Introducing my new book, A Backpack, a Eurorail Pass and Some Serious Baggage. This has been a different project for me because it is extremely personal. It is my story of growing up, choosing what I believe and overcoming abuse. It is twenty years worth of work.
Travelers, like writers, believe in the power of setting. Before this trip through Europe with my friends Jeanne and Bert, my setting had always been conservative, small town Idaho. I absolutely had to leave that environment and the people insulating me in order to gain perspective of the world and myself. Maybe most importantly, without this journey, I don’t think I ever would have revealed or dealt with my abuse. With the help and support of Jeanne and Bert, I found a voice in Europe.
A Backpack, a Eurorail Pass and Some Serious Baggage is almost twenty years of work. I’ve started and stopped writing it many times and revised the manuscript more than I can count. It was very difficult for me to put myself out there this much.
Bert and Jeanne have been involved and passed off on this project. Theirs are the only names that haven’t been changed. To this day, they are my rocks.
What I hope to accomplish with A Backpack, a Eurorail Pass and Some Serious Baggage is an honest account of a young woman’s struggle to get to a place where she can run unabashedly through the pages of her story.
England doesn’t put its past in museums or rope it off into National Landmarks; history is merely assumed into daily life. (Let’s Go Europe 1994, pg. 339)
I left the United States and it wasn’t to trudge door to door begging for converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons. Going on a mission for the church was the only credible reason for an unmarried twenty two year old woman to leave the country according to the folks back home in Paterson, Idaho. I was rooted in a religious, rural Idaho town whose population was less than a thousand. In my experience, small towns could be peaceful, nurturing and cruel.
I hoped my studies abroad program and subsequent travels would provide the freedom I needed to discover not only who I was, but who I wanted to be. The Mormon paradigm was all I’d ever known and self-discovery was not exactly encouraged. I needed to leave. I even came up with three official rules for my time away: 1) Be Worldly, 2) No Guilt! 3) Discover the perfect pint of ale. So here I was, living with a London family, attending school at the University of London, running amuck in England with an Eskimo named Bert, and living by my own rules, not my family’s and certainly not the church’s.
Despite my best efforts to remain apart from Idaho, there were times I had to reconnect. After all, there were people there I loved. My weekly postcard correspondence was one of those times.
I flopped onto the pepto pink bed in the pastel pink bedroom I shared with Bert, short for Roberta. I wrote to my grandparents, parents and Aunt Steph. I loved and missed them, but even if they weren’t exactly accepted by the Mormon majority in Paterson, they were a reminder of who I was expected to be.
I dealt the postcards onto the bed thinking that they would be particularly tedious today because I was running out of time. My semester was over. My classmates from various colleges in the Northwest were headed home. My only consolation was that I still had another month of freedom traveling with Bert and Jeanne.
I would start with the postcard for my grandparents. Mission or not, they were proud of me. I described Leeds Castle pictured on the front of the card and the maze I got hopelessly lost in because I had no sense of direction. The frustration was well worth it when I made it to the exquisite sea themed grotto in the middle. Gram liked stories of triumph after tribulation, particularly mine. I was, after all, her favorite.
I closed with most of the pertinent information; I was eating well, was learning a lot, missed them, loved them and signed it, Jennie Gal. I couldn’t bring myself to write that my prayers were being said every night. It was what they wanted to hear, and it would have been easy to include, but I had never been a liar.
I was about to start on Steph’s postcard when the phone rang downstairs, two vigorous rings followed by a pause then two more rings. Every call in England sounded urgent. Knowing my home-stay family was in bed and Bert was probably downstairs asleep in front of the TV, I slid my five eleven frame off my five foot nothing bed and scrambled down the stairs. I glanced into the living room as I reached for the phone and saw that Bert was indeed laid out on the couch.
I had known Bert since my Freshman year at Mormon owned Ricks College. As a Native Alaskan, she was pretty much my only ethnic friend. Bert was a round faced, brown skinned, Asian eyed, mischievous character whose smile was contagious. I’d never seen her serious side, until now.
“Hello,” I said knowing immediately the crackling airspace meant it was an overseas call.
While she slept, Bert played with her long brightly designed hair wrap like those you get on a beach in Mexico from a poor woman who was skilled with embroidery floss. Bert didn’t get hers in Mexico, but from her sisters before the funeral. I didn’t know how to deal with this Bert. This one retreated into herself, and although I understood the trauma that took her there, I didn’t know what to say to bring her back. Luckily, being busy seemed to help.
“Did you hear about Steph and Ray?” My brother asked.
“What, no is Jen there? How about hello?”
“I knew it was you. So did you hear about Steph?”
“No, what?” I ran a hand through my not so permed anymore thick brown hair out of frustration with my little brother. It was a habit I picked up in the 80’s when we wanted big hair. Darin knew something big. Otherwise he wouldn’t be dangling it like a treat he made his dog do tricks for. I wasn’t in the mood to perform.
I pictured his smug face. We looked quite a lot alike, Darin and I. Square jaws, ski-jump noses and easy smiles which showed slightly crooked teeth. Apart from gender attributes, our almond shaped green eyes seemed to be the only difference. Darin’s were described as warm, maybe slightly mischievous, while mine were said to be intense and mysterious.
“Quit being a jackass or I’m hanging up.” Even though I was twenty two and my brother almost eighteen, I still resorted to name calling. Sibling rivalry doesn’t ever grow up.
“Steph and Ray are getting divorced,” Darin hurried to say.
“The bastard cheated on Steph with his secretary. And she’s pregnant.”
“The secretary, retard.”
I rotated the phone so my brother wouldn’t hear the deep breath I took which according to my self-help books were supposed to quiet the drummer in my chest and the panic screaming through my brain.
“Jen, you still there?”
“How is she?” I asked.
“Pissed. And get this, Ray’s probably screwed other women too, might even be other kids. There’s all sorts of shit hittin’ the fan. I think Steph should cap him in the nads.” There was barely a pause before Darin changed the subject. “Hey, you got me anything yet? My birthday’s tomorrow you know. Is Jeanne there? Dude, tell her I’m not jailbait anymore and I’m totally available.”
“Not until tomorrow. Tell mom I’ll call,” I said flatly and hung up the phone.
I glanced into the living room. Bert was still dead to the world. She hadn’t heard the conversation. It didn’t matter, it wasn’t like I’d talked to anyone before about any of this shit. As I climbed the stairs I thought becoming blissfully distracted by my European journey was what I needed. That, and the root cellar.
The root cellar was the place in my head where I locked away my worst memories. It was aptly named because Gram’s pitch black, earth storage room scared the hell out of me. A piece of plywood on hinges groaned open to reveal cement stairs that descended into a damp, dirt walled, acrid smelling black abyss. Once I threw a memory down into the darkness like a sack of potatoes, I didn’t retrieve it.
Ray was the reason I created the root cellar. I knew it was going to be difficult to keep it locked down. Ray hurt Steph. Something I’d always wanted to prevent.
Back in the room, I picked the postcard I chose for Steph off the bed. It was The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Of all the people staring from canvasses at the National Gallery, this blindfolded girl kneeling in front of the executioner’s block haunted me the most. Her loyalty to family and faith earned her the title of queen for nine days, and then it got her beheaded. I tossed the card in the trash, realizing that writing postcards, particularly that one, would not serve as the diversion I needed to keep that plywood door closed.
I placed the other postcards on the nightstand and turned off the light, covered up and pulled my knees to my chest. I might be able to keep out of the root cellar, but there would be no avoiding the what ifs. I shut my eyes and my thoughts took over. What if being a lawyer and Mormon man in a small, predominantly Mormon city made Ray as powerful as I thought it did? What if he took the boys away from Steph? What if I had to tell? What if I was called into the Bishop? What if I was told to repent? What if Steph blamed me for all of it? What if she didn’t believe me? What if she hated me? What if I just stayed out of it? What if Steph didn’t need my help? What if Steph didn’t want my help? What if Steph shot Ray in the balls? What if I did?
The various answers to these questions played out in my imagination or in my short, but intense, anxiety dreams. Bert never came to bed so at first light, I got up and opened the curtains. The dull gray of the London morning was there.
I sat on the floor next to the radiator and wrote a sunny description of the last class party overlooking Brighton’s white cliffs in my journal, and then read from my English History book which read more like a soap opera than a textbook. When I heard voices coming from Eric and Liz’s bedroom, I showered and got ready to meet Jeanne at Victoria Station.
As I walked up the hill to the Rayner’s Lane station, I was rather sentimental. The semester was over and so was my claim to Rayner’s Lane. My cup of Postum and a scone at the local I had become commonplace, but today they were the last time. My only comfort was knowing I had one more adventure before I had to return home.
I was not quite so sentimental about the Tube. I boarded a train and realized I truly hated London’s subway that day and not just because of the stale air mixed with a variety of dirty odors that created the black boogers I blew from my nose after a Tube trip. It was the quiet. Only the socially inept or obnoxious American tourists talked above a whisper on the Tube. My favorite hobby, eavesdropping, wasn’t possible so I’d brought my juicy history book.
Before reading, I looked to see if Miss Idaho Lovely Lips was in my car. She was. This time she launched her dirt bike off a mountain peak and sailed shiny lips first at observers. Advertisements for Blistex plastered inside Tube cars provided the only knowledge Londoners had about Idaho. They featured a female daredevil named Miss Idaho Lovely Lips who, despite the dangerous activities she participated in, always had great looking lips. The one I’d stolen after a pub crawl with my literature professor and classmates featured Miss Idaho Lovely Lips riding atop an airplane.
The advertisers had gotten one thing right. Vast landscapes were featured as the backdrop for the glossy lipped adventurer. I missed being able to jump in a car, on a motorcycle, snowmobile or bike and in a few minutes be the only person on earth. It was easier for me to be calm in wide open spaces. For now, I would have to settle for having my own seat on a Saturday morning Tube ride.
My luck changed when I switched trains at South Kensington. The Tube was packed with Saturday morning shoppers. I found a seat next to an older woman in a turquoise slicker and a neon purple hat. Londoners seemed to compensate for their dreary skies through their wardrobes and home décor. The woman nodded in greeting as I sat. Idaho Lovely Lips wasn’t in my car.
I flipped open my book to a random page and there was Lady Jane Grey. The universe was obviously trying to tell me something. Was I Lady Jane? Was that what I was supposed to get? I turned to another chapter, but found my mind was too occupied with Lady Jane Grey to read. I wished I’d brought my Walkman instead of the book.
When the train stopped, the woman sitting next to me patted my leg before I could make my move toward the exit. “He’s not worth it Love,” she whispered. “Tell him to sod off, then get pissed and get on with it.”
“Thanks.” I forced a smile and smoothed down my big hair.
I exited the eerie silence of the Tube into bustling Victoria Station. The board said Jeanne’s train should arrive in an hour. It seemed like yesterday I came in on that train.
I was excited to have Jeanne, aka Barbie, back with Bert and me. She was the best distraction there was. Jeanne was always focused on fun. She would keep the cellar shut and the what ifs at bay. As an added bonus, Jeanne could help me keep track of our Eskimo friend who was evidently a nomad by nature.
I mailed my one postcard, paid my ten p to pee, rented a locker, and then found a bookstore. Bookstores in London were as prevalent as coffee shops in the states. I loved it. Reading gave me the opportunity to live in someone else’s head for a while which was probably why I chose to be an English major. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with an English degree, but I was succumbing to the idea of being a teacher like my parents.
I browsed through the store’s clearance novels. I was drawn to a book with the picture of a women’s basketball player on the cover. It was a truly odd find in London, England. I turned it over and read the back. Mandy Lewis is living her dream. It’s her last year of high school. She’s the star on an undefeated basketball team, college scouts are paying attention, her friends are solid, and she’s dating the hottest guy in school. Mandy’s life is going as planned. That is until Lisa comes into the picture. Mandy’s attraction to Lisa threatens her game plan. If Mandy and Lisa are together, Mandy may have to sacrifice everything for love.
I knew the dyke jock stereotype well. When I was in elementary school, I played football and basketball with the boys. I bought Star Wars figures with my allowance. I rejected clothing with lace, ruffles or flowers and I only wore dresses to church because it was required.
As a teen, I was interested in boys, but they had to be taller than me and able to keep up with me on a basketball court. There weren’t many who fit my qualifications and weren’t related to me in Paterson. The most noticeably queer thing for people in my hometown, however, was that I wanted more out of youth than learning to cook, make baby blankets and embroider on dish towels to put in a hope chest for the prodigious day I was married in the temple and started on a big family. My refusal to learn how to be a good wife and mother was not only a reflection of my neglectful family, but of my perceived sexuality as well.
I tossed the book carelessly onto the pile and went to the travel section. I noted a bright yellow cover belonging to a book called Let’s Go Europe 1994. It was the size and thickness of a standard bible. On the cover it announced it was written by college students as a guide for young travelers on a budget. Jeanne, Bert and I were far from wealthy. We’d worked, saved, and in my case, taken out a student loan to pay for our time in Europe. I decided the book was a worthy investment.
Back at the arrivals area, I sat and flipped through the first pages of Let’s Go. I paused to read about the importance of choosing compatible travel companions. I knew Jeanne, Bert and I would travel well together. After all, we formed the kind of bond that only outcasts at Ricks College could. Bert was a Catholic who tagged along to Idaho from Alaska with a Mormon friend. She was a follower with a knack for finding those who needed to feel like leaders. Jeanne’s Barbie exterior hid a recreant sent to Ricks by her parents to force her on the straight and narrow. And then there was me, a student athlete determined to keep my mouth closed and my soul open so I wouldn’t have to function on borrowed faith any longer. We were rebels with a cause to discover who we were despite being immersed in a religion that wanted to define us.
A train rumbled in and squealed to a stop. Passengers poured out and hurried off to various destinations. I quickly located Jeanne in the throng of people. English people were generally known for their propriety, pride and drinking boat loads of tea. They were not known for their platinum blonde hair, blue eyes and dimpled smile that revealed perfect teeth. Jeanne’s backpack was slung over her shoulder, she wore her favorite well-worn, blue plaid flannel shirt and loose fitting jeans that couldn’t hide an athletic build or a young woman who had attitude. Bad-Ass Barbie had arrived.
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