Chapter 1: You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do
It was the end of my second year and I was already sick of school. Sick, sick, sick, sick. A sophomore with the soul of a 5th year post-doc. A 19-year-old that wore the fatigue of life on my face like a veteran wearing the death of his comrades on his battered uniform. In the morning I lied in bed with my eyes staring out of the window, my head pointing towards the door. Mom said only dead people slept with the head towards the door — that’s how they always place the coffin at the funeral where she grew up — so that their soul could exit the house unhindered. Maybe my soul was looking for a way out too.
It was probably noontime — the shadow of the leaves was falling on top of each other, so thick the ground seemed to be shifting under its weight. A squirrel scoured around in his daytime business, sniff. What are you sniffing for, squirrel? Do you have any hope and dreams other than getting the fattest nuts and having a sexy time with another clueless squirrel when the urge hits ya? The squirrel paused to look at me, a brown seed looking like Sisyphus’s boulder in his tiny little hands, didn’t answer. Or maybe he did, and I just didn’t understand. I never understood anything in this whole wide world. Sniff, sniff, sniff. He went back to his sniffing business and I went back to the equation of saving my soul. I imagined myself having a burning reason to get out of bed. I wanted to be mad, mad to breathe, mad to live, mad to be out there because I knew if I wasn’t out there for a moment I would be missing out on something important and the world as I knew it would never be the same again. But I wasn’t mad to be to out there. I knew exactly what was going to happen out there. I would go to a class with the same professor who tried too hard and the same guy sitting in the front who asked too many smart-sounding questions. I imagined myself coming up to him and said: “Dude, cut it out. You sit in the front – we know you’re smart.” But I never did, just like nobody ever did anything that wasn’t expected of them in this valley. Later on when I passed by him in the hallway we would exchange some pleasant how-are-you and how-are-the-classes and what-are-you-doing-for-the-summer. Then I would eat at one dining hall or another — they all looked the same with the same wooden tables under red umbrellas that were meant to trick us into believing that we were somewhere in Europe and the same butter plate that had been there since the day I moved in and the same chicken that was either too dry or too raw in the middle.
“Get me outta here,” I said, throwing the pencil across the room. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon and I was in a windowless basement working on a physics problem set with my buddy Rob. It was funny how now I called him my buddy. We were an unlikely pair, not a romantic kind of pair but just a pair of friends, you know. He was tall, skinny and as blond as they came, with eyes like water and skin so pale he got sunburned just hanging around in the shade. He told me that his parents got his genome sequenced and they found out that he was very white. “Like, 95% white.” Big freaking news, as if they couldn’t figure it out by themselves. He could be spotted miles away in any crowd while I blended in like a pebble on a beach. Mom Asian, Dad Hispanic, I had brown hair, brown eyes, average height, average build with skin tanned like a toast—I could be just from anywhere, race-less and faceless. I had always been remembered as Rob’s sidekick.
“Agree, we have been here for like 3 hours,” Rob said, walking over to pick up my pencil. God bless him, that sweet vampire kid. “Let’s move to Huang building?”
“No, I mean out of here, out of this school. Let’s drop out, Rob.”
“Ah, that again.”
“I’m serious this time, Rob. Jack Kerouac also dropped out when he was a sophomore,” I said, pacing around the room. I always paced around the room when I got excited. “That’s something bound to happen for people like us. I don’t know what I will do. Maybe travel. Maybe fuck up some shit. Have a grand time.”
“Jack Kerouac lived in the 50s.”
“So what? People stopped being interesting nowadays?” Now I was jumping. Then the energy exploded in me and I felt the need to run out to the corridor and back. “Think about that. We can go somewhere faraway. We can go to India. India, man! You’ve seen the photos, those wrecked trains, those Bollywood movies. We can go see where my Mom grew up, some rice-farming village by the side of the Mekong river. Kids go to the school by boats over there, how cool is that? We can go to Egypt, damn it, those pyramids and those mummies. We can go to Patagonia. We can cross the Andes. We can go to Africa. The possibilities! What are we even doing in this basement?”
“Homework, Sam. We need to graduate and get a job.”
“It’s always the homework. My whole life I have been doing homework. My whole life I have been doing what I think I should be doing. When I get older and my grandchildren ask me to tell them about my life and I tell them I did homework this and I got a job that what do you think they would say? They say I don’t want to be like you when I grow up, grandma.”
“Such is life, you know. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
“Exactly. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
And Rob just gave me that amused look he always did when he thought I was out of my mind: “You nuts.”
But I had made up my mind. I would drop out of school and travel and live my life and save my soul and nobody can do anything about that. I filed the papers to take leave from school. I ordered a 60-liter North Face backpack on Amazon. I haggled my friends for the money they owed me.
“Hey Lex remember the time when you forgot your wallet and I paid for your boba?”
“Yeah I do but I was hoping you don’t.”
“Well give me my goddamn money.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“I’m gonna travel the world.”
Seeing the madness of it all Rob knew I was going to do it for real this time. “Don’t drop out,” he pleaded. “Travel during the summer and come back in the fall. I would go with ya.” He was distressed. I was the only one in this school who got him, he said. But he didn’t get me. He didn’t get why I needed to get out of here and not come back at least for a while. He could see my body restless but he didn’t see my soul withering. My precious fragile soul, he didn’t know that there was no homeopathic cure.
I considered his offer about traveling for the summer. He could get his Dad’s old SUV and pick up his high school friend Jack who, according to Rob, “has the biggest case of travel bug ever. That guy once went all the way to China.” We could be the three musketeers driving around the great US of A, hitting dusty western diners and singing old merry country songs on the road. That sounded all right so far, but then Rob insisted that we make a plan: where we should go, whom we should meet and how many days we should stay at each place. “No, we can’t just spontaneously cross into Mexico. No, Panama would be out of question. What? Wouldn’t that be, like, illegal?” So I stomped out on him and called him OCD and he got hurt and we didn’t talk to each other for a day. When I came over to apologize, Rob said he would love to go with me and do all the things I said but his parents wouldn’t let him. We were sitting on the yellowing grass in the middle of an empty lake, looking up to the sky, pondering at how young and tiny we were in the magnitude of this inconceivable universe.
“I bet the stars look different in Africa,” Rob said.
“I’ll tell you when I get there.”
I have decided that he should stay. At least one of us should graduate and make money and be adult and all. He said a long and reluctant yeah, and I knew by instincts that this guy would never leave me had he had a choice. I had the vision that when I came back, I would have changed and he would have changed and things wouldn’t be the same between us, and that made me sad.
When the finals week came, the news of my epic departure had reached half the campus. Everyone I knew started questioning me. “Are you, like, just throwing your future out of the window?” “Nah,” I said. “Are you?” People I barely knew started giving me advice as if my happiness was something of consequences to them. The girl living next door told me no matter where I traveled I should never fly coach because she had to fly coach once and it almost killed her. I told her that was the most pretentious thing I had ever heard. She couldn’t believe what I said at first. After I repeated it to her she went around telling people I was going postal. Max in my Math class sent me a YouTube video that taught you how to pack: you rolled your clothes into little burritos and stack them on top of each another. My advisor called me up to his office and we had a heart to heart talk for almost two hours. He asked if I was sure that was what I wanted to do. I looked at him in the eyes and told him I had never been surer in my life. He nodded. He told me about how in his youth he sometimes had that urge to drop everything and give up on his studies, but he persevered. Per-se-ver-ed with four syllables, my friends, how noble! Now he could afford to travel to any place he wanted anytime he wanted and in style too. I asked him if he took advantage of that, he said no, he had work to do. Now it was my turn to nod. My advisor knew a lost cause when he saw one, so he sighed and told me I should not hesitate to come back to school as soon as I was tired of searching. What I was looking for could be waiting for me right here right now. I thanked him. He asked if I had informed my dad. I said my Dad wouldn’t care. He sighed.
I still didn’t know where exactly I would go first. I counted all the money I had saved from the previous summers and saw that I had a grand total of 4000 bucks. Jack the travel guru told me that with this amount of money I could survive for half a year in Asia, so I narrowed my choice down to one giant-ass continent. Rob sat down with me in front of my computer looking for a flight. We scrutinized the map. We entered strange names into Google search. Oh, Borneo sounded so cool. Holy shit they also had headhunters, people who hunted you down and cut your head and hung it up in their living room for decoration like it’s Christmas. Did you know that the Philippines have 7,500 islands and only 2,000 of them are inhabited? You could probably buy one and set up your own tiny little kingdom and make your hamster a senator. What the hell man the temperature in Delhi now was 110 degrees. Is it possible to fry in your own fat?
After almost 10 hours, we finally settled down for Kuala Lumpur. Guess what that name means. Crystal beach? Nope. Big blue sky? Nope. Eternal sunshine? Ahahahhahaha. It means a “muddy confluence” – I guess some people find that romantic. It was the cheapest flight. The consensus seemed to be that people there spoke English moderately well, so at least I would be able to communicate. I would arrive there, acclimate myself to Asian culture and then explore the rest of Southeast Asia. When all was said and done, I found myself left with a little over three grands. Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur, I said the name again and again and again to get a feel of its sound on the tip of my tongue.
The night before my flight, I took a deep breath and called Dad. I asked if he was drunk, he said nah he hadn’t been drinking for days. I told him about my plan. He said I was a strong independent woman so I could do whatever the hell I wanted. I told him I wanted to visit Mom’s hometown, maybe some of her folks would still be there. He said that it was a great idea. He then went on and on about how he missed mom and how beautiful she was when she was my age and how proud mom must be of me if she was still alive. Then he started crying and I realized he was drunk, so I got angry and hung up.
Rob drove me to the airport. “It’s happening,” he kept saying the whole way. I looked at him and at the cars next to us and to the road ahead of us. I couldn’t decide how I felt. I was excited and nervous and jittery — who wouldn’t be? Tomorrow this time I would be on the other side of the world. People drive on the left over there — what’s right and what’s left anyway? I was also sad. Tomorrow this time Rob and everyone I knew would be on the other side of the world.
“It’s happening,” Rob said as he waited with me in the check-in line, shifting on his legs. He gazed at the couple standing aloof in front of us, at the kid playing on his parents’ iPad behind us, at the group of loud college students in the line next to us. He wanted to remember every detail of this very moment.
“Yes, it’s happening,” I said.
“You got your passport with ya?”
“I got it right here in the front pouch of my small backpack.”
“First aid kit?”
“Your hostel’s address.”
“On my phone and in my notebook.”
“It’s happening,” he said again, tears flowing down his freckled cheeks.
“Dude, you promised me you wouldn’t cry.”
“Damn those ninjas cutting onions,” he laughed, but his tears kept coming out. I started laughing with him, but then I felt so sad I started crying too. So we just stood there, laughing and crying at the same time until we both agreed that it was too awkward and I should just leave already. So I boarded the plane by myself. Goodbye Rob. Goodbye school. Goodbye the US of A. Goodbye the world as I know it. Malaysia, here I come!
(to be continued)