Sometimes at night I roam the streets. Usually I take short walks around the neighborhood, seeking out a dark corner in the park and sitting in the grass, or walking down empty streets, peeking into people’s windows. I see TVs, bookshelves, flower vases. I rarely see people and I turn away if I do. I don’t spy on people; I spy on their bookshelves.
I don’t know why I do it. Last night, for example, I just couldn’t stay in the apartment. Something compelled me to go outside and wander. I had to suppress the urge to dance or do headstands on the sidewalk: the streets may be empty, but they are not blind. I think I just need to let out steam after a day in the office, to get rid of the taste of work that I don’t like. In graduate school, desperate, I would do headstands in the bathroom when a particularly gnarly problem kept me working through the equations at two o’clock in the morning. Nobody knows about this, or about my evening walks. Lanie doesn’t know. My parents and my friends don’t know. Nor will they find out, because none of them knows about this web site. It’s just you and me, although—let’s face it—you are an imaginary number.
Lanie calls me a nomad. She may be right; I do have nomadic blood coursing through my veins. My ancestors herded horses and killed city folk. They got drunk on fermented mare’s milk.* I distrust horses and have never ridden one; I have spent my entire life in cities. I’m an urban nomad. I pitch concrete tents.
Every year or two, I sell off most of my possessions and move. It’s inevitable. It started when I was eighteen with the biggest move of all, across two continents and an ocean, and it hasn’t stopped since. Just as I put down roots somewhere, the time comes to cut them away. (Snip, snip. Slice, slice.) I don’t mind. I like rolling across the world like a giant tumbleweed.
My similarly rootless friend Danielle has suddenly announced that she understood why slowing down meant growing up. “There are places that make you miserable and places that make you happy,” she told me. “You don’t want to stay in the former, and they won’t let you stay in the latter. So you keep moving, hoping that you’ll find a happy place where they will finally let you stay. But in the end, happiness and misery all come from your head. You could make a miserable place better if you just stopped packing for a minute.”
“That’s not true,” I protested. “Not totally true, anyway. You can adjust your attitude but in some places, that’s not enough. Besides, why should I change?”
“Because they won’t,” she said. “Not unless you make them. But you can’t make them if you leave.”
“I’m leaving San Francisco in May,” I told her. “I’m moving back to New York.”
“What will you do there?”
“I don’t know yet,” I admitted. “I have no job lined up, and I’m wary of another consulting gig. I hate everything about the one I have now except for the paychecks. And surfing the Internet when I’m supposed to be working—I like that. I can’t help it; my brain swells if I wade in their bullshit too much. Maybe I’ll temp for a while.”
“A waste of a good education,” she said.
“I’m supposed to be applying the eduction, not the other way around. I just can’t sit still in a cesspool, Danielle. Not unless I have an airlift scheduled. I guess I have a lot of growing up to do.”
“I’m staying right here,” she said quietly.
But, I wanted to say, Lanie will be waiting for me in New York. I’m not running away, I’m going home. Home, to lasting love and regular sex. Spin my chakras, stoke my lingam, om mani padme hum. Does that count for nothing?
I’m scared to go, I also wanted to say, scared and sad. I’ll miss San Francisco and its pretty, pretty streets. I’ll miss having money. I am quietly bleeding money into the world in undulating streams like ribbons that issue with a rustling sound and disperse. I could be happy in California if Lanie came over and I found a new job, perhaps. Does that count for anything?
* * *
“While spirit is willing and body is able
I want no refreshments but you on the table
Shrines open in front as a matter of course
But I, being faithless, prefer other doors.”
So I versified walking home after watching Frida at the Lumiere the other night. Good movie, bad venue. While I sat in the theater with my face upturned to the small, awkwardly positioned screen, I became aware of the two rings encircling my fingers: the wedding band on the left, the college ring on the right. Symmetrical, binding, metal, they clasp my flesh and hold me in place—commitment and indoctrination. I could take them off, but they are merely outer manifestations of invisible, inescapable things. They follow me wherever I may roll because they roll with me, within me. Sitting in the theater, I thought it was funny that the center of me should remain stationary while the body moves—or if not stationary then directionless, suspended in the void where movement has no meaning. It drifts over time but its shifting finds no correspondence in the physical universe: it can cross a flaming continent while the body is resting in New York and circle right back just in time for the final leg of the body’s trip to Moscow. I have traveled far in my year in San Francisco. But sometimes, ten thousand miles away from my home, I feel like I haven’t moved an inch.
* * *
* On hot summer days in Central Asia, they still sell kumys from the roadside to weary motorists that bounce along the broken intercity highways. It comes in plastic canisters often adorned with faded radioactive-warning signs.