Can an Imaginary Boyfriend Fix Your Problems?
He looks around as though I'm playing a joke on him and my traveling companion is somewhere behind me, hiding. Then he shrugs, as though to say, "Suit yourself," and stamps. It bangs like a gavel.
Galápagos is a funny place to visit by yourself. Usually, it's a once-in-a-lifetime, save-up-for-years-to-afford-it destination. Traveling to the islands involves luxury boats and secluded beaches, the sort of Instagram-envy experience that is shared with a romantic partner.
But there are several reasons why I'm without a companion, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the very spot where Darwin formulated his famous theory. One of them is practical: I'm on a research trip for my novel set in the Galápagos. The other is that I have no one with whom to travel. I have no husband, no boyfriend and no friend who has time off.
I have traveled alone before, both for work and for pleasure. A combination of chronic singledom and odd vacation schedules have conspired to keep me on my own. Usually, I don't mind it. I enjoy solitude. I like doing what I want, which, sometimes, is sitting around reading a book instead of sightseeing. Evenings can be tough, though; dinner out by myself is always awkward. I'm not the kind of girl who drinks alone at the bar (though I would never disparage anyone who is), nor am I the kind of girl who wants the company of those who go out looking for girls who drink alone at the bar. I don't enjoy small talk. Attention from strangers makes me feel vulnerable and ill at ease. I don't like new people until I already know them (yes, I'm fully aware that this is illogical).
This trip, I'm armed against the awkward dinners with a few names of people to contact once I'm on-island and a mantra given to me by a hippie friend: "I am the hero of my own journey." If I repeat this, she assures me, I won't feel lonely; but rather, empowered. Past Customs, I head to Floreana, one of the islands that allows visitors to stay in "hotels" on land rather than on boats. I haven't been on shore for more than three minutes when the agriculture inspector asks me where my boyfriend is.
I open my mouth to say that I don't have a boyfriend. I am the hero of my own journey.
The inspector waits, making eye contact. Am I being hit on? Or being identified as a potential victim? (For the record, crime in the Galápagos is extremely rare). It seems unwise to admit I'm by myself.
"My boyfriend couldn't come with me," I quickly mumble. Some hero.
The inspector narrows his eyes as though he doesn't believe me. I need specificity. "Joe couldn't make it at the last minute. A work thing."
Why would I go on vacation without him, the inspector asks. He is poking around my backpack searching for illegal apples.
I shrug, saying I have always wanted to come to the Galápagos. This is an apparently unsatisfactory answer, as it is followed by an invitation to have a drink that night (umm...where? There are no bars on Floreana).
No bars, and not much of anything else. The island of Floreana has only about 200 inhabitants, mostly farmers; the bulk of the land is national park, which is to say, off limits. Had I been with a friend, I might agree to meet him. But alone it feels...uncomfortable.
As far as other nonresidents go, on Floreana that week are an American couple, two Argentinian girls, a German botany group and a lone Austrian scientist. Everyone wants to know why I'm traveling alone, and so I embellish my lie. The Argentinians are especially curious about Joe. He gains a profession: He is a lawyer. He is dark, not supertall, but nice-looking, at least in my opinion. His father was Chilean. He has two children. His ex-wife is kind of crazy. My phone has run out of battery, otherwise I'd show a picture. I lie so fluidly, so convincingly, that I'm practically fooling myself.
The Argentinians express admiration that I have come to the Galápagos without him, so much admiration at my amazing achievement that I end up feeling as if I've just spoken to my mother's friend who delights in telling me how "strong" I must be to deal with so much "rejection" all the time in my profession as a writer. "I wouldn't be able to deal with the amount of rejection you constantly experience." Thanks, Gladys.
By now, I start to drop Joe into conversations without prompting. The Americans and I hire an unofficial guide (read: a guy with a motorboat) to take us out to a snorkeling spot. Before the engine starts, I head off the question at the pass: "Joe would love this. He's really into snorkeling." The guide does not seem particularly interested, but I continue: "Joe was here," I say, "but he had to go home early for work, and I thought I'd stay a bit extra by myself." The motor's roar saves me from further babbling.
Living on Floreana, traveling to Floreana, is not for the easily lonely. There are only two roads. One goes straight up about three miles. A prehistoric bus travels twice a day to take farmers up and bring them back down. The other road meanders about a mile along the port. Walking from place to place, I have a lot of time to daydream.
In fact, I begin to fantasize that Joe is with me, to imagine scenarios where we laugh at the penguins together, discover the iguana tracks at the same time, wonder what meat we are being served. I like Joe; he eases the solitude. He's for me, now, not just for the public.
The truth is: I wish Joe were by my side. It's terribly hot and I want to go swimming, but the water is too rough to go into by myself and a sea-lion bull barks angrily when I try to enter the one calm inlet. I read something funny, and I want to tell someone. I sit on the beach and watch the sun set and long for someone to share it with, someone to hold my hand and to say banal things about its beauty to.
Still, there are some experiences that I would not have if Joe were with me. I make friends with the Germans, who give me a ride up the road. Their guide is friendly with the owner of a farm, and we stop there to get a full explanation of what's growing, including a plant I've never seen before, some sort of melon with a pineapple headdress. We laugh with the farmers and eat guanábanas. I join the Argentinians for mate on the beach. I have a long chat with the granddaughter of an original settler, who tells me stories of what it was like to grow up on the island. Had I been with Joe, a real Joe, I probably would not have sought out these conversations or experiences. My mantra has come true.
At least until the kayak trip. "You traveling by yourself?" the guy in charge of rentals asks as he hands me a paddle and a life jacket.
That's it, my breaking point. I'm sick of having to explain myself. I want to yell, "Yes, I'm by myself. I'm unlovable and middle-aged. Is there a desirability test for kayak renting?"
Instead, I just nod. Grouchily, I paddle out past the edge of the sheltered bay and around the other side of the isthmus. I'm taking out my aggression on the waves, getting further and further from civilization. Somehow, there is a small eddy, and though I paddle frantically to avoid it, the bow dips, the stern turns and I capsize. The cheap plastic kayak immediately fills with water. Unable to stand, unable to turn it back over, having lost my sunglasses and hat, I am fairly sure I am going to die. My aloneness bobs to the surface, a buoyant balloon of self-pity.
I am terrified, my heart thumping and my stomach clenching. I feel bad for my parents: How long will it take for them to identify my body, if it is even found? And I feel stupid because I tried to do an activity by myself that really should only be done with a partner (camp lessons in water safety nag me), and now I am dying because of it. More than ever, I desperately want Joe with me. I am actually even angry that he's not there. I wonder: Is this a little nuts?
The plastic floating paddle I dropped rides a wave and collides with the back of my head, knocking me out of my defeatist stupor. I grab it before it gets swept away and remember I was using the life jacket as a cushion. It's not far, and I put it on. I rest the paddle on top of the turtled kayak and swim slowly toward a group of mangroves. Once there, I manage to use the paddle as a level against the mangroves to re-right the boat.
I get in. I'm exhausted. I have a headache from squinting. I've swallowed an ill-advised amount of sea water. But after a few minutes of rest, I begin to paddle back to shore. And there, bobbing in the water as though sunning itself in a pool, is my hat.
I put it on, triumphant. I have just saved my own life. I don't need a Joe. I really am the hero of my own journey. Starting now.
Allison Amend is the author of Enchanted Islands and A Nearly Perfect Copy.