”Heeeey Tamara, come sit down with us!”
Mark was a guy in his mid thirties that I met in Cadiz and just stumbled into earlier on that day when I arrived in at Oasis hostel in Granada. He was nice, and we had planned to go hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains the next day. As I walked onto the patio and found myself surrounded by new faces, I was thankful that I knew one person. For a group of individual travelers these people seemed to know each other better than usual. I took a look at the faces around the table and my first thought was, that this was the first time I had seen so many handsome guys in a single group of backpackers. I quickly scanned the terrace and realized that I got this impression only because of two guys, one looking cute and British while wearing a leather jacket and one guy looking very handsome but arrogant somewhere in the back. As it happens there was a free seat in between Mark and leather jacket guy so I sat down and joined the conversation.
I learned that leather jacket guy was named Elliott and though he did have a British accent he was actually Australian. When I had a moment to myself I listened to other conversations around the table and took everyone in; a Swedish redhead who seemed overly flushed, a bearded Australian who looked very friendly, a laidback American guy making people laugh and a few girls looking like all other girls, one of them talking to the mysterious handsome guy while flipping her hair. I took a closer look at him; brown eyes, full lips and brown hair casually combed a little bit back and to the left. Wearing a pink shirt with a grey west over and rolled up sleeves, he seemed very confident. He did look a bit like a movie star and also had a bored look in his eyes that made me decide that he was probably aware how good looking he was. He was the type of guy who would never look my way. From his conversation with the girl I could tell that he was American. Another no-go. All Americans I had met so far had a tendency of being overly loud and self-centered, and they didn’t at all appreciate the true beauty of all the amazing European cities. Most were just occupied with the nightlife and slept until late in the afternoon, missing out on the Louvre, Big Ben and Goudi just to enjoy European beer.
The friendly looking Australian, whom I later learned was called Oliver, suggested that we all go to the cities best viewpoint and saw the sunset over the Alhambra – a beautiful ancient castle from Arabian heritage that happened to be the number one attraction in Spain according to Lonely Planet. As time passed I introduced myself to a couple more people including mysterious American guy. I don’t remember our first words exactly, only that he did not at all act arrogant or self absorbed, rather genuinely interested and modest for an American, which surprised me, and made me want to talk to him more.
When the group finally headed for the viewpoint I was exited that I had found such a great group of people to hang out with in such short time. I really did like a lot of them and as we walked up the streets of this new exiting city I was happy to know that Sean, funny American guy would join Mark and I on out hiking trip. I hadn’t expected the hiking to actually happen and was exited about it. I told Elliott about it and he was happy to join even though he didn’t have the equipment at all. Well neither of us did but we were all adventurous travelers.
When we got to the viewpoint the sun had already set, but there was such a magic in the air that it didn’t bother me the slightest; something about the light, the big castle which was impressive but not that special from a distance and the fresh and mysterious atmosphere in Granada full of history and adventure made me incredibly happy and social.
Usually I am not at all a social or outgoing person on the first night in a new city. I like to just take in the new place on my own and go to sleep early after the days travels. But when people began talking about a tapas and flamenco tour that the hostel had arranged there was no doubt in my mind that I would join. I remember observing from the corner of my eye who joined the tour group and hoping secretly that the American guy whose name I had forgotten would come. It is not that I was looking for a fling, I am really not into that at all and can honestly say that I never had a one night stand or even kissed a guy in a bar or club. Some people might call me a snob but truth is that I am just not that much of a sexual being and since any relationship established between backpackers could only realistically be physical and have no future I really had no real interest in guys on my trip. Still something about this guy made me curious. Maybe it was the discrepancy between his looks and nationality and the way he acted. I couldn’t quite figure him out, couldn’t quite decide weather he was just a charming arrogant American or something more. Something told me that his bored look was a forced façade, an attempt to look confident while he was actually maybe a bit insecure. I wanted to know.
The tour covered three tapas-bars and one flamenco show at a local venue, and I remember happiness and laughter flowing through the group as we left the hostel in the warm night air. The conversation was light and at the second place we sat outside at a table and I sat across from the guy and the girl who had talked with him earlier. The conversation was light and happy, but when I saw the girl flirting with him and him putting his arm around her when a picture was taken, some part of me was jealous. I wanted to be that girl whom this beautiful guy put his arm around in pictures, I wanted to be good enough for someone like him, and I wanted to be confident and adventurous enough to flirt with him too. Any other night, any other circumstance and I would have forgotten that sting of desire and jealousy but sometimes things in life happen for no reason, and coincidences and impressions make people act in ways they wouldn’t normally have. The tapas and sangria in itself was amazing and added even more color and flavor to my vivid dreamy memory of that night, but it was not until the third tapas-bar that destiny interfered and made both him and I leave the loud tapas-bar with faces on the walls and interesting red rice dishes to stand in queue for the bathroom.
As it was both stalls were occupied, maybe one of the toilets was even broken, and we ended up waiting in the small hallway leading to the restrooms. The room was painted red and was very dimly lit by red lights. On the walls were cheap looking wavy mirrors and the bathroom doors were full of brightly colored stickers and writings which contributed to make the room feel like some absurd location from an art movie or maybe a place from a dream.
I realize now that I don’t remember the exact conversation and I wish so badly that I had every word ever exchanged between us on tape. I remember talking to him about something deep, maybe the purpose of travelling, the significance of time or the pursuit of adventure; all common topics of conversation between backpackers. At this point I had probably had many conversations about whatever we were talking about, but something about him was different from anyone else I had ever met. I specifically remember a moment of silence loaded with electricity that filled the air between us. It was not like sparks, more like a consistent dull humming of heavy electricity, so heavy that it felt like an actual presence. I carefully took the moment to feel this strange attraction while my eyes scanned his face and the way the dim red light put shadows on his face.
When the moment was eventually over and the bathroom door was opened, or maybe it was the door to the loud bar, it felt like I was waking up from a dream. Sound and colors other than red returned though I had not realized that my brain had even stopped registering the presence of those things in the first place.
Next thing I remember we were at the flamenco venue, a long white room full of chairs in which the walls and the ceiling were just a big arc, as if the room was the upper half of a pipe. We found chairs in the back near the exit and had some time before the show started. Him and I sat near Ollie and the Swedish redhead, Ellie, and this is when I found out something was actually going on between the two; apparently they had met a few days before and were on the edge of starting a romance at this point. Ollie even considered going to Sweden. I think that we all had a little bit of softness in the knees and warmth in the cheeks from all the sangria at this point, and the silly “selfies” we took confirm that. When the music started we had to force our conversation to come to an end.
Flamenco is a very powerful sort of music, loaded with emotion, somewhat like opera. The Spanish guitar was fast paced and a man sung, or rather screamed, while the female dancer clapped, stomped the ground and spun with fierce movements. The forceful guitar, the screaming melancholic vocal and the woman dancing with a tormented look on her face was all very touching and painful. Normally it doesn’t take that much to touch me, and something this strong would have been sure to have moved me to tears, but even though I did appreciate it, a big part of my mind was preoccupied with thinking of the tall mysterious American guy. At the time I thought it had to do with my tipsiness and I guess that might have something to say for my distraction too.
When there was a break Alex (someone had said his name, so now I remembered) looked at me and asked if I wanted to go get some air. I felt a rush of adrenalin as we headed outside; he had just asked me, not the others. The venue was just next to the lake on a street called “the walk of sadness” because something sad once happened here. This night there was nothing sad about it though with the humid warmth and the dull sound of laughter and conversation in the distance. I jumped up on the small stonewall separating the street from the lake. The water was far down below, quite a fall if someone tripped so it made a lot of sense that they had build a wall. Never the less I am known for being slightly reckless when it comes to judging the abilities of my body and being safe. I stood on the wall looking over the edge and enjoyed the rush. I knew I could fall, everyone knew I could fall, and this is something people has told me ever since I was little every time I leaned over the edge; watch out you might fall! But why would I? The stonewall was a foot wide, it would have been just as likely as tripping over thin air in the middle of a street. This is why I enjoy edges and danger, it makes me feel a rush because I might just fall, but at the same time I know I wont. Because I have control over my body. Never the less, taking the chance is exiting. I was prepared to give this speech to Alex when he would tell me to watch out, but he didn’t. He jumped up on the wall with me and we sat down with our feet hanging over the edge.
We talked about the importance of living your life as you want to, and I told him a story about a patient I once had as a substitute nurse.
Usually the patients I encounter are somewhat brain damaged or delirious and that is why I am hired to nurse them and help them, but this one time I had a terminal cancer patient who was the age of my mother, actually a bit younger. It was a nightshift, so I expected to be sitting next to a sleeping patient, but she had her eyes half open looking out the window and I could tell from her expression that she was wide awake. She just didn’t have the energy to do anything but open her eyelids a little bit, breathe with obvious difficulty and keep her heart beating for a few hours more.
First I didn’t think much of it; I am very good at not thinking about uncomfortable things and simply occupy my mind wither other things, so I nursed her and just saw her as a patient, a body that I had to care for. But then her family visited; her husband, sister and brother and children I assume were hers. I left them alone to have some privacy, but the look in their eyes was so different from the looks I had seen in loved ones’ eyes before. Usually I nurse old people and most families visit them with a look of acceptance in their eyes and keep a light tone. The look in the husband’s eyes was of such pain and rage that I was startled for a moment passing him on my way out of the room. I passed the room a couple of times and saw all of them leaning over the bed, hugging her whole body from all sides, while she with much effort put her hand on one of the children’s heads. When they left I saw the tears in their eyes.
I came back into the room and took a seat in my chair at the end of her bed, and the scene had transformed completely. She was no longer just a body lying there, but a real person, someone’s mom, someone’s daughter, someone’s love of his life. And she was dying before the age of 50 from cancer.
When I couldn’t look at her tired expression anymore I joined her in looking out the window. The sun went down a while ago and it was almost black out. The lights from another hospital building across the road were the only things visible, except for my own mirror image. As I stared out into darkness and caught my own eyes in my reflection I realized that life is not something to take for granted.
I guess as a kid and far into adulthood people lightly neglect the fact that not everyone lives to their eighties. We just see life as this never ending existence stretching so far ahead that we cannot even recognize that it has and end. As with any other uncomfortable thought I always pushed away the thought that I will die someday; I thought that was something I could think of when I turned 60 or at least just later. When I grow older. But the thing is that sometimes people stop growing older before they grow old. This woman had probably pushed away the thought of death as something foreign and far away a couple of years, maybe just months ago. Life is not fair. Life is not certain. I was overwhelmed by the thought and that’s when I knew that life was precious. Tears formed in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks and I saw my mother, my sister, my father, all the people I loved for my inner vision and imagined them dying. Car accident. Cancer. Then I saw myself. I visualized my life so far; the choices I had made, the things I had seen, done, accomplished.
Up to this point I had been the top of my class in grade school and college and I was known for being strong, slightly cynical and very focused. I had decided at age 12 that I was going to be a doctor, because that was the best you could be in my book. After that I smiled to myself whenever my friends were freaking out about deciding what to study, who to be, what to do with their future, ‘cause I already knew; it was set in stone. Or so I thought. After moving to an apartment in Copenhagen at age 18 and studying two semesters of medicine as one of the youngest students I got very stressed and depressed and sick. In the summer after my first semester of med school I was admitted to a hospital on a Spanish island for acute arrhythmia of the heart due to chemical imbalances caused by purging everything I ate for weeks. When winter came and I graduated my second semester I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa with severe bulimic tendencies. It had been half a year of revealing secrets, disappointing everyone that ever thought I was that pretty, good, smart girl and hurting my whole family because I refused to admit to being sick and just grew smaller and smaller. In January I started therapy though, and as a result my studies came to a halt. The following 5 months were of fighting, talking a lot, thinking even more, and losing every concept of myself as a person. At the end of it I had come to an almost healthy weight and fought away most insane thoughts in my head. It was about that point I was sitting at the end of that hospital bed looking out the window.
That’s when I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. I didn’t want to spend my life trying to be perfect in every way, I didn’t want to study my life away to become rich or smart or respected. I just wanted to leave all of the expectations and obligations and forget for a moment that time is passing and just enjoy being 20 and free. I decided to leave.
This is long story short what led to me leaving for London in August and making my way with my backpack through France and Spain and ending up on that stonewall in Granada.
On this night when I told him about that one patient that made me realize how fragile life is something changed. He looked at me a little differently as if he was surprised with the person I turned out to be. I was very surprised myself to find that he was not at all what I had first assumed. He told me stories about exploring abandoned places and about wanting to move across the country to live in Austin Texas when he came back, and his adventurousness made me feel small and boring and made me want to follow him wherever he went to share these experiences. He had such a passion for life that it was almost an actual spark lighting up the night.
This is why when the group came back to the hostel (we missed most of the second part of the flamenco but we didn’t care) and he turned to me and said that he was not tired at all, I was delighted. I didn’t want to say goodnight and go to my room. I wanted more of him.
“What do you want to do then?”
“Let’s get lost”
We ran into the night and up and down the narrow streets, deliberately trying to get lost. We found ourselves in a part of town situated on a hill and from there we could see the whole city. The night was quiet except for our laughter, and eventually we sat down on a small terrace overlooking the city, meant for tourists to take pictures and rest.
We talked about music, a big passion of his, and he tried to explain to me how music can influence your mood and experiences and how it is very important to him. I listened and tried to understand but had to admit that I had never been too much into music. I had never heard of all the artists he mentioned because I always stuck to the popular names and songs playing on the radio, but as he painted pictures for me in his soft passionate voice I wanted to experience that too, wanted him to show me that part of the world too.
We put in headphones and he showed me some of his favorite artists, and I, wanting to contribute too, showed him the one song that I was proud of knowing; “broken horse” by Freelance Whales. It was a song that had evoked emotion in me and that had been playing in my head for a big part of my trip. The song began and we had a moment of silence as we took in the first few notes. I looked over the dark city and savoured in the moment. I felt a rush of excitement and nervousness in the pit of my stomach when I realized how close we were and how much I liked him.
“What are you thinking right now?” he asked.
“That if you kissed me right now this moment would be really perfect.”
I had never in my life been so forward. Maybe my courage came from my becoming more confident and finally feeling comfortable in my own skin after travelling for a while, but I think a big part of it was how he had inspired me with his adventurousness. As I said the words I was not afraid at all, because no matter what happened in that moment, I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t take the chance.
After a moment of my sitting very still with my head half turned in his direction he leaned in and kissed me. As our lips touched it seemed all the heat drained from my limbs and centered in my core. It was not that sort of passionate overly aggressive kiss that has roots in a sexual desire but rather a slow building one. It didn’t seem to take any effort at all, it just came naturally and our lips fit together perfectly.
The song ended and the next came on: “White Horse” by Taylor Swift (I had searched for “horse” to find the Freelance Whales song). As he asked if we could turn off the music it was the first time that I felt a sting of awkwardness. I had just exposed my horribly unenlightened taste of music in front of him and felt a bit embarrassed. Luckily he didn’t seem to think much of it.
When we started back towards the hostel it was around 4am and on the way back he was silent for a moment before asking;
“Is it okay if I want to just hold you tonight? Nothing weird, I just want to hold you in my arms, and I don’t know how much time we have left”
A big part of me screamed to back off, that it was surely a trick to get with me and I didn’t want that. How could a guy this gorgeous and amazing underplay himself so much and be serious? He had to be trying to be charming and modest just to have sex with me. Maybe he was one of those jerks I had seen in American teen movies, who knows all the right things to do and say to get with the girls. He was just too good to be true. But once again this strange attraction that I felt towards him won. The part of me that trusted him was way more dominant, maybe because he had previously mentioned that he was way less sexual than any guy he knew. I think that way he said “nothing weird” made me decide that I definitely trusted him.
I crawled half giggling into his upper bunk in the full hostel room, trying to be quiet and hoping that no one I knew was sleeping in one of the other 7 beds, and we fell asleep in each other’s arms. It was the best feeling in the world and I felt so safe.
When morning came way too soon I forced myself, trying not to wake him, to get out of bed at 7am to catch the bus to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.