Being a digital nomad was the dream of my third boyfriend, Ethan, and because I was in love with him, I fell in love with his dream, too—that was the beginning of it. He was twenty-nine when we met, and I was thirty-two. The first time I saw him was at a meditation class in New Orleans, where we both lived, his eyes closed, torso erect on a purple meditation pillow, legs folded beneath him, his long face crowned in brown curls, appearing to be very much at peace. And, in fact, he was not just participating but leading the course, since the instructor was out of town.
Back then, I wanted desperately to be loved.
The second time I saw him was at an Uptown bar, for a meet-up of international people. Both of us standing up this time, I discovered he was very tall. He was from North Carolina, and was not international at all; like me, he had a predilection for people from other countries. This should have been a sign.
Our first kiss happened in his seventh-floor apartment paid for by the oil company where he was an engineer spending two weeks off and on a rig. We were in his bed at the end of our second date, after I had followed him into the elevator and into his room and into his oversized white t-shirt and beneath his sheets. I turned to him and said, or rather demanded, “Why won’t you kiss me?” We kissed. Then, his body towering above mine, his thighs around my shoulders, he entered my mouth.
Because I wanted to be loved, I thought I was in love, and then thinking I was in love turned into being in love. Desiring to touch him, to have him touch me, the chiseled hairlessness of his body, his large baseball-player hands. After two months of dating, he moved into my studio apartment on Laurel Street in the Garden District.
He brought his life into my apartment, already pared-down for travel—one backpack, spices, Ziplock bags of mole powder from Mexico, three pairs of shoes—and the amazing thing was our mutual ability to throw away all reason: the jumping-in too soon, too wild, but how thrilling to find someone who says yes.
He moved in; he quit his job as an oil engineer; he began to plan his new adventure as a digital nomad.
Was he tender? No, never.
He was six feet, four inches tall, an imposing presence and the most handsome man I had ever seen. I liked being in the world with him. It made me feel more beautiful to have him beside me, because the way I perceived it, he was much more attractive than I was. I always wanted to shake my head, tell him I didn’t understand my good fortune. What makes you love me, how did I get so lucky?
Before Ethan, I’d had a string of bad sexual experiences, I’d kissed a married man, I’d had five one-night stands in a row, one nonconsensual in the way that waking up from a nap beside a man to find him already inside you without a condom is nonconsensual. Ethan was not tender but he waited for me to be ready for sex—in true American fashion, we didn’t count oral sex as “sex”—and in this waiting he became the hero I was looking for.
We would often meditate together on the floor, facing each other, legs crossed, eyes closed, breathing in and out, just existing in front of each other, each entirely alone. When the thirty-minute timer went off, we’d open our eyes and start talking. Once, he choked on his saliva because he was so focused on staying still and present that he forgot to swallow. He wanted to fix something inside himself, to quiet a deep insecurity and transform into a different man. All I saw was the softness in those moments, how we were close enough to be vulnerable together, to strip away everything that mattered less than breath.
That was the time Ethan and I were happy. Our happiness thick, oozing out of us. I would rush home from teaching English to high school students and collapse into his arms, kissing his neck, lips, jawbone, cheeks. I’d scrape my nails down his back, lift my skirt up, lean over the bed with my heels still on and the door wide open to the street. Anyone could see us. He stood behind me, both of us naked, his hands around my waist and my hands on the mattress.
I remember feeling dazzled, everything new was singing. I remember Miles Davis in the background and Ethan cooking at the stove, shiny and bare-chested in the Southern heat, my hands reaching out to touch him.
Because he allowed me to, I joined Ethan on his trip, beginning in Colombia. The deal was that I could tag along on the starting leg of his digital nomad adventure, which would last—how long? A year, three years, forever? He couldn’t say. He would learn coding and switch careers, becoming a computer engineer who worked entirely online. His plan was to travel the world, visit all the continents, “commune with Bedouins,” he said. I scoffed. And I begged to go along.
The fights we had about his trip, his trip—always his trip and my desire to go, to not be left behind, waiting like some dumb Penelope. He, Odysseus, acquiesced.
Ethan had saved $100,000 for his trip. I had $8,000. I quit my high school teaching job, gave up my $1,000 a month studio apartment where he’d been living rent-free since moving in, sold my furniture, and stored what was left in my belongings in the trunk of my Toyota Corolla—books in the trunk, art my friends had made in the back seat. We drove five days, past the Grand Canyon and deserts and national parks, then stored my car in my parents’ garage in Santa Maria, a rural town on the central coast of California, where I grew up.
When my dad drove us to LAX, Ethan sat in the backseat leaning forward onto the center console, giddy and panting with joy. He seemed like a golden retriever en route to the beach. A friend who met him said he had “stars in his eyes” for his trip.
In Bogotá, where we first landed in Colombia, we were two people slightly too old for hostels, two people without cell phone service or internet access, with a basic proficiency in Spanish, no income but some savings, two people in love, who'd been living together for six months in a shotgun house in New Orleans, who’d quit their jobs and flown to South America for the great digital nomad adventure, the main point of which was that your work went with you while you traveled. This wasn’t a holiday, this was your life. You were not waiting for retirement to begin seeing the world.
The city was grey, and so were we. We walked around the streets of Bogotá like the lost tourists we were, angry for reasons I could not understand. Angry that it was surprisingly cold for June. Angrily appraising everything, angrily decrying every sour smell on the street. He was unhappy with something, but neither of us could put a finger on it. I was unhappy back.
We stomped into the Museo Colonial to see the Boteros. Ethan wanted his tour narrated through the museum’s headphones. I pouted on a stone bench in the courtyard while he searched for headphones inside. We couldn’t lose track of each other in this sprawling two-story colonial mansion or we’d never reconnect, hampered as we were without cell service or internet access on our phones. He was gone too long and returned after I’d concocted an anxiety-fueled emergency plan of what I would do had something happened to him. Our entire trip was haunted by this fear of losing each other, or something bad happening to the other person: a wallet stolen, a kidnapping, being mugged at knife point. We couldn’t let each other out of our sight, yet we could no longer stand the sight of each other.
While he was gone, I catalogued the things I loved about him: fuzzy brown curls atop a long face and sharp cheekbones, pillowy lips that revealed a ribbon of gums and too-small teeth when he smiled (which was not often now). It was a face and smile I had fallen in love with, set atop a lanky, hairless body. I loved this boy’s body, this body’s beauty. It was physical attraction, above all else. It was sex. His large hands holding me down. And, sure, his adventurousness. His aim to explore the whole world, his desire to be a digital nomad.
Things I did not love: his anxiety, litany of insecurities, the recent discovery that he Botoxed his upper lip so it wouldn’t show so much gum when he smiled, his prescription drug habit, the way he would argue with me about feminism.
He returned, the headphones effective in blocking me out. We set off to view the Boteros. He didn’t linger, hardly stopping to engage with the artwork. Botero’s women pursued me with their eyes, mocked me with their voluptuous square bodies. You little stick woman, they taunted me. You pancake, you banana. You think you have captured the love of this man? Look at me, with my orange slices and my love notes. You think that man loves you? Ha! They rolled their eyes. He won’t even stand next to you or hold your hand.
We took the funicular to the church at the top of Monserrate, looking west over Bogotá. It was rainy, grim, the city fogged over. We fought about his ex, how little we liked Colombia, where to buy SIM cards and the next place to stay and when to go there.
Nothing was good enough. We flew to Cartagena.
Cartagena was similar to New Orleans: hot, humid air and jewel-toned facades shimmering beneath pink and orange bougainvillea. Too similar! Absurd, how touristy! Ethan was angry with the men and women aggressively selling tchotchkes while we ate dinner, pushing objects toward your face as you lifted a fork, rudely interrupting the conversation you weren't having anyway. We didn’t touch—not the wares for sale, not each other.
“Let’s go to Taganga,” he said. It would be good enough there.
Taganga was a tiny fishing village a few hours north. We rode a bus along the highway, past bathroom-stop fruit vendors and dilapidated shacks bordering the road. In Taganga, we rented a one-bedroom cabin with a wooden balcony perched on the face of the hillside overlooking the cove, where we sat in Adirondacks to watch the sun set straight into the Caribbean Sea. Taganga was good. We walked down the hill from our cabin and along the beach, stopping for a dinner of fresh-caught fish grilled at a seafood restaurant on the sand. We each ate a whole fish, spread open on the plate like a splayed cunt.
I cried. He had left his journal in the bus that brought us to Taganga, and now he was desperate, absolutely desperate, to get it back. For two days, he emailed and called the bus company. The next evening, we ordered sugary tropical drinks at a beachfront restaurant while he made yet another call to the bus company. I listened to him insist this journal was right where he had left it, in the luggage rack above the last row of the bus. His journal! He couldn’t let it go. As I rose to leave the table, he waved me away with his hand, as if to say he was on the phone, do what you want, disappear.
I walked on the sand, avoiding the trash strewn everywhere. The sun had set and it was growing dim. I cried because I knew what was coming. This couldn’t be it. We weren’t going to last long if this was how we traveled. I had asked to join him on his year of being a digital nomad, whatever that meant, and he had acquiesced. But now he wasn’t even being kind to me. I felt ignored, and also like a burden. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? His reticence—how he never really offered for me to join—I’d bullied my way onto this trip. The fights we had back in New Orleans about his trip, always his trip and my anxiety about it and my desire to go, to not be left behind. I shouldn’t have come.
“Ella está llorando,” a little girl said to her mom as she came splashing out of the twilight water, pointing out the crying woman, me, and because I could understand what she said, and because it touched me, I cried harder.
“I’m going to the beach alone today,” I announced the next day. It was the first and only time I would venture out alone. He grunted approval from behind his laptop where he was eagerly pursuing his new vision of becoming a computer programmer. I walked to the beach, set my things on the sand, and took my first dip in the Caribbean. The community of Taganga was holding a trash-collecting competition around me.
It wasn’t our first trip together. Four months earlier, Ethan and I had spent the week of Mardi Gras in Costa Rica. We went to the beach every day, swam in the waves, cooked simple meals, ate papaya for breakfast, fucked in one twin bed. I took acid for the first time. The acid trip was his well-orchestrated brainchild: he even curated the playlist we would both listen to, one earbud in his ear, the other in mine, a series of albums created by male musicians on acid. Costa Rica was entirely sunscreen-scented love and beauty. The waves that day, lit by the acid’s eye, were fluorescent blue, glittering beneath a canopy of thin, shivering trees. The sand was a miracle of the universe. He wrote—always writing, always recording his innermost thoughts, but not a writer! Only dating one!—and I gazed up at this movie star handsome younger man in aviator Ray-Bans knowing, then, that we would not be together forever and that I was simply a woman, which meant a piece of furniture for a man. He propped his journal on my back as he wrote, and the universe affirmed my objecthood. The trees nodded. The sand said yes. I saw that the universe wanted me to recognize myself as an object for a man to prop his book on, a vessel for man’s greatness, a womb to be filled in order to create life. I saw my role.
First the realization, then—some time later—the revolt.
I climbed back up the hill to our cabana to find Ethan elated. The bus company had found his journal. We’d take a cab into Santa Marta, and why not stay a while. He’d booked an Airbnb, one with a rooftop deck and terrace. Enough Taganga. We needed a little city action. Santa Marta would be better.
Into the cab to Santa Marta, down the hilly coast, up the dirty tile staircase behind a locked gate, and into a large apartment where our bathroom was a makeshift situation in a utility closet beside the door leading onto a concrete roof. We showered off the day’s sweat with the door open. The toilet seat sat slightly to the right of the shower, no curtain. Third floor, bars on the windows. The whole scene felt like the setting of a Russian porn, the kind where the girl is young and emaciated, the place dirty, the man old and fat. It was too much. I got on my knees in the grimy open-air bathroom. “Fuck me,” I pled. I would have let him do anything.
I’ll never be able to explain how that dirty, damp little apartment in Santa Marta, with the stale coffee in the morning, thin sheets, rust-colored patchwork tile floor, fruit flies buzzing around the mangoes, a hammock stretched from wall to wall where I spent whole days napping, reading, and not writing, that apartment where we cried and broke up and tried not to break up—how incredibly turned on it made me feel. It was the grossness of it, the intensity of our unease and anger at one another. Ethan ate six arepas from a street vendor one night and puked. He took a photo of a bright yellow mystery globule he peed out of his penis and fished from the toilet with a spoon. Everything we did, we did with a violent inner turmoil, our bodies existing in a chaos made languid by the heat.
But he took photos of me while I was sleeping in the hammock strung across the living room or emerging from the ocean with a scowl. I was sure that if he was photographing me, he must still love me, even a little.
From inside the hammock, I texted with Ethan on iMessage. He sat a few feet away at the kitchen table, ostensibly learning coding, but instead texting me links to Airbnb apartments, hostels, and articles by the writers he revered.
“This pertains to nothing I am thinking about right now or in my life,” I wrote in reply to an article on “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins. If only he would be straightforward with me. What I was thinking about was my breaking heart, the ending of our relationship, what went wrong, why I hadn’t seen the signs earlier.
“This is the book that best explains genes,” he texted in reply.
“Let’s make a list of your favorite writers and thinkers,” I typed. I knew where this was going.
“Derek Sivers," he wrote.
“Sam Harris," I replied.
“Alain de Botton.”
“Richard Feynman. Tim Urban. Robert A. Heinlein. Russ Roberts.”
“Yes. Steve Pinker. Camus.”
“Steve Pink-prick.” I laughed at my own joke.
“Jack Kornfield. Jon Cabot Zinn.”
“Steve Lipstick-prick,” I wrote, thinking of the penis I had once seen that looked exactly like a lipstick fully extended from its tube.
“Jon Kabat-Zinn,” I corrected him.
“Eckhard Tolle. Herman Hesse. Aldous Huxley. Guy who wrote Fight Club.”
He didn't ask me my list.
We left Santa Marta for the mountains of Minca, which promised one final chance for Ethan and me, for our love. Jungle, fresh air, coffee plantations, and somewhere, the internet promised, a huge net to sit on, suspended over a view of the mountain range, from which to take the perfect photo for Instagram. It would be so much better there! We took a van up the mountain, then trudged along a dirt road, looking for vacancy signs, enjoying the cooler air. I liked a hotel with bamboo thatched-roof bungalows tucked into the hilly jungle, mosquito nets draped over beautiful white beds and private porches overlooking green treetops. It was too expensive for our budget, but Ethan agreed we could stay for one night.
We sat facing each other in a hammock on the balcony, each of us journaling. I took photos of him lying across from me, his bare chest, pensive smile. His elbow on my shin. Things felt good again. He was so beautiful. Also selfish. I turned the camera around to myself and took a solemn self-portrait: sunburn, freckles, collarbone, eyes—no smile, for once I couldn't smile—documenting that I, too, was selfish and naïve, a woman in her early thirties who thought you could hold on to a person eager for the whole world simply by following.
On the day of my flight home, Ethan held me in a short, tepid hug, kissed me with closed lips, and said, “I love you.” His lie stung. I replied, “I love you, too,” then climbed into the taxi that would take me to the airport, sobbing behind my sunglasses, watching him grow smaller until we turned a corner and he was gone.
We broke up in Minca. I had only lasted a mere three weeks as a digital nomad. So I saw I couldn’t do it. Travel, adventure, a career on your laptop, hopping from country to country—it was not the life for me. I tried, and I failed. But now I had no apartment, no job, no love, some savings. I flew to California and moved back into my parents’ home. I was thirty-three.
* * *
When I was younger, my dreams were not my own, they were the dreams of other people, men I loved, mostly. No one ever asks me what I regret most—because I’m a woman who does everything she wants to do, a woman who doesn’t seem to let adventure pass her by—but if you asked me, I would say I regret that I allowed others’ dreams—the images of other people’s lives, scenes and roles that would never be mine—such a hold over me, instead of determining what I really wanted and who I intended to be. I mean this literally: the actual images of other people’s innermost lives, which I watched, rapt, from my phone screen.
I would like to live all my possible lives. I travel to find them.