I finally returned the Ford Fusion this morning–early–at SFO.  Despite my newfound ability to attach sentimentally to inanimate things, I developed no love for that tin can.  I’m a little girl who likes a big engine.

I’d forgotten to fill the tank with gas.  Well, not so much forgotten.  I’d been told I couldn’t expense prepaid gas.  But there are no service stations between Burlingame (where I stayed last night) and SFO that are not terrifying at 4:00am.  So what might have been inexpensive gas became…practically, gas by the litre.  NB: The cost of the car for 9 days was…$133.  The cost of the refill tank was…roughly the same.  Jesus.  The gentleman checking in the car gave me a lecture.  I wanted to shout that Thrifty could suck it and that the customer is always right and if I wanted to pay for the gas I damned well could…but that seemed a bit…unseemly.  Particularly at 4:00am.

Regardless, the car is back; I’m on a plane; and I am homeward bound.  This time, in an aisle seat.

Working with the hospitality industry–especially luxury hospitality, as I do–has made me incredibly critical of American domestic travel.  We’re so spread out, people.  We travel to live; we travel to work; we travel to connect.  Why do we purposely make this a miserable process, then grub and grab and destroy any bits of convenience or sunshine geared at making this process less unpleasant?

I shake my head.

Take, for example, the fact that Google is offering free wireless on Virgin America flights for the holiday season.  I usually pay for the wireless on these flights if I have to fly east in the day time and “lose a day.”  It’s worth the $9.99 to me.  The internet is blazing fast, and it’s fantastic.

This is my first free-wireless flight.  Almost every single row of seats has at least one laptop flipped open; internet browser popped up.  Many of these people would probably not pay the $9.99 because they either won’t be reimbursed for it; or they don’t have to do the work they’re doing; or they don’t want to pay.  Regardless…there are many, many more internet users on this flight than usual.  As a result, my wireless is…crawling.

I would rather pay the $9.99 and be able to use the internet in a way that works for my business needs, than have it be free and have my purposes thwarted.

The tragedy of the commons.

So I’ve left San Francisco, for what I thought was going to be the last time for a while, then found out I need to be back on Monday.

In between now and then, I have to move.  Move my things out of the remaining space I still share with the man to whom I am still legally-but-not-quite-completely-married; from whom I am not-yet-fully-divorced; move my things out of storage; move into my new apartment.  I feel like I’ve been on the move forever now, and it seems so disorienting and surreal.

I have to complete the mundane tasks of moving–calling ConEd; calling TimeWarner; remembering where things are; remembering to get a cashier’s check to pay the movers; remember to keep my head screwed on straight; remember to tell my boss where in the country I am.

Travel drains, sometimes.  Travel wears; grates; frays relationships.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.  Because if I were stuck at home, it would be my personality that would be doing the damage on people, and I’d rather have an excuse.

My stamina is starting to run low after three months of non-stop work.

It’s that point in the transaction I’m working on where our personal lives creep out to the forefront, and everyone’s flying in snacks from all over the world; where those Chinese prawn peanuts I love magically appeared; where someone coming in from France may or may not be bringing in the dragees about which I frequently wax poetic. (The dragees never materialized btw.)

I am still driving a Ford Fusion.

My world has been reduced to microcosmic proportions, I’ve realized. JFK; LaGuardia; SFO; DCA; occasionally, Dulles or McCarran–for a change of pace. The New York office; the DC office; the client sites.

“You’re not really even visiting California,” someone recently remarked.

I’m not really “in” California, you know. Even as a non-native daughter, I know that.

In August of last year, staying with my college roommate in Pacific Heights, I walked in San Francisco from Fort Mason to the baseball stadium. Commencing the trek on foot, I stood in the park at the Fort, looking out over the Golden Gate, seeing it all with the eyes of a foreigner. Of someone who had seen it dozens–if not hundreds–of times before, but to whom the landscape would never register as “normal.” As “home.”

I walked. I walked almost the entire city, end to end, to meet an ex boyfriend for dinner. He was the same, and I was the same–but he was mostly the same as when I’d left him, and I was more of myself than I’d ever let myself be with him. He was just as much a Californian as ever, and I was less and less of the girl trying to fit in.

Now, I travel to San Francisco almost weekly, and I fly over the Bay like I’m from another country, still. The runways bump and skid beneath United Flight 5 like they do for all the other people on the plane who are mostly headed off to Asia or Australia; back to British Columbia. Occasionally, it’s a late flight into the city where I can’t see anything and the Bay lurks like the Atlantic or the Sound or the Potomac or any other body of water I fly over–frequently–to land.

It’s all the same. It’s all foreign. It’s all different. Terminals, towncars, rental car counters. Camaros with their growly, sexy V8s better suited for the Garden State Parkway; Ford Fusions perfectly, sensibly suited for the trek down 101, but that look out of place next to the SUVs and the Benzes and the Priuses.

The funny thing though–the thing I’ve realized–is that I don’t have much to talk about except the trains, and planes and automobiles. The travel. That I don’t have much of a personal life.

Yesterday, we all (i.e., the group I’ve been traveling with these past few months; the people I’ve been bumping paths with and sharing my life since August) got in the car and drove Highway 1 from Carmel down towards Big Sur. It was a drive I hadn’t made since I was nineteen. Freezing, cerulean sea; waves crashing on rim-of-fire rocks; igneous boulders leading up into sandstone topped by chaparral and then evergreen.

One of my companions and I got out of the car and walked along the beach. The rest of the party stayed up along the cliffs.

“How could anyone come here and not get out a bit?” he asked, rhetorically. I said I didn’t know. We dipped our toes in the water; the strong currents sucking the rough sand out from beneath our feet.

I realized, though, that’s what this time has been. Strong seas, sucking sands; losing my footing sometimes. But the current ebbed again and went back out and we continued our walk along the beach, steadier now.

At the end of the stretch of sand, there was a nude sunbather–sixty years old, maybe–his golden buns like two halves of hamburger brioches glistening brownly in the afternoon glare.

We turned around to head back down the beach and decided to go wine tasting instead.

My travels in California are so classically Californian: watching the VW surf vans ahead on Highway 1 as we speed down the coast; walking barefoot on the sand on sunny Sunday afternoons; winetasting. But I marvel that I used to live in this place; that these things were always within my reach; that I could have done them any time, and now they feel so delightful and vacationy and strange.

I’m worn out, but these moments–they are a nice break from the quotidian of going, doing, being.

Last night, we went for Thai food, in my rental car.

The last time I traveled, they rented me a sweet Camaro.  (NB: the last time I rented, I rented from Avis.  They were not jerks; there was no labyrinthine process in order to obtain the key, etc., and I received a Camaro at the end of the deal.  I felt like I was from New Jersey, which, truth be told, was kind of awesome for about a day.)

This time: Ford Fusion.

When I was in Africa in 2008, one of my friends remarked, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat American food.”  This was when we were eating American food.  In Africa.  In a hotel owned by Lebanese hoteliers.  In Kumasi, Ghana.  All against my will and better judgment, but that’s another story for another time.

So.  Thai.

We drove to Thai Bistro II (after a call to Hong Kong to determine where, exactly, in Pacific Grove, CA we should dine–that, too, is another story for another time), and sat down to eat. Me grob, in particular, on the advice of Hong Kong, who kept shouting on the other end of the line, “Me gorb,” and I kept saying, “Okay,” and she kept not believing me that I knew what she was talking about.

This, of course, has become part of the slapstick of my travel life.

“You really need to start dating,” my dinner companion said, “You can’t wait forever.”

“It really hasn’t been that long,” I said.

“Too long!  You’re goal oriented.  I’m giving you a goal of three dates in the first three months of 2010.”

I groaned.  “I just don’t have time for anyone else in my life.  I travel.”  I left off the parts about not liking other people; about having to fly coach; about not wanting to explain the rheumatoid arthritis and the recovery and the crazy family and the whole “Little Matchstick Girl” narrative that lurks behind the polished blonde facade.

We crunched our sticky, delicious food in meditative silence.

After dinner, we ambled back out to the Ford Fusion, which was parked jauntily at the curb like a silver nag, ready to speed us to our next destination on the Monterey peninsula.

“Where now?” my companion asked.

“Karaoke place.”  I handed her the other page I’d printed–directions from google maps.  There was no GPS in the car, and I am a planner.  One of the perks of being notoriously eccentric AND being a planner is that I can rally people, while on travel, into going to shady karaoke places if I have to travel over weekends.  Maybe part of my charm, charisma, or maybe people tolerate me because they think I’m a loose cannon.

Regardless, we were going on a recon mission before the big event.

We drove.  Highway 1 North; roads I knew but hadn’t traveled in 10 years.

“Visualize your date.  The date you’re going to go on.”

“I’m driving.”

“No, visualize.  Where are you going to go?”

“Dinner.”

“Where?”

“Um….I don’t know.  Downtown?  Chinese?”

“And then where?  A movie?”

“I haven’t seen a movie in a theatre in going on…thirteen years?”

A gasp.

“See, I’m going to be terrible at this dating thing.  What exit am I supposed to get off at?”

We exited the highway, and made a left on to a long stretch of deserted road dotted with car dealerships and auto chop-shops.

“Are you sure this is it?” my companion asked me.

“Yup.  Oh my God, we’re going to get shot.  This is so shady.  The perfect place to do karaoke.”

And whether for business or pleasure, that, I suppose, is how any good karaoke story begins.

I’ve spent the last seven months on the road.

Airports with their uncomfortable chairs upholstered in sickly grey naugahyde and attached in awkward twos–too small for sleeping, too close for comfort.  Coach seats, three by three.  Cheerful rainbows and sturdy leather; the persistent smell of high altitude farts and motion sickness; chemical toilets and the overcooked food served in first class.

I’ve been on the road for more than half the year.

Traveling as my marriage faltered and failed; breezing through cities and states and countries I didn’t expect to visit; running around life in New York carried on without me.

Life goes on.

I guess this is the new view from the Middle Seat.  Crammed, cramped and oddly refreshing.

In the last 90 days, I have climbed Half Dome;  run the New York City Marathon; found a new place on the Upper East Side; and taken the tentative steps towards a life as a single woman.  Something I’ve never been in my adult life.

I flew to San Francisco on Monday, a suitcase full of candy, sherry, and suits.  Unsurprisingly, the travel agent had put me in a middle seat, and had managed to screw up my rental car reservation.

This was me at the Thrifty counter on Monday: Pissed.

The behemoth at the counter grunted out some instructions and took my Amex.  That was it.  Nothing further.  I had no idea what to do or where to go.  I made it out to the car, only to find I had to go to another counter for the key.  What kind of rental car company does that?  Creates a veritable labyrinth of queues?  Just hand me a card and let me unlock the key from a lockbox or something.  Don’t make me go through this Skinnerian exercise just to get into my luxurious Ford Fusion that smells slightly of smoke and strangely of bacon.

I drove down the coast.  Love songs on Sirius playing.

I love love songs.  I love love.

Despite all of this…despite all of the travel…despite the red eyes and the coach seats and the near misses…despite the toll it takes on my personal relationships and whether it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in my marriage, and the pain and the grief associated therewith…I still believe in lids for pots; in matches and partners and pairs; and in true love.

So this is the view from the middle seat.