“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I often wonder how many hours, days, months I have spent marinating over events and scenarios in my head that will never happen. I think about all the possible Peter’s that will never be. The famous star athlete, actor, or war hero. The wealthy Financier, a leader of men, wearing a suit and working in a Manhattan high-rise, which would make my dad beam with pride. The reclusive, successful writer, living in a remote cabin in the plains of Indiana, filled with shame about the people he has exploited by sharing the intimate details of those closest to him. The 45 year old man working a menial job with 2 kids and an estranged wife, forever bitter at the squandering of the once infinite possibilities, consumed with jealousy towards an older brother who is fully self-actualized and successful.
I have had a privileged life, and this has provided an abundance of choices and different potential paths, which have led to decision fatigue. I am drawn to these fantasy identities as a means of quenching my lust for recognition as a capable and talented individual. I know these paths of fame and fortune are well-trod by mostly unhappy and unfulfilled people. Seeking and receiving validation is a rollercoaster ride and a never ending run on a hamster wheel in which one’s emotions are dictated by others. It will always come crashing down, like a drug high. I spent most of today’s hike retreated in the cave-like recesses of my mind, seeking refuge in the merry-go-round of shameful memories that leave me feeling trapped and sinking like I have stepped in quicksand. I feel safe there.
“Do you want anything from the bar?” Katrine said
“Hey, hellooo? Are you hearing me?” She raised her voice.
“What? Yeah, yeah, can you fill up my water bottle? Thanks.” I said. We stopped at a small cafe to rest and I sat down as she went into the bar.
Katrine snapped a picture of me as I munched on a donut in the procession of pastries that I bought every morning on the Camino. “Now I have a picture of an American eating a donut. Haha.” She said.
We walked in silence a lot of the day, at varying speeds, but we settled into a quiet sharing of the space. Imagine going on a date with a girl and then spending every waking minute with her for the next 72 hours. We talked about everything that is possible to talk about, in this universe or a parallel one. Any construct of boundaries or norms was bulldozed over. You can feel extremely close to a person after a few days together on the Camino, or hate them, there’s not much room for in between. I ponder who the burden of talking falls on. I think I’m the boring one. I hate saying things just to fill silence that are dull and banal.
We ascended the lengthy incline and peak at O Cebreiro. It was physically taxing but resulted in a shot of endorphins, I was craving my afternoon 1200 mg dose of ibuprofen with a cigarette for that smooth head rush.
We walked by some large people who sounded Midwestern American.
“Those people are from Nebraska. Their accents give them away so easily.” I said, with brazen confidence, taking a guess.
“Really? You can tell just from hearing two sentences?” She said, widening her eyes. I sensed she was smarter than she let on, or I was just being played.
“So where are you hiking to today?” She asked. We lost Nicole and Matt as they were moving much slower.
“Whatever the next town is after O Cebreiro, I think its 5 or 6 more km.” I said.
“Is it ok if I join you?” She said.
“Yeah, sure.” I said, cracking a smile and barely turning my neck towards her as we walked. I envisioned myself pumping my arms like I was celebrating a game winning touchdown. I’m getting on the rollercoaster and I feel ethereally good, floating almost, but I maintained my stoic poker face.
“You’ll tell me if you want to walk alone at any point?” She asked.
“Yeah, of course. And you’ll tell me if you want to walk alone, right?” I said.
“Yeah.” She said.
We stopped in O Cebreiro and I inhaled a large slab of Milka Oreo Chocolate and a muffin. I popped my pills and had 2 cigarettes and told myself they were rewards for a strenuous day.
Katrine exhaled her smoke elegantly like a seasoned professional. I estimated in my mind she’d had at least 20,000 cigarettes if she started smoking at 17 and was now 25. I’d be good at it too if I was a smoker. I’m more of a sucker for smokers than the masses of 1950’s America who propelled tobacco into a billion dollar industry based on those commercials about good looking cowboys. I hoped no other pilgrims would come by and join us hiking for the rest of the day. As the comedian Joe Derosa says “I felt like I was handling nitroglycerin at this point. Just don’t drop it.”
“Do you always have the beard?” Katrine said after a silence.
“No, I’m usually always clean shaven for work.” I said.
“I like it.” She said.
I was pleased by her flattery and lack of subtlety. She must have thought it necessary, given the lack of affect in my face. We advanced on past O Cebreiro and I told her about my American friend Rollie who had albergue (hostel) sex with a British girl back in Burgos.
“Would you do it in a hostel?” I asked.
“No way! With all those people sleeping around you? Gross. Only if I were VERY drunk. Would you?” Katrine said.
“Yes.” I said.
“Can you take a picture of me here?” She said.
She stood with her back to the camera with her arms outstretched over the clouds that enveloped the mountain range.
“So you’d like it from behind?” I said, cringing at the lame innuendo before it escaped my lips. I sometimes say things that I think might be funny but could only be reasonably believed by someone with more charisma than me, or a movie character.
“Ha. Ha. Ha.” She said, contorting her face to impersonate a developmentally disabled person.
We sat in the quiet part of the woods on top of our backpacks along the side of the trail. A disoriented middle-aged American mother with a knee brace came by looking for her daughter. “Yes, we saw a young blonde girl pass here ten minutes ago. You’ll run into her soon.” Katrine offered. We had our cigarettes. I showed her a scar on my hand I had cut on a waterslide in Greece from ten years ago. She took my hand and held it, softly, inspecting it. Her eyes slowly rose to meet mine with a small crack of her lips that formed a smile. I saw that kaleidoscope of color refracted from the sunlight in her retinas.
We got up and continued.
“Does the guy always ask out the girl in America?” She said.
“Yeah, what about in Norway?” I said.
“Girls can ask guys out. It happens a lot.” She said.
“Makes sense with the females in your country being more empowered and open about sex than American girls are. American women are judged more harshly for talking about sex or sexual exploits in casual conversation, its a double standard.” I said.
We stopped to have some nasty olive and broccoli pizza from the tapas menu at the next bar. We ate with a 7 foot tall German guy and a couple from Montana with down-home drawls and jowls. I ate quickly and rushed us back onto the trail.
“Can we stop for a cigarette?” I said, in a hurry. “Right here, under this tree’s looks like a good spot.”
We sat beside the trail under a canopy of green-leafed trees. Hikers passed with regular frequency. We smoked our cigarettes and laid back with our eyes facing the sky. My brain-to-mouth assembly line was working overtime and the filters were disabled. I filled silences frantically, for fear of an awkward pause before making a move on her. I could feel my heart beat pulsing and the adrenaline in my blood giving me laser-like focus.
“I used to sing in high school. I sang this one song in Italian for a competition.” I said, my face reddening.
She was mildly impressed. But then the predictable “Can you sing for me?” came from her and I kicked myself for ever mentioning it.
I kissed her, finally. We made out, pausing when hikers walked by, trying not to appear too obvious. The relief was immediate, like a massive weight coming off my chest and shoulders. We walked another 3 km and checked into the municipal albergue. We had the welcome relief of single non-bunk beds, a rarity on the Camino. I showered and laid down, then went to the cafe across the street with Katrine. I had expected to meet Anders and Peter in Sarria but was deflated to realize they had passed it.
We both checked texts and emails with the wi-fi connection at the cafe.
“Nicole said I should I should slow down and meet up back with them, she said ‘we’re way more fun than Pete’ ” Katrine said.
“Oh, well feel free.” I said, bracing like I had been punched in the gut. I was becoming more immune to her cutting honesty at this point. I was also drawn to it, by magnetic force. I was fascinated by it the way I would be towards an exotic animal of the Amazon. She never told white lies to spare people’s egos and the truth was the same no matter who she was talking to.
We went out to dinner at a terrace.
“This is like a real dinner date.” Katrine said.
“Yeah.” I said.
“Yeah.” Katrine said, twisting her mouth, mocking my monotone voice. “Why don’t you smile more? You can be happy on vacation, Pete, of all places.” She said.
Niels and Jaime came by after 20 minutes, Katrine knew them from earlier in the hike. Niels was a fast talking guy of 31, confident, down to earth, Danish, with that no-holds-barred attitude they have about sex in conversation and crude jokes, which I appreciated. He had a blonde beard and a distinctly Scandinavian facial structure.
I imagined his audition for the dating Reality show the Bachelorette would be: “I got some time off at the factory in my home province of Jutland. I heard there were some hot chicks… Us Danes love a good party!” His jovial chuckle followed, as it did with most things he said. His levity was infectious. He was also a skilled photographer with a large camera. He was a consigliere, a uniter of people, who took a genuine interest in every one of what I thought was 100+ friends he had on the Camino.
Jaime was 33 and would be from California if he was American. He had a laid back surfer vibe, it was hard to tell if he had smoked weed or not at any given time. His sun-kissed long hair contrasted with his dark beard and light blue eyes. He spoke slowly but had that unmistakable Spanish good nature. When I spoke, I knew he was absorbing every word like a sponge. Spaniards are inherently better people than Americans I have found. They’re actually almost annoyingly helpful at times though because they NEED to help you if you have a problem. Niels and Jaime were best friends who had met on the Camino and were a perfect yin to the other’s yang.
We basically had to shoot up a flare to get the attention of the waiter. I ordered the three course pilgrim meal. It came with either a free bottle of wine or free large bottle of water. Being sober, I ordered the bottle of wine, thinking it would help my chances with Katrine. These three would not let a bottle of wine go to waste.
Jaime told me he was originally from Galicia, in Spain, but was living in Bavaria, Germany and working as an engineer and was fluent in German. Niels and Katrine made sexual jokes and goofy faces and laughed like children, getting progressively drunker off the wine. I had captured that warm, communal Camino feeling again. The dinner lasted 3 or 4 hours in the slow Spanish way. Niels rolled cigarettes for me as we continued on with the stories and Camino gossip.
While abstaining from alcohol, I can still usually acquire the gregarious attitude of drunk people by osmosis or electrical transmission. Its just a passing state of mind, like a sunny day or a snow storm. I can feed off their drunk energy and channel a reproduction of their boastfulness in myself. I was relieved when Niels and Jaime said they were staying in a different hostel after dinner.
We got back to the hostel, brushed our teeth, read for a bit.
“We should push the beds together, I want to cuddle.” She said.
“Ok” I slid my bed on its frame to line up flush with her bed.
Snuggling led to making out. Only Koreans occupied the room we were in, maybe 10 of them, possibly the most polite culture on earth. So we obnoxiously made out while the Koreans pretended to be asleep. Katrine whispered in a tiny voice that she convinced the guy turned on his side was staring directly at us and I tried to convince her that he wasn’t. He might have enjoyed the midnight show, I couldn’t tell for sure. The muffled grinding did not last for long.
“Should we just go into the bathroom?” I whispered.
“Yeah” She complied.
We went into the communal woman’s bathroom as it was the only one on the floor and found a private stall. There was an intense makeout of 20 seconds followed by a dropping of our pants and panties. When we finished, Katrine put her clothes back on and we quietly snuck out of the women’s bathroom. I stopped her before we exited. I looked at Katrine as I had my post-coital shift back down to reality, like I was the Incredible Hulk shrinking back down to normal size, or orienting my eyes to a new pair of glasses. Her eyes were bloodshot and her lips and tongue shone as red-purple, from the wine, in the bright lights of the bathroom. I saw her as human and vulnerable for the first time. I regarded her eyes and all the insecurity and fear they contained. Katrine told the girl entering the bathroom at that moment. “Sorry, that’s my boyfriend, He’s very sick.” as I ducked away, to rinse off in the shower at 2 am.