It is a fact that if you wear enough black when visiting a large city it is possible to be mistaken as a native. Never wear sneakers, only tourists wear sneakers. I was once in Paris with my husband and a guy he knew, the most American looking meathead ever, all sweatshirt and round chest and khaki shorts, wore white Nikes the entire time. Parisians are intensely clan-like; they can sense who belongs and who does not. And though we are horrifyingly American my husband and I did try, flamboyant scarves and fitted jackets. The sneakers his friend wore seemed unnecessarily rude; I swore I would never make that mistake.
I am not a world traveller; I am a housewife. Most days I don’t stray very far from my kitchen table, the hardwood tabletop just a couple of years old but already dented in places from forks that somehow missed the plate of pancakes or matchbox cars flung from one end to the other, a shrinky dink accident that involved acetone and removed a patch of color. That one was entirely my fault and sent me into a fit of rage. At that moment I was a terrible mother because good mothers don’t yell when they make shrinky dinks and I was also a terrible wife, because good wives don’t ruin brand new tables being careless with shrinky dinks. The story of my life really: always trying, never quite getting there.
It is a fact when traveling that your feet are the difference between success and failure. Your shoes must be substantial yet comfortable, everyone knows that but even more important are your socks. My mother always told me this: get the thinnest ones possible, otherwise you are doomed for blisters.
She told me this the first time I went to New York. It was her first time too even though her mother was born there, had grown up there, and had left there after marrying a young sailor from Virginia. Her mother never got back after she’d left and died staggeringly young but the essence of her is packed tight into the joints of those cracked sidewalks. Streets where her own shoes had walked, an orphaned young woman looking for an escape and a different future, she couldn’t have known she would never get back. The weight of that hangs on us, me and my mom. We walk those streets in our good shoes and thin socks looking for ghosts, convinced for some reason there’s more of her there than at home.
Seattle, Paris, San Francisco, New York, Montreal, places I’ve somehow managed to land for a small bit to wander alone. When my children were younger I needed it more, needed to get away, to have just a few moments of quiet from the endless noise and need. I am the star around which their satellites orbit. They are my masterpieces. A few hours of air and silence planned meticulously for months but I miss them before I’ve even closed the door. I wander streets in my black coat with comfortable feet while the clock ticks down the minutes until I’m on duty again. None of it ever seems real, a time out of time and place, the dented kitchen table always the destination, always the end of the road.
Yesterday a woman in a stylish coat and hat asked me for directions in French. All I could do was shake my head and say “Sorry,” pleased that I had fooled her, pleased to keep walking, pleased to know I’m a few minutes closer to home.