“Americans worry too much about sex.”
I shrug. “Yeah. Maybe. Not all Americans though.”
G is stretched out on the rooftop of an Egyptian cafe, philosophically wondering why I refuse to sleep with him. His white button-down shirt is open at the neck, revealing a tan, muscular chest, and I begin to wonder the same thing. He adjusts his glasses. I swoon.
“But you like me?”
“Yes, I like you. But I’ve only known you for two days.”
“In Germany, we approach sex differently.”
I smile, rolling my eyes at this sweeping cultural comparison. His fingers absentmindedly trace constellations on my leg. I shift slightly and he moves, pulling me into him.
“You are sure?” He raises his eyebrows at me before nuzzling my neck.
I flick my eyes to the Red Sea, gazing at the lights of Saudi Arabia twinkling across the Gulf of Aqaba. With his hands on me, I want to fling all of my steely resolutions out and into the abyss of the sea. Thousands of miles from home, years on the road, I crave contact and want to give in, forget myself, and tumble headlong into his bed. The next morning we’d hug goodbye, knowing how unlikely it is that our paths will ever cross again, and instead of being melancholy I would only be grateful.
But I know better. I’ve learned to avoid the short-term relationships of traveling, the one-night stands. It’s not because I’m a prude or because I inherently have anything against them. I just don’t know how to separate what my heart wants from what my body wants. I don’t know how to want someone with only half of myself.
It took me the better part of 10 years, a few continents, and at least a dozen disastrous love affairs to figure this out. From my first study abroad experience to my more recent nomadic work life, I’ve always struggled to balance the need for companionship with my love of perpetual travel. Over the years, I’ve found excuses to stay in or leave parties early, knowing that when that part of the night arrives and everyone pairs off, I will be backed up against a wall, feeling uncomfortable and unsure, wondering why I seem to operate on a different timetable than everyone else.
Because it’s so counter to the philosophy of traveling — or to what I perceived as the philosophy of traveling. That joie de vivre, happily accepting love whenever it’s offered and under the terms that it’s offered. You accept hello and goodbye with pragmatism, giving into the moment, unafraid to invest yourself in a relationship that will be terminated abruptly before infatuation has a chance to fizzle out. You accept that the sadness of goodbye is easily tempered by a strong drink, another destination, the next fling.
But I can’t force myself to want that or, rather, to accept it as part of my life as a traveler. I can’t stop wanting the sort of relationship that develops carefully and naturally over time. The end result is that I spend too many nights curled up in a cafe with a book or fending off the advances of some nice (or not so nice) guy who sees a girl sitting alone and assumes she must want company or a drink or something more. Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl thousands of miles from home must be in want of a one-night stand? This exasperates and saddens me. Because is it fair for me to expect anything else? If I refuse to settle down, refuse to stay in one place, what other option do I have for companionship?
Even as I am telling G that I intend to slip back to my hotel room alone, I am imagining an alternate universe where I could give into him without the repercussion of regret. His eyes search mine and I waver. I could be his for a night. I can hear my best friends back home telling me to give in. “You deserve some fun. Just go for it. We’ll be here to pick up the pieces.” I sigh. Polonius’ words rise from the fog, “To thine own self be true.”
I untangle myself from G’s arms, kiss him on the cheek. “Good night,” I whisper. “Take care of yourself.”
As I walk back to my hotel, I’m still not sure I’ve done the right thing. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I have drawn a line in the sand that I will only come to regret. Dahab’s streets are dimly lit, the yellow light from cafes and restaurants spilling out haphazardly onto the streets. I stay within the shadows so no one will see the tears gathering. It would be so easy to rush back to the cafe, throw myself into his arms, and find solace at least for one night.
But I can’t.
It would only take me to the same disappointed outcome of every other on-the-road romance. The same lonely morning, the same wistful longing, staring out the window of a bus, watching Egypt pass by in a series of staccato snapshots, wondering why my heart longs for two seemingly incompatible things. A long-term love affair and a traveler’s life, a rolling stone with a little moss.
When dawn shines through the cracks in the window shade the next morning and I wake up alone, I am a little forlorn, but I know I was right. In the midst of a thousand what-ifs, I gather my belongings and shoulder my pack, slipping into the streets to flag a taxi. On the way to the airport, the taxi driver asks if I have a boyfriend. I shake my head and stare out the window, swallowing my loneliness, reminding myself that this is the life I chose. When the plane eventually lifts off, rising above the beige hills and blue sea, my thoughts circle around G, but my heart does not look back.