by Louise Rafkin
I lie when I travel. I've made up stories about who I am and what I'm doing and even what my name is. Blame the recirculating air, blame the peanuts or simply blame me -- the lies seem to just fall out of my mouth.
This isn't a new phenomenon; my penchant for reinventing myself during travel dates back to when I was 12 years old and flying solo from Los Angeles to Washington to visit a friend. After having been anointed with metal wings by the friendly stewardess whose charge I was, I let the particulars of my small-town life disappear. Perhaps my parents had divorced and I was on my way to visit my rich and famous father?
Perhaps I was being sent overseas, to some special school, but first I had to stop in Washington and learn a new language? Perhaps the President himself had called me to the White House ... but why? I toyed with the story until we landed.
During my college vacations, I traveled around Europe with a friend. Toting copies of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, we fantasized about being continental and worldly. We wore flowered dresses and strappy sandals to set us apart from our jeans-wearing compatriots. Each of us added a romantic ending to our name -- I became Louisa, Frances become Francesca -- and claimed status as "artist." When the New Zealander who would later become my first real beau approached us on a beach in St.-Tropez and asked what part of the United States we were from, it was clear our ruse had failed.
>"How did you know we're Americans?" I asked, wondering if perhaps this bearded stranger was psychic.
"Your thighs," he answered. "You have large thighs." I must have looked horrified because, stammering, he continued: "American girls have muscles. . .and the French are built like birds. The English have ankles as thick as piano legs." In time, I forgave him.
There was also a period when, considering a name change, I would try out a new one each time I introduced myself to a seatmate on a plane. I have flown as Eliza (a name I think I could live with), and Sam (too cute), and once, on a flight to visit my mother, I tried the world as an Amanda. My seatmate, a kind trucker from whom I learned a little about truck stops and weigh stations, seemed confused when my mother welcomed me at the gate by name -- my real name.
While traveling, people are freed from the trappings of home and routine; identity is cobbled together through impressions and signs. Businessmen usually travel in full costume and are therefore easy to peg, but many people on the road can be anybody or anything. As a fairly innocuous looking woman, I found it surprising, when, on a book tour in St. Louis, my identity was drastically misconstrued.
I had decided, after consulting a map, to walk from my hotel to the store where I was scheduled to read, almost a straight shot downtown. I set off, book bag in hand. Several blocks later, a large sedan slowed and pulled to the curb next to me. The window electronically lowered.
A middle-aged man in a dark suit leaned across the front seat; I imagined he wanted directions. "How much?" he inquired. He smiled pleasantly. "Get in and we'll negotiate," he chirped. "I've got 50 bucks burning a hole in my pocket."
It finally hit me what he was after. And -- I'm a bit ashamed to admit -- there was a nanosecond during which I considered getting in the car, if only to satisfy my curiosity. How would he negotiate? What does 50 bucks buy in the hinterlands? But soon the image of me limbless and stuffed in a Dumpster flashed through my mind. I backed up from the car and only then noticed the X-rated video stores with their pink neon lights; the adult bookstore, completely curtained across the front windows. Sometimes who you are is dependent on where you are.
My most recent foray into lying en route happened this past summer. On a whim, and because I had already read nearly every magazine that was out that month, I picked up a copy of Bride's magazine at an airport newsstand. "Are you getting married?" my neighbor inquired. "Yes," I replied.
By the time our flight touched down, I had spun the entire story. I was engaged to a surgeon named Hank. We were to have a garden wedding. I was pretty sure I was going to forgo a train, but a small one might be nice. I coveted a veil. My seatmate, having married off a daughter several years back, was eager to discuss details and give advice. "They get you on the alterations," she warned. By the time we disembarked, I almost expected to find Hank waiting at the gate. "Good luck," my confidante said. She waved me off and I was actually sad that neither she nor I would attend this event.
It is said that travel is broadening, that we go places to find out who we are and to expand our ideas of who we might become. I agree wholeheartedly. I merely expand this concept further: by lying I am actually able to be who I am not, or might never become.