Many writers I know have a strain of paranoia that multiplies virulently as they near the end of a project. Several have expressed it to me exactly as I have felt it myself: I’m afraid I’m going to die before I get this finished, and someone will find the early draft on my laptop and say, Poor guy, he wanted to be a writer, but, see? he was as deluded about his talent as everyone said all along; I mean, look at this draft, it’s a fucking embarrassment, and the only saving grace now is the poor fool is dead, at least we won’t have to look at the shame on his face as he lies hidden in his icy grave.
I’m afraid this tendency has extended to other parts of my professional life as I’ve gotten older. I looked forward to my trip to Lithuania very much but began to dread leaving for it because something might happen before I could get there, and someone would never be able to say, Well, at least he saw Vilnius. When I left my house in southwest Louisiana for the airport in Houston, I watched the traffic more closely than ever. As insurance adjusters will explain, most accidents happen near home, since it’s well known the universe sets its agents upon those who dare disturb its inertia. Sure enough, someone crossed the centerline and came head-on toward me, where there was no turn lane, but I was prepared and had time to swerve.
There were other portents on the flight from Houston directly to Moscow. Instead of taking a direct line across, say, the state of Florida, the Atlantic Ocean, then Spain and France, we unexpectedly flew in a long arc north. I watched the little avatar airplane on the screen embedded in the headrest in front of me, thinking with some irritation that we were headed up the North American continent for no good reason. But I did feel some satisfaction that if the plane went down now, at least someone would say, Well, he was off on another adventure. Where, the other person would ask, Dallas? The Baltics, the first would respond, waggling his eyebrows, and stuff a whole sugar cookie in his mouth.
I felt the tickle of the uncanny when we passed directly over the small coal town in southern Illinois where I grew up and then over the university where I used to teach. Eventually we would fly over Scotland, where my in-laws were from, and Copenhagen, where one of my paranoid writer friends lives, and all these signs I chose to interpret, like a haruspex, as provident, but I mean who really knew?
As the flight dragged on, and there was a short delay in Moscow and a long one in Kiev, fatigue started making everything trippy, like a fever dream. The businessman in the seat next to me introduced himself as Getty, because, he said, it was the best his American acquaintances could do with his name. When I insisted he try me anyway, he said he was the only Gediminas living in Vilnius on Gediminas Street, named for the 14th-c. founder of Lithuania, Gediminas, and he insisted I look at his credit cards to verify this but shyly asked me not to memorize the numbers for later use. The first night in Vilnius, the bells of the cathedral next door—said to be built on the site of a shrine to a pagan thunder-god—tolled so loudly and so often I had dreams in which my sons and I climbed endless, steep, rickety stairs to wrap towels around them and carry them to the basement for storage.
In the jetlagged first day, my friend Frenchy and I were slogging through a northern European pizza when a bride-to-be in pink veil and tulle dress walked up and said she had, um, certain tasks.... She paused and called in Lithuanian to one of her bridesmaids, who came over and said I needed to pay the bride for a Chupa Chup sucker she held out to me, an ancient ritual and the last of several tasks the bride had to accomplish in order to insure a successful marriage. Of course, I said and handed her several strange banknotes, and when the blushing, giggling young women had left I saw that the sucker they left on the table lay on a wrapped condom. Frenchy and I took pictures with them after we ate, with assurances that posing with strange Americans for photos was guarantee of long life, happiness, and fertility.
I’m not sure what the sucker and condom signify to Lithuanians, except maybe the bride won’t be needing those things anymore, but I know and appreciate what they mean to me: I’ve arrived at last.