I did not get on a plane until I was 23, and then, by 25, I had been on more flights than beds. I counted, took pride in this. I worked. My journalistic stuff was mostly related to fashion or style or lifestyle, and sometimes to art. I went to the capitals where culture is produced. I flew to London, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Miami, Vancouver, Istanbul, Berlin, back to London, to Paris, back most often to New York. New York, from Toronto, is the cheapest flight and the hardest, least difficult city.
Usually I stayed in each place for a day or two after the work was done, if work got done at all. I’d stay in hotels I either couldn’t afford or couldn’t sleep in. Mornings I would get lost and buy local sodas and go to museums and feel determinedly alone, and by afternoons I would break down and cry on the street because it didn’t matter who saw me. Then I’d buy postcards. Nights before I flew home, I wouldn’t sleep. In London, it was because London, even after Fashion Week, made me feel surveilled and anxious. In Barcelona, it was because I did poppers with an English banker who’d retired at 29 to pursue his hobby, which was, I think, being gay. In Istanbul it was ‘cause this supermodel’s baby daddy taught me to do coke the way Marianne Faithful had taught him to do coke, on the end of moist joints like Lik-A-Stiks, while he fucked me. I was nothing to him, but I was nothing anyway: the further I travelled, the farther my contours deteriorated, so that by the end of a trip I felt most embodied by a black sky, or the water below the wing. When I had consumed enough to make me feel empty of self, satisfied, sick—then I could go home.
I’d land in debt to my boyfriend, with whom I lived for the better, then worst, part of four Toronto years. Always he was happy to see me; always I was sorry and a mess. “Pick a hand,” I would say, and no matter which he picked there would be candies, postcards, old books. I wouldn’t remember whether I had washed my hands.
Since long before 23 I had defined myself by a line from that Kundera book: In the mind of a woman for whom no place was home, the thought of an end to all flight was unbearable. I said that Toronto was home because I’d chosen it, because I wanted to come back to it, even though that part wasn’t much of a choice, given my zero money. Eternally I hoped the return justified the departing, the expense. You leave so that you can come home. But everywhere I went, I left something. Once, the only guy I was in love with, other than my boyfriend, mailed me rings from The Standard Hotel in Miami. The postage cost more than my rings, and he drew the outline of his hand on the paper he folded them in. I looked at the paper before crumpling it up and I thought about where to draw myself.
I got back together with my boyfriend. We flew to Palm Springs. We flew to Montreal. He flew to Vancouver and I did not. I flew to New York and he did not and when it was time to go home, I turned around and saw it wasn’t there. Instead I went to a place that was once again called Toronto, now again a cold, incompatible city, all strangers and no weirdness, where I did not belong. I packed everything and booked the first plane out on an early, soon morning, so it would still be dark. He didn’t believe I was leaving and didn’t want to see; we said no goodbyes. Four years! Longer, if you count the time before he chose me.
I would be alone. I would be singular. There would be no more boyfriends, not even if they were men. None of them. I swore. I swore as I was falling in love.
What’s the furthest thing from a plane? Is it a bicycle? No, because on a bicycle, too, you feel like you’re flying. On a motorcycle it’s more like diving. A ship travels by opposite means, but is so similar in hulk and scope. A train is too like a ship to be very far from a plane.
A car is the furthest thing, I think. It is aware of all terrain, it transcends nothing, and it’s the least safe. In a car you don’t trust the driver or the road; you trust every other driver. Hell is a highway.
We decided to drive. Chris and I had stayed in love for months. I knew we were in love because it didn’t make any sense, him being in Toronto and me gone, and because I was at once the most jealous and most trusting I’d ever been. He was 13 years younger than my last boyfriend, G., and two years younger than me and yet one day he said, when I was bemoaning some girlfriendly failing of mine, that he could never hold against me the things that first drew him close. He couldn’t resent me for being in love with a painting, or a cat, or another boy for a day; the next day he’d just forgive. Nobody had ever been righter about me and I wanted him never to be wrong. And, then, I knew I couldn’t go anywhere without him.
Home and love are hard things for writers to have. Maybe that’s why so many writers pretend we don’t want them. I work alone. I live my work. I should have always lived alone. When I cohabited with G., I carved out “my space,” repeatedly, against the bleeding chunk of us. I travelled to empty myself. By exteriors, I was homey with him; by interiors, I was ravishingly single and alone, but still it wasn’t enough, because at night, after the worst fights, he curled himself around me until he was inside. Slowly, torturingly, I resented him. I wrote the best from furthest away.
Now, in New York, my exterior—my apartment, my career, my hair, nails, skin—looks all cleaner than ever. My space is smaller, but infinite because it’s mine. Inside is the mess, but that’s also mine. New York noise quieted my screaming, and New York boys stopped touching me. Even the hot pace of Chinatown made me feel chill by compare, like I was walking slowly and smelling the roses even though I was always late and roses smell like shit. Finally, I was by my fucking self. And not alone.
Enjoying things and writing things don’t mix. I moved in March and by May I was burning rockets at both ends, drinking two litres of Diet Coke a day and crushing Adderall with leftover blow and then half-typing, half-dancing-with-fingers while a single Chemical Brothers song played 79 times. The week before Chris picked me up in Buffalo, I slept for a total of twenty hours and still didn’t get it all done. I was saying things with no idea whether I meant them. Soon I knew I’d be in my oldest, sleepless state: believing in nothing. It is different from not believing in anything, which is fine. Believing in nothing is also fine, as a way to die.
Writers should probably be solitary, but we can’t be confined. The mind spins on itself. It shrinks. People never ask me what the best movie about being a full-time writer is, and so I never get to say The Shining, but it’s true. Think about it. Go for a walk while you think. Don’t stop walking until you have reached your limits and recast them, have been somewhere new, have found—
And if it’s too far to walk, take a car.
We planned the road trip like we’d planned our relationship. We knew that we were beginning in Buffalo and ending in Los Angeles, and that in between we wanted to see Mississippi and Marfa, Texas, and maybe Vegas, and definitely Joshua Tree, and that’s it. Our only guides were GPS and guts.
America, all in all, took us ten days.
When you fly, you fly to the centres of cities. Airports lie outside cities, but airport shuttles take you to the centres, or taxi cabs do. You get out and take off your sunglasses and you’re a pin dropped in what must be the place.
When you drive on the interstate—when he drove, because I cannot drive anything except myself—you’re led along the edges: crumbling, unrepaired. You drive through sprawl and collapse. Every tiny empire in America has its dead or dying ends; we met so many. We saw ghost billboards with their faded cries. We snapped rusting tractors and abandoned vans in otherwise empty fields. In Mid-Nowhere, Ohio, we saw a church sign that said IN “GOD” WE TRUST and we laughed and knew we were Canadian. In New Mexico, we saw an old man with sickness and no health insurance, asking for food and gas money to get to Oklahoma. I’ve been to Oklahoma and I would not want to die there, I know that. Chris bought him gas and water and a sandwich. The old man said that here, almost nobody helps, because “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” We saw signs with PRIVATE PROPERTY and guns on them. We saw barbed wire around things I wouldn’t take if they were given to me hand-wrapped in Benjamins. When we crossed into California, we went to the first gas station on the GPS, but there was no gas station. There was only a baby’s car seat in the dust.
Chris pulled over and pulled off my jeans and licked me clean, left me slipped out of my seat, the open door, besieged under bleeding sun. Then he fucked me. That was the best time. When the apocalypse comes, or when we know it is here, all the women who aren’t too old will get pregnant. You want to talk about disaster porn, I’m telling you, that’s it.
Love is believing the lies you tell your lover. Or, it’s believing the lies they tell you. One morning, Chris came into the room, the first of the two rooms, two nights, we had in mysterious, perfect Marfa. He told me he was leaving me. I squinted. He said, “I’m leaving you for Susan Sontag.” Later he renounced his choice, having figured out that Susan Sontag was dead, and that I was her reincarnation. He said everything she wrote or maybe the way she wrote it reminded him of me. I didn’t tell him that Sontag was a genius and I’m just… this and that nobody believes in reincarnation anymore, because YOLO.
Still, after that I picked up Sontag again. I read her alone over breakfast in Tucson, the morning after our one very bad fight. She too felt most “herself” over hotel eggs, no guests at her table. Chris was sleeping off the whiskey. I went for a walk.
If I had to choose, I’d choose to fall asleep with somebody every night and wake up alone. I don’t know where he would go; it’d be none of my business. On the roads outside cities I realized how true it is that everything’s less polluted in the mornings, even the mind. Also, when you wake up alone, it’s easier to remember your dreams.
I used to have so many.
Now I just want to know where we’ll stay the next night. Or if there’ll be a next night. Love to me is the most conditional thing, the most precarious. I want to earn it every day, like my living, like writing. Every day a gamble and me, a gambler to the max. Like Jeanne Moreau in Baie Des Anges: I hate money! I love earning and spending it, but having it feels like believing in nothing. Chris disagrees; still, I want him to earn love too. He was at a deficit, that day. There would be new rules, sanctions, probably on whiskey. He was Greece and I was Germany and aren’t those our real, liveborn mother-nations, too? Funny. I read the paper and wasn’t sure we’d reach a deal.
We reached, after two deals and one more day, California. We went to the deserted gas station. We fucked. A madness had descended. In the desert, nothing appears real or alive or important. There are no dreams inside that dream, nothing more beautiful, or bleak, than the nuclear horizon on which nothing seems to grow. I shielded my eyes to see further. No, that’s not a future; I knew it. If there was one, we missed the exit long ago. We drove so fast.
The last night we stayed in Joshua Tree.
The black sky fell. It was late, too late for any rangers to be stationed. There were other cars. Then there weren’t. Chris sped and I shrieked every time I thought he would hit a little bone-white desert mouse, which was often. Between shrieks we talked about age and beauty and fucking older people, who were more beautiful than younger people, sometimes. Something he said, some comparison he made between a 61-year-old babe and myself, set me shrieking not about the mice. He didn’t understand and was too tired to try, but not too tired to be angry. Would my boyfriends always be like this? I had been here before, my breath coming in shrieks, too, beating moth-like against a new iron lung. I said stop the car. I said stop the car. I said STOP THE CAR and he stopped it and I ran off the road into the patchy grass, gasping, and lay flat as I could. Then I cried as though something had happened.
Always before, when I had panicked, I could point to the pressure outside me. There were actual relationship problems; there were deadlines; there was adulthood. In New York, there was the noise and the traffic and so many people and my own too-much, don’t-sleep praxis, every bit comforting because I could pretend each was the cause, despite craving it all. Here in the illimitable outside there were no cars, no phone calls, nobody except Chris, no cause. The alarm was coming from inside the void.
When it was safe, but not too safe, Chris came and held me and I told him. I told him I was 26, I was past the age of potential, and yet I had not done one thing that wouldn’t disappear. Every line of it was sand; the rocks taunted me. I had built nothing. I should have written more with my hands. I should have been more diligent, less pretty, less selfish. I should be a mother. I could have had a book. I was no longer young and girl-prime and I wasn’t wise. Where was I?
I don’t remember if he told me to look at the stars, but I did. They had never been closer. In the silver-light I still heard the screamed drowning of wants, the wants that, if you do not let them go, will drown you too. I talked over the screams. He talked me out. We looked up and I listened to the minimal little pianissimo sounds that stars make until I could be quiet again.
In the morning, 47 degrees at seven a.m., we saw that the stars had been so close because we were on another planet.
Los Angeles is a disparate, dispassionate place, or a series of places. There’s no nerve centre, only fray. I got jumpy. Where the light is so bright, the shadows are black: that’s one explanation. A total suspension of belief in urban planning is another.
I kept waiting to like L.A. because it seemed too proverbial that, as a new New Yorker with IQ-commensurate anxiety and self-treated sadness, I’d hate it. When Chris flew home because he has one of those, and also a job, I stayed for days. I waited. I tried heartlessly to work. You don’t know what you’ve got until it gets on a fucking plane and leaves you in the landfill of culture, I said, possibly quoting Woody Allen. Then I pretended I was staying at The Standard Hotel in West Hollywood so I could tan and drink weak “Caesars” and superiorly read Henry James while at the next table, four women in full makeup and trainers discussed auditioning for The Bachelor as a “career move.” Was it too much to ask that I be wrong about a place? Nothing gets me downer than a true stereotype.
Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Malibu, downtown, wasteland: I never knew where I was in L.A.
In San Francisco I knew instantly.
Still, it took a long time to get from sureness to sureness, because I was walking, and there are all those hills. Jacob, on my second night here, offered to drive me around.
But don’t you want to drink, I said. Jacob was Kelley’s friend—her boyfriend’s best friend, it turned out—and when I had gone to get her keys from him, he’d hugged me lightly, like we hadn’t seen each other in a couple days. He seemed about 21 and vegan. He was 25. No, he said, he didn’t want to drink. It would be more fun for me to see all the bars.
He drove us to Phone Booth, which is Kelley’s favourite ‘cause you can play pool and smoke. I paid for my gin and he asked what I do, but really. He asked: “Do you ever feel like you want to write but you don’t know what to write about?”
I pretended to think for a second. I said, no, I always have things to write about but I don’t know whether they are important, and sometimes I know they’re not. In the darkest magic hours, I said, I feel like the truth is void. With shaky cave-lamps we outline our shadows against that truth, dark from dark. I think weight is importance but shape’s what we make.
It is better if the shape is bigger than our bodies. It’s better, I think, if we stake out boundaries far beyond us, leaving room for error and trials and perspective, and for the best survival skill: empathy. Otherwise, a bird shits on you and it’s the end of your world.
I didn’t say that. I said we draw, like, perimeters, to connect the points of magnitude. Every last thing gains meaning by its distance from one or more of those points. I was thinking of the stars in Joshua Tree, so close you could see the freeways, blazed in dust, between them.
What are they, he wanted to know. Later he would kiss me and I wouldn’t kiss back or say anything. I used to say “I can’t,” which contained in it that I would if I could, so that usually I did. Now I just don’t want to. I’ve touched magnitude.
What are what, I said.
The points! Oh, I said. Well: Beauty, in one hemisphere. Ugliness, the other. Love, above. Hate, below. Kindness. Anger. Freedom. Responsibility. Justice. And anarchy. I would not say good and evil; I’m not twelve. Art? Nature? Loyalty, I might have said, and selfishness. I didn’t know what else. We went elsewhere.
We spend all these nights camping in the wilderness, staking our points where we don’t belong, stringing the party lines and the principles between. And from this our whole structure hangs?
We think it’s a firmament, but it’s a tent.
In San Francisco, I’m as far away from Toronto as I’ve been, while still on the continent, and I’m the most here. The placelessness of the road is now memory, and so’s the base aimlessness of L.A. Here I’m oriented, if not entirely comfortable, because S.F. seems too easy a place to be “progressive.” It’s pretty and book-smart and hermetic, a small tent with big-tent pretensions. But: I can walk here, I can follow the lines, and I know where I’m going. The black water recedes.
It was dangerous to spend so long on the road, dangerous because it felt safe. Love is always a house built on sand. It makes a better house than madness, but then, are not those two things built by the same architect? I’m slipping back into the Conradian sanity of work.
What Sabina maybe didn’t know is that her mind was the place. It’s a broken kind of home but it’s mobile, at least.
Just before the road trip, I was texting Chris in my usual run-on way, and I invented this thing “spiraliminality” to describe the sensation of thoughts circling a cracked basin, and then not thoughts, but fears, hard fears, that I will slip into the fissure. That’s where the screaming echoes, the water gets in. It’s the crack I did not dare step on as a child, and sometimes, even when I walk like I run the sidewalk, now. Here—both alone and not alone, instead of trying to figure out which—I’m climbing back up. Each step feels like it connects with new ground again. Each word begets another word. I’ve been writing all day and am still not tired, sky still bluish. I love him. Maybe I love him the most; I know I need him the least. It’s good I am flying back solo. The flight is only seven hours but it’s a long way, the longest way there is.