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"You have to travel," everyone told me. "You should go see the world. It will inspire you." I put them off, until my bank balance, fat from a couple of pieces that sold for more than I thought they would, convinced me I could. I paid my bills ahead, packed up, and left for a month. Sketchbook in hand, I was ready to see the Old World.
It was unsurprising. It was old, and very beautiful. People were generally nice, understanding and accepting my ignorance and managing to explain to me, with pantomime and bits of English from Hollywood movies, where the public bathroom was.
It was odd seeing signs with unfamiliar logos and words you couldn't understand. As an ignorant American, I got used to reading every flat surface around me, from the warning on a bus window to a vending machine, with subconscious speed.
I had one week left before returning to home and hearth. It had been a fine trip, and I had made sketches, and I had some new ideas. But I had a lingering wish that it be over- that I was back among people I knew, television shows I could understand, Chinese food I could order at 3AM. Rules and customs that I knew, friends who would answer when I called them. Culture was all well and good, but I was about ready to go home.
Our tour bus was making its way up a long, winding hill. The bus driver was a David Bowie fan, playing the same Greatest Hits cassette over and over as we kicked up dust behind us. We were seeing the ruins up here, broken walls and columns and old statues. The tour leader, a round-bellied Irishman named Philip, announced, as the daylight faded, "If ye hav had enough, we can call it a night, or we can move along to one more site. Let's see a show of hands for turning in?"
I was all for the former, along with a sullen teenage girl, but the rest of the group, the girl's earnest mother, several robust seniors and a single man, all favored continuing. So we did.
We pulled off to the side. Through the window, I glimpsed some stone outbuildings and another long wall. Getting off, it looked the same as the last stone wall we saw, but I held my tongue. There was a vending machine inside the bus enclosure, and I stopped to get another bottle of water. I put in the coins, but the machine wouldn't drop the bottle. Looking around for some sort of attendant, I saw only the single man. I hadn't spoken to him yet, but as I usually did, I had quickly sized him up as the only potential suitor on the bus.
I wasn't the most active person I knew. Not by a long shot. But I had my share of boyfriends, and men who'd opened their bed to me. I didn't dare on the trip- you don't know what the laws are, never mind the rules and customs and niceties of coupling outside your own land. But in my mercenary fashion, I eliminated the others: if it was going to be any of them, it would be him.
I remembered a line I heard a comedian use about the actor Alec Baldwin: the closest thing to James Bond that you're going to meet on this Earth. That's what the single man was- calm, tall, with well fitting, fashionable clothes and a shock of dark hair, he had noticed my distress with the machine. After nearly a month with no attention, my body perked up when he caught my eye.
He came up beside me. I could sense his closeness. I didn't look, but I wanted to.
"How many did you put in?" he asked, his voice smooth like a radio DJ or a lounge singer.
"It needs four," he said, sliding one more coin into the slot. I heard the mechanism release with a clunk, and the bottle thumped down to the bottom. "I made the same mistake this morning."
"Aha," I said, removing the bottle from the machine. "Thanks."
"I'm Jacob," he said, extending his hand.
"Keith," I said, shaking it. I felt a fluttery, warm feeling, like this may be the beginning of something.
"Shall we go look at more rocks?"
"I guess we shall," I said. Suddenly the trip didn't seem so bad.
published 21 August 2011
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