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And at the same time, I craved companionship, which I found disappointing. I wanted solitude’s freedom, but there wasn’t always enough of me to fill a day. I’d be hollowed out by evening. I launched several romances on these fitful terms, with predictable results. Road loves are compressed by time and tenuity, so there’s no growing into them. There’s no meeting the parents or glimpsing your future in baby pictures. You’re both newly minted, but someone’s always leaving. Road loves are hot and short. They dissolve without pleadings. You don’t always mind.
In the end, I did a lot of drinking with perfect strangers, because that’s a kick when you’re young, because it tinctures the heart and restores bravado, and because it’s the shortest route to community in new places. This shouldn’t be discounted. How else enter a ragged stranger and end up on someone’s couch, or better? How else share their Marmite and toast, sip their instant coffee, read their William Blake, while two-toed pigeons strut a tattoo on the window ledge? How else glimpse their wild, purloined dreams? From this remove, some of these folks seem delightfully perfect, a few exceedingly strange, but they were all worth knowing. And to think I would have avoided them, had I the ego strength, or the cash. It’s strange how fullness grows from meagerness, from carrying all you own.
In my substantial down time, I read everything I could get my hands on, all but the two big Russians, who are better saved for a broken leg. I’d been reading seriously for only a year or two, and mainly Americans, but I was hooked. I don’t know how else to say it: I’d grown addicted to the rhythms of utterance and to those nearly ineffable poignancies. As with others early in their addictions, I made all sorts of deals with myself: tomorrow I’d look for work, first thing. At the time, I preferred broken heroes to unlikely ones, and I worshipped the idea of the anointed artist. Hell, I wanted to be one. For years I traveled to where certain books were written or inspired and would read them there, hoping I guess, to be infected. I was like a pilgrim at Fatima begging stigmata. I read Twain in Hannibal, Hemingway and Sartre in Paris, Dickens and Elliot in London, Steinbeck in Monterrey, Ferlinghetti up the road from there, Cather in Red Cloud, Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Mailer in Manhattan, old Tom Wolfe in Brooklyn. I started Thomas Mann in several places, but left them all. I committed Wolfe to memory, “. . .and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.” Lines like these are why young people love Wolfe, and why they later backpedal. Give me now the final pages of Gatsby, Robert Hughes, the memoirs of Nobodies, the essays of Annie Dillard. Give me Tom Waits and a windshield.
One evening, while taking the air on a dirt road outside Harrot, Afghanistan, I was nearly stoned by farmers. As I approached a field, a small group of workers began to point and shout and gather two-inch stones, as in Ecclesiastes. I reversed course, but it was a chastening experience. I’d gone out there to see something I understood, and you like to think you’ll be liked. When I related my ordeal to a tall Canadian at the latest dollar-a-night hotel, he stood up and bellowed, “Well fuck me dry and call me Dusty!” I don’t recall a single other detail about this man, but that strangely vulgar narrative has been rolling around in my head ever since. Who knows to what effect? These were stimulating times, but I was working without a net. A few days later, I ended up in a small hospital, too dehydrated to walk more than a few steps, and without insurance. Luckily, for me, the hospital had a couple of Canadian Aid nurses, who were dying to talk.