On Turning 38

One week before my 38th birthday, I came home from my 38th international trip. I wanted it to mean something important. Two days before, I’d been sitting after a breakfast of mie goreng – Balinese fried rice, watching fitful, dirty morning waves on the Indian Ocean under a thick and heavy sky, annoyed that my forearms were sticking to the varnished tabletop in the tropical humidity and swatting away the occasional curious fly. I had come to Bali on a writing trip for two weeks and stayed an extra week by myself. I’d written far less than I’d hoped.

In the spirit of keeping my pen moving, I made a timeline and listed all the countries I’d ever visited.  Canada only made it on there once because I couldn’t remember all the other times (and when you grow up in Michigan, Canada feels more like another state, anyhow.) I counted them, and came up with 38.  I had some thoughts about including countries whose airports I’d visited – England, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, China, Taiwan, but that would mean destroying the perfect, significant symmetry of 38 years and 38 trips, so I left the list as it was.


This looking for omens reminded me of the gallon-sized, heavy-bottomed, small-mouthed cobalt glass vase that I had been keeping change in for years, saving up for my wedding dress.  It seemed like a small act of faith – every time I slipped a few coins through the narrow mouthpiece, I was confirming what I believed would happen. That, once the jar was full, I’d quit kissing toads and instead, be buying them for my future children’s aquarium.

But here’s what happened instead – in 2009, I was tired of being the only single one in a sea of marrieds with kids.  I took off for California in my black 2001 RAV4 towing a mid-sized U Haul.  The plan was that Mostafa, a retired Jordanian professional basketball player I’d met over a table of Bedouin jewelry in the ancient city of Petra and with whom I was now in relationship, would meet me out there in a few weeks and I’d live in his beach house in Santa Monica, right between Brittany Spears and Magic Johnson and he’d live with his aunt in LA until we got married. And I wouldn’t even need my blue wedding dress jar savings because he was a diamond assessor for Saudi princes and could earn in one day what it would take me years to save. Especially fifty cents at a time.

But then there were problems.  The address for his beach house didn’t turn up anything on my GPS, and the aunt who was taking care of it never answered the phone.  So I re-routed and hung out at a friend’s house, incurring additional charges on my UHaul while I waited for him to call and tell me when to pick him up at SFO. And then there was some nonsense about being jailed for traveling with $80,000 in his pocket and the customs people thinking he was a terrorist and holding him for questioning.  So I unpacked the UHaul into her garage and waited. And then his dad was in a car accident. And then Mostafa was called into court for tax evasion and placed under house arrest and had all his property seized…sadly, our relationship was not able to withstand so much misfortune and it ended.

And I ended up living in my friend’s basement bedroom, sleeping on a blow-up mattress for 10 months, putting up with her disgruntled cats pissing on my bedspread, going to divorce court hearings with her, watching my meager savings disappear and getting a job as the highest paid worker at a nearby day spa earning $17 per massage after tax.

Four hundred dollars a week did not go far as I was paying $1,000 a month between my car and student loans and insurance and a credit card or two and my wedding dress fund was repurposed to feed the parking meters and pay for the $4 bridge toll fee into San Francisco on Sunday nights when I’d go salsa dancing, the one thing that could completely take my mind off what a mess my life had become.

When the last quarter disappeared, I wanted to give way to full-blown self-pity. In the curved surface of that empty jar, I saw the distorted and exaggerated reflection of every hollow space I’d hoped a wedding dress would fill. Empty jar, empty bank account, empty heart, empty womb, empty life.

Thankfully, before I could really burrow into the warm, bitter stickiness of self-pity, I realized that I had a choice and that it could just be what it was.  An empty glass jar.  It didn’t need to mean that I would never get married or find love or have a child or a full heart.  It could just mean that during that season of my life, it was more important to feed the meter, pay the toll and work at a day spa than to be planning a wedding.  And so I went with that.

I have to admit that there was a certain degree of romance in walking to work on a cool, drizzly morning, feeling like the little match girl, working for a pittance with the other workers at the day spa, many of them village girls from Taiwan.  I was the tragic, abandoned heroine of my own story and I enjoyed it in a certain way because I knew that this would not last forever. Couldn’t not last forever. And, I reminded myself, this experience would someday make for good fodder for my book. What book? I didn’t know.  I just knew that I wanted to write a book and that every good protagonist has to have some interesting challenges against which to prove her mettle, otherwise there’s nothing to tell. Or, as friend once pointed out “Without a test, there’s no testimony.”

And so that 38th trip on the eve of my 38th birthday could just be that – travel catching up with my age in a sweet moment of connection. Or it was a cryptic promise that my life would continue to be filled with  adventure, coincidences, magic and grace.

And it has been filled.

So much wonder.

So much magic.

So much grace.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Loving your adventures and writing. And good riddance to Mostafa lol!


    1. naomiwhite says:

      lol indeed. yes yes YES! the nonsense we put up with…all for a good story!


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