Just a few days ago in Los Angeles, I sat across the table from a pretty girl, Jane, talking about dating, loving, music, money and why the plate in front of her held her first tuna melt. She cursed a lot, and ordered whiskey straight. She was absurd and too wild to really give a fuck what I thought. Her nose was perfect for the nose rings all the imperfect noses were now wearing, but she hated face piercings – and men who send unsolicited selfies.
“What’s the best date you’ve ever had?” she asked. I bit a large piece of my curry chicken salad sandwich, and chomped away until an answer appeared. Halfway through the third swallow, I remembered the flight from Marrakech to Amsterdam to take a Megabus to London with Hella, who only spoke French. I speak no French, but Google Translator is better than Kofi Annan, and Tinder, where we met, is a blessing when traveling.
I remembered sitting across from Hella on our first date, not the best date but still a great date, laughing and passing the phone back and forth to translate our conversations. Every so often, we’d throw away this crutch and try speaking on our own. Her accent always came across like a Southern Belle, and mine like a drunkard singing along to Lady Marmalade. Amsterdam, for me, was to be quick,; long enough to catch the tulips, then get to Morocco in time to meet an old friend’s new baby. Amsterdam, for her, was a one-way ticket on a bus from Paris and a statement of freedom to her overbearing parents. For us, it was absinthe, white widow, space cake, late night KFC runs, and a shaky promise to meet here this time next year, but to keep in touch until then. These promises usually go unfulfilled by travelers.
A few days later, I was sitting in a Marrakesh hostel, drinking sugary mint tea, and eating cookies with an unfamiliar taste. Wifi connected. I opened Whatsapp and read, “Back you come to Amsterdam. You come to London with me?” It was Hella, and without thought, I replied, “When?” Three sips later, “Two days. I buy tickets.” “Okay.”
Hella waited for me at the station, eating pastries, drinking tea, and charging her phone. I spotted her before she looked up, thankfully, because my smile was big, and I was embarrassed. She’d cut her hair about 3 inches shorter, and I could tell she wasn’t used to it because of how she still flung back what wasn’t there. I laughed and stopped in front of her and watched her eyes go from my shoes to my belt to my face, and her lips go from munching to smiling. In reality, This smile, above anything else, is what I came back for, a year earlier than promised. She handed me her phone with a pre-written translated message, “I missed you. I’m glad you are here.”
In line for the bus, we stood behind a Ghanaian woman being told she wouldn’t be allowed to board if she insisted on carrying whatever meat she had thawing in her bag. After 20 minutes of what I thought would escalate into a fight she sadly threw away the bag, and we all boarded. Hella and I sat in the very back, next to the toilets we hoped no one would destroy on this 10-hour ride. From my bag, I pulled out the gifts I’d bought my mom, and taught her how to say it in English, “Jewelry box.” “Boite á bijoux,” she said.
For an hour, we passed our phones back and forth, going deeper, laughing harder, asking questions I imagine engaged couples are asked just days before the wedding. I kissed her and she kissed me. Her hair smelled like coconut oil and a White Rain shampoo, and her lips tasted like bon bons from La Colmena bakery in Barcelona at 7am. Her last message before both our phones died said, “You smell like good air.”
The electrical outlets on this bus were useless, and we sat there, staring out of the window at the night falling hard, her head on my shoulder, my arm falling asleep with me not willing to move to a more comfortable position. Silence. I remembered reading about couples who spoke different languages and how they’d never fully be able to understand one another because sarcasm and jokes rarely translate well. She didn’t know the American joker in me because I feared insulting her. We sat silent, pointing out stars, cows, bikers, and moles on each other’s arms and hands.
Somewhere just outside of Brussels, Hella sat up abruptly, kissed my neck, and laughed, rummaging through her bag. She pulled out an iPod and a strange, double-headed cord. She pulled her headphones from her pocket, took mine, stuck them both in and pushed play. James Vincent McMorrow, Labrinth, Marian Mereba, and Alabama Shakes, Ed Sheeran, and Tom Rosenthal carried us through Belgium and France. Music has always been personal for me. My playlists are guarded like the Disney Vault but, with each song, I couldn’t help but think Hella found my code. We crossed the Channel to me and Hozier softly singing “Work Song” to Hella, and her burying herself deeper into my college T-shirt.
“Making love to you was never second best,” Hella sang, accent-less and perfectly on key as we pulled into Victoria Coach Station.
Jane, swallowing the last bit of her tuna melt, shook her head slowly, waiting to find out what became of me and Hella. Months ago, I received a letter from Hella asking me to not contact her anymore because she’d met some guy who listens to bad music and has been nowhere. She likes him though and will probably love him because he’s close. I tell Jane, “I don’t know, really. We happened until we didn’t anymore.” She smiles, hops on her phone, and seconds later tells me to ride with her across the city to pick up a double-headed cord from some stranger on Craigslist: “Let’s see if my music is any good.”
Darnell Lamont Walker wrote this article for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. He looks odd in person, but amazing on paper. He often jokes, “I’m a decent man in an ugly suit with a sunny disposition.” While Darnell has everything it takes to stand before a class of thirty students, or before a conference room full of suited employees, at his heart, he is an artist living outside of every box that’s been built for him. In a world surrounded by good and creative energy, and a huge spread of desserts and drinks, is where Darnell Lamont Walker belongs, and where he will stay. You can follow his travel blog at Passport Required.