A few weeks ago, my friend invited me to an impromptu dinner. I wasn’t sure who else was coming. I had arrived early, as I am prone to do, and sat by myself at a white-cloth-covered table and traced the lines of condensation on my beer while I waited. Naturally, the other people in our party had arrived early as well. The waitress seated them at a different table. So we sat at our respective tables until the one friend in common showed up, at which point we smiled sheepishly at each other and reseated ourselves at one large table.
One of the people dining with us was a youngish, eager friend-of-a-friend who arrived here, a la Portland by way of Australia and New Zealand. The tenuous thread of connection was that the friend-of-a-friend had met someone in the group through couch surfing.
I looked at this boy curiously. He seemed to know, instinctively, when to pipe up with an interesting anecdote and when to fade into the background. He was both interesting and forgettable. Maybe this was a quality that had been cultivated by living off the kindness of strangers. He picked up odd jobs here and there to support his traveling habit. I wasn’t sure where he was headed to next but I could have sworn that he mentioned there was a New York circus willing to give him a temporary juggling job for the following week.
He ate really, really spicy food. I’m talking toilet-scouring hot. Between bites, he spoke, almost sneeringly, about his brother’s new job and newly-acquired mortgage. He said his brother had started his ascent towards “severe upward mobility.” The quotation marks seemed to pivot in the air. I thought of escalators trying to compete with elevators. It sounded like he had picked up the phrase during many heated, late night discussions with other young wanderers, probably British kids on their gap year.
He reminded me of me. When I was younger, I used to dream about erasing myself from this sort of life and replanting somewhere else. I’d almost convince myself and convince others. My friends and I would stay up late, talking very fast about our travel dreams. The conversation would take on an almost tangible urgency, a palpable joie de vivre. We’d egg each other on and hatch (sorry, I couldn’t help that pun) fantastic travel plans. I’d be too excited to sleep. I thought: how romantic, how bohemian, how adventurous! My life no longer defined by my studies and my occupation but by a smattering of cities and cultures and experiences.
The daydream never lasted very long because of two reasons, the second one being the real crux of the matter:
1) I didn’t have any particular place in mind. There were always too many choices. I’d feel paralyzed by the sheer cacophony of options before me.
2) Even in my dreamstate, I knew, in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t decamp permanently or even semi-permanently. There was no intended action behind those fantasies. I can’t take off for months or years at a time without feeling repercussions. Compared to the friend-of-a-friend, I’m too grounded to live that sort of life. I need to be productive to feel right and I need to see the fruit of my labor to feel happy. My biggest concern/obstacle always centered on what would greet me when I returned from wandering.
Even a few years ago, the friend-of-a-friend might have triggered that old dream. I might have been wracked with jealousy. I might have spent a few obsessive days after the dinner brooding like an angry little bird and researching a new wacky way to send myself X continent for Y number of months or years. I would have questioned why I decided to join the ranks of the severely, upwardly mobile. The regret would have crippled my heart and left me reeling in deep disappointment for weeks.
So I feel relieved that the old travel bug doesn’t weigh me down and make me feel terribly sad anymore. It’s transformed into an idle thought. Sometimes I dust it off, pull it out from the recesses of my mind, admire it in the sun for a bit before I put it back.
Mostly, I feel that I’ve calmed down with age. I recognize that I used to feel things more intensely when I was younger. My default setting is no longer hyperactive, greedy, tumbling red. Now my baseline is a soft, pleasant yellow, the color of cornsilk or washed-out canaries or buttercream. I think more, I've slowed down my heart, I take the time. I'm right where I need to be, at least for now. I have time.