MS: My dad sat on the hall steps in our suburban home. Pale dawn shone outside the windows. I checked the locks on my battered suitcase and refolded the Hudson Bay blanket for the fifth time. “Liz,” my dad said, “if I was twenty years younger and not married to your mom, I swear I’d take off with you. San Francisco. A wild new start.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My dad was the business teacher and football coach of the high school I’d graduated from only two years earlier. He was a staunch Republican and a golfing fanatic. “Dad,” I said. “I wish you would. There’s room in the car. I think.” I hadn’t met the stranger I was bumming a ride with, the guy I’d sit next to for the four days and 2700 miles between Rochester, NY and the city where some of us believed that in 1960 an amazing new world was being born.
My dad shook his head and glanced up the stairs to the second floor. “I tried to talk her into coming down to say good-bye, but she just gave me the fish-eye and lit her damn cigarette.” A rusted out 55′ Chevy pulled up next to the porch outside. The driver hit the horn. My dad tucked a folded bill into my hand “Well, Liz,” my dad said, “I haven’t told you very often that I love you.”
I fought back tears and patted his shoulder. He stood up and held me for a few seconds. “I’m telling you now. Call when you get where you’re going. Just call collect. Save your money to take care of yourself.”
“I love you, dad,” I said, picked up my suitcase, folded the blanket over my arm and walked one of the longest walks I’d ever walked — out the front door of my childhood home, across the porch, down the steps, and into the passenger seat of a beater car next to a young guy I’d never met. I waved once. My dad was a blurred shape behind the door window. The driver pulled out onto the street. I opened my fist and saw that the bill was a fifty — a small fortune for my dad.
KLK: Don’t look back. The last thing I wanted to do once I stepped into the security line at Philadelphia International Airport was look back. Because if I had, I would be forced to face everything I was leaving behind; my parents, my fiancé, my city, and the cookie cutter life I had assembled like a piece of IKEA furniture, using the step-by-step instructions and prefabricated materials given to me by society. I did not want to look back at this juncture in my life and bear witness to the moment of no return, because if moving to Germany did not fix whatever dissatisfaction I had with my life, then all that I had built would be abandoned for nothing.
I don’t know why at the age of 20 I was so unsettled with my life, but I have a vague idea. Everything was going according to “plan”. I was finishing my Bachelor’s in Business while working at a bank and making extra money day trading on the stock market. I had my own car and was engaged to be married the minute I finished college. Perhaps my malaise had something to do with the fact that these weren’t my plans and they weren’t my dreams, rather they were the obligations placed upon me by the expectations of outside influences. And it was by these factors I was defined. I was known as the banker, the broker, the business bitch, and bride to be; an alliteration of attributes, none of which were me.
Ignorance is bliss. If it weren’t for the Internet I would have known no other way to conduct my life. But it was on The World Wide Web where I discovered that other ways of living existed. I could shop around via blogs and fantasize about whatever lifestyle I wanted. There were bakers’ blogs, DIY blogs, art blogs, vegan blogs — there were blogs for every lifestyle, but the one type of blog that resonated with me most was the travel blog. There was a breed of people — these Digital Nomads — free of attachments, free of expectations, free of obligations, and free to explore not just the world, but themselves.
So in 2010 I set off to Heidelberg, Germany in search of my identity — and blog about it along the way.
MS: Somewhere in the Midwest, my chauffeur decided I needed to pay a little more for the ride to my new life. He took a shower, rubbed coconut oil over his body and said, “Let’s connect.” Afterwards, I lay next to him in the cheap motel room and was grateful it was over. It had never occurred to me to say, “No.” Women didn’t say “No.” to men. A few years later, I would see an anti-war sign at a Viet Nam protest: “Girls say ‘Yes!’ to boys who say ‘No.'” and I’d think it was funny. I made myself imagine I could hear jazz — maybe Miles or Coltrane — in the faltering whine of the air conditioner and fell asleep.
Two days later, my ride dropped me off without a good-bye at the base of a street that climbed up a hill into North Beach. I’m sure I thanked him for driving. I grabbed the suitcase and blanket and climbed out into cool misty air that smelled of pure freedom. I stood for a few minutes telling myself I wasn’t dreaming. Then, I patted the fifty-dollar bill tucked into my bra and trudged up the hill to the North Beach address my beloved had sent me. The front door was open in the little apartment. I walked directly into a bedroom, the bed unmade, an Indian print bedspread thrown over it. “Hey,” I called out, “anybody here? Al? It’s Mary.” There was only silence and the drip of a leaky water faucet in the back. I followed the sound into a big kitchen. There was a double bed mattress on the floor, a guy’s damp levis draped over the only chair — and a note on the battered table. “M., Gotta book back to Chicago. It was cool. A.” I moved the levis off the chair and sat down. There was nothing to do but wait.
A day later, I was living with Al’s friend, Jake, and five other people in the four room apartment. Chaz, a Korean war veteran was the unelected Dad for all of us. He sent me out to scrounge fresh-baked bread from one of the Italian bakers in the neighborhood. It worked better if the scrounger was a cute, young chick. I set out on streets bordered by weathered apartment buildings whose porches were hung with pots of fuchsias. I felt as though I was a camera, everything I saw streaming into an encyclopedia I had just discovered in my brain. I stopped at the corner of Grant and Green to get my bearings. What I thought was an eye was painted on the window of a little storefront. I moved up closer and saw the words, Coexistence Bagel Shop. Though it was barely past dawn, someone was drumming inside.
KLK: My room in Heidelberg was on the top floor of a Roman fortress (or Burg) on Bergstrasse, just on the other side of the Neckar from the Heidelberg Castle. At the beginning I didn’t leave the Burg much. Times where I’d get groceries at the Lidl a few blocks away were my big days out on the town. I claimed it was because it snowed every day since my arrival, and in January there weren’t many hours of daylight, but those were lame excuses. For those first couple of weeks I got comfortable with my old routines.
There was an ocean between my old life and this new frontier, but I was still clinging to my old lifestyle. I was able to trade stocks and transfer money between bank accounts online. I could Skype with my fiancé without lag and with a very clear picture. With the help of a proxy server, I had access to Hulu and could stay up to date with my favorite sitcoms like 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I could text or call my parents at any given time with my Motorola phone thanks to an International Sim Card. The phone even had a GPS that automatically updated my Facebook every time I changed cities. I was straddling continents, not allowing myself to fully detach from “The Old Country”.
But after those two weeks passed, I realized that physical distance was not enough to spark the breakthrough I was hoping for. But a new idea began percolating. Happenstance influences us, guide us, and shape us, but it doesn’t have to be us. I didn’t have to be the product of circumstance. I wasn’t stuck and I never was stuck. I just wasn’t making choices for myself, and frankly, I didn’t realize I could. I didn’t realize “no” was an option. No, I didn’t want to be a banker, or a stock broker, and I didn’t want to get married so young.
From that point on I can say proudly that I pursued every whim and every curiosity (and still do). I chose to sell all of my stock market shares and invest that money in train rides to France and long weekend trips to Scotland. I chose not to watch television and instead get drunk on Jäger and stumble along the Hauptstrasse with new friends in search late-night Döner before hitting the ‘discotheque’ to dance until dawn. I chose to break up with my fiancé over Skype and travel hours by train to spend time with my new German lover in Hamburg. With every new decision I became bolder and more confident. I had a sense of control over my life that I never felt before. It didn’t matter if my choices were bad because they were mine. All of my successes and follies made for excellent stories for my blog, which later became the cornerstone of my career as a writer (though on the Internet, writer gets translated into “copywriter”, “content producer”, “digital storyteller”, and “content strategist”, but who cares! I work with words!).
But finding my freewill was only the beginning. I still needed to learn how to protect and honor that freewill. That lesson wouldn’t come for another 5 years.
MS: Chaz fell in love. He gathered us in the kitchen and passed around a skinny joint. “I don’t mean to be a drag,” he said, “but Ellie’s a little uptight about living with so many people. You’ve all been cool, but I need to ask you to split.” I clenched my fingers around the fifty-dollar bill in my jeans. Jake and I looked at each other. “It’ll be cool,” he said. “I’ll head back to my folks, work the orchards for a few weeks until I have enough bread to rent our own place and be back.” He kissed me, grabbed his gear and was out the door.
I waited till everybody was gone and stuffed as much food as I could into my suitcase. I understood that nobody was going to watch out for me. And, I couldn’t go home. I folded my blanket and headed out to figure out where I was going to spend the night. I’d start by scoring a loaf of bread.
The young Italian baker smiled. “You going somewhere?” he said. “You beatniks girls are always on your way to somewhere.”
“Dig it,” I said. “I don’t know where somewhere is, but I was hoping I could buy a couple loaves of bread for the trip.” I held out a dime.
He tucked the bread into a paper bag and waved away my money. “You need to save that. Those streets are waiting to eat you up. Here’s my advice. Go to the Golden Phoenix. It’s a single room hotel in Chinatown. It’s cheap and it’s safe.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been so cool.”
He laughed. “If I thought my old man wouldn’t kill me, I’d live like you beatniks do.”
I headed down Stockton Street. The bay glittered behind me in the last afternoon sun. Coit Tower rose up beyond the houses and apartments. Jake had led me up a trail to the top of Telegraph Hill. We’d watched the tourists climb off busses and felt superior. I looked out over the city and knew I had come to a home I’d never known.
The door to the Golden Phoenix had a tiny sign, hand-lettered in English and Chinese. I walked in. A tiny man with the most ancient and cynical eyes I’d ever seen looked up and nodded. “How long you stay?”
“A week?” I said. “Maybe?”
“Eight dollar. Just you. No men. Bathroom two doors down.”
I handed him a ten. He gave me the key and out a flight of stairs. I climbed up and walked into a gloomy hallway, the air thick with the smells of dried fish, incense, and what I just knew had to be opium. My room was clean. There was a single bed, a two-drawer dresser, hooks for my clothes and a single window. I put my suitcase on the bed and went to the window. Two stories below, a man peeled shrimp on a wooden alley table. I unpacked my suitcase, threw the blanket over the bed and sat. I was terrified. And I felt the most alive I had ever felt. I’d left behind not just my parents, but a husband and our child. I wished it had been different, but for the first time in two years, I could breathe. And, if the air was alien air, it was fine with me.
Jake came for me a few weeks later after I’d called him collect at his parents’. By then, I’d learned how to ask strangers for spare change: sleep in a clump of bushes with a cherub-faced junkie who shared his blanket and whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t mess with you. I couldn’t do nothing anyhow.”; listen as a young Black dyke told me, “God is black and she is pissed.”; make a meal of twenty-five cent espresso and cannoli — and that I was pregnant.
KLK: Cognitive dissonance is the only way I can describe the five years after Heidelberg. Despite having discovered that I was more than capable of piloting my own life, there was a still part of me that wanted to satisfy the expectations of others, particularly the expectations of my father. Just as before, when I was straddling continents, now I was straddling lives: the life my father wanted for me, a life of climbing the corporate ladder, and the life I wanted for myself — of being a writer.
Like a pendulum I would swing between corporate jobs, fancy apartments, and elite galas to freelance writing gigs, squatter houses, and warehouse punk shows in Philadelphia. I would transition between seasons of seeking freedom and seeking acceptance, a perpetual cycle of creating and destroying worlds.
Times when pendulum swung in my favor was when I felt most alive. I counted my days like I counted my pennies, squeezing every bit of value from my moments not trapped in a cubicle or cornered in awkward water cooler banter. Every day was spent between coffee shops and bars, exploring the philosophies of Occupy, anarchism, feminism, art and writing with everyone I met. But interspersed within those days of freedom were surprise calls from my father who would subtly remind me of the life and potential that, from his perspective, I was wasting. He was never actually direct in how he shamed me for the life I had chosen. He was my father, and knew me well, and he knew where all of my insecurities were hidden. With statements like “I saw your article in the paper. It was good. How much did they pay you? I bet it’s no where near your old salary” and “how’s the new car doing? How much is left on your car payment?” he could plant landmines in my mind that would later blow a hole in the walls of my resilience, a gap that let uncertainty and anxiety chase me back to corporate world.
On May 12, 2014, I walked into my third office job in five years. This time, I was a Marketing Manager with a corner office by day, and a freelance writer by night. I had finally cracked the code where I could satisfy my father’s wishes and my own. But there was still a strong disconnect between my work and my passion, and because I was committed to neither, my work across the board was subpar. I was disappointed in myself, but decided to settle for less than I knew I was capable of. I lacked the energy to endure another pendulum swing.
But on this May morning when I walked into the office I received a surprise call that wasn’t from my father, but my uncle, a man from whom I hadn’t heard from in years. He was calling to let me know my father had died — by suicide.
I had never felt more lost in my life. The man who told me how to live my life had given up on living. Even in my most rebellious moments, moving to Germany, knocking back City Wide Specials at El Bar, Occupying City Hall in Philadelphia, he still had so much influence over me. I had always found some weird sense of comfort in his expectations. His rules gave me some semblance of order and I found stability in earning his validation, but without him, I was uninterruptedly free.
At the time of my father’s death I had started a new relationship with a man that any Freudian psychologist would say was actually my father. The next six months I navigated the life I was finally allowed to pursue, but within the boundaries my alcoholic boyfriend, Fred*, built, not with shame, but by punishing me with manipulative power plays. I had a project in Alaska and even though reception in Denali was scarce, I still found enough WiFi to send him my photos of moose in rut, and grizzlies scrounging the tundra in search of one last meal before hibernation. He would not respond for days until I sent him promiscuous text messages from a bar at the airport in Anchorage. In Athens, Greece I sent him a text expressing how excited and honored I was to work alongside archeologists at the Parthenon. He answered me back that he was enjoying a drunken night out at the strip club with two of his female friends.
When I returned from one of my projects, we went out for drinks. He went too far, as he normally did, and when dragging his heavy and limp body home he whispered in my ear “You know you chose the less lucrative career path, right?” Just like my father, he knew that much of my pride and passion is in my work — it is an extension of my being. I had spent a lifetime with my identity under attack, and I was no longer going to take it. His words were what I needed to leave him.
A few weeks later, after Thanksgiving, my grandmother’s cancer took a turn for the worst. I would spend my holiday season by her deathbed. She died on December 21, 2014, but a few days before she left, she asked me how Fred was doing.
“I dumped him,” I said, “he didn’t appreciate shit about me.”
“Good,” she replied. “You don’t need a man tryin’ to tell you how to live your life.”