I have been living out of the same suitcase for a year. I could say that I am a minimalist, but that would be misleading. I carry things I don’t need. I buy more than I can take with me. My priorities are confused: on the road, I harbor a bottle of Versace Bright Crystal perfume in my cup holder, but often cannot find my deodorant. I rarely have a hairbrush, which would explain last week, having to hire a specialist for $100 to comb out my dreadlocks. There has never been an emergency kit or spare Band-Aid in my suitcase, and I often find myself running out of toothpaste. Also, I am messy (the floor of my car is full of empty water bottles, used floss, and Starbucks cups), and forgetful (I just found a hard boiled egg I put in my glove compartment when I was in Texas a month ago).
With chaos comes order: I keep a sewing kit in an old Virginia Slims pack, all of my jewelry is contained in an old Urban Outfitters bag, usually stuffed somewhere in the corner of my trunk, and lately I have somehow I have managed to keep my shoes (still paired) in the backseat of my car. It would have been prudent for me to travel with only the necessary foot gear, but I have taken seven, and more than half of them are heels and wedges. I bought two pairs of boots in Turkey…one I threw in a street garbage can before I left and the other pair I had to keep on my feet for two months, because they never fit in a suitcase when I was flying. My father’s voice inserts itself: “Impractical, careless…” As a child I used to leave the house barefoot or in flip flops, even during snowstorms. He used to turn around towards backseat around to check my feet to make sure I had the right shoes. In some cases, he was trying to prep me for the everyday, in others, he implored that I prepare for what he always called, an “emergency.” This probably looks something like one New Year’s when I was walking along the highway wearing toeless stilettos without nylons and picking out snow from the heel. I still think I would have been fine if the car didn’t stall.
In Ireland, I climbed the cliffs of Moher in yellow wedge heels.
Over time, I have been learning to fill and empty my suitcase strategically. In some cases, it seems the natural progression of travel, when time is fluid and space is limited. Australia in November is not as warm as I expected and I had to buy a pair of Converse to replace my sandals. Thailand inspired wide pants and oversized printed t-shirts from the market. Vietnam was too cold for anything I bought in Bali and I spent my entire first day in Hanoi shopping for jackets with the waitress who delivered my Pho. In London, I bought an umbrella, a pea coat and a Smiths t-shirt (necessary). Spain was hot, so I cut the toes and heels off the pair of Converse. There have been trade-ins and trade outs, both to keep the suitcase livable, and also to make me feel as though the contents are not so removed from my day-to-day life.
We don’t always need to be reminded of what was left behind.
Adjusting the suitcase means knowing when it is time to say goodbye to the things that will not make it to the next round. In some cases, even ceremoniously.
I was getting a pedicure on the street in Bali when the girls started begging me to bring back any clothes I needed to rid. It seemed that the travel trade-ins were routine, and it was not uncommon for the locals to simply ask for the handouts, even doing the tourists a favor by helping them clean out their suitcases. In Vietnam, I gave the hotel girls and the maids an entire bag of dresses, skirts, and tank tops, ignorant of the cultural implications (they don’t necessarily dress this way). The one girl who spoke English implied that they were a little on the slutty side, “We don’t wear that, but I have a sister who might.” The Vietnamese can be kindly harsh.
Until now, I have been discarding clothes and other items to strangers, carelessly leaving things behind. In my car, baggage is to the point of being too heavy, yet, not worth losing completely. I carry two suitcases in the trunk of my car, one I planned to have for last winter, another for a year of summer, most things are sprawling out, unorganized- there is even a bag for Goodwill, which I will occasionally dig into, not quite ready to part with, not quite sure what I may still need.
I have started to attach to things that seem to bring my life some stability…this month, that stability has manifested in a pair of long feather earrings I got in San Francisco when I landed, before I drove from Houston to New Orleans, Atlanta, and then back to the Midwest. I am not sure what kind of feathers they are made of, probably a concoction of bird species, their colors and tones blending crudely like eggs and bacon. They are gaudy and obnoxious, but I cannot stop wearing them and have decided to keep them hanging from my head until they disintegrate. Also, the earrings have inspired some overwhelming attention, both wanted and unwanted.
While driving along I-94 last week trying to GPS my way into downtown Milwaukee, there was a rusted black pick-up truck slowing down and speeding up in the left lane, the kind of maneuver that is only used for emergencies, an open gas tank or a flaming hood, or when truckers corner you for some highway honking and gesturing. When I looked up, I saw behind the window, a young woman shaking her googly-eyed breasts with her white T pulled up over her face. Before I could pass or slow down, she put her shirt back into place, organized herself and smiled. Of course, I gave her the thumbs up and waved, as though to say, “Thanks for that…” Confused that she didn’t choose to entertain the SUV load of teenage boys behind me and also sort of grateful she woke me up in my final stretch, I smiled for the gift. I continued with my GPS navigation already distracted from my steering responsibilities (this was not my fault…they were, naked breasts on the Interstate). After a few minutes, the same car was careening past me, only this time, the woman was bent over, exposing everything beneath the belt. I remember this once being referred to as a “full-blown rose,” though I had never seen it live. A little overwhelmed from the shot I had only seen on the Internet, I blushed and smiled, though vaguely disturbed by the body parts pressed against the window. I did my best not to swerve off into the shoulder. After repositioning herself, the the woman shrugged innocently and winked.
I blame (and credit) the earrings.
Before the earrings, there was the Moroccan hat. I bought it for less than five dollars at the market in Marrakesh. It was hot and there is something character shifting about putting a hat on your head, especially in another country. I have been gifted two other sunhats I wear alternatively when I get bored on the road, always with the feeling that I am playing dress-up (it’s the little things that keep me from going crazy). Before I leave for the next road trip, I am considering a wig collection for my front seat. The Moroccan hat wasn’t very cute and sort of fit my head awkwardly—half sunhat, half cowboy hat, a little too big for me, it has the tendency to be blinding, slipping conspicuously over my eyes. I wore it the entire time I was in Morocco and swore, that even though I had already lost a leather jacket, my wallet, two cell phones, and five pairs of sunglasses, this hat would somehow make it back to the States. From Morocco, to Spain, to England, to San Francisco, I was that girl on the airplane with a hat box.
I am not a collector and usually don’t try not to hold on to things. Before leaving my apartment in Queens, I dumped out all of my baby pictures and other childhood paraphernalia my parents sent me after purging their house in the suburbs and moving to a condo. I watched the photos tumble down the garbage shoot, sticking to the juice and alcohol that had hardened along the walls. I terminally offended my great aunt when I refused a set of china that was once my great-grandmother’s, “Some day you might want nice things,” she scowled and stirred her tea. I hate when people give me things you would use to decorate a bathroom: placards with cute sayings, trinkets and statues, the kinds of gifts you feel guilty about throwing away because their entire Hallmark existence is meant to remind you of the giver. I am immune to their charm, much like I am immune to kitschy kitchen decor (gingham and apples).
I have been reluctant to visit my storage unit in Milwaukee, a space I filled mindlessly a year ago. The belongings are unwanted, reminding me both of what I have been able to live without and what I have left behind, a past I have tried to forget: the furniture I bought in New York, a couch my parents gave to me when I moved in with my fiance, framed photos and books that invoke love, loss, and the passage of time. They are tangible anecdotes I am not interested in arranging. There is no room I am prepared to fill.
I decided to stop at a local Milwaukee hotel to have a glass of wine before easing myself back into “home” for the week. Hotels have become comfortable in their predictability: the wide couches, dim lighting, smiling concierge, and regular trickling of customers who I know too, feel out of place. I stepped out of my messy car, barefoot, hair rollers spilling out from the back seat, still wearing the Moroccan hat. When I bent over to put on my shoes, I felt a gust of wind that blew the hat loosely from my head and sending it cartwheeling down the sidewalk. Still only wearing one shoe, I didn’t have the time or balance to chase it. I anticipated its fate, worried, it would get run over by a car, tossed carelessly into the river, or caught in the old industrial train tracks beneath the weathered bridge. Instead, there was a man, with a boyish face, wearing a black hoodie, and head phones who caught the hat and smiled during his proud delivery.
I put the hat back on my head, walking quickly to avoid awkward conversation, and stepped briskly into air conditioning. At the bar, I stared at the local paper and wiped the condensation from my sweaty Sauvignon Blanc with a beverage napkin. After an unassuming ten minutes, I looked up to see that the man who caught my hat was now my bartender. Of course there was the awkward, “Didn’t you just…” and the confirmation (yes, it was him).
The Bartender looked like he was in his early twenties, but revealed that he was actually turning thirty six the same week. He showed me a younger version of himself on his cellphone: a bronzed tiny body with a six pack and bleach blonde dreadlocks. He told me about his own travels and his former life in Hawaii. He explained to me that being a traveler can make you someone else, though not always positively. We found comfort and camaraderie in our respective abilities to over-share. I couldn’t help but think that he looked (and felt) out of place in Milwaukee. Listening to him, his age started to reveal itself, more in his stories and eyes.
We both talk a lot: he told me about a tumultuous relationship that made him contemplate suicide. I told him about my failed engagement, my transience, the ride I just took from a creepy Interstate hotel in Tennessee, and the conflict I felt returning home. He poured me another glass of wine and offered to let me take an extra room in his house for the week. Things unraveled quickly. I took the room and found an easy home, even in a place inhabited by hunting dogs who nipped at my bird feather earrings. When I left for Minneapolis, we talked on the phone for five hours at a time, an act I cannot remember engaging since sometime in high school. The anxiety I had about returning home, the mundane, the same, the memories, and the fear, were eradicated by this newly, fatefully formed friendship. In this case, I blamed (and credited) the Moroccan hat.
There are people in this world that appear by chance, possibly a gust of wind, or a poorly manufactured market item that brought you together for only reasons known by the universe. Sometimes I talk too much (a lesson I learned last week when I chipped a tooth mid-sentence). This combination of fate and blathering produced both an unexpected comfort and friendship (things that are not always easy to find when moving too quickly).
Time and transitions forge unexpected bonds, particularly when we are looking for stability. Familiarity can look like change. I can be reckless, but have learned the bare necessities; still, it would be wrong to say that the things we carry with us, mean nothing at all.