These Things Your Mind Tells You
A Foreign City, a Stranger, and the Struggle With What You Can and Can’t Have
It happens in Bolzano, of all places, a bifurcated city that has been tossed back and forth between Italy and Austria for some time. It is a city of unspoken tension and forced politeness. You feel it when the waiters slam down your cappuccino and stalk off.
This mirrors my interior. I am sad and tense and have been for some time, believing what my mind is churning out: I have reached my forties having made nothing but decisions guided by fear. I have let fear turn me away from artistic risks, close my heart to a mate and squander opportunities for pure freedom and fun.
I’m stepping onto a train because I believe that if I keep my body moving my mind won’t get stuck.
A South Asian gentleman is hauling a bag off the Bolzano train station platform and up the train carriage steps. He looks at me with interest. For a moment each of us seems to be waiting for the other to move. I smile at him, expectantly.
He enters the “carrozza” and I follow him. There is no one else in the car. I take a seat, ready to sink into my own existence, perhaps even sleep. He sits across from me, which I find incomprehensible given that every other seat in the car is empty. Then I remember that a friend who traveled in African and India said that in an empty bus or train, a person will always place themselves near another.
I look at him; his kind brown eyes are bright. I feel he wants something from me.
I want something from him: an immense pool of kindness and compassion and a dose of faith. I decide that he is the Buddha, because surely the Buddha will offer me this. I smile at him again.
In broken Italian, he says, “You have husband?”
I feel my chest tighten. I shake my head no.
“Children”? Again, no.
“How old are you?” I tell him. He thinks we have misunderstood each other. “Marito? Bambini?” He repeats himself.
“I have a wife,” he says. “We talk all the time. We are always together. And two children.” He marks their heights with his hands.
I look quietly out the window.
“Where are you from?” I ask in Italian.
“Punjab,” he replies with a wide smile.
“Are you Hindu?” I question. “Musulman? Sikh?”
“Sikh,” he says. “Do you like Sikhs?” he asks me, looking worried again.
“I neither like nor dislike Sikhs,” I say. “It’s not about the person’s beliefs, it’s about the person.” I’m not sure my Italian has conveyed this message. I’m not sure this idea exists where he comes from.
The silence between us thickens. I lean my head against the cool glass of the window and close my eyes.
“How old are you?” I almost jolt out of my seat at his question. I am incredulous that he’s asking me again.
“Right now,” he says, “you are young. But later, when you are old, no children big problem for you. Serious.”
I could change seats, but that would only draw his attention more. I am furious that he has terrified me. I am enraged that I have let his anxiety about loneliness inflate my own. Just before I left on this European trip, a Samuel Beckett play I was rehearsing was canceled. The director simply said, “I don’t know if it’s depression or what, but I’m just not into this project.”
The director’s depression spread to me, like lice, like the plague. It had been a fabulous role for me; he’s a really good director. I’d postponed another project for this. He killed my baby.
When you don’t have a kid, if you’re me, anyway, you tell yourself that you have other “creations,” projects, things to do that have value and weight and depth and give meaning to being here. Then, when those dematerialize you just weep in your house and in the car on the way home from work. And on trains.
You tell yourself that not everyone has to have kids and that there are other ways to lead a perfectly good life. You tell yourself there are lots of kids in the world already who need love. You tell yourself that given your history of clinical depression it’s best not to try and be a mother in this lifetime, that your vision is of a family—not just you and a kid—and since you haven’t met the right man, well…
And truthfully, the idea of pregnancy and breast feeding makes you a little sick. You tell yourself a million things.
But then another friend who swore they’d never have a kid has one at the 11th hour and talks about how it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to them. Plus, there’s that phenomenon where you see a cute baby on the street and you can’t stop looking and you want to hold it and you stop whatever you were saying in mid-sentence and stare dumbly at it and then you wonder if your kid would have had your eyes or hair.
My Italian is simply not good enough to explain all this to the Punjabi. I must sit dumbly in the leather seat and listen to the clatter of the train on the tracks.
I silently utter my prayer to the universe, to the Great Consciousness:
“Give me just a little space to ease this ache in the center of my chest and help me see beyond this pain.”
With this prayer, I feel a tiny opening, slightly more ease in my breath. And then the vision comes to me.
I am sitting in a bus, near Sorrento this time, contemplating the precarious white cliffs of the Amalfi coast as the bus makes one hairpin turn after another. The feeling of being on the edge of not knowing what’s next raises my spirits, thrills me.
A man the color of dark chestnut gets on the bus and takes the seat next to mine. He places his finger on my third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I look at him. He opens his mouth to speak and honey flows out and covers us both.
From this honey emerges a beautiful brown boy or girl with gold bracelets on their impossibly small wrists and eyes like bottomless lakes. And the three of us lean against each other as the bus twists up the endless mountain.