On the first day of 2006, I left my bad luck tied to a tree outside a famous shrine in Tokyo.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting rid of, only that when my new friend, Ema, unrolled the tiny fortune and read it, she giggled nervously and said in accented English, “You unlucky this year,” then she pinched the corner of the paper between her thumb and index finger, waved it back and forth and said, “Is very bad, you leave it here.”

Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.


“Passport?” At 3 am I jolt upright in bed. “Where’s my passport?” In 12 hours I’m to get on a plane on an international flight back to the US–to move back after living her for six years–and at that instant a something massive and visceral smacks me awake. I hadn’t seen my passport in a few days. Inés wakes up, asks what’s wrong, says she’ll always lucky at finding things and that she’ll help me look for it. From 3 to 4 am we search all three pieces of luggage and every corner, shelf and nook throughout the apartment. Nowhere. It’s gone. A numbness covers me, because as I think about when I last saw it and where it should be, I can only deduce that I most likely threw it away, inadvertently. Because this final move consisted of giving away, disposing of or recycling all the surplus, I conclude that I either tossed it in the trash, gave it to a friend in some heap of a donation, or it went in the paper recycling bin along with hundreds of other papers that didn’t make the cut.

That’s right, I threw away my passport and realize it 13 hours before my flight.

Inés falls asleep around 4:30 while I pine away with my eyes open in the dark until 6:30, futilely trying to locate my damned passport.

9:30 comes, which brings alarms and open eyes after only three hours of sleep. I call Lena, the assistant director at the school where I studied here; she tells me to call the American embassy. I do and the man says I should wait until Monday to get another passport. As soon as I hang up the phone, Lena calls me back and says that normally they don’t allow people to fly without a passport but if I have a direct flight to the US and no stopover elsewhere in Europe, then there’s a chance they might let me on. She says go for it.

I print out a copy of my passport (which was scanned and saved in my laptop earlier in the year), take my driver’s license and my Spanish student ID card and off the airport go Inés and I.

We get to Iberia’s customer service desk and, after explaining to the smiling lady that my contact told me to go and see the Intermediario de inmigración y aduenas, she tells me to go to La Policia. Inés and I walk over to the young police officer and, after explaining that I have no passport, he responds (paraphrased and translated), “We’re you from? The States? And you want to go back? Well then we really don’t care about you. We’re concerned about people coming into our country, not leaving it.” So back at the Iberia check-in line, which seems languid and excessively long, the clock reads that my flight leaves in two hours.

One hour later we approach the counter and a young brunette asks to see my passport. I explain the situation with Inés sometimes joining in to aid in the communication. The lady is extremely helpful: she talks to her supervisor, she calls security to notify them that an American without a passport is coming their way. Then she hands over a printed boarding pass, explains that the flight is overbooked but since I’m the first one on the list, she’s pretty sure I’ll get on the flight.

“Phew,” I say,  incredulous, and thank her effusively.

Inés and I walk over to the smoking point. It’ll be the last time I see her for a long time, maybe ever. We don’t say this out loud, but we know it. I roll a cigarette and she pulls out a Nobel and we light up in unison. She puts on her sunglasses, and it’s not the least bit bright or squint-inducing, at least not for me with my highly sensitive eyes. It’s a quick cigarette, with few words to accompany. We crash them out and start walking, holding each others’ hands. I look over and think I see moist eyes. Her face is being pulled down by lack of sleep and the weight of the present moment. I can’t imagine what I look like at this point.

When we reach the entry point to go through security, we begin to kiss rather madly. I wrap my arms around her, hug her tightly and whisper something into her ear which causes me almost to choke with emotion. I say it on the verge of tears; she is too. We let go, I walk into the turnstiles. She’s smiling widely and waving each time I look back to see her with her sunglasses on. Behind them there are tears, I know, and I’m fighting to hold back my own. But there is hardly time for them, because my flight leaves the ground in 40 minutes and I’m 20 minutes away from the gate. I am supposed to be boarding at the present moment.

Once passed security I turn around for one last wave and a hand-to-the-mouth kiss throw and off I go to catch the plane without a passport. The train takes seven minutes to get to the satellite terminal.

After the train there is another passport control checkpoint.

“Uhm, yes, I don’t have a passport, but I have a copy of it as well as a driver’s license and some other form of–”
“Yes yes we know, they called us. Did you bring the report?” he asks me.
“Report? What report?”
“From the police?”
“No, they didn’t give me a report.”
“You have to get a report.”
“Well they didn’t offer to give me one. They said that if I was leaving the country it didn’t matter to them who the hell I was.”
“Okay, go on.”

That’s how impervious the passport control checkpoints are in Spain.

I run to gate U67. The gate looks like this (but populated with people):

On the left sign reads BOSTON2 pmFinal boarding call.

The right one reads New York CityDelayed.

There’s a short line waiting to board. Since I’m quitting smoking for good for the 20th time since I moved to Spain, I decide that there’s time to choke down one last grit. I do and return to a now line-less gate with a small group of people gathered around the adjacent desk. All of these people are on standby, I assume. We huddle around it while a fat Spaniard sitting down calls out a bunch of names, and finally mine. I raise my hand, hand him the boarding pass, he takes it and writes down a seat number. To his immediate right and directly in front of me is a female employee who’s head is cocked up and trying to speak with a someone on the second floor above who is behind a wall of glass. She says (in Spanish), “Huh? What are you saying?” then says to everyone of us in the immediate area, “I can’t hear her. I don’t think she speaks Spanish”.

(All apologies for the stick figures inserted into the picture, but I really thought they would help to visualize this crucial element to the electrifying conclusion, as well as my confusion.)

Since the woman is directly in front of me and obstructing my entrance into the door behind the sign marked Boston, I decide to back out, double around and go through the door straight on. As soon as I take one step back, someone says, Dejalo pasar (”let him through”), which she does. I walk through the door to Boston, begin an ascent up a wheelchair-enabled walkway. It’s a smooth, gradual incline and I’m following a group of  about 50 people who are staggered and strolling. Along the way, I notice there’s a woman talking to a security guard walking in the opposite direction. We pass each other. At the time I don’t recognize it but it is the woman on the second floor who was trying to communicate with the female employee who was obstructing my path in the above picture.

I keep walking and texting a somewhat poetic, emotive final text message to Inés. As I get to the second floor, I begin to wonder where I’m going, because usually you descend into a plane and not ascend onto a horizontal escalator that looks like it goes on for about a mile. Before I get on the first one, I ask a woman in front of me if this is the plane to Boston. She pauses, nods her head and says, . I keep walking and walking and about halfway I wonder where the hell this airplane is, and why I’m backtracking through the airport. I ask another guy if this plane’s for Boston and, again, I get a pause and a nod.

Eventually I start jogging. Following the crowd I see the passport control that is re-entering the country.

I then realize that I’ve walked about half a kilometer following dimwitted and haggard passengers who just got off the plane from Boston. Their answers were true, they were on the plane from Boston, but not to it.

I am the jackass who hadn’t the cognizance to stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe I walked through the wrong door.”

And sure enough, I did. I walked through the door marked Boston — which was supposed to be my flight — instead of the door under the sign that read New York City/Delayed, which is actually where the Boston flight was boarding from.

The door behind the Boston sign should have been closed, or the signs should have been switched, or some sort of obstacle should have been placed in front of it.

Or someone should have said, “Sir, that’s the wrong door.”

I should’ve realized that the woman who was confused on the second floor and trying to communicate with the employee below did the same thing I was doing, and that when I passed her walking in the opposite direction, that should’ve triggered a realization that would’ve saved me about 450€ and the most surreal subsequent 24 hours I’ve had in my adult life.

But, I didn’t. I ran back to the gate and the fat Spaniard just looked at me in disbelief and said that the plane was already gone, that the door was closed. I was huffing and sweating and explaining that that was my plane, that I was misguided, that I walked through the door marked Boston, not NYC and before I realized it, I was de-embarking. I show him the boarding pass and he shakes his head and points me to customer service.

Everything was perfectly and tenuously held together just enough for me to get on that plane. Without a passport, I got through about four security points where said documentation is required. I had the impassioned and teary goodbye with Inés. I smoked the final cigarette. They put my luggage on that plane as the very last passenger and, as I was fully ready to turn a rather symbolic and important page in my life and finally leave Madrid once and for all, I walked through the wrong door.

Sunday June 1st, 2009 was the most absent day of my life.

My mind and spirit were on a plane headed to Boston while my body lingered around a quiet neighborhood where I had just finished a large chunk of my thirties.

I was there, and I wasn’t.

Numb, vacuous and bitter.

Some people since have said, “Well, everything happens for a reason, and there must be a reason you didn’t get on that plane.”

Some have said that it means that it’s my destiny to stay in Spain and not move back to the states.

It could also just as easily mean, “Nice work, deadbeat. Lost your passport and somehow get through the airport, catch the plane in time but walk through the wrong door. I’d say that Madrid was giving you a swift kick in the sweetbreads on your way out, just so you’ll never forget her.  Maybe she’s saying: HIT THE ROAD JACK.”

I tend to think that everything just happens, and then we ascribe a reason to it.

I’ve been back in the USA for two weeks now, and I still have yet to be able to apply one to this aberration other than I was highly stressed, emotionally brimming and not thinking fluidly.  Also, arriving late, not having a passport, not seeing people board through the gate door and their lack of proper signs to point me in the right direction were certainly reasons that aided in helping me walk through the wrong door.

Regardless of the meaning or non-meaning central to the metaphysics behind my failure to get on that plane, I will never forget the day that my luggage boarded a plane and my body stayed behind, that my mind left for America and my self remained in Spain, that I somehow existed in two places at once, that I became my own ghost while alive, that I stayed in Madrid one day too long…

Today’s story comes from the “Things that could only happen to me” file. Previous entries in this popular series include:

  • I’m 16 years old, it’s summer in Orlando, and I’m working the register at a retail store. A heavyset female customer pays for her items by unbuttoning her blouse, reaching into her bra, and producing a large, sweaty wad of cash.