John and I stood in line. Again. So much of traveling overland involved standing in long, seemingly deliberately slow lines; lines for entry visas, lines for exit visas, lines for bus tickets, and in this case, a long, slow, line to have our bags inspected by customs officials somewhere in Iran. I carried a cloth duffle bag over one shoulder, and slung over the other, a bright green sleeping bag picked up in Rome for about $10 and probably worth even less. John and I were under the illusion that because we didn’t carry the olive drab, aluminum frame, backpacks favored by most Westerners, we didn’t look like tourists. As though accessories were the only giveaway.
Finally, I got up to the front of the line and dropped my bag onto a long folding table. Customs mainly searched for hashish. John and I were not that stupid. We'd heard stories of people who’d forgotten they had a gram stashed in a side pocket and had to pay bribe money or were tossed in prisons.
I opened my bag. The customs official looked young and fresh and genuinely curious to explore what oddities these young foreigners carried on their travels. He pawed through my stuff: several pair of bikini panties, one pair of jeans, a pair of black cords, a black print button front shirt and a white one, one black, leotard that I’d worn to ballet classes and, for some reason, decided was appropriate as a long-sleeve T-shirt, a vintage wool pullover I’d scored at Minneapolis Rags, an enormous belted, wrap sweater, and an aqua blue, floral print, mid-calf length polyester skirt that my mom had sewn for me in high school. She’d also made a matching wrap top but I’d shipped it home in a blue suitcase, along with about 30-pounds of other impractical clothes I’d packed. Every day on the road, I wore some combo of these things with my platform, ankle-high, tan, lace-up boots. They looked similar to the construction boots my older brother wore the summer he worked the railroads, and which I’d worn through high school thinking I looked tough and artsy despite the fact that they were two sizes too big. But my new boots, bought at the mall back in Minneapolis, were fake leather with fashionable three-inch platform soles so I topped five-feet-eleven and felt like a powerful Amazonian.
Resigned to the process of the inspection, I stood, lost in thought, until a group of young Western travelers spilled into the customs building, filling the place with life and laughs. They sounded so upbeat, joking around with each other. John and I were hopping local buses from town to town and rarely rode with more than four or five foreign passengers. We felt bedraggled. We looked like hell. But this group looked healthy and happy and, above all, clean. A guy in line behind me muttered, disdainfully, that they obviously were traveling by “chartered coach.” He said an English company ran buses between London and Delhi, and this lot was on their return trip. They looked like a party on wheels. It was the first inkling I had that John and I could have taken an easier route, and I was torn between envy and feeling superior as a badass road warrior.
“What is this?”
The inspector interrupted my thoughts. He held up a small, white-and-green cardboard box.
“Tampons,” I said quietly.
“I must open,” he said sternly.
I shrugged. Across the way, the bus full of lively travelers seemed to be having a great time. One young English guy wove in and out of the line, chatting with everyone. I couldn’t hear what he said, but could see how everyone lit up around him. He was an extremely beautiful man, tall, with straight, shoulder-length hair and the face of a fairytale prince. He moved like a man who was used to be looked at. And enjoyed it.
He caught me staring at him and smiled. I looked down.
The customs inspector had by now opened up the box of tampons. I was sure once he saw that the contents of the box were as promised, he’d toss them back in my bag and send me on my way. Instead, he held a cellophane-wrapped, applicator-free, tampon like a bullet between his fingers. He waved it, and the open box, high over his head and yelled across the room to his superior. The older gentleman looked mortified. He rushed over, scolded the guy in Farsi, and told me I could go through. But the young guy wasn't satisfied. He peppered his boss with more questions and shook the box in his face. The older man instinctively smacked away the hand of the kid. The box flew through the air and both men gasped to see cellophane-wrapped tampons falling like rain. They scattered and landed and rolled across the concrete floor of the customs office. The boss told me, “Go! Go! Go!”
Fine, but first, I had to gather the goods. Squatting on the floor, I waddled about, picking up tampons like an awkward, human, duck pecking at breadcrumbs when Mr. Beautiful Traveler was suddenly in my face.
“Here you are,” he said in a polished English accent, handing me a couple stray tampons.
“Um, thanks,” I said barely looking at him as I grabbed for more.
“I saw what happened,” he said still helping. “I'm sorry. You must be so embarrassed.”
“No,” I said, which was true because shortly after the customs inspector shouted across the room about my personal hygiene products, I’d managed to separate myself so thoroughly from the situation, I could have been watching a television tuned to a rather odd documentary program. “I’m not embarrassed at all. He should be embarrassed.”
“Sure,” he said, and the two of us rose simultaneously from the floor to stand. He was tall and so flipping beautiful. I held the box of tampons in both hands like a bridal bouquet.
“They call me Oxford,” he said.
"Why Oxford? Did you go to school there or something?”
“Queens College,” he said.
“Then why do they call you Oxford?
He seemed taken aback then explained, without making me feel like a total idiot, that Oxford consisted of several colleges, and he’d indeed attended one of them. Beautiful, kind, and wicked smart, I thought. I felt grimy, bloated, greasy-haired, uneducated, and suddenly acutely embarrassed.
“You are American,” he said.
“I’ve never fancied going to the States,” he said.
“Did you have a bad experience there?”
He seemed, again, taken aback.
“I’ve never been,” he said.
“Oh, sorry. I thought ‘fancied’ meant liked.”
“It does,” he said slowly.
“Well, how do you know you don’t like America if you’ve never been?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized what Oxford meant with his “fancy” language, that he had no desire to visit the United States, and suddenly I was embarrassed for the misunderstanding, and for the tampons, and also a little pissed off that my new acquaintance had just dismissed an entire country, my country, and by proxy me, as not worth his fancy. We stood there staring at each other. You know how people talk about electric, heart-zapping, here-and-now moments of love at first sight? This was pretty much the opposite of that. An invisible, insurmountable, wall stood between us and I, for one, was tired of smacking my head against it.
“Alright,” he said. “I’d better go before they leave without me.”
And that was the last I saw of Oxford. Months later in India, I would meet a New Zealander who had traveled from Europe on that same bus as Oxford. I asked, hopefully, if he was a jerk.
“No, he was great, everyone liked him,” he said . “The women all had crushes on him. Oxford flirted but never paired off because, I reckon, no one was in the same league with those looks and education and charisma. I’m straight as an arrow and I would have fucked the bloke brainless if he’d asked!”
From memoir Overland; image @194angellstreet #write @ellowrites @ellocollaboration
This is a work in progress so comments are greatly appreciated.