Practically Naked

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Wouter beams when I drop on the sand next to him. I ask him about Russia. To avoid the leftover Stalinist restrictions that tourist visas still impose on travelers, he says, he bought a business visa through some outfit that specialized in selling them. With it, he could stay three months and go anywhere. And he went all the way to Sakhalin.

“Where’s Sakhalin?” I ask.

“It’s an island off the Pacific coast.” He raves about Russian hospitality and inescapable vodka binges. “You’ve got to go to Russia,” he says.

“I’m committed to Japan. I signed up for a language course in Tokyo.”

“When you’re done, take a ferry to Russia. It’s just like next door.”

A tall chick in a bikini walks along the beach, face shaded by a floppy hat. She carries a bag in one hand, sandals in the other. Her boobs sway and her hips swing and her inner thighs rub together as she puts foot before foot in the loose sand.

“Look at that babe,” he says.

“Holy moly,” I observe in my perspicacious manner.

She changes direction, zeroes in on us. Subject to genetic programming, we become speechless. He sits up straight to appear bigger. In the span of two seconds, we’ve flipped from friends to competitors. She stops a few feet away, smiles. Pubic hairs wriggle out from under her bikini bottom. We stop breathing.

“Hallo,” she says.

Susi. Practically naked. We only knew her in baggy traveler clothes. We breathe, pretend nothing has happened. Then the cursed backpacker camaraderie sets in and douses any possibilities with traveler talk.

Hours later, we take the antique tram into Adelaide’s colonial center. We’ve dressed up for the occasion: Wouter in polo shirt and the khaki shorts he always wears but with the zip-off legs zipped on; Susi in a cocktail dress; I in a wrinkled dress shirt and winkle-free khakis. She wants to go shopping. Wouter and I tag along, first to the Central Market, then from shop to shop. We eat at a trattoria, and when it closes, we migrate to a bar.

Susi flirts with both of us. We’ve switched back to English, flirting in German being simply too torturous. It’s our last evening together. We laugh and carry on. We dance, miss the last tram, walk back. His hostel is the first one up, and we come to a halt in front of it.

“Why don’t you guys join me on the Wayward Bus tomorrow to Alice Springs?” I say.

“I can’t,” she says. “I’m out of time.”

“Oh man, it’s too expensive,” he says.

“It takes eight days. If you average it out, it isn’t bad.”

“I’m not doing the Alice,” he says. “It’s too far and too hot.”

Her eyes shift from him to me and back to him.

I like him, and part of me is sad I won’t see him again. The other part of me is leering at Susi in her cocktail dress.

“So—” His face twitches into a smile. He has come to grips with his fate. We’re in front of his hostel, he has to go inside, it’s over for him, she’ll be mine.

“See you around,” he says to her.

“Ja.” She wavers, wants both of us. “See you.” They shake hands.

“Good luck with your trip,” he says to me.

“Good luck with your career,” I say to him. We shake hands.

And she’s mine. We dawdle through the neighborhood. The air is buzzing with anticipation. She’s swiveling and swinging her hips.

“There’s my hostel,” she says about a building half a block away.

We hesitate, slow down, stop, turn toward each other. She inhales, projects her boobs toward me.

It would be easy to hook my fingers behind her arm and draw her to me. The rest would follow. Instead, I struggle with logistics. We both have roommates. The beach is lined with multistory buildings. We don’t even have a beach towel. While I’m juggling these complications, anticipation fades. We stand around, undecided, uncertain, silent, incapable, and then we say good-bye, regretful because this is something that should have led somewhere.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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