Travel Stories: Some struggle to separate love and lust. Elisabeth Eaves has had a harder time distinguishing love from wanderlust.
At first we mailed each other letters. I sorted out coins and dialing codes to call him from far-flung phone booths. One of the earliest calls I put through was from a box on a busy market street in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, where I was about to get on a rattling colonial-era wooden-seated train that slogged across the peninsula, through thick jungle, ending up a day later in a nowhere town that lacked even charm. It was very important to me to take that train, I recall, to make a 24-hour journey that I could have accomplished in five, a desire I can’t fully explain now except to say that I had to go the long, hard way around. A hallmark of the wanderlust-plagued is that we favor experience over inherited knowledge, however sensible the latter might be.
The best kind of travel—the kind I wanted to experience—involves a particular state of mind, in which one is not merely open to the occurrence of the unexpected, but to deep involvement in the unexpected, indeed, open to the possibility of having one’s life changed forever by a chance encounter. After several months of phone calls, letters and even a fax or two, I determined that my tie to Stu, which is to say my tie to home, was not letting me be completely open to the world. While I had already come far away, I wanted additionally to be able to feel that any life was possible. I wanted to be different people, and just as much, to see what sort of core remained as I shifted from skin to skin.
The prolific travel writer Paul Theroux has devoted at least one entire novel to this idea. In “My Secret History,” his protagonist, Andre Parent, is both an inveterate traveler and an incurable creator of alternate lives. “I knew I was a slightly different person with each woman—lied to each of them, or chose a different version of the truth for each of them; remembered what to include and what to leave out,” Parent says. And ultimately he starts to wonder if maybe his real self is the one that exists when he is traveling between two places, or two women, inhabiting “this space, all this hissing air, going from one life to the other believing I was unchanged.”
I finally called Stu from a phone booth in Yeppoon, a sleepy Australian beach town near the Tropic of Capricorn. I had to cut my ties, I explained, adding that I did not want to get married and was not coming home. It was agonizing to hurt him, and frightening to think that this was it between us. When, after an hour, I stepped out of the phone box, night had fallen and a full moon was on the rise. For a long time thereafter, the sight of a full moon would remind me how many months it had been since that phone call. My friends—one old, two new—were waiting for me in a camper, and we drove through the night to a tin-roofed village called Airlie Beach, where we parked on a hillside at around 2 in the morning. The three of us girls stretched out in the back and slept there. In the morning I climbed onto the roof and surveyed a pink dawn and sailboat masts, and felt scared and free. That was consummation.
Was it just new horizons I wanted, or new men, too? The fact was, I could no longer see a meaningful difference. My goal wasn’t romance, but anything can happen when you open yourself up to the world.
Fast-forward. There was the Australian guy who fell for me just a few months after that moment on the roof of the camper, while I was a shoestring backpacker. But he was a homebound sort. Once I left his country, I never saw him again, although spates of letters and phone calls cropped up for years, always teasing out the idea of a reunion before one of us backed away.
There was the American boyfriend I met while I was living in New York. I moved to London, and we continued to see each other, with one of us flying back and forth every month. Email was in common use by then, as were cell phones, and we made heavy use of both. One of his last gifts to me was a digital camera.
In London I began seeing an Englishman. We were masters of the romantic vacation, taking trips to Sicily, Croatia and Scotland during which we mostly ate and made love. He went on to live in Moscow while I lived in Seattle again. Aeroflot, we discovered, operated a direct flight three times a week between the two cities. After many months apart we reunited in Mexico, and traveled restlessly together to Cuba. We broke up shortly after he joined me back in New York, when, for once, neither of us really had to be anywhere else.
Then I met the diplomat. By this time I had the distinct sense that something was wrong. I wasn’t happy, and it had something to do with either my itinerancy or my love life, which were, as usual, hard to separate. My long-distance relationships were so thrilling, with their international rendezvous (Jerusalem, Barcelona, Hong Kong, etc. etc.). By seeing my boyfriends in new places after pent-up months of no contact, I heightened the excitement. But could I—fickle wanderluster that I was—maintain a flame with someone day-in and day-out? Was that even meant to happen? Or was part of growing up, as more stable friends so often suggested, learning that life isn’t supposed to be a thrill ride every day? I swore to myself that there would be no more long-distance relationships. With that in mind, I moved in with the diplomat and followed him to Washington, then Paris. I had never tried following someone in this way before, for his needs, his career. Maybe that was the missing ingredient.
It was not. After more than a year in Paris, on an early December morning as the Christmas lights faded and festive dark turned to gray daylight, I loaded four suitcases into a taxi on Avenue Montaigne. I went back upstairs to take one last look at my ex-apartment. The living room looked too perfect, with its balconies, its marble fireplace, its fashionable but uninviting white sofa. I surveyed the emptiness, then left and locked the door from the outside, and slipped the key back underneath it for the diplomat to find. Another life was over, and I couldn’t get back in now even if I wanted to.