By: Tanya Babich
When you were a kid, your parents made you wear the house key on a string around your neck. They took a shoelace-like rope and burnt the ends of it so it wouldn’t unravel, then strung the key on and tied the ends twice. They made you wear it like a necklace, but tucked inside your shirt. In the mornings, when you first put the key inside the shirt, it was cold to the touch and it would often jolt you. When you got home, the key would feel warm, almost hot, in your fidgeting hands trying to unlock the front door, always bolted twice.
Now, instead of wearing a key, you wear one of those flat, waterproof pockets, hiding money and such inside your shirt while traveling. They tell you it’s best to not take that pouch out in public very often, and to keep your ticket and a little money in your bag. So that’s what you do. As a single woman, traveling alone for the first time, trying to appear as tough as you can, you place your small backpack with a change of clothes, some snacks, a book, a little notebook for writing, and few Euros on the seat next to you. You’ve just taken your passport out in a small bathroom at the train station as you will very shortly be crossing another border and the train ticket controller will ask you for identification. You figure you’ll hide the passport away again at some point.
The seat facing you is empty but right on the other side you hear two young men talking. One of them occasionally turns around and peeks at you through the gap in between the two seats. A few minutes later he gets up and turns to you, gesturing as if to ask you if you have a pen he can borrow. You open you bag, dig a bit and as if trying to find something in the dark, and search for the pen. He is observant, watching you with his eyes wide open, taking in all of the details of what you are doing. He looks at you and then at the bag, and then more closely at what’s inside the bag. During your rummaging, your passport falls out on the floor. This twenty-something gypsy, with dark hair and skin, has the most amazing light blue eyes you’ve even seen. You can tell that the passport, open on some random page covered with stamps of borders you’ve crossed, is something that he wants. You quickly pick up the document off the floor, and finally retrieve the pen from the bag. He takes it and his eyes look at you as to say thank you. But you know this is all a trick; he’s done this before. He knows that those eyes are magic.
You grasp the passport and start flipping through the pages with all the stamps.
You look at the one from Mexico, where you went to Cabo San Lucas because a hurricane hit Cancun and Chichen Itza a day before you were supposed to travel and this was the only place you could book on such short notice. And then you got stuck in some boring all-inclusive resort, got food poisoning, and laid by the pool for five days, only able to drink 7 Up. You look at the seal from Spain. You think of your first trip there, to Seville, at the end of a very humid July, and how miserably hot you were, and all you thought of was getting immersed in any body of water or fountain you saw. You see the stamp from London and remember how windy it was but since you didn’t have a jacket, you decided that maybe it would be best just to sit at the airport for 10 hours and wait for the connecting flight, even though all you wanted to do is got on one of those tall red buses. There are no stamps for Maui, or Kauai, or hiking trips to Arizona, Utah, or California but you can remember bits and pieces of all those trips as well. Happy memories.
You are somehow relieved but also annoyed by the couple sitting across the aisle from you. They are American, recently retired, now finally with enough guts to spend their hard-earned money, doing a tour of Europe before they become too old and frail to enjoy foreign countries. They look at you and ask, “Are you from the States? Are you are a student? What brings you to these parts of the world?”
How do you answer them?
Your passport cover is navy blue with a gold eagle on the cover and many more American watermarks throughout the pages. You have not been a student for many years now, but you wish you could be, wish you could have some sort of a road to follow, even if that road would take you to an end line of uncertainty and unemployment. At least it’s a road to take.
“Where is home?” they ask. And this is something you cannot answer. Where is home anymore?
You try to figure out what to tell them so they don’t ask too many questions afterwards and then you decide that maybe distracting them and asking them about their own trip would make things a little easier for all. They talk about their recent train ride to France and how great it was to finally see the Eiffel Tower; they talk about their tour of the Buckingham Palace, and how they got lost in the London Underground. They show you pictures of their recently born granddaughter, and their beaming son and daughter-in-law, who live in Germany. You smile and say how cute the baby is, even though you no longer care about what babies look like because you have given up on having kids, you have given up on being someone’s wife, or someone’s daughter-in-law. They talk some more but all you can think about is that question you avoided answering before: “Where is home?” How do you answer that?
Home used to be the place with the avocado green door, with the lock that was a bit stuck, and had a bell hung on the other side of the handle that would ring when you pushed the door open. It was a blue worn-out blanket at the end of the bed, the one you grabbed any time you were cold. You would walk around the house with it as if you were some sort of a child pretending to be a hero in a cape. Maybe home was the place where you stored your china, the one your mother-in-law purchased over the several years of your marriage as anniversary gifts. Or was it the place where the beautiful dark wood floors were laid, the floors on which you sat crying out of desperation, out of fear? The granite countertops and Carrera marble tiles, the stainless steel appliances—all those things you worked a second job for, so the two of you could eventually have a perfect place to raise a family? Where was home? Was it the place that held all the memories from all the trips you took, all the photographs from Rome, and Venice, and Barcelona? It couldn’t be.
You close the dark blue cover and think how your life is a collection of stamps in a passport. And you wish you could erase it all and start from scratch. You wish you could eventually find someone to travel with to all those clichéd, touristy places when you got old so you could have some happy memories again. You wish you could have travel amnesia, just so you wouldn’t remember what came after the happy trips. So you wouldn’t remember how on the last trip you were to take, he decided not to come, because he‘s going to travel with someone else from now on.
The blue-eyed gypsy turns around from his seat again as to give you your pen back, and while handing it to you, drops it on the floor. Then he gets up, walks around his seat, and gets down to help you find it. And as both of you look for the instrument on the floor, your heads almost touch, and your eyes almost meet. That blue! It reminds you of all those men you thought were handsome in your youth. A long time ago, you were asked what your ideal man looked like. You said that it was someone with dark black hair and blue eyes, maybe someone that looked like that actor playing Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life. You always blushed admitting this. You did see many blue eyes in your youth, and admired them from distance, and wondered if life would have been any different with them. But, you always restrained yourself.
There was Daniel, your friend from school who loved to get into debates and who would push your buttons so much that the only way you could shut him up was by saying, “Whatever.” There was Sam, the physical therapist you had to see after that skiing accident in Whistler – the one that walked with a little spring in his step, had twin brothers, and a single mom who only spoke to them in French. Then, there was Adam, the quiet writer in the plaid sports coat, who drank mint tea and read at the café by your house. The one that you had a brief conversation with once about some obscure philosopher you recently read about. He, out of all of them, reminded you of Jordan Catalano. Yet, you always felt as if you were a silly little girl with a crush on a schoolteacher. You never said anything to any one of them.
“This is why you are here,” you tell yourself. To get away from a life you believed was home, from all those blue eyes. But they are haunting you, now through a pretty, twenty-something, dark-skinned young man; provoking you. And you want to give in and let go and experience all those blue eyes you never did. The gypsy hands you the pen, smiling. And you take it and nod to thank him. His eyes are full of shyness, hungry desire, and a bit of mischief. You blush and turn away, staring at the endless graffiti on the walls you are passing. You try to concentrate.
By the time you reach your next stop, your passport will be gone and sold to someone who wants to escape to better lands, trying to find a home just like the one you escaped from, maybe even with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. You figure, the gypsy pickpocket is just someone looking for love in the wrong place. And who can fight love? So you let him steal your American passport.
Maybe it’s time for a new, empty passport anyway.