I woke up angry on the day before my 21st birthday. I lay in the bed of a Copacabana hostel in Rio de Janeiro, shivering next to Ayal — my Israeli travel-friend-with-benefits — as he slept soundly. After the initial 20 minutes of our reconvening in Rio, nothing had been remotely ideal. We argued. I was jealous and paranoid. I wanted all of his attention. I wanted to know his feelings, but I also didn’t want to have to ask. I was afraid of him, and afraid of myself, too, because I was in unfamiliar territory. I had no control. I hated this but also knew that if I had control, things wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing.
And so I was simply angry. Angry I had barely slept, angry my eyes were stinging from tears. I thought about heading back to Buenos Aires again, leaving him and his dreadlocks lying in our hostel bed. But I decided to wait until after my birthday. I had, after all, waited a month for this. Chance had stationed me and Ayal in the same Buenos Aires hostel for a while, and then I followed him to Iguazu Falls. But our time together ended — or was put on pause, I should say. He headed north to Brazil while I returned to the Paris of South America, where I spent several weeks dreaming of our perfect reunion before passing out each night, despite all the other boys.
Ugh, I was angry. Angry that I had let this boy under my skin. Angry that he had no clue. Angry that I couldn’t tell him. And as Aristotle says, “No one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking vengeance.” (I had picked up a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric from the ‘take one, leave two,’ table in our hostel. It’s a ridiculous idea, really. What backpacker ever has two books to spare? Anyway, it was between Rhetoric and Marley & Me. I had been crying enough as it was and didn’t need to add the death of a dog to the equation, so I grabbed the more intellectual pursuit. It earned a spot in my backpack for the rest of my trip.)
Ayal finally woke up, and we switched hostels. “Let’s go to the zoo,” Ayal proposed. “Come on, come on.” I really didn’t want to. I had been to the zoo in Buenos Aires weeks before. But when you’re crazy about someone, you’ll do whatever just to spend time with them.
He took fucking forever looking at each animal, honestly spending 10 minutes on one. Staring. Watching. I grew bitter as I watched him enjoy himself. “It’s a fucking gorilla,” I bitched to myself in my head. “There are 10 more. Come on.” I was cold. My eyes hurt, my head hurt, my whole body hurt.
I went back to the hostel, to sleep, and woke hours later. I felt better, if only because my birthday would happen at midnight and I was going to have fun, even if I was alone. I could hear the sound of people at the bar outside our bedroom door.
It was crowded…what time was it? “10:30,” someone told me. I made the rounds. I sat for a while with a guy from Denmark and two cousins from Italy, one of whom made clear he was interested in me. Which meant, of course, that I was uninterested. I found myself sipping Brahma beer with Kathy and Christina, two full-figured blondes from Norway, who were both 20 years old.
“So, it’s my birthday tonight,” I told them. “My 21st.”
“OH MY GAWLD! That is so crazy in America right? Like big parties wif all your friends and so much shots. OH MY GAWLD!” Kathy exclaimed, perhaps more excited than I was. “That’s so fetch!” Christina squealed.
“That’s so…what?” I asked. Was this English?
“From Mean Girls! Isn’t it just like your high school?” Kathy piped in, “The popular girls at our school always say ‘fetch’ because they think that’s what you do in America.”
I felt bad telling them that this wasn’t quite the case.
I glanced around the rooftop terrace. No Ayal. I peeked in our room. No Ayal. The last I’d seen of him was when we’d split a bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato sandwich earlier. I tried not to care. I looked at my watch — 11:57. I took a deep breath and prepared to celebrate this milestone with no one that really mattered. I asked myself in disbelief, “Really, Ayal? Would you really do this to me?” I felt a self-pitying tear coming on as Manu Chao blasted out of the speaker above my head.
Then the music stopped, the lights went off, and the entire hostel started to sing. All 20 or so people at the bar, none of whose first language was English, sang the Happy Birthday song as Ayal held a convenience-store cake with a sparkler in front of me. The United Nations choir sang, “Happy Birrfffdey Dear blaablaa. Happy Birrfffday too youuu.” Ayal and I met eyes above the flame, each of us wearing the same wide grin, and I, like the sparkler, melted.
I wasn’t angry anymore.
An hour later, I found myself many-caipirinhas deep at a night club — many caipirinhas that had seemed to have no trace of lime or sugar, just cachaça. Ayal and I were dancing and stealing kisses when a Brazilian guy that seemed around my age asked Ayal, “Is she your girlfriend?”
We never knew what to say to this question, though we got it a lot over the course of our hostel-hopping. Ayal and I shrugged our shoulders and tilted our heads — this would not be the moment to get into all that. “She’s beautiful,” the stranger said. “Can I see you kiss her?”
I closed my eyes and let my head roll back as I laughed. Ayal grabbed my face and kissed me. We let the moment linger. I pulled back, staring at the Brazilian whose mouth drooped open and eyes were wide. “Uhhh, one more time?” he said. “For longer, maybe?” Of course, we obliged.
“Can I kiss her too, please?” the Brazilian asked Ayal. “For her birthday.”
I looked at my Israeli, whose nonchalantly-raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders suggested: “Whatever.” “Seriously?” I thought. In response to this response I turned around and immediately locked lips with this stranger. I started to laugh, pushed the Brazilian away and spun around, likely hitting the poor kid with my hair. I pulled Ayal close. He wore an unshaken expression. “I only want you,” I told him. Everything seemed fine and we headed back to the Norwegian girls.
A little while later, I got us the final round of drinks included in the cover charge. As I turned back to the dance floor in what seemed like slow motion, I witnessed a sobering scene that emptied the room, paused the music and stopped the strobe lights. Suddenly, it was just me, Ayal, and Kathy. Ayal was leaning toward her, trying to kiss her, blatantly invading her space and ignoring her pushes away. Kathy looked disgusted and shocked. Then she saw me, and she looked like a deer in headlights.
“Wait…really?” my lips spoke in a whisper. I squeezed my eyes tight only to open them and see the same thing. I wanted to scream, but I was not about to yell in English, to be That Girl in front of a bunch of foreigners. The scene remained frozen for two more seconds, during which I made my way across the dance floor, grabbed Ayal’s arm, showed my look of disgust, and ran away. And then it all returned. The music was booming, the lights were strobing, and the crowd was dancing violently. Yes, that happened.
Ayal chased after me, begging me to stop running. I spun around near the exit of the club, “What the fuck was that?!” I shouted, finally not caring if I was That Girl. “Are you fucking kidding me? A mutual friend? On my birthday? In front of me?!”
Ayal shouted right back: “Then what the hell did you just do in front of me?! I got you a fucking cake, got the whole fucking hostel to sing to you and you kiss another guy IN FRONT OF ME?! REALLY?! REALLLLY?! YOU ARE STUPID! YOU ARE SO YOUNG AND STUPID!”
Absolutely. I was 21 and stupid.
The next afternoon I saw the Norwegian girls on the beach, well into a Norwegian Independence Day booze fest. I ran up to Kathy and hugged her waist from behind. She turned around and screamed when she saw me, looking like she was going to cry. “Emily! I’m so sorry! He asked me to help him. He asked me to help him. He kept asking for my help.” She sobbed beer tears.
“It’s OK,” I assured her in a whisper. “Everything’s OK. I’m not angry at all.” It was true. My anger had turned into relief. We held each other for a few minutes, and all I could do was smile.
I settled onto my sarong and took out Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I didn’t have a writing instrument with me, but I had to highlight a quote. I scraped the surface of my pointer nail along the lines, leaving traces of red polish across the words, so applicable: “Revenge and punishment are different things. Punishment is inflicted for the sake of the person punished; revenge for that of the punisher, to satisfy his feelings.”
Turns out he did have feelings. • 16 October 2009