How To Travel Alone






The same painting is hanging on all four walls
of my hotel room: Ship at sea.
Ship at sea.

Ship at sea.  Ship at sea.

An empty bed won’t say
I love you
until its jaw falls off. The rain believes
the earth exists

just to give it something
to fall against. What can I do

from my dingy little room but close
the blinds and turn up the TV?

Some days I come out wrinkled like a jacket
exhumed from a suitcase. Some days

I’m as constant as the last soggy corn flake
at the bottom of a bowl of milk,
that piece that keeps giving

the spoon the slip. I’m that ship that can’t
find shore, can’t be sunk.

Just days without you and I’ve got
that midnight streetlight tan,
that Big Chug Jug caffeine carelessness, that one loose
toll booth tooth, these highway hiccups.

The wooden benches in the train station
remind me of the pews in the clapboard church

where my cousins are still swaying
with the holy spirit. Oh, ship at sea, they sing, you are
my ark, my raft.

But where is the cross, the portrait of Jesus knocking
on the inn door? All we have is the schedule board,

its clattering
numbers and letters, the clock that chimes and chimes.

As pigeons descend to devour
a dropped sandwich,

the station agent’s voice echoes over
the PA speakers: Here is my ham on rye, with whom
I am well pleased.

I write postcards I don’t
send. Each one
is a confession.
I eat microwaved cheeseburgers until my stomach

rocks and pitches like a ship at sea.
Your voice on this cell phone is a bug
trapped in a jar. Your voice on this phone
is a sliver under my fingernail.

How many nights will you be staying with us?
Here is your key card. Here is a brochure
to help you interpret the stains

on the ceiling tile, to augur the roaches
and broken glass. Do not be alarmed if you hear

a shout, a trumpet. The high school band
tournament is this weekend.

Your signal faded. Your call dropped.
I can’t find my reservation number.

Your voice on this phone is like a ship at
Never mind, I found it.

Meanwhile, the greasy clouds go sliding around
on the sky
like gray eggs in a skillet. Meanwhile,

the laundromat beauty queens
in their wash-day sweatsuits thumb quarter

after quarter into the machines
and pray for miracles. Meanwhile, a shut-in dies buried
under a collection

of snow globes of Paris, where tiny couples walk
up and down the Champs-Élysées in endless winter.

A stranger in mirrored shades says Take off
your shoes, take off your jacket.

I do, I do. I unthread my belt in one long pull
that whispers it from its loops.

Will a skycap please bring a wheelchair to Gate 7B?
Jennifer H_____, please call your sister
in North Carolina. Roger M_____, Roger M_____,

please return to the security checkpoint
to retrieve a lost item.

Board by zone number. Sit in the wrong seat
just to meet a stranger, to apologize, to say

My mistake. You’re breaking up. If the engines fail, don’t worry:

on our cell phones, we’ll watch
live footage of our plane fireballing
into the ocean, our own
bodies bobbing in the wreckage and surf.

Look, that’s us waving.

I write postcards I don’t send. They all start
Dear ship at sea…

When I stop to throw
them into a dumpster, I glance down

into that darkness and see the continent where I was born, as if
from space, its cities lit
like clustered stars.

There are only two directions in the map
of my life: the way to you, and the way
from you.


“How To Travel Alone” appears in How To Dance as the Roof Caves In by Nick Lantz © 2014, Graywolf Press. It has been reprinted with permission from the author and from Graywolf Press.

Nick Lantz’s first book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know was selected by Linda Gregerson for the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize and was published in 2010 by Graywolf Press. It also won the 2011 GLCA New Writers Award. His second book, The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, was selected by Robert Pinsky for the Felix Pollak Prize and was published by the University of Wisconsin Press, also in 2010. More from this author →