I’d Rather Have A Bed
A Non-Traveling Life
I got off the ferry in Koh Tao, a small divers’ island in Thailand, and was shuttled forward through throngs of coconuts, bananas, and small dirty vehicles onto a bench in the bed of a truck. I curled my legs around my pack, looked up, and said hello to my next companions.
The strength of the sunshine on that September day made the back of the truck a good place to meet Thomas, but I’d actually met him the night before on the overnight bus. I was covered in bed bug bites– I’d picked them up from a grimy hotel in Bangkok, a small guesthouse on Khao San Road– and Thomas, sitting a few rows in front of me, handed me back some ointment. “Rub it all over your legs,” he told me. “Don’t you have some of your own?”
But, I only had a make up bag, a bathing suit, and too many sundresses. I was almost out of sunscreen.
In daylight, I learned that Thomas was a 31-year-old German who was completing a six month trip around the world, something he’d planned to do ten years before when he’d joined the German military. We met a burly Frenchman named Nicolas in the truck, one of those Europeans with a face that would’ve been handsome if it weren’t for a sour-lemon look. Nicolas was studying business. Thomas was a military man. I was a nobody, a traveler, a former English teacher, an I don’t know yet, a sometimes-writer, an American girl from Boston.
Thomas was older and had a mosquito net, three different types of sunscreen, and a watch. He also had six times more money than me in his bank account. I once saw him check his statement on the resort computer. He had a girlfriend, too. Her name started with an F and I called her Frook, which was what she’d named herself on Facebook.
I was at the resort learning to scuba dive. I was trying it out because I was alone in Thailand and needed an activity where I could make a friend. Although I met a number of people through the course and at the resort, I was scared of the water. I didn’t like holding my breath or being in cramped spaces. I didn’t like the dark. I couldn’t regulate my breathing.
At night I slept in a luxurious resort bedroom, but it was also infested with bed-bugs. I didn’t realize this until my last night. When I complained at the desk, I was given the equivalent of $20 to buy medication. I hadn’t slept on a decent mattress in a year, going from a small twin size bed in Korea with springs digging into my back, to a mat on the floor, to a racecar bed, to dirt-packed $10 rooms in Southeast Asia.
I was required to do four dives and on my third, descending without the guide of a rope, I found myself in the vastness of pure, turquoise blue and panicked. Nicolas was my partner. I watched his big body float downwards, then lost sight of him. Descending towards corralled rocks, into the murk, I saw bodies bouncing in blue blankness. How far under were we? Which one was Nicolas? Could we come up yet? I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t breathe.
My instructor was a small Israeli man with scars from cystic acne. He came over and pushed my regulator. I waved my arms and made the motion that I needed to go up. We held hands and swam up to the surface. Floating atop the water, we took our masks off. He asked me what went wrong, but I didn’t know. “It’s just the ocean,” I said, “I don’t think I can handle it.” A small Thai man helped me onto the boat. I sat on the edge, dipping my feet into the water, wincing on account of my sunburn, brooding.
The instructor would emerge forty-five minutes later and convince me to go down again, if only to get certified. “You are paying for this,” he said, “with your own money. You can do it.”
So I did it. I went down with a crooked-toothed Dutch instructor for two more abbreviated dives.
That night Thomas and I went to the beach party at the resort bar. Girls with hair down to their butts wore bikini tops and cut-off jean shorts. They served us Thai beer and cocktails with little umbrellas. The men took off their shirts and hit on me. Thomas sat in a button-up. I wore a black dress.
“What is it like to give in to paradise?” said Thomas. “Do you think you could ever live here?”
I shook my head. “It’s not ambitious enough. I wish I could enjoy a beach bar and a party without thinking about the consequence.”
We looked on. This isn’t us, we said to each other. We’re not sure what we are, but this isn’t us. We got drunk.
Four months later, Thomas finished his trip and got a job in human resources at a large German company. He moved in with Frook. I’d moved back in with my mother, even less comfortable as a former English teacher, almost writer, I don’t know yet. I just felt unemployed. I just felt useless. In a few more months, I’d move to Boston. I’d get a job as a writer, though not doing the kind of writing I wanted. I’d also find a boyfriend, someone who had barely traveled, but was kinder than soft pajamas and smarter than the boys in Southeast Asia who’d talked about football. In Thailand I was lovelorn, convinced no one was out there for me. Thomas told me someone was waiting.
I always remember the night at the beach bar with Thomas, how I knew I didn’t quite fit as a traveler, though I’d dedicated a year to its pursuit, believing I could be a wandering blogger with the ability to just be. I wanted to go anywhere, I wanted to scuba dive, I wanted to meet Germans and Frenchmen and Italians and Israelis and then say goodbye. I did all those things. I sat at the beach bar. I drifted in the Andaman Sea. Thomas and I met up once more in Bangkok, where we got drunk and danced in a seedy club. I remember the alcohol swimming through my body. I remember the temples, the traveling me who ducked inside ancient doorways, who looked at artwork, who kneeled before Buddha, who befriended Thomas, Nicolas, and a host of others.
Perhaps here in Boston, there’s no reason to tell this story, except that it happened and I remember it. I’m still not sure what I am or where I’m going, but I’ll never scuba dive again– I’d rather not be suspended in the middle of the sea. And, though I enjoyed the company of travelers at Thai beach bars and deeply miss Thomas, I’d rather embrace the leaves of fall, the damp brick sidewalks, a job I don’t love but could get me somewhere better. Right now, I’d rather fall asleep next to my boyfriend in warm, bug-free blankets on a deep green sofa. I’d rather have a home. I’d rather have a bed.