Methods of Transport
by Sarah Van Bonn
A car is a privacy that stacks itself upon the privacies of others like blocks, like the wooden blocks of that endless tower game—you know the one. The tower isn’t endless, but it also never really ends, even after it falls; that is the point of the game.
My childhood was car-based. It had to be. I was born near where the car was invented. If not the physical object of a car, then the idea of a car. If not the idea of a car, then the idea of car ownership, the idea that a car will take you somewhere.
My mother drove us in her gray Honda Prelude. It was where I first learned how unbearable the heat of summer can be. I stared out its windows at the cornfields unrolling in the flat stretches between towns and thought: It will be gone before I know it, this field. How can I watch it if it’s almost not-even-here?
We didn’t turn on the car’s AC because we couldn’t afford to use the gas for it. When we got home, I filled up the bathtub with cold water, but was surprised that the shock of it was too much to handle. Is there no middle ground, I wondered.
When the Prelude was over, we moved on to a teal Saturn. A different planet. It felt like a sign that we’d made it. We moved from our house near a highway and closed auto plants to a town next door, a verdant university bubble. I would be safe there.
I grew-up my brain in a strange jar: an “alternative” high school where nobody was who they seemed to be. My teacher there saw me. He helped me carry heavy things and fix broken ones. He listened to my secrets. He took me in his car to the car-birthing city, where we ate real food and heard real music, born from suffering, not from safety.
His car drove through blizzards to retrieve me. It rescued me, even, from my first heartbreak: he drove to the house I now needed to leave behind, and stood at the screen door, open arms ready to lead me somewhere new.
He taught me how to drive. My mother helped too. They were partners now, not just in my instruction, but in life-parts that had nothing to do with me. I hated to obviously fail, in front of people. But he pushed me through until I learned the rhythm. Clutch out, accelerator in. Accelerator out, clutch in. Partners.
After he taught me to drive in his car, he sold it to me: a Honda Civic. Now I was a car owner. I too could go somewhere.
That fall, men flew airplanes into tall buildings in New York City, a place I’d never been. A month later, my teacher-father crashed his inner sickness into me. Blocks fell; their endlessness was unclear. Goodbye to what came before. Goodbye childhood.
The car stayed with me for years as I fought to find an elsewhere, build a new place to live, a new personhood. I had only a small radius of places to go, but I kept over the same ground—it had to lead somewhere eventually.
I moved into my own apartment. I got perfect marks at the very institutional university that made my town an oasis, because I refused to let people see me fail.
Childhood was over. I put my childhood dog to sleep at a vet’s office three blocks from my apartment, and a week later, as I pulled out from that apartment, a dog darted in front of my accelerating car and smashed its headlight. It kept running, I did not. I tried to find it, but it had vanished.
Months earlier, I’d been that dog. The very same apartment, the very same move, I sped out without properly judging distance and trajectory and got smashed by another car. We were all fine, but what kind of game we were playing?
Maybe driving drunk was the ticket out? I tried it several times—it was soothing when the edges blurred. But then I stopped, because I loved someone. No, not exactly, but because of someone I loved.
This boy’s father had had an “accident” (it’s not the right word, is it?), a drunk-driving crash. The father’s best friend, in the passenger’s seat where best friends belong, flew through the windshield and was impaled on a tree. The father went to prison for involuntary manslaughter. He was rich, the owner of a successful health food company, and paid other inmates to build him a dollhouse. They used the roller from a deodorant bottle to make a crystal ball. When I saw that dollhouse, I realized it didn’t help to blur the edges. It was a ticket out, but not the one I wanted. The boy I loved may never have learned that lesson—I can’t say because I stopped taking rides in his car—but I managed to see past the blur.
Still, I would drive home at night sometimes and close my eyes—just to see how long I could keep them shut. Maybe, maybe, this was the way. Technically, I could have gone anywhere, at any time, in that car, so why did it feel like the opposite?
Is it surprising that I loved that car?—happy though I was to leave it. It’s dead now. I gave it to my mother when I left car ownership behind (the actual way to get somewhere else, it turned out). She drove it too long on a ruptured engine and it said: Enough. Now she drives a Ford.
A car is the method of transport that gives you the greatest freedom, letting you go where you like, when you like, but it is also a dollhouse prison: it traps you in anxiety and anger and a bubble of tiny selfdom, like you are the only person on the road, when how could you be? The greatest freedom is to leave a car behind.
A train is a language. It is one language with many different dialects. First you learn to speak it. You learn how to ask the train if it’s going the direction you’re going, learn how long pauses at each stop, where its doors are, how they open and shut, what’s required and what’s allowed once you’re inside them.
I took my first trains in another country. My mother and I went to visit my father, who speaks a different dialect of my language, in his country, which is like a different dialect of my country.
In this dialect, we didn’t need a car. Trains carried us places: to the seaside (“the sea beginning,” I called it), to the forest, around the city and back to the flat, which means the place you live, and I wondered why. But, more confusion, the flat did not mean the place I lived because after a few days we were asked to leave. I had failed to adequately love my father and the family blamed my mother.
But a train, I’d learned, took all the weight for you; you only had to carry yourself on board.
Children like to stand at the train’s front, staring out the little window, dying to know what’s next, obsessed with the simple notion of forward movement. It’s a feeling we only really enjoy when we’re young, the less we’ve left behind.
As a teenager, I once spent 26 hours on a train. I was on a school trip, heading west. The train had a smoking car, where I spent more than a few of the 26 hours, a pregnant woman and a 12 year old boy at turns seated near me. An observation car too, large glass windows onto large flat plains. A man there wanted to know if we’d like to observe some pictures of his boyfriend’s penis.
We detrained in a Western (but not Westest) destination and a somber newsbearer told us that a few miles away, boys our age had taken guns to school and murdered their classmates, also our age.
For days, I felt I was still on the train. I couldn’t look out of windows without a sensation that the ground beneath me wasn’t stable.
When I was no longer a child and no longer a teenager, I knew I had to flee. The ground is never stable, I’d learned that, but I was tired. I wanted a train to carry me, to take the weight of accidents from me.
Where would I go? I’d found my first trains across the Atlantic, so back over it I went. On the Paris Metro, the men’s eyes razored my body, a ragged gaze I felt the serrated edges of. It was a relief in London, where they softly looked away. London was easy but I wondered as I walked the empty streets at night, what exactly do people do here?
I could have stayed to find out, but London didn’t want me. Even though it’s in my DNA, I wasn’t legitimate. Britain averted its eyes from the “wild” pretty plants that grew up after its men roamed the world sewing their seeds and putting their greasy pale hands all over things, like they belonged (the things to the men, the men in the world).
They went anywhere they wanted; I couldn’t live where I came from. My parents had never married and this symbolic absence of a symbol meant I wasn’t a real person made up of genes from Great Britain’s pool.
I took a train, back to Paris. It traveled through the earth beneath the ocean; my eldest younger sister (who’s really-British) told me she was surprised, the first time she passed through that dark tube, to look out the windows and see only blackness. Where are all the fish? she wondered. Where is the water?
On the other side of the tunnel, I looked for a place to stay. I was used to the million daily tiny lacerations that come with having a woman’s body—I wouldn’t bleed to death. I didn’t mind being a foreigner in Paris, because I was foreign.
I asked in my foreign French to buy a train ticket, and the woman at the booth said, “Non. C’est pas possible.” I’d simply wanted flexibility, added zones. Impossible. I heard what the woman was really saying No to. I’d heard the way certain Parisians said No to certain other Parisians they considered somehow less Parisian, even though here everyone was, living in Paris. I thought: I don’t want to live where everyone is either trailing blood or holding tiny knives.
Then I met New York, a different world inside “my” country.
On the trains that move people inside cities, you learn a whole new set of dialects: when, where, and how close to come to another person’s body; which parts of the train are temporarily still but sometimes in motion. Are you allowed to lean against the doors? Can you hold them open if you really need to? Will they open themselves for you, or do you need to ask their permission? What do you say when you want to exit a crowded train? Do you even say anything or just give a pointed look or a directed bodily cue?
Their maps are a language too: What is the best way to get closer to your goal? Switch lines or simply walk? What are the rules to the way the rules break? Who runs local, who doesn’t run at all, what changes does the night bring?
The language of your story mixes with everyone else’s on these city trains: you’re surrounded but alone: a microcosm of city-life.
New York’s transit is harder in all ways. I’ve seen other city’s inner trains, and thought: the cars are so small, the platform so short, the map so easy. Even Tokyo, where more people than New York’s entire population move through a single station, Shinjuku, every day, the system is easy.
But if New York is harder, it is also better. The trains run all night. And the mix of stories is bigger: more stories, more mixes. When you ride a New York train, you can’t look at the person across from you and know where she’s from. You may be able to tell a local from a tourist, a European tourist from a Midwestern tourist even, but you can’t say for certain who was born in New York and who wasn’t.
Once you’ve become a New Yorker, you will recognize who else around you is a New Yorker—that is easy. But you will also recognize that what brought each of you here to this train is unknowable. There aren’t many places in the world where you really cannot say.
A city train is where you learn what type of person you are. Does your face melt into a passive mask, a neutral clay ready to transform into a smile at the chance approach of an expected friend, a sneer at a strangers, bad behavior, a warning that you don’t take kindly to certain types of attentions? Do you understand how to position your body to protect it but keep it comfortable?
A train requires open flexibility; you must react to sudden change the same way you adapt to sudden jostles, from uneven track or conductor zeal, that throw balance off.
You don’t choose what happens on a train. A loud seatmate, a nail-clipper, a kind stranger who picks up the single glove you hadn’t noticed fell from your coat pocket, who holds the door for you without being asked, who gives up a seat and moves away before you can say thank you.
A train is a language, made up of words, and language opens up new worlds, words make new stories. Trains carried me through a decade in New York, past my most-major heartbreak, to new friendships, away from bad jobs, into years of faux-stability, away again to a new place, a somewhere-nowhere that can transform into an anywhere-everywhere, like a New Yorker’s open face, like a New Yorker’s unknown history, a New Yorker’s transformed smile.
When I first came, there was only the towers’ absence, like two missing teeth. Of course New York was the place to rebuild.
A train is a place where your privacy becomes public, and your public self is private. A train is where you can be no one—and be no one other than exactly who you are. A train’s track goes only one way; you have no choice but to move forward.
An airplane is an extended act of becoming. It is a gap that means freedom. It is a somewhere-nowhere that can transform into an anywhere-everywhere.
As I child I didn’t know to be scared of leaving the ground. I wasn’t sure how to tell when it happened, on my first airplane rides. To children, the laws of physics could be anything. Why shouldn’t flying feel like stillness?
At age 10, I took my first solo flight, across the country, nearly Westest, to spend a summer in the desert with a branch of my family. I wanted desperately to feel the earthquakes my aunt said were happening nearly every day, but they never registered. She felt them because she was used to feeling them, but their absence from my life meant I didn’t know how to register their presence. The desert dried me out. When a plane brought me back to my mother, in a place with rain, I went outside to soak myself in every storm.
A few years later, I was convinced I was a woman. It happened almost overnight, like taking a plane and waking up on another continent.
I flew with my mother to my father’s country, our second trip there together, but this time not for the purpose of seeing him. I agreed to see him anyway, met my sisters, who built new rooms inside my heart and moved right in. But my father didn’t know the way yet. He bought me a pack of Marlboro Lights. I had a leather jacket with an inside pocket, and when I leaned forward later, my mother saw the cigarettes and knew: Did your father buy those for you? I said he didn’t. But I was glad she knew he did.
My mother and I struggled a lot those first few years I thought I was a woman, but we grew closer on that trip. Toward the end, I told my father I didn’t have time to see him again and he got testy and said I should try thinking for myself for a change.
Of course I didn’t know as much as I thought I did—like for instance that I was not a woman yet—but I spent all my days—too much of every day—thinking my own thoughts. We flew back home and I was thankful to wake up on another continent.
Planes taught me fear and taught me how to leave it behind. I wasn’t scared of flying when I was 10 and went to California, or 13 and flew to London, but somewhere in the stretch of adolescence that seems so endless until it’s not, a many-headed fear flower shot up inside me, like a spine in every limb.
Who planted this tiny Athena of anxiety to incubate in my brain crevices? Unclear, but here I was: 19 and certain each flight would crash. Each time, a new worry. A small plane. They asked for volunteers. It was a sign: I’d plummet to earth when our collective weight was too big a burden for that poor plane’s tiny propellers.
But I made it to LAX and the transfer bus driver let me smoke a cigarette on the tarmac before dropping me off at the gate for the flight back home. I thought I could take that red-eye back east and wake up alive enough to go straight to class. We always overestimate our post-red-eye capacity. I stayed home and slept instead.
I felt guilty that semester for my poor performances. Every Wednesday I stayed at a friend’s house walking distance to campus, since I lived far and the extra time was a lifesaver. Every week, I had to push his limbs off my body at night, as he tried to wriggle his hands under my clothes even after I said “don’t.” Once I’d said “DON’T” again in a way that meant business, he’d complain that I made him feel like a terrible person. I’d shut him out—his snores, David Bowie or Bobby Digital at full blast through the night—try to find a route to sleep.
His neighbor was a Romanian guy who’d recently left his wife. “I knew it was over when I started buying two of everything,” he told me one night when he’d managed to get me into his apartment instead of my friend’s, and given me plain vermouth as though that’s a thing people drink.
The Romanian was here as a PhD student in my university’s physics department and I was taking a physics class that term. (My institution required well-roundedness.) I asked for his help with my homework, but he was only good at physics, not good at helping.
Instead I went to every office hour, where I’d impress my professor with the tortuous back avenues I’d created to arrive at solutions. I was lacking the simple equations to airplane me there. I remember something about Kevlar—is that the word? No, Keppler, Keplar?—the paths of planets, flight shapes, my calculations resulting in numbers with too many digits past the decimal point, the professor showing me a simple algebra equation that could do it all for me.
Once I had it, I could use it. But that’s the thing with math—how do you know what to do if you don’t already know what to do? I got all As that semester, though I spent the whole time feeling like I wouldn’t make it through at all—which is how the half-decades bookending that semester rolled out too.
After those graded institutional days, I found places to escape to, but the fear of flying stayed with me, poisoned the well of all my journeys, and the journeys to my journeys—until I poisoned it back. I swallowed the poison, in bigger and bigger doses, building up my tolerance, until one day, after months of following instructions to watch footage of crashing planes, to read the sad stories found inside black boxes, to will each metal bird I saw above me to burst into flames, I found myself up there, buoyed between two shades of blue, not unafraid, exactly, but not fearful either. I’d done it. I was free. I’d found the way out, the way up, the way over, the other side. Airplanes cured my fear of airplanes.
Airplanes bring you to the hardest-to-reach places. What greater gift is there, what harder place to reach, than knowing the broken parts of your untouchable insides can be fixed?
Airplanes change the state of things. You wake up a woman. You wake up unafraid. You wake up and the towers are gone.
Airplanes are the state of things. They made me. They brought me and my father together, an unexpected arrival. They removed me from my adolescent agony: the misery of my youth, a sticky glue over my mouth, finally popping one day to let the air in. Pop, an aerial verb.
I rearranged my life, cut ties, until I was free enough to carve any shape across the world, planes taking me to beyonds I didn’t think I’d reach, rearrivals I didn’t think I’d make it back to.
In the beyonds and backs, I slept in rooms that didn’t belong to me. Some were dirty, some clean. Some let in too much light in the morning; I had to cover my closed eyes with a mask. Some let in not enough; the daytime was dreary.
I wanted this shape of back and forth, of next and next, but it wasn’t easy for me. I was lonely. I don’t always like to be with people and I don’t always like to be alone, and sometimes the proportions of those two dis-eases created a toxic combination.
One bad spell hit me in Germany. I cried in a bathtub in an empty apartment in Berlin, warm water mixing into warm water, feeling bereft of something I couldn’t name, not a person or a place that I’d lost, exactly; perhaps not a loss at all.
I didn’t know that day was the first time I’d speak to a man I’d one day fall in love with. That the bathtub rested in a city I’d one day stand still in. We fly toward our futures but can’t see the shape our path makes until we arrive. Which, really, we never do.
What shape will I make with this time? How much of that shape’s geometry will come from me, and how much from outside? And how much of “me” has been shaped by shapes that came before, and how much does that matter?
Airplanes are like birds, but they are not birds. Birds preceded us and airplanes descended from us: our minds and hands. They look like birds because birds can fly. They can fly because they look like birds. They carry us in their birdlike nonbird bellies, to theres and heres. We fly them; they fly us.
At one temporary home, just after my first trip to Berlin, I watched cardinals in the backyard. They will still jump about in the bamboo and flit to the bird feeder after I’m gone, I thought. With their wings they can go anywhere, but they chose to stay. And me?
I am an extended act of becoming.
An airplane teaches: all of being is becoming.
Sarah Van Bonn‘s work can be found in/on Hobart, WNPR, the Rumpus, LUMINA Online, Proximity Magazine, Prism International, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Berlin. Read more at sarahvanbonn.com.