Last night, “O” ring #20 failed. Snapped without a sound.
Unlike those infamous “O” rings from the Challenger disaster, when this one failed, no one died. Well, maybe no one died.
Or maybe someone did.
In 1988, I’d been dumped by a man I’d lived with for five years. In response, my mother had said, “They’ll never buy the cow if you give the milk away for free.”
Tempted to buy into her line of reasoning, I hopped a plane and outran my momentary desire to listen. The plane landed in Lima, Peru, during the reign of the terrorist group, The Shining Path.
Think black-outs, riots, desperados, and men who thought a single blonde woman traveling alone was fair game.
Starting with the government officials, the immigration officer hugged me and wished me “mucho amor en Peru.”
I didn’t find love, but I did run into a guardian angel, a Scheherazade who told me stories that kept me from fleeing back to the U.S. after events went a bit sideways. I was mugged and tear-gassed, fell out of a bus on the high plain from Machu Picchu to Cusco, and learned through trial and error about avoiding water-borne illnesses.
The high point? The vibe of Machu Picchu while it was still a sleepy pile of rocks on a mountain top.
Fast forward through Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China.
Wait—rewind. Let’s stop in Bangkok. I was telling you about “O” rings. I stayed in a guest house on Khaosan Road, a backpackers’ destination. Outside the guest house, hundreds of Tracy Chapmans (well, at least hundreds of pirated copies) sang me to sleep and woke me up with:“You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something…”
Not adding to the cacophony of street vendors, a silent man sat cross-legged outside my guest house, his arms completely encircled in black “O” rings.
I wanted some of those rings, so I bought twenty for five baht. Twenty rings around my right arm.
I never took them off, except when I got married. The morning after the wedding they returned to my arm, where they stayed until one by one, over the next twenty years, they broke.
It’s clear, now, that my flight wasn’t just about the man who was no longer in my life. It had more to do with leaving engineering behind, a boot that had been both the wrong shape and too small for my foot. It was about proving I had the courage to find my way through science writing and grant writing, to the point where I was telling peoples’ stories and then telling tales of my own.
And maybe I was a little ticked that I had been dumped
in favor of a sportier vehicle.
So yesterday marked the passing of the last “O” ring. And with it, dare I say my youth? Maybe. My cluelessness? No. Because I still feel clueless. But if I drink some caffeine or something with bubbles and avoid the mirror, I still feel youthful and vaguely wise.
Does it matter that a lurking dragon, a birthday milestone, with its half-baked breath creeps closer every night? Is that why I find it so difficult to close my eyes to the darkness?
My last talisman has broken. Perhaps I should stop thinking that anything died with those “O” rings.
Maybe it’s time to hop in my own fast car, to speed so fast it feels like I am drunk.
After all, I’m no longer starting from zero.