I had been traveling alone in Thailand for almost three weeks, and I was crushed with loneliness. While I’d traveled solo several times, never before for so long in a place that was so culturally, linguistically, geographically distant from my frame of reference. Anyone who has traveled alone will be familiar with the vicissitudes of the experience. You start out exhilarated and a little terrified in that delighted way usually associated with aggressive roller coasters. Then after a few days you settle in, the rush of unfamiliarity slows as you begin to pick out the patterns around you, as you become more and more deft at basic pragmatic exchanges in the local language; you are no longer afraid of the markets and food stalls with soups in plastic bags dangling from sticks and their little rickety stools and tables, and their redolent curries full of what appear to be snails or possibly eels, people seemed to have stopped staring at you, and you’ve successfully haggled with at least one tuk-tuk driver. For me what follows this phase is a sad sense of isolation. Maybe more gregarious people don’t have this problem, but as an introvert, I would only sit conspicuously alone at a table with a book, within earshot of a clutch of Australians hoping they will invite me to join their convivial group, eavesdropping and mentally contributing witty rejoinders to their banter.
It was on a ferry from Ko Phangan to Surat Thani where I encountered the man I referred to as the Tool when I first wrote of him. (You can revisit that whole story in detail here; scroll down to Krabi & Railay if you do.) I’ll now call him David, because that was his name. I loved Ko Phangan, but several days before, I had worn out my welcome with the trio of Australians who had taken pity on me after my conspicuous lurking, and I had been quite alone and feeling every recriminating inch of that solitude. I was eager for a change of scenery, some new people to mingle with who wouldn’t sit as far away from me as they could get. And as it had been days since I had spoken English out loud to a human, I was dying for some conversation. And I won’t lie: I had, throughout my trip, entertained undetailed daydreams of meeting some handsome man who was also traveling alone, and maybe he and I could enjoy the romance of a beach bungalow and warm turquoise water and golden sand and boat trips and long tipsy dinners of fresh fish and Chang beer. (Okay, so maybe the daydreams were a bit detailed after all.)
So when I saw him on the way to the boat, tall, broad shouldered, linen shirt unbuttoned, the battered pack of many weeks of travel on his back, and no visible companion, I entertained some hope that maybe I’d have a respite from my own company. I trailed him up to the deck of the ferry, watching, as I do, his friendly interactions with the crew and other passengers. I waited for his girlfriend to appear and ruin my burgeoning fantasies of conviviality and potential romance. I imagined a petite blonde who could effortlessly wear a bikini top with short-shorts. But he was, by all appearances as unaccompanied as I was. I broke away and found a spot on the deck of the ferry to watch the ocean pass, and plot how I would strike up a conversation with this guy, as if I were the sort of person who would actually do such a thing. Because despite my imaginings, I had no intention of actually speaking to him.
It turned out I would not have time to hatch then ignore such plans. Moments after I’d settled in my spot, legs dangling over the side, elbows on the lower rung of the boat’s railing, he sat down right next to me, close enough that I had to scootch a bit, and asked me if I had any sunscreen. Now most women in this position would have been delighted, and probably immediately commenced with the breezy flirting. Not me, though. I can’t remember the exact contours of my immediate reaction to his proximity, but they were something akin to panic. I have grown a tiny bit smoother with men whom I find attractive, but in general I’m a feckless spaz whose normal conversational facility is reduced to rambling sentences unattached to any coherent flow of syntax or subject. Yet despite all that he persisted in speaking to me. He was sweet, cute, disarming. A combination of traits which I reacted to with increasing vitriol and resistance until, hours and boats and busses and taxis later (as it turned out we were traveling to the same place—even stayed in the same hotel), I finally snapped, said unkind things, then left in the pre-dawn hours in order to avoid running into him again.
Considering how lonely I was, how badly I wanted to talk to someone, you’d think I would have at least indulged myself in the conversation with a perfectly nice (if somewhat annoyingly eager) reasonably handsome man. Contextually, it was just a year since my dad died, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was still dealing with that grief by tamping down every emotion that quivered beyond a narrow band of blank neutrality. And that panicked excitement of the universe providing me with precisely the thing I’d been craving probably overtaxed my desperate stranglehold on my feelings and reactions. It’s no excuse for being so mean to someone who probably truly meant well. I sometimes think about that parallel universe where I wasn’t terrified and terrible, and what would have happened if I’d been nice. If I hadn’t innovated nasty new ways to be a total dick, scraped up eloquently mean comments, and hunched into uninviting body language—anything to discourage this guy from talking to me. Anything to avoid opening up to some unknowable circumstance where I might be vulnerable to...anything. What would have happened? Would I have made a new friend? Gained a lover and traveling companion? Would I still know him?
But I don’t regret the way I handled this for the reasons of lost romantic possibilities, but rather for my inability to be open to the experience of a moment. By focusing instead on my self-defeating attempts to feel no feelings, I was an unkind person who treated a fellow traveler rudely at best, and with undeserved contempt at worst.
After all that, I ran into David again just a few days later on Ko Phi Phi. He walked toward where I sat, aching with homesickness at this point, sick to death of the heat and carrying all my shit on my back and of not wearing jeans and longing for salty San Francisco fog. When I caught sight of him my boil of emotions intensified. My first feeling was that of delight at seeing a familiar face; then an instant later, I realized who the familiar face belonged to and remembered, with embarrassed detail, how horribly I’d treated him. I had the thought that I could, very easily, fix the whole thing right there and maybe be less sad for the last couple days of my trip. I could apologize and invite him to have a drink and we could simply be humans together with beers at a beach bar. But I stubbornly stuck to my bitch guns and gave him a withering “do not approach” look that stopped him in his tracks and made the smile on his face vanish. Then he said something to the effect of me being a miserable bitch, which, actually, was a fair assessment in that moment.
For a long time I justified my behavior by thinking of him as a pushy, annoying tool who got what was coming to him for ignoring my mounting hostility and obvious disinterest. There also is the remote possibility, I suppose, that I was heeding some instinctive alarm, and by vituperatively discouraging him, I was sparing myself from being brutally murdered in the jungle (or some less violent but also unwelcome outcome). But the truth is, I still feel badly about all this.
In the nearly eight years that has passed since then, I’ve finally (mostly) gotten comfortable with trying to be open to the world and its experiences. I try to say yes, even when it’s annoying or terrifying. I try to go ahead and experience my more volatile emotions—both the powerfully good ones and the despairingly bad ones—to actually feel them and see what happens next. To not run from people who are trying to connect in some big or small way. To do my half in reaching out.