The intergalactic guide to lost loveBy Adam Kohut, writer and journalist.
Bangkok — its skylines, its noise, its summer heat —was oppressive, immense, foreboding, inviting, futuristic and anachronistic, grim and grungy and dusty and sordid and sleek — a place so exotic as to be science-fictional in its cultural convergence — of languages, of foods, of nationalities — at once bleakly modern and mired in mystic past. And here I was: sole survivor of what had initially been a two-man spacecraft, my only tools for navigation being lurid, pop-cultural fantasies and an international optimism that was now a dimly blinking bulb on a cracked control panel.
Then, on the horizon, a figure: rendered nanoscale by distance, obscured by gauzy aurora, materializing upon approach into fantastical reality. This was hope. This was safety. This was danger. This was salvation. This was damnation. This was Tessa.
And here we were, abroad and frantic and horny and, I suppose, a little homesick. And suddenly here was love, fusion love, with the strawberry-blonde girl from Holland, the girl with the perfectly shaped nose and the laid-back comportment of a cumulous cloud, allowing her to drift with thoughtless ease throughout the prickled quills of my porcupinal demeanor. Oh, was it love! And it was rescue, Western rescue from self-imposed Eastern exile. So onto one another we tethered, abandoning reserve and ideas of self-preservation, and we set off on a traversal of ourselves, each other, and the otherworldly cityscape into which we were enfolded.
Years passed, calendric pages distorted by the love-time continuum, bending and warping, fading and sharpening and blending. Slowly, together, we began to construct a ship, using scrap from the past and elemental material mined from the present. And sooner than later we’d created something pilotable, habitable, seemingly capable of interstellar travel. And there it sat, fuelled and ready for liftoff.
And we looked at each other and we knew it was time.
Four years in Asia, we say, in tones hushed and reverential, our eyebrows arched into parabolas— all four in Bangkok, for Tessa. Nearly half a decade. It is a length of time that both impresses and frightens — ourselves, our friends, our families. There are moments when these years feel like an almost interminable period for a Westerner to exist weighted down by the heightened gravitational force of Asia’s group culture, which restricts individualist senses of independence, of volatility. Tessa and I watch those who have chosen to cement themselves into places of permanence here, and we are baffled and, at times, angry, shocked that these men and women — our friends, some of them — seem to have so willingly surrendered what we so greedily covet.
Tessa and I, we know we have benefitted from our time in Asia, and we have compiled our reports, filed away comprehensive knowledge and experience into our mental databases for later use. But yes, we tell one another, gazing up into the glittering reaches of the universe, imagining possibilities as-yet uncharted. Yes. It is time to go home.
But trouble: Where is home, we ask ourselves, when the ship’s copilots hail from separate quadrants of the spiral-armed galaxy? A tricky matter, albeit one with a simple answer, because there is no home; there is instead a choice. And, for now, we’ve chosen The Netherlands, where Tessa will be free of the oppressive financial shackles of university tuition and student loans, enabling her to earn a master’s degree in education — thereby dipping into the frizzed lunacy that is a career in teaching high school art. I, ideally, will find roll the dice on the off-chance finding employment that is both sustainable and fulfilling.
But The Netherlands is Tessa’s home planet; it is not mine.
“Aren’t you sad about this?” she asks me one night, less fretful than curious, as we lay in bed, in the dark. “Sad that we’ll never really be able to go home, that it will be one or the other, for the rest of our lives? That scares me a little.” She pauses. Then she rolls over and is instantly asleep, just like that, as always, an android powering down, leaving me to stare wide-eyed into the midnight black, as flashback thoughts of one-sided loneliness, of that broken heart, which two years ago was so sharp, so vicious, so dangerous, zip through my mind at blurred hyper-drive speed. These are fears of abandonment, fears of reliving the past, of becoming trapped inside a tubular lemniscate of perpetual grief.
I am confident.
I am brave.
I am stupid.
As I realize Tessa is right, one of us will be an immigrant — an alien — always, for the rest of our lives.
For Tessa, Amsterdam, our port of destination, will mean old friends, family, a familiar culture, a native language. She will have airlocks in which she can seek refuge from the vacuum of space. But her homecoming will be my arrival. And on this I focus, turning the idea of her glorious return into something saddening, simmering in a broth of low-heat envy. Will this imbalance, I wonder, damage our relationship, an asteroid collision from which we will never recover, dealing mortal damage to something seemingly innocuous but vital, some steam valve or pump or satellite dish, that will cripple what we have so carefully yet thoughtlessly engineered, thus leading to its eventual yet inevitable — and soundless — implosion?
“What have I done?” I ask her, shaking her awake, an opaque nebula the color of murky urine sweeping over and enveloping my very existence, clouding rationality. My eyes gleam with equine haunt. “I’ve doomed us! Everything will be ruined! It will be years before I see my family. I won’t have a job; I just know I won’t find one. I’ll have to work in a cafeteria. I’ll have to wear a hairnet and rubber gloves. How could I do this? What have I done? What have we done? What will we do?”
I bristle with pessimism, come alive with prophetic visions of dystopian futures where I huddle, cold and alone, yearning for the lean-on-me days of Bangkok, a city I now view through the pastel lens of the past, everything soft and subdued and warm. If only, I’ll think. If only.
Tessa, she groans. She opens her bleary eyes and she rolls them. “Oh God, you idiot. It’s not going to be going home for me either. Not quite. It’s all going to be different. My home isn’t the same as when I left it. Most of friends have moved, and I won’t have a job either. At least not at first. It’s starting over for me, too.”
We are quiet then — I am quiet, then — and soon she is asleep, again.
This is becoming a pattern, her insistence on being correct, her ability to telescopically peer at both sides of a situation, yet still, somehow, absurdly cling to optimism, for me an ungraspable thing of slippery surfaces. It is mounting evidence, all of it, that I need her, and, I tell myself as I listen to her soft, deep, sleep-weighted breaths, it is also proof that she will leave me, because I am clearly insane.
But for now, I am tranquilized, anxiety eclipsed by the calming shadow of her surety.
Yes, The Netherlands is Tessa’s home, but she will return after prolonged absence to find that things have changed, grown and shrunk. They will be old, but they will be new again, results of her evolution into adulthood and of time, all that time, spent away from home. And we, too, the both of us, are people transformed by one another and by our travels, the coronas of faraway suns and electromagnetic rays emitted from sources extraterrestrial.
And there lies both the beauty and the tarnished despair in our relationship: Although tethered to one another, we are astronauts adrift, Tessa and I, borne through cosmic territory, faced with destinies dictated by passports of differing color, forcing us, at times, to individually relinquish control.
For the time being, my ship will be stripped for parts, and we will take with us only the essentials, the superfluous relegated to metallic storage containers where it will await my return. I will take the copilot’s chair, at attention and ready, an active part of our relationship, but largely unneeded for the act of flight itself. Until the situation reverses, and we make the potential move the United States, when and where our roles will change.
Or perhaps we will travel elsewhere — South America, Australia, Japan— and we will jointly man the controls. We will train ourselves, harden, adapt to deftly plot our course through the flux of the unknown, forever strangers in strange lands, in elliptical orbit around one another, never certain, but certainly never lost.