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The first time Emma and I took a trip together, it was spring break of our sophomore year of college and we went camping in the Virgin Islands. We found our other traveling companion difficult, and a tarantula in our tent. It was on that trip, late at night at a picnic table, that Emma asked me what I fantasized about and I told her the truth: "lesbians." We both agreed this was weird and mysterious.
Years later, after we'd both moved to New York City and my first girlfriend had just broken my heart, I went to meet Emma in Southeast Asia. She'd just been to Bali, where she'd gorged on Australian surfer boys she met at a place called the Sari Club. I was swimming in grief, and Emma was giddy from all the attention and riptides.
In Cambodia we rode on the backs of motorcycles through the rice paddies and walked for hours in the wet heat to visit a Buddha or a beach or a shrine. We saw caves full of skulls, the victims of the Khmer Rouge, and the famous killing fields, which were grown over with grass and trees, haunted meadows. We sat on crowded buses, not sure if we were going to the right places, and ate meat from indeterminate animals. Mostly we talked, for hours on end, on the teak porch of a guesthouse or in loud, steaming soup halls that smelled like fish sauce and chili. She imitated the accents of the Aussies, and I told her that I didn't know what was worse: missing my ex or dating her.
One day in Laos we found out that terrorists had bombed the Sari Club in Bali, killing 202 people (88 of them Australian) and injuring 209 others. We had both been in New York on September 11, and it was eerie to be sorting through the details of another explosion, another set of deaths, so far from home. Now we were both dizzy with loss.
Last week I took a ferry from Shelter Island, where my spouse and I bought our house a year ago, to Connecticut, and drove along the coast to Massachusetts to see Emma and her boyfriend. They live in Los Angeles now and were visiting Emma's family, whom I realize I've known for over a decade. They were worried when Emma first told them I'd fallen in love with a woman, because they thought Emma and I wouldn't be as close anymore. We had always been so much the same -- the way we look, the way we talk -- and suddenly I was different.
Once, in college, we came back from a weekend away together and then stayed up all night talking and smoking cigarettes in Emma's kitchen. Her roommate came out at one point and looked at us, baffled: "You still have more to say?" It remains like that with us. That's the best thing to have on a trip through Laos -- or life, I think: someone who sees the same thing when they look at the world, in all its sadness and magic.
Ariel Levy is the author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
Photo: Thad Russell