And so the story begins again. Not a sequence of places, photographs, and detached historical anecdotes, but the real story. The story that is making me me. The story that is as close to truth as anything I’ve written.
There is something about the hulk of a container ship that matches the vastness of the ocean around it. I stand at the bow, watching the gray waves roll, smelling the salt of the north Atlantic. It’s cold, and quiet in the way only the deep sea can be. I’m thinking about a girl. She’s very beautiful, very smart, and I’ve never met her in my life.
Her name is Shreya, and she wrote to me in the summer of 2009 after reading my blog. She’s a writer too, and we’ve sent countless letters back and forth over the two years since. I can see from her letters that she is passionate. Every sentence, every word, is personal to her. Every line is a quest in search of the universal. Her’s is the call of a single voice pleading for understanding, and maybe, also, the voice of a generation of Indian women asking for more from the world then they have ever been given, asking only what it is every persons birthright to receive. She has written to me in burning pages alight with intellectualism. Her words, my responses; over the two years of our correspondence I’ve become fascinated with her. She’s Indian, feminist, outspoken, eloquent. Until recently my fascination was safe, at a distance: she lived in Calcutta, I moved between Virginia and Montana, half a world away.
Now, I’m going to meet her. She’s got a literary scholarship for a month-long seminar at the University of Edinburgh. She tells me this by email.
“You should come and visit me,” she says. “You’ll be in Europe too, then, right?”
From the lofty intellectual tower where I stood then I would not have been able to name the feelings that filled me when confronted by this idea. I would have said, “I was all a buzz” or, “I felt jittery.” Looking back, I can say more. The thought of meeting Shreya in real life fills me with anticipation and maybe a little anxiety. It’s like a dream asking me to meet up in the real world. I feel potential, I feel excitement, and I feel the secret unnamed fear that hides at the begining of unknown and undiscovered paths. What I feel at the idea of meeting her is perhaps best described as a feeling of frantic, alarming, uncomfortable, joy.
“Yeah,” I say, “I will.”
So we make plans to meet at the beginning of August, 2011, in London. Thinking about it, standing at the bow of the Hanjin Palermo somewhere in the north Atlantic, I am terrified. Why did I think this would be a good idea? What exactly have I gotten myself into? I feel comfortable with certain kinds of risk — intellectual risk, physical risk. I enjoy it, it doesn’t even cause me a tremor. But this is different. This is emotional risk. I’ve seen her picture, on Facebook and on various writer’s bios, but I don’t really know what she’s like outside of our written conversation. I’ve never even heard her voice.
Attraction flickers in me, but is immediately repressed by my mind, working overtime, thinking of a thousand possible approaches and a million possible outcomes. The actual Shreya, who I’ve grown to like as a friend, becomes just a backdrop to these mindgames. Shreya, the girl that I know from letters, is the source, but around and on top of what I know of her my mind begins to construct a fantastic romantic ideal that grows bigger as I move slowly accross the sea. Along with my constructed ideal, I am inventing, for my comfort, countless theoretical obstacles in order to make her unreachable. In order to keep me safe.
I am an introvert, repressed by my religious upbringing. But these attributes, though perhaps obvious to outsiders, remain stubbornly out of my vision because I am also arrogant and blind. I have created a self-aggrandizing fiction where mine is the right way to be. Anything that conflicts with this notion is not ignored; I can no longer ignore things when I don’t want them to be true. Instead I intellectualize, recategorize and redefine in order to preserve the idea that I am whole, complete, and perfect just as I am. In my very few romantic relationships, that block in my mind held me back, kept me from connecting, focused me on only myself rather than the new thing that a tangle of two people can make. Other girls I’d been attracted to, I’d kept at a distance, building the same kinds of blocks that I was now building with Shreya even before we actually met each other face to face.
Not that I knew any of this, then. Instead I’m thinking in terms of keeping my options open, being realistic, any explanation I can come up with to sidestep what I’m really doing, which is being afraid.
On the fourteenth of July, we make port at Antwerp and disembark. I spend a week there, under a gray drizzle of rain, enjoying getting back into European life. I’ve started writing a young adult book, longhand so far since my laptop’s getting repaired.
Then, Bruges. It’s a beautiful town, with dark cobblestone buildings and canals criss-crossing it, the old medieval wall lined with windmills and grassy parks. Swans are everywhere, the result of a Rennaissance-era political punishment where Maximilian of Austria’s assistant, Peter of the Long Neck, was murdered by the citizens, and Maximilian saddled them with caring for creatures that would remind them of Peter in perpetuity. I’m distracted, unable to engage in the same way I did on my first trip, when every moment was a discovery and every new experience took my breath away. My meeting with Shreya is now less than a week away.
Still, the hostel I am staying at in Bruges is a good one and the ever-changing array of travelers offers a chance to get out of my head a little. One night I meet a very attractive girl from New Zealand. Caitlyn is a writer, and from the little work she shows me, a good one. I have never been able to engage with women on a flirtatious level and the idea of doing so makes me nervous and uncomfortable. Instead I rely on the concept that people should meet me on my own intellectual ground. Caitlyn is articulate, and interesting, and engaged to be married in just a few weeks. We talk all through the night and I am enchanted. Still, somehow, I’m relieved that she was unavailable. When she’s gone, I notice that relief and wonder about it. Am I so afraid of connection that this meeting represents a threat to me rather then an opportunity? Again, my mind devolves into hypotheticals, a sort of faux-introspection that is endless and self-focused but doesn’t ever scratch the surface of what’s actually going on inside me.
I spend two days in London before Shreya arrives, just waiting, anxious, excited, wondering. I try to explain it all away, telling myself it’s natural, that it’s just who I am. But my meeting with Caitlyn keeps cropping up, and I circle over and over around some barely grasped connection. I wonder — despite all of my attempts to avoid the question — is there something wrong with what my mind is doing?
Then the day of Shreya’s arrival comes, and I pack my bag. We’re getting on a bus to Edinburgh a few hours after her arrival, so I head down to Victoria Coach Station in order to confront my fear, greet my ideal, meet with and talk to a good and respected friend.