Subscribe to This Land
* * *
This week, we’re sharing stories from Rebecca Solnit, Robert F. Worth, Margaret Talbot, Porochista Khakpour, and Frank Bures.
At The New York Times Magazine, Robert F. Worth reports from Aleppo, a city in ruins. Speaking with residents about the current state of existence, Worth also examines the social and political seeds of the Syrian War, now in its sixth year. The war has been supported by a cast of foreign sponsors on both sides. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime, which dropped bombs and chemical weapons on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have aided the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad. With Aleppo firmly back into the hands of the Assad regime, Syrians and exiled expats are starting to wonder whether backing Assad is their best chance at ending the war so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
I wanted to wind back the clock and make sense of how a city that seemed so averse to politics — of any kind — had been torn apart.
Even Syrians have trouble answering that question. In March, I met a lawyer named Anas Joudeh, who took part in some of the 2011 protests. Joudeh no longer considers himself a member of the opposition. I asked him why. “No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition,” Joudeh told me. “They know what they don’t want, not what they want.” In December, he said, “Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, ‘We lost Aleppo.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.” For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors.
All the same, Aleppo was a turning point, and in some ways an emblem of the wider war. Its fall appears to have persuaded many ordinary Syrians that the regime, for all its appalling cruelty and corruption, is their best shot at something close to normality.
All this may sound awfully precarious for Assad. But in a sense, it is just a more extreme form of the game Assad and his father have played for decades. The Assad regime arose after an unstable period during the 1950s and ’60s, when Syria was shaken by coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, triumphed in part by managing a constellation of rivals who hated one another but were all dependent on him. They knew that without him at the center, chaos would return, and that would be bad for business. This is truer than ever today. And it has a secondary effect, not unimportant: Many ordinary people now see Assad as their only hedge against a far more toxic kind of chaos.
Robert F. Worth reports from Aleppo, a city in ruins. Speaking with residents about the current state of existence, Worth also examines the social and political seeds of the Syrian War, now in its sixth year. The war has been supported by a cast of foreign sponsors on both sides. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime, which dropped bombs and chemical weapons on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have aided the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad. With Aleppo firmly back into the hands of the Assad regime, Syrians and exiled expats are starting to wonder whether backing Assad is their best chance at ending the war so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
With Qaddafi’s former guards now in prison, one man leads the interrogation of his brother’s killer:
Nasser called Marwan’s father and invited him to come see his son. For the last six months, the family stayed away out of fear that the thuwar would take revenge on them all. On the following Friday, eight of them showed up at the base in Tajoura. Nasser greeted them at the door and led them downstairs. ‘It was a very emotional moment,’ Nasser said. ‘You can imagine how I felt when I saw my brother’s killer embracing his brother.’ The two brothers hugged each other for a long time, sobbing, until finally Nasser pushed them apart, because he could not bear it anymore. Later, he took one of the cousins aside and asked him if he knew why Marwan was being held. The man said no. ‘I told him: “Your cousin killed six very qualified people whom Libya will need, two doctors and four officers. One of them was my brother.” ’ The cousin listened, and then he hugged Nasser before the family left.
On the encouraging signs of change in Burma—from the end of press censorship to the release of some political prisoners. A report from inside, and questions about why the government is doing it:
Ever since the country’s longtime dictator, Than Shwe, stepped aside early last year, a remarkable thaw has appeared to be underway in Burma—and journalists have been among the prime beneficiaries. In June 2011, the government announced that magazines focusing on sports, technology, entertainment, health, and children’s topics no longer had to be submitted for censorship. Later, publications covering business, economics, law, or crime were also exempted. In October, U Tint Swe, head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, made a mind-boggling statement during a rare interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA). ‘Press censorship,’ he said, ‘is nonexistent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors, and, as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future.’ For the head of the censorship board to say this at all was astonishing, but for him to say it to a news organization like RFA, which is funded by the U.S. government and has been banned in Burma, was unthinkable. (Until recently, state media spouted melodramatic slogans about RFA and other external radio services running Burmese-language programs, calling them ‘killers in the airwaves’ and accusing them of producing a ‘skyful of lies.’)
* * *
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!
Inside the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in New York, the first thing that hits you is the smell: over a century’s worth of industrial grime, clinging to black, molasses-coated walls. At first whiff, it is kind of sweet, like stale cake. As you go deeper into the cavernous brick building, it gives way to a sour curdling. As my ten-year-old daughter, Maven, describes it: “It’s like how my cat smells when he throws up.”
Maven, my friend Izetta, and I are among more than a hundred thousand people who make a pilgrimage in the summer of 2014 to pay homage to the “Sugar Sphinx,” the seventy-five-foot-long, forty-foot-high creation of Kara Walker, one of the most important and provocative artists working in the United States. The sculpture is forty tons of sugar molded into a ghostly white apparition, part mammy, part sphinx. The line to see her takes more than an hour to travel and stretches out for four long Brooklyn blocks. I spot the writer Gaiutra Bahadur, whose recent book, Coolie Woman, explores the history of indentured sugar workers in Guyana. Bahadur’s research on sugar plantation life and its bitter aftertaste among Guyanese women speaks forcefully to the exhibit we came to see. I wave Bahadur over to join us in line.
The installation’s title, displayed in bold black type painted along the Domino Sugar factory’s brick façade:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who
have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to
the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the
demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
The original Domino factory—first built in 1850s Williamsburg— was being torn down, along with the stories of generations of lives that it touched around the world. The factory was just one stop in the sugar industry’s “triangular trade” that created the blueprint for the globalized economy. Investors came from Europe; labor came from Africa; the cane fields were located in points across the Global South. The Domino refinery was the final step before the sugar reached consumers. Raw sugar would arrive at Domino’s forty-thousand-square-foot facility. Through the magic of refinery, pristine white sugar would come out. The profits that followed made sugar a key fuel of Empire.
The title, A Subtlety, is taken straight from history. Centuries ago, “subtleties” referred to elaborate, edible toys made of sugar. These exotic treats and status symbols were first made in the Middle East and popularized among the seventeenth-century European aristocracy. These “subtleties” could be trees, architectural models, or depictions of peasants holding baskets of fruit. There was nothing subtle about them, given what a rare and expensive luxury sugar was at the time. Unveiled at dinner parties, these were ostentatious displays of the host’s clout. The sugar sculptures could also be used to send more subversive messages. “Sly rebukes to heretics and politicians were conveyed in these sugared emblems,” writes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power. Read more…
Jonny Auping| Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (4,011 words)
Michael Auping recently retired after 25 years as the chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His 40-year curatorial career, which focused on the international development of postwar art, has resulted in numerous, critically-acclaimed exhibitions featuring many of the 20th century’s most prominent visual artists.
Before becoming a curator, Auping spent his post-graduate years in mid-70s Southern California trying to figure out how to break into the art world. Around 1975, he came across the book Working, by Studs Terkel, in which the author interviews various working people — from parking valets and cab drivers to gravediggers and pharmacists — about the meaning they find in their jobs. Auping began going to the studios of Los Angeles-based artists like Robert Irwin, Tony Delap, and Craig Kauffman to record conversations about their work, their background, and most importantly, their process.
His new book, Forty Years: Just Talking About Art, is a compilation of interviews ranging from 1977 to 2017 featuring artists such as Frank Stella, Lucian Freud, Susan Rothenberg, Bruce Nauman. Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, and many others. Read more…
I have long been in the habit of passing by houses and wondering about the people who live inside. I grew up in a residential neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the kind where the homes are close together and neighbors often wind up knowing more than they might like to. Before dinner, I would escape my house to walk our little white lapdog. The predictability of the ritual — setting the table, filling water glasses, the sight of my parents’ briefcases in the hall — filled me with dread. A day had ended exactly as it had the day before, and it would end the exact same way the next day and possibly forever.
This wasn’t how I wanted my life to be. I imagined that when I grew up, I would live all over the world. I would be an explorer of the wilderness, an observer of animals, a connoisseur of cultures, a collector of the unfamiliar. I envisioned hastily packed suitcases, maps, binoculars, huts in the mountains, spare hotel rooms in dusty cities, Jeeps tearing down muddy roads into the jungle.
As I wandered the streets of my neighborhood, I was shopping for other possibilities, other lives lived in other houses. But those lives appeared to be exactly the same as mine. In well-lit dining rooms and kitchens I saw other families setting the table, calling the children downstairs, washing their dishes in the sinks. Television screens illuminated family rooms where exhausted parents slumped on couches after a long day in the office. Children did their homework by the glow of Pottery Barn desk lamps. I imagined that after their parents went to sleep, when the loneliness of those quiet hours became too much to bear, they whispered to each other beneath their sheets.
During the day they roamed the perimeters of their neighborhoods on bicycles and were driven to soccer and piano practice. They learned about faraway places in textbooks and on the news, but it seemed as if there had never been anything but this, no other place than here. Thirty years on they would come back to houses like these and do the same things all over again.
I wasn’t sure what my mother did for a living, though I had memorized her job title because it sounded important and I was proud that it might be. “She’s a health policy analyst,” I told a friend. “What does that mean?” the friend asked. “It means she saves lives,” I said, feeling fairly confident that this wasn’t true, except perhaps in an abstract sense. But I wanted it to be true. I wanted the stakes of daily life to be more exciting than desks, screens, and fluorescent lights.
I passed by house after house, each one a nighttime domestic diorama: Homo sapiens suburbae. These people had nothing to do with the world of mystery, dark deeds, and wilderness that I was sure was out there somewhere. My house — if I had a house — would be different. It would be in the mountains, or the jungle, or maybe in the middle of a city. My children and I would eat ice cream before dinner and play freeze tag at night by the light of fireflies. We would have a menagerie of animals. If you stood outside our house at night, you would hear peals of laughter. You would see tickle wars and pillow fights in warm, glowing rooms. But then another thought struck me: what if the reason all these people lived the same lives was that this was the only way?
As I grew older, the fantasy began to erode. Where would the money come from? Would I have a partner, someone to help me? Where would the Jeep in the jungle take me and for what purpose? Where would my children go to school? Would I even have children?
When I was in my mid-20s, I heard a story about a young woman who had also dreamed of leading a life of adventure, and I could not get it out of my head. Her name was Barbara Newhall Follett. She was a child prodigy and had published an acclaimed novel at the age of 12. People called her a genius. A photograph was taken as she corrected her proofs with a quill, smiling proudly at someone to the left of the photographer. When she was 13, she left her parents and traveled the high seas with a hardened crew. Later that year she published a memoir about the experience. She was deeply knowledgeable about botany, butterflies, and much of the natural world. She was an accomplished violinist and a talented poet, but above all she was a writer. She had been writing short stories since the age of five.
“She’s your kind of person,” my friend Robert said when he pointed me to an article about her. I had led an ordinary childhood and no one has ever accused me of being a genius, but Barbara and I shared a love of literature and the outdoors. There was something else too: a certain temperamental similarity — a restlessness. Later I began to wonder about Robert’s true motivation for telling me about her. When she was almost exactly my age, she vanished without a trace. He knew I would want to find her.
It happened on December 7, 1939. The residents of Brookline, Massachusetts, were busily preparing for Christmas. Miss Ayers’s shop on Beacon Street was selling Christmas wrapping paper, ribbons, and stationery. Hendries’s offered ice cream sculpted in the shape of Santa Claus. The Village Flower Shop was stocked full of poinsettias, and all around town people were placing orders for turkeys at 19 cents a pound. As night set in, the temperature hovered around freezing and the gas lamps flickered in the darkness. Families prepared for dinner in their clapboard houses on Walnut Street and their Victorian houses with trellised porches on Cyprus Street.
For some, the looming holidays brought a twinge of pain, their sadness cast in sharp relief against the holiday cheer. A 15-year-old boy ran away from school that day. A middle-aged woman didn’t come home that night. Four people reported their dogs missing, and a 22-year-old girl slit her wrists and then disappeared.
On Kent Street, Barbara’s marriage was coming to an end. The young couple’s apartment was comfortable but modest, with a fireplace and a rounded row of windows overlooking the quiet street below. She was 25, fine-featured, and tomboyish, with a long auburn bob. She hadn’t planned on this kind of life. She hadn’t planned on bickering about who would hang the curtains or what music to play at a dinner party. She had never intended to sit in an office all day, a large round clock ticking the minutes away. She hadn’t planned on having a husband or a house.
The Boston and Albany Railroad had a depot around the corner and Black Falcon station, with its enormous ships fastened in the harbors, was just five miles away. There were ways to escape from Brookline, to get out of a marriage, to alter the patterns of a life. Barbara gathered her notebook and $30. She walked out of the apartment, down the engraved wooden staircase, through the front door, and disappeared into the night. She was never seen or heard from again.
The apartment was exactly as I had envisioned it: in a low-rise building with rounded turrets and a plain façade in a quiet neighborhood of small apartments and clapboard houses, with a few shops and restaurants. A few houses down, an old man in a neatly pressed button-down shirt was mowing his lawn. Brookline is a town that seems to belong to another time, giving it a Halloween feel regardless of the season. There was a whiff of mystery, a sense that something more was going on behind those well-kempt exteriors. Or maybe I was reading into it because I knew something had happened in that building 75 years before.
I was lurking in front of Barbara’s building when a middle-aged Australian woman came out to put her trash in the dumpster. We started talking. I explained that this was the last place Barbara had been seen. “Would you like to come inside?” she asked.
Barbara walked out of the apartment, down the engraved wooden staircase, through the front door, and disappeared into the night.
A few moments later, I stood in front of the large, curved living-room windows, wondering if this very apartment had been Barbara’s. Below the window, I could hear the man mowing his lawn. I wondered how many Saturdays, for how many years, he had done exactly that. The mechanical hum of the mower was oddly comforting. The woman’s boxer, Harry, butted his snout against my legs while I answered her questions. I was looking for Barbara, I said. I doubted I would find her, but I hoped to gather clues and learn more. I had reason to believe that she was the vanishing type, capable of erasing one life and creating another. But there were other, more sinister possibilities to consider as well. I was just a year older than Barbara when she vanished, and this fact seemed significant to me. I had a sense that the decisions I was making then would determine the rest of my life. Like with a rocket ship, the trajectory set on the ground was critical; a fraction of a degree in the wrong direction could send me to a wildly different place.
Somewhere along the line, in ways barely perceptible at first, things went wrong for Barbara. From my vantage point, her life was both an inspiration and a warning. But I couldn’t think of how to explain this to the Australian woman, so I thanked her and left.
Life with P.J. was easy. We usually wanted to do the same things, which came as a huge relief. My previous relationship had been a constant battle over how to spend our time. My ex-boyfriend had mostly wanted to listen to lethargic jam bands stoned out of his mind. I wanted to hike, read, write, or go out with friends. A simple trip to the grocery store could cause an epic fight because we couldn’t agree on how we would get there, when we would go, or even what we would buy. But moving through the day with P.J. was effortless.
Four years later, on the roof of our apartment in Washington, D.C., P.J. asked me to marry him. He was nervous and had turned around to face me too suddenly, which startled me. Yes, I said. Obviously yes.
It was other people who floated through their lives without scrutiny. They were the ones who made a series of uninspired compromises that led them to lives of drudgery. I told myself I would never do that. But when people asked me why I had chosen to get married, I had no answer. I don’t know, I said. Because sometimes people fall in love and want to announce to themselves and the world that they plan to stay together forever. Love was the factor I hadn’t considered.
I didn’t do a cost and benefit analysis. In fact, I hadn’t thought much about marriage at all because marrying P.J. hadn’t felt like a choice. He was a fact of life now. Questioning his place in it seemed as worthwhile as pondering whether I should keep my arms and legs. But I was squeamish about the wedding and skeptical of its meticulous choreography.
In Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, there is a section on “bad faith” — behaving without sincerity, lying to oneself. Sartre describes a café scene in which a waiter is serving his customers: “His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly…he is playing at being a waiter in a café.” The waiter, as Sartre describes him, is imprisoned in his performance, relegating himself to the singular role that society allows him, rather than allowing himself the freedom of a more honest manner of being. What troubled me most about the concept of bad faith was not that we might lie to others, but that we might lie to ourselves. Self-deception is degrading. You wish you could have just a smidge more integrity. Your falseness lingers in the air and follows you through the day.
It was other people who floated through their lives without scrutiny. They were the ones who made a series of uninspired compromises that led them to lives of drudgery.
In the carefully scripted wedding rituals, I detected bad faith. I felt less like a bride and more like a person pretending to be a bride, the way a little girl might process through her living room with a pillowcase draped over her head toward some imaginary groom. I refused to take engagement photos because who would ever believe that we were spontaneously bounding through a field at sunset holding hands? Or making out in front of a brick wall? Who was this photo for? It couldn’t be for us because anytime we looked at it we would know all the work that went into it: a long afternoon spent smiling to the point of jaw exhaustion.
I sidestepped this icky feeling by outsourcing the wedding planning to my mother. I announced to everyone that I could not be bothered to care about napkin colors or floral arrangements. The only things P.J. and I would deign to opine on were the things that truly mattered: the beer selection, the music, and the wedding cake, which would not be wedding cake because wedding cake tastes bad. We would eat pie. We also cared about the wedding ceremony, which we designed ourselves. These things — the food, the drinks, the music, the ceremony — turned out to be most of the details of the wedding.
The problem was that I both wanted to avoid dealing with the particulars of the wedding and that I came to see each choice as symbolic of the kind of life we would live together. As my mother went about happily making her plans, if they veered toward the traditional or the frilly I would swiftly intervene, outraged.
One night, P.J. and I went to my parents’ house for dinner. We arrived with a pizza box in hand. I had decided that I wanted the wedding to be a pizza party (never mind that my father is gluten intolerant) held at the neighborhood bar, which was also a Ping-Pong hall. P.J. and my father sat silently at their ends of the table, looking wan, while my mother and I shouted viciously at each other. It was the kind of shouting that makes the neighbors wonder if they should call to see if everything is all right. My mother informed me in no uncertain terms that the family from Arkansas would not be coming all the way to D.C. for a pizza party at a Ping-Pong bar. She would have been more likely to agree to a wedding conducted on the moon in the nude. I informed her that, in that case, the family in Arkansas could attend a wedding at which the bride would not be present.
A few weeks later, my sister, my mother, P.J.’s mother, sister, and sister-in-law, and three of my friends gathered in a boutique for what was to be a long day of wedding dress shopping. The attention made me uncomfortable. I worried that they didn’t really want to be there. Why would anyone want to follow someone around all day while they shopped for a dress? I tried on the first dress and announced, “This is it. I want to buy this one.”
“What?” said the confused saleswoman. My friends and family (three of whom had traveled more than a hundred miles to be there) gaped. It would be the quickest wedding dress purchase in the history of wedding dresses, a staggering 15 seconds.
“Maybe you should try on another one, just to be sure,” my mom suggested.
“No,” I said. “I want this one.” I thought it was reasonably priced and didn’t want to drag the process out.
My mother suggested we move on to the bridesmaid dresses, but this too was contentious because I wanted the bridesmaids to wear whatever they wanted.
“Why must everyone match?” I asked.
“Why are you such a pain in the ass?” my sister shot back. “No, really, tell me why.” What she meant was, Why must everything be a statement?
But to me, the statement was the whole point. My wedding was becoming a demonstration of all the things P.J. and I were not. The dresses, the napkins, the seating charts seemed an initiation into a domestic life that frightened me, one I had observed as a child and had sworn never to take part in. The wedding was an opportunity to declare, most of all to myself, that I could live according to whatever rules I wanted.
So when a Cuisinart was delivered to our apartment, my stomach dropped. It wasn’t going to be that kind of marriage. My uncle had given us matching camping backpacks, and I had found that gift extremely gratifying. It aligned with the person I wanted to be: someone on the move, ready to jet off to some exciting adventure at barely a moment’s notice, someone unencumbered.
Yet if I truly hadn’t wanted the Cuisinart, I would have given it away. Instead, I left it in its box above the kitchen cabinets, where I eyed it with suspicion and, occasionally, longing. Domestic objects had a mysterious power over me. I was both attracted to them and repulsed by them. The Cuisinart was sort of beautiful, with its sleek metal base. It promised homemade salsas and soft serve made of bananas and Nutella. How bad can life be when you are making your own soft serve?
I purged my life of household items with fervor. In limiting my exposure to them, I was hoping to cauterize the desire at its source. The longing for a beautiful teacup would never be satisfied by buying just one teacup. Once I had it, I would want some other beautiful thing, setting off a chain of longing and acquisition that would drag down my whole life. Even a single day spent around the house made me nearly frantic. I worried that I could, without realizing it, build a domestic life and become mired in it. So I renounced it all. No beautiful teacups ever.
Other kinds of household items — the ones you need in order to live — filled me with joy. I enjoyed seeing my toothbrush beside P.J.’s, his shoes mixed in with mine. I enjoyed grocery shopping with him, knowing that he liked the grainy mustard more than the smooth kind, the hard cheeses more than Brie. I felt the seductive appeal of controlling my surroundings, of nesting among picturesque things.
I told myself that it didn’t matter if I was ambivalent about the wedding because I wasn’t ambivalent about P.J. And though I didn’t want to admit it, I craved the security of marriage. A handsome, kind man had agreed to tie his life to mine, to mix his shoes in with mine, to grocery shop with me, to list my name on his emergency contact forms forever. It was a vote of confidence in me and in my vision of how to live. The comfort that this knowledge provided released me from the pressure to find other forms of stability. I started taking on more ambitious writing projects because if they didn’t work out I would still have P.J. I could live anywhere in the world because P.J. would be there. We had very little money, but being broke with someone else is far preferable to being broke alone. Surely between the two of us we would figure out how to make enough money to scrape by. I did not view my impending marriage as a constraint. I told myself that it was a means of escape from the constraints of the rest of the world.
A year before our wedding, P.J. and I decided we needed to get out of D.C. Leaving would mean saying goodbye to nearly everyone we knew, which was, at least to me, exactly the point. Wanting to flee, if only for a time, is a fairly common fantasy. Anyone who has felt it will recognize that this feeling manages to coexist with the fact that you may love your friends and family very much. I love you. Please go away.
Many of our friends from our respective high schools, our college friends, our parents, and P.J.’s siblings and their combined five children lived within a five-mile radius of our home. There was an endless string of birthdays, happy hours, going-away or coming-home parties, soccer games, holiday and engagement parties. I often felt that rather than trying to actually spend time together in a meaningful way, we were crossing things — or people — off our to-do lists.
The total lack of spontaneity was making me fidgety. In college, I hadn’t done extracurricular activities, even ones I would have enjoyed, because I didn’t like the idea that I would have to agree to weekly meetings. As a result, I spent a lot of nights doing nothing when I could have been doing something constructive; but knowing I was free to do as I pleased was what I cared about most. Now I knew ahead of time what I would be doing every weekend for the next five months. I dreamed of saying to family and friends, “I don’t want to see you today because I need to be alone, or I need to write, or wander around without a plan, and that’s not a reflection of how I feel about you.”
I worried that I could, without realizing it, build a domestic life and become mired in it. So I renounced it all.
I might have enjoyed the merry-go-round of social events more had I not been working so much. I was running my family’s coffee shop, waking up at five in the morning to open the store in the dark, do inventory, organize and restock the line, brew coffee, order more, create the next week’s schedule, and serve food and drinks all day. Often I had to cover shifts for employees who had overslept or were sick. On the rare occasion when I wasn’t in the shop, my cell phone would ring incessantly with questions from the staff. “The sink is clogged and overflowing.” “There’s a crazy man shouting at himself in the bathroom.” “We’re out of peanut butter.” “There’s a weird smell coming from the basement.” Each time my phone rang, it reminded me that I wasn’t a good manager. I had created an environment where people were helpless in my absence.
At night I came home with my jeans stained with coffee grounds, worrying about two employees who were fighting or a tense interaction with a customer. I was physically exhausted, but when I got in bed, instead of going to sleep, I cycled through the next day’s to-do list. We’re out of whole milk, I reminded myself. And don’t forget to order more bowls for the catering job next week. The new employee is coming in at 11; print her paperwork first thing.
I was beginning to see that when your days are all the same, your weeks, months, and years blend together. The alumni association of my high school asked for an update for the school magazine and I didn’t have one. “Nothing has changed,” I imagined writing. “Laura Smith, Class of 2004, is exactly the same.” I imagined that my classmates were climbing the Annapurna circuit, kayaking the length of the Nile, and rescuing earthquake victims in China. I longed to see other places. Even looking at a map was painful because it reminded me of how mired I was in my life. A National Geographic special about the pyramids came on, and I thought, I really might never get to Egypt. My world was small.
“When are you coming over?” my mother and P.J.’s would ask in rapid succession. “Let’s get a date on the calendar for something this week.”
“You’re smothering me,” I said to my mother. “That sounds nice,” I said to P.J.’s mother.
One night I looked into the bathroom mirror, feeling suddenly daunted by the task of flossing my teeth. How could I possibly bring myself to do one more thing I didn’t want to do? I slept fitfully that night and had a dream that I had fallen asleep at a dinner party and was surrounded by an endless cacophony of cocktail chatter and clinking glasses. I had never spent less time reading or writing in my life, probably since I had learned to read and write, and the lack of it made my life feel lusterless. “My brain is dying,” I told P.J. I was an automaton outputting work and taking in food and drink.
P.J. sometimes came in to help on the weekends, working behind the counter so I wouldn’t have to. He was teaching at a nearby high school and was often up grading papers until the early hours of the morning, but he never complained about the extra work. He memorized the smoothie recipes and sometimes made them wrong. I didn’t care because I was so grateful not to be the one making them.
His desire to please others was great when it worked in my favor. But when he wanted to please others at my expense I would grow irritated. “Of course we’ll be there!” I heard him say into the phone. I shot him a death stare, signaling that I was going to strangle him. He shrugged helplessly, whispering, “If we leave the dinner at nine we can be at the birthday party just half an hour after it starts.”
“Do you actually want to go?” I would ask him. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes it was no. When he would commit to things I didn’t want to do, I wouldn’t allow myself to blame him. It was the other person’s fault. I didn’t want to think about the fact that sometimes I felt trapped by him.
I wrote during any free moment I could get. After work, late at night, I would write in the darkness of our studio apartment while P.J. slept in the bed nearby. In between placing orders, I wrote in the coffee shop’s cavernous unfinished basement, which smelled like damp concrete. Sometimes I typed notes on my cell phone between shifts. But the moments snatched here and there were never enough. I could never really gather the intense concentration needed because I was constantly interrupted.
“I can’t live without writing,” a journalist friend told me. I rolled my eyes because the truth is that you can live without writing. In fact, often we must live without it.
If I wasn’t writing, I was simmering with frustration about how I should be. At a bar with friends, even if I was having a good time, I would silently berate myself for again being lured away from my work. I wanted to write more than I wanted to be near the people I loved. Sometimes I worried that this made me small-hearted or selfish, but it seemed constitutional and therefore unlikely to change.
I began writing about a woman who disappears. Not Barbara, but a fictional woman. She was a botanist who had vanished, perhaps deliberately, in the Burmese jungle in search of a rare, psychedelic mushroom. I wrote about her because, of course, I wanted to disappear. Often those who write about women who have vanished are men with an impulse to eviscerate women, or women with an impulse to eviscerate themselves. I was interested in a different kind of vanishing: the kind where you disentangle yourself from your life and start fresh. People would miss you. You could miss them. You could live at a peaceful distance, loving them in a way that is simpler than the way you love someone you have to deal with in everyday life. You hadn’t abandoned them. You were just gone. Mysterious rather than rejecting. Vanishing was a way to reclaim your life.
“Let’s leave the country,” P.J. said one night after work over burritos at a Mexican chain restaurant. We had been talking casually about moving abroad for a while, but the idea was tantalizing and somehow more urgent now that we were deep in the weeds of wedding planning. Moving away was another way to say no without having to say it. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I imagined myself saying. “We can’t go to dinner because we’ll be in Asia.” We had talked about traveling, but never in a way that felt like more than daydreaming. But a few months earlier a local restaurant owner had offered to buy our coffee shop, at a loss of course, and my dad and I jumped at the opportunity to be rid of what had once been a dream. Without the coffee shop, P.J. and I could shed everything that had burdened us in D.C.
“Can we please?” I said.
“We can do whatever we want,” P.J. said.
* * *
Two days after the wedding, P.J. and I were in his sister’s basement frantically packing. A book I wanted was nowhere to be found, a friend was dropping by with a last-minute wedding present, and we were trying to figure out what to do with $130 in coins another friend had given us as a generous gag gift. We had a plane to catch, I had a stress rash on my face, and somehow in the post-wedding rush I had strained my neck, making it painful to turn my head to the right. We were moving to Southeast Asia for a year, mostly because it was the farthest away we could get on the planet before coming back around again. The weather, the people, the sounds and smells would all be new to us. Days would be remarkable again.
We had saved some money and had a few freelance writing and research contracts that could be done remotely. That money would cover our expenses, which would be minimal: we had picked Southeast Asia because it was cheap.
People would miss you. You could miss them. You could live at a peaceful distance, loving them in a way that is simpler than the way you love someone you have to deal with in everyday life.
I ran upstairs, tore the cushions off the couch, didn’t find the book, then ran downstairs to my backpack and started ripping out the clothing I had neatly rolled inside. Our backpacks contained everything we would need for the next year, which it turned out wasn’t much. We’d each packed five shirts, two pairs of shorts, a pair of pants, and a couple of pairs of shoes. There were also our computers, books, and two notebooks. Other than knowing what I would wear for the next year, I had no real plan. Suddenly, I didn’t care about the book. We were leaving, and how little our old lives would overlap with our new one was thrilling.
We drove to Dulles International Airport with our respective parents because both sets wanted to take us. P.J.’s sister and her children followed behind in their minivan. This vast crowd stood in a knot at the international departures area to watch us check in. At the check-in counter, something appeared to be wrong.
“You don’t have return tickets?” the ticket taker asked.
“That’s correct,” P.J. said.
“What is your plan for exiting Thailand?”
“We’ll be leaving by bus.”
I turned around and looked at our families standing behind us. Their faces were hopeful. Had we botched the trip? Would we have to stay home forever?
A few months earlier, my mother-in-law had sat us down on her porch and said, “Maybe you should consider going away for a few months instead of a year.” I felt something constrict in my chest. She seemed to be asking us not to change, or to get onto some kind of track. To her, this was a trip. We would come back to our apartment in D.C., back to her house for dinner on Sundays, to “regular” (i.e., office) jobs and daily routines. The coffee shop had been a nice little digression, but that hadn’t turned out so well. Teaching — that was fine in your 20s, as long as it was a stepping-stone to something more prestigious. And now this “trip.” It was time to grow up and get serious. This line of thinking made me want to run screaming in the opposite direction. I couldn’t describe the life I wanted, but this was not it.
It was around this time that I read a passage in a novel about two old ladies, a mother and a daughter who lived alone together in some isolated place eating only potatoes. When a stranger came across them, he was struck by how the pair seemed to have withered mentally without outside stimulus. Having only each other to talk to, they were nearly mute. Without other minds, other sights, other experiences, they had grown dull. The passage had sent a jolt of fear through me. I was surrounded by people who loved me, people whom I loved, and yet I was wilting. I thought about Wilson Follett and the urgency he felt to end his “poisonous” marriage. Maybe Helen wasn’t poisonous, but something about family life was. I didn’t like the idea that I might be anything like Wilson, who was, in many ways, the villain of Barbara’s story.
You must be vigilant, Wilson argued, because even the best-intentioned love can strangle. You cannot protect the things you love by sealing them in airtight containers. When you pin a butterfly and put it behind glass, you kill it. Barbara put her butterflies in a sieve, studied them, and then released them back into the wild. Go outside, she seemed to be saying. Be fearless, life will be over soon.
Barbara once signed a letter to her father, “With love and love and love and love and LOVE and LOVE,” each inky love becoming larger and larger. When her father wasn’t there, she wrote, “I am longing to see you” and “I miss you terribly.” Where is the dividing line in a love like this? At some point, love crosses over from being the buoy that lifts you up to the tide that drags you under. My chest was pounding as I sat on the porch and P.J.’s mother asked us to stay, and it was pounding just as loudly in the airport as we tried to leave. Perhaps Wilson was just being who he was when he left his family. Maybe I was too. It wasn’t a question of wrong or right or ingratitude. It was a compulsion.
Standing at the check-in counter, I imagined failing to get our boarding passes and piling back into the family cars. I could picture our mothers’ looks of contented relief as we all drove home together. Put us on that fucking airplane, I thought.
“Listen,” P.J. said to the agent, “if when we land in Thailand they want us to turn back around, we’ll do that.”
The woman shrugged and processed our tickets.
We were running away not just from home but from a certain idea of what married life should be. Marriage is in many ways freedom’s opposite, the binding of one life to another—in theory at least—forever. So as I tied myself to P.J. with one hand, I untethered myself from the rest of my life—family, friends, my job, my apartment—with the other.
As the plane lifted off the tarmac, I felt I had escaped. But leaving the country for a year isn’t that unusual. People quit their jobs and move all the time. They travel. It’s an indulgence, but nothing truly revolutionary. Yet suspended in the night sky, surrounded by strangers reading, talking, and sleeping, I knew leaving meant much more than that. If you had asked me then what I would have been willing to risk to find freedom, I would have said everything — except P.J.
* * *
From The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith. Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Laura Smith.