Hail in Budapest

Budapest felt different that day.

Everything was just as grandiose, but it felt more aloof. Filled with people, the wide streets echoed solitude.

I wandered, and reacquainted myself with the thoughts that only visit me when I’m alone.

How long had I been there? Two days? Three days?

Not long at all. The city felt new to me, but it was already filled with memories. And finally, I got to see it for what it was. The star of its own story, instead of the backdrop for someone’s face.

The solitude was both jarring and comfortable.

I caught sight of the Budapest eye. It made me smile. I was so caught up in the way the past lingered that bursts of modernity caught me off-guard. Sometimes I struggle to see things as they are, fascinated with what they used to be.

It was so hot out. I should find a lake, I thought to myself, sometime soon. This unexpected early June heat wave had my skin constantly coated in sweat.

I figured I should probably at least look for a park.

Thick, dark clouds began to cover the sky. A storm would be nice, I thought. Cut through this humidity.

I could have used a cleanse.

Something hit me in the back of the head. I turned around, confused. By that point there was no blue left in the sky. A pattering sound filled the air, but it lacked the musicality of rain.

It looked like snow, but with the heat that was impossible.

Little white specks dotted the ground, and it was only when I was hit again that I realized it was hail.

It was picking up. Larger and larger pieces hit the ground. I threw my arms over my head for cover and darted towards the metro entrance.

A hailstone the size of my fist crashed in front of me. I ran faster, into the mouth of the underground tunnel.

In the metro everything was calm, unaffected. I rode back to my hostel’s stop.

This is just a freak storm. It will be over in no time.

When I got out of the metro cart, I saw a massive crowd huddled for shelter along the platform.

I walked towards the exit. It couldn’t be that bad. I only had a couple of blocks to go, and I wasn’t afraid of getting a bit wet.

The hail had stopped, but the rain was coming down in sheets. If I’d stepped outside, I would have been drenched in seconds.

I stood with the crowd. Water poured down the stairs.

I don’t know how long I was down there, but it was longer than I enjoyed being trapped in a packed metro station. It was beginning to feel a bit too apocalyptic.

Slowly, people began to make their way out. I waited a bit longer, hoping the rain would die down a bit, but finally the prospect of being soaked appealed to me more than spending another minute in those cramped quarters.

I stepped out.

Water rushed down the streets. I took my shoes off and waded through the ankle-deep stream. In an instant I was as soaked as if I’d jumped in a lake. The air was somehow still steamy through the rain.

Once again, the city looked different, but this time it was something tangible. The water caught discarded trash and broken branches in its current. I sidestepped frequently the debris. The trees on the side of the road were bent at odd angles.

Oh, Budapest. What is happening to you?

I made it to my hostel, and lightning flashed behind me as I climbed up the stairs. There was no other light; power was out. Water poured off of me and created a waterfall behind me. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.

I shivered, though the temperatures were still high.

This was no cleanse. This was destruction.

There Was A World

Once upon a time, there was a world.

It was a world full of magic and wonder, a true work of art. An orb in the sky controlled the movement of the water. Living organisms erupted into colour before they died, leaving their bodies as a blanket of warmth for the source of their life. Two collections of sediment struck together at the right velocity created warmth and light. There were countless other complexities like this within it. One could study it for a lifetime and never be bored.

It was a world where too much was happening in just a second to keep track of. In this world, countless stories died untold.

This world held many life forms. Each creature could only properly communicate with others of its kind, though sometimes, some species almost managed to bridge that gap. Because of this, none of its inhabitants knew its full story.

It was a world of sadness, where some things had to die in order for others to survive.

But mostly, it was a constantly evolving world of beauty. Everything was cyclical, but over time, nothing remained the same.

A particular creature inhabited this world. Their story is the equivalent to a short chapter in a long series of books, but to them, it was the only one that mattered.

Physically, this was a weak creature. They didn’t have much muscle mass, or a protective shell, or claws and teeth sharp enough to defend themselves. Their eyesight and hearing were average at best, and their sense of smell was nearly nonexistent. They had no fur on their bodies to protect them from the cold and rain. Their survival defied all odds.

But as it often is, their greatest weakness was also their greatest strength. They compensated for their physical inaptitude with their intelligence. They used elements of their environment to protect themselves from the weather and other animals, as well as to hunt.

They were an inventive species. Because of their need to rely on their innovation, they threw themselves into creation and transformed the world around them. This was one of their greatest strengths, but also one of their greatest weaknesses. They became so obsessed with their abilities, they stopped believing in anything they hadn’t created.

They wanted more. More territory, more food. They began to believe that they owned the land and could bend it at will. They took more than they needed, convinced that the earth would always provide for them. They took control of their food supply and increased their feelings of invincibility. In their minds, other lives existed for their convenience. Any corner of the world on which they hadn’t left a mark presented itself as a lost opportunity. They had to assert their dominance.

Not all of them were like this. Some were content to belong to the land, to take only what they needed and to let the rest of the world live on. But the others destroyed their ways of life. They justified it in saying that these particular creatures weren’t evolved enough, weren’t fully profiting of the land and were therefore being wasteful. These people had a choice: assimilate or die.

Many died.

These creatures waged wars against each other as well, justifying their exterminations with the excuse that they needed more land, more resources, for their people. As though there was something that divided them from others of their species. As though they had more of a right to survive. As though they needed more than what they had already taken, abused, and destroyed.

It was a beautiful world, a magical world. And yet, to this creature, it wasn’t enough. They stopped seeing the beauty or practicality in anything they hadn’t created. They didn’t see the purpose to anything that didn’t serve them.

Somehow, through all their progress, they’d lost sight of one of the most basic truths: they belonged to the world. It didn’t belong to them.

They’d pushed their inventive nature too far. The things they created were too damaging and took up too much space, too many resources. They endangered the lives of entire species and justified it by thinking that this was their world, that they had the right to do what they wanted to make it more comfortable for them.

But it wasn’t their world. Their lives weren’t worth more than any other creature’s, any other plant’s. Their comfort certainly wasn’t worth the damage they were inflicting.

They didn’t realize that they couldn’t rely solely on themselves to survive. They needed the world they were destroying, all of it.

How does this story end? Does this species succeed at destroying everything around them? Do they take complete control of the world by annihilating it? Or do they find a way to continue with their endless advancements, forcing the world to adapt to them?

Their story is merely a short chapter. The importance they’d attributed to themselves was misplaced.

Stories of greed rarely let the greedy win. Perhaps this story will be one of redemption. Just as it’s about to go too far, this species learns the errors of their ways, and finally learns to live in harmony with the world rather than taking control of it.

Or perhaps it will end with some sort of poetic justice. How could they destroy an entire world? More likely they only destroy themselves. The world they thought they owned will continue to grow after their disappearance, and their entire existence won’t be remembered.

This story is still being written. The ending depends on what happens next.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Aran Islands, Ireland

Lake Balaton, Hungary

Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Hehuanshan, Taiwan

Kending, Taiwan

Summer Haunts

The air pressed against my skin, fresh and humid all at once. I walked the familiar roads, my feet still as tough and calloused as they would have been back then. 

Plus ça change, plus ça reste pareil.

I sometimes tried to jazz up my walks, but there were only so many places to go. Even when I was younger and would wander around for hours trying to get lost, I’d effortlessly find my way back.

It had been a while since I’ve been back for the summer, and I took advantage. I swam as much as possible, and spent time in the forest, or at the falls. Same haunts as always, but it felt different. I wasn’t a child being being shipped around by my parents. Nor was I a teenager downing the cheapest beer possible by the lake with the rest of the youth, killing time before we become adults. 

My strongest memories all take place in the summer. Sandcastles and chalk drawings. Ice cream for dinner when it was too hot for cooking. Swinging at the park and believing that my feet would touch the sky if I could only pump a little harder. Back when my idea of freedom was a bike ride around the block.

Boundaries stretched, and I’d start to walk the length of the main strip with my friends, back and forth, for hours on end. I asserted my independence by sleeping in a tent in our yard, and ran to the beach for a quick swim early in the morning. I’d stay outside at night to watch the stars. Infinity was out there, and it terrified me that I was too small to discover it all.

Summers were a magical time, where one day bled into the next, and there was nothing to do but live. Lazy mornings started the day slow and steady. The only plans for the day were meeting people and wandering aimlessly, from the beach to the park to one of the fast-food restaurants that would serve us some poutine  for a decent price. We made pit stops at home only to get changed, or refuel on free food. We’d blast angsty music and speak of restlessness, of powerlessness. It’s still hard to get rid of those feelings when I return, even though now I can leave whenever I want. Restlessness is either ingrained in this town, or in my personality. I still feel a little bit trapped when I’m technically free.

Mild rebellion shaped my adolescence. My friends and I broke into abandoned buildings and old sects just to prove that we could. We hung around the liquor store and asked the sketchier customers to buy us something. It was never too long before they did, and we got on sugary drinks in the park at night. We’d strip naked and jump into the water, rippling the reflection of the stars. We laughed with our backs pressed against the street, not worried about the traffic because the whole town shut down after the sun set.  

Our conversations drifted around the future and escape. We didn’t notice what we already had, freedom without responsibility, without the pressure to do anything other than have a good time. The future was full of promise and possibilities, and we were at that sweet spot where fulfilling our dreams didn’t demand immediate action. We had more opportunity to be fully alive than we ever would, and we didn’t quite appreciate it.

It feels like a ghost town now. Did it really get more desolate? Or did I just outgrow the restless teenager scene? There’s no in-between stage in these towns, no young adults trying on a bunch of different lifestyles in an attempt to make one fit. All the people I grew up with either moved away or moved on, starting families, buying houses. Memory lane is a lonely path.

People greet me on my walks. I don’t know if they recognize me or if they’re just feeling friendly. Either way, I wave back.

The grass feels right between my toes. The air smells the same, I think. If I suspend my disbelief, I can recapture that nearly weightless feeling. Like at any moment, I could just float away.

The Courage Locket

“I’m so glad I’ll be in the rainforest soon. I need to get out of this city. I mean, it’s fun, but nothing feels real, you know? I miss feeling real.”

I hurried my words out before anyone else showed up. You were the only one allowed to see my fragility. I didn’t trust anyone else to understand.

You nodded sympathetically. You understood the havoc this city could wreak on a person’s peace of mind.

“I got you something,” you said, and slid me a box.

Inside was a locket, with the words “Je t’aime petite. Courage.” 

My eyes welled with tears.

“I’m a bit nervous about going,” I confessed.

“It’s only three months. You’ll have the time of your life, and be back before you know it.”

Only three months. At the break-neck speed my life had been changing, three months seemed like an eternity. But in the grand scheme of things, it was no time at all.

“Thank you,” I said, fiddling with the clasp. “It’s perfect.”

The following week I flew to Ecuador, rode a rickety bus through the Andes and let a mule carry me to the ecological reserve I’d be volunteering at. I was ages away from anything that connected us.

The rainforest was stunning. I felt like I was walking through a fairytale, misty and mysterious. It felt good to breathe. To relax. To be disconnected from all that unnecessary Montreal drama.

But sometimes, it got lonely. I grew nostalgic for human connection, for intimate conversations. I wondered how that was something I could so cavalierly leave behind.

At a peak moment of isolation, I hiked to a stream to watch the water cutting through the greenery.

I was exactly where I wanted to be, but all I could feel was my solitude.

I didn’t want to cry about it, but my tear ducts wouldn’t listen.

The locket weighed on my chest. I unclasped it and read your words, just barely blurring together through my tears.

Je t’aime petite. Courage. 

Ecuador was a wild ride, a crazy high punctuated by moments of loneliness and aggressive machismo that wore at my soul. I drifted aimlessly, and 90% of the time I loved my life more dearly than I’d ever loved anything.

But when I didn’t, I had a talisman that reminded me that I was loved, that someone out there had faith in me.

Through that I found my courage.

I wore the necklace back to Montreal, letting it fall into the basket with my shoes and wallet at the airport.

Three months can be a long time. Friendships I’d thought were solid had fizzled away, a moment in time that couldn’t be recaptured.

I felt out of place in the city. I was still wandering in my mind. Leaving again became my focus. I worked jobs that made me feel dead inside to save enough for another great escape.

You and I spoke less. There were no more teary texts, no more rants about the disappointing men in our lives. That had been a phase, one I was okay with letting go of.

Because through the silence, our love lived in the background. The few times we met up, conversation flowed as though no time had passed. And when we weren’t speaking, I still had that necklace to remind me of you, of a friendship too solid to be eroded by time or distance.

Until I lost it.

I don’t know where or how… It was somewhere between moving to New Brunswick, or cuccooning with my parents for a winter, or bouncing around Italy, or getting resettled in Prague. I drifted too much to keep track of anything. One day I thought of you, brought my hand to my neck, and realized it was gone.

Life went on. Life was good. Until it wasn’t anymore, and I was back in Montreal feeling stuck, trying to convince myself that things weren’t terrible.

I was getting caught in a whirlpool of dangerous thoughts, fighting to stay afloat. This wasn’t where I wanted to be, I refused to let myself be there, but I got stuck anyways. Dark thoughts are like quicksand. One misstep, and they’ll drag you under.

One day, at my parents’ place, my sister came downstairs with the locket you’d given me. She’d found it packed up in a box somewhere. I slipped it around my neck, thinking that it had come at a perfect time.

I was more right that I realized. A couple of days later, I found out about a friend’s death. As I worked and slept and breathed with grief pulsing at the back of my mind, I wrapped the chain around my fingers, trying not to fade into the darkness.

Courage. Courage. Courage.

I’d like to think that I’m enough of a minimalist to not need a talisman, but goddamn, it felt good to have something to cling to.

A couple of months later, I moved again, this time to Taiwan. I kept the necklace on despite the annoyance of having to take it off for three different security checks. Even though relocating was practically a routine for me at that point, it still took a bit of courage.

I clung to it desperately for the first couple of weeks, while I was still feeling so down that picking myself was starting to look impossible, regardless of where I was.

I needed your love, and your courage. Though at that point, courage meant simply waking up and going through the motions.

When you’re down, a minute can feel like a decade. A couple of weeks can feel like an eternity.

It certainly felt like a lifetime had passed, though it was closer to a month. I was wild camping at some hot springs with new friends, and I felt peaceful. All the screaming in my head had been silenced.

I’d forgotten how good that felt.

I took my clothes of to get into the river. Against my habits, I took the locket off too. The inside was beginning to rust, and I wanted to keep it around.

When I put the clothes in my bag, I saw that the locket was missing.

I imagined someone finding it in the rocks. Hopefully it would be someone who needed some courage, and could actually read the words inside it. I could only imagine the perfect serendipity of someone findingt it in a time of desperation. I was almost glad it had been misplaced. Maybe I didn’t need it anymore. The fact that I was still breathing, still chasing adventure, should have been enough inspiration to get through whatever turbulent times were to come.

But the shimmering silver caught my eye, and I looped the chain around my pinky, folding it carefully in my shirt that I immediately placed in my bag.

Perhaps there were people out there who needed it more than me, but I was going to be selfish and keep this bit of courage to myself.

Or so I thought.

Because when I got home and unfolded the shirt, the locket was gone. I emptied my bag. Nothing.

I’d been so careful, and I’d still lost it.

At another time, that would have devastated me. I would have read way too much into it. But just then, I felt okay.

You’d given me enough courage over the years. It was time to start generating it.

50 Meanings of “I Love You”

Love is a tricky thing.

I read a post attempting to define it not long ago, and realized that I didn’t agree with the author’s explanation at all. To me, love isn’t all about dependence or commitment. Or at least, not always.

But then what is it about? What do we really mean when we say “I love you”?

The crazy thing is, for something that drives our lives, most people can’t explain what it means, beyond “You’ll know when you feel it.” Which means that they’re clueless.

I’ve said “I love you” to a lot of people in my life, both romantically and platonically. Surely I wasn’t always lying. I’ve tried to think back to specific instances of saying those words, in an attempt to figure out what it means, at least to me.

My memory is surprisingly good. Here’s what I came up with:

I feel close to you.

I like projecting my romantic ideals onto you.

These are words that couples say, and being part of a couple makes me feel special.

Thank you for being by my side through everything. You’re great company, and I feel like I can be my true self with you.

I’m ridiculously attracted to you.

You’re a fascinating person. I love being near you.

I hope this lasts forever.

I enjoy feeling important to you.

I’m drunk and happy, and you’re a lot of fun to be with right now.

I’m really grateful for your dedication to making this relationship work. I hope I can live up to it.

Thank you for helping me through this.

I’m not sure how I feel about you, but being around you is fun. We’re having fun. And I want to keep having fun forever. I’d like to think that keeping you around will amount to that.

I’m hoping that this will distract you from how broken I am.

Thank you for not judging me.

That joke was really mean and I’m afraid I might have hurt your feelings, so I’m saying this to pacify you.

I don’t love you, but I’m sure I will one day, and now you’re looking at me with scared eyes like you’ve gone too far by saying you loved me, and saying it back isn’t really a lie if I plan on feeling it eventually, right? I’m just speaking through time.

Being with you makes me feel good.

This moment is perfect. I’m glad we’re sharing it.

I want you to feel better.

I know I survived just fine without you before, but now you’ve entangled yourself in my life and I can’t imagine removing you, nor would I want to.

Let’s change subjects.

I would sacrifice anything in my life for you. I exist to make you happy.

I wish you understood how incredible you are in my eyes.

You make me feel like everything is tingling with electricity. I think about you constantly. You make me excited to be alive.

Thanks for taking care of me.

Please don’t leave me.

I need you to know how much you mean to me. You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed me. I can’t forget you. I think so much of you, and I’d disembowel the person who suggests you don’t deserve it.

I wish you didn’t doubt how much I care for you.

I’ve forgotten how to define myself without you.

You are a wonderful and radiant human being. The world is a better place for having you in it. Everything you do makes me smile, and gives me faith in humanity.

Your betrayal kills me.

I appreciate your humor.

It feels nice to have someone agree with me.

I feel so broken, and you’re being so kind, even though I must be impossible to be around.

That was amazing.

With you, mundane moments feel special.

I need another word for farewell. Goodbye sounds too generic.

Please stop asking me questions.

Your hugs make everything bad in the world stop mattering.

Thanks for the beer, and for handing it to me without even offering first. It shows you truly get what a rough day I’ve had.

Every moment we spend together is unforgettable. I’m so glad you stumbled into my life.

You make my problems seem humorous.

That was a really good conversation.

We have to say this, don’t we? Even if it feels awkward, and we laugh through it. Because you’re so important to me. You are one of the few people I know will be there no matter what. I’d do anything for you, no matter how ridiculous. I miss you when you’re not around. But we don’t use this flowery language normally, because it’s all understood. Normally we don’t need words. But we should probably say it, just once. Because it would be weird if we never did.

I’m sorry.

We have such a unique relationship.

Your happiness and well-being feel more real than my own.

We’ve been through some crazy stuff together, and I’m grateful for it, because it means I’ll never forget you.

Meeting you meant a lot to me. You make me feel dizzy and exuberant, and I think you’re a great person. I hope your life is great, whether or not you choose to include me in it (though I hope you do).

I know you’ve done so much for me that I’ve never thanked you for. I wish these words were more powerful, because now I’ve used them on beer and bad jokes and they can’t encompass the gratitude I feel, or my intense desire for your happiness. But I can’t think of anything stronger, so they’ll have to do.

***

Rereading this, I immediately had two thoughts: that love is, indeed, a tricky thing… And it feels great to no longer be a teenager.

But the moments of love in my life that were the most pure, the most true, the ones that aren’t at all unhealthy and that I’ve never doubted, are often the ones where nothing was said. Or if something was said, I can’t put into words what it meant.

Maybe you can only understand love through feeling it. Maybe it’s something that exists between the words, parallel to definitions.

As cliché as it sounds maybe you do only know when you feel it.

Whiskey Under the Bridge

Emily stood on the bridge, bottle of whiskey in hand. Loud, ugly tears took over her body. She pounded her fist against the railing, and let out a loud gasp at the pain. Then, she cried harder.

It felt good to finally be alone.

She couldn’t see the water underneath her, but she could hear it raging. The river was always violent this time of year. She thought of how cold it would feel against her skin, and wondered if she could fight the current. She doubted it. She’d never been much of a swimmer. Not like Kevin.

God, she missed him so much.

If she closed her eyes and suspended her disbelief just for a second, she could picture him waiting for her under the bridge. He’d greet her with his mischievous grin.

“What took you so long?”

He’d grab the bottle of whiskey from her hands and take a swig without asking. He never asked, and she never said no.

She took a big gulp. To Kevin.

She couldn’t count the number of times they’d sat under that bridge, sneaking drinks and sharing secrets. Even when they were old enough to drink in public, they came here through force of habit. It was the only place in the world that belonged exclusively to the two of them, where they could be their true selves. Emily doubted she’d find that anywhere else.

She’d considered spending her teary evening under the bridge, but without Kevin it felt wrong. Instead she’d opted for the top, a place that only belonged to her.

Actually it belonged to no one, but that was fine too.

Kevin would have gone swimming that night, despite the violent conditions, while Emily cowered at the riverbank and begged him to be careful. She could almost hear his dismissive laugh as he pulled away. She would have waited anxiously for him to come back, and he would have taken his time. As he did.

But he would have come back. He’d shake his head off like a dog as he pulled himself out of the river, and he would have made her feel silly for worrying.

She closed her eyes. The water pounding against the rocks sounded just like he did when he splashed around. She let herself believe, just for a moment, that he was fine. Any second now, he’d get out of the water. He’d come find her on top of the bridge. His brows would furrow when he saw her bawling her eyes out.

“Why are you drinking all alone up here? Loser. You could’ve at least waited for me!”

She poured a generous amount of whiskey into the river, and another generous amount down her throat.

“I miss you, bro,” she said out loud.

She looked around, shocked at the sound of her voice. Thankfully, she was still alone.

“FUCK YOU!” she screamed, because she could. Because those words had been lodged in the back of her throat from the moment she’d found out, through the funeral and all the uncomfortable niceties with near strangers. She was angry, and she didn’t know at who.

Not at Kevin. He never would have left her if he’d had the choice. He would have accompanied her through her grief.

Right now he’d be pulling the bottle away from her, laughing as he told her she’d had enough.

She took another sip, just to prove to herself that he wasn’t there to look out for her.

Drowning her sorrow.

But she wasn’t. If anything, she was only bringing it to the surface. She’d been putting all her energy into suppressing her feelings when she just wanted to break down and scream that her brother was dead. Gone forever.

There would always be an empty seat at the table when her family gathered. Her, her parents… But no Kevin.

That was a grief no one could grasp.

What would they talk about with his absence filling the air between them? Would they be talking about him or around him?

Either way, it would be unbearable.

How would her parents look at her without being reminded of their missing son?

Kevin was too young to die. This wasn’t a feeling she could have prepared for.

As far back as she could remember, Kevin had been there. Sometimes he infuriated her and sometimes he made her break into laughter, but his presence had been consistent. Safe. He understood her when her parents were being unfair, or her boyfriends were being jerks. He was her other half.

Her crying had toned down a bit. She brought the bottle to her lips, just wetting them a little. Just to feel like she was doing something about her pain.

What a hellish week.

Laughter erupted from the other side of the bridge. Emily turned around, and saw a couple of girls making their way across in a loud, lopsided manner. They teetered in their heels, and giggled as they held on to each other.

Emily cursed under her breath. She didn’t want to have to deal with their drunken festivities. Not tonight. She silently plead with them to turn around and leave her alone on the bridge.

Their voices got louder. The streetlight lit up their faces as they approached. They barely looked old enough to be out, but they were all dolled up and belligerently drunk. They didn’t notice Emily until they were a couple of feet away.

“Oh my God Kristen, there’s someone here!” They both laughed even louder. The girl who had spoken turned to Emily. “I’m so sorry! We didn’t think there would be anyone here, there never is at night, and… Oh my god! Are you crying?”

Their laughter toned down.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone, either.”

“No, no, don’t be sorry! I’m sorry! I mean, we interrupted you. What’s the matter? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just need to be alone.”

“Is it some guy? Who is he?”

Emily shook her head.

“Whatever. I’m sure he’s a jerk. Do you want a drink? You should probably drink. Here, take some.” She shoved a plastic bottle under Emily’s nose. It smelled like vodka and some unidentifiable fruit juice.

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine.”

“No, drink! It will make you feel better.”

“It’s okay. I’m all set.” Emily showed them the bottle of whiskey.

“Wow, you’re hardcore!” Kristen giggled. “He must really be a douchebag.”

Emily gave her a wry smile.

“Trust me. I know guys like that. You think you’ll miss them, but then… You don’t.” She laughed and shrugged. “Are you sure there’s nothing we can do? Like, anything at all?”

“No. I’m fine. I promise.”

“You’re not fine, you’re crying! Come on. Tell me what’s up! Sister solidarity!”

“Sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but I really don’t need a fake sister right now.” I need my real brother.

“Okay. It’s fine. I get it. It’s just, I feel bad leaving you here, you know? I mean, you’re drinking all alone. No offence, but that’s pretty sad. We could at least keep you company!”

“Don’t. Honestly. I prefer it.”

“Are you sure? Like, really sure?”

Emily nodded. Kristen continued on her way. Her friend hesitated a second, sizing Emily up one more time, then followed.

“Just remember,” she yelled back, “He’s definitely not worth it!”

A new wave of tears sprung to Emily’s eyes.

He definitely was.

She watched the two girls until they were consumed by the night. What wouldn’t she give to have Kevin by her side…

She pointed at their disappearing forms, an eyebrow cocked.

“So, what do you think?” she asked out loud. “Either one of them your type?”

“You’re mad!” she imagined him answering as he punched her in the arm. “They’re both too young. And too drunk. You don’t know me at all.”

Emily faced the river, clutching the whiskey to her chest. And unexpectedly, through her tears, she began to laugh.

Galway: A Story of Reinvention

“Have you had a pint of Guiness yet?” he asked.

I wasn’t focused on him. I was too busy taking in my surroundings. I found the cobblestone streets and the pubs dotting every corner so quaint, and the Irish accent made everything sound musical. None of this felt real.

“Not yet. I only landed in Ireland a couple of days ago.”

“No excuse,” he said with a grin. “Let’s get one here.”

Of course we were standing in front of a pub.  In Galway, you’re always standing in front of a pub.

We each ordered a pint and sat at a table by the window. The pub was dingy and dark, though it was mid-afternoon.

We sipped our beers. The foam left a mustache on my upper lip.

“You like it?” he asked. I nodded, smiling. I didn’t know much about beer at the time, but this was good. It tasted heavy and dark, and a bit sweet. It was unlike anything I would have ordered in Montreal, which made me enjoy it even more.

“So you came here all by yourself. That’s pretty brave.”

I shrugged. “Not really.”

It hadn’t felt brave at the time, only necessary. Leaving had frightened me less than staying.

“You’re here for the summer?”

I nodded.

“Lucky you. It’s awesome here. I wish I was staying. Are you going to stick around Galway then?”

“I think so. I like it here.” I’d been in Galway for only a few hours, but it already felt like it could be home. For now.

“Right on! So, I’m curious… what made you decide to do this? I mean, no offense, but you’re kind of young to be travelling overseas on your own.”

“Well, I went through this pretty bad break up…”

He laughed. “Of course you did. No one would come spend a summer in Ireland on a whim without that sort of backstory.”

“I’m sure some do.”

“Less than you’d think.”

I didn’t want to be a cliché, but everyone I told my story to just smiled as though they’d heard it a million times before. From that point on, I chose to keep it to myself.

***

My heart had belonged to Galway from the second I got off the bus. I was enamored by the colourful houses, the fishing boats, the way strangers would wish me a good day as I passed by them. It took me approximately ten minutes to decide that this was where I would base myself, and start asking around town about work. Within a week, I had secured myself an apartment, and a couple of weeks later I began training at a local coffee shop.

Bit by bit, I  settled in. I only had three and a half months, but it was long enough to contain a separate life. I grew to love the laid-back lifestyle, the instant friendliness of the people, the nightlife. Even the ever-changing weather charmed me, a reminder that nothing in life has to be permanent.

For the first time, I was truly happy.

***

Forest fires.

The metaphor took over my mind on one of my daily ocean walks.

Forest fires are necessary for a forest’s survival. Without them, there would be no room for new life. Plants would suffocate. Everything would stagnate and die. The fire may look like a disaster, but it’s needed for life to continue. Death is rebirth.

The past year had been a major forest fire in my life. It had felt like a disaster, but had brought me here. It allowed me to grow, to become someone new.

I was grateful no one had been able to put out the flames.

***

I had such high hopes for Galway. I’d left Montreal as a broken person. I needed to be rebuilt, and I hoped that Ireland would give me the necessary tools. It was a lot of trust to place in a place I’d only heard echoes of.

But maybe when you’re in such desperate need of change, any setting becomes suitable to project your story onto.

Whether it was in my head or not, Galway was exactly what I needed. My life was relaxed, and the people I surrounded myself with were kind. I began to have a little faith in humanity, in myself. Perhaps I wasn’t as messed up as I’d thought.

I formed fast friendships. Being surrounded by strangers gave me a boldness I’d never known. I was free to be as happy, open and adventurous as I’d always wanted to be. No one guessed that it was all an act. I kept up the lie until I believed it. I forgot how it felt to second-guess every move, to self-sabotage.

My Galway self took over my life, and I was loving it.

**

“Have you fallen in love yet?” my boss asked me one morning.

“No,” I replied. I kept my eyes on the steaming milk. “I don’t intend on it. I’m leaving at the end of the summer.”

He chuckled. “That doesn’t matter. You’ll fall in love. Everyone falls in love in Galway.”

I refused to. Though half of my friends back at home expected the story of a charming Irish lad sweeping me off my feet, I wouldn’t let my precious Galway become the backdrop to a love story with an expiration date. I was looking for something more profound, more permanent. Something worth more than the an inebriated man’s slurred compliments as last call appproached. More than any forced conversation under the Spanish Arch.

I didn’t want to say that I was trying to find myself, because that’s been overdone. But really, that’s what was happening.

***

It was an ordinary night.

I sat at the King’s Head, listening to a band I can’t remember with people I’ll never forget.

We ordered another round, and cheersed each other before taking a sip. Like we always did.

And it hit me, as I looked at the smiling faces around me, that in a couple of months I would lose all of this. This entire life would soon exist only in my mind.

Of course I’d always known that, but I’d managed to avoid the thought until that point. This was it.

Something in me shifted that night. I knew that from then on, I would never be satisfied, no matter where I was.

There would always be some place I was missing, another life I longed for.

***

My memories grew nostalgic almost as I was living them. Everything felt epic and memorable. Every drink was an adventure, every conversation an epiphany. Every time I stumbled upon something new I felt my heart beat in excitement, and fear that one day it would be forgotten. I didn’t trust my weak mind to hold onto the memories that mattered.

I didn’t realize how many times I would replay them until they became permanently etched in my brain: late nights walking along Salthill, letters home scribbled enthusiastically by the Spanish Arch, the discovery of a decaying stone houses buried in moss, sitting in a pub and watching it become a spontaneous ceileigh, and a million other moments and habits that I’ll take with me to the grave. These memories are vivid and distant. They hold the bittersweetness of a first love affair. I know nothing will ever feel that intense again.

***

I scanned the bathroom stall for decent graffiti to share with my friend Paul. It had become a bit of a tradition when we went drinking together- how else would he know of the slew of insults and heartfelt ramblings, the misplaced advice that found its way to the ladies’ room?

The walls were mostly bare, but one girl had scratched a confession in dark blue ink: “I had no idea how I would manage to move here alone. Now I have no idea how I’ll ever leave.”

Simple words, but they broke my heart. Tears unexpectedly flooded my eyes until I couldn’t see the writing anymore.

This wouldn’t do.

I stepped out of the stall and splashed my face with cold water, until a somewhat normal version of myself was staring back at me.

How would I ever leave?

I dried off my face, and went to find Paul at our table.

“Long line?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes. “You are so lucky you’re not a woman.”

“Did you at least see any fun graffiti?”

I shook my head. “No. Nothing special.”

***

I miss Galway for its colourful houses and fishing boats, for the laid-back lifestyle and the friendly people. I miss the pubs, the jarring cold of the ocean, the rolling green hills that surround the city.

I also miss Galway in a way no visit could satisfy.

More than Galway, I miss that coming-of-age feeling, like I was a blank canvas. Like the whole world was new and exciting. I miss being impressed by everything, so desperate for rebirth.

I miss the feeling of setting the scene for the rest of my life.

On Facebook and Death

I found out about your death on Facebook.

I saw a photo of you, posted by one of your friends. You were laughing, eyes closed, hair a bit disheveled. You looked beautiful and free and so much like yourself. As a caption, she listed some of your greatest qualities and reminisced about the times you’d had together. She ended by saying that she’d miss you dearly, but that you were in a better place.

A better place.

Part of me naively wanted to believe that you’d moved away to a farm in the countryside. For you, that would have been a better place.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what people usually mean when they say that.

My head was spinning, and it was getting late. Underneath my denial, I knew the truth, and that was just too much to handle. I was lucky enough to have the luxury of ignoring it, for a while. At least long enough to fall asleep.

I turned off my computer.

In the middle of the night I woke up, confused about the aching sensation in my heart. Bit by bit, it came back to me. The photo. The description. The probability that you were gone.

It was the opposite of waking up from a nightmare and realizing that everything is actually fine.

I picked up my phone and saw that I was part of a group message with all of our mutual friends confirming that you had died, from “depression related causes”. Our friends were scattered around the world, but their words blurred together on my tiny phone screen as one collaborative expression of grief. Memories of you came pouring out, the little moments of kindness and quirkiness that had made you who you were. I read through them, achingly being reminded of you, trying to make your absence feel real. I hadn’t seen you in so long, what difference was it that you were gone from the world instead of from my life?

But it did. It made all the difference.

I couldn’t reply just yet. I tried to go back to sleep, feeling both devastated and strangely empty.

The next day at work, my phone was constantly buzzing as people woke up around the world and found out about your death. Each message was an additional dagger in my heart. I couldn’t focus on anything else. Truthfully, I wouldn’t let myself.

Without Facebook, would I have ever found out? You were ages away, and we’d fallen out of touch, though I’d hoped that it wasn’t permanent. I was haunted by another universe in which I went about my daily life, not knowing that yours had ended. It chilled me.

In the days that followed, I was glued to my phone, my computer, like the most irritating technology addict. You were being tagged in photos by friends I’d never heard of, each of whom had their personal eulogy. I read every single one.

All these memories and homages pulled together to create a fuller picture of you. You were someone who had always been there for her friends, no matter what. You were an exceptional cook. You felt things deeply. You loved your friends, your family, and your dog with all of your heart. You were an avid hiker who was more comfortable when surrounded by nature.

You were someone the world would miss.

I wish I’d told you of the impact you’d had on my life. It probably wouldn’t have changed your mind, but it would have made a difference. At least I’d be relieved of the weight of unspoken words.

You don’t imagine it being too late until it is.

Neither I nor any of our friends could fix that with you, so we fixed it with each other. I don’t know if I’ve ever received so many messages of love. We made it clear that we were there for each other. That we all mattered. That no matter how hard it got, there was love in the world we couldn’t afford to leave behind.

We talked about depression and suicide openly, because we’d seen that silence can kill. I don’t think any of us were ready to lose another friend, not like that.

We were going to take all the love you’d generated, and spread it all around, in hopes that it would make us feel less alone.

Every post about you brought tears to my eyes, but those tears were cleansing.

Without that, how would I have grieved? No one around me knew you except through my stories, and I wasn’t about to flaunt my pain. Thanks to the internet, I saw that I wasn’t alone in missing you, that a bunch of strangers were also grieving you. Though I never spoke to any of your family, childhood friends or colleagues, we were all united in an unspoken way.

This is the modern mourning process: typed out sentiments published for the world to see, pictures travelling the world with a simple click. We deal with our pain in a very public way, from the privacy of our homes.

I used to hate the idea of keeping someone’s Facebook page alive after their death. It felt morbid and wrong. But since your death, I’ve changed my mind.

There’s a corner of the internet that you dominate, even though you’re gone from the physical world. There are photos, memories, and well-crafted words celebrating your life. This is how you were immortalised, in a digital monument a bunch of strangers created together, with the pieces of you we were left with.

Invisible lines uniting us in our grief. Coming together over you.

When I Think of Vilcabamba

 

I can’t believe we’re really leaving.”

I know. Neither can I.”

We’d only spent four days in Vilcabamba, but during our time there moments bled into one another, erasing all sense of time passing. The unreal beauty of our surroundings combined with the ease of life we’d been experiencing had taken away all sense of urgency. The restfulness and peace had been unreal, too perfect to last. It was such a fitting setting for us.

***

I hadn’t expected to like you at all. I remember the first night we met, looking you over and thinking that anyone that good-looking who also happened to be a doctor couldn’t help but be self-absorbed and condescending. I remember when you asked if anyone wanted to go for drinks and I was the only one who said yes, everyone else either too tired or too hungover. I was afraid to be alone with you, afraid that it would be impossible to find any sort of connection.

It took about five minutes for my preconceptions to crumble. We clicked immediately, sharing laughter and life stories, staying out until the crack of dawn. You made me feel comfortable. I didn’t know what drew you to me, but I also didn’t care.

Together we wandered the streets of Cuenca, we relaxed in the hot springs outside of town, we played cards with the bartender of seemingly the only bar in Loja, we hiked in the rain at Podocarpus National Park and hitchhiked back. But when I think back to you, I think of Vilcabamba. I think of our hostel tucked in the hills, away from civilization. I think of long days lazing in hammocks, long nights by the fire. I think of the hikes we went on, how beautiful and vivid everything was. I think of the friends we made, how we fit so naturally into a group together.

I think of how time stopped for us, how our interlude was both an eternity, and no time at all.

***

We sat in the back of the camionetta. It felt like we’d travelled this path a thousand times before, but never in such silence. Each bump in the road felt like the ticking of a clock. I never wanted this ride to end.

***

You understood my sense of humor like few people do. It’s amazing how quickly we stopped needing words with each other, how we could just detect what the other was thinking or feeling. How we would share a quick, amused grin before bursting into laughter. How we started telling each other’s stories as though we were a real couple, me sharing facts about your life in the Netherlands, and you retelling my Montreal misadventures.

Our travel stories, we kept as our own.

***

This was the last bus ride we’d take together. We’d joked about the violent movies that would be playing at full volume, as we’d grown accustomed to in Ecuador, but when we boarded the bus, we were greeted with sappy Spanish love songs.

I’m getting out,” you said. “This music is making me too sad.”

I followed you shortly after. Sitting in the bus alone and listening to that melancholic crooning was the worst mix of heart-wrenching and ridiculous, and I at least needed someone to laugh about it with.

We stood outside the bus in silence, waiting for the departure time, when we’d absolutely have to board. There were no stars in the sky above us, and as we waited, it began to rain.

Really? This is too much,” I laughed. both entertained and pained by the clichéd atmosphere of our goodbye. This was too much. We didn’t deserve all this drama.

***

I never expected to follow you. It was enough to let our plans sync up naturally, until they didn’t. From the moment it started I knew it couldn’t last. I wasn’t ready to cross an ocean for you, or to have you do the same for me. Even if we’d tried, it would have failed. Out of our little travel bubble, we were incompatible, and it wouldn’t have taken long for that to be painfully obvious. We were just creating a fantasy world in which we fit together.

You were too perfect for me. Because we had no future, I didn’t let it bother me much, but I remember studying your face as you slept, searching for just one imperfection. I wasn’t trying to turn myself off of you; I was just trying to understand how you could look and act so flawless and still live in the same world as me, never mind being by my side.

I fell for your slip-ups. Your mispronunciations, your grumpy hangovers, the way you stumbled a bit across mountainous terrain. Despite your charm, I fell for the pieces of you that made you seem a bit more human.

***

Have you ever been in a relationship while travelling?”  you asked over one of our first dinners in Cuenca.

I shook my head. “No. But I haven’t really been in a relationship since I started travelling, so I never had the chance to. I doubt I’d want to be, though.”

I was once, when I road-tripped across New Zealand. And the whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking of her. I just missed her so much, you know? It kind of ruined my trip. And the crazy thing is, we broke up two months after I got back.”

I nodded. “It’s easy to idealize someone when they’re far away. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that jazz.”

I wouldn’t do it again. It was a mistake.”

I used to think I’d do anything for love, that no matter what, it would be worth it.I don’t feel that way anymore. I guess I outgrew it.”

Yeah, I guess I did too. It’s sort of sad.”

***

We hadn’t spent much time together, but during that time, we’d never been apart. We ate together, slept together, breathed together. Your absence was more striking than your presence had been. I felt you around me, like a ghost limb, even though you were far south by then. When something happened, I tried making eye contact with you before bursting into laughter. Before going to sleep, I’d turn to you to say goodnight, even though there was nobody there.

***

I met you when I needed to believe in romance, but wasn’t ready for love. You were like a vacation from my radical independence, a reminder of what it felt like to be tied to another human. Our relationship was almost painfully perfect in the moment, but absolutely unsustainable. You were too much of a city boy for me. Your shirts were too clean, and you felt more comfortable on a sidewalk than a hiking trail. Your life was too tidy, too accomplished. I was too young for you, too chaotic, too unsure of what I wanted for myself. I didn’t try to keep in touch. I didn’t want to. I needed to have this one surreal fling, this one romantic escapade that would remain untarnished by time.

And when I think of Vilcabamba, I’ll always think of you.

Starlight

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…

Nothing in the surrounding area was familiar.

He stepped out of his car and lay back on the hood. The sky above was still fading to black, and only one star shone brightly above him.

Or maybe it was a planet.  Either way, it was comforting.

All things considered, he’d gotten pretty far with a half-empty tank. Drove until he was out of gas.

Past the towns. Past the farmlands.

He’d gotten so far the highway had become a narrow road, with hills stretching out on either side.

He hadn’t seen another car in over an hour.

His wallet was still on the dresser back at home. Not that there was much left in it. A couple of coins and a wrinkled bill was all.

He’d left his whiskey at home too, what was left of it. He’d hesitated a while before putting it down. It went against all his instincts, but he didn’t want to be warmed up or numbed tonight.

The summers were rough, but it was the winters that destroyed him. Last year’s heating bill had ruined him. His phone had been ringing off the hook with calls from loan sharks until it had been disconnected, too.

If he wanted to make it to spring, he’d need a new pair of boots.

It was too much of a struggle. He was done with it. Done with fighting to survive another day. Done with trying to make ends meet.

He took his jacket off. The frigid air bit against his skin, and for half a second he considered pulling it back on. Warmth had always been more appealing.

He resisted.

More stars had appeared above him, forming constellations he’d never been able to decipher.

His breath came out like white fog. He could barely make anything out through the haze.

He tried to move his fingers. Couldn’t. The cold was especially brutal tonight. It was already making him drowsy.

All things considered, he was glad that he’d left his whiskey at home. He didn’t need the warmth.

Star light, star bright, last star I see tonight…

He closed his eyes.