All Aboard — or Maybe Not

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz

The thought of traveling always fills me with dread.  I approach any major trip, no matter how delightful it promises to be, wondering, How will I cope?  What will become of me?  There are many ways to deal with travel anxiety — the best of which, in my view, is to stay home.  Until last year, though, when my husband and I were about to set off for Italy, I didn’t realize to what lengths I would go to ward off the moment of departure.  My usual sense of vacuous alienation began hours in advance.  It sent its warning sign, like the odd shudder that presages a flu in the offing.

We had just arrived at Newark’s Liberty Airport and unloaded our luggage; the taxi was pulling away from the curb; I was envisioning the snaking line for boarding passes, stretching out to the crack of doom.  When the mini-movie in my mind got to the part where I’d show my passport, I realized I didn’t have it.  To be quite accurate, I thought I’d better check.  In some slyer niche of consciousness I knew.  I had left it at home.

There followed a tense taxi ride back to Manhattan, through the New Jersey wetlands towards the George Washington Bridge, during which I tried to figure out where I might have left it.  Like a pulp-fiction detective, I reconstructed my moves during those last few precious moments at home.  I’d finished packing and was reading a book in my usual chair in the living room, waiting for the car service.  I remembered the pang in my chest when I heard the inevitable buzzer.  The passport was functioning as a bookmark — I was planning to take the book to read on the plane.  I leaped to my feet.  Just as I do every evening after reading in that chair, I reflexively — but this time mischievously, or maliciously — tossed the book on the nearby coffee table and left the room.

Most taxi drivers love to speed: why, on this particular day, did I get one who didn’t?

I told the taxi driver my story and asked him to go as fast as he could, dutifully ignoring any half-conscious wish on my part to miss the plane.  The driver said he didn’t generally like to drive fast (most taxi drivers love to speed: why, on this particular day, did I get one who didn’t?) but he would do his best.  He was from Buenos Aires, but now lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was divorced, and had a teen-aged son, very good-looking, like his father, judging from the photograph he showed me.  He also turned out to be a lover of books, so we talked about, of all things, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.  When I mentioned that I was a writer he perked up and wanted to know what I’d written, so I told him.  If he got me home and back to the airport in time for my flight, I said, I would gladly send him a book.  He gave me a card with his name and address.

It was mid-afternoon and traffic was light.  We got to my building in thirty-five minutes, record time from Newark.  The passport was exactly where I’d expected it to be, in the middle of Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James.  Racing back to Newark, we discussed Borges’s influence on American and European writers — much more interesting, surely, than the plane trip would be.

Why was my dread of travel so strong, this time, that I was willing to half-consciously sabotage my trip in this most awkward and inefficient of ways?  It  wasn’t Italy itself.  I’ve been there many times, even lived there for a year, and in some ways feel quite at home.  I can even pretend fairly successfully to be Italian if I don’t say more than a few words.  But alienation has nothing to do with place, really; it has to do with the self, or its absence.  In unpropitious conditions — and travel, for me, is unpropitious — the self can lose strength like a photographic negative left out too long, or lose sparkle, like soda in a bottle left uncapped.  Or it can slowly seep away like the juice from an aging citrus fruit; all that remains is a dry light husk filled by a plangent ache.

I suspect my reluctance was because I had no task to do, no purpose, no reason for being abroad other than to see.  Taking in the sights is fine when you’re young and haven’t seen very much.  But after years of travel, the monuments and museums begin to blur; the whole enterprise becomes more of an ordeal than a lark.  Unless, that is, the trip has some purpose connected with my real and precious life — to research a book, to visit a beloved friend or relative, to discover the answer to some nagging curiosity.  Without that purpose, I suspect that in the future I’ll find more and better ways to sabotage a journey.

We got back to Newark’s Liberty Airport with time to spare; the plane was late.  I had no choice but to get on.  Soon after I got home weeks later, I sent the driver a copy of one of my novels but I never heard from him, maybe because it showed no traces of Borges’s influence.

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About Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's first novel Rough Strife was nominated for a National Book Award in 1980. Other works include Balancing Acts, Disturbances in the Field, Acquainted With the Night, The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories, Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction), The Fatigue Artist, Ruined by Reading In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy, Face to Face, In Solitary, Referred Pain, The Writing on the Wall (2005), and The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W.G. Sebald, as well as two poetry collections, In Solitary and See You in the Dark. Her work has been widely anthologized, and she teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars and at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

One Comment

  1. Eve Tai
    Posted May 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I love travel but like you, dread it at the same time. But for me, the big stumbling block is packing. I find the calculus of combining colors, comfort and shoes – not to mention style – overwhelming at times. If someone can write a software program to help me I will gladly market it for you!

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