Nights of the iguana

We are all susceptible to the charms of the luminous creature that captures our imagination.

By Amelia Hansen

Published June 2, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"For the sake of your own eyes and heart, shoot not the Iguana."-- Isak Dinesen, "Out of Africa"

Isak Dinesen learned many difficult lessons in the years she lived in Kenya, one of which is recorded as a hunting incident in her memoir, "Out of Africa": "Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him, was grey and dull like a lump of concrete."

A romantic, an aesthete, a traveler, a materialist, a writer and a hunter, Dinesen had an eye for beauty -- and the impulse to capture it. Her heart was broken more than once when the things and people she tried to possess slipped from her grasp. So while her advice, "shoot not the Iguana," may be better cataloged in a hunting guide to East Africa, anyone who has experienced the trauma of trying to hold on to something beautiful, only to have it die and turn gray before her eyes, can appreciate the metaphorical possibilities of such a maxim.

I, like Dinesen, learned this lesson experientially. In my case, however, the iguana came in the form of a tall Irishman, whom I met in a little village on the coast of Baja on the last day of 1999.

I'd traveled enough to know that a travel romance can usually only survive in its natural habitat -- that exotic place in which it was conceived. You meet in flux and that person, like you, is wide open -- like a dilated pupil. There are no strings, no talk of commitment. There is no past and no future -- only the present. The travel romance is based on the moment, on the spark, the shared wonder of being in a strange new place together. You are both free to reinvent yourselves. And because there is such a sense of the finite, intimacy -- emotional and physical -- ignites and burns hot and bright.

Transitory love -- love in transit -- can be a wonderful thing. Meeting and sharing a small segment of your life with an interesting, attractive person can turn a good trip into an unforgettable one. I once spent 24 hours with Alex in Mombasa; 48 hours with Max in Brazil; and 8 hours with Marin on a plane to Milan. There was always a pang of heartbreak afterward, knowing I would never see them again, knowing that the dazzling experience could not be prolonged, but I knew instinctively not to try to make the experience into something more than it was: wonderful men, beautiful memories and thus they have remained.

But we are all susceptible to the charms of the luminous iguana -- to that stunning creature who steps across your path and so captures your imagination you are not content to move on.

I saw Patrick for the first time at a New Year's Eve potluck in a Mexican house with hot pink couches and velvet paintings on the wall. He was standing next to the buffet table, holding a margarita in a clear plastic cup. In a room crowded with local families and gringo travelers, amidst shouts in English and Spanish, my eyes settled on his long, lean form and rested there. There was something pleasing and familiar about him. I liked the curly dark hair sticking out from under his baseball hat, the Birkenstocks and socks. I passed by him as I got a plate and loaded it up with mashed potatoes and roasted turkey.

I knew only a few people in the room -- my friends I'd driven down from San Diego with and the Mexican couple who owned the house. We'd been to the village once before and I'd fallen in love with the sand-colored mountains and the cobalt-blue sea, the cactuses and pelicans, the glow of bonfires on the beach and the ink-black night sky. It seemed like the only place we all wanted to be on the last day of 1999.

I took my plate and went to stand on the periphery of the room, to observe the social interactions of strangers. The people I was standing next to left and suddenly the tall, Birkenstocked man was at my side. After a few moments of eating our food in silence, we made eye contact and smiled. "Hullo, I'm Patrick," he said in a mellifluous European accent. English, I suspected. I introduced myself. "So, Amy, what's your favorite item on the buffet table this evening?" A line of such dorky proportions had never been delivered with more eloquence.

I found myself telling him about the grilled vegetables I had helped prepare. He listened attentively as I described the elaborate process of barbecuing broccoli. When he looked directly into my eyes, I could feel the blood circulating toward my fac

I asked Patrick why he had come to Baja. Invariably, people spoke of their connection to the village and why they had chosen to be there on New Year's Eve of the millennium. Patrick, who was in fact Irish and living in Brussels, explained he was supposed to be in New York, but had decided to join his friends in Los Angeles at the last minute.

I was supposed to be in Sydney, I told him, and thought briefly of the Australian man I'd been living with earlier that year. "Well," Patrick said thoughtfully, "it's obviously your fate to be here tonight instead." He was unusual and charming -- polite and a little shy. His voice was soft and gentle, but his sentences were precise and well crafted, inflected with wit. He was that perfect blend of feminine and masculine that American men seem to have such a hard time with.

A woman from New York joined our conversation. As she began talking about the joys of moving to Manhattan late in life, Patrick excused himself, smiled and went to join some people on the other side of the room. I participated in the new conversation halfheartedly, thinking of his clear blue eyes.

I read an article recently that revived Schopenhauer's "will to life" theory -- the idea that the strange, inexplicable, irrational, overwhelming desire to be with someone is actually a subconscious drive to mate with them. I think it is meant to be a consoling theory -- that as hard as we try to be rational about matters of love and attraction, it is in large part out of our control and certainly beyond reason. So maybe that was it, maybe in those first few minutes I had subconsciously determined that Patrick was my ideal procreation partner. Maybe I was just feeling the spirit of New Year's Eve in a beautiful place. Whatever it was, I felt an immediate urgency to spend as much time as possible with him in the two days I had left in the village.

There was an outdoor dance at Casa Diaz following the potluck. Despite frigid temperatures and a violent windstorm, everyone within 10 miles had congregated in the cement square to drink cold Tecate beer and wait out the hours until midnight. Nervous, yet determined, I sought Patrick out in the crowd and asked him to dance. He agreed, seemingly flattered at my invitation. Neither of us was quite sure how to dance to the oompah-oompah rhythm of the ranchero band, but we waltzed back and forth, laughing and stepping on each other's feet. We dipped each other. We planned a leap, in which I would jump into his arms and he would catch me. Of course when he did, he lost his balance and we both fell to the ground.

We were still dancing when the firecrackers began to shoot off at midnight. We kissed lightly, politely, and stood back to watch the crowd around us embracing and passing champagne bottles. "Happy millennium, Patrick."

"Happy millennium to you, too." It was momentous. Whatever happened from there, I knew I would always think of him when someone asked where I was on New Year's Eve 1999. Wouldn't it make a great story to tell if we ended up getting married ... or something?

I did spend much of my time with Patrick over the next two days -- and when I wasn't with him, I was thinking about him. We sat with our friends around a bonfire late at night, drinking the extra bottles of New Year's Eve champagne. We walked around the camp together, barefoot on the hot sand. We sat on the beach in the morning, drinking coffee, talking about what it means to have an inexplicable affinity with someone you've just met. He was unlike anyone I'd ever met before. We seemed to be at the same point in our lives, interested in all the same things, beginning with a mutual love of roaming the world. As the time neared for me to leave, I felt a wave of anxiety reminiscent of the final days of seventh grade summer camp.

On my last morning in the village, while my friends fixed the flat tire on our car and packed up to leave, Patrick and I took the opportunity to take a walk on the beach. We set out for the little white lighthouse in the distance. From the camp, the lighthouse looked small and noble in the hazy distance; when we reached it, it stood large and glaring, suffering from years of neglect. The narrow staircase leading up to its vantage point had collapsed and was spilling out in cement chunks onto the sand. We stood back and looked at the structure, subdued by its decay.

We walked over and sat down in the sand dunes. I closed my eyes, but could feel him looking at me. I knew the time had come when he would kiss me.

But I couldn't move towards it. This was not a simple travel romance. A one-night-stand was completely out of the question. This was different. He was going back to Europe. I knew I should let it go. Kissing him would only make it harder. Still, I felt languid in the tension between us.

The hot sun shone down, casting a million little diamonds over the surface of the brilliant blue sea. I was filled with the exquisite pleasure of feeling everything was perfect, that there was no place I'd rather be. "It's like a dream, isn't it?" he said. I nodded, silent in my contentedness. It was like a dream. And he and I, both well-versed in the metaphysical illusions of travel, should have acknowledged that with every dream there is a period of awakening -- a delineation between the unconscious and conscious, between vacation and the real world. But we were intoxicated by the illusion, by the moment, by each other in that beautiful space.

When he moved to kiss me, I didn't stop him.

We walked back along the beach, hand in hand, making plans to see each other again. I was going to be in San Diego for a day before I flew back to Seattle and he was driving through on his way to L.A. He asked me, in his very polite way, if he could see me, and of course I said yes.

On the 12-hour drive back to San Diego, I sat silently in the back of my friend's car, staring out the window as my friends laughed and blared music out the open windows. The cactuses blurred by and the late desert sky became enflamed with orange and pink. I turned Patrick over and over in my mind. I replayed every conversation, every touch. He'd said he was considering taking a job in L.A., so maybe a relationship wasn't entirely out of the question. Maybe this is it, I thought to myself, maybe he's The One. But you don't even believe in The One, I countered, and besides ... you've only known him for three days.

He called the next night, from a pay phone in front of a doughnut shop in San Diego. He arrived at my friend's apartment still unshaven and covered in sand and sunscreen. He glowed from the sun and saltwater, from moving along 1,000 miles of open road. I'd already read a newspaper for the first time in a week, showered and called home to check my messages. Despite our suburban surroundings, we smiled at each other intently, grateful for a few more hours together.

That night we lay next to each other on the single bed in my friend's guestroom and talked for hours. He told me he'd been thinking and had decided we should plan a trip somewhere together -- maybe Reykjavik in the spring, or somewhere warmer, India perhaps. The resplendent creature lying next to me was asking me where I'd like to travel with him, telling me he wasn't willing to say goodbye. My anxiety gave way to ease; everything seemed possible. I said goodbye to him at the airport the next morning, sad but confident we would see each other again.

And so I returned to reality -- to Seattle, to my cold, quiet apartment, to the rain falling silently on huge green trees, to my car and computer and my morning cup of coffee alone. And he returned to reality -- to cold, rainy Brussels, to a life I could only imagine based on the details embedded in four days' worth of casual anecdotes. Maybe I underestimated the power of climate. Maybe we never had a chance. Maybe a Seattle-Brussels romance was destined to mold.

The long-distance communication began. Instead of impromptu conversations on the beach, we were now relegated to the realm of telecommunication -- to e-mails and phone calls, to different time zones and work schedules. He called when he got back to Brussels and sent an e-mail shortly after. It read, "I miss you and wanted to ask: would you like to meet again?" I wrote back immediately, and said yes, I wanted to see him again. When? Where? We agreed we would meet somewhere halfway between us within two month's time.

I checked my e-mail everyday. If he'd written, I would write back immediately. From the beginning his e-mails were short and relatively impersonal -- not what I expected. He called me from work one day and aside from his accent, I hardly recognized his voice. He sounded so businesslike and formal. But he was at work, I reminded myself. But then another day, he called and told me he was sending me a package. He told me he hoped I'd be able to go to Ireland with him one day; that he'd received the photos I'd sent him from Baja and he was reminded of how beautiful I was. Then he didn't write for a week.

We'd talked about meeting in mid-March, but by the end of January, I was beginning to have serious doubts. His e-mails came less frequently. The messages he left on my answering machine sounded distant and forced. The package never arrived. When I asked him about the trip, he said that he should be saving money ... but how did I feel about it?

Since it didn't look like we would be going to Reykjavik, I proposed we meet in New York -- he had business there and I wanted to visit a friend. A week later he wrote back and said New York was a "very good plan," but he mentioned there were a lot of other people he wanted to see, and that he would probably stay with his friend's parents. Obviously, he didn't want to spend a romantic weekend alone with me, but he also wouldn't say he didn't want to see me. I began to feel like I was talking to the fog. Another week went by and just moments before I pronounced my millennium romance dead, he called and asked me if I could come to New York.

It was seven weeks after I'd met him. I went because I wanted to know what had happened. It was clear I wasn't going to find out over the phone. A simple explanation would do. If he had a girlfriend, fine; if he was married, okay; if he'd just gotten home and realized it would never work between us, all he had to do was say so. Even if he couldn't put it into words, I thought that by seeing him in person, I would be able to explain to myself what had happened to the man I'd met in Baja.

In the four days I was in New York, I saw Patrick for a little over an hour. We met at a Ukranian breakfast place on the lower East Side. We both arrived late. He came in after me, wearing glasses, a gray sweater and a beige overcoat, carrying the Sunday New York Times. He smiled when he saw me, but looked removed and closed. He skin was pale and his eyes light, light blue -- almost gray. The exuberance and emotion I'd seen in Baja seemed to be lost under the layers of wool. The glowing Irish prince had been replaced by a pallid, European bureaucrat.

I felt nauseous as we glanced over the menus. I didn't know how to act. There were so many things I wanted to say, but I somehow knew he was already gone, resolved in whatever decisions he had made in the weeks since I'd seen him.

"The first thing I want to say," he began, "is that I feel very guilty about not being able to spend more time with you this weekend. There are just so many people in town right now, it's my best friend's 30th birthday...." Guilty? What was the point of guilt?

"The second thing I want to say is that meeting you has changed my life." I stared at him across the table. "Since I met you I've been doing so many things differently.... You've really been a catalyst. I know you won't be able to understand the extent of what I'm saying, but..." There was no explanation beyond this and I was unwilling to try to get him to say more. I sipped the burnt, bitter coffee and focused on the bold print on the front page of the newspaper.

He made some vague reference about feeling that we would see each other again, but I let the comment slide over me without impact. I knew, for whatever reasons, that our relationship could not survive the world we had tried to drag it into. The conditions which had allowed us to experience immediate and comfortable intimacy were gone. Now we were just two people who didn't know each other very well, sitting together in a restaurant. "It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal," Dinesen reflects, "which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the iguana was as dead as a sandbag."

We walked together a few blocks to where he would catch the subway and I would head to a bookstore. We stood there in the street and hugged each other for a long time. I ran my hand through the back of his dark, curly hair -- something I had wanted to do regardless of what happened. I started walking down the street and when I turned around, he was already gone. In what direction, I did not know.

I never heard from him again.

I suppose it should be said that there are travel romances that survive and thrive in the real world. I know a woman who took pity on a sick Brit she met at a train station in Inner Mongolia -- they're getting married in the States this summer. Dinesen shot many creatures on her safaris, the majority of which yielded fine skins and stuffed well. But in an attempt to avoid future heartbreak, she offers this advice: "In a foreign country and with foreign species of life one should take measures to find out whether things will be keeping their value when dead."

Unfortunately, in the case of human beings, there is no guidebook to consult, no road map to follow. You can only follow your impulse for beauty, and pray that the splendor remains.

Amelia Hansen

Amelia Hansen is assistant editor at and lives in Seattle.

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