Note: You can read Chapters 1 and 2 here if you haven’t yet.
. . .“Not the worst job in the world.” Conal’s fine light brown hair looked particularly windblown under a cloudless Dalmatian sky.
Lauren raised her glass of prosek, the sweet local wine, in agreement. They were on the island of Hvar, its main settlement a steep crescent-shaped city of white stone buildings with red-tile roofs hugging a sapphire bay, all overlooked by rugged pine tree hills and an imposing Spanish fortress. No motorized vehicles were allowed in the historic center, leaving its stone-paved plazas ethereally peaceful. Scents of lavender and rosemary, two local crops, drifted on the breeze. Conal had chosen an outdoor café on a marble terrace whose view took in the picturesque town, the hills, and boats bobbing on the calm waters.
“So, Ms. Lauren. Any new thoughts?”
“I was thinking it might be easier to start with what I can do for other people, and go from there.”
“Like sending aid to places that need it. Money or food. Just as an example.”
Conal looked down with a small sigh. “I was in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya a few years back. I saw a lot of good intentions corrupted and a lot of dangerous unintended consequences. How much experience do you have?”
“None. I could spend time studying that.”
“Sure. But plenty of people with PhDs and years of field experience have done more harm than good. Not to mention, people will wonder how you’re creating food or paying for massive aid. What will you tell them?”
Lauren threw her hands up. “I don’t know. I still haven’t even worked out what to tell my mom. She thinks I’m here on a freelance gig.”
“I don’t have to tell you, you’ve got to keep this to yourself. Otherwise someone will kill you for that thing.”
“I know.” She sighed. “So where does that leave me?”
“It seems to leave you as one person with a lot of freedom.”
* * *
After a leisurely swim the next morning in the clear waters of the harbor, Lauren found the marble terrace café again, ordered a bijela kava (‘white coffee,’ Croatia’s version of a latte), and conjured up books by her favorite authors: Henry David Thoreau, Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Jung, Khalil Gibran, Hermann Hesse, Lao Tzu, Walt Whitman.
Some time later a stray sunbeam fell across her eyes at a steep angle, and she realized with a start how many hours must have passed. She shoved the books into her bag and dashed toward the vegetarian restaurant she had chosen for dinner with Conal. The city was labyrinthine, with carved stone steps leading up and down narrow alleys accented with bursts of bougainvillea, bright white or luscious fuschia. By the time she found Conal at the restaurant, she was twenty minutes late. He was sitting at a table on the veranda munching on bread and olive oil.
“So sorry,” she said, out of breath. “I was trying to call on the wisdom of the ages.” She opened her bag to show him the books’ spines.
“Any luck?” he asked mildly.
“It’s a comfort, actually. It’s hard to imagine a world where these men never put pen to paper.” The terrace was made of the usual white stone, worn smooth with age. They were further into the city but also higher up so that they still had a stunning view of a cotton candy sunset over the water. Ceramic vases with wildflowers and sprigs of lavender at each table perfumed the space. “I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer. To have a chance to try to pay it forward, even if only a little.”
“That’s a nice way to put it.”
She shook her head. “I really wanted to be like these guys.” She waved toward the bag of books. “Like Thoreau. He went to Harvard and thought it was bullshit, so he taught school for a while, hung out with philosophers, joined his dad’s pencil making business. A friend told him to get serious about his writing, and he went to the woods for a while, then he ran into a tax collector and refused to pay because of slavery and the Mexican War. He went to jail and ended up writing a piece about it that inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. Now they study him at Harvard.
“And Thomas Paine, he was a failed corset-maker. Roald Dahl and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry were pilots in World War II. But it’s not like I can join the air force or try my hand at corset-making or refuse to pay taxes and get where they got. I have to find my own version of life. And I had this faith, this illusion maybe, that if I followed the impulses that felt most genuine to me, somehow things would work out. It was like running off a cliff and believing the universe would catch me. And it did for a while, and then… I know this probably sounds ridiculous, but when things went so wrong with my second book, I felt betrayed by the universe. Like I trusted it, I held up my end of the deal, and it kicked me to the curb.” She rested her head in her hand, idly picking a lavender blossom out of the centerpiece, crushing it, and inhaling the scent. “People trusted me with their stories. I hoped if I could write a good enough book, I could help change things. Now it feels like it was all just a waste of time. I could have been a brain surgeon by now, you know?”
“You could have been a lot of things,” he agreed. “But I don’t think you want to be a brain surgeon. Would you want your brain surgeon to be someone who didn’t want to be a brain surgeon?”
She smiled and threw the crushed remnants of the lavender blossom at him, and he ducked. “I could have worked on cold fusion or something,” she said.
“You told me you hated working in physics labs.”
She rolled her eyes, conceding the point. “But doesn’t it seem sad that I have nothing to show for my young, promising years? My mom thought I was nuts to do what I did, and it seems now like she was right.”
Conal found a lavender blossom on the table and flicked it off. “Look, I know it’s hard to see it right now, but maybe nothing has gone wrong. Maybe this is just part of the life of a writer. But I have to say, something is going on with you. You’re a shadow of the person I knew in Palestine. Before you make any major life decisions, you need to deal with that first.”
“How?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. But if you had learned the lessons you needed to learn by now, this wouldn’t be so hard for you. You wouldn’t have lost faith so easily.”
“Easily?” She looked at him sharply, then sighed. “I know. My life is fine. I’m young, I’m healthy, I have citizenship in a powerful country. And now this.” She jiggled the bracelet. “I should think of it as a gift, right? Not a burden.”
“Sounds like a good place to start.” The wind caught his hair, and she watched it flop over and back again.
She smirked. “Sounds pretty obvious. Why is our culture so full of truisms nobody actually lives by?”
“That’s a good question. Worth exploring.”
The food was long gone and they were starting to get drunk on the wine. “Shall we?” Conal asked. They walked back to the hotel his publisher had sprung for. There were two queen beds in the room, and they each chose one and passed out. Lauren had a thought in the back of her mind: Wouldn’t it be nice if—
But the thought was chopped off, half finished, by the curtain of sleep.
* * *
When Lauren awoke, Conal was working intensely on his laptop, so she slipped out to visit the hotel sauna. For lunch they ambled back to their favorite café and ordered double espressos and omelettes with spicy pork sausage and sheep’s milk cheese.
“So you want to change the world and be a famous writer,” Conal said without much preamble, “and you’re upset because you haven’t done it. I get that. If I wasn’t an award-winning journalist by now, I’d feel like something was wrong, too.”
She glared at him, but he could see the suppressed smile.
“So I did some research on the topic this morning, and I found some quotes that might interest you. First, Leo Tolstoy: ‘If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.’”
She looked up and away. “I think I see where this is going.”
“And here’s one by Ramana Maharshi: ‘Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.’”
Lauren laughed. “OK, fine, I get it. If I want to change the world, I should probably start with the hot mess you see before you.”
“At least for a few months,” he said with relief. “Honestly, what sense does it make to try to change something as massive and complicated as the world when you don’t even understand yourself?” There was a sudden tinge of sadness in his voice. “You can go anywhere in the world, do anything you want to do.”
She sighed. “I don’t know. How long am I supposed to just mess around?”
He shook his head. “That’s the kind of limited thinking I’m talking about. You’re not the same person you were before, and even then you weren’t the type to ‘just mess around.’ I wouldn’t have made it through my summer in Palestine if not for you, and no one even paid you for that. Now you have a chance to travel in a different way, in a different state of mind, for a completely different reason.”
She scoffed, mostly at herself, thinking about how frantically she had been chasing stupid jobs in New York just to try to gain some footing. It meant that whatever she had learned in the past ten years, she had not managed to find any real, strong, solid footing. She had been cut off from the old feeling of flow for so long she could barely remember what it felt like. Here was a rare chance to correct that.
She shrank from the thought; if it had been terrifying and daunting before, when she was just out of college and it was cute to be an aimless backpacker, it was even more humiliating and humbling now. The stakes felt higher and failure more shameful—especially when she basically had a superpower to help her. She breathed for a while, feeling her resistance to the notion, the voices in her head saying she wasn’t remotely worthy, and surely there were more important things to focus on. She had heard the same voices ten years earlier. Conal waited.
Finally the idea sank all the way to a level of herself that Lauren hadn’t accessed in a long time. It spread there like a pool of cool water with an ancient freshness that quietly beckoned her. She closed her eyes tighter as the last of the resistance tried to tear her away. But the battle was lost. The path ahead wasn’t easy, but it felt right.
She opened her eyes and looked at Conal. “Where should I go?”
He leaned back and shrugged, trying not to look too satisfied. “Where do you want to go?” The waiter delivered their vodka-pineapple cocktails, and she absently wiped at the perspiration on her glass. “Don’t judge,” Conal said. “Just the first thing that comes to mind.”
“What comes to mind right now is Switzerland, to be honest.”
“I was there once for a few days. It was gorgeous but so expensive. I’ve always wanted to go back and head up into the mountains and hike around for a week or two. That sounds so nice right now.”
“Great. Here’s another question: What’s something you’ll regret never doing if you don’t do it while you’re young and single?”
Lauren glanced up thoughtfully, and a look of chagrin crossed her face.
“What was that thought?”
A crazy, inchoate plan was forming in her mind, and it was so unlike her, she feared trying to explain it to Conal before she’d thought it over herself might kill the idea in its infancy. “I want to go to Beirut,” was all she said, her eyes alive with excitement.
He narrowed his eyes but didn’t press. “Great choice. Amazing city.”
“And some of the most beautiful people on the planet.”
Conal smiled a bit sadly. Lauren wondered if he had history with a Lebanese girl. When Lauren met him, she was dating a Palestinian who lived forty miles and seven checkpoints away, while Conal had a girlfriend back home in London. They spent hours talking about politics and their love lives over endless bottles of red wine from the Cremisan monastery near Bethlehem and beer from a Palestinian Christian village called Taybeh. She told him an embarrassing number of stories about her disastrous love life. Come to think of it, Conal hadn’t been nearly as forthcoming.
“Moving on, question three,” he said quickly. “Where have you spent time that you felt something special, or peaceful, or where you really felt at home?”
“That’s easy,” she said, brandishing her anklet. She didn’t have to say more. They both had a reverential love for the Sinai, a remote triangle of mountainous desert wedged between Asia and Africa and surrounded by coral reefs. It had the feel of its own little world, a Lotus Land of friendliness, charm, and otherworldly beauty.
“So that’s a start. Switzerland, then Beirut, then Egypt. Sounds amazing, actually.”
She couldn’t help but agree.