Mari and I are sprawled out on the floor in her living room, for some reason choosing to leave the couch vacant in favor of sinking into the plush white carpet. We’re pouring over pictures and yearbooks, and other keepsakes Mari keeps stored in the back of her closet. I take in all the places scattered around me; Athens. Costa Rica. Barcelona. Capri. Cabo. New Zealand. Australia. Toronto. Paris. Rome. Jamaica. Brazil. Tokyo. The only constant in each one is Mari; either her physical prescence or her photographic flare showcased by some scenic still shot that I’d never have the eye to know it would be as gorgeous as it is in print. She’s telling me about her time in Barcelona. There she is in a sequence of pictures, her skin tanned a gorgeous color of brown, her curly hair a wild halo floating above her head, a defiant streak of blond cutting through the front of an otherwise jet black mane. She’s smiling her big, beautiful smile, the kind I hope my orthodontist can help me achieve, and she just looks so damn… alive. All around me is so much life, so much adventure and experience, so much gall and confidence, so much peace. She flips through the photographs, telling me where she was, why she took the picture, the funny thing that happened that day. I hear her, but I’m hardly listening, every photograph like a knife peeling away my armor like the delicate skin of a peach. Before I know it, a tear hits the coast of Costa Rica and slides down the middle like a lone rain drop that got caught on the lens. Another quickly follows and lands on Mari’s face standing next to a handsome Spanish man in the next picture.
“Oh my God I’d forgotten about him. I cannot remember his name but girl he was so-” She stops when she notices my tears. “What’s wrong mami?”
I sigh. I don’t know how to tell her that I am so damn jealous I can barely breathe. That here I am dreaming about going all of these places she’s been and can talk about so effortlessly. She is living the life I want. And I tell her so.
“Mami you’re young. You gotta remember I’ve got an eight year lead on you.” I’m silent, shuffling through pictures, thoroughly red faced embarrassed for that display of vulnerability. She takes the stack of photographs from my hands and starts to shuffle through them slowly. I notice that it’s not until around Paris that Ella shows up even though I know they knew each other back then. And then there they are together. At the Eifel Tower. The Collosieum. Ella wrapped in a colorful Jamaican flag and little else, staring out into the sunset over her native land. At Carnival, both tanned, wearing next to nothing, grinning and standing next to a woman in a colorful costume. Ella towering over Mari and a small Asian woman at a resturant. She sits the pictures down on floor and presses gently on my shoulder until my head is in her lap. She releases the band holding my hair in a messy bun on top of my head and starts kneeding her knuckles into my scalp.
“Going on these trips,” she says to me, her slight accent still peppering her words, “was not as fun and glamorous as it seemed. In most of these places, I was alone. I lost alot of friends who didn’t understand why I’d rather visit a Buddhist temple in Asia than stay here and go to the club and get drunk every weekend. Much of my family turned their backs on me because they didn’t understand why I wasn’t at home taking care of our family with some fancy job my Ivy League degree could get me. They didn’t understand why I chose to see the world rather than just exist in my own. The guy I was engaged to at the time, he didn’t understand why he just wasn’t passionate enough for me, why I wasn’t content to just be an armpiece at a charity event. He didn’t see how travelling would give my two dimensional world depth. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand why I left.”
She pauses, her fingers still in my hair, her sighs over my head telling me that she’s back in that place again, twenty-one and packing only one suitcase, liquidizing all her assets, buying a one way ticket to Greece, leaving the ring and her life on the kitchen counter.
“Getting outside of yourself,” she continues, “is what changes you. Seeing other people, other lives, other families, other religions and cultures and customs, is what makes you open your eyes. That one moment, when you finitely realize that the world is so much larger than yourself and yet you are still fundamentally connected to it, it is like baptism. A cleansing of your old life so that you can live your new one. I didn’t get that until probably around Australia or so. And all of a sudden I was burned up with this desire to go back to the countries I’d already visited and look at them with these new eyes. For me, it literally was an instant transformation. I was suddenly someone new and different. And that was the last straw for everyone I’d ever known from my old life. Except for Ella.”
She pauses, staring off into the distance, a slight smile tugging at the edge of her lips.
“El didn’t know what I was going through. She’d never been to the places I’d been or lived my life. She was so young. But she listened. Genuinely. And she remembered even the smallest thing I mentioned. Because she cared. What started out as a quick email after we met in New York ended with me sending her a plane ticket to meet me in Paris. I remember, before she got there, loving the countries I was visiting, the things I saw and did, the adventures I had. But at times it was so lonely. It’s like, you know when something funny happens and you wanna call someone and tell them? It’s just that instinct, you know?”
She glances down at me and I nod, afraid if I say anything it will distract from what she is trying to tell me.
“Well imagine being in some of the most beautiful places in the world, and wanting, needing to share the experience with someone, longing to talk to someone about the person you were growing into and realizing that you literally have no one to call. El was the only person willing to think outside of the box of her life and listen to what I needed to speak. Hell La, I’ve been everywhere, seen so much I never thought I’d see, girl I’ve slept with some of the most gorgeous men and women you’ve ever seen in your life.”
We laugh because, well, Mari is a goddamn mess.
“And all I wanted to do was run home and email or call Ella and tell her all about it. It took me going that far and losing that much to realize I could decide for myself what I wanted my life to look like and who I wanted to open it up to.”
She pauses, coming back to herself, shaking her head like she was shaking off the cobwebs of the memories.
“My point is, mami, that your life takes shape on it’s own. You just have to get out of it’s way. If anyone had told the me I was back then at 21 when I was engaged to a man who looked like sin, loved me more than life, and had a perfect life set up for myself, that at 31 I’d be living with and loving another woman much younger than me, NOT doing what I got my degree in and still be wildly successful and done all the other things I’ve done, I woulda laughed at them. This isn’t your life because it’s my life. But you can take your desires and make them into your own version of it. Ultimately, you and God are all you have to answer to. And he already knows where you’re going.”
I smile because I hear what He’s saying through her, just as I’ve gotten the message from the other messengers He’s sent it through this week as well.
“Mami take the time now to see whatever it is you need to see, to go anywhere you’ve ever seen in a book, to do whatever you never ever dreamed you could do, to explore whatever it is about yourself that you want to know more about. But let it come. Let it shape itself. You’re so young La. Why are you so hard on yourself?”
I take a long moment to digest the question so many have asked me so many times. I can only come up with the same answer I always come up with.
“Because it never occurred to me not to be.”
She sighs, her thumbs massaging circles at my temples, and we let the silence fall over us. We stay that way for a long time, us laid out amongst the pictures of a life lived so fully that isn’t even close to being over. I resign within myself to never again be jealous, but rather to seek those desires from within myself that will get me to my own Paris.