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In Sucre’s Plaza 25 de Mayo, Emily laughs beside me moving her legs closer to mine. The plaza’s dim, lit only by sparse light poles that gleam circular gold alcoves, and though the night’s dark, painted white tree-bottoms can still be seen resting in small, ivory fenced lawns reaching to the square’s end. As Emily touches my knee, I look away from the illuminated cathedral clock and notice the beautiful, miniature, white hairs below her cheek, the long, sweeping black hair hiding behind her shoulder, and the thickness of her upper lip cut in half by the park’s artificial light.
In the morning, red painted fingernails run lazily along my arm.
“What time is it?”
I turn onto my back reaching blindly for my phone on the nightstand.
“It’s nine forty.”
“We should get up. They make a good breakfast here, dooode.” The way she says dude sounds forced, modulated on her Australian accent.
Emily laughs with a young Bolivian woman standing beside a disheveled stack of tawdry goods. She buys a white sun hat, and as we walk, dotted bits of sunlight skip across her face. We buy a slice of cake from a vendor and eat it leaned against a building wall where her hair billows out like black smoke.
At night, we play a drinking game with her friends, and she holds my hand under the table; a gullible, drunk smile coats her mouth like a new lipstick. She puts her arm across my shoulders and yells near incoherent words through a horribly fake Scottish accent.
“Ayyyye, dat’s aboot ight der laddie!”
I keep telling her, “Emily, that’s not an inside joke of ours. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She crackles choppy laughter and says, “Ayyyye!”
Her bottom lip is thin as she laughs.
She starts turning down other Couchsurfers, so I can stay longer.
I open the door to her room, and she rushes toward me. “Here, I want you to have this!” I look down to a reddish-purple beanie. “I know you lost yours, so I checked the lost and found here and thought this one was cool.”
I keep pushing back when I’m going to leave Sucre, and her friends at the hostel tell me I can work there for free room and board.
Each morning, sunlight from a curved window above her door wakes us up, and we lay together for an hour drifting in and out of sleep.
Her laying sideways running red fingernails along my arm, her charcoal hair in dark waves against bare skin, her face tired without makeup, the first couple of mornings we’d kiss awkwardly, but now we don’t.
As we cook dinner, she plays Bob Marley’s Is This Love and harmonizes with the backup singers, “love, love, love, is this love that I’m feeling?”
I was introduced to a couple in Lima that met at a hostel in Montevideo. They only knew each other for a week then decided to travel together, but this won’t be that, will it?
She turns silent, surrendering a deflated smile, empty, without color, and I know we’re both thinking about it.
I read to her as she drinks her first pisco and coke beside the window.
She rips a page from my journal and tacks it up on her wall. “Authors have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” – William Faulkner.
She paints her fingernails red again. She wears my favorite dress with the light blue lines down to her thighs.
And what if I decide to stay? I can if I want to.
Pacing my thumb along the indented curve of her chin, she asks in a Scottish accent, “Where’d ya’ get dos big fuckn’ eyyyebrows from, laddie?” She closes her eyes laughing, and her bottom lip is thin. As I push her, she collapses her body inward.
We stay up late talking about people we used to know. She tells me about her sister.
In the morning she has to work check-ins, so I walk alone below the dreamy-white, colonial capital buildings and high-tower churches of Sucre that make The White City anachronistic, romantic, and whimsical.
But as I reach the plaza, I’m dazed, thoughtless, only thinking of her, and I’m old enough to know that it’s gotten bad.
I try to read, but can’t. I step over one of the small, ivory fences and lay in the open grass perching my eyes up to the cloudless sky and the estranged voices passing over the tree tops. Holding out my hand, I count on my fingers the few others who’ve made me feel such a way, and then I lay with my day-dream watching the mad, beautiful, plaintive possibilities filter pass my mind like summer street noises through a screen door.
As I enter the hostel, she pushes me into a corner, “Dooode, I missed you.”
When I touch her naked breast, she pushes her arm inward against her side and brings her hands up to my face. I tug the bottom of her lip, and she pulls away slanting a smiles to the right side of her mouth. We share a pillow as we sleep.
The sunlight through the curved window of her room wakes me up to an empty bed. I know she’s working check-ins, but as I lay alone looking over her fallen clothes and the page of my journal pinned up on her wall, something hard, deep, and profound hits my stomach, and I’m miserable with circulating, insoluble thoughts.
And yet, this is what everyone hopes for – to travel and meet someone, to fall or at least feel love while on the road – but what am I now? Needy, dependent, forgetful of the reasons I chose to travel alone in the first place. Forgetful too of what I always knew: that this is unrealistic, impractical, and she’s heading north up to La Paz, while I’m trying to get south down to Chile.
I come back to myself, remind myself of myself, how I was before her, how I’ve dealt with similar things before, and I remember where I am and where I want to be, and though these thoughts may seem clear, obvious, and commonsensical, they wrestle the visceral turns in my stomach embedded with the miniature, white hairs below Emily’s cheek, and the red paint on her nails as she hides under a pillow shadowing the morning sun, and the feeling of our thoughts close together, understood, and simple.
I left the next day.
It had been two weeks.
But as I walked through the Plaza De Mayo with my rucksack and the dream-like white walls of Sucre guiding me away, the grand illuminated cathedral clock above the main plaza watched me, mocking me with its somber, paradoxical truth.
David Hargreaves is homeless. He currently spends his time travelling South America asking strangers online if he can sleep on their couches. He writes, plays music, wanders, gets groceries, drinks, sleeps, and wakes up to do it again, hopefully in a different place, hopefully on a different couch, hoping a good story comes from it. You can tell him what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.