Last October I thought I fell in love with a poet. Pieces of our costumes lying scattered as words across an ever messy bedroom floor he spoke to me artful and quiet and breathed me in nanometers. Though I couldn’t have known it then, it was the last night it might have all been true.

I spent the month of November pretending it was.

December brought the one I broke. My saccharin pawn, unwitting elastic, I let him play a part I didn’t know and kiss the scars he couldn’t see. He did everything he could, except the one thing he couldn’t.

January stumbled over a jazz saxophonist in San Francisco. The awkwardness arrived before the dawn and didn’t have the decency to leave as I did when the sun breached the stranger’s bed. I ran for a taxi forgetting his name with the cliché on the nightstand, holding only to hope that he wouldn’t remember mine.

February was the best friend of December who so wrongly had me rapt. Despite whatever could never have been the staining raze of its inescapable impossibility had me longing for the graceless unknown of that shy San Franciscan saxophonist…what was his name again?

March took me to New Zealand and the original domino of an Irishman. But again I missed, kissed the wrong friend first, and found myself swimming surreptitious in disaster, impossible as it is for a girl with no self-control to exercise something she doesn’t have. Despite slight glints of his wavering willpower, ultimately we were a stalemate: an immovable object against an unstoppable force.

April gave me the first tense tease of satisfaction: a painfully sweet Scot who made it the way I remembered. But with just a few fleeting moments of that long elusive comfort his ticket took him home. When he left for Glasgow, I left for Wellington, and the promises we made lay stuffed at the bottom of our backpacks.

In May I met the Irishman who stayed. Handsome like a lonely streetlight, he and I wandered the same alleys. But when it came to the thing that everyone’s after, it consumed and escaped me in inexplicable flashes. Too scared to break another, I left. But made a promise to come back that I still intend to keep.

In June it was a Scotsman in Malaysia. Though lacking the syrupy brogue that paints itself round every word and buckled my knees back in April, he was effortless as a day in bed. But as camaraderie began its inch around the corner, he had his ticket home as well. His last three days on the island were the only three days it could never be more, and so the universe continued its creative torture on my wearily addicted limbs.

July held the worst of Asia and of the Irish. Fucking me the wrong way, he saw the taut, shadowed cells of schleroderma that have rested between my shoulder blades since I was six. His mouth a rictus of fear at this memory of a burn or a childhood scar I barely recall, he lost it. As I was forced to assure the horror of a boy I hadn’t “given it to him,” he walked out of the room to my shamed stone glare and I twisted my skin and bones back to the door in used, unadmittable, regret.

August brought me to Vietnam and found an Irishman who enveloped me sudden as a syringe with possibility. But sunrise rooftop sex is far more romantic in notion or ideal than after six hours of whiskey buckets. When he left in the morning, he kissed me as if to tell me it was only one night because it had to be, and I sighed like a sinking brick with the trying futility of it all.

In September I made my way to Laos and found a group of friends I liked too much to leave. In the eleventh month of the curse of wasted fucks, forgettable boys, and half-loves gone awry, I finally didn’t kiss the boy I wanted, the one I knew I shouldn’t. Thinking, knowing, there must be a purpose to eleven dead ends. Watching the fastest heaving through the ribbon I realized this isn’t a race I’m meant to run right now.

Yet as the leaves are again turning tawny reds back home, I find myself keeping a promise to a streetlight, lonely as we are together. And while the buds are greening above our grins, beneath our hemisphere, I suddenly see the nature of such seasons, and know, at least for now, that I can only cross this bridge as it’s crumbling beneath me.

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After thousands of miles and thirty straight days of rain, I had finally reached the sun-glinted waters of the South China Sea. In electric, unapologetic blues I thought of nothing but forgetting myself in those tropical waters, as yet untouched by my eager toes. With plans to relax and write on the beach for a few days before heading north towards Thailand, I watched with simple delight as the ferry approached the dark, verdant mountains stretching out lazily from the sea. As we disembarked, I decided arbitrarily to turn right from the jetty onto the small sidewalk that passed for Ayer Bitang’s only road. Wide enough only for a single motorbike with a sidecar to pass, the small children driving them yell “beep beep! beep beep!” as they come up behind you. Smiling at the kids, barely ten years old with their infant siblings perched happily on their laps as they giggled and drove past, I knew I was going to like it here. As I continued south down the narrow sidewalk the wretched stench of garbage overwhelmed my senses in the stagnant heat. Though I had read about the lack of any orderly waste disposal system, I was flooded with shock, curiosity, and nausea as I passed the burning pile of rubbish, which was conquered and conquered again by ten different monkeys in their own subsequent coup d’états. Oblivious to the rancid smoke wafting through the trees, they stared in territorial possession of their kingdom of rubbish, tightly clenching their half-rotted watermelons like priceless gems. I walked cautiously past and tentatively snapped a few photos, knowing just how aggressive they could be.

King of the Landfill


After exhausting every guest house on the southern side of the jetty, I turned around and headed back past where I began. The island was packed on this Saturday afternoon, as it was a Malaysian family holiday weekend, and I was relieved to find a chalet for twenty five ringgit just on the other side of the jetty.

The Jetty


Growing slowly accustomed to pressing my way through the tropical humidity with all of my gear, I threw my pack down on the bed unfazed and headed back towards the sandy beach I had found at the southern most point of ABC. The sun was just beginning to set as I walked in refreshed excitement, and the sky lent itself to my soul in dusky blues and golds.

First South China Sunset


Coming up to the aptly named Sunset Corner, I ordered the happy hour special of three beers for ten ringgit: duty free and pleasantly cheaper than booze on the mainland. I chugged the first beer near instantaneously, set free a massive belch, tore off my dress, and ran into the sea like a crazed religious nut into the promised land. I opened my eyes under the water, clear as glass, and let the salt soak into my skin with ineffable relief. Since I was too young to understand it, I have needed and adored the ocean in a way that is beyond words, even to a rambling writer like me. As I collapsed salty and reborn onto the pleasantly busy beach, I noticed a group of six or seven travelers from scattered nations laughing over beers just a few feet away. I walked up with my second cold beer, the sea still pouring down my body from the long, wet mop on my head, and asked if I could join them. Immediately greeted by a young, blonde, Scot who looked more like a California surferboy than a Scotsman; we sank easily into travelers’ introductions and the questions you find yourself happily asking and answering in each new place you stumble upon. There are some kinds of loves in life that take only moments to recognize. Danny, my fair-haired Scot was one of these. Contented through every electrified molecule in me, I was instantly at home with the friendly crew and ready to drink straight through to dawn, everyone eagerly awaiting the 2:30 A.M. World Cup match between the US and England.

By the time the sunset had found the other side of the world, Tioman sat shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, and I found myself drunkenly stumbling into to the sea for a night swim. The solitude of the ocean at night calls to me again and again, like an undeniable sorrow aching to be soothed. The horizon of inky water indistinguishable from where it meets the sky envelopes me, and floating alone in the great darkness punctuated only by stars, I barely even exist. But on this night, the tide was as low and far as it goes, and I found my inebriated feet stumbling over sharp corals, begging to find water deep enough to swim. Finally floating in my secret solitude I reveled in the powerful majesty of the universe that never fails to overwhelm my tiny soul until I heard the cheers for the game in the distance calling me back to shore. Struggling as much to exit the water as I had to enter, I tread as lightly as possible on the dead shards of coral and made my way back to dry land. But with the first ounce of pressure on my right foot, a nerve tensing pain shot straight up my leg. As I hobbled back to the bar to inspect the damage, six black spots smaller than the period at the end of this sentence arched their way across the ball of my already swollen foot. I had stepped on a sea urchin. Immediately, every nearby local began offering me the necessary home remedies, which are to beat the painful calcium barbs very hard with a piece of wood for an extended period of time, soak it in vinegar and lime juice, and of course, pee on it. Taking care of all but the last suggestion for the time being, I returned to my new found friends and watched the USA-England match in drunken, oblivious camaraderie.

I awakened the next morning with the familiar wrenching of hangover wringing my guts. Stepping out of bed to find the greasiest food possible, I had forgotten entirely about my foot, and stumbled still half-drunk into the wall with a hint of pressure on the useless appendage. As I slowly made my way to the restaurant of the guest house, just steps from my door, it quickly sank in exactly how much this sea urchin had changed my plans. Tioman is a mountainous island; its beaches connected by long and often difficult treks through the jungle, snaking yourself up and down barely marked paths and fallen power lines to reach the next bay. My plans for my few days here involved doing almost all of these treks, up to Monkey Bay and Salang, across to Juara on the eastern coast and down to the less-inhabited southern side of the island to the supposedly stunning Asah Waterfalls. With my foot as it was, I was painfully aware that I could do none of those things. And with plans after Tioman consisting of hiking around the tea plantations and strawberry farms in the Cameron Highlands, and jungle trekking through the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara, I resigned myself to remaining beached until my club foot returned to its normal size. I smiled silently over my breakfast as I realized there are certainly worse places to be stuck in the world.

Clubfoot's Prison Paradise


As if confirming that very thought, my sweet Scot happened upon my greasy breakfast for one, and sat down to join me. I quickly realized it’s hard not to run into people when there is only one road. Danny and I found each other’s company in rare form: easy like old friends, but not without the subtle, tingling thrill of possibility. My first five days on Tioman we were nearly inseparable as each morning he would stumble upon my daily hangover necessity: western breakfast, and we would spend the rest of the day lying on the beach, doing the limited amount of exploring I was capable of, most certainly drinking and having a laugh, and through it all, learning each other. Danny was easy, and without pretense, and I find myself now struggling to articulate just exactly what (and the abundance of that what) Tioman gave me in the short time I was there.

I have labored through many drafts and variations in figuring how to relay this imparted gift, this intangible souvenir. Even the word souvenir seems to cheapen it, almost by definition a magnet or t-shirt or some other kitschy knick-knack to be forgotten as soon as it’s given. Except perhaps, that the word comes from the French memory, and I will certainly never forget what I took from Tioman. The drama of my consistent and failed efforts to describe this lack only in the romance of their arduous frustrations in that there is no graveyard of crumpled pages surrounding the wire-rimmed trash can in the corner, only remnants of paragraphs that will never be used, and a backspace button that may wear out on me soon. But from my weeks on this island, and the people I know I will not forget, here is the best I can do.

After a long night of local rum with friends, watching a lightning storm crash its way in purple flashes across the expansive sea, I stumbled my way back to my room. With the light on I lie on the bed letting pen float over paper until something came to me. Instead of words, that thing was Veronica. A sunset haired Norwegian, I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who could claim she had done them wrong. And if they did, I wouldn’t believe them. This sweet girl of a woman knocked on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the tears in her eyes. I had seen a glimpse of a drunken argument between her and her Malaysian boyfriend, but as it is with those things you tend to turn away and mind your own. But as this somewhat stranger sat on my bed and choked words and tears from her throat as if there was no room for air, she stripped herself down to bone. Her boyfriend had struck her that night. Swung a drunken fist at her freckled porcelain face and threatened her with a knife. There was no use for a single word in English, or in any other language. I held her tightly. As if I could squeeze the pain from her chest out to her arms and through her fingertips, I held her. For more than an hour she poured her story, their story, into me. We passed two hours, and three joints, and though sometimes hard to understand through her accent and her tears, we occasionally enjoyed those priceless laughs that come through unstoppable tears and remind you it won’t always be that way. And I thought. It had been fewer than two weeks since I had arrived on Tioman. In any other world, Veronica would be a perfect stranger. But here, on my bed, smoking joints in our underwear, we knew each other for ages. And though there was a tragedy here that brought Veronica and I closer that night, I realized the more important piece: there are no boundaries to keep any of us apart.

A week had passed since Danny and Gilly left. I missed my best friend, my partner in crime, my half romance that didn’t get a proper chance. And Gilly. She was a spunky, well-humored, and admirably honest woman who understood me from the moment we met. Always good for a laugh, she could give and take shit with the best of them in the true Scottish tradition. One moment she’ll say she loves you, and in the next, tell you to go fook yourself, all with the same sly, devious smile edged in the corners of her hard-lined lips. Once they were gone, and Veronica found herself bed-ridden with a debilitating infection,Tioman was just me and Helen. My sweet, cheeky Brit was my soulmate on this island. At only twenty-two she understood years ago some things I had only just figured out. She knew the things really mattered in the world, the things that didn’t, and had the courage to leave the latter behind. The course of her journey not around the world, but within herself was so similar to mine, she so aware of everything that pulsed within her, and as ever smiling as I am, I couldn’t help but love her. We spent our days at the dive shop, completing my three day open water course in six lovely, lazy days. We enjoyed three hour lunches, and rainy days off watching movies in bed. And each day we spent together, another little corner of our histories was discovered.

The thing about traveling to remote places, far removed from the plethora of overwhelmingly unnecessary western conveniences, is that instead of being busy driving places and calling people on your way to meeting other people, making plans for next week, next month, next year, all you do is talk to each other. So perhaps back in D.C. it takes months to know a person: to pull them out of the structured comfort of their familiar, to infiltrate a circle of friends that is longer and stronger than you, to learn those little details that matter more than the big ones. But when you are a traveler, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure when I became one, these connections are easy, and strong, and slowly transcend any other experiences as the ones that define you.

We each come to these places indelibly tattooed with our families and educations, our loves, tragedies, and disappointments, which are simultaneously the chains that weighted us to the ground back home and the gusts that blew us away. We struggle to grow against it all, while knowing that without these things we couldn’t have been. And so you learn these little caverns in your loves. You try to navigate your way through their hearts, the same as your own, and in those explorations between open souls, as narrow and cobwebbed as they can be, is where we find love with another person. So thank you, Tioman, terima kasih for reminding me what it, what everything, is all about: love.

The last month of excited and nervous anticipation had finally come to its climax. Next to the door of Iva’s cozy Venice Beach apartment sat an overstuffed backpacker’s pack, a similarly overstuffed messenger bag, and a pair of Rainbow flip-flops, worn and dirtied with their travels thus far and ready to take my feet on their next adventure. As the minutes passed I rushed hurriedly to make sure there was nothing I had forgotten and it felt as though I was perched on a stove top, each following second bringing my blood closer to boil. By the time I tossed my bags in the trunk of her long, black boat of a slowly deteriorating Benz, I was electric. Every limb charged with an unfamiliar vibration, or rather, a stronger dose of a feeling felt before. As we sailed easy down the city streets with laughter on my breath and wonder in my eyes, I gazed contemplatively out the window as the reliable row of palms whipped past. Los Angeles to me was a heartless, grimy city that had always left a bitter distaste on my tongue. I recalled that last Thursday as Iva and I made our way downtown and I sat absorbing the city as it passed. It was the only romance I ever saw in the maudlin palms; silhouetting themselves against the ashtray gray of that smoggy Hollywood night in their sad, terrible postures. But this night was different. For the first time I saw their lithe graceful forms preen against the crisp illuminated darkness through which I would soon be flying. Or perhaps I was just feeling unusually sentimental for the sleaze and whore, the heartbreak and romance, of my last American city. This was the last, lonely thought of my country to make it through my mind. As Iva pulled up to the Air Pacific entrance of the international terminal at LAX, we got out of the car to say our last goodbyes for the year to come. With the heavy pack weighing on my petite stature, we embraced each other tightly and offered best wishes in both directions, knowing that our friendship was forever unbound by time or distance.

I made it to the gate without event and reached out one last time to those I love the most before boarding the massive double-decker jet. One shitty meal, two cocktails, and two Ambien later I spread myself across the entire row I had been provided on the sparsely sold flight. As the plane made its eleven hour journey through the blind black of the midnight Pacific, I slept, knowing when I woke that the constant buzzing of curious anticipation would finally be satiated by the start of the life I had been waiting to lead.