Santiago to Toronto
Carmen “What are you reading?” I had just thrown my backpack down on the empty seat between us. One week ago I had said goodbye to the tiny Chilean town where I’d lived and worked for a year. Exhausted from goodbyes, solo travel, and the looming uncertainty of the future, I was just settling into my novel for my ten-hour Santiago – Toronto flight. He was cute, I guess. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Have you heard of it?” “No.” “It’s French, kind of a bestseller… it’s about people talking about books.” “Are you reading it in French?” “No, but I do speak French. What are you reading?” “Arabian Nights.” Three days ago I had savored a visit with Fernando, a single, separated father thirteen years my senior, a passionate Santiaguïno. We met when his work brought him to my town one weekend in August, and talked online throughout the spring. When I passed through Santiago on my way back to the US, he picked me up in a taxi at the Nuñoa station wearing a pink graphic t-shirt and white-rimmed sunglasses. December was sweltering, so we left the bedroom door open into the courtyard until his roommates came home. At dinner, he stood up to kiss me after we ordered, and said he hadn’t been out with anyone he really liked in a long, long time. I agreed. I was thriving. How can I feel most myself in my hard-earned, now blissfully effortless Chilean slang? Fernando was just right, all the more so because I wouldn’t be around long enough for the obvious problems to surface. Three days later at the airport, I desperately wanted to hear his voice again, but ran out of money on my phone. As the flight attendants passed out earphones, he asked, “So, what were you doing in Chile?” “Teaching English for a year.” “Cool. Where was that?” “In Patagonia, in a town of 1,500.” “Wow. Lots of night life, I’m sure.” “Oh yeah.” “No, but really. Wow. Can you show me where on a map?” I couldn’t decide if he was dashing or dorky. The gotee wasn’t helping. But he was certainly attentive. And persistent. Who reads Arabian Nights? Apparently, a black medical student named Josh on his way home for Christmas after doing research in a public hospital in Santiago. He asked more questions about the job, like he actually thought it was interesting and impressive. I told him about building a fire every day to heat my house. He didn’t seem to find anything wrong with the fact that I had no set plans after our plane landed. A few hours earlier, just after realizing I couldn’t call Fernando, I had met Chris. Chris worked for Subaru. I made the mistake of conveying uncertainty about my future plans, somehow not anticipating that what I’d consider age-appropriate flexibility and curiosity would be quickly misinterpreted as wishy-washy, indecisive, un-driven girl syndrome. Chris offered plenty of unsolicited advice. When he started explaining Chilean slang to me – “I mean, can you believe it, my boss said, ‘Puta, la cagó,’ literally, ‘Whore, you just shit,’” I snapped back – “Well have you heard how they use ‘la zorra’? It means butt crack.” Even Chris got it: “Well, this is the most expensive whisky I’ve ever bought, but I’m going to grab another one before boarding. These overnight flights are just brutal.” Wow. I am done with gringo men, I reminded myself. On Air Canada, my vegetarian dinner came before the rest of the cabin, but I starting eating anyway. When I was halfway through my linguini, my seatmate passed over his book, indicating a passage. I didn’t see what was so special, but partly because I didn’t want to seem stupid, and partly because I didn’t want to invite conversation, I laughed lightly out my nose and handed it back. When the lights went off, he said, “You can stretch out if you want, you know.” “No, I’m fine.” “Okay, but really, that middle seat’s all yours.” “Okay.” My response was lukewarm, neither hostile nor particularly friendly. I just desperately wanted to sleep. After a fit of claustrophobia, I threw down my pillow and lay down onto the seat between us. To my surprise, he ran his hand through my hair. When the lights came on, I sat up abruptly. He passed me his iPhone. It read: “Dear cute and uncomfortable seatmate, I hope you got some rest.” As I bumbled along to type my response, he handed me a paper and pen instead. “Not an iPhone person?” “Want to build a fire?” He smiled. <p style="text-align: center;">* * *</p> A week later, Josh and I went to the movies. After breakfast in the Toronto airport, he had given me his number. When I called, he had scurried to find time before he was leaving town; “I want to take you out on a proper—not airport – date,” he texted. In the low seats he immediately took my hand and put it in his lap, just as he had done at 7 AM when we watched The Office as the plane was landing. “You smell amazing, by the way,” he whispered. “Thanks.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, hand dangling down my side and rubbing gently at my mid-back. It was my turn. “When I met you, I tried to figure out how tall you were by seeing if your knees hit the magazines.” “Am I tall enough?” he asked. “Mmm hmm.” “That’s good to know.” When the movie ended, he said, “So, what’s your game plan? Do you want to go or do you want to hang out in a dark movie theater?” He’s so good at talking, I thought. Just the right banter. “I’ll hang out in a dark movie theater.” When the last couple left, he drew my chin to his with his index finger. “I feel like I’m 16!” I said. He laughed and kissed me more. I pulled away again. “Did you think this was going to happen?” “To be honest, I didn’t think you were that into me,” he said. I laughed. “You were pretty ambivalent.” “I was pretty ambivalent. It was Air Canada,” I said. “I like that you’re tall. It’s really hot.” Though Fernando had satisfied my craving to toss around chilenismos, I hadn’t met a man who was taller than me in a long, long time. At 5’10”, it hadn’t even occurred to me how good it would feel to be complemented for my height. The more we talked, the more I warmed up to this Josh. He offered no unsolicited advice; he was smart and liked that I was smart, too; he only lived a few cities away. When I drove him home, I said, “I’m kind of into you.” “I’m kind of into you,” he smiled. Before shutting the car door, he added, “We’ll plan.” <p style="text-align: center;">* * *</p> “So how’s your job going? I mean, I was kind of worried. Not that you won’t be awesome, but, you know, first few days of a new job can go either way…” We were chatting on Skype, as we had been doing a couple of times a week over the month since we met. I had landed a great job only weeks after my return to the States. He said, “worried.” I was touched. After a few minutes, his soft face turned suddenly hard. “I do have one serious agenda item. I was single when I met you –“ Josh recounted to me, with excruciating tact and kindness, how he had gotten back together with his girlfriend of four years, but they would be in an open relationship for February, when we had been planning to see each other. He peppered his explanation with lots of “I’ll completely understand, whatever you want,” and “It’s up to you”. I minimized verbal and facial expression, asking only a few clarifying questions. He ended with, “Do you want to think about it?” “Yeah.” After hanging up, he texted: p.s. thanks for being cool about that. <p style="text-align: center;">* * *</p> That week I cried on the subway, I cried after long, fast runs, I cried on the phone with my best friend. Here we go again. I know how to have something casual, something fleeting, something basically just physical, I thought. And I even know how to do it with people I like but won’t ever see again, like Fernando. Just focus on the gotee instead of the tall doctoral student who remembers everything I’ve ever told him and who talks to me for hours. I knew it wasn’t my place to tell him how he really felt, but I wished I could just hold up mirror. When we went on our movies date, he asked me if I still had the notes we’d passed on the airplane. In one of our many two-hour Skype conversations, Josh had congratulated me on my new job and urged me to ask for a salary raise. If you just want sex, go to a bar, I wanted to tell him. <p style="text-align: center;">* * *</p> I brushed my hair and put on a cute shirt. I’d talked to him in my old hoodie before, but I wanted to be irresistible for this conversation. I was ready. “So, how’s your job going?” he asked. “Ups and downs for sure, but my God, do I love these kids.” “So when do you get to the point where they draw you pictures?” “Mm, not quite there yet.” “Well, you have to send me pictures of them.” And you’re sure you just want to sleep with me? If so, that makes this just some sophisticated, custom-made pick-up line, right? He didn’t notice my pause, but instead said, “I have to go in a few, what did you want to talk about? Cuéntame.” My Spanish was far better than his and he knew it; when he used it, it had an endearing, self-deprecating tone. “Josh, this may come as a surprise, but after trying it on, I’ve decided I don’t want to see you in February.” “That’s fine, I totally understand,” he said automatically, like a compassion-programmed robot. “It’s just… trying on this ‘casual sex’ thing… again… Like I said, I’ve done it before, if I’d met you a year ago I’m sure I would’ve been down, but I’m just getting to a point where… it’s not where I’m at, it’s not what I’m up for, I feel like I’m just too old for this.” “I completely understand. I think I’m in a place that not a lot of other people are.” “Yeah, I mean…” “So… do you still want to Skype?” “Josh.” I was thinking, If all you want is sex, and I just told you won’t get it, then what’s the point of Skype-ing? He looked at me in confusion. “No, I mean… I hope you don’t feel disrespected in any way.” Do you think you’ll score bonus points for using the word “disrespect”? “No, it’s not that, it’s just… I feel like you want it all, and you can’t have it all.” I cocked my head to the side in this slightly playful, yet serious, come on now gesture. I don’t remember what he said next because I was too busy memorizing what I had said, so I could boast about it to my friends later. “Well, I’ll shoot you a text when I’m in Boston, if you change your mind or if circumstances change.” “Josh, I’m not going to change my mind,” My eyes looked straight at him as I slowly shook my head. “Well, I’ll let you know if circumstances change.” I didn’t beg him to break up with her, I didn’t get angry, I didn’t reveal my wounds or tears or secret fantasies to bring him home for Christmas. Simply, I’m not going to change my mind. It was the truest part of my speech, the only line I hadn’t practiced in the mirror or with a friend. I had prepared out of fear that in the moment, I would give in to the incredibly appealing short-term satisfaction he was offering; yet when I spoke off-script, I surprised myself with my own resolve. If you can meet a guy on Air Canada, who knows what will come next. I’m holding out for what I really want.