People love to tell you how long they’ve lived here, or how long they’ve been coming here. It is a badge of honor to tell people how long you’ve been disappearing for: fifteen years! In your decorated, sequential, documented life (or the one long ago), you live in London—or Sydney maybe. You go to work, where you have a position, a salary, a recognizable personality—you have become known as a reader (someone to take a book to, or borrow from, or someone you might imagine to be part of a reading group), or someone with an interest in art, who might have studied art history, who took several students (or your husband, your child, your mother-in-law) on a trip to the local gallery, where you amazed them by using words such as “lithograph,” “chiaroscuro” or “pointillism.” Life was clearly divided into its days: Monday through Friday, the weekdays; and Saturday and Sunday to catch up on everything else: crafts, hobbies, sleep, the cat, movies (sometimes in the middle of the day, but rarely). In this banal life, with few surprises, you have hinted many times (to anyone who might listen) that there is more to you, that not everything is as it seems. Of the week’s 168 hours, on average you spend only a minute or two alluding to this other you, but somehow this is enough for others to remember that you see yourself as someone beyond the person they know you as.
Maybe it began in books, or dreams. More likely it began with a fascination for a boy, one whose head was in books, or dreams, who thought he was someone else, or pretended to be. Or there was something simply about pronouncing the word Swaziland or Ceylon, Czechoslovakia or Transylvania (it doesn’t matter where or what these places are, only that they fascinated you by their inconceivability). In your gap year, you left and went to one of these places. Or perhaps not—perhaps you went to some foreign place where they speak your language or the other side of the country—it hardly matters where, the point is that you left. In these other places, with your first few breaths of air, you saw things through your own eyes. Your behavior was largely as one might have predicted having known you, and when you returned home, you described every detail of this foreign land in ways that more than justified the expense of the trip, and your absence, and the threat of your death if things were to have gone wrong.
For years when you receive gifts, people give you things connected to this place you visited. There is still a part of you there. When you returned whole, as the previous you with new experiences, it was an illusion. But not even you suspected it. In this other place, you saw scenes of striking imagery, more palpable and arresting than the most vivid photography or film, tasted food that infected your mouth with flavor and observed men and women who behaved as people ought to, who were awake and alive and knew the value of things and how to treat others. You drank too much, stayed up all night and had unprotected sex with a local man named Ricardo. Maybe these things happened on your second trip to this place, it hardly matters. For two minutes every week, you allude to these details, you take a young woman under your confidence, and you tell her that, no matter what she does, she must leave. The only place to be is not here. It doesn’t matter how far (the farther, the better), but there is nothing for you here anymore: everything looks the same, no one says anything you don’t expect, and the men here are lost—they’ve become very unattractive and boring. Trust me, you say.
You start to wonder why you don’t follow your own advice. You gain weight, eating a low-calorie diet. You get a white pubic hair. You begin plotting your escape. No one believes that you will go, but you do, a few weeks after it sounds like all along you’ve been lying. You don’t go to the place people associate with you because that also feels like a part of your identity you can’t escape. Instead, you find a place in the world where the people don’t have names—they’re only referred to by their birth order: first-born, second-born, third-born and fourth. After number four, the cycle of names repeats. Nothing happens in this country. They only recently learned about time. Their year fills up with only 210 days. Or it’s 543 years later. Or there’s a six and a half hour time difference between your country and the new one. The six hour difference doesn’t seem so exotic, but the half hour gives you the giggles every time you think of it, as if this, and not the list of cities inside the time zone, is what really solidifies the fact that you can no longer be found in the place you always were. The phone calls home stop. Your parents die. Only a few friends remain, but they come to see you when they want to visit healers, do yoga, or come to pray at the feet of thousand year old trees.
Shopping for local ingredients, you meet a young foreign couple at the grocery store: wide-eyed, recently married, dressed head-to-toe in clothing bought from the local market that no one from here would ever wear, they ask you if you live here and you say (without a change of expression), yes, you do. They ask you about washing vegetables, whether they should use drops to disinfect the water, or if washing them in bottled water will be enough. You say that you do neither. You wash everything in the local water, in fact. You give it a good scrub to get off the dirt and grime, and that’s it—you’ve been coming here for the past fifteen years, and you’ve lived here for almost as long (this is the truth), and you’ve never gotten sick (except once, at the very beginning). They thank you, enthusiastically, and you return to your shopping list. You start to wonder, in their place, as if you were them thinking about you, how did this person get here, this person displaced, how did she slip through the crevices of order and plausibility to arrive here, lost in the jungle, driving a motorbike on these curved, unpaved roads full of goats and dogs that chase cars and monkeys and cats that don’t give a damn, a foreigner who speaks the local language, adrift in time?
John M. Keller is author of Abracadabrantesque, a novel, recently released from Dr. Cicero Books, and the story collection, A Bald Man With No Hair.