I have always led parallel lives, as if one were not enough. Some people do this by having affairs, or playing Second Life or World of Warcraft, or living in the closet, or being deeply involved in the Internet, or whatever. For me, for years, I chased either love or writing, and they never seemed to live in the same place. So I would live with one and fly to the other.
It started when I moved to Iowa to attend the Writers’ Workshop and my girlfriend stayed in New York. For two years we flew to each other once a month. Those visits, a weekend or a week, were like airplane rides themselves: contained, temporary, a pressurized air to them. When I moved back to Brooklyn our land legs failed us and we broke up in three months. We had traveled well. But once we had landed in the same place, it became clear how much each of us had changed in the other’s absence.
So when the next opportunity came I was determined not to make the same mistake.
I had received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and I persuaded my reluctant new girlfriend to move from Portland to the Bay Area with me—I was determined for once not to be long-distance. I wanted my life to be intact in one place.
Four months after we had settled in an overpriced North Berkeley bungalow, she was back in Portland house-shopping. To make a long story short, we broke the lease and moved back to Oregon during the break between my winter and spring trimesters, and I started buying up $59 tickets on Southwest.
I could provide astonished co-Stegners and Portlanders alike with abundant rationalizations that involved comparative cost of living, her band obligations, the allure of home ownership, the unbearable smugness of Berkeley. But deep down I was afraid the long distance would ruin us. I thought, this time I’m going to commute for writing, not love. So while my fellow Stegners drove 40 minutes from San Francisco and Oakland, I boarded the predawn light rail to the plane to the shuttle bus to the train to the final bus that cruised down the palm-lined main drive of Stanford and dropped me off in front of Margaret Jacks Hall by noon.
It was crazy, this commute, yet it worked. I couldn’t believe how well it worked, and how much I liked it. I surrendered myself to the interlocking schedules of each link. I was blissfully powerless; all I could do and had to do was wait, and the next conductor would show up and take me where I needed to go. Once a week, I knew exactly what was going to happen.
Which was more than I could say for my increasingly uncertain life at home. So when the relationship fell apart at summer’s end and I moved out, I did not do the sensible thing and pack up for California. San Francisco was lovely but too much like New York: no space, no quiet, never enough money to live the life you want. I couldn’t bear the thought of going from cohabitating in a house to sharing an apartment with strangers for roommates. In Portland I had made friends and I loved the slow pace of things, the dark trees and quiet and lushness. I could live alone and I could take the light-rail to the airport in the morning and be home by midnight. I decided to keep staying and to keep flying.
Mornings would still be dark and cool when I left, carrying nothing but my laptop backpack. I parked my Colt hatchback on a quiet residential block by the Hollywood MAX station and rode the near-empty train to the airport. The plane took off and we rose above the perpetual Portland cloud layer into the rising sun, and when I landed in San Jose the sky would be bright blue and hot, a different light. From piney gloom to beige stucco and red roof tiles and seasonless sunshine and the palatial Stanford campus where I met my colleagues and we talked about stories. After workshop, I had enough time for dinner and a drink before I retraced my steps back. The last flight to Portland, landing before midnight, just in time to step onto the last train home in the damp night air.
I was an unlikely jetsetter, broke as can be, traveling in sneakers and a dog-chewed backpack. While my fellow fellows T.A.’ed for Stanford professors and did yoga in the Mission, I, back in Portland, took a job at a scrappy midcentury-modern antique shop for ten bucks an hour. Thursday through Saturday, I swept and dusted and photographed vintage detritus for eBay. Fancy men and women from the West Hills came in and chatted about their Knolls or their paintings or whatever. Sometimes a well-groomed customer would express pleased surprise that I knew what, say, Herman Miller was. Herman Miller. Come on. But to them I was not a writer, I was a shopgirl. And I was. They saw me take out the trash and get my boss coffee. That’s what you do for ten bucks an hour. You can sell it but you can’t own it.
Is it any wonder I loved those Tuesdays in flight? Flight is, after all, a form of flee too. For one day a week, I led another life that belonged only to me. It was so pure. When I was in the air, no one could ask anything of me: not my boss, not my ex, not my cats, not my friends. I could do nothing but be exactly where I was. Flight gave me purpose: at a time when my sense of direction was confounded, when my inner compass seemed to have lost its true north, those weekly flights put me on my only reliable track toward something. I became a regular. At San Jose, they stopped making me take off my sneakers at security, the guy would just nod me through. I knew where to find the hidden sockets to plug in my laptop. The smell of the Portland airport still triggers in me a deep sense of well-being.
Flight was the most stable thing I knew. Just as speed calms the hyperactive child, transit stilled me.
When the fellowship ended, I missed my flight pattern. Enough that the next spring I signed on to teach a fabulist fiction workshop and resumed my weekly trips. But the ticket prices had gone up. The class was in the evening, so I couldn’t fly back the same night; instead I slept on friends’ couches in the Mission and took the BART to Oakland in the morning. I was barely breaking even. The cost of flight had caught up to me.
I may never again travel so light, so freely, so readily. But I have learned—am learning—to sit still. Now I let my restless characters do the running. Flight is easy. Staying is where the real work, and the real rewards, begin to finally happen.
Chelsey Johnson's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Avery Anthology, and Selected Shorts. She teaches creative writing at the College of William & Mary.