Ah, yes. The Girl.
It’s all about The Girl, really. If I’d wanted to get laid, I would have stayed home. The women in the States are as beautiful as any in the world. I don’t need to hop on a plane to find a bar to terrorize, and if promiscuity motivated me during this trip, I could easily be blinded to amazing hikes and volunteering and the Copán Ruins and bullfighting.
For me, the excitement and challenge of the late-night liquored-up pursuit has slowly waned. Besides, I’ve never really been a let’s-go-out-and-meet-some-chicks kind of guy. My dating life is pretty plain: boy goes out; boy meets girl; boy woos girl; girl is unimpressed, but sends boy off with a polite rejection; boy retreats to evaluate what he can do better next time. Many are fascinated by my lack of game back home—I’m an average-looking guy, I go to the gym, and I have enough fun experiences and stories to get me through the first ten minutes or so of a date. But after that, the process of courtship grows unsteady for me. And sadly, my clumsiness with women translates into many languages across the globe. My game is weak. I’m the Chicago Cubs of dating.
I’d certainly never committed to remaining celibate for this year, or for that matter, for any stretch of my life longer than game day in college. Gandhi can have that, and besides, celibacy is just asking for messy nocturnal emissions. Why would I want to purposefully prohibit myself from enjoying one of life’s greatest pleasures?
No need to force it, though; staking out a piece of neutral territory on the subject seemed about right, at least for a while. When I left North Carolina, I never intended to seek out women, and I likewise never planned to avoid them. I never really thought about it. I just wanted to climb a few ruins and volunteer for a little while.
“Loosen up a little, Shep!” my friends back home said, patting me on the back as we gathered at Tony’s house. You only live once, yada, yada, yada. “You’re traveling. You’re visiting wondrous places. You’re going to meet beautiful women from all over the world. Go out and get some.” Before I left, one of my friends set the over/under at me sleeping with six women. Citing the contrast of my lack of game and my appeal as a foreigner, four guys took the over (“I’ll take the way over,” Korey said. Tony added, “Even you can’t strike out every night”), and one person, Scott, took the way under. Colin informed me that I wasn’t that good looking, but said I could still count on “raking in the booty” when I got to Europe. Five lunches at Bojangles’ were set to be exchanged, one way or another.
Me? Of course I cherish the warmth of a woman’s body pressed up against mine under the covers. But I’m over being in bed with a woman for the sake of getting off. Gone is the bestial thrill of the chase. Why hunt for sex when I know we’re going to have to bother with the strained conversation afterward and then this business about, “Why isn’t she returning any of my phone calls?” While I’m certainly not refined, I’m at least beyond the superficiality. It’s irresponsible to be loose, sure, but more than that, it’s empty. It’s missing something. Who is this girl? We strip, we have at it, and then we retreat, covering our shallow decision with some pathetic justification. Then we immediately direct our attention back to the reality of our lives—work, our grocery lists, gas prices, our low self-esteem, etc.
So I designated my return to the States—after my year spent traveling and experiencing the world—as a time to resume a more authentic search. In the meantime, I wouldn’t worry one way or the other about meeting members of the opposite gender.
This, of course, eased a lot of tension from my life, but also presented occasional bouts of anxiety. Sometimes, when I haven’t relieved myself for five or six days in a row, I have this recurring dream. My seventh-grade English teacher, Ms. Reynolds, peeks her head around the corner into the kitchen—it’s usually the kitchen, although I’ve seen her twice or so in the living room. A purple low-cut V-neck sweater drapes over her curved form, and a pair of dark jeans hugs her hips. She reaches toward me, and I slide my right hand behind her neck. For a moment, we both hesitate. I look into her eyes and she into mine. Then I pull her toward me, my fingers easing gentle pressure against the back of her neck, feeling how soft her skin is there and how her dark hair falls over my hands. Our lips meet—gentle, tentative at first. My left hand stretches to her lower back. She smiles. We don’t speak a word.
Everything speeds up, as if I’d asked permission with that first kiss. As if she’d given it with her smile and banished all doubt of where this was headed. My lips still enveloping hers, I begin to tug at her clothes, a hasty effort to remove them. She grabs my forearm to slow me down, pulling back just a little to meet my gaze. Her expression reassures me that this will be worth having a little patience. We leave our socks on most of the time; can’t be bothered to take them off.
She wraps her arms around my neck and jumps to hug my waist with her legs. I lift her and set her on the cool marble countertop. She asks something lame and cliché but forgivable, like, “Are you ready to give it all you got, big boy?” And then the fun starts. She on the counter. Me on the counter. Both of us on the counter. We move frequently, assuming new positions.
But I never finish. These sessions can go for hours, days—who can equate real time to a dream world?—but I never get to the end. Skipping from first-person to third-person throughout, I can look across the room to see sweat dripping off the tips of my hair and then look down to see it gliding along my exposed chest, arms, and abdomen. Every muscle straining, I work hard to ensure that both parties are satisfied here. But I never finish. She shudders with pleasure, over and over throughout the evening, but I’m lost. I give myself a pep talk. I create new scenes in my mind—Ms. Reynolds and I in her car in the school parking lot during lunch break; Ms. Reynolds assigning me to after-school detention with a wink that says it’s a front for something more fun. I tell myself to relax and just be in the moment. But I never finish. Time passes—a lot of very satisfying yet very confusing time—and then, abruptly, the dream shifts to a new backdrop, one where I am bewildered and she’s just around the corner there, tidying up my room. “If you put things away as you go,” she says, “you won’t ever have to perform such extensive cleaning.”
And me, with no climax.
Ms. Reynolds would be in her early fifties by now, but when she makes appearances in the night, she’s always the same thirty-five years old from when she stood in front of the class, teaching us proper grammar or how to dissect classic literature. I haven’t seen her since I left middle school, and I don’t understand why my mind raises her as the subject of these late-night fixations. She was good looking, sure—shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and eyes so blue they seemed concurrently to sink into her head and reach out to grab you—but anyone qualified to wear a skirt could have starred in my daytime fantasies at age thirteen. Now that my hormones have tamed, I have a narrower focus on my preferences. I’m much more meticulous with my selection process; yet there she’s remained: Ms. Reynolds peeking her head into the kitchen.
This is all bittersweet. Most of me wishes she would stay away and let me sort out my own sex life, or she would at least wear something besides that same purple V-neck sweater. But then sometimes I’m glad she remains: the ideas that Ms. Reynolds comes up with in her twisted, graphic imagination sure beat other dreams I’ve experienced. I’m talking about some dirty moves, replete with accompanying dirty talk and the oddest toys. I’ve even had to shoot down a bizarre suggestion or two of hers.
Convinced that the Ms. Reynolds dream would be the extent of my love life this trip, I didn’t really spend any time worrying about any lack of real physical companionship.
Then Ivana came out of nowhere, a situation without explanation. Traveling, it’s not difficult to find attractive people. Stunning. Dazzling. My goodness there are some gorgeous people on the streets of this world, and Ivana could have been just another one along the way. I met her on the dance floor, failed to defend our fort from an apparently phantom intruder, and figured, “Well, there goes that.”
But I kept on to win her over. My time in Honduras with Ivana was tick-ticking away, and I knew I’d probably never see her again. Unless we had concrete plans. This was alien territory for both of us, sure, but while we were here, I reasoned, shouldn’t we just go ahead and make a move or bust?
We made arrangements, bought flights, created sample itineraries and lists of must-sees and must-dos. In the meantime, she entertained me with her mispronunciations.
“Do you think we could go to Thighland?” she had asked back in Honduras. “I’ve always wanted to go to Thighland.”
“Yes,” I said, choking back a smile and refraining from correcting her. “We can go to Thighland.” For two weeks, she pronounced it with that soft th until someone else heard her and set her straight. “Thailand, Thighland,” I said. “I reckon it really could go either way.”
One day she asked me whether an adult could get kidnapped. “Yes,” I noted, “but we call it adult-napping. It’s disrespectful in my country to say that an adult got kidnapped.”
And a week later, I cut her off mid-sentence. “Deepers,” I said. “The word you wanted there was deepers.”
“Really? Not diapers? I thought babies wore diapers.”
“No, no. Deepers,” I said, somehow managing a deadpan look. “They wear deepers. You’re spelling it right, but it’s one of those tricky pronunciations we were talking about earlier.”
“Deepers,” she said, repeating the word so it would stick. “Okay, deepers. Deepers. Got it.”
I entertained myself in this manner just as Ivana entertained herself by laughing with her mom in Slovak on video calls. They giggled repeatedly about my mustache or my shaggy hair or my growing stomach. Right in front of me. Lots of chunky, foreign words. Lots of pointing and laughing.
Something clicked. “This is different,” she had declared to me as we curled up on the couch to watch a movie back in Honduras, and she was right. As we were walking around El Porvenir, everything seemed to flow so easily. There was no tension between us, and we resolved all disputes in a composed manner. Rather than letting a problem fester and then letting it all out in one big explosion of emotion, she’d say, “It bothers me when you…” and I’d say, “Okay, I won’t do that anymore,” and she’d say, “Okay, cool. Let’s go get some pastelitos.” I’ve dated some good girls in my life, but I’ve never known a relationship like that.
This was different. I felt it as much as she did.
She looked out for me in Honduras. She always showed up at my door with a smile and something in her hand for me. A banana, a corkscrew, wineglasses, a pan for frying when ours wasn’t big enough, matches, ideas for a program to do with the children. One day, I had a swollen toe. Very swollen, and I don’t know how it had happened. Two times in a year, my toe mysteriously swelled, as if something had bitten me in the night or an infection had germinated from within. Ivana told me to wrap a tomato around it. “Cut the tomato in half, dig a little bit out, and then wrap it around your toe.” I may have given her a look like she was crazy. I mean, a tomato? I wanted to make guacamole; here enters Doctor Ragu. “Put a bag around your foot so the tomato juice doesn’t drip on your bed in the night. Try to keep it elevated.”
The next morning the toe was back to regular size. And I wasn’t even using a prescription tomato.
This girl shines bright, and as I detoured through Nicaragua for two months to participate in numerous manly ventures to offset the mortal I’d been in Honduras, I was as excited as I’d ever been in my life to get going to New Zealand.