August 2005, 16 years old. It’s my fifth week in Ghana and I’m leaving in a few days, but I’d be perfectly happy to stay here forever, thank you very much. When I wake up one morning around 6 a.m. I’m too restless to go back to sleep, so I head to the beach.
I don’t see a single person. All I hear are the waves crashing, and maybe a few birds calling to one another in the distance. The sun is starting to inch above the horizon, dyeing the sky a pinkish crimson, and I sit on a nearby rock to watch it emerge. It’s the first sunrise I’ve ever seen alone. Everything seems so close — the ocean, the horizon, and the clouds — it’s like I could reach out and grab it. I start singing, which feels weird admitting but it’s really what happened. Then I decide to run inside and get my camera. When I return to the beach the sun is already up, and I take a single photograph.
May 2007, 18 years old. I’m living in Ayacucho, Peru, for two months during my senior year of high school. A massive white cross sits atop the tallest hill in Ayacucho and overlooks the small, mountainous city; it’s like a Hollywood sign for the god-fearing Christian.
“I am going to hike there,” I decide one day. A few weeks later, I do. It takes me a while to find a path, but after that it’s an easy climb. The view of the Andes Mountains is remarkable from the hilltop. I take my time soaking it all in before making my descent. On the way down I can feel whatever is in my stomach thrashing around. I can’t remember what I ate or drank or touched, but whatever it is, it feels horrible. And it needs to come out of me. Now. There aren’t bathrooms on the trail, so I run. Ahhh noooo, bad choice. I speed walk, squeezing all my muscles together to make sure my body stays put, but it doesn’t help. “OK, you win!” I shout to the health gods, surrendering myself to the reality of what is about to happen. I find the largest bush I can on this clear, well-marked path, squat behind it, pray nobody is coming toward me, and pull down my shorts. I am confident that I killed many innocent plants that day. Maybe some small animals, too.
July 2007, 18 years old. On my way to Montana, where I’m visiting a friend, there is plane trouble that leaves me stranded in Denver. My suitcase is still in some broken plane, so I have no clean underwear or clothes or a toothbrush. At least the airline puts me up in a free hotel.
Damn, I think, when I see this room I have all to myself. This is awesome! I take off my clothes and jump on the bed, which feels like a silly foreign absurdity I can only do alone and away from the constraints of my life as a real adult person.
Then I go downstairs and order a chicken Caesar salad from a chatty bartender, and I eat it alone in my room while watching TV.
March 2008, 19 years old. The week I spend with my college boyfriend in Whistler, Vancouver, is one of the best of my 19 years. On the last day of the trip I take a break from snowboarding to explore the local village, and he hits the slopes alone. My body begins to ache about three hours into the day. It feels like my muscles are tearing apart from the insides and my rib cage is collapsing around my chest and heart. I am physically overcome with love for the first time, and it wears me down from within. I miss him so fiercely, and that’s when I realize I’m in trouble. We love each other too much. When I see him at the end of the day, we’re both so happy, and I nearly cry.
August 2008, 19 years old. My brother is late picking me up at the Boston train station because he is buying a bike off Craigslist.
“So, why are you here?” he says, when I finally get into his car. “What’s wrong?”
My breakup haunted me. It was like we were walking together, sharing every ounce of each other, and then in one step the ground became quicksand and pulled us apart, but instead of reaching out and offering my hand to my boyfriend, I just kept going and waved to him, shouting, “Bye! See you later!”
My brother and I get bubble tea, and we don’t talk about my breakup.
November 2009, 20 years old. I fly to England on my college’s dime to participate in a debate tournament. I decide to extend the trip after losing at Cambridge University. I’ll miss Thanksgiving, but I’m already in London! I might as well.
The eight-hour overnight bus I take from London to Edinburgh smells like Indian food. I listen to the Smiths the whole time. I can’t sleep. My neck aches. When I get to Edinburgh I find a fancy pizza place and eat an entire personal pie. I haven’t missed a Thanksgiving since.
April 2010, 21 years old. It’s raining in Budapest when Charlotte leaves me alone in the apartment we rented and gets on a train to Croatia. I want to stay in my bed and watch movies, but I force myself outside and decide to get a haircut. This is how haircuts work in Budapest if you don’t speak Hungarian: a nice woman hands you a piece of paper with nine different styles sketched onto it, and you point to the one you want.
My haircut is awful, to speak generously.
Later in the day, I buy a $30 ticket for the opera, and I sit next to an elderly man who speaks very little English. He is also alone. We get along like we have known each other for years, turning to each other to laugh or empathize throughout the performance. I want to ask him to get drinks after the show, but I don’t have the courage.
“It was nice to meet you!” I say, instead.
May 2010, 21 years old. When I get tired of walking through Vienna with my backpack, I find a hostel. There is a strikingly handsome German man working behind the desk. He has the sort of eyes that make me nervous and excited when he looks right at me. When he hands me my key I give him a smile that says, “I would like to make out with you now.” And his eyes reply, “Yes, that would be nice.”
When we run into each other later that night, he proposes that we get a drink.
Man, you must pick up so many women working here, I think.
“Sure,” I say.
June 2010, 21 years old. When I land in Delhi there’s a cab that picks me up and takes me to my hotel. Getting into that unmarked car with a stranger is the first time I’m scared in India. The second is a month later when a man grabs my arm and pushes me onto the ground, and I run like hell to get away while he chases me down a wooded path. And then I’m scared again, one month after that, when I spend hours afraid to leave my hotel room after the concierge tells me how only sluts travel alone and mumbles a few threatening comments.
I should travel with a man, I think, and hate thinking. But my trip isn’t over, so I get on a train. I meditate on the Ganges River and I ride on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle and I dance on the Pakistani border with new friends.
This was a good summer, I decide when my grant money runs out, and I fly home.
February 2011, 22 years old. Landing in Prague feels like I’m coming home, which is in part a great feeling (Things I love and am familiar with!), and partially terrible (Ugh! What if I run into people from high school and they’re more successful than me?). My home-stay father from when I studied abroad the previous year meets me at the airport and takes me to their apartment. It looks the same, but they have a new student living with them. She asks them too many questions about communism and eats with her mouth open. Prague’s changed, but just a little. There is a new tram stop on Myslikova Street. I spend my jet-lagged days alone in libraries or cafés, conducting research for my thesis on post-Soviet nationalism.
When I land in Boston a week later, my ex-boyfriend (who I loved so much my stomach hurt) picks me up at the airport. Even though I’m in his car, and just left Prague, I miss him and I miss the city. But I keep returning to both, as if I’ll ever get back the things I actually long for.
July 2011, 22 years old. I drive from NYC to Ithaca to visit Charlotte. Her friends are like…real adults. One of them owns a house! We play paintball in his huge backyard. How have I gone 22 years without playing paintball? It’s so fun. I’m unnecessarily proud of the bruises I endure that prove I’m a beginner.
May 2013, 24 years old. Nobody is sitting next to me on the flight to Nashville where I’m meeting my new boyfriend of four or five months, so I have the whole row to myself. I push my elbows out and spread my body across the seats. I wish I were flying further, just to take advantage of watching any movie I want without some middle-aged man peering over my shoulder. Have you ever tried to watch Closer, or Magic Mike, or Boogie Nights on a plane? It’s awkward.
My boyfriend picks me up at the airport when I arrive. We go straight to his hotel room and we fall into bed. Then he stops.
“Oh, another thing. Ethan wants me to do his podcast!”
Stop talking about work and just kiss me, you goofy weirdo, I think to myself.
“That’s so great!” I say.
September 2013, 24 years old. I drive to Montauk one night in September after my boyfriend leaves my apartment. He was going to come with me, but he says he can’t get out of work at the last minute. Part of me wants to cancel the trip so we can go together, but I haven’t been to the ocean all summer. I decide to go anyway. He says he understands that.
I don’t talk to him a lot over the weekend because hearing his voice so distant makes me question why I’m out here. When we break up months later, I’ll think about this trip. About how I felt alone even when we were together. About how I sat on my hotel porch drinking wine, and writing, and imagining a future with somebody else. Nobody specific. Just an imaginary man who would drop everything to spend a weekend walking together on the beach in sweatshirts, and eating lobster rolls, and making fun of how the rich people in East Hampton dress.
By the time I get home I miss him a lot and convince myself those are fleeting feelings. I hug him and tell him how great it was to have alone time. And it isn’t a lie. I wrote a lot out there and read a whole book. It was a very nice trip.