97. Amanda Perry, Tour Guide

I am not a tour guide. I mean, I was a tour guide but that was a while back. And only because I didn’t know what else to do with myself when I was in my early twenties and supposed to have a job of some sort. I really had not education to speak of back then. Or at least I didn’t think I did. And I certainly didn’t have any professional training. Not any formal professional training at any rate. But I’d been around. My father was military. Flew planes for a while and then moved up the ranks to what he called ‘flying a desk.’ My mother drank. Not a lot at any one time. Never passed out or anything. Just enough as she used to say to get through the afternoon.  We lived all over Europe and a lot of the Far East from time to time. My two brothers and I were pretty much on our own. School was sketchy at best. They had programs for dependents but they all sort of sucked. They never knew what to do with me. Every time Daddy was reassigned and it was a lot, there was a different school. And every time there was a different school, they were teaching something I had already learned or I had no idea what it was. And friends? Not really. I was always the new kid. But every one of the military kids was a new kid. We learned not to get too close to anyone. We could move tomorrow and never see them again. I remember just a few classmate’s names from my school years, none from the early grades and maybe half a dozen from when I was a teenager. I never did graduate high school. Not with the usual ceremony with the funny hat. Years later, when I wanted to get a college degree, I had to take a test to prove I wasn’t totally illiterate and then go to a junior college to make up credits. The kicker was: during my entire childhood, reading was my saving grace. I read anything I could get my hands on. Novels, textbooks, history books. Military training manuals. Anything. Whatever was at hand. I liked historical novels, some romantic novels – what you’d call ‘girlie books, books about different countries, and travel adventures. My mother was always worried that something would happen to me or to my brothers. We were usually living in foreign countries and were American nationals. She thought we would be kidnapped and held for ransom or worse. She wasn’t so worried when we were stationed in the States. But she was still worried. The good thing though – as long as we were in the house, we could do what we wanted or read what we wanted. My brothers played Monopoly endlessly. They combined five sets into one and a single game could go on for months. Every now and then, Mama would go on a tear about them not doing their homework or going their outside to play catch or ride a bike around the neighborhood. But she pretty much left me alone. I was reading. What harm in that? Mostly none. But I got into weird stuff, especially in junior high. In didn’t have a boyfriend but by the time I was fourteen, I’d read a lot about what to do with one if I had one. The other thing I did was, unlike my brothers, I always spent time with some of the locals. They usually found me a little strange and amusing. And I had the same view of them. So, it was fun. Almost by accident, I picked up more than a few languages: French, German, Japanese, Korean. I thought I was pretty sophisticated – a world traveler who had read a bunch of dirty books – except I was almost totally innocent. I found out just how innocent when my father retired from the Air Force, He was a colonel and it was clear he wasn’t going to go any higher. Suddenly, we were back in the United States living in a regular suburb, going to a regular school. Like no more moving. We were permanent. And I was a disaster. The thing about being always in transit is that you keep a certain sameness in your world, at least as best you can. It avoids getting disoriented. But landing at a large, suburban high school in the middle of my sophomore year blew all that away. None of the tricks I’d learned to avoid schoolwork and fitting in worked here. I mean I was totally lost. And American boys were nothing like the boys I’d run into overseas. To top it all off, my mother was in even worse shape than me. Daddy was home every night. No long deployments. There was no officer’s club when she didn’t want to cook. Restaurants were expensive. Daddy had gotten himself a job at a government agency, something to do with security so he couldn’t talk about work. And she knew no one. All the regimentation of life on a military base was gone. We were in our own country but felt a lot like strangers. My brothers, though, loved it, somehow fitting in as if nothing had changed. There were some bright spots for me. My teachers were amazed at my facility for language. At the time, I may have spoken four or five fluently, in addition to my native English – although with a slight midlands British accent. And they were equally amazed and sometimes appalled at the range of my reading. And some of the girls in my class were freaked out by my outfits, especially the stuff I got in Japan. So, all this overseas stuff might give you some idea why one of my first jobs was as a tour guide.  But that’s only part of the story. I’m no beauty but I’m not too bad looking. Some say I am sort of sexy in an exotic way. Maybe. But standard-issue American boys tended to stay away. The word was, I scared them. That was fine with me for the most part. There were one or two cuties I could have gone for but they apparently didn’t go for this weird kid who wore odd clothing. Roger, on the other hand, was French, displaced and unhappy when he was sent to live with his mother and her new husband in the States, and, so, the two of us fell in with one another. We really didn’t know what to do with one another. But one thing led to another. When we finally made love (at his mother’s house; she was never home), we were aghast. What had we done? Fortunately, we knew enough to be careful. We had a long discussion and concluded we had gone too far, we shouldn’t do that again, and maybe we should try to stay away from one another to let things cool off a bit. And we did just that. For four days. We couldn’t stand it any longer. We were teenagers after all with no more self-control than squirrels. And over eighteen. Actually, I was a few months older than Roger. We thought we could keep our lovemaking a secret from everyone and perhaps we did. In both our cases, our parents were very busy. I know mine assumed that I was a totally innocent child who only knew about sex from the book my mother had given me when I was eleven or from hygiene classes at school. When they asked about Roger, I said we are friends and he is the only one around who speaks French with me. When June came around, Roger graduated. I did not. My scattershot education had left me with half-a-year credits short. So, I would need to finish up over the summer and into next fall. Roger, on the other hand, was headed for college. In Paris. He left in the middle of the summer. We promised to stay in touch by letter. The internet was a way off so it was hand-written letters. Our letters went back and forth fairly regularly but slowly, inevitably, they began to trail off. Roger’s courses were more challenging than he’d expected. I got an after-school job and was taking an extra load of courses, mostly sciences, so I could finally graduate high school. And after a while, that was that. Except for an occasional note, we drifted apart. I am sure he was having other relationships; I did not, at least not for some time. My facility for language landed me the job I mentioned at a travel agency, booking trips for people who wanted to travel abroad. The language part of it was minimal. I did it for a couple of years. Then, moved to New York City and got a job as a tour guide for Europeans visiting the States. I got to meet a lot of people and became very good at having very superficial relationships. I was hit on a lot. And every now and then, when the mood hit me, I’d have some sex with someone. It wasn’t a very satisfying way to live but I was making some money and could pretty much run my life the way I wanted. But I was going nowhere. And that made me a perfect candidate for something that changed everything. I got a call one evening from my father. He said he had told a colleague about me and it might be a good idea to meet with her. “Could I take a train down to Baltimore? Someone would meet me.” He would set up all the details. The whole thing was strange, starting with getting a phone call from my father. We had been a bit distant ever since he figured out what had been going on between Roger and me. He had not approved. He told me he was disappointed in me and he and my mother were hurt by my behavior. I think he was also upset by my apparent aimlessness. After finally graduating high school, I was pretty emphatic about not going to college. I told him I was done with school and, if I wanted to study something, I’d do it on my own. I never told my parents about the courses I took at night. There was a three- or four-year period when we didn’t speak at all. I’m not sure they knew where I lived or what I did for a living. The point for me was to be independent. They didn’t give me much attention when I was growing up and I suspect I was pretty mad at them about that. I let them know I was moving to New York. And, after I moved, I would visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And sometimes at Easter. It was good to see my brothers. Beyond telling them I worked as a tour guide for a European company, I didn’t say much about my life. I suspected they would think I was some sort of aimless drifter, at best, and a wanton whore, at worst. And I didn’t tell them about taking some time off and getting a degree at Columbia. Screw that! Anyway, I worked out a time for an appointment with this woman he wanted me to meet, got tickets for the Acela in the mail and a form for recording travel-related expenses, and directions. It came by some kind of special courier. All very organized and a bit inscrutable. Just as promised there was a driver dressed in a dark suit and a red tie with a blue button in his lapel button waiting for me in the main lobby of the station. In thinking about it, he must have had a photo of me because he saw me before I saw him. He called me “ma’am” and introduced himself as Johnson, took my bag, and asked me to follow him to the car, a dark sedan, maybe a Ford. We got on a highway and drove to a very large and black, government building, somewhere between Baltimore and Washington. There’s not a lot I can say about the rest except having a feeling which must be sort of like the out-of-body experience you hear about. I was definitely creeped out. The woman I was to meet was pleasant enough, about twenty years older than me. She turned out to be a sort of concierge, arranging my filling out forms and meeting with maybe ten or fifteen people over the two days I was there. But they put me up in a very nice hotel with an even nicer restaurant. I was told to enjoy myself. And I did. One of the best shrimp cocktails I ever had. A very nice steak. And flan for dessert. I had just a sip of the martini I ordered with the shrimp and drank only half a glass of the wine I ordered. I was to be picked up the next morning at eight-thirty so I had coffee in my room for breakfast. I spent the whole of the next day in that large and black building, all of it in one room, meeting one person after another. They brought lunch in. And at the end of the day, I was on the train, back to New York, feeling turned inside out, and thinking only about getting out of these damn clothes and into a hot shower. A week later, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell was that all about?” Whatever it was, I had been told I was being interviewed for a job with a high-security government agency and not to tell anyone about my visit to that black building or whom I had met. I did as I was told. One thing for sure, they were dead serious. At the time, I was dating a really nice guy. He wanted to know where I’d been. I’d told him not to worry but I might be gone for a day or two. When I got back, he asked again. I said I was with my parents. A family matter had come up and I needed to be with them. He wasn’t buying any of it. “Was it your mother? Is she alright? Or your father? Everything OK?” And the vaguer I got, the more insistent he was. And that was when our otherwise rather nice relationship slipped downhill. It was one of those petulant, “Fine. I won’t ask anymore. I was just concerned.” followed by a long silence, followed in turn by no calls for a week. And when he did call, it was too late. We saw one another just once or twice afterwards. And then, only to wave at a distance. A chance sighting on a busy street in midtown New York City at rush hour. As for the folks in the large, black building, they didn’t call either. Not for a while anyway. So, there I was, back on the job, licking my wounds from a failed relationship, caused by what appeared to be a failed job interview, if that was what it was. Until there was a registered-return-receipt-requested envelope with a request for a meeting at some law firm in Rockefeller Center. It was a small office, no receptionist or waiting room. You rang a bell, gave your name on an intercom and were told to stand in front of a peep-hole before they let you in. That’s the very moment when I started working at the best and most all-consuming job of my life. I have to say I never looked back. And, of course, I can’t talk about it except to say it has taken me all over the world. Including Paris, where I met up with my high school love, Roger. It was great. And not so great. It taught me a couple of things. People change. Roger certainly did. He’d gotten married and he and his wife had a couple of kids by the time we met again. A paunchy, balding man with a worried look. He’d joined his parents in government service. They were diplomats. He was something in transportation. An administrator. Who knows how he sized me up. I told him I was a tour guide. We had a lovely lunch. Some laughs. A few unspoken regrets. A hug goodbye. It was a wistful look at a path not taken. Everybody who meets up with an old love, classmate, or friend has those feelings. But maybe not everyone has the stinging revelation I had. Not right away but a day or two later, getting off a plane in Warsaw. An almost staggering sense of sadness. I was lonely. There were so many people I knew and had lost. My parents were gone by then. I hadn’t seen my brothers in years. My relationships with men – and with women for that matter – were superficial at best. Mostly, I’d kept that way on purpose. In my line of work, you get a little paranoid. But of course, I wasn’t being celibate. If I were into that sort of thing, I could go into some of the more memorable one-night stands I’ve indulged in over the years. Don’t give me a look: sometimes you get a little lonely. You meet a guy in a restaurant or hotel bar. Sometimes it was great fun. Sometimes not. And sometimes it was really stupid. But mostly it was empty. And when it finally dawned on me how empty it all was, I decided it had to stop. And maybe more important, I decided to be a little less paranoid. And to think about my age and my future. About then, one of my old college teachers, a professor named Richmond, sent a note about how he was retiring and wanted me to attend his retirement dinner. So, I took a train up to New York to attend. It was very pleasant. There were one or two people I knew at the dinner. From my own experience, Dr. Richmond was a terrific teacher. Apparently, based on those celebrating his retirement, others had a similar experience. He had a very large following. He asked me to join him for lunch, maybe in the next month or so if it were convenient. He had some things to tell me. We ate at a restaurant somewhere in Bronxville. A cozy little place serving better than average French food. During the lunch, Dr. Richmond told me it was him, not my father, who had set up my initial interview in the large, black building. Back then, Richmond was a recruiter. My father was just a convenient conduit. An innocuous way to make an introduction. Why Dr. Richmond needed to haul me up to New York for what seemed an unnecessary but still rather pleasant lunch I am not sure. But after the lunch, we stayed in touch, emailing back and forth. I wondered whether he had something more in mind but there was never really a hint of anything, even though he was a widower – by that time for a few years. He died a couple of years later. I went to the memorial service and to the reception afterward. I met someone there. He was about ten years younger than me. It was an almost immediate attraction. It took me by surprise. Him as well. Two months later, we married. Two years afterwards, I retired. I figured I had enough of doing stuff I couldn’t talk about with anyone outside my agency. And another year beyond that, I found myself divorced and alone. Whose fault? Probably mine. It seems I really am a tour guide in a way – there with you during the trip, but gone once the trip is over. For the past few years, I’ve been living in a small town in New Mexico. The land is desolate and inhospitable. It seems to suit me.

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