Hey, where did you go??????
I was sitting alone eating a slice of pizza and watching the flashing lights of the 24-hour souvlaki store reflected in the window across the road. After carefully licking the oil from my fingers I shot off a terse reply.
I’m fine, getting in a taxi now.
It wasn’t that late for a Friday, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’d snuck out of the bar by pretending to go to the bathroom, not wanting to put a downer on the night by drawing attention to my state of mind, but still annoyed it had taken 20 minutes for Lauren to notice I’d gone.
I finished my pizza, binned the paper tray and headed up Brunswick Street, scowling at each passer-by and taking a fierce pleasure in the rush that comes from walking along at night. The crowd thinned out and the cold cleared my head as I walked, slowly realising I was too sober to justify a drunk dial. I felt a stab of guilt when the next message came through.
Why didn’t you say you were going!! Text me as soon as you get home okay?
I gave up and hailed a cab.
I arrived in Uruguay at the start of autumn, just after the summer holiday crowds had packed up and gone back to Buenos Aires. The five minute taxi ride from the bus station to the beachfront hostel seemed like an extravagance – only justified because the hostel’s website boasted they would pay, but an extravagance nonetheless, and one I regretted as I stood awkwardly by while the young owner balanced a baby on her hip with one hand and counted notes in the other, hollering for her husband to bring more change.
After stowing my pack in the empty dorm, I went to see whether I could find anyone else staying at the hostel. A young guy with a surfer’s scraggly hair was sitting on a wooden bench in the courtyard carefully rolling a joint. A sand coloured Labrador looked up when I entered, but was already settling its head back onto its paws as I walked across the courtyard.
‘Hola, qué tal? Do you know any restaurants around here?’
He ignored the question and the attempt at Spanish.
‘Do you smoke marijuana?’ His accent landed heavily on the y in you, coming out somewhere between a j and a ch.
My eyes flicked over to the Labrador, who was watching us with interest.
‘Sure,’ I shrugged, and sat down beside him as he inhaled. ‘Where are you from?’
‘I work here,’ he replied, exhaling and offering me the joint.
‘Oh. Is it a good place to work?’
‘It’s quiet now the tourists have gone.’
We smoked the rest in silence, before he gave me directions and a torch to walk into town.
The next day I wandered along the deserted beach as a storm brewed out over the ocean, trailed by the dog from the night before. The dark clouds made for an almost apocalyptic scene, as I weaved between abandoned plastic lounge chairs, wooden shacks for change rooms and a bar built out onto the sand like a jetty – all shocking to an Australian used to pristine expanses treated with an almost reverent awe.
At first I was worried when the dog tried to follow me out of the hostel, but no one seemed to mind and he ignored my hesitant command to stay. He trotted along beside me companionably, sniffing and investigating things as he pleased, until eventually I turned around and he was gone.
I wondered vaguely how far I should walk before turning back, aware that I shouldn’t risk getting caught out but still walking hypnotically for another five minutes, and then another five, and another.
By the time I got back to the hostel, drenched and puffing, the Labrador was already sitting by the fire, head rested on its paws.
We were sitting on the couch, close to midnight on a rainy night in Melbourne when I realised how depressed I was.
‘It sounds like you need to get away. How much do you have saved? Why don’t you just buy a plane ticket and get out of here?’ Lauren asked.
I struggled to align my thoughts. You’re very ruminative, my therapist used to say. Ruminative. Compulsively focused attention. Turning the same thoughts over and over. Chewing the cud.
And still, when my thoughts finally fell into place, I hesitated, aware of how dramatic I would sound.
‘I guess … before, I was afraid to leave him. Now he’s gone, I’m too lost to do anything at all.’
‘Duuuude, that’s grim!’ she groaned, managing to combine empathy and exasperation in one exclamation.
‘I know, I know, it’s ridiculous,’ I said, smiling in spite of myself. ‘But it’s how I feel.’
She reached for her laptop. ‘Fuck that, you’re going. Let’s look at flights.’
Days later, after another bus ride, I sat in the sun looking out over the shimmering ocean feeling nostalgic for an era that ended before I was born.
This town was further east where the guidebooks said the coast would be wilder and the people warmer. It felt like going back in time, or at least, going back to a time imagined from Tim Winton novels, of combie vans and dirt roads and surfers living in beach shacks with blue doors and flowers growing over the veranda. A time when the summer might never have to end.
I took a ride on the back of a motorcycle with a young surfer I met on the beach who promised a better beach on the other side of the headland. It felt reckless and foolish and yet somehow like the only thing to do.
He laughed as I put on sunscreen and covered my shoulders with a scarf, proudly baring his own deeply tanned skin. He was a lifeguard, but the season was over now so there wasn’t much work. He pulled out a thermos and made maté, and laughed again when I wrinkled my nose at its bitterness. He wanted to go swimming but I declined – I’d left my bathers behind and needing to do laundry I was down to my most stretched out pair of underwear – so he stripped down to his shorts and went in alone, ducking and diving between the waves.
After a few hours he dropped me back to my hostel.
‘Hey gorgeous, where are you from?’ asked a young bronzed blond as his eyes lazily flicked down to my chest and back again. I recognised the ubiquitous travelling sleaze – arrogant and flirtatious – probably with a girlfriend back home.
I answered flatly, hoping to discourage conversation but too polite to ignore him entirely. ‘Australia. You?’
We were awkwardly mingling as a small crowd gathered in the hostel lobby for an outing to the local pub for a St Patrick’s Day celebration, complete with the green coloured beer and pints of Guinness that inevitably appear every March in every pub across the world.
‘Ooh I looove Australian girls! Muy linda!’ he gushed, seemingly oblivious to my disinterest. He was poised to continue when another voice cut in.
‘Well… I’m from Kentucky.’
I spun around to meet the speaker’s gaze, my expression guarded against another attempt.
He continued thoughtfully, ‘I ain’t never met anyone else travellin’ from Kentucky.’ He paused again. ‘I guess we don’t get out much.’
He wasn’t particularly attractive, but I felt a warmth below his slow drawl.
‘The only thing I know about Kentucky is that your derby is decadent and depraved,’ I joked.
I couldn’t tell whether he got the reference.
Several green beers later we sat in a quiet corner, watching the sleaze from earlier flirt with another girl – a Canadian who had just parted ways with an Australian lover she’d met in Brazil. My friend from Kentucky knew the sleaze well – they’d been working at the hostel together all summer. We watched in silent amazement as he serenaded the Canadian girl with a word-perfect rendition of Shakira’s Inevitable – proving once and for all that the cultural markers of heterosexuality aren’t universal.
When the girl took her chance to slip away while the sleaze was in the bathroom, my new friend laughed.
‘She’s sea turtle-in’,’ he said.
‘What now?’ I laughed.
‘Sea turtle-in’,’ he repeated. ‘When you see a friend leave without telling anyone, and you’re sorry to see them go but you know leaving is the best thing for them.’
‘Oh of course. That should have been obvious.’
‘I was up the coast last week and I saw them releasing sea turtles from captivity back into the wild,’ he explained, unfazed by my sarcasm. ‘I thought it seemed fittin’.’
When it was time to go, he asked me not to leave.
We were sitting in dark in the van he’d borrowed to drive me to the bus.
“I’ve already bought my ticket,” was the best I could offer. “I need to be back in Buenos Aires on Saturday.”
“Maybe the bus won’t come. Sometimes it doesn’t come.”
Full of tapas and wine, we walked arm in arm as a group down Brunswick Street, bending and snaking our way around the other pedestrians, laughing as we nearly tripped and fell over in a pile of dominoes.
‘Shit, Lauren, I still can’t believe he actually dumped you on your birthday.’
‘Yeah, well, I know you didn’t like him.’
We each protested, unconvincingly, breaking down into giggles. ‘No! Of course not! Come on!’
‘Seriously, though,’ Lauren stopped mid-stride, nearly bringing us all down around her. ‘Not to get all sex-and-the-city on you, but I’m just realising – relationships will come and go, but it’s friends like you girls that’ll still be there.’
Image: Flodigrip’s World