EXCERPTS—No Fixed Destination: Eleven Stories of Life, Love, Travel
By Townsend 11, Volume 1
Edited by Larry Habegger
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Feet Up on the Dash: Airline Stories
The queen’s eyes glittered with amusement and, yes, malice as she circled the tall thin man in the blue-checkered jacket. He lowered his chiseled face, looking down with obvious discomfort, and she knew she had guessed right. He was one of those. Slowly and deliberately she reached into her elaborate headdress and withdrew a long plumed feather. She smiled as she reached toward him, writhing with delight and cooing seductively. The air reeked with her perfume.
It was Friday night at SFO and the drag queens were on their way to Vegas for the weekend. Working girls, they arrived for every Friday’s 5:00 p.m. flight dressed to kill in glitter and feathers and spike heels, wearing at least a pound of makeup. Their spirits were high, anticipating a lucrative assault on the City of Sin. Now one of them was assaulting our supervisor Dieter, a stoic German with a limited sense of humor concerning his dignity.
“You’re being very persuasive, you know. Why now? Why didn’t we talk about this before now?”
“Because I kept waiting for us to start making our baby.”
We fall silent. I’m trembling; is it the chill? I imagine a letter: Dear family, Sorry, but I won’t be coming home right away because I decided to marry that nice Ethiopian man I told you about. Oh, and I’m pregnant. So I guess you were right, Mother. I never will complete college.
I’m aware of Guy again, and he’s sitting up straight and tall. His brown, thin-soled Italian leather shoes, highly polished, are placed firmly on the floor. With long, elegant fingers folded together, his clasped hands rest between his knees. Eyes closed, as if asleep, his glasses folded on the arm of the couch, I watch him for a long time, trying to figure out what he’s doing, why he seems so intent and still, wondering how he can be so still when I’m shivering.
Finding My Rock
Years later, I had nearly forgotten about the rocks. I only knew I needed to go away when I booked my flight to Croatia.
My world was in a tailspin. I was on the verge of a divorce, ending a 12-year romance with my college sweetheart. Croatia would be my escape hatch, I figured. It was a far-off place made mystical by countless bedtime tales. The idea of going there warmed me like a fuzzy blanket.
While not ready to tell everyone about my broken relationship but realizing I couldn’t bear the chaos of my life alone, I asked my dad to come with me. Ignoring warnings from my siblings that vacationing with Dad would make me insane, I wished for the opposite. I wanted him to make everything bad magically disappear.
For a moment, he did.
A few hours after my plane landed, I told him that my marriage was a failure, that I was a failure. He put his arm around me. I cried on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, baby,” he whispered. “You’ll be okay.”
The first time we spent the night together, we watched the sun rise over the river from my bedroom window, the orange orb shimmering as it drifted lazily up over the green hills.
I knew then I was totally, helplessly smitten. Later that day at school, exhausted but exhilarated by my infatuation, I found an unsigned note in my mailbox, a dreamy landscape hurriedly sketched on a scrap of art paper with the caption, “Love your river.”
It was 1970, and I had fallen in love—head over heels, bull-goose-loony, no-holds-barred, gotta-have-it love. Only one problem loomed: she was married.
The Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath
It is a hot summer day in London. The sky over the city is heavy and gray with the warm polluted air from the congested streets. From Hampstead, a quaint village-like neighborhood in the north of London, I walk across the meadows and arbors of 800-acre Hampstead Heath. I walk through fields of tall grass where Londoners have laid their blankets, stripping down to underwear and bathing suits to bask in the sun. For me the day is too hot, so I quickly enter a long lane, where I walk in the shelter of mature leafy trees.
Soon I come to another wide meadow. The sun beats down on me. So once again, I quickly make my way into the shade of a narrow path that winds beside the meadow through the green woods. Although I am alone in this secluded glen, I am not afraid.
At last I reach the black painted metal fence leading to the Ladies Pond, on the far side of the Heath, near London’s Highgate neighborhood. Other women arrive just as I do, some walking, some on bicycles with their plastic swimming baskets tucked into straw or metal bike baskets, some in professional dress, some in shorts or jeans. I pass a sign marking the entrance to the Ladies Pond.
Then came trouble. Except for two minor bouts with cancer, Marlis and Andy lived mostly trouble-free lives until they were 88 and 93 respectively. But in late 2007 Marlis had foot surgery that morphed into a major cardio-pulmonary event due to complications of emphysema after a lifetime of smoking. Eventually her doctors had to medically induce a six-week coma. Somehow that coma saved her life and she made a full recovery. However, the day she came home from the convalescent facility was the very day Andy collapsed on the bathroom floor with a hemorrhaging ulcer. A week later he was gone.
Marlis had the strength of spirit not only to make what passed for a complete recovery from her own illness, but then to successfully sustain the death of her husband of 53 years. And she didn’t just sustain it, she thrived. At times my uncle could act like the wrong end of a horse, and during those 53 years she put up with a lot of what came out of that horse. Now she was on her own and hell bent to make the most of it for however much longer she had.
Just Us Chickens
July, 2001. Hot Springs, Arkansas. The 100-degree heat bounced off the sidewalks like pork fat on a hot skillet. My room in the Velda Rose hotel had a ceiling fan, air conditioner, and a balcony from which I could scan Central Avenue, the town’s main street. My workshop wouldn’t start until tomorrow morning, so when the sun went down, I went for a walk.
Hot Springs has been a haven for hedonists since 1541 when the Spanish explorer DeSoto discovered Native Americans bathing in its healing waters. In the 1900s, gangsters from New York and Chicago declared “Bubbles” neutral territory. Al Capone kept a suite in the Arlington Hotel; nightclubs, brothels, illegal gambling casinos, and bathhouses lined Central Avenue. Now, tourists visit Central Avenue’s antique shops, ice cream parlors, and cafes. The art deco Vapors Club is a church. And, the nine massive bathhouses planted on grassy lawns in the 1920s molder away as silent and empty as beached ocean liners. Today’s hedonists cruise hotel spas.
But, I wasn’t in Hot Springs to shop, eat, or soak in healing waters. I was in Hot Springs to train chickens. It was my fourth trip.
Day Use Only
When the helicopter set down at the tiny Princeville airport on Kauai, its engine’s idling whine covered up my scream, “No more camping, ever.” I jumped down to the tarmac, pulled my waterlogged pack after me, and set out to find a hotel.
You’d think that I’d have given up camping sooner.
I grew up with a father for whom camping and comfort never shared the same zip code. He had shipped home (stolen) his Navy-issued sleeping bags, tents, binoculars, air mattresses, and cooking equipment at the end of World War II. By the time my brother and I were born, even though lightweight tents and air mattresses that actually held air had been invented, my father stubbornly held on to his Prehistoric gear—and insisted we use it on our annual camping trips.
The Age-Defying Benefits of Exercise
Damn. I forgot my mom’s gym membership card at home. Of course, this occurs to me right after I cross the threshold of the YMCA in Palo Alto. New person at the front desk—a tough-looking, square Eastern European woman in a track suit. I name her “Olga.” Should I jog back home for the card? I turn and peek outside through the double glass doors. The descending rain clouds have already snuffed out the last rays of the setting sun. A brunette soccer mom in sweats with a bouncy son in tow approaches the entrance from the outside and pulls open the glass door. A rush of cold and damp air blasts me back. I step sideways into the still warm and dry area of the gym. No contest. I’m staying.
While I debate what to do, a tall, buff African-American man, wearing a YMCA tracksuit, probably a trainer, joins Olga at the reception desk. He turns his back to her and concentrates on paperwork. How hard can this get? Light impersonation at most. I’d once passed as my Iranian-American friend at her parents’ swim club in Virginia and I didn’t even know her family’s last name. Compared to that, this will be a cinch. I’ll just give my mom’s address and after they verify her membership, in I’ll go. Easy. Right. My heart hammers against my ribs. I wipe my suddenly moist palms down my running tights. My conscience makes an unwelcome appearance reminding me that had I taken the straight and narrow path and driven to my own gym, only ten minutes farther away, I wouldn’t have to run the front desk gauntlet now.
Taklamakan Desert Moon Ride
We have descended Tian Shan and entered the Taklamakan Desert, a barren landscape painted in ecru—no shrubs, no grass, only waves upon waves of naked ridges the color of buff, the highest few spotted with white specks of snow. The chill of high altitude still in my bones, the lonely road ahead has no end in sight. I speed up, feeling the skinny tires of the Green Knight motorbike skipping on the surface of the gravel, hearing the crispy sputters of rocks spewing out from under them. Long stretches before gentle sweeping curves, the open panorama, the absence of other vehicles, the roughness of the road, the thrill of being in Taklamakan—this is riding at its purest. With every mile I grow more confident on the bike. I concentrate on the road, on being one with the elements, the reward of riding, of taking the risk, of conquering fear. Standing up on the foot pegs like a downhill skier, I bend my legs at the knee, absorbing all the bumps; my hands tremble on the handlebar, shockwaves traveling through my arms. I feel the movements of the bike. I open the throttle a bit more.
Up a Lazy River: The Nile reveals glimpses of ancient and modern Egypt
That morning the sail hung limply from the single mast of the felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat that has plied these waters since, well, since about the dawn of man. With barely a hint of breeze I wondered how Mahedui would get us under sail. All around, the world was still, and that was a rare thing indeed for modern Cairo. Just last evening I’d taken a walk along the Nile past these same docks in a cacophony of traffic beeps, honks, blares, and shrieks, both mesmerized and appalled by the crush of cars, the rising heat, the smell of vehicle exhaust, and clouds of smoke.
As the dawn light shifted from gray to rosy pink, the sail caught a bit of breeze and we moved out into the river. Mahedui smiled as if to say “I told you so,” and the boat progressed upstream as subtly as the light changed. The rising sun gradually parted the haze and cast a golden glow on the river to light up a two-person scull skimming across the water. The oarsmen, er, women, wore headscarves and sweaters over their traditional Egyptian galabiyahs. Then an eight-person scull with a coxswain appeared, again all women, all but one wearing a headscarf. And far upstream, in the shadow of Cairo’s highrises, two people in a rowboat with long oars like planks fished the river as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.
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