WHEN THE SUV I took from the train station to my hotel in Lhasa last January got blocked by two men haggling over a yak’s head, I had one thought: I could not be farther away from my little red house in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d had that thought before—on a starlit night on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca; on a crowded street in Phnom Penh as a man clutching an AK-47 strolled past me; on a boat in the Mekong River bumping against other boats loaded with jackfruit, mangosteen and durian. The realization that I am somewhere removed from life as I know it, somewhere no one can reach me, where I can’t read menus or street signs and where the very air I breathe smells different, brings me a strange comfort.
Ever since 2002, when my daughter Grace died suddenly at the age of five from a virulent form of strep, I have had the desire to flee. At first, I wanted to sell our house and move—to Oregon, to Italy, to the moon. It didn’t matter where. What mattered was that I leave the familiar rooms and streets where Grace’s footsteps now echoed louder than they had when she was alive. Our kitchen floor still had glitter on it from the art project she never finished. In the corner of one room I found her ballet tights rolled into a ball, still smelling of the mild stink of her feet. In her bedroom, wrappers from forbidden candy she had sneaked nestled in drawers. When I stepped out the front door, when I walked down the street, I could still see her dashing ahead of me in her metallic purple sneakers, her big brother, Sam, at her side. “Stop at the corner!” I could hear myself shout. I had worried about a speeding car careening down one of the alleys that line our neighborhood when I should have been dreading a microscopic, deadly bacterium. How foolish the panic in my voice seemed now.
After Grace died, I wanted to run away, to go somewhere mysterious and distant. Surely, I thought, there were places in the world where I would not be haunted. I had been a nomad of sorts for most of my adult life. Looking back, perhaps I have always been running away. From a small-town childhood. From broken hearts—my own and those I broke. From loneliness and a restlessness that has bubbled in me for as long as I can remember.
My father used to tell me stories about his years in Peking (Beijing) in the late 1940s. People dropped dead from starvation right at his feet, he said. There were dark rooms where men gambled. Women still had bound feet and limped down the street behind their husbands. He told me how he’d skied in Greece and scuba dived off the coast of Haiti. He ate dog in Morocco and got bit by a mongoose in Cuba. Perhaps it is no surprise then that at the age of 16, I took the $500 I’d earned in two years of modeling for the local department store, Jordan Marsh, and flew to Bermuda, where I snorkeled and drank rum swizzles and lay on a beach of pink sand. With the next year’s savings, I flew to Nassau in the Bahamas to eat conch chowder and dance to steel drums. And so it went through college: a voodoo ceremony in Brazil, a double rainbow on Maui, Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
When I graduated, the only job I wanted was as a flight attendant with an international airline. I studied route maps the way my friends studied Kap-lan books for the LSATs and GREs. I memorized codes for airports—LHR, CDG, MIL—intending to visit every one. In eight years at the airline, I flew more than a million miles. When not in the air, I sailed down the Nile and climbed the Acropolis; I bought knockoff handbags in Rome and watches in Zurich; I wore out dozens of shoes on cobblestone streets. Even after my job ended, I planned getaways. When Sam was born, and then Grace, I kept going, breaking umbrella strollers on the bumpy sidewalks of Warsaw. Three years after Grace died, my husband, Lorne, and I adopted a little girl, Annabelle, and within three weeks she was on my lap in a boat on Lake Titicaca.