Coming of Age

Meeting her in Vietnam for the first time after a month of separation is a strange relief. I feel guilty for all the resentment I felt in our time apart and now all I see is my bestie and partner in crime. It feels like I’m levitating and everything is pictured below me, exposed and vast. We’ve got a loose itinerary for Hanoi then decide to go with the flow and make plans based on what arrives in the moment. Our promise is to the unknown. She’s already seen the south of Vietnam so we agree to explore the north then head to Laos.
Vietnam is a stark contrast to Japan in every imaginable way. I find myself laughing at the unpredictable bursts of energy in the streets of Hanoi. Hundreds of scooters whizzing past carrying helmet-free passengers, flowers spilling out of markets along with the smell of Pho and fresh herbs; red and yellow flags and images of Mao crowning buildings and shrines. Vietnam is colourful and noisy and chaotic -- all elements of its culture, including slaps on my back from grinning shopkeepers are welcome after years in the embrace of Japan’s quiet and controlled bows. The din of the street actually rattles me awake and I rejoice to be able to sing with it, even scream over it with impunity. In the frenzy I feel an unpeeling of my Japanese self. I stretch out my limbs and raise my voice.
In the decades following the coldest of wars fought on its soil, all I can see is the total victory of the West. Vietnam is the Sale: they’re selling to the tourists and the tourists are buying! I’m buying! I’m buying silk dresses for my slightly smaller silhouette, tank tops for a slightly smaller torso, cotton dresses that whip around my slightly thinner thighs. I’m thrilled that my appetite is almost nil now that I’m in the tropics and trepidatiously trying the food. But this spice! this steam! these chilli peppers accidentally swallowed! The sights of the streets are seductive wonders: the day’s produce spread out across ground tarps, women in Non La conical hats hidden from the hot sun, clouds of sooty dust swirling around packs of mangy dogs and brightly painted houses. One evening I pass by a bucket of headless, pulsating frogs in the night market.
I’m suddenly aware of Western women all around me. I rediscover that I am, in fact, a white woman. There is an army of us traveling on our own, independent and full-hipped, tanned and white-toothed. We look to be marching singular and strong, dreamy and determined to consume the world our way. It’s hard to reconcile how empowered I feel by this new female company while secretly threatened by their beauty, and conflicted by the privilege of our collective heritage and money. Sometimes a moving sales target, sometimes afraid for safety, sometimes a hurricane of power and privilege, is being a Western woman in Asia.
Seeing all the different body shapes is a relief and yet I’m also wondering where my beauty fits in again, how will I be judged now? Will I be attractive to the Western men traveling here? So far most of the guys remind me of the dorks in Japan and I’ve yet to lay eyes on someone really hot. I find the Vietnamese men strikingly beautiful but they’re always trying to sell you something, so, like with Japanese men, there’s a distance between us, a lack of sensuality. I am still a masked product but this time they're not buying it, they’re selling to it. We get on bike taxis and race out to the Tu Duc Tomb and wander around the maze of crumbling structures heavy with vines and carpeted with moss and flowers. There are annoying tourists everywhere and I get a sense of the Southeast Asian circuit we’ve embarked on: the same backpackers at each destination, all repeat versions of the other, all kind of repeat versions of you. It’s not long before I start to resent being a tourist, being so unspecial, and appreciate having lived in Japan so long; the ease and flow of being a resident.
We buy a guided tour of some of the bunkers and war sites. Our guide, Thinh, does all the right things to appease our appetite for magical Eastern exoticism. He gets our birth years and does our Chinese charts. He asks if I’m single and I hesitantly say, “Yes,” grasping that the statement reveals that I’m unprotected, yearning, and maybe worst of all, hopeful. It’s written all over my face. G resists participating in the charade but I completely eat it up. He tells me that Dragons are my match and to be careful in the Year of the Buffalo, to not leave my house on my 30th birthday, and that I’ll have two sons. He asks to write in my journal and jots down: “Dear my friend! When doing meditation, just breathe steadily and set your min (sic) free. Good luck to you. (Breathe and Smile). Hugs, Your friend Thinh.” He then adds: “you don’t worry everyday I pray for you.” I know it’s mostly an act but but I get really emotional when I hug him goodbye. I give him a huge tip. He reassures me that true love awaits.
G and I are taking it really easy and revelling in not having to rush off somewhere to teach, or please a boss, or worry about being on time. We repeat these 'whoopee!' vacation mantras constantly, “Ahh this is so great, soooooooo great, bye bye Japan! Bye bye restrictions and rules and alienation! Bye bye sexual frustration and men who won’t touch us! Bye bye personality prostituting!” Before leaving Japan, we played Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” over and over. It’s probably a little overstated to revel in “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life” from well-paid jobs in a beautiful, safe country, but not for us! We feel genuinely freed from something that gripped our hearts and brains for years, like a long-term relationship with a difficult lover. We bond in the sensation of shared freedom as much as when we believed we were together in a kind of strange cage.
But on the other side of this cage, in the flight away from Japan, in what we’re calling our newfound freedom, our stark personality differences quickly rise to the surface. Where we once had our own separate lives and separate ways of doing things, we now have to make practical decisions together. I’m losing patience with the little things like the way she has to check every single guesthouse and barter for the cheapest deal. Sure, it’s really practical to budget when traveling, but bartering is so alien and uncomfortable for me. It feels cheap even though I know it’s expected and you’re stupid if you don’t do it. “They respect you more. It’s just the way business is done in these countries,” is the kind of thing she says and knows well having grown up in South Africa and traveled most of the African continent and Asia.
I’m feeling challenged and frustrated by her careful, well-thought-out ways but when I get my first bout of food poisoning, she’s by my side in our stuffy hotel room, quietly reading a book and fetching fruit juice when I need it. Her perfectionism is irritating but she’s so good, so kind and loyal, that I’m angry at myself for feeling annoyed. I remind myself in my journal to, “Be patient, live cheaply, just breathe! Vietnam is so beautiful and you are free!”
In the late evenings, a cacophony of sounds pour in from outside, minnows of breeze push through mosquito nets onto our red, dampened skin. There’s the sounds of vegetable sellers clucking at passersby, mothers chasing children down the street with bowls of rice, an endless stream of motorbikes like tiny chainsaws searing into hot sleep, all this raucous plastered like thin paper around the reaches of my consciousness becoming walls against the memories of what I was, unlit passageways into what I hope to be. But there are ugly thoughts once again rising through these new sensations and the broken record of my meditation seems to be returning in the vastness of time. I cannot run from my ugliest self. The “thoughts” beg to know if I’ll ever be happy, if I’ll ever be loved, if I’ll ever be thin enough or learn how to properly manage money, and the most incessant, the voice that rails on over and over, wonders if I’ll ever be as perfect as G.
We have a minor argument as we’re preparing to move onto Hoi An. We’re discussing rides to the bus station with our guesthouse owner’s son and G argues that his price is too high. We don’t have a lot of time but she runs out onto the street to check with other moto drivers to get a better deal. I’m annoyed and afraid we’re going to miss our overnight bus. Up until now, she’s always been the one to check prices and barter because I claim to be bad at it. She usually takes the reigns while I wait silently nearby but this time I yell after her, “Fuck man who cares? Let’s just take this one and go!”  5 minutes later she comes back with a cheaper ride. Both of us climb onto the bike and race to the station. We’re the last two to line up for the bus. I’m silently fuming. I’m angry but mostly because she’s always right.
Crammed with smelly backpackers, the overnight bus takes us down to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site where we’ve heard you can get clothing made very cheaply. The city and its port are immensely charming and we’re totally back on track, chilling out and shopping during the day and drinking on terraces at night. I talk a lot about Mat whom I’m planning to visit after our trip. I’m trying not to let the fantasy get out of hand but it’s hard; I just want our recent Skype date to mean that we’re meant to be together forever. I want to see an end to this love-less tunnel. The story of “us” becomes self-perpetuating propaganda since he and I have very little contact. Once and awhile I pull out his picture to give myself a little a jolt.
Getting tailor-made clothing is a total revelation. You pick a pattern from one of the mannequins displayed around the shop, the material you want it made in, then they measure you and send it away to be made in less than 24 hours. Having a dress fit your body perfectly after three hellish years of trying wear clothes made for Japanese women gives me a shopper’s high I never want to come down from. Clothing for ME that’s not too tight in the arms and hips, or strangely loose around the bust, and you almost feel famous with the way the shop women fawn and fuss over every detail. I go a bit overboard and get a pair of knee-high platform boots made in yellow leather. I only wear them only once months later at a New Years party while high on ecstasy and break my big toe.
We first see him in Vietnam in a Demilitarized Zone town called Dong Ha. G and I are on our way to Laos after exploring much of North Vietnam; we’re sitting on opposite ends of a bench seat at the back of a local bus, our backpacks stuffed under us next to huge sacks of rice and garlic. It’s really early morning and we’re sleepy and silent. She steps off the bus for some air but I stay on and stare out the window.
Our future comes stumbling off the adjacent bus with an old guitar in hand, his wild, dirty blond hair flopped over just-woken eyes shaped like fat almonds. He’s tall and broad shouldered, wearing a dirty, white tank top and ratty jean shorts: Steve McQueen meets Johnny Depp. Total babe. The driver’s attendant, a stern, older Vietnamese woman, hurries him onto our bus. “Ticket? Where your ticket?” she yells up at him. “Umm shoot they didn’t pass it on then?” he says hunching down and patting his back pockets. He speaks so softly that I can barely hear him but I detect an Australian accent. The annoyed attendant gestures for him to sit down and right before he squeezes in next to a Vietnamese man carrying a huge sack on his lap, he looks back and flashes a grin. I smile back shyly then look out the window again. G comes back on the bus and as she passes him, he looks up and they exchange a brief but sweet smile. The three of us are the only foreigners so it’s almost a required courtesy to acknowledge one another but I wonder if they’ve just had a “moment”; she’s such a natural beauty with that fit, tawny body, bronzed skin and curly hair. She’s probably his type.
I have a recurring fantasy as I sit on the bumpy bus, my stomach bouncing with each pothole, sweaty thighs stuck to the vinyl seat. I picture myself with a very sharp surgeon’s scalpel. I watch as I cut a deep incision along the bottom of my lower stomach, right above my pubis like a caesarian section. Then I conjure another type of sharp object, this one more like an ice cream scoop with razor sharp edges. I lift up the lower belly flesh and scoop out all the fat then toss it out the window. It all happens very fast, very fluidly. I just cut it all out and it’s gone. I’m quite skilled at it.
The bus stops on occasion to let the driver pee and buy food but no one else is permitted to get off. The vibrations from the motor, the constant swerving, and the slide show of repeated countryside lulls me from the fat scooping fantasy to gazing at the foreign man’s long legs stretched out into the aisle. I move from his legs up his narrow hips to a very thick torso, wide shoulders, muscular arms and a hairy neck. He’s so tanned and there are tiny beads of sweat running down his temples onto his jaw. I watch myself stand up and walk over to him, lift up my summer dress and pull my underwear aside to straddle him as he undoes his pants. He takes my tits in his mouth, moving his hands up the back of my dress. I lick his sweaty neck and pull his head back to gaze at his handsome face as he moves his farm boy hands over my meaty thighs then pulls the flesh around my hips, and in one graceful movement, turns me over the seat in front of us to fuck me from behind. Fully rapt by this fantasy, I feel G’s eyes on me. I look over and she smiles knowingly like she can read my mind. I blush. She nods towards the foreigner and raises her eyebrows. We both giggle quietly then I turn to look out the window again, carefully maneuvering my sticky inner thighs.
Following hours of the human cocktail shaker, up up up the mountain roads, past distant villages and farms, we come upon the Laos-Vietnam border crossing and the bus stops. Our asses are numb and our necks are stiff so we slowly move into the line towards a big, run-down building. G is a day over her permit so she goes inside to ask if she’ll have any problems. I wait outside and survey the area. There are groups of tourists, Laotians, and Vietnamese shuffling around aimlessly, and big, billowy flags blowing in the wind. It’s chillier at this altitude so I wrap my scarf around my shoulders. It’s weird how borders work, though it’s an imaginary line between identical landscapes, the Laotians selling wares on the other side of the border seem to be quieter cousins to the louder, brasher Vietnamese selling stuff on this side. G comes flying out of the customs office and gives me the thumbs-up then makes a dash for the bathroom. I get into line at the immigration counter behind a bunch of other white people with backpacks.
G comes back and we ready our cash for the fee. There’s one Canadian guy ahead of me and after he goes through, I ask him how much his visa cost. “$43 American,” he says then walks away. I only have $30 US, the amount the travel company said it would cost, so I tell G to go first while I fish through my secret money pocket for a traveler’s cheque.
The young immigration agent flips through her passport and says, “$36 for you,” then gestures for my passport.
“$43 for you,” he almost shouts.
We try to bargain for a lower fees explaining what the travel agent told us. “Ahhhh no no, that for Chinese only!” he laughs along with the three other agents sitting around an empty, Communist-era looking office. “I only have a traveler’s cheque,” I tell him. He looks back at the other agents and one of them makes a phone call then signals for me to give it to him. I hand over a cheque worth $100 American dollars and he looks perplexed, “43!” he yells under the window. “Can’t you just take this cheque and give me back $57 American dollars cash?” A different agent makes another call and they discuss it for a minute then the young agent reaches into his back pocket for his wallet and fishes out $57 American dollars and passes it through the window. “Thanks!” I say smiling. G and I give each other a high-five.
We decide to hang around until it’s time to get back on the bus and as we’re pulling out a map of Laos someone behind us clears his throat. “Um, excuse me ladies, I’m terribly sorry but I’m in a bit of a pickle with the visa fees.” We turn around to see the hot foreigner from our bus nervously ringing his hands.
“Hi!” we say in unison.
“Hey, hi, geez I’m right embarrassed,” he smiles sweetly. “Oh yes and I’m also Steve.” We laugh and introduce ourselves, shaking hands.
He continues, “I’m about 15 clams short for the visa fee – would you girls happen to have it? I’ll get you back in Savannakhet. You gotta a reservation somewhere?”
I explain that we’ve made a booking at a mid-range guesthouse then we both reach for our bags, pull out the bills and hand over the money.
“Thank you so much! So sorry to have to do this! I’ll stay wherever you two ladies are staying!” We reassure him with Japanese bows, “No worries, man,” G says as we make our way back to the bus. Neither of us questioned for a second if he was legit, we trusted him. It’s clear to us without saying it that something has suddenly shifted. We’re a threesome.
Our first night together in Savannakhet, Steve, G and I take beers to the shore of the river with a couple of other backpackers and he plays us songs on his rickety guitar. It’s a nice break from the shitty music they play for tourists in bars and restaurants, and I haven’t brought along an iPod or anything to listen to music on. Steve is playing all the songs I love. All of them. I swear. Fleetwood Mac, Creedence and most importantly, my alt-country sweetheart Ryan Adams. Plus he sings us many of his own songs that he’s working on for a new album. His big smile, ease of being, a sweet voice, and wild, curly hair. Dreamy. He may not be the perfect guy, but with those big, rough hands strumming the strings, he’s as close as I’ve ever seen, as we’ve ever seen. And the three of us are great together. This is the best moment of my life. Just perfect.

The addition of Steve really takes the pressure off and there’s a newfound ease between G and I.  We feel a blissful momentum towards some of other place with him. We’re slightly less exposed and vulnerable and our chemistry as a threesome is palpable. We get him and he gets us. The question of having an actual threesome seems out of the question as G and I have never had a sexual energy (we often speak about sex; me in more gritty detail) and it may be one of the reasons that our friendship has worked so well. I’ve had genuine attraction to women and had sex with women but I hesitate to talk about the experiences in real terms because expressing “them” might make me a lesbian and I don’t think I am exactly. The term “bisexual” feels so official and I’ve always seen myself on a fluid scale, my desires changing and morphing with each person or situation. With G, I’ve always affectionate but never sexually attracted; perhaps because she’s much more starkly heterosexual than I. Or maybe it’s really just our energy together; a silent fluidity between women loving and defending each other as real friends.
We’re both potential lovers for Steve but we keep this fact very hush. It’s weird because we usually talk about everything in the moment as it’s happening, but never about how we feel about each other. It’s insane if you think about it. We tend to narrate every last detail of our experience together but only celebrate one another, anything that’s grating or disturbing is kept under wraps. It’s becoming one of the things that’s bugging me on this trip, not necessarily about her, but more about our dynamic. It helped us tremendously when we were trying to make sense of Japan, but now it feels like a reflexive habit that gets in the way of just being. Maybe we’re scared to speak about it in case it hurts the other person, or neither of us want to express that we physically desire him because we understand the implications of ruining such a fluid vibe between the three of us as travel partners. The question mark is there, I can feel it, she must feel it too. The difference between her and I, fundamentally as far as the possibility of hooking up with Steve is concerned, is that I’m talking about Mat like he and I have real potential. Which we do, I guess, it’s just that I’ve made it up! G is just being free, fierce, beautiful and fun. She and I are identically suited to him because I’m also free, fierce, and fun, and maybe beautiful, but I’m not sure about the beautiful part. Plus there’s just this hole in the middle of my being, I know it’s there, others must feel it too. I want love too much.   
The next day we decide to get a room together to cut down on costs, one with two double beds. We get in the room and jump around like kids, giddy and playful, taking photos and gushing at having found the perfect bunk mates to hang with and share costs. G is a fantastic photographer; before we left Japan, she gave me a beautiful album curated with photos of our time together. It’s filled with bright shots of ceramic bowls and forested temples and joyful festivals and adorable children and strange fashion and secret symbols of “our” Japan. Often when we traveled together in Japan, it was G who captured it most of it, including last night when she filmed Steve singing for all the people in the guesthouse, a breathtaking performance that my camera didn’t have enough memory to fully capture. I’m taking fewer photos on this adventure in part because I know she has an eye for detail and makes time to take photographs but mostly it’s because I often find myself getting lost in the moment, in my own scattered, anxious thoughts, or feeling strange about being a tourist and hesitating to pull my camera out, or just simply forgetting.
Now, in the room snapping photos of our view and of each other, she puts Steve in the huge armoire and stages a shoot where it looks like we got into our room and a hot guy from our collective fantasy appeared magically from inside the wardrobe to greet us! Except it’s not that staged really. It feels like he’s a manifestation of our love-travel fantasy. That evening they leave the room before me to talk to the people at the front desk. I put on my new black silk dress, set the camera on the dresser, turn on the timer and take a photo of myself sitting on the bed, gazing winsomely out the window. It’s a beautiful photo. It looks like I’m all alone.
 We walk around the small town gazing at temples and rejoicing in the peacefulness of Laos and its people. Unlike Vietnam, the locals sit back in their plastic arm chairs and watch you watching them; few approach to sell you wares, few approach at all. We revel in this a bit too much but the sensation is such a stark change from the bustle of Vietnam and the foreigner fetishization of Japan. Maybe we can finally escape and be anonymous. Reinvent ourselves. It makes our threesome all the more special and secret and sexy because it’s not reflected in the “sell”, in the way vendors will target and appeal to your cliched desires or coupled configurations. There’s a deliberate but delicate indifference. It’s an incredible feeling of unlifting, a brief respite from estrangement.
We drink beers at a small bar and share stories. I notice how the two of them are flirting a little harder and a little longer than our friendly interactions have permitted up to this point. I jealously watch them and promptly interrupt to tell Steve about my fake French boyfriend whom I’m surely going to meet after this trip and whom I’m probably destined to marry. The telling of it has become very rehearsed. G must be feeling this but she listens attentively like it’s the first time. Steve’s reaction is sweet and fresh and it renews my confidence in its “truth”.
I’ve also told this story so many times, this very story I am writing right now. I’ve written so many drafts and incarnations and without fail, every time I get to this point in the story I get stuck, like I’m about to watch an accident, covering my own eyes for what’s about to happen. I am going to do something that is either incredibly brave or incredibly selfish and stupid. Or both, actually, and it’s hard to write it. I know I’m an unreliable narrator and yet the whole story rests on the telling the truth. So as I struggled to tell the truth in the moment while this story was happening, I also struggle to re-tell it to you right now on this page.
We take a moto trip together down the vacant, open roads of rural Laos. Steve as our driver, me in the middle holding onto him, and G behind me gripping the back bar. There is nothing to see, no trucks or messy caravans or animals in our way, we are alone on the open road - this is what travel can briefly permit the traveler, a near empty landscape to dream oneself into. The only stop we make is in a small village with one bar, overseen by a couple of locals, curious children and stray dogs. Steve sweetly engages the bar owner and his friend to a game of pool on a table set out in the middle of the square. We permit ourselves a perfect afternoon and spread out to take in the quaint life that we’ll never really have to live, a life we indulge as a forgotten throwback, a contrast to the torrent of immediate and urgent need and emotion we’re all feeling as three hungry, searching Westerners writing our stories inside an idyllic setting.
Steve charms the couple of male locals who sell us Beer Laos and cigarettes. We don’t see any women. G and I lounge around on plastic chairs along a small creek. On the ride home, a purple sunset before us, G in the middle, me on the back feeling separate and scared and free, the visions of the Mekong’s 3000 islands settles inside us and we dream about conquering them together the next morning.
“So what happened with Mat? Are you going to meet up again?” Steve asks me on the bus to the river port the following morning.
We’re sharing my headphones and listening to music, smiling at each other, taking photos. The wind is whipping around us. G sits a few seats ahead with a local, her head resting in her arms on the seat in front of her. I’m starting to wonder if maybe Steve likes me.
“Yeah, he and I lost touch for years and then one day when I was digging through my junk mail and came across a message from him asking where I was. The weirdest thing about it was that I’d been trying to hunt him down online just a few weeks previous but didn’t find anything. It was like we both got on each other’s radars at the same moment…”
“I know! So I replied immediately and we Skyped the next morning. He looked exactly I as remembered him: gorgeous, statuesque, kind of untouchable…”
“And what happened?”
“Well we promised to write to each other and send letters, maybe eventually visit. I sent him a long letter with a CD full of music, photos of Japan, random little souvenirs…”
“And what did he send you?”
“Not a lot, I guess. He sent me a CD that I listened to incessantly for months and a letter.  I mean, it’s embarrassing really, how much I’ve obsessed over him and it’s possible he doesn’t feel the same but…”
Steve looks at me and affectionately puts his arm around my shoulders, “Nah, impossible that he doesn’t love you too. You’re too fantastic.”

We board a small canoe with two other backpackers and head to one of the 3000 islands, promised very cheap hut-like accommodation and even cheaper beer. When we shore in the morning, the boat driver points to a barefoot man and we follow him to the first guesthouse on the island. The ground is silty soft and doesn’t require shoes, the sky is bright morning blue and locals stand idly by like bored parade attendants. It’s even more perfect than everything we’ve seen before it. G and I put our bags in our hut, Steve in his -- our two simple little cabins are joined by a wide terrace decorated with three swaying hammocks like white tropical vines, all of this balanced sweetly yet precariously over the muddy raging river. There are no distinct smells. We’ve just approached the gates of Heaven.
After smoking a joint at 10am, we decide to rent bikes from our hosts and tour the tiny island. We start down narrow paths near the cluster of huts and past an abandoned schoolhouse run by the French a few decades earlier, children are playing soccer in its small, patchy field. It’s high season for the river so its waters lash wildly against massive trees lining its shore. We continue through bright green rice fields and take photos of each other beaming happily in the warm sun. We share of feeling of togetherness and wonder at the discovery of this impossible paradise occupied by few people. A shimmering temple pokes up amidst the palm trees, cloud formations above it look just like the temple’s golden peak - the whole scene has been put in place for our worship. After riding around for a few hours, we find our way back to the hut and order food to eat on our terrace. Steve pulls out his guitar and softly strums some tunes as G and I sway gently in our hammocks.
That evening, the three of us stock up on joints and beers then tell stories. G and Steve inch closer together in conversation, their voices hushed and soft. I drift off into reverie staring at the giant, full moon and billions of stars, listening to their voices over the rush of the river. I fall asleep for what feels like a minute then wake and stumble out of the hammock, teetering on stoned legs. I take one last glimpse at them but try not to register what might be happening. I move quickly toward the bed, flop down fully clothed and fall asleep.
At 5 a.m., I wake alone in bed and feel panicked. Is she with still him? I listen for voices but only hear the river and my heart pounding loudly in my ears. What is this feeling? I’m gripped by a foreign ache in my body. Maybe they’ve just fallen asleep in their hammocks. I silently tip toe out of bed and peek around the door frame. The empty white vines sway in the wind. They’re together in his bed. They’ve spent the night together. They must have fucked. I lay back down. The room is spinning. What am I feeling? Am I turned on? I quickly masturbate to relieve the unease, but it doesn’t work.
I get back up, grab my journal, camera and a pen and silently tiptoe down the stairs. Everything is still and quiet, no one seems to be awake. The sliver of sun peaking over the trees and feels hot even in its infancy. I’m sick with a feeling I don’t understand. I walk down the river path and encounter a group of young children playing with a beaten up ball. The tallest girl in the group quietly approaches and grabs my journal, flipping through it. She wants my pen; there are little boys surrounding us now and they take the camera. The girl opens to the last page and runs her fingers across the pen marks where, last night in the hammock, I’d written: “He’s an angel we can only look at and enjoy. I’m learning to keep my desires honest – I don’t need have to touch everything beautiful that I see.” I take photos with the children and their just awoken father. He holds a baby in his arms and asks for a photo. I take it and we all crowd around the screen to see it again. Why have they done this to me?
I keep walking through a jungled path along the river’s edge. I’m angry and can’t understand why. Is it because they touched each other? They ruined everything. It’s all ruined. I round a corner and an old woman with a giant basket walks swiftly toward me. She’s speaking but I can’t understand her. She’s pointing to my eyes and I’m equally transfixed by hers: hazel with sky blue edges. Is she selling me something? Her basket is empty. She keeps talking but I don’t understand. I smile and point toward the path behind her. She opens her arm toward the empty trail and says something I imagine to be: go figure it out then. It’s not fair to have this feeling in paradise. Why did they ruin it? Why? I can’t be around them anymore. I’m going to find my own space. I don’t want to keep travelling with her.
I circle the whole island. I walk through jungle bushes and come upon people living in elevated huts. There are children pulling each other around in a shabby, wooden cart, their clothes tattered and torn. Why do I feel so betrayed? I hate them. They’ve chosen each other so they’ve unchosen me. I need to sit somewhere. I keep looking for a place to sit down but the small huts with men sitting around don’t look like cafes or restaurants. Where are the huts that serve coffee? I need coffee.
It’s tainted now. Ruined. I need to get far away from them. From her!

I write in my journal: if this is a test, I think I’m going to fail.