The first month I lived in Lima, in the Barranco neighborhood with all the other tourists and expats. I had a one-bedroom on the seventh floor of a coworking and living space, recently refurbished to cater to the post-covid boom of digital nomads. This was in the fall of 2021. Travel was just opening up again. In the lobby was a cafe-bar that served lattes and Cusqueñas. Next to it, a California-inspired salad and wraps shop. The first week, I got an artsy-looking salmon bowl there that didn’t make me sick, exactly, but left me with a semi-permanent queasiness. After that I learned to avoid raw fruits and vegetables. My daily diet came to consist of fries and burgers and lomo saltado. Oddly, this new regimen had the effect of suppressing my appetite. I thinned out.
I was in Peru due to social media. After I started a new job — the fully remote kind doing marketing for a health tech company — my Instagram feed morphed to bombard me with ads for living spaces around the world seeking “location flexible professionals.” It got me thinking. Why was I in L.A. anyway? I wasn’t an actor. All the time and money I’d spent over the years, trying to look pretty and meet people in general and nice guys in particular. That, in retrospect, seemed to have been the unconscious reason I’d stayed stagnant, passively waiting for purpose to come find me. Though to be fair I hadn’t been entirely passive, I’d tried a lot of things to make life happen. I’d gone on a soul-numbing number of dates, grown inured to annoyance, disappointment, exhaustion. I just didn’t have much to show for the effort.
Hadn’t I always said I’d wanted to travel more? I had no excuse not to now, I barely even needed to plan anything. A company called Lifetopia offered furnished apartments all over the world, complete with communal spaces and social events. On a whim one night, I decided I’d try wandering around for a year, staying each month in a different country.
And now here I was, in Lima. Lifetopia made expat friends easy to come by, though the things we could do in Lima were limited — bars and clubs were still shuttered by a nine p.m. covid curfew. On the one hand, my new life was peaceful and comforting. On the other, it wasn’t particularly different from the one I’d lived in the States. By day I worked in my room where the wifi was strongest. Staring into a screen seemed to be how I was destined to spend the bulk of my time, whatever continent I happened to be in. By evening I walked masked-up to a nearby restaurant for a sedate dinner, usually with the three girls sharing the penthouse suite: Lisa, Linda, and Beth. They were best friends from Utah who seemed to have made a collective decision to pull me into their circle, due to pity or boredom, I wasn’t sure.
In short, life in Latin America was turning out to be less exciting than I’d imagined.
Of course I’d known next to nothing about Lima before getting there. I’d picked it because the location was new for Lifetopia and thus offered at a discount. Once I arrived, I learned some things. Lima was a vast web of a city — close to ten million people spread over a thousand square miles. The small beach was cold and rocky, the sky permanently overcast, each morning’s fog never quite burning off the beach. For the time being, masks were required everywhere: single masks most places, double in highly-trafficked spots like grocery stores. Locals seemed unapproachable, walking braced against the weather in their puffy jackets.
I spent my weekends binge-watching Dirty John with the Utah girls, sprawled on their beige rug eating chifles. We were all supposedly trying to become bilingual so we kept the Spanish subtitles turned on. Occasionally, Lisa sighed disgustedly at the screen. “Por qué doesn’t she leave him already?” she’d ask.
The bigger question was, por qué were we even in Lima? Or more to the point, por qué was I? This question grated at me, but the Utah girls didn’t seem too concerned. They looked content, in fact, basking in the warm glow of the TV, it was what they’d always done to unwind from their day jobs. Lisa was a legal assistant, Linda a project manager for some sub-sub-department of the U.S. Health and Human services. Beth was on temporary disability — due to long covid, she told me in a confidential tone, though her energy level didn’t seem much different from the rest of ours, which to be fair, was pretty lethargic. We were all in our thirties, they on the front end, I the very back.
I wished one of us had a dog or something, to give us some collective purpose.
Occasionally, we signed up for one of Lifetopia’s activities. All we had to do was opt in or out of each activity so usually we didn’t even bother to read up on the event, we just wrote our names down. That’s how we ended up at the top of a gigantic sand dune in Huacachina one weekend. “Now we sandboard down,” the señor in charge told us and twenty other stunned-looking Lifetopia people.
When my turn came I lay on a board on my tummy, elbows in as instructed. The señor in charge gave me a push and I was off, skidding down head first at breakneck speed, spraying sand. It ended up being pretty fun. The Utah girls and I cheered each other on, taking videos.
Maybe this was how I should have been living life all along, I thought. Not planning so much, not setting schedules and goals, not weighing one option against another, and instead just hopping on board whenever boards appeared.
Then again, other Lifetopia activities were less successful. One night we found ourselves at a cooking class one evening making what appeared to be chow mein. The class was led by a garrulous man who looked Japanese — because he was, at least genetically. The longtime presence of Japanese families in Peru, he told us, had led to the creation of a unique Japanese-Peruvian cuisine called Nikkei.
“Then how come we haven’t seen any Asian people here?” Beth asked in a whisper.
“Maybe they stay in their own neighborhood,” I conjectured, “that we haven’t seen because it’s in a dangerous area.”
“I literally haven’t seen one Asian person, not one,” Lisa said. “I mean aside from him. And us.”
“Could we have passed some and just not noticed?” Linda asked. “You know, because they’re wearing masks or whatever.”
Lisa snorted. “We would have noticed.” She stabbed disgruntledly at her noodles. “I can make chow mein way better than this. What the fuck.”
I did make an effort to get to know the city. Despite the gray fall cold the city was charming to walk around: colonial-style neighborhoods, well-maintained parks, the malecon running along the coastline with views of the blue water batting against the dramatic cliffs. On sunny days the pebbled beach brought out brave, bikini-clad sunbathers, plus a long row of handsome would-be surf instructors calling out their services to passers-by. I went shopping often, mostly for big bottles of drinking water. The biggest difference between L.A. and Lima was the prices of things. Everything from a dinner out to an Uber ride cost about a quarter of what I’d been used to, which meant everyone in Lima, from the waiter to the taxi driver, was getting paid a quarter of what they might have gotten for the exact same jobs in California. I felt lucky, and also guilty, benefiting from global economic inequities and getting away with it. Yet people were generally kind, patient when I attempt to speak Spanish, though occasionally I’d almost kill myself crossing the street, I kept forgetting pedestrians didn’t have the right of way. The drivers would brake and honk madly.
Sometimes I dragged the girls out with me. Our most successful trip was to a Starbucks. There everyone’s order came out exactly as expected, no surprises. Another time Beth and I went to the city museum. There was an exhibit about local indigenous ceremonies, which consisted of four sound speakers circling the floor of an empty white room. The idea was that visitors would join the aural experience, listening as the speakers emitted the sounds of a typical ceremony: a cackling bonfire, low toned murmurs, occasional wailing.
I wanted to be interested. But it was tedious, standing there. Even the locals popped in their heads, glanced around, and popped back out. After a respectable amount of time I came out to find Beth laid out on the concrete bench out front, scrolling her phone. She was in what she called her covid pose, the splayed, no one’s around so I may as well be comfy posture she’d gotten used to assuming on her couch during the pandemic. She looked happy.
Eventually we walked to a cafe she’d wanted to try. It turned out to be a chocolate shop with truffles and an assortment of baked goods. Beth ordered for us, by which I mean she ordered way too much. “Everything’s so cheap here,” she explained.
“Should I text Lisa and Linda?” I asked. “Maybe they can help us with all this.”
She pouted. “You act all surprised that you’re losing weight but it’s because you barely eat anything.”
Despite that whining, Beth and I had a nice time, nibbling on cakes. A young guy with ear gauges packed up the leftovers for us. “You are from United States?” he asked. “And your parents, maybe Asia?”
That night, my sister in St. Louis called. Couples therapy still wasn’t going well, she told me, but she hadn’t found a divorce lawyer yet, she hadn’t had time, what with the kids and the hospital and the neurology conference coming up at the end of the month.
“He’s just flailing around now,” she said of her husband, from whom she’d separated four months back. “Like he sent our prior therapist a long email, ccing me to guilt me. Or he’ll randomly start texting constantly, bringing up the best hits of his gaslighting. ‘You were so broken when I met you,’ that kind of stuff. Then he was threatening to hurt himself if I hired a lawyer. It’s so exhausting.”
I’d never liked my sister’s husband. For a pale, feeble-looking white dude he was surprisingly aggressive, if only with words, he’d spit out invectives through his teeth then turn and speedwalk away before you could say anything back, or punch him. “What’s up with that family and their threats of suicide?” I asked. “Didn’t his brother do the same thing during his divorce?”
Then I told her about my boring life.
“Now that I think about it, I know a guy in Lima,” my sister said. “He was married to this woman I knew through work, but they divorced, and now he teaches at international schools. Maybe I could put you two in touch and he can show you around at least?”
“Does he speak Spanish?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he nice?”
She paused for a bit, pondering this. “I think so? I don’t actually know him that well.”
“Okay, I’ll meet him.”
My answer seemed to worry her for some reason. When she spoke, her voice was softer. “Do you like Lima?”
This time, I paused, thinking. “I don’t not like it,” I said.
The guy’s name was Tom. He was on the tall side, slim in a lanky way, with a bald, egg-shaped head. I guessed him five to eight years older than me.
“I know I look white but my mom’s Mexican,” he told me after ordering drinks for us, “so I learned some Spanish growing up. It’s not perfect, but I can get by.” He flexed his fingers with a certain pride, grinning.
We were at an upscale fusion restaurant, one I’d heard of, it had an internationally renowned chef. Something about the soft lighting — plus Tom’s button down shirt and freshly-showered look — gave our dinner a distinct date-like feel. He gestured to the waiter authoritatively. “Un menú en inglés para la señorita,” he said.
We got dishes to split: a paella and a large platter with clams that was lit, briefly, on fire. As we ate, Tom talked. He told me he’d moved to Lima a year and a half ago, he’d needed a change, plus the job he had now was better for his career, the method of teaching they were training him on was giving him the qualifications to become a sought-after instructor anywhere in the world. But the lockdown had started almost immediately after he’d arrived. Making friends had been a challenge. Plus work was more intense than he’d anticipated. Not only did he have to learn this new method of teaching but he also had to figure out how to teach it online.
“Was there culture shock?” I asked. “Moving from St. Louis to here?”
“Actually before this I was in Seoul,” he said. “Doing the same thing, teaching English. I rescued a jindo there, and brought it with me.”
“Oh, really? I love dogs.”
“You can meet him later, if you want. I have ice cream at my place.”
For a minute we talked about Korean food. Then he remembered to ask a few questions about me: Did I miss Los Angeles, how did I like Lima so far, what sights had I seen, not seen. “You kind of came at the worst time,” he said. “This is the coldest month, plus the pandemic’s shut all the fun stuff down.” He suggested a few things we could do together around town, always adding, “if you want.”
He liked me, I could tell, though I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I wasn’t attracted to him, exactly, but I wasn’t repelled either. I hadn’t had a guy pay this much attention to me since before covid. He didn’t seem dangerous, in any case.
We split the check and walked to his place, a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony overlooking a park. The dog was cute enough but unaffectionate. After a brief sniff it went off to do its own thing.
“That’s the thing about jindos,” Tom said. “They don’t really sit with you, or cuddle. They’re more just there.”
Everything about the apartment was very tidy, perhaps because he’d anticipated my visit. We sat on the couch with small bowls of pistachio ice cream. Then without preamble, he started telling me about his past relationships, occasionally gesticulating with his spoon.
“When my marriage ended — to be honest I could have handled that better,” he said. “I’d known it wasn’t working for a while but to her it came as a total surprise, and I could have been more — sensitive.” After the divorce he got into a relationship with a single mother. He loved her and her kid, but when the Seoul opportunity came along, he broke things off. “Driving away was like one of those movie scenes. I had tears streaming down my face, wondering if I was making a huge mistake. But you know, I had to go. I knew I couldn’t live in St. Louis my whole life.” After that there was a woman in Seoul, a high-powered lawyer, the kind who after a night out drinking would call a chauffeur service to drive her car home. She’d gotten upset when he’d left, though he’d always been upfront about his plans to move to Latin America. “I think she thought she’d change my mind,” he said, in a tone that hung halfway between rueful and smug.
I listened, wondering: What was his end game in telling me all this? Was he simply bragging? Or was this a sideways attempt to show me he was an honest, sensitive man, unafraid to talk about his feelings, his past? Of course I wasn’t helping matters by nodding empathetically and asking followup questions like I was genuinely interested. It seemed easier than anything else. I didn’t much care to talk about my own life, but I felt rude leaving without finishing my ice cream.
“So you’re here for two more weeks,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “Except five of those days, I’ll be in Machu Picchu.”
“Well, that still gives us time to see each other at least a couple more times.”
He reached over, took my arm, caressed the inside of my wrist. When I didn’t resist, he leaned in and kissed me. It was a greedy, entreating kind of kiss, though not a forceful one. Was this what I wanted? Usually kissing clarified things for me, but with this guy I felt neither desire nor displeasure, only a vague curiosity about my own lack of will.
When he asked me to stay over though, I declined. “I don’t think it’s such a great idea,” I said. “I mean I’m leaving Lima pretty soon.”
“Not that soon —”
“Soon enough.” I shrugged. “There must be other women you can date here, you know, that actually live here. I mean, you speak Spanish.”
He sighed. “Yes, but it’s not the same. I don’t speak Spanish well enough to connect at a deep level. And there are cultural differences, too. And financial. It’s like, we go out a few times, and sure, there’s the physical stuff, that’s nice, but after that I just don’t see where it can go.” He looked at me meaningfully. “I want to spend time with someone I can really talk with.”
I stood up. “Let me think about it,” I said.
I called an Uber and he walked me out with some reluctance, though he turned chivalrous once it arrived, kissing my cheek and tucking me gently into the car. When I got home I saw he’d already texted a couple times: a polite thanks for the lovely night missive, plus a discount link to a VPN service. It was a thoughtful gesture: I’d told him I needed to research VPN options, I hadn’t been able to watch Hulu with a Peruvian IP address.
Maybe I shouldn’t write him off so quickly, I mused. Sure, he talked about himself a lot, but not particularly more so than other men I’d gone out with. Maybe at his core he’s a nice guy who got a little too chatty because I made him nervous.
Plus, I had nothing else to do.
Getting to Machu Picchu was a bit of an epic. It involved a flight to Cusco the night before, then waking up at three the next morning for a bumpy van ride to a transportation hub, followed by a train ride to Ollantaytambo. From there we were put on another bus that took us up a series of harrowing switchbacks. By the time we got to the main gate, queasy from altitude and motion sickness, we’d already been traveling for five hours.
“My friends, from now we start hiking!” said our guide.
We didn’t want to move, but once we began walking we felt better. The fresh air revived us. It was me, the girls, plus seven other Americans I’d seen around the coworking space. With tourism still just picking up, the mountain was relatively peaceful and lush. We passed ridge viewpoints and stone gateways and sleepy-eyed llamas, grazing placidly against the backdrop of ruins. All in all it was a good experience, though by the time the guide dropped us off at a hotel that evening, we were all grateful the ordeal was over.
“Have you noticed,” Beth said, “that the idea of doing something is usually more exciting than actually doing the thing?”
She always got philosophical when she started eating. The four of us had ordered room service. The rest of the group was meeting back up for dinner and drinks, but we’d had enough.
“It’s just because we’re tired right now,” Linda said. “By tomorrow we’ll be glad we went.”
“That’s the thing though. Because by then, it’ll be a memory, and not the real thing. That’s what’s fun, saying you’re gonna do something, then talking about having done it. Or at least fun-ish. The actual doing of things — let’s be real, did we enjoy Machu Picchu that much? Like actually being there?”
“I don’t get what you’re asking,” Lisa said. Steam rose off her wet hair; she’d just gotten out of the shower. “Machu Picchu has literally been on your bucket list for years.”
“I liked the llamas,” I offered.
“It goes for other stuff too,” Beth went on. “Even guys I’ve gone out with. Did I really have fun hanging out with them, or did I just like knowing I had plans to go out with a guy, then afterwards being able to say I’d had a date? Because a lot of these guys, you know, they were work to be around. Kind of like what we went through today, but on an emotional level.” She broke a french fry in half, then took a bite off the long piece to even things out. “Some of them, when I really think about it, I don’t think I even liked.”
“Guys are guys,” Lisa said. “Machu Picchu is Machu Picchu. Now we’ve finally been to one of the seven wonders of the world. One down, six to go.”
Linda plopped down flat on her bed. “I might be good with just the one,” she said.
On our way back, we made sightseeing stops at traditional working cooperatives. The first was a famed salt mine, where we watched locals manually scoop salt into baskets with their bare hands, then lug each basket to a drying area, just to return to scoop more salt and repeat the process, ad infinitum. Then we visited a textile co-op. A grinning woman with missing teeth talked us through the process: First, grate a root with soap-like properties to lather up with water to wash the wool, then hand spin that wool into yarn, then dye the yarn with crushed insects, flowers, and leaves, then hand weave of the yarn into cloth.
The weaving process alone took weeks to months, she told us, which troubled me. After all that labor, the result was a single blanket that had to compete in a global market in which machines spit out imitations in minutes for Wal-Mart.
Why did beautiful traditional work always have to be so grueling, taxing on the body, and ill-compensated? I pictured the billions of people around the world, all of us spending the bulk of our waking hours performing jobs we ultimately didn’t care about. Then I felt guilty, not being grateful for having a job that paid me well and gave me the freedom to travel.
I hadn’t told the girls about Tom, mainly because I didn’t know what to say about him. I wanted neither encouragement or discouragement about seeing him again until I knew which way I wanted to go. For a while I kept things in a holding pattern, replying to Tom’s texts without committing to plans. But once I returned to Lima, I ran out of excuses and tentatively agreed to meet him at a dessert shop for crema volteada.
Surprisingly, I found myself starting to look forward to the date. Texting with Tom had warmed me to him, maybe because there was more of an egalitarian back and forth on this medium. He’d send a few messages, then politely wait for me to send a few back before sending more.
I wondered if maybe I should sleep with him after all. There was no real reason not to. He wasn’t the best looking guy in the world but he wasn’t bad looking either. Who knew, maybe I would enjoy it, like I had sandboarding. Wasn’t that the point of traveling, to simply experience more, be it good or bad?
“I grabbed the last table!” he texted when I was about a block away.
He was seated at the far corner of the patio. Once he saw me, he raised his hand in a wave. He looked much the same as the first time, though his vibe seemed different somehow, more tightly wound, like he was determined to make something happen now that should have rightfully occurred a while ago.
On the surface he was acting perfectly pleasant, smiling, pulling out my chair. He asked me what I’d been up to since I’d gotten back to Lima, and I told him I’d gone out to brunch with the girls to La Rosa Nautica, a seafood restaurant on the beach.
“I was there yesterday!”
It appeared we’d been there at the same time, though seated in different sections. I presumed he’d gone there on a date, it was that kind of place, though I didn’t ask, I didn’t much care.
But I soon found out he wanted me to know. He asked me if I’d gotten a cocktail there and when I said I hadn’t, said he’d had a margarita, and not a very good one, too sweet. “And my friend, well, the woman I was there with, she got an orgasmo. Have you had one of those?” When I shook my head, he continued: “It’s popular here for some reason but it’s terrible, a truly terrible drink.”
He considered himself somewhat of a cocktail connoisseur. He started talking about other local restaurants and their drink menus, though quickly it became clear he didn’t so much care to discuss the drinks as the women he’d drunk them with, nebulous beings that figured in as blurry extras in his little stories, anonymous save for a tossed-off detail: a penchant for olives, a tongue stained blue.
He touched my hand to emphasize a point. Something inside me recoiled.
He kept talking while I studied him with an incredulous sort of fascination. What was it that compelled him to talk continuously about other women while simultaneously hitting on me? It seemed counterintuitive. Did he believe that painting himself as a player might make him seem more desirable — a safety in numbers sort of logic? Or was this his way of letting me know he wasn’t looking for anything serious if anything happened between us, I should expect nothing afterwards?
Or could he simply not help himself, given the chance to brag?
The waiter came to take our order. Tom suggested we get two desserts, the crema volteada and also a chocolate cake. I demurred, two desserts would take twice as long to eat. “I can’t eat chocolate at night,” I said. “It keeps me up too late.”
“My ex wife was like that,” he said after the waiter went away. “Not with chocolate specifically, but she always had trouble falling asleep. Sometimes she’d even get upset with me because I’m always able to fall asleep immediately! I get it though. When you don’t get enough rest for days, well, it’s understandable why she got cranky at times.”
“You seem to still think about your ex wife often,” I said.
“Really?” For a moment he looked taken back, then recovered. “No, I really don’t. We haven’t spoken in years, not since I moved to Seoul —”
He kept talking, explaining in a rapid patter just how not often he thought or talked about his ex. But I’d stopped listening. The cake arrived. I dug in immediately. After I managed to down close to half, I looked around at the other diners. I checked my phone. I yawned with impunity.
Finally I interrupted during a small pause. “I think I’m still exhausted from Machu Picchu,” I said, gathering up my purse.
“You want to go already?” He took frantic hold of my wrist. “Will I see you again?” he asked.
“I mean, maybe if you for some reason happen to be in the same place I am.” The words came out harsher than I’d intended, so I tried to soften things. “Because you know, next week I’ll be in Medellin, then after that probably Guatemala —”
“Actually, I have Thanksgiving break coming up, and haven’t made any solid plans yet. And Medellin’s been on my list!” He leaned in, grinning. “Will you have your own place? How do you feel about friends coming to visit?”
I freed my wrist. “Are you a friend who wants to come visit?”
“Well,” he leaned back, “I’d like to think there’s some possibility we could be more than friends.”
“Let’s not put pressure on it,” I said.
He insisted on calling an Uber for me. When he pulled up the app, an alert popped up: How was your ride with Michael? “I can’t really give this guy an honest rating,” Tom said, hitting five stars. “It’s a ride I ordered for my friend, well, the woman I went to La Rosa Nautica with.”
He lived only two blocks away but insisted on adding his place as the first drop off location.
When I finally got back to the apartment I saw he’d texted. “Send me your itinerary so I know which dates you’ll be in which city!”
I swiped archive. Then I googled: why do guys talk to you about other women. The first link said maybe he was jealous, or maybe he was telling you he wasn’t interested. The second link said the guy was just an idiot asshole and didn’t deserve your time.
The Utah girls were already asleep. Unlike me, they were going home in a few days. They still had lives to get back to, or at least hopes of creating a life once they returned. Linda had already started swiping on Hinge to line up dates for the next week. I, on the other hand, — this was my life.
What was I doing? Perhaps I should write a memoir about my travels, I considered, though since I hadn’t actually done much, I didn’t know what I’d write about. In my mind I browsed through travel memoirs written by women. Often, what precipitated their wandering was a breakup or divorce, Eat Pray Love being a prime example. Did all female journeys of self-discovery have to begin with a man — or more accurately, the loss of one? Was I running away from my last ex, or all my exes collectively? Suddenly I felt that by leaving Los Angeles, I’d given up in a way on any hopes of a conventional long-term relationship.
But maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. Per the memoirs, there seemed to be something about relationships that kept women trapped in a place. Us wanderers, on the other hand — we’d broken up with our homes, and now we were free to live our best lives.
What that life looked like, though, I didn’t know yet.
I got in bed with my laptop and went to the Bellesa homepage. I found a Tyler Nixon video and masturbated slowly, watching him go down on a dark-haired girl. There was a lot of moaning, but through the entire twelve-minute video, they didn’t say one word to each other.