The last time I saw you, we hugged goodbye at the airport. It was cold outside, a dark November morning. The air felt sharp in my lungs, like if I breathed in too deeply I might shatter.
“I’ll see you at Christmas,” you said to me, wiping away one of my tears.
“I’ll see you at Christmas,” I echoed back, although I knew it wasn’t true.
We both loved to lie, didn’t we?
The first lie came naturally to us both, rolling off our tongues.
“We’re brother and sister,” we’d tell everyone, and with our matching hair, our matching eyes, and our similar accents, who were they to question us? We created elaborate back story after elaborate back story, building off one another so easily that it was clear we both relished in the art of deception.
We had met in a jungle, where perhaps we all turned a bit wild under the glow of the half-moon. You wore a turquoise t-shirt and cargo shorts plus the fake Havaianas that all of us picked up at some point on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, the same ones we’d all inevitably lose on some beach or at a restaurant that required us to remove our shoes. I remember thinking you were tanned and thin and very blond, but that you didn’t look like you belonged. The rest of us, it seemed, fit right into the jungle, draped with beads and wearing clothing smelling of the sun. You were different somehow.
We kept running into each other all through Laos; sometimes we’d just nod at one another across a crowded bar, other times we’d stop and chat for a while. Nearly one month after I first met you, we sat beside each other on a bus to Cambodia. By the time we landed in Siem Reap, we were inseparable, bonded by a love of journaling, cheap whiskey, and the seductive pull of wanderlust. There’s a photo of us from the Laos-Cambodia border; in it we’re winking at the camera, carefree and self-assured.
And so we travelled together for weeks after that, telling everyone we were siblings as to not hurt our chances of hooking up with anyone. We shared rooms, shared meals, shared laugh after laugh. We grew closer and closer. And despite creating the lie so that we’d be free to be with other people, we never left each other’s side.
Once, as we rode a motorbike down a quiet road at sunset, two monks rode up beside us, their saffron robes illuminated by the setting sun. They smiled and waved at us, and we talked in broken English and Cambodian as the motorbikes rode slowly side by side. I clung to you with one hand; with the other I took a video on my camera of the encounter. It’s blurry and tinted pink, but you can tell we’re happy. If I allow myself to think it, I wonder if it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.
“I don’t want to be your sister anymore,” I told you one humid night after too many mixed drinks. Our first kiss was under a palm tree. Later we pushed our beds together, made love in sandy sheets.
Our second lie developed in Malaysia.
“We met two years ago.”
I was talking to a group of travellers around a fire pit on the beach in the Perhentian Islands. We had already been there for a week, already used to the lazy way of living we’d adopted. We rarely left our room unless it was to eat or swim, and when the monsoon rains came in the afternoons we’d curl up together and listen to the raindrops hit the roof above. But when we met others, we were more than willing to share our stories yet again. We had gotten good at creating various facades, perhaps too good.
“He was living in South Korea, and I was living in Japan. I flew over to visit a friend of mine and happened to meet him at a party,” I continued.
“We kept in touch and got into a long-distance relationship,” you went on. “Then we decided to travel through Southeast Asia together. We started in Northern Thailand, then went through Laos and Cambodia. Now we’re here.” This last part wasn’t a lie, at least; we had spent another ten days together in Cambodia, love-drunk, before travelling to Malaysia together.
“You’re missing the best part!” My favourite part of our fabricated story happened in Phnom Penh. We told the same tale so many times that we developed our own rhythm to it, each of us knowing where to pause, which part to play.
“When we were in Phnom Penh, I wanted to throw a grenade. Brenna said she’d come with me and do it, too.” This part was also true. On our last day together in Cambodia we had thrown grenades into a lifeless pond. There’s a video of me doing it, squealing and laughing. It was something I never expected to do in my life, and I liked that you had asked me to do it with you. Usually it was me who thought of the crazy ideas. With you, sometimes, it was me who had to keep up.
“So after I threw the grenade, I was still holding the pin. And I… I was just overcome by this feeling, like, I want to spend the rest of my life with this woman, going around the world and doing things like this. So I got down on one knee and proposed to her with the pin.”
At this point in the story I’d show my necklace, which was indeed your grenade pin on a leather strap. The pin was attached to a ring, a dull old metal thing that now meant more to me than anything else in the world. You wore my pin around your neck, too. Everyone would ooh and aww, the light from the nearby fires dancing across their faces.
It was at this point in the story that I sometimes forgot that we were lying.
From the Perhentians we decided to see what Indonesia held. I had already mapped out the route I wanted us to take: fly to Yogyakarta, then go overland on the island of Java to see Mount Bromo and Bhorodopur. From there we’d take a ferry to Bali, landing in Lovina. A bus would take us to Ubud, and then we’d ferry over to the Gili Islands to end our month. It seemed fitting to end by the water, our story taking us from the jungle to the sea, our relationship spanning forest and mountains and water.
So much of Indonesia is a blur to me now. When I was with you, I didn’t write in my journal. I had always needed solitude to write, and we were still crazy about one another, still couldn’t go a couple of minutes without talking, or without you leaning over to kiss my shoulder. What I do have are the photos we took, the hundreds of photos: of you laughing in Ubud’s monkey park, of the shockingly bright green rice paddies of its surrounding hills, of the turtles and sharks we saw while scuba diving in the Gili Islands, of our sleepy faces framed by a sunrise over Bromo, and of us, arm in arm, at temples I’ve long forgotten the name of in Yogyakarta. There are many photos taken from the back of motorbikes, selfies of our grinning faces against a background of fog, riding through the clouds. In Lovina we came home dirty and exhausted; we sat on sun-bleached logs on the black sand beach, my head on your shoulder, watching the red sun dip below the horizon.
“We’re so lucky,” we used to say to each other again and again, over and over, a mantra that made my heart want to burst.
We said goodbye on a damp street in Kuta. We only had twenty-four hours there; it was closest to the airport in Denpensar, where I’d board a plane back to Canada. Renowned for being a tourist trap filled with drunken Aussies, Kuta was a far cry from the other Balinese destinations we’d seen, those salt and pepper sand beaches and the cool mountaintops where the clouds hung low. Kuta was a fluorescent blur of noise and light, with more bars than it knew what to do with.
For our last dinner we sat along a main road and paid an exorbitant price for limp salad and an over-sauced pasta, watching middle-aged men stumble up and down the sidewalk. Do you remember all of this, too? Some of them had young Indonesian girls with them, winsome and underdressed. It was a strange end to my time in Southeast Asia, and I would have preferred to end in a place like Kampot, Cambodia, where we swam in rivers filled with phosphorescence and raced our motorbike against the setting sun. You hugged me tight that rainy morning, kissed me until the taxi driver started impatiently honking his horn.
“I’m going to see you really soon,” you breathed into my ear, your mouth finding my neck.
Less than three weeks after our goodbye in Kuta, I saw you again. I sat in a car in a gas station’s parking lot somewhere along a highway out of Reno at three in the morning, waiting for you. We were on our way to Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert; a month earlier, lying on loungers on an Indonesian island, you’d asked me to come with you.
“You’d absolutely love it, I just know it,” you told me, reaching out to hold my hand. “Everyone is welcome there. It’s like… you’re accepted, no matter what.” Stars in my eyes, I bought a ticket online that very day using a shaky wifi signal in a café.
You got out of the passenger side of one of the cars, lazily stretched your arms over your head. You already looked paler than when I had last seen you, though you hadn’t shaved, and you were still wearing the necklace with the grenade pin. I rushed to you, kissing you under the yellow glow of the parking lot lights.
Burning Man was full of excitement. Everywhere I looked there was something interesting, someone different. As the sun rose over speckled hills that first morning, I felt optimistic about our life together, regardless of the continent. Even in familiar North America, we could find adventure together.
“Welcome home,” a dreadlocked girl wearing a fake-fur bikini had wrapped her arms around me upon arrival, and I was ready to experience this otherworldly place, this place where I could feel welcome and loved.
On the second day, we went to a fortune teller. All sorts of people were set up around the festival that provided their services for free, or for an exchange: massage therapists, yoga instructors, even random people who provided ham sandwiches or nipple clamps for nothing more than a hug. The fortune teller was a young woman with a shaved head. With hennaed hands she asked us to cut the deck of tarot cards again and again, choose cards that spoke to us.
“Are you sure we should be doing this together?” I asked her.
“Yes, we’ll get a much better reading of your future together,” she smiled. She studied the cards carefully before speaking again. She addressed me first.
“You’re on the right path. See this?” She traced the outskirts of the card in front of me. “This card represents strength and determination. You know where you’re going and what you’re doing.” She looked at the next card. “But see here, next to this one. Did you just finish a big project?”
“I wouldn’t call it a project necessarily,” I answered. “I just returned to North America after a few years in Asia.” I had spent three years total in Asia, over two in Japan and almost one travelling.
“And what is it you want to do next?”
I hesitated, glancing at you. “I guess I want to stay in North America for a while, make some money. Figure out my life. Hopefully go travelling again.” I shifted on my plastic stool. I didn’t know why I had said ‘hopefully’. “But who knows, right?” I laughed, trying to cut the tension. She turned to you.
“And you! This represents something new in your life,” she pointed at the card you had picked. “See how it’s aligned with the other cards you’ve chosen? You need to be careful. You need to hold on to this new thing in your life. You have a tendency to push things away, don’t you? You sometimes fear new adventures and new friendships.” You opened your mouth and then closed it, choosing your words.
“I guess so. I mean, I definitely know what I’m comfortable with. I guess I like the familiar.” It was not what I was expecting you to say. It wasn’t what the person I had known a few weeks ago would say. My stomach dropped, just for a moment, but enough to worry me.
We stepped out of the fortune teller’s tent into the bright sunshine, joking about our experience.
“How can you believe one person’s interpretation of a couple of cards?” you laughed. “It’s all bullshit.”
“Totally,” I replied, but still I felt uneasy.
On one of the last days of the festival we rode our bikes across the camp, weaving between crowds of people. Here we all looked the same: colourful and mad, dust coating our hair and skin.
We rode to the temple, a structure designed by a guest architect every year, then built by volunteers. That year it was huge and multi-leveled, sprawling out at the edge of camp. Markers were strewn everywhere, and Burners wrote messages of love and hope and loss on the wooden walls; it was a place of peace and reflection. By the end of the week the entire structure was covered in words.
In the middle of the temple, dozens of people had gathered to meditate, the only sound the wind chimes and bells that had been strung up from the highest points. We sat against the back wall, watching and listening. I picked up a marker and wrote to you.
Travel the world with me.
I tapped you on the shoulder, pointed to it. You glanced only long enough to read it, then focused again on the centre of the room, the tings of the bells echoing over our heads. I could feel my hair – now dreaded from the playa dust, just like everyone else’s – getting caught in the scratchy wood I was leaning against. We sat in silence until the sky turned black, until I had picked up and released so many handfuls of dust that I was surrounded by holes, my lap covered in white earth. I thought of the lushness of Southeast Asia, of its constant rains, and of its ability to wash everything anew.
We stayed until the end of the festival to watch the ritual burning of the temple. We sat as close to it as we could, watched as Burning Man volunteers set it ablaze. The flames grew and grew into a growling, snarling thing, forcing us to cover our faces with our jackets. The heat grew so intense that I feared my skin was going to burn, the words I wrote on the wall turning to smoke and ash. I cried then, at first from the heat stinging my eyes but then because it was all over: the adventure, the idea of the adventure, us.
Coming home – both in planting my feet on North American soil and in discovering this apparently all-welcoming, all-enveloping home in the desert – only made me even more resolute to keep exploring. I wanted to keep going, you wanted to stay. That became increasingly clear over our week together, both of us pulling away from one another, and I couldn’t fault you for wanting something different, or perhaps for wanting someone different.
The only time I ever told you I loved you was at Burning Man. We were lying on the playa under an art structure that blinked with glowing lights, our arms touching. We were both a bit drunk, shivering in the night air, the desert unable to absorb much of the day’s sun. I knew you were elsewhere, both in body and in spirit. My heart was pounding out of my chest, as if I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“I love you,” I said, my last great lie. Because I didn’t love you, not who you really were. You didn’t love me either. We loved the versions of each other we had met in Asia, when our days were filled with winding mountain roads, our nights with rivers that sparkled and danced. I liked that version of you the best. I liked that version of me the best, too, which is why I wanted to keep travelling, keep chasing that feeling. Maybe I was travelling to find out who I really was, as if the true version of myself was just always out of reach, only another passport stamp away.
We spent a few more months together, but at some point you took the grenade pin from round your neck, and so did I. When we hugged goodbye at the airport I knew I’d never see you again.
Sometimes I wish I could remember our conversations better from those days in the desert, figure out when it all fell apart. Instead I can only see you from afar, covered in white dust. I remember running my finger along your arm, hoping I could reveal some of who we used to be, reveal that skin that tanned so dark.
The Last Time I Saw You is a series dedicated to those I’ve met on the road, those fellow ships passing in the night. For all of the instalments of the series, please click here.
Please note that I often change details in these stories as to protect and respect the individuals mentioned.