Backpackers

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The Meaning of Life

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, 09 to 20 June 2003 and Lund, Sweden, 04 July 2003

Sandra felt awful. She lay on her back and tested her body, keeping her eyes closed. Did she need to puke? After a moment: no. Good. Toilet? Yes, soon. She could lie there a few minutes more before she needed to move, though.

It was, possibly, the worst hangover Sandra had ever experienced. What was that stuff called? Sang Sum or something? And with illegal Red Bull? Never again. Never.

If Sandra felt bad, then surely Tove felt worse?

She turned her head to the left and instead of seeing Tove’s cropped hair (the bob and dreadlock having long since gone, first to a completely shaved head, and then to a boy-ish crop) there was the short blond hair, the square-ish head and freckled, muscled shoulders of a man with his back to her.

What?

It took some seconds for the fog of alcohol to let her remember.

Chiang Mai.

The trek.

That cute Danish guy.

The night out.

The kissing.

And..?

Yes, dimly, and she could still feel it in her body, the sex.

The Danish guy. Lars.

The one with the pale blue eyes and square teeth and the cute lines crowed around his eyes when he laughed.

The quiet one who spoke when he had something to say, rather than to shape a crowd.

The calm one who seemed much wiser than his twenty six years.

The one who’d been so natural and unprepossessing and interesting and a little bit foreign, and who clearly found her attractive, but who for days on the trek had been too polite to impose his desires into so much as a flattering remark.

Quietly confident.

Sandra reached up a hand to the back of his head and put the back of her fingers to his neck. He made a noise in his sleep. She smiled. She remembered an orgasm. Wait: two? Dear God. From a man?

She didn’t know it then. It took a few days for her to know, to have the first inklings.

A few days with a stranger in a strange land. It wasn’t the thousands of kilometres from home that made it strange, but the light years from where she was supposed to be emotionally.

So after a few days, Sandra just knew. And she couldn’t imagine having never known.

Eventually she made the journey back south to the islands for a few final days in the sun and with Tove. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Tove while they were on holiday.

They flew back to Sweden.

Two weeks later, when the dust had settled from their return flight and the jet lag, Sandra broached the subject of the future. There was never a right time, so now she was making the right time.

“Have you made up your mind?” she asked Tove. They stood in the kitchen of Sandra’s student apartment.

“About..?” Tove was distracted, washing up.

“The doctorate? Or a job?” Sandra stood in the doorway to the kitchen.

Tove looked at the dishes, though her hands were barely moving in the water. “There’s a funding opportunity,” she said.

“Oh?”

“In Uppsala University.” Way to the north, nine hours by train, above Stockholm.

“OK.” Sandra was barely speaking. She’d started the conversation and now she was barely speaking.

“I saw it before we went away,” Tove said.

There was silence. Tove had stopped washing up. Her hands rested on the edge of the sink, covered in soap suds, which dripped in sloppy white blobs back into the murky water below.

“Are you going to apply?” It wasn’t what Sandra wanted to say. She was trying to make this the right time, but she was hearing something she hadn’t expected.

Tove grabbed a tea towel and started wiping her hands. She turned around, faced Sandra and took a breath, “They’ve already accepted me.”

The silence hung in the air as twisted as the tea towel in Tove’s hands.

“Say something,” said Tove.

Sandra bit her lip and bounced on her heel on the floor. The tears started before she’d finished speaking, “I slept with someone in Thailand.” There. It was out. Part of it, anyway.

Tove looked at the towel as if she didn’t know why she’d picked it up. She put it to one side, back on the kitchen bench, near the soap suds, which popped miserably on top of the grey, used dishwater.

“I thought so,” was all she said in reply.

“I’m sorry.” Sandra stood alone on the other side of the kitchen, her arms wrapped around her waist. She couldn’t stop the tears, they came without effort, as easy as what was about to happen to their lives, the different paths they were about to take, the journeys of their lives about to diverge.

Tove rested her back against the kitchen bench. She leaned forward, put her hands on her thighs and let out a breath. “This is it, isn’t it?”

Sandra nodded, sniffing back salty snot. She made no move to speak or go to Tove or walk away.

“Is there anything else?” Tove asked. “Is there anything else I should know?” She wasn’t angry, or at least she didn’t sound angry. Maybe she was relieved in that instant.

Sandra nodded, “I want to be a teacher.”

Tove said nothing. Sandra knew this was a strange thing to say in the circumstances, but the weight of the past few minutes made it difficult to think. She knew she was avoiding saying the big thing. Breaking up was one thing. Betrayal another. And now she knew Tove had betrayed her, too, applied for a doctorate nine hours north, above Stockholm, before they’d even gone on holiday. And it didn’t make it any easier.

Tove took a tentative step forward. “Sandra, is there anything else?” Concern framed her eyes, which had started to prick with tears.

Sandra just looked up and nodded and started to cry harder.

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