am. I always say yes. They ask, “What are you doing here?” But I have no answer for them and leave quickly with my $3.
Abrahim offers me hot bread from the doorway of his shop. He speaks some English and tells me he is getting married. He brings me home to his mother in As Sarafand, the refugee camp south of Beirut. She chatters at me in Arabic while she and four other women crowd around the pit-fire to cook for the feast. There is joy here. I have forgotten this kind of happiness, happiness that looks forward. I stay in this tiny plywood and tin house for three days, basking in the large, soft peace of family. I sleep with Abrahim’s sisters on mats on the floor; his father snores, and his mother murmurs to him in the night until he stops. I leave on the morning of the wedding. Abrahim’s mother wraps a black and white kafiyeh around my shoulders as I leave. I feel a new stab of dread as I walk away, unsure in which direction to head.
I am stopped at the border. I never know which country I am leaving and which I am entering. I cross these boundaries as they appear before me. I have no plan.
it is still light. A French businessman has picked me up on the road and has driven with me, in silence, for the past several hours. He knows where he is going. At the tiny border station, he is motioned through, but I am held by the two soldiers in the guardhouse. The driver looks very concerned; his fear is contagious, and I try to get back into his car. Rifles come up, and the guards shout at him to drive on. He leans across the front seat, closes the door and drives away, looking back at me in his mirror as if he is memorizing my face.
The guards speak to me in Arabic and motion me to sit on a small bench inside the hut. It is late summer and very hot in their shack. I think I am entering Syria near Al Qusayr. A few cars pull through; then, after dusk falls, there are no more. The soldiers come inside and close the door. A bare bulb hangs in the gloom. The men sit in chairs facing me, our knees almost touching. They still have my passport. I want to sleep. I am hungry and suddenly feel too tired to face them. It is absolutely quiet outside, and I can’t see lights anywhere in the no man’s land of the border.
They talk, pointing the ends of their rifles at me and clicking their tongues. They burst into laughter. I sit, hugging my sleeping bag to my chest. Finally, one of the men gets up and goes outside. The one left with me taunts me and stares silently and taunts again. When the first man returns an hour later, he has a young civilian with him, a buddy. They are agitated and make jokes for each other. Sometimes the civilian touches my face or arm, or pulls my hair tight in his fist, and they all laugh, their teeth white and shiny in the hard light. One makes me stand sometimes, and the two others speak in low, rough voices behind me. The clock over the door ticks the seconds and the minutes. It is 2:30 in the dark of the night.
A car pulls up to the gate, and the soldiers jump up as if they have been caught at something. I stand quickly and demand my passport. The guard hesitates then hands it to me, smiling ingratiatingly, and lets me push past him out the door. Without asking, I climb into the front seat of the car. People here know trouble, and the driver, a middle-aged Arab in a white jalaba and red kafiyeh, never says a word. They pass him through, and we drive on into Syria.
The air has changed. It is October, and the nights are very cold. I have no jacket, no sweater, no shoes. I squat by my little fire, the kafiyeh wrapped around my head and neck. I am always hungry. I have slept on this rocky beach in Syria for two weeks. The first few days,just before dusk, a very old man walked the length of the beach with his sheep; he murmured to them as they rustled, grazing among the debris of seaweed and trash. He didn’t look at me.
Then one night, he came across the beach toward me, his sheep following. He was very thin, and everything about him was dark—his
frayed wool jacket and old shoes and dirty cap and lined face. He smiled at me; he had two teeth, both on top. He spoke softly to me in the same vowelly voice he used to herd his animals. Kneeling by my small fire, he took a leather sack from his belt. He used the dented, little pot inside to milk one of the ewes, the milk hissing again and again against the tin. She stood for him without moving. His voice hushed in the falling light; he put the pot on the fire. The milk quickly boiled. He jerked it off the fire and dumped a brown clump of sugar into the creamy foam, stirring it with a stick. Sitting back on his heels, he waited while the milk cooled then gave it to me, smiling and nodding and talking. He watched me drink it down, delicious and sustaining. I came to life. He nodded and smiled and smiled.
Every night now, he stops and warms ewes milk and sugar for me, talking to me softly like my father did when I was a child. His old hands are creased and knobby. I don’t want him to leave, and I drink the milk slowly, holding him to me. I am nourished and feel a father’s care. All day, I wait for him, feeling how mute I am, how distant I have become from anything I once knew.
One night, I try to tell him I have a child. I hold up six fingers and mime a belly, large and round. I point to the West, across the sea. I very much want him to understand. He finally makes a loud, kind noise of understanding, laughing knowingly, smiling and nodding. But I know he cannot imagine what I am talking about. That night, I feel very alone under the black sky.
I leave the beach the next night. I say goodbye to him after I have drunk the milk he offers. He smiles and nods at me and turns several times to wave goodbye as he makes his way with his sheep, their bells tonking their hollow, peaceful course along the shore.
It is always almost night, the time when I must find a place to lay down my sleeping bag, a place to attach myself for a few hours. The decision feels enormously important every night. When I am tired, the unspoken thoughts that ride under the rhythms of my walking begin to seep out and over an edge I cannot protect. At this haunting hour, I feel like a stray animal, desperate for warmth of any kind. Each night, I watch the countryside go gray then black. I keep walking. Voices I know—my mother’s, my fathers, mine, the cry of a child—press at my back.
I move in the dark, alone. I search for lights on the arid hillsides, in the steep valleys. I float toward them with an intensity of longing; my outsideness feels contemptible, a failure of great magnitude, which hits each day at this time. There are voices coming from the lights, from behind secure walls—fires and food and entangled lives. The oncoming night leads me to them; I want, for a little while, to weave myself into their web. I do not want to sleep out in the open again, cold and apart, the dry wind swirling the stars out of place. I do not want to be alone. I creep toward the lights. Some nights, I sleep in the dirty sheds with chickens and goats. Some nights, I lie against the low cement walls, close enough to hear the voices, hushed or shrill. Most nights, there are no lights anywhere, no secure walls, and I lay my bag down where I am and curl against the cold.
I walk. It is November. I have been moving for 11 months. In a dusty field, 20 women stoop, preparing the rocky soil for the fall planting. Many of them have babies tied with bright cloths to their backs. Small children stand listlessly by their mothers in the sun. I am walking on a track from nowhere that skirts the field. Heads come up and watch me, but’ they continue their work. The children stare, slowly turning to follow me with their eyes as I pass. The dust rises. The barren hills lift behind us onto the high plain. Suddenly, at a signal I cannot see, the women stand and call their children out of the field for their midday meal, moving together toward me on the path.
I am struck with shyness. I cannot remember how I got here, what it is I am looking for. I don’t know if I have found it, if it can be found. I am outside the world, drifting. I don’t think I am lost, but I cannot explain where I am. I want so much all of a sudden, but I cannot name what it is. I am empty and very tired. I don’t know where to walk next. I don’t want these women—with their babies and their gray, dusty feet and hands and careful eyes—to wonder what brought me here. Things gone rise up in a flood. Suddenly, I am scared of myself and of how far I have drifted.
The women do not speak to me. They lift the baskets they have left by the road and sit to eat their meals on the little ridge of hard dirt beside the field. I walk along in front of the women and children, feeling exposed. We eye each other; the children lean against their mothers. Goats bleat far off in the hills.
Suddenly, a woman smiles up at me and wags her hand: Stop. She is wearing a 1950s short-sleeved sweater, bright red. She swings her dark-eyed baby onto her lap from her back and opens her bag. She lifts her sweater over her swollen breast, her skin the same soft dusk as the soil around her. Holding a dented tin cup under her breast, she presses milk—creamy white, hissing again and again—into the tin. She smiles against the brilliant sun as she hands it to me. 1 hesitate then take the cup, sitting down beside her in the dirt. She lifts her child to the same breast. The other women nod and smile while I sip the milk. It is hot and thick and sweet. For a few minutes, I am bound to this mother and her baby, to these women and their children. I remember what it is to belong, to be loved. I imagine my child loved somewhere.
For a few moments, I am suspended within this circle. But I do not belong here, and when the cup is empty, I slowly get up. Nodding again and again, I wave to the woman in the red sweater. A different hunger steals into me. Memories of my old life—when I was a girl in a family, a girl with dreams of the life coming to me—flash white and clear as I start to walk away. I want to go home, home to my adult life, with its losses carved forever in my path, with its possibilities, like unformed clouds, calling me forward. I head back the way I came, against the current, orienting myself north and west, toward the Atlantic. The sun is warm. Behind me, I can hear the women and children talking and laughing as they eat and rest. Their voices rise in soft, floating prayers as I walk.