“I’m nervous about the hike,” Boxie-boo said, her fingers nervous and twiddling together.
It was nightfall, dark with one light bulb in our room, while the drums of the Cusco festival echoed across the ceiling, fluttering the thin sheet we shared on the hardened, hostel bed.
White paint, a shifting dapple of light, the unforeseen future frightening us both into stillness.
She scanned across the ceiling, the white paint, and I knew we both thought of our last adventure left. Her eyes dilated in the darkness, so full, so blackened; there was no room for any other image within my imagination.
I could hear my own concerns in Boxie-boo’s voice. I leaned over to view her from another angle. She laid parallel to me as she always did before we fell asleep, facing me. Her eyes, sideways now, stony with held-in tears, the saddest kind, the type that force us to cry if we let but one tear fall to our cheeks.
I felt so cold, felt the shade of night pass over me. I suddenly realized that some of our adventures she only tackled because of me. There was an expression on her face I had not quite seen before, a subtle change in her voice. She had become someone else in this moment, someone I did not know.
“Me too, babe,” I responded, then gave her a hug and kissed her forehead. “We will get through it together.”
She looked pretty in a way I had never seen before, as if something had a hold of her and finally let go, and for a moment, I saw the ending, the adventure over, a gateway into the rest of my life.
The first fight happened soon after we had returned home from the trip. We had both moved home with our families. We were apart for the first time in over six months.
I never told her how much I missed her.
Alone in my old high school bedroom, I made up poems that I never wrote down, but still remembered: ‘She focused all the light of the sun into one stare’. I would think of this look often, the look of a woman giving an honest and hurtful confession a week earlier in Cusco.
I stayed awake all night, curled up with two pillows lying parallel with me to my side. In the morning a few friends visited, curious of my travels. I began to answer the same questions about my trip that I would come to know quite well for years to come: “What was your favourite country?” “Would you do it again?” “What was the worst experience you had?” “Did you get sick?”
I called her to see how she was. She was short on the phone, a bit angry with me for calling as I knew she was busy catching up with family and friends.
I never told her I missed her.
Later, she called back, asking if everything was okay. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. “Nothing really, just checking in,” I told her. This was the first time I had lied to her.
I had traveled around the world and returned home to my family, but without her by my side, for the first time in seven months, I felt a thousand miles away.
In the apartment, after moving in together, I surprised her with an itinerary I was working on for a short trip to Belize. I sensed she was unimpressed with the idea of traveling again. I tried to hide my excitement to her for driving to Guatemala and back, to seeing ancient ruins once more and hopefully diving with Whale Sharks. She said nothing at first. Still as a painting. Later I will learn how much she had changed and how much I had changed from the trip. But now, unaware of what was happening between us, I smiled, resisting my urge to ask, “Where are we going to next?”
It was the first time I felt alone in her presence.
I went for an evening walk in North Vancouver, and as I scanned the skyline of the City of Vancouver and looked back at the North Shore’s mountains and everything was unfamiliar. I walked the streets I had known my entire life like a stranger.
I knew the adventurer in her, at least for now, was gone.
When we first met in Hawaii, many years earlier, I impressed her with stories of my previous travels and my dreams to travel around the world. The house we stayed at overlooked the ocean and a backdrop of stars illuminated the outer tips of palm tree leaves. The fresh scent of humidity and nature soared above us, powerful, listening in, stealing our secrets. I almost did hear her say, “That sounds amazing!” as it seemed too good to be true. The scariest moments in life, after all, are not illness or even death, not even love, but knowing we could be falling in love at any moment.
“There’s not enough room for my clothes,” she told me, as we organized the small closet in our apartment, shared one dresser and the bed with drawers I had bought for more storage. We had just moved in together for the first time.
I hated organizing the condo I had bought in Canada, and although she never said it, it seemed clear to me that our small bedroom reminded her of tiny hostel rooms where the floor was once crowded by our spread bags. She wanted structure and normality in her home. I did my best to hide my annoyance. I had been used to living out of a backpack and a part of me missed it. I felt the space was more than adequate and that if any couple could handle a small apartment, it would be us. Yet my anger was etched on my face from months of thought. This was what I feared most - the return to normality, the grocery shopping and working Mondays to Fridays, to fighting the way all couples do about simple day-to-day chores.
The Cusco festival was in full force all morning.
The drums wailed and trumpets blasted, creating a wall of noise around us that we leaned against in silence. With her back against a building wall, the sun’s glow burnished Boxie-boo’s skin. She watched the festival, wearing a smile on her face of permanent stone. In each direction, young children danced, played flutes and drums, sending goose bumps across my skin and waves of music through my veins. The entire city was alive with colour, personality and a feeling of community unmatched anywhere else on our trip around the world. We held hands the whole day, our attraction to each other refueled by the romance of the setting.
“This town is amazing,” she said, her voice slurred and out of breath from the high altitude, still leaning against the wall for a rest. Walking a few blocks in the morning was exhausting, until our lungs adjusted to the high altitude of the town. The sun seemed to close in around her. Energy came in waves from each direction: A movement of human-powered electricity. The parade of children continued: Dancing, smiling, music, their outfits colourful from large feathers to high hats glittering with stones.
I smiled at her.
She smiled at me.
She gripped my hand.
It was a moment worthy of a photograph, yet I had trouble feeling happy. I knew this was our last adventure of the trip. I felt buried alive by my own future and my skin tingled. It was as if I was walking across a forgotten graveyard; yet she was excited, looking forward to the normality of home.
Over two weeks had passed since she left me. The day after she came to pick up her stuff at the apartment, I woke early, having barely slept. I starred at the contours of her blankets where I once read poetry and felt emotionless. I focused all my efforts on feeling nothing.
Unable to eat, I headed to my favourite shop to pick up a fruit and berry smoothie. A young woman entered with a tan. “I just came back from Mexico,” she said. I did no tell her I went around the world. I did not want to think about it ever again. I wanted to forget my smoothie and leave, but instead, as if without choice, I told her, “You are so lucky to have traveled.” I began seeing photographs. I saw Boxie-boo’s smile as she swam in a cage near a massive Great White Shark, her cheeks raise after yelling “Bula!” in Fiji, her drunken snicker sitting at a bar in Bangkok, the massive grin when seeing the pyramids of Egypt and Cambodia, her mouth permanently smiling in the rear-view mirror of my motorcycle in Nepal, her Cusco Festival happiness. It all came at me at once. These images. Australia, Japan, India, Botswana, Tanzania, Brazil: Her smile. The woman sensed something was wrong, and for the first time, I left the store and cried.
I had timed the last stop on our trip perfectly. I had planned for Peru to be our last stop for three reasons - end with one last hike through the Inca Trail, arrive for both the Cusco Festival and Inti Raymi, which is the celebration of the Sun God.
Throughout the day we walked around aimlessly shopping for our hiking supplies, yet we were fully entertained doing so. Around us always were locals dressed in bright coloured-shawls and decorative hats. A group of men circled the center of the city dressed like ancient priests, belting out high-pitch notes with instruments that seemed made out of bone. All I could do was whistle along quietly, making me feel no more adequate than how my testicles would feel if I had no penis.
As Boxie-boo continuously pointed out, I needed new shoes. My shoes were so battered they looked like a mix of a beaten crocodile’s snout and the facial expression of a teased duck; the front lip extended and pouting upwards, while heals flattened without grip, the sole broken right through to my socks. Boxie-boo convinced me to get new shoes and we treated ourselves to two new pairs of socks each. New socks for us, after months of travel, made our feet feel finer than baby hairs, so much so that I wanted to burp my big toes, but I instead decided to mimic Boxie-boo’s happy dance.
The day she came to pick up her stuff from the apartment it was sunny, a rarity in North Vancouver’s winter. I came home with my smoothie to discover she was already in the apartment, waiting for me. Her arms were wrapped stiff across her chest, with her legs stiffened straight across the coffee table; the rigid curve of her calf answering to the rigid curve of her collarbone. I peered at her from the hallway that leads to the living room. She stayed silent.
I was mad at her for entering the apartment without using the buzzer and asked her for her set of keys back. She apologized sarcastically, hurt by my words; a childish boy acting in retaliation for my broken heart. I acted tough in her presence. I brushed off her compliments of her being impressed that I kept the place so clean.
I wanted to tell her we could make it work, hold her in my arms and protect her the way I had when she was scared camping near wild hippos in Botswana or gripping my hand in fear during a horrifying taxi ride in Nepal. But I knew her mind was made up, and instead, cowardly said nothing more than what was needed.
I helped her pack and carry away boxes when her father came. I was robotic and skeletal as I help load his SUV quickly. I was tough and short with words, releasing a smile when her father said hello. I could have been wearing invisible spurs. Her and I did not touch, no kiss hello or hug goodbye for the first time.
We felt like strangers, this girl I once knew so well alone in the dark.
A buddy came to visit me at work to see how I was doing. I explained that I was not going to move out of my place; that I will just work harder in my career to make more money so I can afford it on my own: It was a small sense of protest, a challenge for myself, to know I could survive without her. On my lunch break, we stopped by the furniture store I had bought my dresser at so I could inquire how much a second one would cost.
“What I need is just more storage,” I told my friend. “A matching dresser to make more room in the closet.”
My voice had pitched and I swallowed quickly to avoid sounding feigned with enthusiasm or sadness. My buddy smiled back in a sympathetic way, as if to say he knew a secret he would never tell.
The fresh scent of humidity and rain soared into the store, and I had smelt this before, the door opening with more shoppers, their footsteps listening in.
Blinking to swallow my tears, it became apparent that everyone knew my story and all our nerves were straining.
I kept half my closet and dresser empty for months. I never bought more bedroom furniture, yet choose to struggle to stuff t-shirts and sweaters into tightly-fitted drawers while others were empty.
When I returned from snowboarding with a buddy from out of town, he threw his borrowed goggles, toque and glove in an empty drawer. When he left the room, I moved everything out of the drawer, putting them back in a storage bin in the bottom of the closet, angry with him.
The empty drawers became my secret: A silent place, a meaningless empty spot I often forgot existed; a place that only called out when opened and seen, like a clown mask lifted to reveal hidden tears.
At the Cusco festival, Boxie-boo and I searched out the company that had screwed us. Andex Adventure, the travel agency with whom we had reserved our Inca Trail trip through Cusco Explorers, did not live up to its written contract. Our free hostel pick-up never happened at the airport and we never received free accommodation in Cusco. We did not find their shop so instead went to an Internet cafe. My email of complained received a new, edited version of our previous receipt, stating that we were promised earlier were “Typing errors.”
We were under the impression that sleeping bags and a porter would also be included. Instead, we had to pay $130 U.S. extra; a handing over of cash to Cusco Explorer employee that made me wish I had pooped on my own hands.
This is the nature of backpacking. Sometimes we could fight con-artist companies; other times we could not. My emails accomplished nothing and neither did stomping my feet like an elephant on steroids. Nothing worked. Not even my telepathic attempt to communicate with Tom Cruise. It was too late for a refund and we were set to wake up early for our last adventure - a four-day, three-night hike through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu.
I remember thinking, I cannot wait until we just pay the same price as everybody else and simply always get what we are promised, and for the first time on the trip, momentarily, I thought fondly of returning home.
The afternoon she left me, I heard her words before she said them.
“I don’t love you anymore,” she said, with an expression that was familiar, yet different. She looked pretty in a way I had only seen once before.
All my poems crumbled into dust. I avoided eye contact with her to allow her to speak more easily. Her words moved across my body and into each one of my organs individually, draining them, like she controlled the flow of my own veins. And then my body was emptied of all instincts: No hunger, no need for sleep, nothing. It was as if she had entered my mind and left with my dreams, leaving only her lullaby behind.
I knew she was unhappy and confused. She had gone from emailing me engagement ring photographs to crying, from smiling and laughing, to being angry and cold towards me. I had tried to make her happy. I threw her a surprise party and invited over her entire family. I built a closet with two rows for more storage of clothes. I offered her more drawers and did my best to stop talking about traveling. For weeks, I felt alone in her presence – the worst feeling in the world.
I listened to each word individually. I don’t love you anymore. My body folded inwards and all the music in me was gone. Each law of science I had ever known evaporated in my lungs, and, without the feeling of my own skin, without the sensation of my own living body, of my own blood, my lungs finally compressed slowly and I realized I had stopped breathing. I placed my hands flat on my thighs, looked her in the eyes and saw the last traces of who I was once when I was with her: I saw how she saw me.
She became someone else in this moment, someone I met briefly in Cusco and we were strangers once more. She was horizontal to me this time, but the sight was the same: The eyes stony with held-in tears, the kind that would cause us both to cry if she let just one fall. There was no room for any other image in my imagination.
I finally realized what I saw in her eyes that night in Cusco, this difference between us, that I was a traveler at heart and she was not. While she was content to stay home, I was eager leave once more, a part of personality that will never dissipate.
I placed my hands on my thighs, while my back and neck dropped to the position of defeat that physically imprinted across my entire body for months. With eyes red and heavy-lidded I droned in a soft low voice.
“Okay. I can help you pack,” I responded, looked up across the ceiling, the white paint. I gave her a hug and kissed her forehead. It was my way of saying one last time, “We will get through this together.”
That´s all for now.
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