"You'll break some hearts in Southeast Asia," my friend Tracey said as she leafed through my Indonesia guidebook. "If you remember how."
"I don't want to know how. And that's not why I'm traveling," I replied, half wanting, histrionics aside, to tell her I hoped I'd never meet another man. "I'm going so I can remember how to speak in the 'I' again instead of the 'we.' I'm going for the cultural experience and the solitude. I'm going so that someday I can come back here and start my life over."
She just smiled, no questions. I'd been through a lot during that visit to the United States.
I'd gotten dumped, eight hours before my flight back to Thailand, where my ex and I had been living in a little teak house at the foot of Suthep Mountain. A five-year relationship, over in a 30-minute, international phone call. The math alone was breathtaking.
Suddenly, I was without a job or a place to live, and I had very little money and a heart that had been ripped apart with a butter knife. And while everyone else in America was eating Cheez Whiz on crackers and looking forward to Super Bowl Sunday that weekend, I mummied about the house with a bottle of gin in one hand, a box of Kleenex in the other.
For two weeks I was in a blur, my conscious mind only concerned with the fear that Racquel might bring about the demise of Halie and Matteo's relationship on "All My Children." I slept on the couch some nights, unready to crawl into a king-sized bed alone.
But at 5 a.m. one day, the urge to pack a bottle of ibuprofen, a couple Lorrie Moore novels, six freelance projects and a pair of sandals into a backpack overwhelmed me. After a one-week fast and a few semi-successful tries at meditation, I made a fruit salad and called my travel agent.
I was out of there.
"It's like riding a bike," Tracey said as we hugged goodbye. "Even after a nasty fall, you can still get on and make an ass out of yourself by trying again."
As I walked out the door and got into my car, I thought of the last time I'd been on a bike. I was 10 years old, and in leaning too far sideways around a corner to impress a cute neighborhood boy, I'd fallen off and skidded across the pavement, legs straddling a mailbox post.
Of course, when I arrived in central Bali, I still had a fatalistic view of love and romance. I was nowhere near prepared to meet a tall handsome Londoner and spend a few days immersed in intense conversation and lovemaking. In fact, I wouldn't have considered it possible when I first checked into my hotel in Ubud.
No, it was going to take some time, about a month and a half.
I first had to shed my Western pace, succumb to the island. It was innocent enough, I thought, to be overtaken by the sloping rice terraces, swaying palms and humid breezes. It was OK to get a little emotional while watching a sunrise in Padangbai or seeing the mist roll in over Gunung Agung volcano. It was even all right to have pictures of sexy local boys in their sarongs or of tanned, trendy tourists replacing memories of my ex.
After a couple weeks of touring the island and perusing small villages, I went a step further: effort. I permed my hair and got a pedicure. I paid attention to shaving detail and replaced those weathered undergarments with things more Calvin Klein-y. I had stress knots worked out by nimble-fingered Balinese masseurs.
Once I felt confident enough, I had flirting to relearn. Remembering how to lift my concentration from a book or my laptop and actually make eye contact was harder than it seemed. To stumble through awkward first greetings, find conversation lag-fillers and figure out how to hint sexual interest into seemingly innocent dialogue -- this all took work. But the work started getting easier.
It was even more fun when I began practice-dating attractive young men in whom I really had no sexual interest, brushing up on my own style. I exercised the arts of giggle-timing, graceful smoker's exhale and well-placed faraway gazes. (I also became adept at repeated yawning and redundant "uh-huhs" combined with vacant staring, a nice pattern to reserve for no way will I go on a second date with this guy situations.)
It would seem that I was ready for that first meeting with Ed. The one where he walked into the espresso cafe on Dewa Sita street, noticed me, but wasn't sure I was alone, so stalled a bit before choosing his table. The one where he asked if my food was good, if I was alone and if I'd mind if he joined me, so quickly it was as if his words melded into one long sentence: "If food good and alone I'll sit." This was our introduction.
A week later, I was distracted, romance far from my mind. My projects were done and that was all that mattered, I thought. I headed out for dinner that night with sloppy hair, morning make-up and darkened circles under my eyes, intent on getting to bed early.
I had a mouthful of tofu and beads of sweat on my nose when he approached my table. I wasn't cool.
It took a while to get used to the flow of his London/Edinburgh accent as I learned those important first-meeting particulars. I surmised that he was a well-traveled art gallery owner, marketing/advertising virtuoso, radio station volunteer, cheese quiche lover and dance theater group board of directors member. We glazed through conversations about our work, families and passions, keeping it light.
I liked him. I liked the short, distant gazes that preceded his questions of global consequence and the way he ran his hand through the small section of hair that kept flopping in front of his forehead. I liked how he waited until I was surely finished with a story or point, then paused for a moment to formulate an eloquent response. I think I liked his steadfast eye contact, but at times felt myself pulling my gaze aside for fear he could see too much. Given my physical state and mental exhaustion, however, the idea that this charming man would find me remotely attractive or intelligent at that point seemed dubious. So, for the first couple hours of conversation, I stayed engaged but safely removed.
But then something happened. A simple thing, really. He leaned toward the table, weight on his hands, while making a point about something or other. His broad shoulders, glaring clavicle and prominent jugular -- the objects of my longtime fetish -- leapt out at me. I had to resist the temptation to reach across and stroke his neck. For the first time since the demise of my relationship, I had an intimate urge and it felt good.
Later, we had a clumsy goodnight, highlighted by my extremely amateur, "Well, maybe I'll see you around ..." But he was quick, better at this stuff, and cut me off with a "Want to get together tomorrow?"
The next evening's choreography improved. It was smooth and comfortable and set in a quiet cafe with appropriate lighting, tropical drinks and cool breeze. I was showered and maybe even smelled good, while he wore his afternoon tan like an accessory. Our bodies were relaxed, our conversations were more personal and when we left the restaurant and walked straight past my hotel on the way to unspoken nowhere, it became obvious that the night wasn't over. His 10 p.m. inquiry as to whether I'd like to stop by his place to see the silver he'd purchased for a business venture was welcomed with a smile.
"For someone who claims to know nothing about flirting, you do all right," he said, locking his fingers between mine and pulling me close as the two of us sat on the front porch of his bungalow. That first kiss, slow and melodious, was followed by a series of others, each more severe and impassioned. He finally suggested we move inside, "to stop disturbing the neighbors," and my reply was that I wasn't into one-night stands, and rolling in at 7 a.m. with tousled hair just wasn't my style.
He drew me in nonetheless. For more kissing. Until the fear of getting locked out of my hotel finally extracted me from his bed.
"Maybe tomorrow ...?" I began, as he walked me home.
"Early. Nine?" he replied quickly. "We'll have coffee, then hang out by the pool."
"It's his last day here," I told myself on my way to meet him the next morning. "I can't get any more involved than I already have."
But an hour later, sitting side by side on the bamboo mat in that little coffeehouse, with his fingers grazing my knee as we spoke of the "friend who once ..." or "that time I ..." I wasn't thinking at all of swimming. I wasn't thinking of my ex or my supposedly broken heart. As we inched closer to each other and locked ankles, I thought it funny we both brought our towels: mere props of libidinous intent.
It wasn't even noon when we glided through his doorway, clothes peeling and hands wandering the flesh only imagined. When finally the entanglement occurred, it was arousingly unfamiliar. Unlike the body I'd folded myself into for the past five years, his was rough, smooth and angled in places I wanted to see, explore. Even in all the newness, however, our rhythms were startlingly congruous. And the lapses of activity were equally as exciting, filled with silence and intimacy.
"You look like something out of a magazine," he said at one point, coiling my long, blond curls between his fingers as his naked, reclined figure faced mine. The slowly twirling fan, billowing mosquito netting, the thin shafts of moonlight silhouetting our hips and rib cages -- these were all part of the romance we'd created. This was how we had wanted it.
We lay in silent stare for ages, our eyes locked and touches gentle. His backpack loomed over his shoulder from across the room and the ticking of the clock seemed to get progressively louder, reminding us his plane was leaving soon.
"There are no words," he said finally, stroking my cheek and smiling faintly.
And there weren't. But our silent adieu was as expressive as we needed it to be. And as I walked home to my hotel, to crawl into my single bed alone, I wasn't dispirited. I was smiling. My capability of trust, connection and intimacy had been beautifully, artfully affirmed.
Yes, there would life after Ed.