By Lindsey Danis
You walk the narrow footpaths at night, your heels kicking up dust clouds. Street dogs follow you. Together you weave and bobble in front of open-air bars screening Friends reruns. Slack-jawed backpackers gaze at the screen and laugh a beat too late, their eyes glassy.
You slide past the grimy kids in their funk of smoke and booze. Then you sit, slightly apart from the other young folk. The sand feels cool as you lie back to take in the stars. A guy with a guitar starts in on the opening strains of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, and the familiar ache opens deep in you.
You sit up and sip. Sit, sip. You will drink until sunrise. You will slowly leave him behind.
Anyway, you’re trying.
I’ve been to Hollywood
I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
for a heart of gold
Lyrics float on the air as a cigarette sparks behind you. “I’m so sick of this bloody song,” a guy speaks in an Australian accent.
“Yeah, me too. It’s everywhere.” The first words you’ve spoken all day rocket in your brain. You’ve been here so long, talking is unnecessary. The woman at the tropical fruit stand knows your favorite shake. The guys at the barbecue shack put on a chicken kebab and crack open a beer every afternoon. They think your needs are simple, that you are just another Western girl.
It is hard for you to eat the kebab and walk the streets and drink the beer, but you do it all every day because you need to do something. You take it on faith, one day you’ll wake, the ache gone. Finally free.
The Australian shuffles closer. He plops down with a sigh and spreads his limbs wide. He smells like lemongrass and sweat. You hug your knees and press your nose into your forearms, wondering how long it’s been since you showered. Then you look at the river. The moonlight ripple relaxes your lungs. You can breathe again.
“I’m Kent.” He holds out a hand. You shake it and mumble hi, then resume watching the water. “How long you been here?”
Time folds in on itself. You grasp at a number that feels real. “About three weeks?”
“Where to next? Cambodia? Bolaven Plateau? Do a little coffee tasting?”
“You know, I can’t think about what’s next.”
“Cigarette?” Kent offers.
Fury distills in your fingers. He is determined to keep you talking. “I’m not drunk enough.”
“Another beer then?” He pulls a fresh beer out of his backpack and offers it to you.
I want to live,
I want to give
I’ve been a miner
for a heart of gold
You excuse yourself and slip back to the beach bar. Friends is over and now there’s a DJ. Where do they get a DJ in the jungle? A hand-painted wooden sign advertises a full moon party. Wild-eyed kids look around like they can’t believe their fucking luck, just to be here.
A couple dances close, her hands in the pockets of his board shorts. Their eyes are closed and their foreheads touch and your eyes sting. You drink more than usual, wanting to forget the memories that beat under the surface.
He was supposed to be here with you.
You order a marijuana shake just this once. Why not chase the moon with them? What else do you have to do?
At least there’s no Neil Young.
An hour later you’re puking behind the beach bar. A crush of girls walk by, groaning and giggling. More girls scatter out of your way as you lurch back to your room. Everything spins, even the moon.
You fall onto a hammock and let it all spin.
You wake to another day in paradise and take the footpaths through the fields, heading nowhere in particular. When you tire yourself out, your brain finds the beauty in the sunlight filtering through the palm leaves, connection with the gap-toothed grinning sugarcane vendor. By lunch, you thread these few moments of beauty together and find peace in forgetting.
The next night is the same. Neil Young, the beer, the beach, the ache. You shove off in search of Kent, wishing your voice wasn’t rusty.
Kent is dancing with a trio of blonde Americans, but you push in and grab him. He slips free, orders more beer, and meets you on the footpath, confusion written all over his face.
“Tonight I feel like talking, and you’re the only person interesting enough to do it with.” You raise your eyebrows, daring him to challenge you.
He grabs your hand and makes let’s talk sound filthy.
Your heart twitches, which is— something. You lead him back to your bungalow. He perches on the steps and you slide down the wall, lizards scattering.
“He’s getting married.” Your tongue sticks in your mouth. It’s barely an explanation. You reach for the beer and swallow. “He wrote me a month ago and I’ve been stuck here since. I can’t think past it all, it’s so—”
You press the bottle against your flushed face, biting your tongue against the floodgates. It was naive to think Kent might understand. No one gets married a year out of college. The longer the words sit between you, the older you feel.
Kent slides closer, puts an arm around you. Together you drink and listen to water buffalo moving through the river, the Neil Young cover band, all the night sounds.
Keep me searching for a heart of gold.
You keep me searching and I’m growing old.
When he kisses your cheek, something lifts. By the time you find your voice to thank him, Kent’s disappeared.
The next night, you find each other on the beach. You accept a cigarette and watch the way his face shines in moonlight.
You’re on the beach. Another night, when all the footpaths lead to Kent. Sometime later—a week, or two?
“Come with me. We can do a trek before you fly out,” Kent pleads.
“You have to see the hill tribes before you go!”
You fish the last beer out of the river. Kent would be the perfect buffer, affable and well-traveled with a hint of bad boy. “Come to the wedding with me. It’ll be a riot. You’ve never seen America, why not?”
“Nah, I can’t do that. A couple more months, I gotta go back to uni anyway.”
You see Kent life’s unfolding. A degree in engineering, a job in water resources, weekly pub trivia. “I’m buying my ticket tomorrow.”
Kent grabs your wrist and pulls you to stand. The pain makes you forget.
You follow him around the corner toward the nicest hotel. When the beach is out of sight, he shoves you against a cabin and pulls at your breasts. You part your legs and tilt your head toward the sky.
He enters you a minute later and you know this is the last time.
Your body makes way for him, your hips shifting, one leg wrapping around. You’re not ready to go, not quite, but this thing you’re doing is strange and it’s going to end badly, and maybe this way it’s best for all around. You part your lips and breathe, can’t quite get enough air, and then it’s over, already memory.
Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared most recently in Razor Literary Magazine, Dust Jacket Short Story Journal, The Manifest Station, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. When not writing, she spends her time cooking, hiking, kayaking, and traveling. Find her at @wordhack or lindseydanis.com.