As I drove up and down Vermont, I was sometimes 30 years or more back in New Hampshire, and sometimes I was back in the places with which I had replaced New Hampshire - places of war and beauty and love and hatred, sex and life and death, ships and planes and trains, chasing adventure, includinig adventurous girls of all nations, but often alone, moving about Asia and Africa and Europe and seas that contained islands - almost, but maybe not much, like the man I had dreamed I could be.
One day while driving I was thinking about a time I went back to a familiar place not in my head but literally. I had returned to Southeast Asia – these wild and/or languid tropical places, so full of sex and comfort and danger or adventure – back after seven sometimes dark years away. I was back and I was all over the map, just as I had been in those earlier years out here. I had been everywhere back then, usually with a drink, which could be beer or could be rough rice whisky – and even with the sort of throbbing hangovers that feel terminal I had had so much energy in those past years – and yet it was nothing like the sudden bursts I experienced when I returned.
Just before leaving New York I had stopped drinking after 22 years of drinking which I had told myself unconvincingly was not so bad as that of my alcoholic literary heroes – from Fitzgerald to Kerouac by way of Hemingway if not Mailer. And here I was heading into the old scenes – just like in a novel, scenes of happiness and excitement in exotic places. A few days before leaving I had gone to a single AA meeting in a dark church basement on the Upper West Side, and I had had coffee afterwards with a wet blanket sort of overweight guy who said he had just canceled a bus trip to Louisiana to see his family for it would put his sobriety in peril. No new relationships for at least a year was the rule, he said, and no travel either. Everyone in what he called “the rooms” knew that.
But I knew he was wrong. I knew it. So I would travel, which was something I was good at, and maybe, with luck and by design there would be a new woman to love – and the sooner the better. I had come back to Southeast Asia with what was meant to be a hot new book contract, and some almost adequate advance money, to do two books. I was kidding myself that I really wanted to do these books – journalist type things – one on American ambassadors and the other, more congenial to me, on American expatriates. To supplement the advance money, which more and more clearly was inadequate, my editor had gotten a ticket to Bangkok for me from someone at SAS who owed him a favor. And then I had talked a nice lady who flacked for Intercontinental Hotels into giving me free rooms everywhere on the verbal understanding that the hotels I used could be mentioned in these books (something I suspected I would not honor).
As I moved about, old characters and new ones came into the story as, for a start, I moved through Singapore and Thailand and Indonesia – and I was thinking that this was where I was meant to be. I was thinking this in part because I had spent some of those seven years away based in Beirut, which was noisy where Southeast Asia was silent – crowded and pushy where Southeast Asia was free flowing and polite and graceful – violent where Southeast Asia, despite its wars, seemed pacific – Beirut with its pretensions and false Frenchness and its assassins and militias – the Middle East in so many aspects as ugly and fake as Southeast Asia was beautiful and, with some effort my part, as erotic and exotic as a free-flowing fantasy. And the years away had not just been in the Middle East, though the only part I reallyi liked has been brief trips to Latin Countries.
It was in this time that my novel came out and its publication was surprisingly depressing for me. Since Beirut I had been living partly in a musty hotel near the sorry old State Department in Washington, the world’s most mundane place, and partly in a cheap room I rented in a condemned Upper West Side floor-through inhabited by sixties hold-over Maoists and Soviet Communists and Anarchists.
But now I was back in worlds of excitement – first Bangkok which surely I had immortalized in that one published novel (which I had thought would give me safety) and other published books – published, my God, which was what separated me from the crowd, though I was not convinced of it - no more safety than from the hack books I did, including horribly genteel school library-type books and also soft core porn. Yet I was back now in that part of the world I had so longed for in dreary, hazy times in the Middle East and l Washington, and also New York, which was an unrealized place for me this time. I was back, and I had never felt so alone. For one thing, the guys I had known had mostly married, mostly to lovely Asian girls, while I had been away, and I had turned forty and serious romance was deep in the past. I felt as if the seven years was a lost time, lost to booze and places and people I had never loved.
I did not make any family connections with anything – neither the mysterious blackness that could overtake me, neither that, nor anything else. I had not, for example, quite pinpointed such a grim matter as how the anti-Semitism in Beirut’s Western press corps was of a piece with background bigotry when I was growing up in family times and family places about which I had never written and had almost succeeded in putting out of mind.
I was exhilarated and also lonely and bereft now as I was traversing old ground looking for what had been there. By the time of this return, I had not been in love in seven years, not even to the point of faking it. And, that time away – it just felt like lost years now. Not that this was the first time I was lonely, but for the first time now I was ready, almost, to admit it.