“There will be an Australian there,” Noel assured me in broken English. As he sat down, I was still eating the cold paella I’d bought at the market. Based on its unappetizing temperature, I’d determined the paella was intended to be reconstituted at home. The wine was hot, though, and the bartender was kind enough to bring me a fork. I gave Noel a non-committal response, anxious for a chance to call home instead of attempt to speak French at his apartment on my day off. I suspected I’d never see him again, nor the Australian.
By the following weekend I had firmly decided to stay at the farm and work on my tax return instead of joining Noel for lunch. The chateau across from the farmhouse had wifi but no heat. I would spend the day there wearing fingerless gloves and a scarf typing out emails, skyping, and making generous appraisals on my 2015 Salvation Army donations in a room that rattled with mice.
When Otto offered to drive me to lunch with his girlfriend, I declined. I was looking forward to spending the day speaking English into a phone screen and smoking scraps of joints left in various ashtrays. However, when his mother found out that I’d planned a day of reclusiveness, she protested. “Go on upstairs and get tarted up,” were her exact words, and I obeyed.
We smoked a generous splif in the car. The winding road was both nauseating and beautiful. I thought back on my time hichhiking in Northern California’s redwood forest, but this was less rugged. More modest, more French.
The trees weren’t staggeringly wide but ornate, decorated with parasitic spheres of mistletoe and small pale flowers. “I really should seize more opportunities like this,” I thought, “even if my workweek is mostly chasing pigs through rainswept fields of mud and feces.” I was glad that I’d been forced into lunch.
Once upstairs, the large congregation sat around a small kitchen tale. Going in a circle, we introduced ourselves per the request of Noel’s mother. We had arranged ourselves around the one-family set-up so that everyone could see one another and no one was blocking Noel’s mother’s view. In French, I managed, “My name is Emma, I don’t speak French, I work on a farm with Otto and his family, I’m from New York, Thank you for lunch.”
“Hm! Son Francais n’est pas merde,” someone whispered. “Her French isn’t shitty.”
The circle continued toward a lanky, dark haired Australian boy that had come with his host family. This was unmistakably my assigned English speaking partner. With a heavy accent, he introduced himself in French, and then transitioned in the same breath into the short list of other French words he knew. “Canard, soleil…” He leaned toward a young woman to ask again how to say Butterfly. “And ‘papillon,'” he concluded.
I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable after his display of unapologetically limited French, but kept my eyes on him. I felt like the less foreign foreigner after he spoke, but I envied his confidence. I wondered about his age. I became intensely jealous of the hispanic girl chatting with him. After the introductions had been completed, I walked to his side of the table to monopolize his English-speaking attention.
Despite my recently stoked sense of propriety, I soon fell into heavy bouts of laughter with him. We disrupted the whole table several times, laughing so hard that we convinced the others we certainly had something to share. However, all the jokes were in English and half of my elation came simply from being able to joke in my native language.
“The way these people roll cigarettes makes me think they all have joints,” he said at one point.
“They do,” I responded. He laughed, I thought at the situation, but actually because he thought I was kidding. I asked if he wanted one, and handed him the joint that was tucked behind my ear.
He accepted it with enthusiasm, taking several consecutive inhales, marveling aloud at the fact it didn’t feel like he was smoking. I tried to interject and explain that the smoothness was an indicator of quality, but he would not be cautioned. His temperament was not like mine, a person who quietly reads people for social cues. He was generously expressive and focused on the present. We complimented one another; he put me at ease and I had perceptions he found valuable.
Our conversation moved on to travel plans. We discovered that we both wanted to see Spain and Morocco around April. Being that I spoke Spanish and he would serve to put my parents’ minds at ease while I was in Morocco, we planned to travel together. Our plan was to tour Spain, attend a festival in Valencia, and then take a ferry to Tangiers.
After a third helping of food, eating well after the rest of the guests had lost interest in the desserts and cheese plate, my stoned comrade finally found himself full. I detached from him to seem non-insular to the rest of the guests, and made small talk with a woman in Spanish, all the while keeping an ear open for my new friend’s voice, causing my Spanish to bleed into Australian English.
When we arrived back at the farm, Olivier’s mother asked how the lunch went. I told her I had a wonderful time. She said, “And let me guess, you met the love of your life.”
I responded, “Actually,” and paused. We both laughed. “Actually,” I continued, “I found my Morocco buddy.”
A month passed. I spent most of it in Belgium falling in love with cooking and whiling away my nights with a Belgian music programmer. When both those affections soured I flew to Spain, realizing too late I’d missed the Valencia festival entirely and Mitchell along with it.
After five disheartening days in Spain, too cold to swim and too broke for museums, I decided to catch up with Mitchell. He was leaving for a tour of the Sahara in the morning so I took a redeye to Marrakesh.
When I got out of the taxi at 3am, the driver escorted me to a shop where I could break my 50 euro note. Someone watching us spotted my light skin, my backpack, and my 50. He offered to walk me to my hostel so I would be safe. I accepted his offer, thinking it a local custom for a gentleman to accompany a lady who might otherwise be at risk.
As we rounded a corner of the city’s winding walkway system, he asked for the name of the hostel. I showed him my phone and he asked me to read it to him. My poor pronunciation and his illiteracy lead us to a bed and breakfast. Before getting within shouting range of the entrance, he asked me for 50. He got close enough that I could smell the rotten whiskey on his breath. “Fifty dirham?” I asked.
He responded, “50 euro.”
I wasn’t convinced his English was right, “Five euro?”
I took out my wallet and handed him a five euro note. He took my wallet and I said, “I don’t even have fifty.” He thumbed through the bills as I watched, too tired and relieved to be at my destination to realize I was being gently mugged. He took the 35 euro I had. I thanked him.
The concierge of the bed and breakfast welcomed me warmly, and then slumped forward when I showed him my reservation for the hostel down the road. He put on his shoes and, like a gentleman, escorted me to my hostel free of charge.
The sewer by my hostel provided a steady cloud of stench directly in front of the entrance. I buzzed to be let in. A tall but stooped Moroccan man lead me into the darkened commons.
We whispered pleasantries to one another. I looked for a seat, trying to avoid a sleeping boy near the entrance. He stirred as I passed. When he sat up, I recognized the dark silhouette as Mitchell. We engaged in an embrace unusually comfortable for the short length of time we’d known each other. There, again, was that generosity of expression, that focus on the Now which we’d both been pursuing all through Europe.
While the host was explaining how insistent Mitchell had been on reserving my space on the Sahara tour, usually a reservation only ever made in person, Mitchell massaged my thigh under the table. It was settled; we’d be lovers.
After an hour of sleep, I walked bleary eyed back to the cafeteria for an early serving of bread, butter, and tea. With Mitchell’s friend Evan in tow, we boarded an early shuttle to the Sahara rendezvous point.
Mitchell’s literal and figurative arm never left my shoulders as I recounted what I finally realized was a shake down the night before. “I should have been there,” he said, feeling frustrated.
The presumptuous 21-year-old quickly became my other half, and without the exclusivity nor aloofness sometimes affected by couples in groups. The first night of the tour was in a shockingly nice hotel. We’d been nonverbally established as a couple and the hotel unquestioningly assigned us a private room with our own double bed: a slab of wood covered in a thin layer of padding.
We explored the canyon outside our window, spotting and accidentally maiming the first poppy I’d even seen in the wild, and following the river until running into thickets in both directions. I felt the first flashes of a deeper affection: competitiveness with him, jealousy of other women, and strong instincts to be simultaneously infatuated and aloof with him. My affections went untempered by skepticism when Mitchell chose to walk the river with me or ask about my life instead of someone else’s.
After dinner I went to our room without him. I dwelt upon my failings. This trip was about my independence, my right to achieve my own goals, and meeting my own needs before any guy’s. Already, though, I’d had to overcome the anxiety of wanting to be involved with someone I’d met in Belgium. I would not puppy-dog around Morocco for this wayward although handsome son of Perth.
He came in the room. My bags were in disarray from my hasty departure from Spain, and I was distractedly repacking them. He went to the shower and I got into bed.
When he came out of the bathroom he laughed. “It’s weird to see you in my bed.” We hadn’t even kissed yet, just held each other’s hands and heads. As he got under the covers with his laptop to load the footage from the trip so far, he put his arm around me and I easily found a spot to lay on his chest. We were speeding right along.
The obvious next step would take place after we’d previewed all the worthwhile GoPro footage. Ever the observer, I waited and watched until he was satisfied with his videos and fatefully closed the laptop. We laid down facing each other.
Unexpectedly, he asked, “So what are we doing?” Throughout my life I would have killed to hear those words from a score of men who had fallen into the murky category of “casual.” This kid was asking even as a citizen of a country opposite mine on the globe and as we lie in a bed on a continent neither of us had ever visited before. I assured him it was temporary, and I felt a warm sense of trust overcome me as we started to kiss.
For several hours we acclimated to one another’s bodies, learning each other’s staminas and favorite spots. We agreed to try elements of tantra to bring us closer to climaxing together. We breathed together and watched one another’s eyes as if it were a matter of great importance, and why not? Everything in the present is important. Especially when you’re traveling.
He was surprisingly dominant when he, sweating and entangled, told me what he wanted to do next. All this confidence and focus from the most recently born sexual partner I’d ever had was unhinging my resolve for independence.
The next day we were back in the fold of the group. I accepted his quiet but public admission that “we didn’t sleep much” as another brick in the impossible fantasy I was constructing.
Our tour group merged with others that day, and I gave time to other people of interest. I shared residency information with a disenchanted yoga instructor. I bonded with Evan who was the closest to family I could find, Canadian and sharing a first name with my brother. My brick and mortar fantasy was melting back into a liquid substance running over every interaction with total impartiality. I knew that if the opportunity presented itself I’d have Mitchell’s attention again, and I accepted that.
On our drive out of the desert, I took out a needle and thread to fix something I’d ripped on my jacket. He watched, then asked me to teach him how to fix his own clothes by placing a heap of torn items on my lap. The youngest sibling of three and the youngest of twenty-some cousins, being asked for advice is a rare and welcome opportunity for me. Mitchell’s gaze was focused. I began speaking in absolutes in a way I found uncomfortable but rewarding. I was teaching. There is no role that makes one feel more important than that of a teacher with an interested pupil.
During the longer drives, he took to sleeping on my lap while I stroked his hair. I developed a strong positive association to the smell of rotten orange juice. Our only gastronomic break from eating grilled chicken was drinking fresh juice from one of the roadside shops. It stuck to our hands and perfumed the enclosed vehicle along with the smell of our two unwashed bodies.
I played my favorite travel album, a moody and ethereal acoustic set about love, change, and movement. I put one headphone in Mitchell’s ear as he rested his face in my lap. “It all kind of sounds the same,” he said as it ended, and sat up to put in his own earphones.
At the next rest stop, we found a restaurant where I ordered lunch for our side of the table in my rapidly improving but still broken French. My confidence was soaring. I even had someone depending on me for certain French interactions, not to mention sewing instructions.
Mitchell picked up wifi at the restaurant and saw a message from a friend he’d met before my arrival in Morocco. He left the table to meet her. Half an hour later the driver was prepared to leave, and Mitchell was the only member of our caravan missing.
Feeling predictably protective, I volunteered to text him from the restaurant. As I climbed back into the bus, I spotted him. Before I could announce his presence, he turned to hug the girl walking beside him. In a flurry of recklessness and ardour that looked very familiar, she met his lips and they kissed goodbye.
My sense of confidence crumbled to show a scrawny figure of hope; the hubris of the past was helping to dress my expectations of the future, and now they were both deteriorating. I’d betrayed my Now-ness and I was now being punished.
Frozen in my initial reaction, I kept my face toward the window. He sat next to me and asked if I was okay. I continued as if nothing had crumbled, lying through the scrawny figure to keep myself from becoming unduly emotional. He apologized anyway and explained he’d never been in a situation when he’d practiced such close quarters non-monogamy.
I related to that. I felt as comfortable as I had before once we started talking about my history with open relationships. But even though I’d been in his situation, something tightened in me. I was glad then that I spent the first night taking a stand to re-fold my backpack, however pathetic that stand had been.
It was armor I’d expensed ahead of time, but now I needed more. There’s always a risk of hoping for a fairytale with someone who makes your stomach flip. I’m reminded I am one experience in a line. So was he, and so was everyone.
I told him just not to leave me for someone else before our paths diverged. “Of course,” he said, providing transparency for mutual armor.
The rest of the tour, we talked about our childhoods, families, dreams, and so on. I taught him more about non-monogamy. He wrote down book recommendations and soldiered through painful admissions about his past. By the end he told me, “You’ve taught me more about art and love than anyone else I’ve known.”
We were heading to the coast. Once in the city, we ran to catch a bus that ended up departing an hour and a half late so as to fill up. Delayed passengers included a screaming child and its relatives who insisted my and Mitchell’s upright seats could go further forward. As the bus crawled through the crowded bus station, Mitchell started sarcastically cheering in the same vain as college sophomores on a flight to Cancun. It got us from scowling to laughing.
Another night of sleeping together had come to the forefront of my desires. The beach hostel didn’t have private rooms but was mostly empty with many hidden nooks. The guest list topped off at six, not including the proprietor and his family.
We toured the buildings and our host said that ultimately he wanted to use the hostel as a platform for artists in residence. Mitchell and I vied for appraised value in the community, he with his technical support expertise and I with my firm identity as an artist. We could both be assets. I already had a ticket to Paris to return to my other residency, but I thought it wise to come back. Mitchell agreed. We would meet back here for an indefinite stay, but it was on our own individual terms.
In the morning, the boys slept and I accepted an invitation to take the hostel owner’s motorcycle to the local bakery with him. My focus was sharply on seizing my own opportunities. I would put distance between me and fantasy even if it meant hugging my twat against the back of what turned out to be a deranged future cult leader on his motorcycle.
“My goal is to have a society without money,” the proprietor told me over breakfast, “where we grow our own food and have our own culture.” He kept me downtown into the afternoon under the pretense that traffic was too bad to ride home. His interest in keeping me, personally, in Essaouira triggered a red flag that even my wayward, optimistic mind couldn’t ignore. Squeal as I might on the ride home, I knew I had to warn Mitchell. We couldn’t become expats with this man whose bedroom ceiling had a mirror, even if he did offer to let us use it. And even if it meant this would be our last night together.
I explained it to Mitchell, and lamented booking my flight ahead of time, “I want to stay, but I can’t.”
“I’d be staying for a guy.”
“Don’t do that.”
That night, I taught a yoga class for Evan and two other guests. The hostel owner added this to my list of responsibilities for when I returned. Mitchell watched from an enclosed seating area on the roof.
After dinner, we played music in a blacklight room downstairs. Mitchell and I agreed to hang back once everyone had gone to sleep. My flight was early the next morning but I’d resigned to stay up for as long as it took to be alone with him again.
I taught Mitchell his first guitar chord, something I never thought I’d teach anyone considering my inability as a guitarist. We shared the guitar, he learning and I practicing.
When the last person left, we closed the door and I returned my head to his shoulder. Someone knocked to get their glasses. The sense of being caught was a new obstacle for us, having started our romance in the total isolation of a hotel room.
It was also difficult to look at each other, stoned on hash and glowing from the eyes and teeth. Even now, the image of him is split between the romantic low-lit hotel room and the strange complexion caused by the ultraviolet light. The urgency we both had created a satisfying intensity, though, and serves as the defining quality of that memory.
We fell asleep perpendicular in our hostel bunks with our heads together, holding hands and sharing pillows. When my alarm sounded for me to go to the airport, I crept under his sheets and told him I was leaving. He brought me in closer without opening his eyes and shook his head. We kissed. I left.
My loneliness and doubt boiled over during the weeks surrounding my return to the U.S. I tried contacting various characters from my travels. Mitchell posted photos occasionally, usually with women in them. He responded to my messages sporadically, still in the full throws of travel induced confidence and his Now, while I was stewing in the fermented stresses I’d left back home five months prior.
I told stories to friends in New York of my unlikely acquaintances. Mitchell came up often, especially the moment that he told me I’d taught him more about love, art, and life than anyone he’d ever met. My friend Jonelle, a healer and art writer, said of this, “He’s going to remember you forever.”
So then, what’s a memory except a way to carry the past with you? I figure that a lesson is even heavier baggage than a memory. Our commitment to the present, though, allowed the threads of one another to weave into our respective tapestries momentarily. Whenever he looked back, there I would be, griefless and shining in his early twenties as a band of color he’d point out on other bus trips, pillow talks, and for comfort one day when doubt and time finally found him.