TODAY, WE WAIT
I was once a model citizen with zero discipline who lounged about Panama City for way too long. But in all of our waiting, I managed to find the allure of a city many merely pass through.
Originally written March 7, 2013 as part of a series called "Letters Back Home."
We talked of this in Phoenix, and in some ways I agree, that at best it's hard to reconcile the people that we were some twenty years ago and the people we are now. I've made my share of mistakes, yes, but I actually regret very little; it's so easy to look back at 13 and 14 years old us and think, "man, I wish I hadn't been such an asshole back then," but let's just say, for shits and giggles, that we could go back: what would we really actively do differently?
There is always, as I'm sure you remember, so much pressure when you're traveling: pressure to wake at a reasonable time, to see everything there is to see, to make perfect memories. To take pictures of yourself in front of the Tour d'Eiffel and Sydney Opera House. To drink beers every night among new friends. To engage in that perfect holiday fling. And every few days or every week you move on; you fall asleep on a bus or a train and you awake in a new country, and if you're like me then you may blink a couple of times and smile, reminding yourself that you've never been there before. Panama feels nothing like this.
After you drove me to the airport in Phoenix I found out my flight was delayed, but eventually, I flew through the night to Dallas and then Atlanta and then Fort Lauderdale. And then I took the long bus ride into South Beach and I saw my girlfriends, and I had just enough time to see them that I miss them more than I did before my arms were wrapped tightly about their tanned shoulders. I had to leave them too soon! We were just catching up, and then I had to get back on the slow and winding bus to Aventura, transfer to the Central line, and I shit you not when I tell you that I was crossing the threshold of the automatic doors of FLL fourteen minutes before my plane lifted its wheels from the ground. And Eddy, I tell you this story not just to catch you up on my last few days, but also to illustrate that this is also exactly how I feel about the last few times, before this week that I just spent with you in Phoenix, that I've had the chance to see you.
I get the feeling that maybe you didn't think I'd respond so enthusiastically when you offered to let me come and teach your 6th-grade science classes with you for a day, but I've already spent the last couple months being shuffled around between my friends various lifestyles and professions and I think it's been good for me since I'm in the market for a new one. I've been a bit of a chameleon lately: In Melbourne, I rolled my own cigarettes and slept out in the north end grade, and in Sydney, my and Dayna's nights would end when the goon* did. I spent days and cold evenings reading alone in Noah's Brooklyn bed just like he might and New Year's Eve dancing under the auspices of a seizure-inducing green laser in the rear of Tandem Bar with Sally. I babysat for my sister in Atlanta and taught my niece and nephew card games. I joined the ranks of hustlers with Lauren in New Orleans and rode a swift road bike through the French Quarter home every night. And then I was ready to move on, to start making plans, and by the time I was in Austin prepping to arrive in Phoenix the following day I realized how actively and swiftly I'd been changing recently. And then I got a tattoo.
It's crazy because I know that we're adults. I know that. But when I see your face, even when you're surrounded by your beautiful home and your wife and child, it's hard for me to not feel like I'm thirteen again and we are in our baggy jeans and flannels and combat boots. But there, standing in front of your class with 25 expectant pairs of eyes on me, I was suddenly very aware that you are an adult and that I, while grown, don't seem to be like the rest of you.
I like it here in Ciudad Panamá. I like it a little too much and way more than most people around me; it's a very transitory place and it seems to put many on edge. Here, travelers arrive from coffee farms in Nicaragua and the jungles in Belize, they come off boats from Colombia wobbly from the open sea, they have sat on the long bus from San Jose overnight and have taxied in from the station at the mall. And when they get here, there are throngs of Panamanians weaving about the dirty streets, and there are cars driving seemingly lawlessly with horns blaring, and there are the hundreds of colegialas giggling about in their pleated navy skirts, and it's all so off-putting for many. I get that. But the dirty streets and fast cars and humidity all feel like summer in New York which is one of my favorite homes. But mostly, I am so in love with our most popular pastime here: we wait.
We wait for everything.
We wait for the kitchen to be less crowded so we can fry our plantains for dinner. We wait for storms to pass so boats can arrive to sail us to South America. We wait for our cohorts to wake so we can figure out what our day will bring, we wait for the ferry to Taboga, we wait for liners to pass through the Canal from Colon so we can watch them lock up and down, we wait for something more interesting than another day in Panamá to drive us away. We wait for new people to arrive with news from nearby countries so we can plan that next move.
Then we find some reason to wait to plan that move.
There don't exist the same pressures here as in Moscow or Rome; most know little of Panamá and so we don't feel as compelled to thrill folks back in our various homes with uploaded pictures of well-known landmarks. We stay up as late as we want, we drink fifty-cent beers from El Chino down the street, we wake and make pancakes and plan our day on the spot. Sometimes we are ambitious: we have designs on a fish market with two-dollar conche negro ceviche or we decide to brave the mean streets of Casco Viejo. But some days, like today, it's hot and we want to sit around late and then go to the mall. No matter what we do we return at night and fix our simple meals, and then we pad about in our flip flops smoking cigarettes we've bought on the street for a dollar or so, and then we wait again. Some wait patiently, some expectantly, but I'm fairly certain that I'm the only one who revels in all this waiting like it's my only plan at all.
But see, Eddy, I've already been waiting. I've been waiting for money to arrive and planes to land and for emails to be returned. I've been walking and sitting on busses waiting for phone calls from my scattered bespectacled exes. I've been all over the fucking place waiting for something to spark my interest, for something to occur to me to do to end all this waiting and I'm still fucking waiting, and here, where yachts and tankers and cruisers have anchored for days waiting for passage from one ocean to another, seems as good a place as any to wait for a great idea.
I've been to Florence, but I've never been to the Uffizi. I've seen but never climbed the Eiffel tower. I chose the Stedelijk over the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Sometimes I regret these choices, like maybe I've let somebody down, but then I remember that all that stuff is still there, waiting for me to return. Sometimes, instead of planning them to a tee you can let your days and late nights unfold, and you may, having traded a day of snorkeling in the Carribean find yourself able to be one of the last men standing because you slept in late instead, and there on Calle 5 on a small town in the Yucatan you might find yourself sharing the last Corona over a brilliant sunrise with your dearest friend from high school who is about to get married in two days time. And it just might be perfect because you may have no idea that it will be so many fucking years before you will get to have a moment like that with him again.
Eddy, everywhere I go people tell me the same thing. You could live here, you could do this. And in Phoenix, with you, it seemed so reasonable that I could teach. But for now, I wait.
Tonight I wait late to go to sleep. Tomorrow I will wait through the hot, hot midday and on Friday I will wait for a taxi to take me to and from Miraflores and I will return to wait for the washing machine to be free only so I can wait for my laundry to finish.
But I can't wait forever.
I know this because even here the line handlers all eventually maneuver their vessels through the narrow cut and the sailboats all finally arrive from San Blas to retrieve their waiting passengers for the trip to Cartagena. And right now, someone might be on that long bus to San Jose, where they will be patiently awaiting my arrival in Costa Rica.
So please, Eddy. Don't worry about me; I am fine and I love you. But mostly, despite everything, I want you to be proud of me.
*This is Australian slang for wine in a box. And yes, it is just about as fantastic as it sounds.