Photo credit: Liz Lazarus
People travel in different ways. Travel itself can be a respite, a vacation, a hot day on the beach swimming and staring at the horizon, or a quiet night at home reflecting on one’s past, which sometimes entails — for better or worse — pondering one’s life choices and family history. We live in a country that’s obsessed with family trees, but family trees don’t always tell us the emotional trajectory of a human life. If our past travels with us, then how do our life experiences manifest in our interpersonal relationships? How does trauma move from one generation to the next, and how do individuals heal or come out on the other side of traumatic experience? How much joy can a soul stand before it becomes distracted and goes in search of a new fix, the next bout of joy or sorrow? These questions sent me on a quest that became The Travelers
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” is the most famous line spoken by Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire
. It’s a line that for years was something of a mantra in my life. I have always had a knack for getting lost. Lost geographically as a tourist in winding alleys and lanes in foreign cities or intentionally on random bus rides around Brooklyn in a desperate attempt to put my daughters to sleep or keep my writer’s brain visually engaged when there was neither time nor space to put words on paper. I’ve had my share of experiences getting lost in the company of strangers too. Strangers with whom I connected, but the connections did not always register as especially poetic or meaningful at the time. It was only after the fact — sometimes years — that I realized I had been put in a situation for a reason. One of the great conceits of film and literature is how often two strangers reveal something intimate about themselves — and there’s this shared moment that transcends loneliness. But I have found that people employ strategies to acclimate themselves to personal loss and loneliness. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in terms of the baggage we carry around with us. A recent study said that people are lonelier than ever. How can this be? What is clear is that we crave contact with other human beings. When we travel, it’s never solely about the destination. It’s about the people who will inform that destination. You don’t have to journey far to bump into someone’s story. It’s a natural impulse for people to talk about themselves and a natural impulse for people to expect others to take the time to listen. That’s the kindness-of-strangers transaction inherent in all storytelling.
You don’t have to journey far to bump into someone’s story.
Many years ago, before I married or had children, I took the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Manhasset to attend the funeral of the father of one of my college friends. It was a rainy day, which according to old wives’ tales means a soul is on its way to heaven. After the funeral, I somehow ended up in a car with the distant relatives of my friend’s father. I can’t recall their faces at all. Only that there were two men and one woman — in their late fifties or older. What I can say for sure is that we took a mini road trip from the cemetery through parts of Long Island that seemed to go on forever and eventually ended up eating at a seafood restaurant overlooking the Long Island Sound. It’s possible that I ate stuffed halibut or stuffed shrimp. I was far more Southern than I am now and hadn’t the heart or the courage to say to these strangers, “Why aren’t we at the repass?” They had the car and the keys and I didn’t own a cell phone. I was at their mercy for several hours and, thankfully, on the receiving end of their awkward kindness. In retrospect, I wonder if they were in shock. Was taking the circuitous route to a restaurant when food awaited them at the repass their way of navigating the loss of a relative? Most of the guests had gone by the time we arrived at the repass. I never saw my friend’s distant relatives again. But they were the ones who told me, “Long Island used to have lots of potato farms.” That is the memory of them I take with me. I tucked that fact away somewhere and it clung to me when I traveled to Sag Harbor or Hampton Bays or the North Fork or Shelter Island or Amagansett as a tourist. That fact trickled into The Travelers
and the novel’s opening story, “Pass It On." I am aware that my vacation is someone else’s work and my work is someone else’s vacation. There is duality in the people and things we observe when we travel, including but not limited to the subtle gestures and mannerisms that reveal so much about the great American obsessions: race, gender, and class. (It’s class bias that holds sway more often than we think.) Many of the blessings in my life have come from chance encounters that seemed on the surface pointless, boring, and inconvenient. But distance and perspective gave them new meaning. Distance and time positioned me to understand that we often look back at the same time we move forward.
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is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of a 2017-2018 Rae Armour West Postgraduate Scholarship. She is also a 2017 Tin House Summer Workshop Scholar. An award-winning writer with a background in playwriting, Porter has worked with Playwrights Horizons, the Joseph Papp Theater, New York Stage and Film, the Women’s Project, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Horizon Theatre Company. Porter was born in Savannah, Georgia, and lives in Brooklyn. The Travelers
is her debut novel.