We Were Never Here
Kristen trotted to the patio’s edge and crouched, long arm outstretched. Her fingers groped along a vine, lifting leaves, exposing the tender stalks beneath. I pictured her tipping over and tumbling off, there and then not there, the afterimage of her silhouette still hanging in my vision. I don’t know why. For a wild moment, I pictured pushing her.
Instead I half stood from the table. “Kristen, don’t,” I called. The wooden patio perched on stilts above the vines below and we were alone, as we had been almost everywhere we’d stopped this week. Empty restaurants, empty markets, empty tourist information centers. An occasional cluster of other visitors standing or sitting nearby despite everyone having all the space in the world.
A snapping sound and Kristen stood, holding up a blob of green grapes. She popped one into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Not bad. Catch.”
I missed the toss and the grapes bounced onto the glass tabletop. I glanced around, then tried one—it burst bright and tart on my tongue.
“He said their yield sucks this year. You didn’t need to take an entire bunch.”
She sank into her chair and lifted her pisco sour, lime green and frothy. “I’ll leave ’em a few extra pesos on the way out. I was hungry.” She nudged her glass against mine. “You’d rather see me steal some grapes than get low blood sugar, right?”
“Fair point.” Hangry Kristen could cut to the core.
A man with a bandanna looped around his head was watching us from far out in the fields, just before the grapevines bumped up against a row of bushy trees. Beyond that, braided hills cut a jagged horizon. Kristen waved at the worker and he nodded.
I let the last of my drink linger on my tongue. We’d been sipping these daily: lime juice, powdered sugar, and the yellowish brandy the Chileans swore predated Peruvian pisco. I felt the swell of yet another one of those well-isn’t-this-nice moments, one blissfully free from the fear that’d prickled my brain nonstop for the last thirteen months. Here I was, on the trip of a lifetime: seven nights in South America, exploring the rough mountains and the ripe valleys between with my best friend of more than a decade. A cocktail so bracing and sweet, it tasted like stepping into the surf. And we still had two nights to go.
Kristen made everything better, her confidence like a bell jar of security in a strange and gnarled world. When we’d hugged at the airport almost a week ago, tears of relief had coated my eyes. I hadn’t seen her in a year—a year pockmarked by panic attacks, nightmares, and screaming into my pillow or the shower or occasionally my fist. But in Santiago, as we’d picked up our rental car and driven north on barren highways, Kristen was her usual boisterous self. She whooped when the Pacific came into view; she honked at a clump of plush alpacas by the side of the road. She pointed and gasped at roadside fruit stands, rippling cornfields with laser-straight rows, fat fields of vegetables growing bushy in the sun. And sky, sky, so much blue sky, almost crackling in its crispness, the way it shot down into the ocean on one side and the crinkled peaks on the other. Her presence was like a calming scent, aerosolized Xanax, and I allowed myself to relax.
We spent the first night in La Serena, where we carried leaky ice-cream cones around a leafy town square and stayed in a hotel with bright colors on the walls, where paintings of saints watched us as we slept. Too touristy, we decided, and the next morning we drove inland. In Pisco Elqui we took a yoga class from a woman with bowed knees and hip-length hair; as we stood in mountain pose, our chests puffed out, she announced, “Your smile powers your corazón, your heart.” On the second night there, three college-age guys from Germany cornered us in a bar, and the panic came roaring back like a panther lying in wait. Kristen had taken the lead—she was charming, could talk to anybody—and when she’d noticed the fear in my eyes, she politely disentangled us from the cocky trio and led me back into the night.
“It’s okay, it’s me, I’m here,” she kept murmuring as we walked the dark streets back to our hotel. “Kristen’s here.” Her voice was a balm; her words a weighted blanket. We’d packed up and left the following day.
And this morning we arrived here, in Quiteria. At first, I’d been alarmed by its emptiness. We’d parked in a lot and wandered the hilly streets, our suitcases trailing behind us like dejected toddlers, for what felt like hours before we found an open hotel. There I scored the keys to a small suite, the duvet damp despite the dry mountain air. The sun was sinking, and I realized the city’s vacancy would be an asset: fewer men to bother us, two women walking the streets at night. You know what they say about women traveling alone.
Kristen swallowed the last of her pisco sour. “You know what we should do? Birthday wishes.”
“My birthday’s not for two weeks.”
“I know, but I want to do it in person. And it’s a big one!”
It was our tradition, telling the other what we hoped would happen for them that year. I’d had the idea after I read about two best-friends-slash-business-partners who wrote each other’s New Year’s resolutions.
“I’ll go first,” she said, turning toward the grapevines. “My birthday wish for you, my darling Emily . . . is that your company gets its head out of its ass and gives you the promotion you deserve.”
“That would be nice.” I’d thrown my name in the hat for a director-level position months ago, but my employer, Kibble, was disorganized and putzy and dragging its feet. I liked my job there, though, promotion or not: project manager of a start-up that shipped raw, organic cat food to pet owners with too much money. I had hip young co-workers, including my work wife, Priya, and cat photos literally everywhere.
Still, I didn’t tell Kristen that my secret wish, whenever I saw a shooting star or caught a dandelion fluff or spotted a clock at 11:11, was to land a great partner, settle down. It felt too antifeminist, too needy to put into words. But with Kristen halfway around the world and all my friends getting married (hell, having kids), my patience was wearing thin. And maybe I was finally headed in the right direction . . .
“He said they’re gonna start interviewing candidates this month,” I told her. “It’s funny, he acts like there’s no time to even think about the open position. Like he’s too busy saving the world, one feline digestive tract at a time.”
“Cat people are the worst people. I say that as a card-carrying cat lover stymied only by allergies.”
“I think his devotion is kinda sweet!”
Kristen snorted. “It’s an entire business predicated on people being obsessed with a disinterested animal.”
“Russell’s cat isn’t disinterested. Mochi loves him back. I’ve seen the videos.” Kristen rolled her eyes and I leaned forward. “C’mon, I like my job.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She waved a hand. “Okay, now you go.”
“Right. My birthday wish for you, a full four months early, is that, hmm.” I tapped the stem of my glass. That you realize you hate Australia. That you move back to Milwaukee. That we go back to the way things were. “I hope you get your stupid boss fired and your job gets a million times better. Or you find a new job that makes you happy.”
“No fair, you just copied me!”
“This is what our thirties are all about, right? Vaulting forward in our careers. At least we have jobs.”
“True. And thank God we put that disposable income to good use.” She swept her arm out across the vines, whose pristine rows narrowed in the distance. Behind them, rumpled mountains reddened in the dipping sunlight. A bird landed on the edge of the distillery’s deck and uttered a squeaky trill. A cute sierra finch, yellow as an egg yolk—I recognized it from some idle research I’d done at my desk in Milwaukee.
Nearby, a thumping sound. It was probably a woodpecker, but before I realized that, the memory flashed before me: Stop. Stop. Stop. Kristen’s eyes wide as she stepped back, blood speckling her shoes. The moment that changed everything, when life cracked neatly into Before and After.
Kristen slid up her sunglasses and gave me an indulgent smile. I grinned back.
I’d been wrong to worry. Even the incident with the trio of Germans had been harmless. There’d been no strange men hulking in corners, their eyes following us hungrily. No drunken dudes who’d stood a little too close or followed too few steps behind us on darkened streets. No cause for alarm.
I gazed at Kristen and felt a rush of warmth.
Everything had gone perfectly.
A fat bee bumbled around our glasses, and Kristen waved her hand, fearless.
“Feels like we’re the only non-locals for miles,” I said. The isolation was both thrilling and unsettling.