On loneliness and travel
JUSTIN AND I rode to the airport as if riding to our next weekend road trip destination. I commented on the scenery, on how blue the coast looked.
“Spring is coming!” I declared, satisfied, as if I would be there to see it. “You’re gonna be a busy guy.”
Justin nodded in agreement and paid the bridge toll to get off the island. Forty minutes left. I ran my hand along his shoulders, muscular from rock climbing, and warm. He smiled, and kissed me on my cheek, a thoughtful gesture perfected over many months.
The sun shone hesitantly that morning, but you could smell the grass and soil that signaled the coming spring. I rolled the window down a crack, letting the sound of rushing air compensate for our silence.
“I just…wish I was going with a friend,” I said. “It would be fun.”
Justin squeezed my left hand in his right. “You’ll make friends,” he nodded optimistically. I sunk into my seat, running my fingers slowly through his, squeezing his fingernails.
I have to get out of Guilin. I splurge on a “bamboo raft” trip down the Li River, ending in Yangshuo.
Though I’d intended for the boat ride to be merely a novel form of transportation to my next destination, I soon realize I’ve paid for a tour. As our mini-bus accelerates down the two-lane highway to our launch spot of Yangdi, I observe the people around me.
My fellow tour-mates ride on in relaxed silence. I shift in my seat to talk to the young couple behind me, from France, in China to train in Kung Fu.
“Wow,” I say when they tell me about their training regimen. “So what time do you have to wake up in the morning?”
“Around 5:30,” the boyfriend says.
“Sounds fun. I had a friend who did Kung Fu training in China, and she lost like 30 pounds.” The couple nod stiffly. I turn back around.
I scan the rest of the seats: a collection of couples or groups of friends, and one British family with two beautiful curly-haired daughters. The attractive guy across the aisle from me, the only other lone traveler, slumps in his mini-bus chair. He refuses to make eye contact. I know that trick, I think. I’m just tired of talking to myself.
Since we’re the only ones without a group, he and I are assigned to the same “bamboo raft,” which is not bamboo at all, but plastic tubing with a small motor.
This stretch of the Li River is famous for its karst formations, which loom over us. Our boat driver points to the mountains and holds up his cigarette box — its logo depicts this exact landscape.
“So, where are you from?” my raft-mate asks as we settle into our plastic seats.
We talk about travel. We talk for quite awhile. Then, distracted by the unexpected chill of the river, we sink into quiet. He burrows deeper into his windbreaker. I pull my sweatshirt hood over my ears.
“Pretty cold, eh?” I ask over the drone of the motor.
“Yep,” he replies, and pulls his knees to his chin. We drift on in silence. In Yangshuo we part with a wave, and I know I won’t see him again.
“I should go,” I whispered into Justin’s neck, where he held me close, enclosed in his warmth. The digital clock above the security gate showed 30 minutes until boarding. I pulled my face from his embrace, surprised to find it entirely wet with tears. How so many could escape while I was trying so hard to keep them in puzzled me, and I stared at my damp hand. Justin didn’t say anything, so I leaned into him again, his face unmistakably dry.
I knew he wouldn’t force me to stand, to walk through the gates. I released my hand from his grip and grabbed my backpack. He followed silently. I grasped my passport and ticket, ready to hand them to the young Korean lady at the entrance. There wasn’t even a queue; I could just walk right in. Justin still hadn’t shed a tear.
We embraced. I pushed him away.
“You need to go. Please, go.” I pressed softly on his chest, willing him towards the exit, out of sight, the only way I could board a plane heading away from him.
He took a few tentative steps, watching me from 20 feet. I couldn’t move. Clutching my stomach. Nauseous. I buckled down in tears, a frightful wet mess in the middle of the departure hall. Justin came back, picked me up, embracing me tightly again.
“I’m okay,” I whisper. “I just wish you could come with me.”
Yangshuo has turned cold and today the karst peaks sit invisible behind a white mist. Two nights after riding the plastic raft down the Li River, I’m in Lucy’s Café, a place with wifi and cheap beer, warmer and more populated than my hostel. Two cast-iron skillets hold reliably glowing coals in the middle of the room. My grey Converses still chill my toes with the rain that soaked them earlier. Outside, the red and green lights from noodle shops and cafes glare in the wet brick pathways.
A threesome of Americans two tables away play a Chinese card game with the owner’s son. They drink the same beer as me, calmly checking their cell phones for email, probably content to sit here all night, as I am.
I hear a voice say, “I’m from Portland, Oregon.” I look up from my weak beer, deciding whether or not to speak up.
I clear my throat. “I’m from Portland, too!” I say to the man’s back. He spins around, beaming.
“Are you really?” He sits down across from me, leaning in like an old friend. We get lost in Portland chatter, realizing we live in neighboring suburbs, and fantasize about the summer weather of our hometown. I want to hold onto this man, someone warm and talkative, not in a hurry to meet and leave me as just another traveler.
“You remind me of someone, but I don’t know who it is,” I tell him. I know it’s something about his speech, his familiarity. He has the kindest face I’ve seen in weeks.
His friends stand to leave, and he hesitantly says goodbye after writing down my email in a simple leather journal.
“Too bad we’re heading in different directions,” I say. He’s going south, myself north.
“Yeah. Maybe see you on the road somewhere. You never know.”
“Maybe in Portland,” I add.
He waves a last goodbye. I return to my beer, and the warmth of the coals in Lucy’s Café.