Amy, Rhia, Freida, and Simon,
I regret to say I will not be returning to work tomorrow. I am sorry to quit so abruptly, but a few months ago I bought a plane ticket to India. I realize this is a strange coincidence considering you were burglarized yesterday,1 but other than its discovery, I can guarantee I had nothing to do with it. Please direct any police inquiries to my email, and I will be happy to co-operate from afar.
You are a wonderful family, and I will remember our time together fondly.
Thank you for everything,
Over the past two months, I had slowly put all my possessions on the street in front of my apartment. In 48 hours, I would be greeted by my dearest friend of five years, Farrin, at the airport in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujurat, India. I had a newly pressed passport, instructions in a leather-bound journal of how to call my friend once I arrived, and a pack of clothes. That was about it.
Switching to the A-train express to JFK, my phone caught a bit of service.
“Have the time of your life, baby,” a text message read. Much of the year 2011 was anticipating and responding to text messages like this one. Little vibrating doses of Pavlovian ecstasy and despair.
His name was Bill, and within three months of meeting him in my last year of college, we were in love. He was a rugby player from New England, strapping and masculine, with an enormous smile and a fondness we shared for altering our brain chemicals.
We separated when I left for New York and he stayed in sleepy Highland, St. Paul, but hardly. I could say something wise about my longing for Bill, like when you are young and your brain isn’t being used enough, you dream too much or you throw yourself into the first external stimulus that comes along. But knowledge about those kinds of things doesn’t matter in stories about love. He was everywhere. I tried to push him away with writing, with walking, with waiters and poets and bartenders, but none of them tasted like Bill. Everyone and everything else just made me tired.
And the girls he dated didn’t taste like me, he would tell me.
We would speak in tears for several hours, and agree to make it work. But soon, a gazelle-like brunette would begin to appear in Facebook photos of him at the library, and it would shred me all over again. I thought it was only jealousy of these young women, and it was, but it was also envy of his carefree indifference. When he wasn’t speaking to me, he was living his life, and I was not.
So I did what I thought people without cares did. I got fucked up. I quit jobs.2 I signed up for a credit card at the Chase Bank on Atlantic Avenue, and I bought a plane ticket to India.
As the train rumbled under New York, I felt both free and terrified, as one feels in dreams of falling great distances.
I did not respond to Bill’s text until I got on the plane, because we must give the impression we are whole to those we have surrendered to. It took me a half an hour to find the right words: “Thank you! I’ll email you when I get settled at Farrin’s, but you might not hear from me in a while.”
I hoped that was true.
I sat next to a British couple, scooping masala and folding it into naan like a taco, completing it in two bites. Jet Airways’ complimentary in-flight meals were the first complete meals I had eaten in a long time. I almost cried with spice and gratitude, forgetting the cucumber rita until the meal was finished. I ate it plain with the aluminum wrapper like yogurt, licking the plastic container until every trace of it was gone.
Three hour stretches, meal after meal.
By the time we landed in Chennai, a city in the South, I was satiated and sleepless. Trees lined the runways in dark shadows, and the air as we walked from the tarmac was warm and sweet and slightly rotten.
In Customs, the men and women working asked me questions in a language I did not understand and finally I gathered I would need to write Farrin’s address in Ahmedabad as my final destination, and list my reasons for staying in India.
“Pleasure,” I wrote in the provided box, and gave it to an official.
A thin man with a mustache took my wrist and led me through each step in pantomime, like a child, laughing as another larger man opened my bag and placed each item on a metal table. My sandals, stiff and cheap and brand new from Payless; my underwear, full of holes and bleach stains; a large Ziploc bag I had swiped from the kitchen of my former roommates, full of tampons; my journal; my birth certificate; and finally, a large bottle of Milagro Silver tequila, which I had purchased for Farrin at the duty-free shop in Brussels. It was her favorite, I knew, and she told me it was the thing she missed most.
They stuffed everything back in the bag but the tequila, which they confiscated.
I gestured toward it, pleading with my eyes. “I’ll check the bag,” I said, and pointed behind me. Farrin had specifically asked for tequila. I had spent 25 Euro on that bottle. 40 dollars, out of the few hundred I had saved up to live out the month. It was the tequila we drank together with lemonade and limeade, listening to the Allman Brothers, while she persuaded me over four years that the banjo was an acceptable instrument. (I sought her with the hope that people with whom you have sex can’t eclipse everything. She has the kind of love for life that convinces you of things.)
The men in Customs shook their heads. I had nothing to give her. I walked through, watched them stamp my passport, and found my gate.
It turned out my plane to Ahmedabad wouldn’t leave until the next morning, in 12 hours.
More men with mustaches approached, matching my pace, speaking good English, entreating me to follow them to various hotels. They wore similar versions of the same, pastel-colored linen shirts and long pants and leather sandals. I could see more men revving rickshaws outside over the tops of their heads.
I began to follow the one who seemed the most trustworthy, allowing him to take my elbow as we walked out of a giant doorway into the palm-shaded night, looking forward to sleeping in a bed.
“Wait here,” the man told me. “And don’t talk to anyone. I will bring around the van.”
I obeyed. The buildings across from the airport entrance were dark and closed down. The smell I had caught on the tarmac was stronger now, and among the human scents Farrin had told me about, the urine and shit and sweat, there was the dried earth air you could only get in late August in the U.S, and that sweetness of fruit or flowers I still couldn’t put my finger on.
Another man approached me, wearing an official uniform.
“What are you waiting?” he asked.
“For a man to take me to a hotel,” I said.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
He responded by shaking his head in the way I had seen everyone shake their head in India so far; neither a nod nor a fully negative side to side, but more like a ringing-bell-type gesture.
I followed him inside, back to the gate.
“So it’s better that I spend the night here?” I asked.
I set my bag next to me on the floor, the only place that wasn’t occupied, and put my head in my arms. My mouth was dry, but I didn’t have the energy or the courage to leave that spot to exchange money for a drink, for fear of running into more men that would tell me what to do.
I did not sleep.
At 5 am, my phone was vibrating. For some odd, expensive reason, I still had service in India. I cringed. The name on the screen read, “Amy,” my former employer as of yesterday.
She’d left a voicemail. I ignored it.
An hour later, a text from my mother came through: “Your employer in NY just called the house, worried about you. Did you not tell her you were going to India??”
“I left a note,” I responded, and considered throwing my phone in the trash.
When I told people in New York that I was going to Ahmedabad, they asked me why, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. To visit a friend. “Pleasure,” I wish I could have said and left it at that.
The part of me that wanted Bill next to me had grown smaller as I’d left New York, but now, everything was still. I was here, and he was still with me, because I thought then that there was only a finite amount of space in my heart for other people.
When I would return, I thought, I would return hardened and free-standing. He would love me for the same reason I could not quit loving him, because he would know what it was like when I was out of reach.
I did not know how privileged I was to use the difference of another continent to heal my personal pain, because that was not how I was thinking. I was not thinking. I did not want to think. I wanted to erase.
The flight attendants spoke in whispers behind red fingernails and glided through the bodies on go-karts, leaving us in the wake of their perfume. I lay on my bag of clothes and made note of the different airline uniforms in my journal:
— India Air: crisp white oxfords tucked into tailored, tangerine pencil skirts—a tangerine scarf to match.
— Jet Airways: modern, ’70s vibe, oxfords tucked into high-waisted navy bell-bottoms.
— Kingfisher Airlines: fire-engine-red pillbox hats and black, patent heels, cropped red jackets with gold buttons.
Finally, we boarded sometime before dawn.
The plane landed in Delhi, and all passengers were asked to exit the plane.
Delhi was not on my itinerary. I tried to show the flight attendant, saying, “This is not on my itinerary,” and pointed to the printed sheet.
She said, “Please exit the plane,” and she was so small and sharp and perfect, and her British-lilted English held so much authority in my passive blood, so I did.
Two hours later, she and her colleagues were running with me through the Delhi airport. I was crying.
The male airport employees would not allow me through. Even after the flight attendant showed them my stamped passport, they sent me back with a wave of their hands and that dismissive bell-like nod. They told me to go back to customs, where I would wait, and surely miss my plane. I wasn’t even sure which plane I was supposed to take. I wanted to listen to them, because it was easier just to do what they told me to do.
I did not know that as I cried among families and business travelers, holding a journal about heartbreak, I was participating in a ritual many people from the West had done for hundreds of years, and will continue to do. I had saved up money for the purpose of exiting the status that money would accommodate. Though I shared their space, I had no obligation to better the lives of those around me. I was there to consume and reflect, nothing more. I had bought invisibility, and I wanted to keep it that way.
And if I couldn’t have what I bought, I wanted to go back. I began to wonder how I would explain to Farrin that I would not be coming to Ahmedabad, and I would switch my flight home, instead.
But a female agent with a braid down to her waist stepped through the male employees. She listened to the flight attendant, furrowed her brow in sympathy at my pathetic, pink face, and led me through security.
At each step, the men stopped me, discussing my passport, asking me to hand over my bag, but the women pushed them away.
And then we were jogging, six or seven of us, until my gate came into view.
“Thank you,” I called, and kept saying even after they were gone. “Thank you. Thank you.”
The security woman with the long braid made the bell-like gesture, holding up a hand for me to wait while she sent word to the plane on her walkie, and then she led me downstairs and outside. In the blinding sun, we hopped on the back of a go-kart and sped toward the tarmac.
When we reached the plane, I wanted to hug the security woman, or say thank you again, or something, but I didn’t know what to do. I just smiled and put my hands on my chest and pushed them outward.
She smiled in return.
“Come on, then!” another flight attendant called, one patent-leather foot on the stairs to the plane and one foot inside.
I ran up the metal stairs, my pack bouncing but intact, and wiped the tears away. If I could go back and sit next to myself, watching Delhi grow smaller, I would shake my shoulders and say, “You are on your way now. You are invisible again. Open your heart wider, and stop thinking of him.”
But I can’t do that. So I thought of him.
Read “II. To Ahmedabad.”
YOU, LARA is an ongoing project by Lara Avery. If you’d like to receive email alerts—and that’s all you’ll get, a short email—saying her new one’s up, sign up here:
Front page image by Nick Page.
- * The very day before I departed, everything was in place. My passport had just been delivered. My possessions were gone. My plane ticket printed. My guilt in check. It was a Tuesday. I had arrived at the house on Marlborough Street before the kids got off the bus. I was to put Penny, a neurotic terrier, on a leash and walk with her to Ocean Avenue. But when I arrived in the front door, it was already open. I said, hello? Penny didn’t run to the door like usual. Instead, she was huddled under a chair, quaking. I walked to the kitchen. A pane on the backdoor had shattered, and the door itself was swinging off the hinges. Whoever they were, they took two laptops and five pieces of jewelry. I called Amy, the police, and then her husband, a perpetually angry director of the 9/11 Memorial Commission, to whom I had never spoken. They arrived before the kids. I walked them through their house while they gasped and shook their heads. While they spoke with the police, I took Rhia, Freida, and Simon for slices of pizza down the block. I spent my own money. We all four sat in one side of the booth, and I rubbed Freida’s back while she squeezed her polar bear. I would be gone from their lives forever in a day. I told myself they would be fine because their parents were rich. ↩
- ** In chronological order, the jobs I quit were:
-June, 2010: a counter job at a Mexican-American fusion restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas
-August, 2010: a live-in nanny gig in which I was required to share a room with a sunshine-phobic, un-potty-trained five-year-old in the Hamptons
-July, 2010: -a serving job at an upscale Mediterranean restaurant on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn in which I was asked not wear tights under my dress by a fifty-year-old Italian man
-October, 2010: another live-in nanny gig in which I was required, among other duties, to push three kids under five-years-old on one double-stroller through the cracked, 1920’s era sidewalks of Chelsea (the infant, Othello, would ride in the front, Penelope the toddler behind him, and Cassius, a four-year-old with a temper problem, on a cart attached to the back, which caused all four of us much distress, to the point where Cassius, standing on a glorified skateboard but inches from my body, would punch me as we walked)
-January, 2011: a diner job on 4th Ave in Brooklyn in which the owner’s son threw a quarter at me for not charging the extra fee for decaffeinated coffee
-February, 2011: technically I was fired from the Rothsteins, but I see it as quitting, since their decision to let me go coincided with my decision to stop talking to the children I was supposed to watch, ever since their dog, Nathan, swallowed rat poison.
-March, 2011: the nannying job on Marlborough Street, in which I spent most of my time communicating with a troubled seven-year-old though a stuffed polar bear (she would only do her homework if asked by the polar bear, would only go to bed if the polar bear was also going to bed, etc), which is a shame, because I actually liked that job.
-March, 2011: a professional assistantship to a children’s book publisher. A job I also liked, and would bolster my desired career as a writer, but had to quit because I had already bought a plane ticket to India. ↩