Reality at 30,000 Feet

Travel by plane is like marriage: committed, statistically safe, but always with the nagging feeling that you are going to be stuck for a long-time. At some point in your flight, as in your marriage, you may want to jump out the exit door, but instead, you sit patiently, quietly wanting to strangle the guy next to you who decided it was a good idea to scarf a burrito during takeoff.

I usually trust other passengers suffer from equivalent feelings of anxiety and stress—we all want to get somewhere, we are all stuck, so let’s limbo through this non-spatial purgatory with at least an inch of patience. I presume, so as go life and marriages.

I never thought I would get married. Through my twenties I railed against settling down, children, and the possibility of lifetime satisfaction by a one-man show. Naturally, it was surprising, even to me, when after one romantic New York summer night, I agreed to elope with my high school sweetheart at Coney Island. He was living in Milwaukee and I was in New York—it seemed the perfect solution to our long-distance conundrum—a quick ceremony on the pier, a string of black and white shots in a photo booth; we even hailed an ordained friend. It felt that we had hatched the perfect plan, until, after the sobriety of applying for a wedding license, we decided that low-riders, snow cones, and faulty Ferris wheels were not the memories we wanted to conjure when marking the beginning of the rest of our lives.

Deciding that we did actually love our families enough to include them, and a celebratory nudge of cash my father not-so-jokingly called a “dowry,” we agreed to host a formal, relatively large wedding in Milwaukee. As a bride who never considered marriage, much less, the finite details of planning a wedding, things started to get complicated very quickly.

We followed customs, even though we found many traditions tedious at best. For one, engagement rings bore me. I lose things easily and if I am ever forced to wear jewelry, I usually wake up with an earring missing. Since we were ostensibly engaged, the getting-down-on-one-knee moment was a little awkward and I made him get up before I actually said, “yes.”

I was smacked with a barrage with questions. Curious minds wanted to know: Large or small wedding? Sit down, buffet, or stations? Open bar or cash bar? Calla lilies or hydrangeas? DJ or live band? White or ivory? Choosing a wedding dress was like deciding what to wear to my own funeral: “Is that really how you want to be remembered?” I tried on a heavy dress with corset that weighed more than my high-school backpack. I could barely move. I looked in the mirror, feeling distraught and unfamiliar. I wanted to feel pretty, but instead, I felt like an insecure 7th grader on the first day of school. The attendant brought out a series of dresses that all started to look the same. I didn’t know what I wanted.

Every decision started to feel as heavy as the corset. Standing on the platform, swarming in this dress, I started to worry—I still had to pick a venue, choose a bridal party, pick out a cake, hire a caterer, photographer, a DJ and florist, write the vows, choose “our” song… as if all of this meant something. I worried because I knew it was time for me to start making decisions: large, oppressive, potentially very-costly, decisions.

I was so hell-bent on getting the wedding planning done, that I pushed through with ambivalence and gut. Unlucky for myself (and my very forgiving fiancé) indecision is the new decision, choice is the new regret… AND…I couldn’t do it… any of it: the wedding, the marriage, the house, the babies, the stability of settling…the definitiveness of “marital love.” And so, I called it off. We informed the family, the caterer, the florist, the venue operator (who is now trying to sue me), the guests, and the acquaintances to avoid rumors.  Mostly, there was support and understanding, but underneath it all, the tension of, “Can’t you make a decision?”

Finding myself displaced, I felt the only way to move forward now was physically. I first took on the road, and then, the around the world travel. Planning my trip was most unfortunate because it had to coincide with the same weekend release of Eat, Pray, Love and now my life seems to have an uncanny resemblance to more than one Julia Roberts film (think Runaway Bride, not Pretty Woman).

Now, I am on an 18 hour flight, questioning life decisions, while the turbulence takes its toll on my psyche. I had to confront the reality of my trip at 30,000 feet sitting next to a girl who tells me the long-version of her self-satisfied decisions in her short life.  Except for her protracted description of IBS, everything in life was just about was perfect. She was finished with travel (she had enough), she wanted to settle down (and be stable), she wanted to marry (and have lots of babies forever and ever). We realized that she was engaged the same day that I called off my wedding (July 29th). The same day I was schlepping back to Milwaukee putting an end to what was supposed to be a defining path in my life, she was moving forward whole-heartedly with the distinct confidence of a 21-year-old.

Her mouth is moving and I am nodding my head as she explains the way that everything in life boils down:

“If this plane crashed right now, my only regret is that I do not have children. The only thing I want is to have a family of my own.”

She is talking about the whole of it—the house, the husband, the children, she probably wants a chicken coop and a little garden with a gnome. I must be getting older because kids who are 18-21 have started to look like children to me. Even more haunting is that they have this look that they know something about the world that I missed. The generational gap is real and for the first time, I am experiencing the other end of it: “This is what it feels like to get old, “ I think to myself as she looks at me with her doe-eyes and overly-dewy skin, like a sponge radiating light. “This better not be what wisdom looks like,” I think bitterly.

Planning a wedding is nothing like planning a life and I still haven’t figured out which is more complicated. At least in life, you expect the unexpected. In wedding planning, people want perfection, as though strategy will solidify some happy ending. Maybe that applies to larger decisions, as well. I listened to her describe the details of her wedding, the cut of her dress, the way her fiancé looked at her the first time they met, the vision she had of her home. Everything was in place and she had the look of complete (ignorance or bliss…or what is that saying again?), I haven’t yet decided.

I listen to her and wonder what her regrets will sound like, if she will have any, and if everything will seem so simple when she is 10 years older. Maybe things are as perfect as she thinks they are. Maybe she will lead a life, happily ever after without ever getting itchy feet. We have nothing in common other than being trapped in the plane together and a pivotal day when we each made our life decisions. I closed my eyes, and released my grip on the armrests of the chair. I may be older, I may not be wiser, but at least I know things are complicated, which is why I kept my silence and enjoyed her excitement. Uncertainty is okay for me and for the first time, wrestling turbulence, I think, “If this plane goes down, I am exactly where I want to be.”

Uncharted Fate

I stayed overnight in Asheville, North Carolina with a professional psychic—the kind that answers 1-900 numbers and calls herself something mystical like “Raven.” She also has a WASPY given name, is Harvard educated and raising a child on her own. Something made me trust in her ability to give single women advice like, “No, he definitely loves you. I really sense that. He is just trying to figure out what he wants.”

Deciding where to take the direction of my trip, I had come to an unexpected turn: “Where would I go if I could go anywhere in the world?” I had never been in the position to ask myself this question, and now I only had to pick a direction. I could fly to New York and then on to Europe or go West to California and onto Asia. I could go north to Canada and then to Alaska. Venezuela or Cuba? Besides inherently distinct cultural experience to mark my travels, I had the feeling that the decision was going to alter the course of my life. What if I go to Asia and something terrible happens to me in Thailand? I have seen the movies and I was not interested in spending the rest of my life in prison for drug trafficking or stuck on some Lord of the Flies island like commune. On the other hand, I could meet Adrien Brody at Charles De Gaulle or I could die in a terrorist attack waged at some corner cafe in London. Something good, something bad. Either way, I had to make a fork in the road decision and thought I should get a second opinion on what my fate had in store. I asked the psychic for a tarot card reading.

“I don’t even think you need a reading…. I already know,” she says earnestly.

“Know what?”

“That you are going to Europe.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s what I do. I’m a psychic. You are going to go to Italy, not for a short time, for a long time and you are going to meet a man. You are going to fall in love with an Italian.”

“How old is he?”

“Younger than you.”

“Like, how much younger?”

“Not very much. But he won’t speak very much English.”

Now for Italiophiles, or women who are easily wooed by the tall-dark-and handsome type (or just young men), this may sound like a compelling future. But, in my whole life, I have never thought I could fall in love with a non-native English speaker. Language is nuanced.  How will they pick up on my witticisms, mind-blowing insights, and engage my late night pillow banter? Because I am a narcissist in need of the greatest level of attention and appreciation, there was something about this psychic’s premonition that was not very appealing. I need someone who will listen to me… with dedication and fluency. Maybe I should avoid Europe just to prevent the inevitable complications of breaking up with my future young, Italian, non-English speaking boyfriend.

While in Costa Rica, I met another woman—a psychic in training. We sat at the table while she made tarot cards and studied from her textbook, which read more like “Tarot Card Reading for Dummies.” I pick it up and ask her if I can give it a try. She gives me the cards, I shuffle them and ask her to pick the top three. Following the guidelines and basing most of my interpretation on a passing comment she had made about breaking up with a boyfriend, I gave her the most creative, but intuitively prescient, tarot card reading, I could muster. When I was finished, she said, “Oh my god, that was amazing. Really, you could do this for a living.”

Not that I was completely bullshitting her… but it is amazing how badly we want answers to the mysteries of life and fate and how easy it is to derive meaning from “signs.”

That same night I met a woman named Trixie, a sorority girl turned lesbian who cut off her hair and became a professional chef sometime after college. She had tatoos and a laugh that came from her belly. While we played with tarot cards she relayed the following story:

“So this was like early 90’s, maybe 90 or 91… shit… I don’t really remember, we were doing a lot of drugs back then. Anyway, we all used to go up to New Orleans, like, every year for Mardi Gras. And this one night, we’re all hammered at the bar and my little buddy, we called him Shady, but his name was Will Shadles, and anyway he was just pissing me off, so I was like, ‘Get the fuck out of my face Shady.’ I just wanted him to leave. Man, you know when someone is just, like, really pissing you off and you wanna punch em in the face? So that’s what I said, just, ‘Shady…get the fuuuuck out of my face.’ Anyway, so he left, and we’re all just doin shots, lines, whatever and then, I lost everyone. So I start stumbling  back to the hotel and when I get in the lobby, the elevator door opens and my other buddy, Steve, is standin there with this, like, white face… I never saw anyone with that kind of look on their face. And he says real matter of fact, ‘Shady’s gone.’ I said, ‘What do mean, Shady’s gone?’ And he says, ‘He’s gone, like he’s gone out the window.’ Then, he told me that Shady was jumpin on the bed with this girl and when she got off the bed, he went flying through these floor to ceiling windows. There was like, this perfect hole. His body when shooting through and made a perfect hole in the glass! Can you believe it? And someone got a picture! Holy shit! Right as he was breaking through the window! And these mother fuckers still hadn’t called the cops. Of course, when the cops did show up, there was a huge investigation.  We were questioned for fuckin hours. And everyone thought we fuckin killed him or something. But we had the picture, that showed him just flying off the bed. Yep. Then they thought it was suicide, but it was fuckin Shady man, he was just jumpin on the bed.”

Here is a true lesson in fate: the old “bed jumping-Mardi Gras-shooting-body-through-the-window” story I wondered, “What if Shady hadn’t gone to New Orleans for that weekend, or didn’t get into a fight with Trixie, or didn’t jump on the bed, or if that picture hadn’t been evidence that there was no murder, but an accident?  When I left for New Orleans, Trixie said, “Have one for Shady for me,” and I did.  I had a drink for Shady and inquired with some local federal agents in New Orleans to confirm this story. The only case they could recall out of the Fairmont Hotel was ruled a suicide.

I couldn’t worry too much about what might happen. I decided to go to Australia, Bali and East Asia, if only because the weather should be nicer through the winter.  I am not sure if I believe in fate, because life is always a series of events, connected, unconnected, endless and infinite. Unfortunate things do happen: like, last night, I lost my 40 dollar umbrella in a cab in St. Kilda (Australia). I wandered around looking for the train, and then, within an hour, I met a man, who saw that I was a bit cold, wet and lost. He invited me to dinner and introduced me to his friends. And, when the sun cleared, we ate fajitas on the beach.