The cat is home which is sublime. She’s still a crappy emotional support animal, but I significantly prefer it when she is a CESA in residence. It’s been me and her for the past few days, as Teddy Bear is working. She mostly sleeps. But the small shuffling noises she makes as she does so help with the oddity of a life lived in isolation.
When I flew home for my research a few months ago, a friend & I flew together, and then another friend came with me for my research trip to the archives in another province. Sounds normal enough – like I have good friends, which I do. But while I am blessed to be anointed by a few friendships of which Anne Sexton would approve, this is not why someone is with me, almost always. My friends joined me then because my departmental supervisor made it clear that it was not safe for me to go at it alone. Not because of where I was going or what I was doing, but because of what had hitched a ride in me. The panic had become so severe that I simply could not travel alone.
While the relief that my friends immediately agreed to help me was immense, there was a tragic echo ringing in my bones. I’m 26. I first traveled alone at 16, having fallen in love with Notre Dame at 6 in the Disney film (how is that a kid’s movie? Frollo has an entire song about how he is either going to rape Esmerelda or burn her at the stake) paying for my own dream trip to Paris with my earnings from my writing.
Each detail was terrifying in its magnitude – I vividly remember not knowing how to use the taps in the aeroplane bathroom, and having to go ask an air hostess oozing, with embarrassment; having to clamber over the giant sleeping man in the seat next to me to go to the bathroom, after he had told me he was a bodyguard for an autocratic monarchy; being so paralysed in Dubai airport by the awareness that there was no-one I knew on the entire continent, that I sat and read an entire Mills&Boon at my gate six hours early; and finally, ravenous, that I navigated the extraordinarily long route between my gate & the food court six times without summoning the courage to actually buy anything.
It was terrifying, no doubt. But it was also exhilarating. Because I did it without worrying about falling down or having to type out a heart-crumbling message on my phone for the flight attendant that I was having an attack and couldn’t speak.
A decade later, eight years into adulthood, the independent streak that sent me to Accra, Ghana, at 18 for three months as a volunteer, and made me go to a university on the other side of the country, has been worn away with the experience of navigating a foreign country with daily panic attacks.
I told someone about catching the bus to the Ghanaian border, crossing into Lomé, Togo’s capital on foot. I told him about being fleeced of a third of our money as we got off the bus by the currency traders; being asked for a bribe by the Ghanaian official who also casually asked me to marry him while holding my passport in his hand; about managing with my friend Alex’s partial French; and how the city had an urgency to it that was a little bit frightening. [Please note: this is not a summary of my experience there. These are the tough bits, relevant to the broader point. This shouldn’t need specifying but people assume stupid shit about African countries.]
“Two white girls…and you thought you’d go to Togo for the weekend, on your own? Why?” It wasn’t an original question – the police officers who pulled us out of the tro-tro on our way back, and wouldn’t let us retrieve our stuff (including our passports, money and volunteer IDs) seemed to have much the same thing on their mind.
Because we wanted to. We could. I could.
And now, eight years further into adulthood, I needed help to fly home.