Reinvention

I’m going to tell you my darkest secret. I’ve never told anyone the whole story.

In the summer of 1999, I lost nearly everything. The magazine I worked for went out of business. I lost my job. My only serious romantic relationship ended. I lost all my savings, which were tied up in our house. We sold the house for a loss.

I was jobless, broke, heartbroken, sad, and angry. I was scrambling to keep it together. I was a mess.

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The Jinxed Year

I can’t pinpoint exactly when this year went wrong, but it seems to have started on the night of my birthday during the college football national championship game, when the University of Georgia Bulldogs blew a 13-point halftime lead to lose to Alabama in overtime.

The next night, a friend, an Alabama graduate, teased me about whether I was sad that Georgia had lost the game. I told her it wasn’t a big deal — football isn’t my sport. But maybe it was a warning.

Soon after, my water heater sprung a leak. I went a week taking Japanese-style Furi Kuri baths with a large kitchen pan full of hot water I set up in the shower. That’s all the water I dared run to keep it from spraying out all over the garage.

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Morning Train to Milan

Italy
December 2005

“I was drunk last night,” the girl tells her friend in accented English. “In the bar, I was drunk.”

“I didn’t see you,” her punky friend replies.

“With those boys. I had too much.”

“I’d like to see you drunk.”

Approaching Milan, two teenage girls sink into empty seats. The punky blonde beside me wears a nose ring and a puffy down parka. Her friend sits across from her, in a pink jacket and glasses. She has a brown ponytail. Neither of them can be older than fourteen or fifteen.

The biggest movie in Italy at the moment is about a girl like them.“We should get drunk tonight,” the punky girl says.

“No, no. My head hurts too much.”

“I want to see you drunk.”

They are Spanish, from Barcelona. They have traveled far for girls their age. A school break.

The biggest movie in Italy at the moment is about a girl like them. In the book on which the film is based, she travels to Barcelona on a school trip, gets drunk like these Barcelona girls. You’d never see American girls their age on their own so far from home.

The train approaches the station. People mill in the aisle waiting to disembark.

“Your English is very good,” I remark to the punky girl.

“He says our English is very good,” she tells her friend.

Featured image: Piazza del Duomo, Milan

Bus Food

Somewhere in Northern Argentina
November 2011

For tonight’s dinner, we have a fine piece of ham, bread and butter, mayonnaise for a sandwich, some kind of cold meat pie, a packet of crackers, and a spongy square thing I poke repeatedly with my plastic fork, served by a man from the first bus station we stop at, who looks like Diego Maradona.

I trade Karimé my ham and the insides of the spongy thing, which was also ham, for her meat pie. Karimé constructs a double-decker ham sandwich. I’m convinced it’s the crackers that make the meal.

One of the guidebooks said overnight buses in Argentina served good wine.“Why are you cutting up your cookie?” Karimé asks me. That’s a cookie? It is a hard, flat shape that had been wrapped in silver paper. “Yes, it’s a cookie,” she says. It doesn’t look like a cookie to me.

Garçon, the steward, arrives with warm coke from a two-liter bottle. “Coca?” he asks, offering us each a plastic cup. If only. The taste is flat and unrefreshing, with a nonexistent bouquet.

One of the guidebooks said overnight buses in Argentina served good wine. This isn’t one of those buses.

The Night Bus to Battambang

Cambodia
October 2010

Three hours from Phnom Penh, late afternoon, the bus makes a rest stop at a restaurant with a market out front. If this is the midpoint, we have three more hours until we reach Battambang.

The market is crowded with people getting off work. People from the bus purchase fruit and pastries. I buy them, too. A surprising amount of good pastries in Cambodia, the legacy of French colonization. I haven’t eaten all day.

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The Station Cat

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
October 2010

When the bus from Sihanoukville reaches its station in Phnom Penh, it dumps passengers off in a narrow street on the north end of town. All the bus companies have separate stations. None are close to each other or near where you want to go in the city. I am just passing through, though. There are no instructions for onward connections when I arrive. People wait beside the bus to claim their luggage, then the bus disappears.

Inside the small station, there is a ticket window with no attendants and three people sitting at a desk, who all give conflicting answers when I ask about my connecting bus to Battambang. There are lots of people standing around on one end of the station between the ticket windows and the filthy bathroom, and a small waiting area with seats in a narrow corner near the front door.

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Karaoke TV

Cambodia
October 2010

Karaoke TV on the bus. They blare it loud, louder than ear plugs can suppress: wholesome, chaste love songs sung from the heart.

Men in military uniforms sing great pronouncements of love and fidelity, make grand gestures, while all around the open-air bandstand pretty couples ballroom dance on the parade ground in the late afternoon sun, always smiling, plastic smiles. They dance slow waltzes. Sometimes they merely sway and make elaborate, swirling hand gestures.

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