I met you in a courtyard in Bratislava. I was smoking, you were writing in your notebook. We looked each other up and down, guessing at nationality without finding a stereotype. You assumed French and I assumed Australian, but the first words out of our mouths gave us both away: American. We were the only two in the hostel and that told us all we needed to know. We were too far away from the Old City and the place was too dingy and Soviet for us to be tourists. We were haggard travelers, and both alone. It turned out that you had some wine to share, and we started exchanging stories.
I had been a young romantic. Deeply enamored with the Lost Generation, I fancied myself a defector, fleeing the crass corruption of Bush-era America. I wanted to be an expatriate. In the comfort of my dorm room I savored the word, picturing those narrow cobbled streets which burn so brightly in the fevered imaginations of liberal arts students. I’ll run away to Europe and become an expatriate, I thought. To be fair, it ran in my blood. My father’s family had forsaken a bourgeois existence in the English suburbs for the insanity of Berkeley, California, and thanks to him I had a UK passport which could send me boomeranging back across the Atlantic. A month after I graduated from college I was in London, but the romance soured very quickly. The sense of rootlessness was terrifying. The friends and distant family members I had weren’t as close as I thought. I came with plenty of savings, but the exchange rate was brutal. By the end of the summer I was couch surfing with a friend of a friend and rapidly outwearing my welcome. I found a teaching job in Slovakia which came with guaranteed housing and left town two weeks early, too embarrassed to stay on the couch for another night.
You were another romantic freshly sprung from the Ivory Tower. A Russian literature major, you yearned for Petersburg and Moscow, imbued with all the glamor and tragedy of Tolstoy and Pushkin. You had been in Russia for a few months but had headed West, through Ukraine and Poland. You didn’t give a lot of details but once you got drunk Russian love-talk spilled from you with a fluency that suggested there was a girl involved. We went through two bottles of wine and I ended up crying in your bunk bed. For the next three days we were The American Couple. Height, accent, and mannerisms aligned to form a perfect camouflage of intimacy. We shared cigarettes and finished each other’s sentences. We separated only when absolutely necessary during the day and always ended up in each other’s arms when it was time to sleep. Then one morning I woke up and you weren’t there. Neither was your backpack. And I knew it was as simple as that.
I left the hostel and moved into my school-issued apartment. It was my most stable living situation in months, and I nested as best I could. I practiced counting in Slovak and went shopping at the neighborhood grocery store every Saturday. I killed time drinking coffee and chain smoking in the cafe where all of the expats congregated. I took the train to Budapest and went night clubbing in Prague.
Still, the feeling of rootlessness persisted. When the snow began falling it got harder and harder to avoid the obvious: I was living out my European fantasy, but all I felt was cold. Airports and airplanes became recurring motifs in my dreams. I woke up with tears in my eyes, swearing I could smell the breeze off the San Francisco Bay. When Christmas came I lost my nerve: I broke my teaching contract and booked a one-way ticket back to the sunshine. I couldn’t bear the thought of visiting for two weeks and then willingly returning to the snow.
I had traveled around Europe and lost myself. Broke and sleeping in a spare room at my parent’s house, I made stability my goddess. I taught ESL during the week and tutored high school students on the weekends for extra money. I found a boyfriend who needed a roommate and I jumped at the opportunity. For the next three years we shared a bed, and I put all thoughts of travel out of my mind. For a while, the consistency of falling asleep in his arms was enough to sustain me. But then I went back to school.
I met you in the back of a lecture hall at SF State. We were at an information session for a trip to Mexico sponsored by a Linguistics professor who needed research assistants. If we went, we would be living in a remote village in Oaxaca and transcribing the local language, a rare dialect which was almost dead and desperately needed to be documented and preserved. The professor said she wanted to get a feel for what our backgrounds were, how we thought we would adapt to this kind of living situation: Could each of you tell us a bit about your experience traveling in foreign countries?
We were the worst possible kinds of cynics. Jaded and bitter in the way that only former romantics can be. Bouncing back after our stints abroad we had both found work at the private language schools which dot San Francisco. Maybe I’ll go to graduate school. We’d both thought. I don’t know what to do with myself, but maybe a Masters Degree will help. Now we worked mornings and commuted out to the foggy and dismal Daly City campus for our own classes. The circles under our eyes matched up—the product of nights and weekends spent grading papers and then writing them. We became a study group of two, slouched and smirking in the back of the class, amplifying each other’s snottiness until we formed a wall of sarcasm which could not be penetrated.
Suddenly, my boyfriend’s arms began to feel more oppressive than encircling. He didn’t want me going to Mexico, not for a whole month, not without him, and certainly not with you. He couldn’t help it: your name rolling off my tongue spelled his doom. You traveled, and he did not. In the end, you backpacked through Oaxaca while I taught night classes in Oakland and seethed with resentment, postponing the inevitable breakup for another six months. A year later we graduated, and I remember how there was a spate of going-away parties. Japan, Korea, Taiwan. In Asia the money is good. People joked about staying overseas until their student loans were paid off, but nobody laughed.
I realized I was in love with you with the same certainty that told me you wanted to go. Conversations got sweeter and darker at the same time. I tried to talk you out of it. I pleaded the case of the Bay Area and its charms, but underneath the words was always an implicit suggestion, something you wouldn’t acknowledge and I couldn’t say outright: we can be happy here if we’re together. One night it actually happened. We stayed up late at your house and pretenses dropped. We were the only people, we insisted, who completely understood each other. I ended up in your arms and it felt like home.
In the morning the sun spilled into your kitchen and you hummed under your breath as you made us breakfast. I am still haunted by the smile you gave me as you walked out the front door. You said you were going to LA to visit friends for a week or so. Two days later, I found out because of a Facebook post: a picture of a one way ticket to Vietnam. This time, the shock was like a punch in the stomach that left me stunned. I spent several days in pajamas, watching movies on Netflix and trying not to think or feel things too much. The slow burn made it all that much worse. I still follow you on Instagram, secretly thrilled by your photos of sunrises on the Mekong Delta, and I still wonder why you couldn’t just tell me.
I met you at a party. I was certain there was no way you could be American. You dressed too well, danced too naturally. But when you spoke to me the inflection was unmistakable. That baritone, cannabis-cured, with the thwack of skateboards and the crash of waves behind it. Somehow, it was more beautiful to my ear than any foreign accent.
We stayed up all night talking of travel. Your dad had to move a lot for work: Florida, to Japan, to Thailand where your mother’s family lived, to Florida again, all before you were 18. You were rootless by nature: my alter-ego. While I was reading Henry Miller in my dorm room, you were sleeping on the streets of Palermo and busking with a guitar. By the time I was lost in London, you had found yourself in a punk squat in Croatia. I pictured us at 23: a couple of scruffy waifs on the streets of Paris, you playing guitar as I sang. How could we not sleep together?
There is one picture of us together taken on New Years Eve. I have my right palm placed exactly on top of your heart and you have your left arm wrapped tightly around my shoulder, resting just above my breast. My smile is blazing, yours relaxed and sly. It is a moment of calm captured before the storm. The bell had tolled midnight long ago and we were out of our minds drunk on some very good champagne when you let it drop. A combination of lowered inhibitions and the anxiety of the new year pushed out the obvious: I’m gonna leave again. You know that right? I never stay for more than six months.
I fell asleep crying in your arms, but I woke up and you had not left. I watched you sleeping and was hit by a simple fact: we are no longer 23. This is not Paris, nor Bratislava, nor Zagreb. You and I are getting old.