Why I travel

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There is a part of me, and it’s not a small part, that’s afraid of heat death—you know, the possible fate of the universe in which thermodynamic energy diminishes so much that life is no longer possible. Sometimes, I think it could happen in my head.

Diminishing heat, diminishing energy, diminishing movement, diminishing life.

Staying in one place for too long feeds my monster of entropy. Or atrophy. Kind of like a sore—an abscess—that forms on a sedentary body.

I read somewhere that the quarter-life crisis is caused by a sudden transition from living in the future to living in the here-and-now. Like we’re cruising along a highway with our eyes fixed on distant lights when all it once—out of nowhere—we slam into the concrete of the moment. The desperate quietness of daily routine. And the drunken midnight of what-could-be turns into that sober morning of what-is-right-now.

That analysis resonated with me, but I also reject it (Walt: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). Because I think, at its core, asserting that we no longer live in the future kills our right to dream. What are people, anyway, without dreams?

Just a heap of chemical and biological processes.

No, thank you.

Sometimes, when I’m in a car and driving through a torrential storm or on a plane for ten hours straight with a stranger’s baby spitting up in my lap, my happiness is so great that it leaves me breathless. I actually have to close my eyes against the violence of my emotion.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt so tied to the earth, so connected to its strings and its people and the rock of its eons-long heartbeat, that you know—know with a knowing more physical than philosophical—that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at that exact second?

Happiness. A trainwreck of happiness concentrated on one pinprick of the universe.

I don’t want to overromanticize “travel.” I don’t want to put an Instagram filter on it or hashtag it or even blog it, really. What I want to talk about is that happiness—that second. That moment of unending yes.

So I’ll probably continue my quarter-life crisis of false starts and panicked stops, throwing the breaks on just because only one road, that particular road of placidity, terrifies me.

No, getting up and moving is not romantic. It’s not a love story at all. It’s something like fear and fascination. The power and the glory.

This is no epic. This is my acknowledgement of  heat death, the unavoidable cooling of all that is and will be, the frantic gesture of life.

 

To the 20-something having an existential crisis in a cubicle

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I know how you feel. I know the devastating disappointment that sometimes knocks your breath out when you least it expect it, how moments of merciless clarity make you almost double over. How you’re slowly wilting under a fluorescent lightbulb without the words you need to name your discontent.

I’m sure we aren’t the first generation to have an existential crisis in our cubicle. We won’t be the last. But what does that matter, really, when you’re pasting numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and painfully aware that you have so much more to give to the world?

This isn’t what we signed up for. And not what we promised ourselves our lives would mean. You’ve probably seen the articles—I know I have. Millennials, they say, are driven by an unprecedented sense of purpose. We need to know that what we do matters.

Usually, these articles sound kind of confused. But we’re not confused. We’re the best educated generation the world has ever seen, and we’re connected with our peers around the globe in a way that our predecessors weren’t. We want to have an impact as borderless as our lives are.

But there you are, making data reports, reporting to managers, choking down talk of company value that sounds like it was ripped right out of Orwell.

I know how you feel, because I am you. Or one of you.

Privileged? Yes. We have jobs (usually), we collect benefits (probably), we have enough to eat and a place to sleep—even if we’re consigning half of our income to student loans and sharing an apartment with four roommates, or living with our families until we’re thirty. That, too, is a privilege. The world of the metropolis moves so fast that the gap between those that are part of it and those that are excluded seems more enormous than ever.

We know this. And that’s why we want to produce change—right? It can feel like a need as integral to our body as thirst or hunger.

Privileged, and yet fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as incredibly limited. We trained for a world that doesn’t seem to exist. We see things in grades and dimensions, but our job applications are still written in black and white.

So I get your existential crisis in your cubicle. I get how you’re lucky enough to have a job but not lucky enough to quit and find a way to feed your hunger for passion. Is this a #firstworldproblem?

Or is this the underutilization of something that really matters?

I don’t know, but I know what it feels like. I know how you tell yourself to be patient, that your time will come. That you (and your parents and your grandparents and maybe even your great-grandparents) have worked so hard to get you here, to this moment, to where you can walk into work every day and walk out.

But patience isn’t always a virtue, and I think they would understand.

Want to change the world? Fight against the temptation to become complacent. Do one thing every day that matters. Infuse yourself into every aspect of what you do. And don’t give up. Don’t give up. Believe, with every molecule of your being, that your incomplacency and discontent are exquisite and rare (they are.)

In the end, the problem isn’t the existential crisis in the cubicle. It’s when you start to become defined by it.

#onwardandupward

 

5 things new D.C. residents know to be true

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I’ve been kind of absent lately—most of that has to do with getting a job and moving to the nation’s capital, which has it’s own je ne sais quoi that makes it different from anywhere else in the country.

For starters, a lot of people living in D.C. aren’t actually from D.C. Here are five things that transplants to D.C. know to be true:

1. What do you do?

This is the immediate opening line at any social gathering, whether it’s Saturday afternoon volleyball or your co-worker’s engagement party.

You’ll meet a lot of people doing cool things. But no, your answer won’t ever feel cool enough.

2. Happy hour isn’t optional

How is it possible for a city to rely so desperately on happy hours? They’re ingrained in this city’s DNA to the point that instead of talking about happy hours, it might make more sense to just refer to the rest of the time as sad hours.

3. The metro makes up the most temperamental relationship in your life

The metro has your high school boyfriend beat. We’re singletracking, we’re not running between Crystal City and King Street, there’s another train on the platfrom, we’re having mechanical failures, the doors won’t close—and now we’re gonna shut down the whole system for an unknown number of months.

Your commute in the morning feels like a game of Russian roulette, with the only certainty being Uber’s surge pricing.

4. Tourists . . . tourists . . . tourists . . .

That stand on the left side of escalators and shove you to get close to the metro door while you’re still approximately two gazillion lightyears from stopping at the platform.

5. ::casually taking selfies with a White House staffer::

Namedropping is a science and an art, and D.C. residents have perfected it on both fronts. It’s always the right time to network—no rest for the weary.

6. Yes, Thomas Jefferson did shave here (I know, I know, but I had to sneak in one more)

History literally smacks you in the face at every corner.  Echoes of power line every street: stately buildings, monuments, and museums.

And somehow, you’ve become a part of that.

Do you live in D.C.? Do you like it? Why or why not? What did I miss?

Discount travel: How do you save money?

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I was driving through my dad’s sleepy town — the town where I spent my formative high school years — about a week ago, when I noticed a little white building tucked away on the side of a one-lane road. That building had been there ever since my family moved in a decade ago, but I’ve never really given it much attention. Last week, I finally realized what it was: a travel agency. Yes, a brick-and-mortar place where you go (in person) to talk to someone else (also in person) and pay him or her to plan your trip for you — your plane tickets, your tour times, your hotel stays . . . all in person.

To me, this is a foreign and exotic concept. As a digital native, I’d sooner find my own deals than pay someone else to do it, and I definitely prefer the (perhaps imagined) flexibility that comes with making my own plans.

But the more I thought about it, the more it maybe-kinda-sorta made sense. Perhaps it isn’t an awful idea to pay someone to do that web hunting for you, someone who knows the best vendors and who can get fantastic deals (often because they buy in bulk), someone who knows the best spots in the best areas to visit. Especially if you haven’t gone abroad very often.

I think, for now, I’ll stick with my own planning. But I’m curious: have any of you ever used a travel agent? Do people still do that anymore? If you have, was it a good or bad experience?

I was also thinking about how I actually go about booking all my trips. I usually do some kind of marathon Internet surfing, hitting a million sites and doing price comparisons. I have a few favorites: statravel and studentuniverse for super cheap airline tickets, hostelworld for hostels (obviously), airbnb for other lodging.

Honestly, though, I want to know what your favorites are. I don’t like the idea that I could be missing out on awesomely cheap travel because I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs of the online travel scene.

What websites are your go-tos for sweet travel deals? Do you have any that you avoid?

Traveling While Broke

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As a student and recent post-grad, I’ve never had the luxury of traveling with a lot of money. I’m that kid with a grimy backpack waiting for public transportation to come and drop me off at the beach, or the ruins, or the castle, or whatever the case may be, with taxis and shuttles out of the question. I walked to Machu Picchu for the experience, sure, but also because I couldn’t afford the bus, and to this day, over $20 a night for a hostel seems lavish to me.

Hitting the road on a budget that is borderline microscopic is not always the romantic finding-yourself-fest that it’s cooked up to be. I’ve shared showers with lizards and cockroaches and woken up with roosters and iguanas. I’ve worried about how I was going to buy dinner and whether or not I’d ever make it home. But I’ve also learned a lot.

Here’s five things that traveling while being broke has taught me.

  1.  Gratitude.

Sure, you might be wearing clothes that haven’t been washed in a week while sleeping in a poorly ventilated room with 19 other strangers, but you’re still traveling, aren’t you? For fun? For self improvement? For personal growth? What an insane luxury!

As I’ve backpacked through places where children have never seen a computer, or even — in one case — rain, I realize the unspeakable privilege of moving through the world just to see it. Basically, the opportunity to travel means I have a responsibility to learn from others with grace, and no broken shower faucet, infested bed sheet, 22-hour bus ride, or ankle blister will stand in my way.

2.  Creativity.

Being in Vienna is extremely exciting. When you breathe, I’m pretty sure some Mozart gets stuck in your lungs. High culture and continental history surrounds you everywhere.

You know could damper that excitement? Being in Vienna and being broke.

But it won’t, because being broke means that you’ll come up with new and wonderful ways to do exciting things that will define your trip. Whether it’s a picnic of bread and cheese in Vienna’s famous Stadtpark, watching the world-class Viennese opera outside where it is livestreamed for free, getting a glimpse of the Austrian capital from above by hiking Kahlenberg Hill, or checking out the city’s free museums, having no money will spur you to new levels of creativity and give birth to some pretty unique memories that you made for yourself.

3.  Self-Awareness.

Moving around on foot and sleeping in communal rooms as a young woman is pretty exciting. Independence! I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that it can also be kind of scary.

When you travel on your own without much money, you lose a lot of safeguards. Your family isn’t on speed dial, there’s no hotel security, and usually, you don’t have a friendly concierge telling you what zones of the city are must-sees and what ones you should avoid.

You are responsible for analyzing your surroundings. You listen to your gut instinct and you follow it. You watch your belongings and keep on the look out for weird people.

At the same time, you can’t let your fear of what could happen paralyze you from living your adventure to the fullest. You have to learn to take care of yourself but not overwhelm yourself, to be responsible but still be present, to enjoy your experience and welcome the possibilities of your journey.

4.  Openness.

Flight canceled, bus broken down, train delayed, hostel closed for maintenance. Traveling involves a million contingencies that could each play out in ways you haven’t even imagined. Stranded on a border, sick with food poisoning, stuck in a camping ground with a malfunctioning tent. Really, you have no control over any of it. And when you have no money, you control even less.

So let it go.

Plans fall through and new plans present themselves. How are you going to react? Can you be flexible? Can you meet new people and try new things? Can you depend on the kindness of strangers and random chance?

Well, you can when you have to. You can do just about anything when you have to. And that’s a beautiful thing to learn about yourself.

5.  Confidence.

You will surely make mistakes. You will get on a metro going the wrong way, not be able to make yourself understood while buying bus tickets, walk to the wrong gate in an airport.

But you know what? That’s okay. Because there are also a lot of things you’ll do right. You’ll exchange currency, order a drink, ask for directions, converse with someone. You’ll find a place to sleep and a place to eat. You’ll see things and know things that had never even crossed your mind before.

Making your way in the world without money forces you to realize how competent you really are. It makes you recognize your ability to handle yourself in endlessly different situations with very little means while still living an experience you’ll never forget. It allows you to gain a new confidence in your own capacity to move, to question, to solve problems — to live.

And you know what? This sense of self-confidence is something that will stay with you long after the stamps in your passport have faded.


Have you traveled on a tight budget? What have you learned? Are there things I’m missing?

Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel in 2016”

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Hey guys!

Earlier today, Lonely Planet released its list of the best places to travel in 2016. It’s interactive and awesome and you must check it out.

Need a little tease? Allow me to unwrap LP’s top ten countries to visit in the coming year:

  1. Botswana
  2. Japan
  3. USA (our National Park Service turns 100 next year, whoooo!)
  4. Palau
  5. Latvia
  6. Australia
  7. Poland
  8. Uruguay
  9. Greenland
  10. Fiji

Nice geographical representation, LP. A little Asia, some North America, a dash of South America, a smudge of Eastern Europe, a bit of whatever Greenland is, a double serving of Oceania, and Africa leading the pack!

Keep trekking through the list to see Lonely Planet’s top cities and regions for 2016, each equipped with a detailed “tell me more” bubble to help you plan your dream trip(s).

Thanks, LP. You’re the best.


What do you think of Lonely Planet’s list? Anything you’d like to add? Anything surprise you?

What are your travel plans for 2016? For me, I’m thinking maybe I’ll go to Greenland — finally nail out that geography!

A Canonical Lover (Short Story Fiction)

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All depictions are fictional, and any similarities to the life of any person is purely coincidental!

A Canonical Lover

 “Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.”

– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Amelia’s coffee is cold and her engine is cut off as she watches her lover herd his two small children out his front door, down his steps, and into his car. She notices how careful he is as he arranges them just so in their car seats, and how suddenly old he looks. His wife comes outside moments later. He gives her a peck on the cheek before crossing over to the driver’s side, where he climbs behind the wheel while she buckles into the passenger seat. He flips on his headlights (it’s drizzling, and he’s cautious) and backs out of the drive. They’re gone in a flash, off to his children’s daycare and then to the university, where both he and his wife – and Amelia, of course – work.

She puts her key back in the ignition and turns on her car. She was on an early morning donut run, or coffee run, or library run, whatever, when suddenly she found herself making circles around her lover’s house, circles that grew tighter and tighter until she was parked on his street and watching his doorstep.

She puts the gear in reverse and tries not to think about very much.

When she parks at the university, she spills coffee all over her polyester dress. She curses as she tries to use a fistful of napkins to mitigate the damage. Suddenly, the alarm on her phone sounds, reminding her that she has five minutes until she has to teach class. She throws the napkins on the dashboard, gathers her things, and races down the tree-lined path that leads to school.

She arrives winded and flushed, two minutes late despite the heroic effort she made at skipping the elevator and charging up four flights of stairs. Most of her students are already in their seats, bored. They stare at their smart phones and avoid conversation with each another. To buy some time, she asks them to pass forward the composition drafts that are due today, only to find that nearly a third of them don’t have anything to turn in.

It’s while she’s teaching the expository essay that she begins to wonder how she ended up here: clicking through a malfunctioning PowerPoint in front of forty freshmen students that don’t notice anything amiss, caked in stains and shame. Not so much being here, exactly, but ending up here, not the destination, but the journey, not the lack of grace, but her fall from it. She thinks of all the people that have told her – with at least a modicum of gravitas in their voices – that she was going to change the world.

Her lover had been one of those.

She is forced to push the due date for the drafts to Friday, because she worries that if she is too strict with her class her students will take their ultimate revenge in the form of bitter teaching evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations could cost her a fellowship or even a full-time position after she graduates. She asks herself if they understand the hold they have over her, and when one of them asks for a due date of next Wednesday instead, she figures that they do.

Amelia met her lover in his seminar on decolonialism during her first year of graduate school. Intimidated by the bombast of her peers, she originally said very little. That was why he took her under his wing, or so he said – invited her to office hours, worked with her on her presentations and her final paper so that it was “publication worthy.”

He told her that she was brilliant, the smartest one in her entire cohort. He encouraged her to believe in herself and voice her thoughts. He offered her his guidance and support, and then one night, when she was working late, he asked her out to dinner.

She has a text from him when her class is over. It says, “Busy all day?”

He knows that her dissertation proposal defense is scheduled for the end of the next month. He knows this because he’s her thesis advisor, and she’s been writing her proposal since October. She answers, “Yeah. Working on bibliography.”

“Let me come over,” he writes, adding a heart emoticon.

At that first dinner they shared together, she wore her favorite dress. She thinks the dress is how this whole affair started. If she had just stayed in her jeans and sweatshirt, she would have paid her half of the bill, walked out of the restaurant, and caught the bus back to her neighborhood. But what’s done is done and, well, she hadn’t actually followed through on any of it. No, that night she wore her blue dress and her pearl earrings, and he paid for her meal, and then they had sex for the first time in his car.

Later, of course, he apologized. “The car, really? It’s such a damn cliché,” he said. They’d never had sex in a car since.

“OK,” she texts back.

Her tiny studio apartment is a mess, books strewn everywhere like molted snakeskin. The dissertation she (he?) wants to write is on representation of the exotic in children’s literature, but once upon a time, she wanted to be an architect or an astronaut or a paleontologist or the next J.K. Rowling, so that, she thinks, is why she checks out so many books on so many different topics that she will never get around to reading. The possibility they embody makes her feel as if she were still coming into being, still being spoken into life.

When he gets there, he sits at her kitchen table and talks about departmental politics.

“Jesus,” he says, “it’s like committing first-degree homicide just to figure out how to use the guidebook to petition the department for an external committee member.” He’s also involved in administration, of course.

They swap war stories about their day. He laughs when she tells him about the roadblock she ran into during her section of Comp. 101. “Graduate student instructors are like pulp fiction – necessary, highly in demand, but no respect,” he says. He rubs her arm. There there, he seems to say. I, too, remember being a lowly grad student – if barely. “It doesn’t really get better until you get tenure.”

After they sleep together, he glances through the annotated bibliography she’s including in her dissertation proposal, makes a few recommendations, and promises to grab dinner with her this weekend. He winces apologetically – he would tonight, but he has to take his daughter to a soccer game, you know.

Amelia used to play soccer. She marched through her youth collecting not rocks or Pokémon cards, but awards: medals, trophies, scholarships, recognitions of all shapes and sizes. Most likely to succeed, valedictorian, best smile: the trifecta. She went to a selective college on a full scholarship. By all appearances, she was readying her torch to set the world alight, making up for a lack of focus and direction with a devouring intensity.

She’s pretty sure she doesn’t have enough money left in her bank account to eat out, but she doesn’t have enough food in her apartment to eat in, so she takes the risk. She is able to pay for Chinese takeout, which she consumes as she pours over her proposal until three in the morning.

And then at eight-thirty, there she is again: watching her lover as he heads out the door. His two children are blonde, like his wife. The little girl is crying about something, snot running down her face, so Amelia’s lover scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the car. The little boy climbs into his seat angelically.

Amelia is half afraid he’ll recognize her beat up sedan and half hopes he does. She feels like the coffee stain from yesterday: slowly encroaching on this other man, this other life that he has so carefully kept separate from her. Even though his wife works at the same university in a different department, Amelia has never met her. She hadn’t even known until recently that her lover and his wife don’t share the same surname, that his wife kept her Russian blood in semantics if not in citizenry.

But he doesn’t see her, nobody does. The family leaves again like they did the day before, and she goes to teach another section of Comp. 101 like she did the day before, and so on and so forth. Amelia buys some horrible sushi from the basement café and tries not to ask herself if she could possibly be going a little mad. This is how fantastic murder trials begin, she thinks. With waiting outside of a married lover’s house, shared workplaces, and bad sushi.

But that’s just a low moment. A high one comes a few hours later, when she stops to see her lover in his office. At certain times, she likes to convince herself that she is his muse – the Victorine to his Manet, the Beauvoir to his Sartre. He has, after all, published numerous academic and secular books, including a biography and two works of fiction, one of which even won the coveted Ambassador Book Award. He writes for The Atlantic and VICE, and he has penned several columns for The New York Times. And here he is, discussing ideas for his next project with her. She soaks up his energy like the little plant in his windowsill.

Any humiliation she carries has nothing to do with sleeping with a married man. It has to do with that afternoon, when she walks into the graduate lounge and sees her lover talking in a corner with another young female student. It reminds her of a meeting she recently had with the department’s teaching coordinator, when she was warned that if she chose not to lead her class according to strict guidelines, there would always a line behind her. She realized with a start that she had been mass-produced.

She tries not to think about this, either, when he comes to her apartment late that night. She doesn’t know what he told his wife to get out of the house and she doesn’t ask. He lies in her bed and looks at a picture on her nightstand of herself and her dad, taken before she was in kindergarten.

“You were a precocious little thing, weren’t you?” He asks. In the picture, she’s sitting on a tree limb and her dad is ready to pounce lest she should fall.

She hugs the sheet to her chest and shrugs. “I guess so,” she says. “Aren’t all kids?”

He skims his finger on her arm. “No, they aren’t. Declan is scared of his own shadow. He won’t sit in the bathtub while the water runs.”

She doesn’t like how he introduces his family into her apartment without hesitating. She, of course, isn’t allowed within sight of any of it: of his wife, of his children, of his house, but he uses them to invade her space as seamlessly as he writes his books. Her space is of no consequence to him, she guesses.

Maybe that is why she finds herself in front of his house yet again the following Monday morning. And Wednesday. And the Thursday after that. She’s not naturally territorial, but she thinks about how he continues to bring her to a seedy restaurant far on the edge of town so that they won’t be recognized, long after she told him how much she hated it. Did he even hear her? He is so good at appearing thoughtful that it’s hard to tell.

On Monday, he eats pancakes with his children on the porch. On Wednesday, he loads his wife’s dry cleaning into the car. On Thursday, he chases his dog around the yard until he can corral it back into the house.

On Friday, Amelia is typing away in the library café when Diego sits next to her. He’s in the PhD program’s first year, and before coming here, he taught English and forensics at a high school in California.

“Do you have an outline for that presentation you gave in Mayock’s class?” He asks.

“Sure, give me your email and I’ll shoot it over to you.”

He remains sitting there nervously, all long arms, knobby elbows, and messy red hair. “Are you going to the MLA conference?”

“If my travel grant gets approved,” she says.

“Cool. Me too.”

A few minutes of amiable silence go by.

“Hey, would you like to get coffee some time?” He asks her.

Amelia blinks and looks up from her laptop screen. “What?”

“I mean,” he says hurriedly, “if you’re not too busy. Just to talk. Not work. Or, I mean, whatever you want.”

“Um . . .” She notices he’s sweating.

“I want to spend some time with you outside of class,” he clarifies.

She thinks a minute. Her mind feels fuzzy. “Well, yeah,” she finally answers. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

It’s something that she wasn’t going to tell her lover about, but it comes boiling out of her late that night. He finds it hilarious.

“Diego? That surfer kid from California? Is he going to show you how to draw a henna tattoo?” He laughs, propped up against her pillows. “I think I recommended against his admission. Can’t write his way out of a box – an open box, a deconstructed box.”

Amelia bites her fingernail. “So you don’t think I should go?”

Her lover raises his eyebrows. “I never said that.”

“But you –”

“I think it’s good for you to hang out with some kids your own age, healthy to do whatever it is that kids do. Hang out? Talk? Netflix and chill?” He scratches his graying head sheepishly. “I’ll admit, I’m not up to date on the lingo.”

She sits straight up. “Good? Healthy?”

The pitying sort of smile comes into his eyes, and he leans closer to her and rubs his face into her stomach. “Come on, now, Amelia, don’t turn possessive on me. You know that it’s important to establish lives outside of each other.” His careful phrasing seems to imply that he has indeed established a life with her.

She says nothing, just pulls her hair back into a ponytail. He pats her knee and they read his latest op-ed in the local paper together (about the Black Lives Matter movement). Then she tells him that she still has some grading to do for tomorrow, and he gets dressed and leaves.

So it is with her lover’s approval that she officially accepts Diego’s invitation. They meet for coffee on a Tuesday evening. He orders something remarkably non-pretentious – dark roast – and doesn’t comment on her icy, fruity drink that seems more adolescent than intellectual, which she pays for herself.

“So, where are you from?” He asks.

The images flash through the folds of her brain: ripped screen doors, languid trees, cornfields, broken down cars and rusted playgrounds. “Eastern Ohio – near Akron.”

“Oh man, really? Someone told me that Ohio’s great.”

“Were they selling something?”

He laughs. “Not that I know of, but maybe.” A pause. “I’m from New Mexico.”

“I thought you were from California.”

“Oh sure, after my mom died my family moved there. That’s where I went to college and started teaching.”

Her eyes lower to the tabletop. “Sorry to hear about your mom.”

He smiles. “Yeah.”

“So, why did you decide not to teach high school anymore?”

“I don’t know. Onto the next adventure, you know?”

She nods enthusiastically, but if she were to be honest, she’s here because she couldn’t think of much else to do. The gods of inspiration left her abandoned and forlorn on the day that she received her undergraduate diploma, a deep, wounding betrayal.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” He asks.

“Two sisters. You?”

“Four brothers and a sister.”

They talk like this for a long while, conversing about anything and everything except coursework, comprehensive examinations, teaching, or theses. Amelia begins to relax, muscle by muscle, and when he asks her out to dinner on Friday, a grin is stuck to her mouth.

“Yeah, okay,” she says.

But that night, as she returns to her apartment and throws a Hot Pocket in the microwave, all she can see is her lover’s face. He would be pleased, she knows. “Oh, out to dinner?” He’d say. “That’s good. Healthy.” He would move on to happily describing some talk he’s been asked to give in Houston or Vienna or Beijing. And somehow, his stamp of approval over it – all of it – is so glaringly evident that it seems as if the date is only happening because he ordained it to be so.

She makes it through the week on almost no sleep. Because he is out of town at a conference, she does not see her lover at all. He texts her funny pictures, sends her the title of a Polish movie he wants her to watch, and spams her messages with emoticons, but he doesn’t call, and he doesn’t ask her if he can stop by on his way home from the airport, which he usually does. He might already assume it’s a forgone conclusion, she thinks as she attacks her students’ essays. Because isn’t it?

Friday finds Amelia outside of her lover’s house in the achingly clear light of morning. He won’t be in town until mid-afternoon, and she doesn’t know why she’s sitting on his street in her Honda. There’s no car in his driveway. She assumes that his wife and children have already left.

She hardly understands how it happens. One moment, she is waiting calmly for something – she doesn’t know what. The next, she’s standing on the pavement, a motion so fluid that it almost seems instantaneous. So do the quick, even steps that she takes to his front lawn.

She stands there, staring at her lover’s ivy-covered garage door, listening to his dog bark somewhere in the recesses of his house.

Suddenly, the front door opens to reveal his wife, petite and blonde, done up smartly in a fitted dress and purple jewelry. “Can I help you?”

A ton of concrete to the chest or an ax stroke to the head. Her heartbeat stops. “Um, I’m –”

“I know who you are,” her lover’s wife says with hardly a trace of her Eastern European accent. “What I’m still not clear on is why you are here.”

Time stops, dangles on a lightning shard. “Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t know – I mean – I must have the wrong house.”

The woman snorts. She looks Amelia up and down. “You poor creature. Come inside.”

“I don’t think –”

“Now.”

Helpless, the proverbial fly in the honeyed trap, Amelia walks into her lover’s entry hall and follows his wife into his kitchen. There are bottles of wine and wrapped cheeses everywhere, fresh breads and fruits. “You’ll have to excuse the mess,” his wife says. “Oliver and I are entertaining tonight.”

Amelia says nothing.

“Coffee?” She asks, moving toward the fresh pot by the stainless steel refrigerator.

Amelia does not answer, but her lover’s wife sets a full mug before her.

“I said I know who you are, but I don’t know your name. Amber? Leigh? Hannah? I remember the first one, Stephanie, I think, but all the others seem to run together for me. Undergrads, grad students, all of them.”

She can’t absorb what is being said. “Amelia.”

“Ah.” Her lover’s wife sips at her own cup, savoring either the name or the taste, perhaps both. “Amelia. It’s nice. Sweet. Classic.” A pause. “Natasha,” she says, by way of introduction.

Natasha steps over a toy police car on the floor and moves to open the dishwasher.

After an eternity of suffocation, Amelia finally tries to speak. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that – I mean – I didn’t know anyone was home.”

Natasha offers a thin smile. “Yes, well, my class has a take-home final, so we don’t meet today.” She begins to remove plates, spoons, and sippie cups from the dishwasher’s top rack. “I’ve seen you for weeks. I was wondering if you’d ever get out of your car.”

Bile sticks to Amelia’s throat.

“How long?” Natasha asks.

“I’m sorry?”

Her lover’s wife doesn’t repeat her question, but only fixes her with a steely gaze until the words gush forth in a torrent.

“I – I don’t know,” Amelia blurts out. “A year. More.”

Natasha turns back to the dishwasher. “More,” she echoes. Her voice is nonchalant when she asks, “You know why I don’t worry about you, any of you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Oliver was married to someone else when we met during his post-doc. A horrible little woman. He left her for me.” She turns around again and smiles. “So he’s already left his wife for an affair once, you see, and you know Oliver. He despises redundancy.”

There is a sickening silence.

“Are you finished with your coffee?”

When Amelia finally manages to find some sort of footing in the tar slick that is her heart, all she can say is, “I have to go.”

Natasha pours the untouched coffee down the sink. “I’m sure you do.”

Amelia bounds past designer furniture, window treatments, and hardwood floors to reach the outside. By the time she makes it back to her car, she is sure she is going to throw up.

She doesn’t.

She finds herself driving not toward the university, but instead back to her apartment. Her phone alarm for class buzzes and she ignores it. Then her phone buzzes again. It’s her mother calling, and Amelia doesn’t answer. She is animated by a current of electricity so blue and rare that she is afraid any interference will send it ricocheting out of her body and back into the vast expanse of the universe.

She bounds up the steps to her second-floor studio, pushes open her door, wades through books and dirty laundry, and picks up the stack of papers that is her dissertation proposal. It takes her several minutes to find a lighter, but then her proposal is burning in the kitchen sink, its carefully spaced text curling up in glowing embers before being released as smoke.

This is, of course, indulging her taste for the symbolic. She has at least ten backups of the document on her laptop. But the backups don’t matter, she thinks, and suddenly, the symbolic is all that does.

It doesn’t take her long to pack what she needs, and popping open her trunk to heave in the few garbage bags that hold her life’s possessions gives her a strange, thrilling sense of impulsiveness.

Is this what she has always been so afraid of? Possibility makes her skin burn.

She disables her email and calls her mother back just as she is turning off her street. Her father answers. “You’re a hard girl to reach, Ame,” he says. She imagines him sitting at the kitchen table before dinner, taking off the boots that he’s used for a lifetime in heavy machinery. “How are ya, honey?”

Five miles away, a red-headed man is waiting at a small, candlelit table, checking his watch. After another half hour, he stands up and walks out.