Sean spends his time writing and traveling about the world, makes money killing fish in Alaska, and sometimes lives in Portland, Oregon. His blog lives at structuredroots.wordpress.com, which thankfully qualifies as a carry-on.
His answer was a small laugh. It was a scoff, but not a derisive one. He leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. In private, we had exchanged hundreds of kisses. Thousands. Tens of thousands, surely, throughout the duration of our two-year relationship.
He turned his attention back to the black-and-white manga on his lap. His long fingers had seemingly evolved into perfect bookmarks.
“You know what I mean,” I said with a sad smile. “So…?”
Throughout the past two years, I’d gotten used to these kinds of responses. Un, short and sweet, was an affirmation. Uun, on the other hand, slightly longer and drawn out, was negative.
Occasionally, when being intentionally vague, he would murmur the third option that was harder to discern: Uunn.
“You don’t want to kiss me at the airport?” I asked.
“No, I want.” he said in his adorable English. He patted my cheek, breaking away from whatever story he was lost in. “But is hard…”
I stretched out on my futon next to his with a sigh.I stretched out my leg and entangled with his. Closing my eyes, I listened to the rhythmic whir of the small fan positioned next to us.
“I know,” I said quietly in Japanese. “But nobody will care.”
Being gay in Japan is a strange experience. Any kind of LGBTQ lifestyle is not very well understood. The only real exposure comes from atrociously camp TV celebrities who exploit whatever stereotype they can for airtime. Apart from this, it’s rarely even discussed at all.
My boyfriend was by no means ashamed of me when we were in public together, but he was always cautious. He would give me a playful nudge or poke in the stomach every so often. If we were out of sight from others, he would even intertwine one of his fingers with mine, but it was always tinged with the unspoken fear that someone might see.
A favorite activity of ours was to take couples purikura and decorate them afterwards. We would scrawl sparkly words like ‘Scandalous!’ and ‘Handsome guys!’ across pictures of us kissing or holding hands.
But this kind of carefree, normal expression of affection for one another seemed to be best left in photo booths that made our eyes enormous or in the company of our friends. In the real world, it seemed, it was just too uncomfortable and dangerous for him.
My last day in Japan, we headed to the airport at around six in the morning. We slumped in uncomfortable airport seats, partially isolated from the rest of the waiting area. When I rested my head on his bony shoulder, he didn’t shift away awkwardly as I’d expected him to. Instead, he tilted his head to rest against mine.
We sat that way for a while, perfectly secluded in our subtle embrace. No photo booths, no friends or familiar faces around us. It felt right. Natural. And I felt my brain and heart give a kind of sigh. A shudder. Why didn’t we do this earlier? Why couldn’t we do this earlier?
The time came for us to say goodbye. I stood up, my limbs heavy in protest and my heart filled with dread. I willed myself to move toward the security gate – the rabbit hole I would disappear back into, leaving this strange, wonderful country behind.
I turned to him. My boy. My rock that I’d been fortunate enough to cling to for two years. His face was contorted into the stoic expression that the Japanese have perfected for times when they don’t want to cry.
“I’ll…see you later.” I said in Japanese, almost casually. “It’s not sayonara, it’s mata ne.”
He nodded and I saw his bottom lip begin to quiver. Mine quivered in response. We both wanted nothing more than to use our lips like we’d grown accustomed to for the past two years. But we couldn’t. Not here.
Instead, I pulled him in to the biggest, tightest embrace I could.
As I passed through the metal detector and collected my things at the end of the conveyor belt, I cast a look back to where he was still standing. He waved sadly. I returned his wave and tears burst suddenly from my eyes. I gathered my things, tucked my head down and forced myself onward.
I was able to make it all the way to my gate before I devolved into a quiet, sobbing mess.
It hit me all at once and I cried for it all. I cried for the friends and relationships I was leaving behind. I cried for the country that I had grown to love. And of course, I cried for my first love.
But mostly, I cried because I knew that nobody would ask me if I was okay.
I wanted to shout to all the people staring awkwardly at me that they were all bearing witness to heartbreak firsthand. I wanted to tell them all that I just left the man that I loved behind. To tell them that all I wanted was to run back and kiss him one last time.
“But,” my brain answered back in Japanese, “nobody will care.”
Ian Cruz is a curly-haired Gemini living in San Antonio, Texas. After teaching in Japan for three years, he is currently planning his next adventure. He enjoys dancing, laughing, traveling and eating. He also speaks English, Spanish and Japanese with varying levels of proficiency (depending on what he’s had to drink). Above all, he would love to meet you!
Story strewn across the candlelit basement: backpacks, toothbrushes, wool thermals, sandals (’cause we’re going to India, too, right?), fire staves, lighters, cameras, cash, knives, tea cups, and you-paid-what-for-that?! tags tossed unceremoniously into the recycle bin.
I’m embarrassed by how many Apple products, Bluetooth and USB devices are lying around. Even more by how many have a place in my bag. Am I really going to bring the computer, I wonder. Well, if I’m going to write a book…
Yesterday, on a spontaneous drive to Hood River, the man who pulled up my zipper at my wedding asked, “If you added the cost of everything in your backpack, what would it be?”
Jordan’s my climbing partner and 100% friend. A voice of reason – and challenge. Like, “Are you going to rappel this, or not?” and, “No, those aren’t the mushrooms you think they are.”
I count the months until we’ll climb together again.
When Jordan asked about the cost of everything in my backpack, I reconsidered my reasons for traveling. What a privilege it is to think, I can visit Nepal, Varanasi, Bangladesh, Burma. I can walk through the Himalaya, along the Ganges, hear countless stories, and still want for context. How arrogantly ironic it seems that I have the freedom and money to visit the most destitute regions on Earth.
What, exactly, am I bringing them?
The influence and love of friends is a new type of fuel for me. So are a GoPro camera and a desire to connect. I still have my feet and feelings and eyes leftover from former trips abroad, but I’m troubled justifying a desire to voyeur foreign squalor as a path toward broadened horizons. Should I stay in Portland instead, and live out white western privilege in the land of the less-free-by-the-day, or should I dream, discover, and explore the world just because Twain’s suggestion sat well with me in the 10th grade?
How do you travel, again?
I’m trying to remember previous trips, picturing my backpack full of used books and granola bars; Boris, the stuffed, eyeless spider hung from a carabiner on the shoulder-strap – how many times was that pillowy, cherry-red spiderbody swung into the back seat of an old van in Alaska, a Cadillac in Ireland, the Mercedes of a professional bodyguard who took us from an icy highway exit to a train station in Luxembourg? How many people said they picked me up just for the fedora, or gave me a place to sleep for the night because… why? Because I was there, and they were there, and could we connect at our respective velocities, even just for a few moments?
These flash-memorial travel narratives make sense only to those who were part of the stories – maybe that’s why they don’t seem popular with travel magazines. They’re looking for texture – the flickering candlelight on the inexplicably wet wall next to the sexiest bed in Glasgow, the sandy crunch of a sticky sweet found on a pier in Zadar. How the bobbed-hair girl in the next bus seat took so many pictures along the Croatian coast, I thought the camera’s beep would break my brain. I imagined how her slideshow back in Saskatchewan would sound: “And then, we turned left!”
What I leave behind this time has the texture of tears that refuse to be absorbed by arm hair, ones that fall like fists from the edge of a broken man’s lower eyelid when he hasn’t been hugged in two years.
Tony’s got a hurt soul. Two months ago, a young man to whom he was friend and mentor was killed by police. Left behind a month-old son. Twelve years before that, my teenaged best friend, Heeth (and Tony’s Little Brother, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program) committed suicide sophomore year. Two of his attempts at Positive Role Model wound up on the coroner’s table without good reason, and no one’s told him recently that he’s definitely a good man. Sometimes, I think I’m his only life support.
What am I doing traveling across continents with ambitions of experiencing local sorrow?
The backpack’s on the floor. It cost more than a rural Nepali earns in a year. I load up my luxuries, and trek across the world because it is a selfish portal to the antithetical search for enlightenment, to stories I want to collect and share with the diminishing western world.
That’s my intention: to collect stories. To find the poetry in Nepal. As if Peter Matthiessen, Milarepa, or a thousand generations besides have somehow failed.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to travel – just the opposite: I’ve learned to focus aimless wandering into semi-purposeful movement. The work is the journey itself. Inside, I’m not convinced that guilt is an effective use of my relative economic position. Even Alexander Supertramp found, in the end, the futility of burning all his money.
Neither do I wish to compete with the poets. Stories are best told by tellers who understand them. What I wish for is context, understanding, the ability to release ego, and listen. That’s a good plan – stop trying so hard to Be, and just listen.
29 hours ’til takeoff. I take inventory, and find the contents of my backpack matter less than the reasons I fill it.