What does it feel like, that first night abroad and alone? Here, in a taut, vivid meditation on the nature of recomposing the self in a new, thrillingly different—and more than a little dangerous—environment, frequent contributor Kate Erickson explains the sensation with a searching, poetic eye. —Christian
I lied when I told Liz, a math teacher on the Portuguese Azores, that I could drive her manual transmission Toyota. Liz needed someone to feed her two dogs and two cats while she visited her family in the States. By the transportation email, we had already covered accommodations; her hundred-year old farmhouse sat in the brambles of a retired, tiered vineyard. Geography: the Azores are halfway between New York and Lisbon, a volcanic archipelago softened by purple hydrangeas. And timeframe: a month, July, the most glorious of the Azores year. I was just out of college, and I was emailing from my parents’ basement in Kentucky.
On June thirtieth my connecting flight from Newark hit a luggage rack, and Air Portugal dismissed all passengers to a crusty Ramada Inn. For one, two, then three days, I was stranded poolside with a dozen woebegone Portuguese grandmothers. They sunbathed and cried; I walked laps in stale jeans and a t-shirt, because Air Portugal had sent my checked bag on without me.
When I finally arrived to Terceira, Liz had been gone for forty-eight hours. Her wild-haired friend, also a teacher at the Air Force base high school, collected and debriefed me. House keys are in the car, unlocked; car keys in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Front door is triple-locked, deadbolt sticks, because Liz only just started using it again.
“These break-ins! Only in the off-base homes, of course, but elaborate as heists. It’s sleeping gas through an open window, then robbery as loud as they please.” She picked at mud on her dashboard. “I recommend locking the windows and shutters, both. Stuffy beats no DVD player.” The friend careened us around a blind turn and slammed to a stop for the cattle jogging downhill, into an open field. “Be careful of this,” she said, wagging a finger at the cows. “They stampede willy-nilly. My God!” She slammed her palm into the steering wheel. “I almost forgot. The cat died. Not your fault, of course.”
“What?” I said.
“One of the cats. It jumped the retaining wall yesterday, down into the street. Flattened immediately.” The woman sighed and continued driving. “Neighbor left a note, which is like, really? These people, they just don’t care about their animals. But anyway, I called Liz, so it’s not your fault.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The car slammed to a stop again. We were at a forty-five degree angle, headed downhill, facing a field of young corn, then tan-orange cliffs, then a forever of Atlantic Ocean.
“Here you are,” Liz’s friend said. She presented the house built into the hill on our right. “Call me if you need anything, though I’m usually scuba diving.”
“Okay,” I said.
The retaining wall, some twelve feet high from street level, opened to the driveway by an arched green door. Inside, returning the latch, I followed the cobblestones uphill again (M.C. Escher had planned the island’s roads), to the Toyota, which would have two inches leeway when rolling through the greet gate. On the street, Wild Hair putzed away.
I heard the silence settle, then each sound come through it. The unfamiliar birds, the ocean across the long slope, the dogs begging for freedom through the thick house. Only those gratefully out of love hear so distilled, those undistracted by the idea of someone else—interpretations and heartbeat—at their side. I had been waiting months to be exactly that alone.
As promised, the house keys were under the driver’s seat. After I muscled the deadbolt, a Dalmatian and a mutt catapulted outside and then back in. On the kitchen table lounged the remaining cat and Liz’s note of welcome. Feeding times, reminders, introductions. The Dalmatian was Bella, the island mutt Rambo, the larger cat Kitty, the smaller one Mouse.
“No, no, no,” I said out loud, flipping the paper. I looked at the calico on the table. “Are you larger?” She head-butted me. By the window, Bella was bouncing from all fours to hind legs, down again, then back up. Rambo was sitting six inches from my ankle, erect and humping. He would continue to be six inches from me in this way anytime I stood in one place for more than ten seconds, at any point for the next month.
Well, Kitty was a stupid name, and jumping the retaining wall was a stupid move. The surviving cat became Mouse.
The next morning I unlocked the shutters, windows, and French doors. The dogs bounded into the yard. Mouse jumped from countertop to table as I investigated the kitchen. Messy floors, a half-woven basket, too many empty wine bottles saved for, what, desperately youthful vases? Like many recent college graduates, I had learned to carve space for myself in a refrigerator. I swung Liz’s open and began dumping the molded. Grouped like items, wiped the shelves, faced the labels out. Mouse turned figure eights around me.
“Howdaya like that?” I asked her, straightening.
With my claim marked, I moved through other rooms. They were similarly cluttered by bits of the outdoors coming in, a love and impatience for crafts, and the backlogged chores of single, working motherhood. In my room—Liz’s teenage son’s room—I made the bed and nosed through the books. In the bottom drawer of his nightstand, with the force of my yank, a handgun slid forward. It bumped the drawer’s front panel and waited.
In Kentucky, I had attended dozens of birthday parties chaperoned by taxidermy. My mom, though, was the sort of pacifist who banned camouflage (even in hand-me-downs, which she otherwise stockpiled) because it connoted violence. We played cooperative wooden board games.
“Holy crap,” I whispered. This was about more than missing DVD players.
I understood why my parents had hugged me tightly when I left. I was smack in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from any English-speaker who did not work for the United States Armed Forces. I was sleeping alone in a neighborhood known for gassed robberies, and by water and danger and ignorance of manual transmissions, I was trapped exactly there.
“Fuck it,” I said to the gun and slammed the bedside drawer. I left the bedroom. Mouse padded ahead of me. “Hey, Mouse,” I called, revving. “Let’s go for a drive.”
Technically, before I swiped Liz’s keys from the kitchen and marched down the concrete stairs, I had driven stick. When I was sixteen, I had interned for a photographer. He insisted I wear shorts, accept bites from his fork, and learn the thrust of his five-speed Jeep. Three years later, to prepare for a college road trip, I had asked a sleepy-eyed senior to teach me the gearshifts of her red convertible. In the moment she coached me to second, I simultaneously fell for her and realized why the photographer turned my stomach. Both situations boiled to embarrassments, and I chose to erase them as much as possible, instead of take any brand of lesson.
Standing on Liz’s cobblestones, I remembered neither the placement nor the function of a clutch. Bella and Rambo cursed a blue streak from the living room.
“I hate learning new things,” I said. “Hate, hate, hate.” My lungs seized. I felt a hint of migraine.
I unlocked the green gate. In the Toyota, I stomped the break, released the emergency, turned the engine. I jostled the car into reverse and let her roll, so gradually, through the wall’s narrow opening and into the street. I went downhill first, coasting around half a dozen switchbacks to a dead end of cow pies. My first acceleration and gearshift was an uphill U-turn: a flailing combination of guesswork, very nearly a collision, flat tire, transmission burn out, and heart attack. I peeled into second gear, begged the cows to stay home. Hyperventilating, I plowed up Escher’s map, past the house, through a stop sign.
Portugal was playing in the World Cup consolation round, and in one of our early emails, Liz had waxed about a bar east of her house, on the last hilltop before the village called Praia. I drove away from the setting sun. Suddenly I was a soccer fan, out on the town.
Like many revelations, the bar appeared after a hairpin turn. On the mountain’s gusty crest, it spilled gold and blue from the base of a towering statue of the Virgin Mary. A hundred feet of tarnished copper, she nodded to Praia, sparkling below us. I careened into the lot and leaned forward for a better view through the windshield. My awe stalled the Toyota, so I parked. Underneath the stars, the draped figure was even more beautiful.
Inside, the bar was tiny – and completely empty. The television showed Portugal down by two. The bartender sized me.
“Hi,” I said solemnly, trying to look bored instead of flushed, all at once, with loneliness. At the counter, I fumbled for an acceptable drink order, remembered I was my own designated driver, panicked, then blurted, “One of these.” I dove into the freezer for a Creamsicle.
The old man mumbled something and poked at his register.
I whapped one Euro-fifty, my best guess, on the counter.
“Obrigado,” I said, like the miserable grandmothers at the Ramada Inn. I climbed onto a stool.
The orange juice layer suffered freezer burn, and vanilla streamed down the wooden stick. I slurped and gnashed my way until the end, when I plunged my thumb against the roof of my mouth to ease the burn. The bartender watched me. I withdrew my hand and cleaned my palms with a thin paper napkin.
“Brain freeze,” I said. “No good.” I jutted my chin to the TV, because my assessment also applied to the score.
Sliding off my stool, I pressed my lip together and nodded, the goodbye between strangers. I was leaving. I must have said something to the man, an excuse, but I remember only what I didn’t: how his bar looks at dusk, when you discover it on a triumphant bluff, spilling light from a holy woman.
Through the return trip, I calculated the driveway. The gate offered mere inches for error. Any adjustments would mean restarting on a hill. Alongside the retaining wall, in a last-minute decision, I swung wide, closed my eyes, and gunned it. The Toyota bounced across the cobblestones. I slammed the breaks. The car stalled, I cranked the emergency, and we bucked to a stop. Miraculously intact, I had returned.
As if I could see Praia’s guardian from my driveway well, I leaned to the windshield again. Before me, the vineyard rose in quick stair steps. On the second tier, solidly within Liz’s fenced property, someone had staked a haltered cow to graze. The cow was appropriately massive, inappropriately ripping Liz’s grass. Someone had led the cow there, staked it. Someone could be waiting close— a dozen feet from the cow, fewer from my pounding heart. The weeds would camouflage him, and in a few minutes, he would see me, not yet sunburned, trot up the steps, struggle with the deadbolt.
I locked the car doors but cracked open the driver’s window. I released the seatbelt and begged my adrenaline to slow. Outside, the house moaned in the downdraft. Bella distinguished her yap from Rambo’s, and an uphill neighbor planned her future into a cordless phone. I waited for the steadfast prowling of my comrade Mouse who, I learned upon Liz’s return, was really Kitty. As night obscured the mid-Atlantic, I hoped when I finally stepped out into the darkest dark, I might understand the difference between the sounds of comfort and those of danger.—Kate Erickson grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Brooklyn. She is a frequent storyteller at The Moth storytelling series in Manhattan.