I wonder, sometimes, what immigration officers must think of me.
As I pass through their lines, I am not always at my best. Typically dishevelled, bearded and sweaty and drooping, stinking of unbrushed teeth and unwashed armpits and as much free Heineken as the stewardesses will allow me. And then there are the times when I must be showing visible disturbance: agitation or discomfort; a sense of fear or anxiety of what lies before me; and, more than once, a stream of shaky tears forging new rivers down my trembling, tired face.
I wonder if they know what leaving looks like, if they know the smell of it, the quirk of a man’s eyebrow, the tremble on a woman’s lip. I wonder if they can differentiate the people who are off for a vacation, the sprightly and the excited, the people already pre-shellacked in sunscreen and tropical rum. I wonder if they can pick out the one-way tickets from the round-trips. I wonder if they can pick out those that are about to set off on a different journey, the kind that doesn’t always lead back home.
I wonder, too, at luggage claim, what else I should be declaring upon entry to my new home countries. Books, clothes, a laptop. Pencils and paper, miscellaneous gadgets. Flesh and bones, a dozen former lives, a trail of friendships and relationships all now spiralling off into question marks. Do they have a separate form for emotional baggage? I’ve got plenty, and I think, sometimes, that I might be over the allowance that customs bestows upon me.
How many people have seen me leaving a place for good, have seen me giving my long goodbyes? I start to tabulate the average populations of airport departure halls and train station platforms, I add in the background audience in the smoky bars where I gave last readings, where I doled out warm embraces, where I clinked my glass, walked out the door, and didn’t look back.
Leaving never grows easier.
Leaving isn’t learning to play a guitar, or mastering a recipe for good chilli, or studying for a test. Time and repeated practice doesn’t hone your skill, it doesn’t train your muscles into elegant, efficient reprise. The act of going, of saying your so-longs, of distributing embraces and farewell cards, stays forever brittle and hard. It’s a long hike, the kind where you forget to bring your shoes. Sometimes it becomes commonplace—you know better what is coming, you have a sense of familiarity with the sting. It’s a half-remembered taste of a bitter wine. It’s a crashing wave–one you know you should brace for, but you still don’t know how.
And as you leave and leave, you carry more and more. I have lists of people I need to visit, countries I need to return to, streets I need to walk once more. Sandwiches in Vietnam with my name on it. A sunny cove in Italy that needs to be swum. A pub in Toronto where I need to share a beer or 9 with an old friend. There are cities at my back, cities where I spent my childhood, cities where I became a man, cities where I discovered the world and a few really good curries. I carry whole continents on my back, roads and avenues in my pockets. The bones of all the lives I’ve lived, the bones of the people I’ve left behind, are forever with me as I go.
I like the wanderlust spirit, I derive a great deal of my self-worth and identity from it. But in time I’ve accrued a bit of a reputation, a sort of effervescent presence to my person, as though I’m never really all in one place. I tell people that I’m going to Mexico on an impulse, that I’m moving to China in but a few days. I never thought these words emerging from my mouth would come to feel commonplace, would seem like some accepted and nigh-tedious aspect of my personhood. I’m in the wind, because that’s where I usually am. I’m practically all nimbus.
I often feel like I’m forever leaving, that I’m always on the brink of some farewell, that just around every corner is a banner wishing me safe travels. I haven’t lived without a suitcase nearby for most of the last decade. I always know the exact location of my passport. Departure has just become a part of my character.
A part of me wonders what it would be like to permanently set down my burdens, so unpack my bags and set them alight. I wonder what it would be like to be a person without travel insurance or an intense and necessary fear of Dengue Fever. I wonder what it would be like to plant the bones in the ground, to put my vagabond life behind me. Sometimes, in the cold and the dark on a high balcony in China, or sealed in a sweaty bus in Burma, I think about the act of settling down. Of never knowing the feeling of a backpack cutting into my shoulders again. Sometimes putting down roots seems far more terrifying than finding another road to walk.
But there are always more roads to walk. There are always new things to find. Leaving is a part of me, and my bags will always be heavy. At least the bags will get to see the world, at least my bones will have been put to good use until they are someone else’s to carry.