“You’re joking,” I said. “I mean… You’re not serious. Are you serious? You can’t be serious.”
Even after she assured me this wasn’t an elaborate ruse designed to prey on my American gullibility, I couldn’t properly absorb the news. She would have had a far easier time convincing me she had just joined the Olympic bobsled team or purchased a nice ranch-style house on the moon. But marriage? A baby? No way. Not Carly, my fiercely independent travel mate who acquired countries with the ease others amassed expensive shoes and clichéd life philosophies.
“Were you using protection?” I indelicately interrogated her.
“No,” she said.
“So you got pregnant on purpose?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sometimes these things just happen.”
“You do know how babies are made, right?” I asked.
Eventually, I managed to sputter out my congratulations but I was grateful my old laptop lacked a webcam to broadcast my slack-jawed expression.
Carly and I have been friends for ten years. We met in Galway, Ireland, when we were both twenty. She was on her first round-the-world trip and I was spending the summer before my last year of college alone in a foreign country to avoid spending it with either of my newly remarried parents and their respective spouses, a prospect I considered a Dantean form of torture reserved especially for children of divorce. After responding to an ad posted on the wall of an Internet café, I moved into a beat-up apartment near the river with her, a guy from Basque country on the dole, and a Spaniard who always reminded me after several drinks what good lovers the Spanish are.
Most mornings, hung-over and heavy-limbed, the boys and I scrambled eggs, too hazy to notice the bits of shell mixed in. As we ate, I’d admonish them for forgetting in the previous night’s reverie about our house rule not to burn out cigarettes on the dinner plates. It made everything taste like ash, no matter how hard we scrubbed. Carly would already be at work by then. She waitressed at a local café where the owner only hired foreigners paid off the books. I took late night shifts at student bars and seedy clubs, tottering around the latter in tight tops and uncomfortable heels while drunken Irishmen leered at my exposed midriff. Carly wouldn’t have stood for that kind of shit for a second, whereas back then I could be talked into almost anything.
The first few weeks we lived together, Carly pretty much ignored me. We slept in the same small room, side by side in twin beds with scratchy comforters (doonas, she called them), but we barely spoke. It was only after she sliced her hand at work tossing a glass-filled garbage bag into the dumpster and couldn’t waitress for a while that our schedules aligned and her icy indifference melted, only after I’d had a decent interval to make her laugh and convince her I was worth befriending despite the unfortunate fact that George W. Bush was my president.
That summer I fretted nonstop about the post-graduate plans my friends were all making while I had none.
“What’s the rush?” Carly said. All that mattered to her was seeing the world and she had easily abandoned any and all trappings of conventional adulthood that might slow her in this pursuit. “Stay in Europe and go see some other countries,” she counseled. “The longer you have student status, the better the travel discounts, anyways.”
A professor’s daughter, I had never considered higher education as solely a means to secure cheap train tickets and two-for-one drink specials and I’ll admit the sacrilegious thought thrilled me.
Still, though I was tempted, at the end of the summer I returned as planned to the U.S. to finish college, while Carly continued on her travels. I was too afraid of disappointing my parents, whose happiness had long been intertwined with my academic achievements. Besides, school still felt like the safest place to be. I had always thrived on its comforting routine and carefully delineated work/reward system. Take this class. Write this paper. Live in this dorm. Simple. I knew I was getting dangerously close to a world outside my campus where I’d have to make up my own mind about my life and I didn’t feel ready at all to make that leap.
I hoped to be bestowed a sense of direction along with my diploma that rainy May graduation day, but of course no answers were forthcoming. Even my diploma itself was a blank piece of paper – the real thing would be mailed along in a few weeks. The English major in me appreciated the overt symbolism of this, but even symbols didn’t satisfy me the way they once had when I was a peppy freshman all hopped up on James Joyce and Judith Butler.
“What now?” I asked Carly a few weeks later.
“Come to Australia,” she commanded.
It was a far more coherent plan than any I had conjured up thus far. And, though I wasn’t yet brave enough to admit I wanted to keep traveling – so unexpected for a girl who had previously always made the safe and stable choices – I think I knew that if I turned to Carly she would give me the push and permission I needed.
After saving up waitressing tips for four months in Philadelphia, I moved in with Carly’s family, taking over her twin brother’s bedroom while he was off backpacking through Europe for the year. Now half a world away, my parents’ concerns for my future momentarily sated by the fact that at least my college degree was in hand, I gave myself over wholly to Carly’s no-rush-no-worries philosophy. In Australia, time stretched and expanded like the silly putty I loved digging my thumbs into as a kid. I spent a few days a week working at a cafe downtown where I butchered the coffee orders of thick-accented Australians. The rest of the time Carly and I explored Sydney or swam in the ocean or gorged on mangoes in her kitchen while solving the world’s most pressing problems with the signature confidence of high-minded twenty-two year olds.
One day over breakfast, Carly announced that I should quit my job to travel up the coast the following week. “It’s going to be too hot soon,” she said. I called my manager that morning, though quitting anything would have mortified the dutiful girl I had been mere weeks before. I barely recognized that girl now. In Australia, far away from societal and parental expectations, I had turned myself into a wild thing – or maybe just discovered I had always been one.
After four months in Australia, Carly and I scrapped any belongings that wouldn’t fit into backpacks and took off for South America, looping from Argentina through Bolivia and Peru and back down through slim-waisted Chile. There we let ourselves disappear for weeks at a time, still pretty easy to do in 2004, when reliable Internet was a rare species in small towns.
In South America, Carly coaxed out the hard-core traveler in me. With her, I was a braver version of myself. She convinced me to go skydiving and bungee jumping, white water rafting and paragliding. She’s the reason I took a seventeen-hour bus trip down Bolivia’s “death road” and why I swam in the piranha-infested Amazon with pink dolphins that nipped our toes below murky waters. She’s why I didn’t go home after I got robbed in La Paz or even after a man with dark eyebrows and dirty fingernails put his purposeful hand between my legs and grabbed me hard in the middle of the day on a crowded street.
My parents remained an ever present “no” voice in the back of my head: don’t get on that motorcycle, don’t eat that street meat, don’t stay in that sleazy Peruvian motel (they were right about that last one, unless you believe coming-of-age adventures necessarily require bed bugs). But Carly’s voice was the new yes counterpoint I needed in my early twenties to slough off the sheltered suburban girl who no longer served me. Do that. Eat this. Stay there. It said other things I needed to hear, too, though sometimes I hated these hard lessons. Toughen up, it said. The world is not a fair place. You are not entitled to anything. No one can make the difficult choices for you.
A few weeks after Carly’s surprise announcements, I called with one of my own.
“My marriage is over.”
“Come to Australia,” she commanded, just like she had when we were twenty-two.
“I don’t know….” I wanted her to convince me and knew that she would.
“How else are you going to get some perspective? You need space and time. You need the ocean.” A week later, I depleted my meager savings account and booked a ticket to Sydney.
A child of divorce, I was cynical about marriage and never intended to marry young. But while traveling in Peru I fell hard for a robustly-bearded New Zealander. We quickly tired of long distance courtship and although I was only twenty-four, I had no intention of giving up the best relationship I’d ever had over a little obstacle like geography. I had found a man who was smart and funny and sexy and, most intoxicatingly, loyal.
In what will be a familiar tale to anyone who has had the displeasure of ending a relationship in Manhattan without a trust fund or job in finance, I continued living in our one bedroom apartment after we decided to split up. Our high-ceilinged 600-square-foot place in Murray Hill had felt palatial when we moved in nine months earlier, gleefully fleeing the Upper East Side shoebox we’d previously inhabited. That long month, though, I felt overwhelmed by claustrophobia, boxed in tight with my husband and all our sadness. But I was too broke to afford rent anywhere on my own. My freelancer writer income was unpredictable and unimpressive, and I was shell-shocked by the idea of losing all that our new appliances and exposed brick symbolized: that we were finally ascending in the world, though that’s not something I realized even mattered to me until I was descending. At the month’s end, we both agreed I had to go, so I packed a bag and alighted on various friends’ couches for a stretch, depositing thank you bottles of cheap sparkling wine like the prosecco fairy in one kitchen after another.
I knew, though, that I wouldn’t last through summer in New York like this. At the very least, I would be unable to tolerate the unrelenting wall of heat that descends on the city in July and August. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to see my way fully out of my marriage if I didn’t do something geographically drastic.
Then there was the anger I could feel slowly creeping in towards the city itself. When you are happy in Manhattan, the city is wondrous. You feel encased in its beauty and spectacle, like you are in on a joke no one else in the country is sophisticated enough to understand. But being broke and emotionally vulnerable here is like moving in with a sociopath. You can look for sympathy but you’ll get none. Manhattan doesn’t care where you stay or who you have sex with or how much you drink. It doesn’t even care if you up and move to one of those flyover states your parents live in. In fact, you probably should, make way for someone tougher or younger or more successful. The city has no room for wrecks, despite the fact that it’s teeming with them.
When I first moved here, newly married, Carly came to visit for a month. I had just sold a book, a travel memoir that focused on our friendship. I thought of it as akin to On the Road or The Motorcycle Diaries, though my agent pitched it as the next Eat, Pray, Love. During the days, I worked as an editorial assistant. At night, Carly and I lounged in bars and she helped me work through scenes. Sometimes I wanted her to corroborate memories for me. Did you really say this? Did we really do that? But mostly I just wanted to write with her near me in order to be able to capture that incredible sense of freedom we had felt while traveling together.
Because as badly as I desired the stability that marriage seemed to promise, I couldn’t shake an accompanying feeling of confinement. Almost the moment after I said my vows, an internal tightening had taken hold, like suddenly my lungs couldn’t get all the necessary air. It quickly became clear that my husband and I had incompatible ideas about our relationship. What he saw as compromise I saw as sacrifice, and often vice versa.
For a girl who once so badly craved definition and order, traveling post-college had quickly gotten me addicted to its opposite. I worried I would never stop feeling restless, that my love for my husband was no match for my love for the limitless freedom I saw always just beyond the horizon.
While I had spent my late twenties sinking deeper into my New York life and marriage, Carly had continued seeing the world. She eventually wound up in a small Colombian town doing volunteer work. Her job was to accompany human rights organizations around the country, helping ensure no activists got hurt or disappeared – or both.
“So you’re basically a human shield?” I said.
“That’s putting it a bit dramatically,” she assured me.
She was fluent in Spanish now, not like when we struggled through mimed exchanges in South America at twenty-two. When I called her in Colombia, I heard her switch effortlessly between languages when one of her colleagues shouted to her that dinner was ready or it was time for a meeting. I was proud but envious of the deep relationship she had developed with Latin America. I had remained a more mercenary traveler, staying for short bursts in many different countries without ever fully committing to one long-term.
I knew Carly was dating someone named Deybi in Colombia but she had never used the word “love,” much less “baby” or “marriage.” I assumed the relationship would end when she left the country, like all her previous ones had when she took off traveling.
I wanted to feel happy for her, but I couldn’t. For starters, I thought she was being foolish. It took my ex years to make friends and rebuild his career in the U.S. And the pressure it put on us – me always worrying if he was okay, him missing home, both of us feeling like we must stay together no matter what because it had taken so much hard work to be together – eventually took its toll, though there were other contributing factors, of course. And now, in the wake of my relationship’s demise, it felt almost like a personal affront that Carly had gone and fallen in love with a foreigner who was leaving his country to live in hers.
I was also disappointed. Carly was my nomadic role model. While I had traded adventure for domesticity, she had stayed wild. Now that I was cutting myself loose again at 30, I wanted her back as my travel mate.
In my blackest moods, it all felt terribly unfair. Part of the reason Carly traveled so much, I always told myself, was pathological. She was addicted to being somewhere new. You didn’t get the husband and the baby if you were indulging an affair with the world. Yet here she was, having it all, and I resented that she could.
In the month leading up to my trip to Australia, I got myself so worked up about Carly’s recent choices that I was almost angry at her when I landed, not to mention the ridiculous grudge I was holding against her buzzkill fetus. But my self-absorbed stance crumbled the moment she hugged me in the Arrivals Hall.
“I’m really happy you’re here, mate,” she said, as intense a sober expression of emotion as I’d ever witnessed from her.
We decided to drive downtown for dinner. My arrival had coincided with the last few days of the Sydney Vivid Lights festival. Various landmarks around the waterfront were spectacularly lit up and there seemed no better way to be re-introduced to the city than when it was all aglow. We walked to the edge of the water and stared at the Opera House for a long time that first night. On its white sail-like appendages was a mesmerizing projected image of a woman performing slow acrobatics, her suspended body twisting and rolling along the grand structure.
We wanted to head to a less overpopulated neighborhood to eat but a few blocks into the walk Carly declared she was too tired to go much further. A former competitive speed walker (it’s true, it was a short-lived phase in middle school, but she’s got the medals to prove it), pregnant Carly moved at a much slower place. As we ambled up a small hill to the closest bunch of restaurants, she put her hand on my arm and breathed a little heavier. I thought back to all those oxygen-deprived weeks we had spent in high-altitude Bolivia in our twenties, how we sometimes just sat down on the side of the road to rest, halfway to wherever we were lazily headed.
At dinner, Carly asked to smell my wine. “I don’t miss the taste,” she said. “But all of a sudden it smells so amazing.” She took another deep inhalation and pushed the glass back over to my side of the table.
“How is it being back home?” I asked her.
She shrugged and stared at her menu. “It’s strange. I haven’t felt like doing much. I miss Deybi. We try to Skype every day but sometimes it’s impossible for him to get to an Internet café. And Mum seems angry at me, like I’ve ruined her and Dad’s retirement or something.”
Carly’s parents had recently sold their four-bedroom home and purchased a lovely little condo in Collaroy, a breezy beach town in the northern suburbs of Sydney whose main drag consisted of an ancient cinema, a few restaurants and shops, and the obligatory RSL club with views of the ocean. Now Carly was back living with them in the spare bedroom while she saved money teaching English part-time, waiting for her fiancé’s months-long immigration issues to resolve themselves. It was obvious that I hadn’t been summoned to Australia only to escape my own life; Carly needed the distraction, too.
Still, a few days later, after she seemed sufficiently perked up by our new regimen of movies and long walks, I couldn’t help peppering her with questions about her future, which struck me as scarily precarious.
“How is Deybi going to make a living in Australia?” I asked.
“He’ll learn English. Then he’ll work.”
“What will he do?”
“Anything he can,” she said. “Landscaping, maybe. Or construction.”
“Where are you going to live?”
“In Sydney for a few years and then we’ll go back to Colombia and buy some land.” At which point her father, pretending to read the newspaper, turned a shade of pale not normally seen on sun-weathered Australians.
“How are you going to keep traveling?”
“People travel with kids all the time,” she said.
And then, without prompting, like she had known all along the question I really wanted to ask but couldn’t figure out how to, she said: “I’m still going to be me, Rachel.”
I wanted to believe her, but it was difficult because I had recently failed so spectacularly at being “me” in my own marriage. Not that I was even certain who “me” was when I first got married, which was undoubtedly part of the problem. It had taken me five years to realize I didn’t want to be someone’s wife, or someone’s mother. Not now, maybe, terrifyingly, not ever. And if I didn’t want these traditional roles, how could Carly, who seemed born to defy convention, desire them?
Carly’s fiancé’s visa finally got approved halfway through my seven-week trip and he arrived in Australia five days later. Although I was thrilled their separation was over, I worried about being an unwanted third wheel, but Deybi absorbed me into their little unit like we were old friends. He was intelligent and good-natured, and totally in love with my friend. I watched as the two of them started putting down the roots I had always assumed Carly eschewed. They rented a ramshackle house with a lemon tree in the front yard. They planned their beach wedding. And, of course, they talked and prepared and wondered about the baby on his way.
In the evenings, Carly curled into Deybi on the living room couch, his hands stroking her growing belly, her fingers crocheting a tiny yellow sweater. Watching this intimate ritual night after night, I finally understood Carly’s choices. Deybi made her happy. Their baby made her happy. The house with the lemon tree made her happy. That this insta-family had not been planned didn’t faze her. She put no stock in plans – never had – only in desire and action.
Once, after I had sent the final draft of my book to Carly, she called me up to complain about my portrayal of her in a certain chapter.
“You make me sound bossy,” she said.
“Ummm. You are bossy,” I said.
“No one has ever told me I’m bossy before.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing any other way to respond, worried both that I’d upset her and that she was going to ask me to change the scene.
A long silence held between us, a silence during which I wondered if she was considering how dumb and unfair it was that I got to go around telling the story of our friendship, a version where she was a sidekick along for the ride of my self-evolution.
“Well, fuck it,” she finally said, laughing into my ear.
I’ve spent much of my career writing about Carly. I seem to return endlessly to our friendship as a touchstone for understanding my place in the world in whichever phase of life I’m in. In story after story, she functions as my foil. Everything from her blonde hair to her boldness contrasts with me.
Defining yourself in opposition to someone is a decent literary strategy, but a lousy life one. I’ve been unfair, expecting her to stay the same forever. I’ve been unfair to myself, too, for the same reasons. Carly craved more stability than she initially realized. I needed more freedom than I accounted for. Simple as that. Well, complicated as that.
Maybe in another five years our lives will be completely different. We’ll want another career or country or person. Soaking up the winter sun one lazy afternoon, two days before my flight back to New York, I expressed to Carly how unnerving I find this uncertainty. She shrugged in her typical no-worries way: “That’s life.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said. “Very helpful.”
She chuckled, her now supremely pregnant belly shaking a little. “Sorry,” she said. “That’s all I’ve got.”