By Clara Bensen
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Newly recovered from a quarter-life meltdown, Clara Bensen decided to test her comeback by signing up for an online dating account. She never expected to meet Jeff, a wildly energetic university professor with a reputation for bucking convention. They barely know each other’s last names when they agree to set out on a risky travel experiment spanning eight countries and three weeks. The catch? No hotel reservations, no plans, and best of all, no baggage.
No Baggage is at once a romance, a travelogue, and a bright modern take on the age-old questions: How do you find the courage to explore beyond your comfort zone? Can you love someone without the need for labels or commitment? Is it possible to truly leave your baggage behind?
CHAPTER 1 | Weightless
“So, do you actually know this guy you’re taking off with?”
Jaime looked at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were hidden behind his dark sunglasses, but I could tell he was teasing. The “guy” I was taking off with was his old college roommate, Jeff, who was sitting right next to him in the front passenger seat of the Volvo station wagon. The three of us were winding through the cement maze of Houston morning traffic on the way to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where Jeff and I were scheduled for a flight.
“Jaime, no,” said Jeff. He said it with a half smile, like a reprimanding mother trying to hide her amusement over a childish misdeed.
“Just saying,” continued Jaime, “that as one of the few people who’s had the ‘pleasure’ of traveling abroad with you, I think she deserves to know what she’s getting into.” He took a hand off the steering wheel, grinned, elbowed Jeff, and then returned to my reflection in the rearview mirror, waiting for an answer. Do you actually know this guy?
I didn’t know how to answer the question. I evaded instead. “Is there anything I should know?”
“How many hours do you have?” joked Jaime. “I bet he ‘forgot’ to mention the time he ripped the saline IV out of his arm and jail-broke out of that hospital in Paris. It was the morning after Bastille Day. Jesus, he was running down the hallway in one of those little paper gowns. You know—the kind where you can see the ass? Didn’t even stop to put on clothes, just barreled out the door and booked it right out of France.”
“Jaime, no!” yelled Jeff, with pretend horror. “That was twenty years ago. Our balls had barely dropped.”
“I don’t know, man,” said Jaime, shrugging his shoulders. “Let’s just say my rosary is going to get a workout during the next three weeks.”
I sat in the backseat, running my fingers along the embroidered hem of my dress. Out toward the horizon, past the half-built subdivisions and empty cement lots, I could see a line of tiny planes lifting off into the smoggy morning sunrise. We were getting close. In a few hours my plane—our plane—would be taxiing onto the runway. It was a fair question: did I actually know the man who would be sitting beside me as the wheels lifted off the tarmac?
Yes. And no.
I knew Jeff was a science professor and a sixth-generation Texan with a wild glint in his eye. I knew I’d thought, “Oh, you again,” when I met him for the first time, like I’d just bumped into an old friend. I knew our relationship had escalated into a flashing, tilt-a-whirl circus after a single round of tequila. I knew he liked chocolate with flecks of sea salt. I knew that he’d been married six years and separated for two, that he had a five-year-old daughter with bright, brown eyes, and that he chased the unconventional life like a migratory bird flying north for winter instead of south. I knew he was a sparkling provocateur, but Tupac’s “Dear Mama” made him cry and he occasionally stopped the car to gently lift dead cats from the road and deposit them under bushes—a tender-hearted joker, if there was such a thing.
But did I truly know him? I had no earthly idea. How well can you know someone you just met online?
Maybe time and circumstance didn’t matter so much in this story. In the handful of weeks since our first irreverent online dating emails—batted back and forth like tennis balls—Jeff had managed to penetrate my formidable wall of reserve. A rare feat. After a week, I agreed to meet him in person. Our first date was more like a reunion than an introduction.
Given our stark differences, the connection was surprising. I spent the first thirteen years of my life in rainy Portland, Oregon. There were seven of us: my parents, my three sisters, my brother, and me. We lived in a 100-year-old, one-bathroom Victorian house on Tillamook Street, named after an indigenous tribe in the Pacific Northwest. My parents chose to homeschool us, partially out of concern over our quality of education and partially out of a deep religious conviction. (I genuinely imagined the local middle school as a den of iniquity littered with condoms and needles.) My mother was devout, but she ensured that all five of us were well educated and socially competent. We bore no resemblance to the breed of Christian homeschoolers who were clad in long skirts and denim and forbidden to date or dance. The summer that the Twin Towers fell, we moved to Fort Worth, Texas. I came of age in Cowtown, where a storm could turn the sky boiled spinach green and snakes rattled in the grass. People loved football (almost) as much as Jesus.
In contrast, Jeff had always been a Texas boy. He and his three sisters grew up four hours to the south in Houston and San Antonio. He spent summers fishing and hunting for Apache arrowheads on the Hill Country farm where his great-great- grandparents built a split log cabin. In college, during his more conservative days at Texas A&M, he was a card-carrying, tobacco-chewing Young Republican who could tear up the country dance floor.
His personality was like Texas. Larger than life. As a kid, he confided to his doctor that his secret fear was not tarantulas or kidnappers, but spontaneous combustion (like the drummer from Spinal Tap who vanished in a cloud of smoke after a particularly epic drum solo). He was a live conduit, electrifying to everyone he met. (And he’d met a lot of people.) He delighted in sudden intimacy, adventure, spectacle, and flashy colored prints.
Subtle was not in Jeff’s vocabulary, though it was a go-to in mine. All members of my family were dyed-in-the-wool introverts (myself included). If he was the torrid, restless yang, I was the sensitive, introspective yin. For every pair of Jeff’s brightly shaded chinos and lightning-spangled socks, I had a cardigan in heather-gray or cream. My houseplant-to-friend ratio was 10 to 1. I could happily go an entire day without uttering a syllable.
A few weeks into our nascent romance, we took a personality test confirming my suspicion that we had diametrically opposed personality types: he was an alpha go-getter who could charm a gate off its hinges while I was a quiet dreamer who could listen to all thirty-three hours of James Michener’s Poland on cassette tape without dozing off.
At times, people mistakenly interpret my introversion as haughtiness. But Jeff was different. From the first date he made it clear that he was in holy awe of my capacity to sit still and reflect. He treated my penchant for silence as one might treat an alien species under care-ful observation.
“Just curious. How many words did you speak out loud today?” he asked a week after we met. We were sipping pints in a dim Austin bar.
“Before this beer? I guess I ordered a coffee from the barista this morning,” I said, counting on my fingers. “So, five?”
He shook his head in wonderment and jotted a few anthropological field notes in the little notebook he always kept in his pocket. “And how many words went through this?” He tapped my head with a wicked smile.
“Enough to make me wish there was an off switch,” which had always been true.
We were sun and moon, but it didn’t matter on the night we met: 7:52 p.m. on April 5, 2013—the exact moment of sunset, though I didn’t realize it when he texted me this exact meeting time, a pair of coordinates (30.2747° N, 97.9406° W), and a reference picture of a clay star crudely baked into a block of cement. Meet me on the star, he wrote. It was a plain-looking star with five terra-cotta tips revolving around a bright blue square with a crack down the middle. The plainness was deceptive. When I typed in the coordinates, they revealed the terra-cotta star inlaid right in front of the most ostentatious building in the entire Austin skyline—the Texas State Capitol.
At 7:20 p.m., I checked my lipstick, practiced what I hoped was a seductive smile, and walked out the front door of my one-room studio. The pink-granite dome of the Texas State Capitol was typically a thirty-minute walk, but that night I covered it in twenty. I moved in long, brisk strides down the sidewalk—an attempt to shake off nerves. I wasn’t nervous about the usual things one might worry about when meeting an online suitor—that Jeff would turn out to be a balding C++ programmer, or secretly married with a dozen kids, or really into latex, or the proud owner of every Beanie Baby model since 1993. I was nervous because I had the impression that some interplanetary body was barreling toward the Capitol, preparing to sweep me into its orbit.
I reached the star before Jeff did. He didn’t appear until dusk, when the streetlights along Congress Street flickered to life. I saw him then—a pair of canary yellow pants winding their way toward the front steps of the dome where I was waiting. He walked right up to the star and boldly kissed me on the cheek. That’s where it started, in a small world that contained everything within itself: long canary pants, a terra-cotta star, the perfect arc of the dome, and above it all, the last streaks of the April sun.
. . .
We were inseparable after that night, though there was never any formal arrangement. Both of us agreed that, at this stage of the game, defining our romance was passé and unnecessary. It was all very modern.
He taught environmental science at the University of Texas at Brownsville, five hours to the south on the Mexican border, but he was applying for a new position in Austin and drove up or took the Greyhound whenever he could. On the weekends, we’d lie in my bed and compose far-fetched stories. We’d guess the ways our paths had crossed in other bodies and eras. Maybe he was the calico cat that once purred in my lap. Maybe he robbed my stagecoach on the road to Flagstaff. Maybe we warmed our hands at the same fire on a frigid night on the Mongolian steppe. Maybe one day we’d fly a starship across the universe divide, like that old Highwayman song.
OkCupid, the online dating site where we met, has a black-box algorithm that seemed to support our chemistry (at least in this lifetime). Our online profiles had been assigned a generous 99-percent compatibility rating (though for all I knew, the metric was generated in a cauldron of rose petals and blond locks of cherub hair). Sound or not, the number gave me an extra hit of confidence when, after just a month, we found ourselves sitting at my kitchen table in a state of morning undress, apprehensively eyeing my laptop screen. We were one click away from reserving two one-way tickets to Istanbul and a pair of return tickets from London.
The trip was his idea. He was already planning on traveling from Istanbul to London for his annual summer trip, but over the last week his “I’m going to Istanbul” had evolved into “we’re going to Istanbul.” That’s how we ended up hunched over my table, daring ourselves to hit the purchase button.
“This could be a huge mistake,” I said.
“Running off with some guy you just met online? What’s the worst that could happen?” he said, slipping his hand around my waist like an old habit.
We laughed and hit the button.
At the time, it didn’t seem unreasonably reckless to travel to the opposite side of the world after a month of dating—risky, maybe, but not reckless. Jeff was one of those rare figures who simply appeared and assumed his place, as if the bond had always been there and he was just confirming it with his corporeal form. We could skip the intros and get on with the adventure.
On the other hand, even if we had perished together on an eighteenth-century schooner, there were still practical details that had to be worked out. There were histories to exchange and timelines to establish: family trees, past lovers, old wounds, long-held quirks, the source of the jagged scar on his lower back, the origin of my crooked smile. We needed to catch up on our current incarnations.
One thing was guaranteed: the road would pry the stories out of us. Travel, with all of its glorious disorientation, shifting time zones, foreign skylines, and incomprehensible exchanges, had a way of wearing people down to their raw, messy (sometimes drunk, sometimes sick) under-layers. If Jeff had Parisian hospital escapades lurking in his past, I had my own trunk of secrets waiting to spill out in the open. Jaime should have also quizzed Jeff on how well he knew me.
. . .
“I have a minor mental crisis on my record,” I’d confessed in an early OkCupid correspondence with Jeff. It was a low-key mention, carefully dropped in a stream of brazen flirting. “Sounds interesting,” he said. I hadn’t been particularly forthcoming on the finer details—like how deeply I had tumbled down the rabbit hole after college graduation or how very recently I had climbed back out of it.
When we booked the tickets, I didn’t mention that the trip to Istanbul was the first major flight I’d been stable enough to board in years. I said nothing about how radical it was just to leave the confines of my studio. He didn’t know that I was still registering the reality of a recovery I never expected to reach, that the trip to Istanbul was an expression of a new, insatiable hunger for the world beyond my door.
Only a ravenous woman would agree to the sort of summer trip Jeff casually described in his third OkCupid email (long before he knew my last name or if I actually looked like the solemn, crooked-mouth girl in my profile picture). He didn’t do luxury summer vacations. There were no resort packages or palm-thatched cabanas on white sandy beaches. He flew into one country and out of another with zero hotels, zero reservations, and zero itineraries between Airport A and Airport B. In my eyes, the fly-by-night style was adventure enough, but for Jeff it was just the beginning. He typically boarded the plane with nothing but a credit card, iPhone charger, and passport stuffed into his back pocket. What would happen after that was anyone’s guess—that was the thrill.
Wandering the world with no baggage was one of the more radical pitches that popped into my OkCupid inbox (in the running with so many BDSM sex invitations and marriage proposals), but I didn’t dismiss it right out of hand. I’d taken my post-recovery mantra from the poet Rilke’s Book of Hours. “Let everything happen to you,” he wrote. “Beauty and terror.”
In the initial four weeks of definition-free dating, Jeff and I had accounted for beauty with weekend drives through the wildflower carpets of the Texas Hill Country and long, desultory walks down the back alleys of Austin. Terror was crossed off the list the day Jeff officially asked me to come along on his baggage-less jaunt. The proposal came without warning as we were crossing the Congress Street Bridge. I was studying the red and yellow kayaks scattered across Lady Bird Lake like candy sprinkles when he suddenly announced, “I wasn’t joking about the trip. You should come with me.”
I stopped breathing when he said the words. Jeff had been traveling since 1996, and of the seventy countries stamps in his passport, he’d stepped foot in sixty of them by himself, with no companions. He prized his freedom of movement like a Tea Party Republican prizes the constitutional right to bear arms. Leaving backpacks and suitcases behind was shocking, but it was even more shocking that he’d asked me to come along at all.
The intensity of his request reminded me of the scene in Love In the Time of Cholera when Florentino Ariza proposes to the love of his life, Fermina Daza. Fermina, wracked with uncertainty, goes to her Aunt Escolástica, who passionately advises her, “Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.”
I had plenty of reasons to say no. I hardly knew Jeff. My income constantly flirted with the poverty line. I was still tending to my fledgling sanity. And yet the words flew out of my mouth and into the warm lake air as if they had wings of their own, “Yes. I’m in.” It was an instinctual, physical “yes”—a bone level, gut-guided judgment that preceded the speed of thought. I was getting on that plane. Even if I was sorry later.
. . .
Jeff reached back and put his hand on my knee as Jaime pulled into the drop-off lane in front of Terminal D.
“You ready?” he asked.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” said Jaime, chiming in.
I put my hand on top of Jeff’s, “Jaime, there’s no turning back now.”
“I know,” he joked, “But you should really call me if Jeff makes a break for the Bastille.”
“Don’t listen to him,” teased Jeff, “He’s just trying to get your number.”
The three of us climbed out and congregated in front of the car, where the differences between the two old friends were even more obvious. Jeff’s travel uniform was composed of lobster-red chinos, a lightweight striped sweater, and his great-grandfather’s gray Open Road Stetson, which he had opted to bring at the very last minute. Jaime looked formal in a navy tie and tailored office suit. (Jeff said he’d always been put together like that; he used to carry a briefcase to high school.) I could smell cologne as he leaned in to hug us goodbye. “Okay, for real. You guys take care of each other. I’ll see you in three weeks.”
And then he was gone and we were through the sliding doors and inside the crowded terminal. Morning passengers brushed past—paper coffee cups in one hand, rolling bags in the other. The only thing we all shared in common was the collective movement toward somewhere else—one of the faraway cities glowing with promise on the departure screens. We headed for the check-in desk, where a flight attendant waved us forward. She was polished, with a perfect chignon and a navy scarf neatly knotted around her neck.
“Any bags to check to Istanbul today?” she asked, as she scanned our passports.
“Trying to quit,” Jeff told her, matter-of-factly. “No bags at all, actually.”
She paused to look up from her computer. “I’m sorry. You don’t have any bags to check or you don’t have any bags, period?”
“We don’t have any bags, period,” he said, leaning into the laminate counter to disclose that juicy tidbit of gossip. “We’re going just like this.” Jeff pointed to me, Exhibit A: no suitcase at my feet, no zippered tote, no hiker’s backpack with sleeping roll attached. Nothing but a small leather purse.
The flight attendant raised a dubious eyebrow at me—the one not wearing lobster-red pants—as if to say, “Is he serious?”
“Unfortunately, he’s telling the truth,” I said. “This is it for the next twenty-one days.”
“Oh dear,” she said, horrified, like I’d just announced I planned to take up topless pole dancing. “Are you sure?”
Hell, no. I’m not sure. When it came to this trip, I could count the things I was sure about on one hand: I was sure I was in seat 32A on a flight to Turkey and I was sure I was in way over my head.
Standing in an airport with no baggage is a lot like the dream where you show up to a party and discover you’re the only one who forgot to get dressed. I felt naked. Unmoored. Weightless. I have nothing. We have nothing. My head was light with the nothingness. Without a suitcase to hold me down, I felt dangerously at risk of floating up and away toward the skylights of Terminal D—like Mary Poppins, sans her magic satchel.
And what was a suitcase anyway? It was just an object—a container for other objects—bound together with zippers, fiber, and stitching. It was a simple carrying device and yet, without one, I was disoriented, caught off guard. There was an overwhelming impulse to stretch out my arms and fill the empty space with something, anything with weight and bulk. A goose feather pillow. A sack of red potatoes. A furry Maine coon cat. In my twenty-five years of existence I’d never been without at least a few things I could wrap my arms around and declare my own. To walk out the door empty-handed was utterly foreign.
In the days leading up to our departure, I’d attempted to compensate for the nothingness by assembling the perfect travel outfit—as if the right combination of odor-absorbent fabric, multipocketed cargo pants, and Teva sandals could ward off the perils of wearing the same clothes for twenty-one days straight. But like everything else in the story, I ended up with something completely unexpected: an exquisite, bottle-green, button-down, cotton dress with a band of delicate embroidery just above the knees. It was bright, flattering, well tailored, and completely impractical. Yet the impracticality was the very thing that made it so appealing. If I was going to wander the earth empty-handed, why not crank up the surreal-o-meter with an unexpected touch of elegance?
We spent our last night in the USA at Jaime’s suburban house in Houston. Jeff insisted on setting the morning alarm at an ungodly hour so he could wake up and record a scientific log of every last item we were bringing. He was an obsessive documenter, constantly filming artifacts from his daily life—mundane conversations in the car, English muffins at breakfast, naps at the park. Regardless of the subject matter, he routinely deposited the clips onto a hard drive without so much as glancing at the contents.
The sun hadn’t even risen when I found him in the kitchen, meticulously arranging the contents of my wallet on Jaime’s wooden kitchen island, which had been converted into a vector grid. On the left, the total sum of his trip items were neatly folded and displayed at right angles to each other: one pair of cherry-red chinos, one Stetson cowboy hat, one pair of underwear, one pair of socks, a striped cotton shirt, an iPhone, a pair of earbuds, a charging cord, half a toothbrush, half a map of Eastern Europe, his notebook, a mechanical pencil, two hundred dollars in cash, one credit card, and his passport. All of it fit in his pockets.
On the right half were my things, folded and perfectly aligned: one green dress, three pairs of underwear, a cotton scarf, a black bra, a stick of lavender deodorant, a whole toothbrush, the retainer I’d been wearing since I was sixteen, a contact lenses case, a pair of backup glasses, two tampons, an iPhone, an iPad Mini, one notebook, one pen, my passport, a tiny black shoulder purse, a stack of cowboy magnets to hand out as Texas souvenirs, and a tube of cherry ChapStick.
“Morning, baby. It’s time to get naked,” said Jeff.
“I wish that were an invitation for naughty kitchen sex, but it’s not, is it?” I said, pouring myself a cup of coffee.
It wasn’t. The final step of the documentation process, Jeff informed me, was a timed packing exercise, in the nude, on camera. “What if Jaime walks in?” I protested. He was still asleep, Jeff assured me. We would do it fast. Fine, fine. I gave him the evil eye as I prepared to disrobe. The whole trip was an exercise in naked vulnerability. My bathrobe slipped to the ceramic kitchen tile as morning sunlight began to filter through the window over the sink. I was stark naked in Jaime’s kitchen, my bare skin prickling under the air-conditioning vent. Jeff snapped on the camera with one hand and started the timer with the other. He waved at me to start.
It took me eight minutes to pack for a trip across the world. I stretched my arms through the emerald dress, inhaling the new cotton smell that would soon be masked by sweat and beer. Fully dressed, I carefully placed every item in my purse and slipped into a pair of thin leather sandals. And that was it. Eight minutes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d forgotten something.
“Not bad,” said Jeff, clearly impressed.
His packing time was two minutes and thirty-one seconds—mostly because he threw on his clothes like his high school girlfriend’s dad had just pulled into the driveway. When the kitchen island was clear, he raced out of the kitchen, down the hallway, and out Jaime’s front door, whooping into the morning like one of the renegade Lost Boys. His pants were so bright that if he’d stretched out on the manicured lawn, Google Earth satellites would have picked up a small blazing red “V” just north of the Gulf of Mexico.
I briefly wondered if I’d still be fond of the blazing pants man by the time we checked into Heathrow for our return flight. Two people moving light and unencumbered through a series of unpredictable events sounded like a Zen haiku, but the combination of jet lag, customs lines, and crusty underwear was more akin to a ruthless speed date. Our compatibility (or lack thereof) would be rapidly evident. But in a way, the ending didn’t matter: I was thrusting myself back to the world in a bottle-green dress.
Jeff came back to the porch and gave me a coffee-breath kiss. “Should we wake Jaime up?”
“Yep,” I said, breathing in the humid morning air. “It’s time to go.”
CHAPTER 2 | Now We Wander
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2016
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press