Originally published here June 8th, 2012
(1) "The Marine"
I didn't notice him at first. When it comes travel romance, even ones you find yourself writing about years later, the moment you meet is rarely spectacular.
Cheer and chatter filled the bar at Njaya Lodge. Four Malawian staff and seven backpackers watched the England vs France football match through the static of a tiny tv. Carlsberg beer bottles and creamy Kahlua cocktail glasses clinked, empty, onto the concrete floor. The owner's friendly Rottweiler wandered about, sniffing at nothing in particular. Timm patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears, a fixture of the typical traveller scene.
Timm's eyes were chocolatey, humble and kind. They didn't match his body, rippling with the kind of muscles you get when you run five miles down the beach and swim back before breakfast - on an "off day". He seemed to have no idea that when he stood near other men, it looked like a before and after shot. His looks would have been intimidating if not for the goofy, curly hair and socks with sandals. I'm English, so to find the American accent sexy is a cardinal sin. So I'm not saying his accent was sexy. You've got nothing on me.
He made me laugh with his highly specific comments. He carried a huge vat of coleslaw to the barbecue and said "Oh no! I got coleslaw juice on my freshly-showered shoulder!", where a simple "Shoot" would have sufficed.
From around midnight, as our fellow travellers, volunteers and nomads started to turn in, we found ourselves sitting together on a rock overlooking Nkhata Bay. Lake Malawi stretched across the entire world. The stars were so bright I wondered why no one ever mined the sky for diamonds.
I learned all about him - or so I thought at the time. I learned he was Timm with two m's, because his family was Danish. He grew up in Connecticut. He was a Marine. He'd travelled everywhere. He'd walked from Georgia to Maine the year before. He had fallen 60 feet from the top of a waterfall. He was gentle, laughed a lot and was an engaging storyteller. I liked the way he used my name when he talked to me.
"Look!" he said, touching my arm and pointing at the sky, "a shooting star! Did you see?"
"No! Damn it! I've never seen one before."
"You will. Just keep looking up, Erica."
That night I saw seven shooting stars.
Days turn into nights so quickly by the lake. A lunchtime beer becomes a nighttime cocktail. An afternoon swim becomes an after-hours dip. Sunbathing becomes star gazing.
Lunch in the village with my travel buddy Kate became drinks in a hammock with Timm. He kissed me on the beach in the pinkish glow of the sunrise. For our two weeks in Nkhata Bay we were Timmnerica, never planning to meet but somehow crossing paths every day. We would spend 18 hour stretches together. Strolls to the village became boat trips to nearby islands. Our nights were lit by stars and fireflies.
But the clock was going. Kate was getting restless. Having just split up with her boyfriend back home, she coped surprisingly well as we flaunted our intense romance in her face. The road was calling. I tried to break the news breezily, as if it were just an idea I was floating.
"You're leaving in three days?"He leaned back and looked away. I saw the edges of his eyes moisten.
"I don't want to. But I can't ask Kate to stay any longer."
There was a long pause.
"I hadn't thought about you leaving. Yeah...it hurts."
I didn't say anything. I didn't want him to hear my voice crack.
He sent me letters at university. He wrote vividly about playing with the Kampala rugby team in Uganda, his two-day journey in a rattley old camper van and the delights of his first month in India.
The third letter was distressing.
Someone in India convinced him to make a trip to New Zealand to drop off a two-kilogram "package". The Kiwi authorities searched his bags and were unhappy with what they found - to the tune of eight years in prison
"Apparently this crystal meth stuff is really bad," he wrote, "and it's causing big problems here in New Zealand..."
He was safe, and had made his peace with his new "fixed address". But the oddness of Timm landing in jail resonated with me. I had never met anyone I liked so much or so quickly. Yet sweet, gentle and romantic Timm turned out to be - in one, but highly significant, way - an idiot.
"You're very lucky to have so many good qualities," I had told him, sitting on my backpack while Kate thumbed down a ride. Tears prickled my eyes. "Use them wisely."
"Well the same goes for you, Erica. Use yours wisely," he said, putting his hand on my cheek, "Don't waste them on anyone who doesn't deserve them."
Next time someone gives you good advice, tattoo it on your goddamn face.
Because as it turned out, we were both idiots.