Pub: January 5, 2016
When Clara Bensen arranged to meet Jeff Wilson on the steps of the Texas State Capitol, after just a few email exchanges on OKCupid, it felt like something big was going to happen. Clara, a sensitive and reclusive personality, is immediately drawn to Jeff’s freewheeling, push-the-envelope nature. Within a few days of knowing one another, they embark on a 21-day travel adventure—from Istanbul to London, with zero luggage, zero reservations, and zero plans. They want to test a simple question: what happens when you welcome the unknown instead of attempting to control it? Donning a single green dress and a small purse with her toothbrush and credit card, Clara travels through eight countries in three weeks. Along the way, Clara ruminates on the challenges of traveling unencumbered, while realizing when it comes to falling in love, you can never really leave your baggage behind.
Chapter One Weightless
“So, do you actually know this guy you’re taking off with?”
Jaime looked at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were hidden behind his dark sunglasses but I could tell he was teasing. The “guy” I was taking off with was his old college roommate, Jeff, who was sitting right next to him in the front passenger seat of the Volvo. The three of us were winding through the cement maze of Houston morning traffic on the way to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where Jeff and I were scheduled for a flight.
“Jaime, no,” said Jeff. He said it with a half-smile, like a reprimanding mother trying to hide her amusement over a childish misdeed.
“Just saying,” continued Jaime, undeterred, “that, as one of the few people who’s had the ‘pleasure’ of traveling abroad with you, I think she deserves to know what she’s getting into.” He took a hand off the steering wheel, lightly elbowed Jeff and then returned to my reflection in the rearview mirror, waiting for an answer. Do you actually know this guy?
I didn’t know how to answer the question, so I evaded. “Is there anything I should know?”
“How many hours do you have?” joked Jaime. “I bet Jeffrey “forgot” to mention the time he ripped the saline IV out of his arm and jail-broke out of that hospital in Paris. It was the morning after Bastille Day. Jesus, he was running down the hallway in one of those little paper gowns. You know—the kind where you can see the ass? Didn’t even stop to put on clothes—just barreled out the door and booked it right out of France.”
“Jaime, no!” yelled Jeff, with mock horror. “That was twenty years ago. Our balls had barely dropped.”
“I don’t know, man,” said Jaime, shrugging his shoulders, “Let’s just say my rosary is going to get a workout during the next three weeks.”
I sat in the back seat, running my fingers along the embroidered hem of my dress. Out towards the horizon, past the half-built subdivisions and empty cement lots, I could see a line of tiny planes lifting off into the smoggy morning sunrise. We were getting close. In a few hours my plane—our plane—would be taxiing onto the runway. It was a fair question: did I actually know the man who would be sitting beside me as the wheels lifted off the tarmac?
Yes. And no.
I knew Jeff was a science professor and a sixth generation Texan with a wild glint in his eye. I knew I’d thought, “Oh, you again,” when I saw him for the first time, like I’d just bumped into an old friend. I knew our relationship had escalated into a flashing, tilt-a-whirl circus after a single round of tequila. I knew he liked chocolate with flecks of sea salt. I knew that he’d been married six years and separated for two—that he had a five-year-old daughter with bright, brown eyes. I knew he chased the unconventional like a migratory bird flying north for winter instead of south. I knew he was a sparkling provocateur, but Tupac’s “Dear Mama” made him cry and he often stopped the car to gently remove dead cats from the road—a tender-hearted joker, if there was such a thing.
But did I truly know him? That was harder to say. How well can you know someone you just met on the internet?
Maybe time and circumstance didn’t matter so much. In the handful of weeks since our first irreverent online dating emails—batted back-and-forth like whizzing tennis balls—Jeff had managed to penetrate my wall of quiet, writerly reserve—a rare feat. The online banter easily translated to our first date, which felt more like a reunion than an introduction.
I was a reclusive tech writer from a big family of dyed-in-the-wool introverts. My brother, three sisters, and I were all homeschooled through high school. My evangelical parents kept us at home out of religious conviction (I imagined the local middle school as a den of iniquity littered with condoms and needles), but they also made sure we were well-educated and didn’t turn out like the socially awkward, denim-overall kids of homeschool lore. I wasn’t shy as an adult, but if I had a choice I preferred to observe the world from behind the curtains. My closet was filled with subdued shades of heather grey and cream. I had more houseplants than friends.
If I was sensitive, introspective yin, Jeff was torrid, restless yang. He had never met a stranger in his life. He was a mad scientist who delighted in creating a spectacle for the crowd. For every neutral sweater in my closet, Jeff had burnt orange chinos and a pair of lightning-spangled socks (when he did laundry he never worried about separating out the whites—there were none). Subtle was not in his vocabulary, though it was a go-to in mine. A few weeks in we took a personality test confirming my suspicion that we had diametrically opposed personality types.
He treated my propensity for silence and stillness as one might treat an alien species under careful observation.
“How many words did you speak out loud today?” he asked a week after we met. We were sitting in a dim bar drinking pints.
“Before this beer? I guess I ordered a coffee from the barista this morning,” I said, counting on my fingers “So, five?”
He shook his head in wonderment and jotted a few anthropological field notes in the little notebook he always kept in his pocket. “And how many words went through this?” He tapped my head with a wicked smile.
“Enough to make me wish there was an off switch,” I said, which had always been true.
We were different, but that didn’t keep us from clicking the minute we met in person: 7:52PM on April 5, 2013. 7:52PM was the exact moment of sunset, though I didn’t realize it when he texted me the meeting time, a pair of coordinates, and a reference picture of a clay star crudely inlayed into a block of cement. Meet me on the star, he wrote. It was a plain-looking star with five terracotta tips revolving around a bright blue square with a crack down the middle. But, of course, the plainness was deceptive. When I typed in the coordinates they revealed that Jeff’s terracotta star was inlayed right in front of the most ostentatious building in the entire Austin skyline—the Texas State Capitol.
At 7:20PM, I checked my lipstick, practiced what I hoped was a seductive smile, and walked out the front door of my compact, one-room studio. The looming pink-granite dome of the Texas State Capitol was typically a thirty-minute walk, but that night I covered it in twenty. My body moved in long, brisk strides down the sidewalk—an attempt to shake off nerves. I wasn’t nervous about the usual things one might worry about when meeting an online suitor—that Jeff would turn out to be a balding C++ programmer, or secretly married with a dozen kids, or really into latex, or the proud owner of every Beanie Baby model since 1993. I was nervous because I had the impression that some giant interplanetary body was barreling towards the Capitol, preparing to sweep me into its orbit.
I reached the star before Jeff. He didn’t appear until the streetlights along Congress Street flickered to life. I saw him then—a pair of canary yellow pants winding their way towards the front steps of the monolithic dome where I was waiting. He walked right up to the star and boldly kissed me on the cheek. That’s where it started—in a small world that contained everything within itself: tall canary pants, a terracotta star, the perfect arc of the dome, and above it all, the last streaks of the April sun.
We were inseparable after that night, though there was never any formal arrangement. Both of us agreed that, at this stage of the game, defining our romance was passé and unnecessary. It was all very modern.
He taught environmental science at the University of Texas at Brownsville, five hours to the south on the Mexican border, but he was applying for a new position in Austin and drove up or took the Greyhound whenever he could. On the weekends, we’d lie in my bed and compose far-fetched stories. We’d guess the ways our paths had crossed in other bodies and eras. Maybe he was the calico cat that once purred in my lap. Maybe he robbed my stagecoach on the road to Flagstaff. Maybe we warmed our hands at the same fire on a frigid night on the Mongolian steppe. Maybe one day we’d fly a starship across the universe divide, like that old Highwayman song.
OkCupid, the online dating site where we met, had a black-box algorithm that seemed to support our chemistry in this lifetime. Our online profiles had been assigned a generous 99% compatibility rating (though, for all I knew the metric was generated in a cauldron of rose petals, and locks of cherub hair). Sound or not, the number gave me an extra hit of confidence when, after a mere four weeks, we found ourselves sitting at my kitchen table in a state of morning undress, apprehensively eyeing my laptop screen where we were one click away from reserving two, one-way tickets to Istanbul.
The trip was his idea. He was already planning on traveling from Istanbul to London over his annual summer trip, but over the last week his “I’m going to Istanbul” had evolved into a “we’re going to Istanbul.” That’s how we ended up hunched over my table, daring ourselves to hit the purchase button.
“This could be a huge mistake,” I said.
“Running off to a foreign land with some guy you just met online? What’s the worst that could happen?” he said, slipping his hand around my waist like an old habit.
We laughed carelessly and hit the button.
At the time, it didn’t seem unreasonably reckless to travel to the opposite side of the world after the scantest of interactions—risky, maybe, but not reckless. Jeff was one of those rare figures who simply appeared and assumed his place, as if the bond had always been there and he was just confirming it with his actual corporeal form. We could skip the preliminaries and get on with the adventure.
On the other hand, even if we had perished together on an 18th century schooner, there were practical details that had to be worked out. We needed to catch up on what our current incarnations had been up to since exiting our mothers’ respective wombs. There were histories to exchange and timelines to establish: family trees, past lovers, old wounds, long-held quirks, the source of the jagged scar on his lower back, the origin of my crooked smile.
One thing was guaranteed: the road would pry the stories out of us. Travel, with all of its glorious disorientation, with all of its shifting time zones, foreign skylines, and incomprehensible tongues had a way of wearing people down to their raw, messy (sometimes drunk, sometimes sick) under-layers. If Jeff had Parisian hospital escapades lurking in his past (and god only knew what else), I had my own trunk of secrets waiting to spill out in the open. Jaime should have quizzed Jeff on how well he knew me.
“I have a minor mental crisis on my record,” I’d confessed in an early OkCupid correspondence with Jeff. It was a low-key mention, carefully dropped in a stream of brazen flirting. He didn’t mind, he said, though I hadn’t been particularly forthcoming on the finer details—like how deeply I had tumbled down the mental rabbit hole after college graduation or how very recently I had climbed back out of it. When we booked the tickets, I didn’t mention that the trip to Istanbul was the first major flight I had been stable enough to board in years. I said nothing about the sweet miracle it was not just to leave the country, but to leave the confines of my room.
He had no idea how ravenous, how starving for life I had become after crawling out of a two-year mental meltdown. He didn’t know that I was still registering the reality of a recovery I never expected to reach, that the trip to Istanbul was part of a much larger credo of pure, unrestrained hunger: you have nothing to lose, go out, devour the world, take risks, bring the meat back to your skinny bones.
Only a ravenous woman would agree to the sort of summer trip Jeff casually described in his third OkCupid email (long before he knew my last name or whether I actually looked like the solemn, crooked-mouth girl in my profile picture). Jeff didn’t do normal summer vacations. There were no resort packages or palm-thatched cabanas on white sandy beaches. He flew into one country and out of another with zero hotels, zero reservations, and zero itineraries between Airport A and Airport B. In my eyes, the fly-by-night style was adventure enough, but for Jeff it was just the beginning—he typically boarded the plane with nothing but a credit card, iPhone charger, and passport stuffed into his back pocket. What happened after that was anyone’s guess.
Wandering the world with no baggage was one of the more radical pitches that popped into my OkCupid inbox (in the running with BDSM sex invitations and the guy who asked for my hand in marriage in his first email), but I didn’t dismiss it right out of hand. I‘d taken my post-recovery mantra from the poet Rilke’s Book of Hours. “Let everything happen to you,” he wrote, “Beauty and terror.”
In the initial four weeks of definition-free dating, Jeff and I had accounted for beauty with weekend drives through the wildflower carpets of the Hill country and long, desultory walks down the back alleys of Austin. Terror was also crossed off the list on the sun-drenched afternoon when Jeff officially proposed I come along on his baggage-less jaunt. The proposal came without warning as we were crossing the Congress Street Bridge. I was studying the red and yellow kayaks scattered across Lady Bird Lake like candy sprinkles across the water, when he suddenly announced, “I wasn’t joking about that map. You should come with me.”
I stopped breathing when he said the words. Jeff had been traveling since 1996 and of the 70 countries stamps in his passport, he’d stepped foot in 60 of them totally alone. He prized his freedom of movement like a Tea Party Republican prized the Constitutional right to bear arms. Traveling with no baggage was shocking, but even more shocking was the fact that he had asked me to experiment with movement and space at his side.
The intensity of his request reminded me of the scene in Love In the Time of Cholera, when Florentino Ariza proposes to the love of his life, Fermina Daza, and Fermina wracked with uncertainty goes to her Aunt Escolástica who passionately advises her, “Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.”
I had plenty of reasons to say no—I hardly knew Jeff, my income constantly flirted with the poverty line, I was still tending to a fledgling sanity—and yet the words flew out of my mouth and into the warm lake air as if they had wings of their own, “Yes. I’m in.” It was an instinctual, physical “yes”—a bone level, gut-guided judgment that preceded the speed of thought. I was getting on that plane. Even if I was sorry later.
Jeff reached backed and put his hand on my knee as Jaime pulled into the drop off lane in front of Terminal D.
“You ready?” he asked.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” said Jaime, chiming in.
I put my hand on top of Jeff’s, “Jaime, you know I’m getting on that plane.”
“I know,” he joked, “But you should really call me if Jeff makes a break for the Bastille.” “Don’t listen to him,” teased Jeff, “He’s just trying to get your number.”
The three of us climbed out and congregated in front of the car, where the differences between the two old friends were even more obvious. Jeff’s travel uniform was composed of lobster red chinos, a lightweight striped sweater, and his great grandfather’s grey Open Road Stetson, which he had opted to bring at the very last minute. Jaime looked formal in a navy tie and tailored office suit. (Jeff said he’d always been put together like that; he used to carry a briefcase to high school.) I could smell cologne as he soberly leaned in to hug us goodbye. “Okay, for real. You guys take care of each other. I’ll see you in three weeks.”
And then he was gone and we were through the sliding doors and inside the crowded departures terminal. Morning passengers brushed past—paper coffee cups in one hand, rolling bags in the other. The only thing we all shared in common was the collective movement towards somewhere else—one of the faraway cities glowing with promise on the departure screens. We headed for the check-in desk, where a flight attendant waved us forward with a practiced smile. She was polished with a perfect chignon and a navy scarf neatly knotted around her neck.
“Any bags to check to Istanbul today?” she asked, as she scanned our passports. “Trying to quit,” Jeff told her, matter-of-factly. “No bags at all, actually.”
She paused to look up from her computer. “I’m sorry. You don’t have any bags to check or you don’t have any bags period?”
“We don’t have any bags period,” he said, leaning into the laminate counter like he was disclosing some juicy tidbit of gossip. “We’re going just like this.” Jeff proudly pointed to me, Exhibit A: no suitcase at my feet, no zippered tote, no hikers backpack with sleeping roll attached. Nothing but a small leather purse for my passport and a few toiletries.
The flight attendant raised a dubious eyebrow at me—the one not wearing lobster red pants—as if to say, “Is he serious?”
“Unfortunately he’s telling the truth,” I said. “This is it for the next twenty-one days.”
“Oh, dear,” she said, horrified, like I’d just announced I was planning to take up topless pole dancing on the weekends. “Are you sure?”
Hell, no. I’m not sure. When it came to this trip, I could count the things I was sure about on one hand: I was sure I was in seat 32A on a flight to Turkey and I was sure I was in way over my head.
Standing in an airport with no baggage is a lot like the dream where you show up to a party and discover you’re the only one who forgot to get dressed. I felt naked. Unmoored. Weightless. I have nothing. We have nothing. My head was light with the nothingness. Without a suitcase to hold me down, I felt dangerously at risk of floating up and away towards the skylights of Terminal D—like the buoyant Mary Poppins (only without her magic satchel).
And what was a suitcase anyway? It was just an object—a container for other objects—bound together with zippers, fiber, and stitching. It was a simple carrying device and yet, without one, I was disoriented, caught off guard by the spectre of anxiety. There was an overwhelming impulse to stretch out my arms and fill the empty space with something—anything with weight and bulk. A goose feather pillow. A sack of red potatoes. A giant, furry Maine Coon cat. In my twenty-five years of existence I’d never been without at least a few things I could wrap my arms around and declare my own. To walk out the door empty-handed was utterly foreign.
In the days leading up to our departure, I’d attempted to compensate for the nothingness by assembling the perfect travel outfit—as if the right combination of odor-absorbent fabric, multi- pocketed cargo pants and Teva sandals could actually ward off the perils that came with wearing the same clothes for 21 days straight. But like everything else in the last four weeks I ended up with something completely unexpected: an exquisite bottle green, button-down, cotton dress with a band of delicate embroidery just above the knees. It was bright, flattering, and well tailored—not to mention completely impractical. Yet the utter lack of practicality was the very thing that made it so appealing. If I was going to wander the earth empty-handed, why not crank up the surreal-o-meter with an unexpected touch of elegance?
We spent our last night in the USA at Jaime’s suburban house in Houston. Jeff insisted on setting the morning alarm at an ungodly hour so he could wake up and record a scientific log of every last item we were bringing. He was an obsessive documenter, constantly filming artifacts from his daily life— mundane conversations in the car, English muffins at breakfast, naps at the park. Regardless of the subject, he religiously deposited the film onto a hard drive without so much as glancing at the contents.
The sun hadn’t even risen when I found him in the kitchen meticulously arranging the contents of my wallet on the wooden counter of Jaime’s kitchen island, which had been converted into a vector grid. On the left half, the total sum of his trip items were neatly folded and displayed at right angles to each other: one pair of cherry-red chinos, one Stetson cowboy hat, one pair of underwear, one pair of socks, a striped cotton shirt, an iPhone, a pair of ear buds, a charging cord, half a toothbrush, half a map of Eastern Europe, his notebook, a mechanical pencil, a little cash, one credit card, and his passport. All of it went in his pockets.
On the right half were my things, also folded and perfectly aligned: one green dress, three pairs of underwear (an extravagant luxury), a cotton scarf, a black bra, a stick of lavender deodorant, a whole toothbrush, the retainer I’d been wearing since I was sixteen, a contacts case, a pair of backup glasses, two tampons, an iPhone, an iPad Mini, one notebook, one pen, my passport, a tiny black shoulder purse (in lieu of pockets), a stack of cowboy magnets to hand out as Texas souvenirs, and a tube of cherry chapstick.
“Morning, baby. It’s time to get naked,” said Jeff.
“I wish that were an invitation for naughty kitchen sex, but it’s not, is it?” I said, pouring myself a cup of coffee.
It wasn’t. The final step of the documentation process, Jeff informed me, was a timed packing exercise, in the nude, on camera. “What if Jaime walks in?” I protested. He was still asleep, Jeff assured me. We would do it fast. Fine, fine. The whole trip was an exercise in naked vulnerability. My bathrobe slipped to the ceramic kitchen tile as morning sunlight began to filter through the window over the sink. I was stark naked in Jaime’s kitchen, my bare skin prickling under the air conditioning vent. Jeff snapped on the camera with one hand and started the timer with the other. He waved at me to start.
I stretched my arms through the emerald dress, inhaling the new cotton smell—a smell that would soon be masked by sweat and beer. It took eight minutes to run my fingers up the row of nine green buttons, carefully place every item in my purse, and slip into a pair of thin leather sandals. Eight minutes for a trip across the world.
“Not bad,” said Jeff, clearly impressed.
His packing time was a rapid two minutes and thirty-one seconds—mostly because he threw on his clothes like his girlfriend’s dad had just pulled into the driveway. When the kitchen island was clear, he raced out of the kitchen, down the hallway, and out Jaime’s front door, whooping into the morning like one of the renegade Lost Boys. His pants were so vivid that if he’d stretched out on the manicured lawn, the Google Earth satellites would have picked up a small blazing red “V” just north of the Gulf of Mexico.
I briefly wondered if I’d still be fond of the blazing pants man by the time we checked into Heathrow for our return flight. Two people moving light and unencumbered through a series of unpredictable events sounded like a Zen haiku, but the combination of jetlag, customs lines, and crusty underwear was more akin to a ruthless speed date—our compatibility (or lack thereof) would be rapidly evident. And in a way, the ending didn’t matter: I was returning to the world in a bottle green dress, hungry for beauty and terror.
Jeff came back to the porch and kissed me on the cheek with coffee breath, “Should we wake Jaime up?”
“Yep,” I said, breathing in the humid morning air, “It’s time to go.”