Always Carry Dramamine
Traveling in the Age of Covid
Georgia O’Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965.
Airports compress large, incoherent groups of people under one cramped, masochistic dome. There is no headache like the headache of being too early for a flight. I was reminded of this recently as I returned to LaGuardia after a long hiatus from air travel. Joan Didion, the queen of blue moods, died not long before my trip. She was once dubbed, “the poet, if you like, of the airplane and the airport.” I was re-visiting her essays, waiting to board as the boy across from me read Dune. Behind me a woman complained loudly about the delay. I wanted to turn and yell at her, to tell her I was visiting someone intubated for Covid, that I too hate delays but remain cool.
Being a transexual traveler is not as glamorous as Jan Morris would have you believe. Dodging looks with my nice but affordable purse, being asked what gender of TSA agent I would like, waiting for the family restroom to take my estradiol. It's a real riot. Just like Stonewall, as the cis gay men I avoid want to remind me. Fierce, we tell each other, neither of us quite meaning it. Definitely, I say. Sometimes a girl can only last for so long at Berghain among a pack of guys who don’t want to kiss her.
Drugs could help, or so I'm told, with the dissociation and dysphoria. Often, I feel a little shimmer and persistent nausea when taking something. I get intense motion sickness when I'm a passenger in a car. My mother taught me to carry dramamine— though I've come to learn it's inevitable I will forget to take it until the symptoms are nearly unbearable.
Travel dislodges our rhythms, the ones we create to be semi-functional machines. Without our rhythms we turn unrecognizable. When I return to my hometown, I go feral. It's nearly automatic now, the slipping on of a certain psychic suit. I return home. I want to take my daily afternoon walks to regulate the emotional motion sickness of switching cities. Someone will have issue with this. I'm not a heavy drinker but I will ask for red wine with the holiday meal. Someone will inevitably put ice in the wine. Occasionally I will long for champagne, as when I downed a glass to counter an extreme bout of nausea in Chicago. Who knows why.
I spent most of Christmas alone. The day felt thin. I was getting ready for my flight with a friend, though ultimately I am a singular entity when traveling. I go everywhere alone. My friend brought me congee in memory of Joan’s passing. We sat on the fire escape and I ate the congee before downing a bottle of bourbon and calling home to check in. It was time to go back, I was told.
The creation and tending of home is a process we work at all our lives. The City is my home now. I don’t know how to live anywhere else, the tempo of the suburbs confuse me. I love bodega coffee, long walks in Brooklyn, $2 copies of classic books I may or may not read, the CVS on Myrtle-Wyckoff, and the people. I love all the places I learned different shapes of grief—the masochistic pleasure of walking in the same place that something beautiful—now broken—first happened.
It’s almost too easy to move through grief with wit. I’d rather take my blue moods. This isn’t to say humor and irony don’t have a place within grief—they come at the tipping point, only when all is lost and we need their hollow comfort. That isn’t to doubt their comfort. Some people who die are hilarious. Some are not.
It’s not a world I have much first-hand knowledge in, only proximity to the thing. My lung collapsed last summer. Old acquaintances came out of social isolation to wish me well (or, in one case, illness disguised as wellness). I woke up most mornings afraid my surgery would be delayed. I spent two weeks in a bed with a tube protruding from my side. Spontaneous pneumothorax. It often happens to people who are “tall and skinny,” I was told by anyone who could get me to listen through the melancholy. Nurses, friend’s mothers, surgeons. I have not traveled much in the past two years, but living in a hospital for two weeks is a form of travel. Strangers become close friends, asking why you won’t turn on the TV and then asking why you only watch day-time talk shows.
Before the x-ray revealed the truth, I thought I’d had a potassium overdose. My friend rushed me to Woodhull from the Urgent Care by Maria Hernandez. A nurse put me on oxygen. Over and over, doctors asked me if I smoked. “No,” my friend said after I was admitted. A gun-shot victim screamed next to us. The nurse left to take a smoke break. I asked my friend to try and smuggle in some food, we were both starving. We hadn’t thought to eat dinner.
Despite the fact I am no longer allowed to even be near smoke, my relationship to the act is still one of admiration. Smoking, despite its respiratory consequences, remains an aphrodisiac to me.
If smoking is so uncool, it wouldn’t have become so sexy. Every detective, every femme fatale, every chanteuse smokes—even in contemporary cinema. I still believe in the crushing beauty of an oral fixation. And I’m not alone. During a TedTalk the founder of Juul said nearly the exact same thing—hoping to remind us of the link between cigarettes and sex. Is Audrey Hepburn really ‘Holly Golightly’ without her long cigarette from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? One of the strangest erotic scenes I’ve seen in my life (yet no less thrilling) is Misato’s cigarette burning in an ashtray as we hear her moan in Neon Genesis Evangelion. In high school before I had any sense, all the women I fell for smoked Yellow American Spirits and all the guys I fell for hid Marlboro Reds in their lumberjackets.
We are all predisposed towards death. Everyone will have a brush with illness and debilitation, as many disability justice advocates have reminded us over the past few years (and let’s face it, since long before Covid). The ‘how’ is what changes. Many are wondering how fragile their lives are, what their lives are worth to the government, and how many undiagnosed underlying conditions they may have.
My lung is in her flop era. Smoking, juuling, and vaping all remain off-limits. The closest I’ll ever get to the stuff is kissing a smoker. On my flight, the stewardess reminded us e-cigarettes were prohibited. Of course.
After my lung collapsed, I didn’t feel like myself. A friend of mine told me many of the phases I experienced afterward—partying, for instance—were very normal after a near-death experience. She was speaking firsthand. I’m still trying to understand What It Meant even as I understand it meant nothing. I’m not convinced death or illness have any meaning other than what we need them to, to complicate this is to moralize or spiritualize the body in ways that lead to bizarre if not fatal political implications. I’m only writing this because I write things. I’m writing it because it’s relevant copy.
Writing has always been a way of survival. Even the bad writing has pointed me somewhere new. I only write sober, except the one time I brought a legal pad to Coney Island and let my brain spiral out while eating cotton candy. Maybe that was helpful too.
Joan Didion taught me a lot about writing, the complexity and complicity of first person. When I moved to New York, I didn’t know a lot of prose writers personally so I learned a lot from reading her essays on my lunch breaks. “Why would anyone ever leave the City?” I wondered at 22. I thought about the shape of the world. Her love of Coke and congee, her grief and solidity.
While traveling in the South, Didion discovered the scarcity of books that I experienced so often in my Indiana youth, staring down the magazine aisle in grocery stores, scanning the paperbacks for something to devour.
“In the university bookstore, which appeared to be the one place in Oxford to buy a book (with the exception of a drugstore on the square which had several racks of paperbacks), the only books available other than assigned texts were a handful of popular bestsellers and a few (by no means all) novels by William Faulkner.” - South and West
I didn’t sleep at all the night she passed. I lit a candle and read “Sentimental Journeys,” her essay on the myth of New York and the Central Park Five.
Later, as I read Where I Was From on the plane, I considered the way Didion attacked the fairy tale of California, her own mythology of home. I’m not sure I believed the fairy tale of my home even as it was told to me. On the plane’s descent, I saw lights blink into existence out of the winter oblivion.
Covid travel-writing must either maintain an ever-present haze of fear or eschew any idea of danger altogether. It was nerve-wracking to ride a plane, but not impossible. For a long time I didn’t fly, did not even consider it within the laws of physics to be able to fly.
For the first few months of the pandemic I didn’t leave my house, an intense episode of agoraphobia that only lifted later when I allowed myself the joy of bodega coffee. It took some time to realize not everyone was quite so insular. The world had not, in fact, ended. Perhaps I was predisposed to believe in apocalypse due to my Evangelical upbringing. I think, though this is rather generous to myself, it was also a desire to protect others.
Covid travel pictures and writing continues (and rightfully so) to provoke debate. The morality of travel is back up for grabs, turning on the axis of climate, class, and epidemiology. Many only post travel pictures to Close Friends on Instagram. Fair enough. Others post maskless pics of traveling abroad, feeling no need for asterisks. In Indiana, I noted the difference in how daily life was conducted, from liquor stores to hospitals.
I’m back at home now. Home-home, as in the City. A month later and so far everyone is doing okay, though limbo remains. It’s been a very blue winter. Depression comes and goes, sometimes due to seasons, sometimes due to circumstances, sometimes due to chemicals. I try to let the moods swing. I sit and type at my computer late at night, anxiously wondering if I’m likable, terrified of being an unlikable female protagonist. Yet the more one frets about being likable, the less one is.
Joan Didion probably never worried about it. She would’ve turned to the woman complaining in the airport and with a sharp look cut her off at the pass.
In March, I’ll be getting FFS and will be out of work for a while, if you are willing to donate I would greatly appreciate it. My Venmo is @hi-grace-byron
I wrote about the Sylvia Likens case and Leonora Carrington’s submarine escapades for Observer, my experience with insomnia for Nightwater, and Morgan Thomas’ new book Manywhere for AV Club.
a joy to read, for readings own sake. took my mind off all the shit I have to get done today-tomorrow?