My Version of Casablanca – Part Three

We rented a jeep and headed north, toward the border of Myanmar, to follow in the footsteps of the man I had lost. Our first stop was a secluded collection of bungalows hidden deep in the jungle, surrounded by lush tropical flora. Flowers, varieties I had never seen before, seemed to appear out of nowhere and bend in welcome as we walked down the pebbled path to the lobby/restaurant of the magical sanctuary that awaited us. Intoxicating scents I had never imagined filled my nostrils and birdsong floated all around. It was our stop-over for the night, as the mountains were still calling and we would leave the next day.

Our bamboo hut sat above the river, which flowed down from the waterfall we could hear in the near-distance. We hiked over to it, stripping down to swim in what we/I hoped were healing waters. As we walked back to our bungalow the sun and air dried our bodies and soon we were lounging in the double bed that took up most of the room. We talked about life, how fleeting it had suddenly become and insecure. Joshua had, in some vein, “grown up” before I did. Not only was he older than I was, my husband’s age, but he had traveled the normal route most humans do – marriage, family, home, business.

I, in my early 30’s, had thought I knew what it was like to start to embrace adulthood – if that was what I had experienced in those blissful 9 months we had been married. We had begun to plan the rest of our life, our future. Now I no longer believed that planning the rest of one’s life was possible, there was no longer a happily ever after. All that we had was the here and now, and I was going to be selfish and take what I could get during my two weeks with this man to forget about what was waiting for me when I returned to the States, and to pretend, if only briefly, that I mattered to someone, again.

We ate in the open air restaurant on fresh fish from the river and numerous bottles of dry, white wine. I watched the day’s light fade and a beautiful full moon emerge over the waterfall. The stars slowly began to awaken. Everything felt lazy, romantic, timeless. I never wanted it to end. I never wanted to leave this enchanted land and have to go back to where the nightmares lived.

The next day we regretfully left what had felt like our own piece of paradise, and headed toward Mae Sai – the town that is a border crossing to Myanmar. Joshua led me through markets and into stalls of friends he and my husband had collected in their numerous travels, and as with everyone else I had met, they were warm, open, welcoming. We had coffee at a cafe that overlooked the river between the countries. We would be spending the night on the Thai side, in the hotel that my husband and Joshua called home when in that city. To this day, I have a photograph of my husband standing on the balcony of his hotel room, perspiring from a run, in the height of his youth with yet another rainbow arcing above his head that travels with me wherever I work. It is my favorite picture of him. Knowing that I stood in the same place he did makes me happy some days – other days, I mourn that I was never there with him.

Joshua and I walked across the border, into the unsettled atmosphere of a country that was night and day compared to the one that lay behind us, on the other side of the bridge. I think it has been on the State Department’s dangerous and/or do-not-travel list for decades. But I am a fearless traveler and I knew Joshua would not let danger befall us – hell, he’d done this numerous times. And our only desire was to find a somewhat clean cafe and order a Burmese beer and then get the hell back over the bridge before night descended and the incessant fighting between the government forces and the rebels would commence. It was another stamp in the passport. It was another footstep in the very large prints my husband had left behind. And it was one of the best beers I ever tasted.

Later, back at the hotel, in the calmness of the Thai night (although we could easily hear the gunfire across the border from our balcony) we ventured into the restaurant. It was an enormous ballroom and we were the only two occupants. There was a stage and as we sat, two beautiful Thai women came out and throughout our meal sang karaoke to pop songs, in off-tune voices. We could only look at one another and revel in the experience of being the sole witnesses to this event. Or perhaps the event was happening because we were there. Eventually the day, the adventures, caught up with us, and we found our bodies entwined as we tried to forget the memories that chased us.

It seemed as if everything I wished for, or said aloud, on that trip became reality in front of my eyes. One day, as we were driving down a lone stretch of highway, I told Joshua I would love to see a cobra. Within moments one appeared in the middle of the road. Over and over again, I would say something I wanted to see, not something he could necessarily show me or had planned to, but just something I imagined could be, and it would appear. It was as if the universe was giving me a vacation from my sorrows, from my pain, and the balm was healing while it lasted. While I was there. With him. With someone who wasn’t the man I missed more than air, but someone close enough to him to fill the void, if only for a spell.

And before I knew it, the two weeks were over. And we were flying back to Bangkok, where he would take a flight back to China and I would spend the night before heading back to the States. Our last evening was painful for my heart. For my body. I knew I would lose the comfort he had given me, the love (if that is what one would call it) that we briefly shared in our grief, the adventure of being in a land I never wanted to leave, and once more being alone, in a house that was no longer ours, and no longer mine. I learned a valuable lesson on that journey. My late husband was not a part of the home we shared in the States – yes, he was everywhere within it, but that was not where his essence was. My trip taught me where he really existed – in this wonderful land where saffron and jasmine color the air and through all the chaos, peace was easily found.

We held hands the entire flight back to the capital city. As one would expect, it went by far too quickly. When we landed and deplaned on the tarmac, we held each other for what felt like years. We kissed – long, lingering, slowly – knowing that it could be for the last time. For what could I ask of him? That he leave his wife, his family, the life he had built to save me from myself? No, that was not his place. He had done enough, and I knew I had to let him go, as much as every fiber of my being didn’t want to.

And so, like Ilsa, I walked away from him, leaving him standing by the plane, on the hot tarmac under a blistering sun. He had done more for me than anyone else since my husband’s death. I did not know what the future held: for me, for him. But I knew I had to walk away, because if I did not I would crumple and never get up. I did not look back. I kept my feet walking forward into the terminal and out to a taxi waiting to take me to my hotel. He returned to his life. I would return to the remnants of my own.

I did not know what awaited me – I could not imagine at that moment the years of pain and grief I would go through, alone and bringing others into the chaos that would become my life. But I would never regret nor have denied myself the opportunity to spend those two weeks in my own version of Casablanca.

© Sorrow & Kindness

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