Plastic

When I was 16 I told my parents that I wanted breast implants. I asked them if it were possible to consider it an “investment,” kind of like paying for piano lessons or gymnastics or college: “But think of the opportunities! The opened doors! I could do anything!” They didn’t buy it. Like any good parents, they ignored it like my other long string of attention seeking stunts and chalked up to a phase.

As a child, I examined the Barbie dolls and imagined what it would be like to fully “emerge” as a woman. When I was a teenager, I stuffed my bra, a trick I continued to pull through college which came in handy in toilet-paperless barroom stalls and fraternity parties. I watched old movies, the women pouring out of low cut dresses, and held out hope through my mid-twenties that maybe I was just a late bloomer. I think it took turning 25 for me to accept that I had probably completed puberty, even if unsuccessfully. The butterfly metaphor just didn’t apply.

I envied women who could wear those ridiculous corsets, even if they were strippers and Playboy models. Any lingerie would do. I even wanted to be a burlesque dancer—something I was very close to pursuing in New York. After watching a show in the Lower East Side, I was sitting at the bar stirring my drink when the respected NYC dancer, Runaround Sue, came and sat next to me, propping her bare chest on the bar, like she was carrying around too many bags. I tried to look her straight in the eyes, not the nipples, as I told her that I wanted my own act. “Chest size doesn’t matter!” she said excitedly, “You should do it! Come meet me and we can find you a costume!”

I masterminded a routine in the event that I was ever ready to bare all. The routine goes like this: I am wearing an eye patch, a pirate hat marked with a skull and crossbones, and I have strapped on a wooden peg leg. I hop in from one side with my arms on my hips and kind of sway around on the stump. After some enticing hip movements and a wink at the audience, I kick my leg and the wooden peg leg goes flying at the same time I tear off the eye patch, fling the hat and let down my hair. Sexy right?

With all the practice and planning, the whole stunt just didn’t seem right without swinging breasts and flailing nipple tassels. I still wanted implants. Yes, Dolly Parton is one of my role models and I adhere to her shameless, yet, dignified pursuit of plastic surgery. Broaching this topic with anyone usually invokes some kind of heated response. For some reason, people have very strong opinions about what we should or should not do to our own bodies. Men will say, “But you are fine just the way you are,” as if I just needed their personal voice of approval to change my mind: “Yes, of course! What was I thinking? How could I change something about myself that you believe to be just fine. Thank you for the compliment and highly relevant opinion of my body. I no longer want to go through with this.” I think it’s cute that every guy thinks he is the first to try and dissuade me. When it comes to this particular issue, I am immune to flattery.

In the same vein, women will categorize plastic surgery as an affront. It is anti-feminist, it means you are insecure, not happy with yourself. They think you are a secret cutter. I felt the most resistance from women who were already big-busted, although this, I kind of understood, the same way that women with straight hair always want it to be curly. We want what we can’t have.

For me, it has always been very simple. To put it bluntly: I wanted boobs. Big ones. The kind that fell out of my shirt and made people look twice. The kind that I could take shopping and go swimming with. Boobs that screamed, “Hey you! Look at me, even though all I’m gonna do is sit here. And maybe bounce around a little. Either way, it’s FUN FUN FUN, til her Daddy takes the T-Bird away!” I thought of them as long-lost friends. The term “bosom buddies” didn’t come out of nowhere. It just so happened that we had not met yet. We were like estranged family members waiting to get reunited on Montel Williams.

Some things we can change and some things we cannot. Fortunately, in my case, change came last week in a Thai hospital at a discount price. I planned the surgery months before arriving in Bangkok, corresponding with some androgynous internet personality called “Nann.” I sent him/her pictures, medical records, descriptive prose about my desired breasts, which I am confident went ignored or untranslated.

One of the reasons plastic surgery is cheaper is because the entire process is streamlined. Instead of making an appointment, you basically sit in a line and wait until the doctor can see you. Same day consultations and surgery make the process even more efficient. I had a nightmare the day before my appointment. You might think it would have to do with some infection or botch job, but no, my subconscious fear was that the doctor would have to perform the surgery Friday instead of Tuesday, as planned.

The waiting room was packed and felt a little bit like that afterlife waiting room scene from Beetlejuice: we are all kind of messed up, looking around wondering what happened and what needs fixing. I kept thinking about that guy with the shrinking head and all the dead people holding numbers. Some of the patients are legitimate: a child with a harelip, the burn victim, and the row of lady-boys waiting for sex change operations. Then there are the rest of us: Europeans, Australians, and Americans who are either seeking nose jobs, facelifts, liposuction, or implants (insert me).

I decide that the hospital, in general, is way too colorful and bright. Also (this is my favorite part)…. the nurses are on roller skates. They are wearing those tight suits like flight attendants from the 60’s gliding by holding documents, medication… SYRINGES .There is techno music playing in the background as if the whole experience should say, “Plastic surgery is fun! Let’s do it again!”

Throughout the hospital there are advertisements that say things like, “Be happy. Be beautiful.” On the posters there is a running list of procedures you can undergo to make this happen (beauty and happiness both start to seem like suspect outcomes). I find myself unintentionally holding my breath at several points: when I hear my mispronounced name and stand, weighing the implants in my palms, standing nude in front of the doctor while he took pictures and made incomprehensible comments in Thai, laying down on the operating table, arms spread eagle, a split second, right before I inhaled the anesthesia.

The good thing about general anesthesia is that you are fully aware that, in what seems like seconds, you will wake up and it will all be over. The bad thing is that when you wake up, you will have been sliced open, prodded, stuffed, and sewn back together like Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t remember much except for yelling at one of the roller skating nurses to rub my arms because I couldn’t feel them. This is one of those anesthesia horror story moments, although they reassured me in broken English that everything would be fine in a few hours.

So, in less than 48 hours, I landed in Bangkok and woke up with breasts. Big, swollen, tightly wrapped, fake breasts. It is one of those moments in life that makes no sense and you know that nothing you have ever experienced or will experience can compare. It’s like coming out of a coma or The Matrix only you have new body parts. And I don’t mean this in a positive or negative way… just that lying there, knowing that weight of what seemed like 50 pounds pressing down on my chest was now my own body is definitely a WTF moment.

I stay in the hospital overnight and within a few hours after waking up, I am trying to prepare for departure. I knew I had to go back to the creepy old Bangkokian hotel alone and take care of myself for a week before the stitches come out so I do my best to conquer the surgical feat with minimal angst. Everything hurts: sitting up, bending over, lifting, reaching, picking up the phone… reading. I start to feel like a good primate when I use my feet to pick up my purse. I had to learn to sit up on my own. Not to keep referencing movies, but I just watched Kill Bill and I was channeling Uma Thurman in the backseat of the Pussy Wagon. Instead of saying, “Wiggle your big toe,” I was like, “Just sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up.” Mustering only strength from my lower-abs and using some leg momentum, I lift my chest and throw my legs over the side of the bed. Success. I practice walking around the room but am off balance, because I am holding the new weight up with both my forearms.

After packing up my things, I throw some cash for my new tee-tas at the check-out, step out to the curb and hail a cab (unable to lift my arm, I give a low-five wave). Up in the room I was prepared: Luckily, pirated DVDs cost less than a dollar in Thailand and I learned that there was at least one guy in the kitchen who could take room service orders in English. I was in air conditioned recovery and spent the next few days reclining in a king sized bed, trying to avoid the ubiquitous Bangkokian smells of street meat and cat piss.

In a few days, I am out and about. Another thing I like about Thai health care is that you can pretty much get whatever you want from the pharmacy. They even have a Botox counter where you can walk up and they just start poking needles in your face. Be wary though: the guy behind the counter is so tight and shiny, he looks like robotic Jude Law in AI. Thai health care is pretty much a free for all. When I show the pharmacist the painkillers I was prescribed, she says, “Das for kindergarten pain! You need dis!” She throws me what I suspect to be some concoction of Oxycodone, Percoset or Vicodin, I am not sure what. She throws in a pack of Valium and says, “You jus take easy and relaaaaaa-AX, ” (winks and smiles).

The million dollar questions: How are they and how do I feel? My friend warned me about body dysmorphic disorder and the psychological dangers of plastic surgery. For me, there was no dysmorphia because (well, maybe this is dysmorphic), I believed they were supposed to be there the whole time. Like I said…. reuniting with old family… and just in time for Christmas. My only complaint is that they may not be big enough. The doctor laughed at me today when I asked if he could make them bigger. Since he does not speak English very well, he made a series of gestures and sound effects, which I interpreted to mean that the implant would overflow from the side, implode (or explode) beneath the muscle and potentially collapse and come out my mouth. Really, I have no idea what he was trying to indicate, other than something really terrible might happen if I tried bigger implants.

Maybe he is right and I should just get used to these. I already kind of have this feeling that I am auditioning for porn when walking down the street. Okay, to be fair, I have an active imagination.

I got my stitches out today and we are all healing on schedule. When I fully recover, I am thinking of putting that pirate routine back together… possibly integrating a talking parrot and a flute.

But, first things first: I am taking my new boobs and getting the F— out of Bangkok.

Star-Crossed

My first night in a Melbourne hostel, I am hesitant, feeling slightly too old and also out of place from what appears to function much like a college dorm mixer, replete with ice breakers, drinking games and awkward conversations that lead to generic questions, like, “So do you have any siblings?”

In a couple days, I learned, most importantly, the specific types to avoid:

1)      Pre-Career Brit—He goes to boarding school, then busts it in college so that he can get a job. He interviews and finally snags a career that should land him in an appropriate social echelon and income bracket before he is 30. He is traveling because he knows this is his last chance (and his father gave him a lump sum to do so). Also, he thinks it would be good to mingle with some “common people.”

2)      The Brat Pack—The gaggle of 18-year-old girls who are “out in the world” for the first time.  They each have very distinct, attention seeking laugh and can be seen scantily clad or even topless running throughout the hostel. They make out with each other for attention. They think  sexiness looks and sounds like child porn and suck on lollipops. They come home vomiting and wonder why Justin, Jason, or Jared has not called them back.

3)      Bucket List—This guy has been everywhere and will remind you of this at any (even unnatural) break in the conversation. He carries tour books in his backpack marked with notes, a thick-penned travel route and an itinerary. Even if you have no interest, he will remind you of everything you MUST do to make your life complete. He can be spotted by his wedged force into conversation, higher than average voice volume, and excessive use of the word, “amazing.”

4)      The Awkward Aging Backpacker—He is  in debt, has family issues in his home country, and is possibly awaiting extradition and criminal charges. Now he has made a lifestyle darting around the world, inhaling drugs and hookers from budget accommodations since the 70’s. He is nice, but mostly wanders around mumbling, spilling drinks, and scaring people. It’s not his fault, but, really, he just doesn’t fit in (anymore).

Once you learn who to avoid, it is almost impossible to tell who may become your new BFF. In Melbourne, I met some 20 year old German guys who I immediately identified as “kids born in the 90’s.”  Freaky. They are funny and cute and they liked my stories. “What do you think of Germany?” they asked me, even though my only experience with Germany was with a guy named Christoph I lived with in Boston who was so anal, he rounded rent to the third decimal. I believe Germans like precision, so I give them a succinct response:

“Cold. Hitler. Beer.”

I win. The Germans laugh. They introduce me to an adorable 18 year-old from the Netherlands and a couple wily Irish men (the kind who go missing for days and then turn up without an explanation).  I find comfort in the diversity of our age, nationality, gender, and politics (everyday, the Irishman tells me I should convert all of my cash to gold). I have no choice but to call him a Leprechaun.

We spend the next two weeks cooking dinner together, going dancing, and swimming at the beach. I worry when they come home late. I give advice about girlfriends and life. They make me pasta. I make them tacos. On my last day, they walk me to my bus, I kiss them each on the cheek and wave from the window as we pull away towards the airport.  We promise to see each other again.

When I arrived in Bali, I was a little bitter, wishing I could be back in Melbourne with the comforts of my old hostel friends. I sat next to the cabana and an infinity pool pouting, wondering how to move forward so quickly, when I had just gotten settled and comfortable on an entirely different continent.

Enter “M.I.L.F,” a stunning woman from Quebec who stumbled into the Bali hostel from the cab. She was wiping her brow and shuffling along with her backpack and trying to lift her rolling bag up the stairs. She approaches the front desk, checks in and collects her key. Her first language is French and she is pissed off that she can’t understand Indonesian-English: “What the fuck did you say?” she says to the guy at the front desk, “What the fuck did he say?” she turns to me.

“He said you can get free breakfast from 7:30 to 10.”

M.I.L.F. throws down her bags and asks me for a cigarette. She is a badass… also kind of a bitch. In less than a minute, I decide that I like her. We are the kind of hostel mix-up shake: insta-friends. We immediately spill our guts like hosts of The View just released from solitary confinement.

We talk about relationships, family, work, life in travels, going to therapy, having kids, my cancelled wedding, the father of her child… our respective issues. The M.I.L.F. is like a lot of travelers I have met—leaving something behind, possibly looking for some resolution, as if a time zone difference and a change in temperature will give us the right perspective to handle the lives we left behind. The M.I.L.F. has a seven-year-old son in Quebec, who she misses dearly, but swears that she will be a better mother if she leaves him for a while to travel. She has suffered addictions (cocaine, ecstasy, painkillers, etc.), is manic depressive, and on medication while awaiting  diagnosis for borderline personality disorder. She has never met her own father, but once hailed a man into court for paternity testing.

The tests came back negative.

She tells me about  her recent lover in Australia: “He hasn’t called. He must have gone to jail,” she says matter of fact. “He said he had a pending sentence, but I thought he was lying just to get in my pants. I wouldn’t care if he had to go to jail. I don’t judge” then she sighs, “It wouldn’t bother me… my brother is in jail.”

M.I.L.F. and I make a lot of plans—yoga, surfing, Lombok, bike tours, elephant rides, temples. We are happy that even though we travel alone, we have found each other for (at least)  the next 10 days. Like friends for ages, we make habits–she wakes me up, knows what I eat for breakfast, makes sure I pick up my laundry, and reminds me that I need to drink more water. Our lighters become community property.  We share clothes. We accumulate running debts. She tells me if I have a booger. Sigh. A true friend.

The end of our time draws near and when the M.I.L.F. leaves, I miss her in the strangest way. It made no sense. She was gone less time than I had even known her. In one month, the Germans had split between Australia and New Zealand, the Leprechaun landed in Perth, M.I.L.F is permanently on her way back to Quebec, Janne is in Singapore, the Belgian Waffle is back in Bruges, and I am sulking again by the pool the day before the Hindu ceremony.

Everyone is preparing for the festival, but the hostel is quiet. My friends have dispersed. I hate to say goodbye, even though we have all made promises to see each other again. I am getting anxiety, because, I too, am leaving for Thailand.

There is an older man sitting at my breakfast table: “Your heart seems heavy,” he says.

“I think I may be too sensitive for all of this. I am not sure I can keep saying goodbye.”

“Stop wearing your heart on your sleeve, and remember, you will never see these people again. That’s okay. You just can’t get too attached. You should just think of these friends like a good fling. You wouldn’t want to take them with you anyway.” I wonder what the alternative is.

Part of the intrigue of travel friendships, is being able to connect with people who you wouldn’t otherwise. They are non-committal, affording some kind of freedom in intensity. We are all supposed to recognize the impermanence. I think this part is supposed to be okay. I think I am supposed to be getting used to it by now, though I am not sure I am ready to harden my sleeves.

Even the Superhero is reduced to a travel love story. He cannot come to Vietnam: “The stars are not aligning,” he explains. His life goes on in Australia: jobs, pay, family, commitments, “real life,” as it were… mine keeps pushing in a different direction.  Star-crossed or just nomadic? We are the types that impose momentum, and understand its consequences.

I make it to Bangkok alone and Janne stops to see me, but only for a day: he is traveling west and I am heading east. By the time I make it to Europe in the spring, he will already be in L.A. or San Francisco or Seattle or New York. We decide that when we cross longitudes again, we should smack a high-five at some arbitrary airport.

There is still hope. Even if it were just a high-five, I think,  it would be a warm high-five, a recognizable one, a high-five that carries weight and memories… and, even if only in passing, it gives us some kind of strength to keep moving forward.

Nine Lives

Sometimes I like to count the number of times I have narrowly escaped death. Once I fell backwards off a two story balcony. Another time, I got swept into white water rapids and carried down a 15-foot waterfall. I was caught by a lawn chair and some large puddles, respectively.

Choking on the hamburger at summer camp.

A near drowning in Hawaii.

The accidental date with a convicted murderer.

Some crazy lung disease I had at birth.

Most close calls are the direct result of bad decision making. Take for example, the time I got kicked out of Mexico, carried across the border by the federal police, and got in the back of a pick-up truck with 12 guys I didn’t know. I watched the driver down a bottle of tequila before we peeled out and drove back to Tucson. This memory still makes me cringe a little bit.

The first night I arrive in Indonesia I am invited to go to a bar with the caveat, “Someone died there last night.” I have been in Bali only two hours and all I can think is, “Okay, how do we get there? And who’s driving?”  I am prone to recklessness. Also, one reckless person usually begets reckless company, a.k.a. “the bad influence.” There are some people you meet who know are going to be trouble. It’s like two people with really bad ideas bolstering and building upon each other’s really bad ideas. Like a messy snowball of trouble. We find eachother, because together, we feel normal.

So, upon considering my options (death club or rest),  I decide to climb on the back of a motorcycle with a 24-year-old Finnish kid named Janne (pronounced Yanni) who looks as out of place as the McDonald’s on the corner. He owns his own web design business and runs around third world countries slinging more money than most wage earners in the U.S. In addition to his being young, he has literally, been around the world—living all over Asia, Africa, Europe, South America (although never in the U.S.—“there are too many rules”).  I learn very quickly, that nothing seems to frighten him.

I climb on his bike in heels and a black dress and he careens through narrow  streets, darting between trucks, on sidewalks and through allies. If you have never driven in Indonesia, imagine no lanes and winding roads packed with motorcycles and scooters, all trying to race against the cabs and overloaded trucks.  It is not uncommon to seem them packing on more than two or three passengers. Also, they carry everything by scooter and motorcycle—flowers, food, animals, infants. It is kind of brilliant how they rig things up and even manage to balance stacks on their heads while riding.

I had a moment of panic when Janne starts going 70 kilometers per hour down a Balinese highway and find myself gripping his shoulders so hard that I am probably leaving chewed fingernail marks. Possibly a bite mark. He still doesn’t slow down. We are cutting so close that once I feel warmth on my right knee and realize we are rubbing against the side of a truck. When we draw closer to the club, he takes me down a winding ally, flanked by cement walls: it is only four and a half feet wide. He is speeding, honking as we round each corner, to warn any other traffic that may be coming head on.

We meet up with some other hostel kids at the club: the Belgian (who I call Belgian Waffle) and a pretty girl from Quebec (The M.I.L.F.). Belgian Waffle is wafer thin and reminds me of Kate Moss. I ask him if he is eating enough. The M.I.L.F., a single mom, is on a long-vacation looking to detox and get over depression while she waits for a diagnosis on a suspected personality disorder.

We are a motley crew.

Janne comes back from the bar and gives each of us what he calls a “smoothie,” then says, “The mushrooms are legal here. No big deal.”  For some reason, I trust him. Pretty soon I am thinking that Belgian Waffle is an elf with purple hair and The M.I.L.F. is a winged fairy. Janne has turned into an Avatar and the bathroom walls are the talking trees from Narnia. Turns out that those Grateful Dead stoners were not exaggerating.

And this whole time I thought mushrooms were a joke.

Janne fills my days with little reckless adventures. We ride past the “No Vehicles” signs and take the motorcycle down the beach. He teaches me how to surf  (ignoring the shark warnings). One night we climb to the roof of the hostel. Standing on the ledge, we look around: “I wonder how many angles there from the roof that would reach the pool?” I ask him, “Do you think we could make it?”

“That is so funny. That’s the exact same thing I thought of when I got here.”

One afternoon, we are riding back from the beach when we are stopped by the cops (no helmets and no license). Janne is taken by the police and I stand outside to wait for him, hoping that he recovers the bike and that neither of us get fined.

I am kicking dirt on the corner of a busy intersection, watching about 40 bikers lined up and revving their engines. Just before the light turns green, a small Balinese woman falls from her scooter and into the line of traffic. I run up to help her and realize she is frantic and panicking. This was definitely a “lost in translation” moment and I am unable to figure out if she is hurt. Between some hand motions and broken English, I find there is a small cat wedged in a rucksack and trapped under the bike. She had him dangling from the handlebars before she fell. We examine the cat: not visibly bleeding, but is scratching and trying to get away (understandably).

The woman is more worried about getting the cat back in the bag than the line of traffic coming up behind us, so I help her tie the rucksack and balance as she gets back on the bike. This part was admittedly strange for me: tying the knot around a cat’s neck so that she could hang the bag and keep riding. Another cringe moment, but… who was I to judge?

Janne walks out of the corner cop station smiling. He was able to keep the bike and get back on the road ticketless after paying a mere 50,000 rupiah (the equivalent of about 5 dollars).  We jump on and pull back into traffic as he speeds towards the beach.

In the following days, we are stopped two more times, each with the same result: a quick pay-off, a smile, and then the engine. All except one time, when the a cop stepped in front of the motorcycle waving  his arms and Janne just sped up and went around him: “He had no bike or car,” he explained, “He can’t follow us.”

There are some laws that don’t exist here. I don’t look them up, but trust Janne that buying mushroom shakes and evading officers are two of those absent laws.

My last week in Indonesia, I walk through the streets sort of blindly, taking steps over the potholes, and jumping on the back of motorcycles with the Balinese without thinking twice. Most things stop being scary after you do them a few times. And if you keep doing them, you end up thinking nothing is scary at all.

If you are fearless AND lucky, you get nine lives… just like a cat.

Smitten

I was watching a documentary in Australia about pin-up girls during World War II who had their addresses printed in the corner of their page in the magazine. The models would receive thousands of love letters from the soldiers, many very heartfelt and convincing. Sometimes the love letters would cease and they discovered that the entire platoon had been wiped out. Most interesting to me, was how the soldiers saw the attractiveness of their women as a national source of pride: “They were much more attractive than the American pin-ups,” one says passionately, as though this had significant bearing on his nationalism.

I found the Australian women to be, in general, intimidatingly beautiful. It is a very appearance-centric culture and the men are not afraid to make this known. One Australian says to me at the bar, “American girls are much easier, but Australian girls are hotter.” I cannot help but look down at my lacking cleavage and wrinkled, sagging dress, chipped toe nails and flip flops: “Maybe I should try harder,” I think, “At least while I am here.”

Living out of a suitcase, I am at a loss for the benefits of strenuous beauty-making. The first weekend I went to a club, completely underdressed, feeling both bored and undesirable. The Ozzie men who dragged me there, have made a night out of “scoring” chicks, shamelessly and readily in my presence. I am fading quickly into the background and slam a few whiskey-diets, which I bought myself. After falling into quiet judgment/sulking mode, I slipped into the bathroom to reapply some lipstick, reaching a new unexpected low in an adolescent-like phase of complete and utter insecurity.

I come out of the bathroom when I make eye contact with a man who looks like some Scottish superhero: blond hair tied into messy dredlocks, statuesque and sort of devastatingly handsome, almost more beautiful than the women who are pouring out of the bathroom behind me. Bone structure is a gift.

He looks genuinely interested, “Who are you here with?” he asks. I turn around only to realize he is talking to me. Because it was a long night and I was desperate, I decided to unleash my frustration and rip into details about the ridiculousness of the scene, the cheesiness of my company and my desperate desire to make a break for the door. I didn’t care how unattractive my complaints seemed. I only had a small window to garner support and perform my best bitter Janeane Garafalo. We share some brief anecdotal evidence that we are not psychopaths (respectively) and he says, “Let’s get out of here. I hate this place too.”  He grabs my hand and pulls me out of the bar and down the street.

Superhero is kind and validates my complaints, even agreeing that Australian men can be the worst when it comes to their treatment of women.  The rest of the night we sat in a booth at a corner bar, singing along to Blondie and White Stripes. At some point, I touch his bicep and pretend I am not totally smitten.

After paying for my cab home and walking me to the door, he asks me to meet him at his worksite the next day for lunch.  Superhero makes a living as a bricklayer so when I show up, he is wearing cut-off shorts, a tool belt and no shirt. I realize that this guy is unfathomably fit. In the next few days, I learn he is a rowing champion and has some insane workout schedule that I have to compete with. There is a crisp Speedo in the front seat. One day on the beach, I make a joke: “What are you some kind of supermodel or something?”

I wait for a witty response when he replies, “Well, I actually did a Calvin Klein underwear spread last week.” I pause and, again, wait for him to smile.

He doesn’t.

“I was in the movie, Robin Hood, too.” He tells me he played multiple parts in the film, first cast as a rower and then as a warrior in the fight scenes:

“They basically just give the guys weapons and let them fight it out in front of the cameras. It’s like living out childhood male fantasies, except at some point you have to fall down and pretend you are dead.”

“How do you know when to die?”

“It’s like improv. You just lay down when you think it seems appropriate. The problem is that the guys on horses don’t know the difference between actors and the dummies. I was laying there when I heard the sound of hooves and watched a horse take a step between my thighs.”

The ambulance was called to the set daily.

I spend my last two weeks in Melbourne hanging out with the Superhero. He takes me on long walks through the city, buys me dinner and introduces me to his friends. He lets me borrow his Schwinn and drives me around in his truck, tools rattling in the back. He offers to teach me out to surf. He wears fancy shirts and makes me laugh.

I see the underwear spread published in the Australian Sunday paper. Then, on a billboard.  It was sort of terrifying. He made me nervous and a little self-conscious.  Maybe this is what it feels like to be a short man. Either way, my pride is restored: American girls must have something. And, even warrior-looking Australian men are not necessarily Neanderthals.

Superhero may travel with me to Vietnam.  Maybe he will wear a cape or some warrior kilt.  Score.

Dear John

Women traveling alone have the burden of fending off both criminals as well as those simple perverts who are too stupid to understand what unwanted attention looks like. There was the guy in St. Augustine who followed me down the beach: “I have 4 miles to walk, so any direction is fine. Which way are you going?” I listened to stories about his daughter, recently locked up in a mental institution, while he followed me down the beach for about 2 and a half miles. I had to lie to him about where my hotel was,  just to make a break.

On the way to L.A. I woke up mid-air, wrapped in a sweater and dazed in the land of incoherence and blurry eyes, when the guy sitting next to me says, “You have the most peaceful look on your face while you sleep.” The only thing I said was, “Really?” I pause, and then, “Weird.” And what I meant was, “Really? You’re weird.”

Then there was the guy at the hostel last night. You know the type, the shy, nerdy New Zealander who acts respectfully all day and then has a few drinks and thinks he is invincible so he tries to climb in your bunk.  With a blunt kick and a, “WTF?”  he goes back to playing innocent as if the whole thing was just an unfortunate misunderstanding.  Awkward glances are exchanged at breakfast.

Despite the evidence that lone women travelers need to be on the defense, there is always the desire to trust your company.

Arriving in Melbourne, I was offered a place to stay with a guy I met only once in NYC. This is one of those situations that had the serious potential to go awry. Looking back there was some writing on the wall:

1)      This guy is Australian, men known for being a bit brutish and misogynistic. They also come from line of criminal descendants.

2)      He still talks about “scoring” with chicks like he is in some frat boy roofie contest.

3)      Short man complex is alive and well in Aussieland.

4)      He is a guy. I am a girl. We are both single. The math should have informed my expectations.

5)       This one is my fault. We have nothing in common.

Arriving in a foreign country sounded better when meeting up with a familiar face, even if that face was merely Facebook familiar. Also, I am not one to calculate risks or options; so of course, I pass on my flight information and feel grateful when I recognize him at baggage claim.

The Ozzie takes me to his house, which, to be fair, was uniquely amazing: a 5 million dollar house on the beach that was abandoned by the owner (the father of one of the roommates) sometime in the late eighties. The decorations, curtains, furniture and family portraits reminded me of a set for some 80’s sitcom depicting affluence (Silver Spoons, Mr. Belvedere… something like that). Floor to ceiling windows were darkened with thick blinds that seemed to cough dust. The windows were never open. It was too large to heat and many of the rooms were used for storage, full of trash or boxes. I entered the sauna room to find stacks of old newspapers and garbage bags filled with old clothes. The pool has a floor of dirt and is covered with algae. There are 7 bathrooms and only one of the toilets works. There are cigarette butts brimming over in the Greek goddess fountains. They tell me to lock up my things because it was not uncommon for a squatter to stumble in through one of the back doors.

With a sprawling mansion, too many rooms to count, and a ridiculous number of couches, you would think that The Ozzie would have offered me some privacy. Instead, he says, casually, “You can just sleep in my bed.” I am having this flashback to college when men would offer this as a practical alternative. We all knew what it meant. I spend the first night folded in the crack between the bed and the wall, eyes open, kind of wondering how these little mistakes might add up at the end of my travels. When I know he is asleep, I crawl out of the bed and wander through the mansion in the dark trying to find a spare blanket and a pillow. In a corner room next to the terrace, I wrap myself in a long sweater and curl up on leopard print fainting couch, sleeping restively until the sun breaks through the dirty window panes.

The guys who live here all have money and look forward to following their fathers’ footsteps. The son has a new girlfriend, barely 20 years old. They had only been together 4 months when he decided to pay $20,000 for her cosmetic dental work. He bought her a car. One afternoon he tells me that he is considering buying her a $10,000 diamond Tiffany bracelet for Christmas.

“Are you guys getting married or something?” I ask him.

He scoffs and says, “No. I like buying her nice things; it’s better than gambling it away.” He explains that he is a gambling addict, probably a common problem for bored people with too much money. In the next breath he says to me, “I feel really bad for you.”

“Why?”

“I would never travel alone.”

He was right. I was alone. I found the mansion one of the loneliest places I have ever been. Father’s footsteps, indeed: too much money, too little care. It wasn’t just the symbolism of the dilapidated house or the lives that seemed to dangle meaninglessly, but the constant feeling that I was the outsider in a house with men who didn’t care to know anything about me. Collectively, I sensed pity in the way that they saw me: I was poor, I was a woman, and I was alone.

I spent a few days sleeping on the couch, working and weighing my options as the situation became more tense and my escape more dire. Since I had planned on staying at the mansion for a couple weeks, it was sort of jarring to figure out alternatives. Sometimes it is good to be uncomfortable, other times, it is just not worth it. This was the latter situation. One morning, I waited until The Ozzie left for work, packed up my bags and whipped out my pen.

I have become an expert at writing “Dear John” letters. When I was younger, they were long and explanatory, giving too many details, leaving too much room for question and analysis. The best are the ones that can fit on a postcard—a few short sentences and a very distinct, “Goodbye.” This one unapologetically implied, “You will never see me again.”

Within an hour, I had booked a room at a hostel a few miles closer to the city. I spent the next few weeks “alone.” And by “alone” I mean, with hundreds of other travelers who had left their friends and families behind. We become close. In some cases, too close.

But we all have something in common—the understanding that feeling lonely has nothing to do with being alone. One of the bartenders here in Bali is a decent English speaker, but when we were talking about being single, he says, “I like my lonely.” I laughed and said, “I like my lonely too.”

Familiarity is overrated, usually underwhelming. And, when traveling alone, sometimes it is best to just, be alone.