By Breawna Power Eaton
My husband and I weren’t fighting, just winding down dinner, discussing life, our future. Then it happened—a mutual, unspoken realization, and all we could do was stare in silence across the table, weighing the words we’d just said:
“Constantly moving just isn’t the life I signed up for.” I’d shrugged, thinking he’d nod and say, “We’ll see” or maybe, “We’ll settle down one day.”
Instead, he said, “Well. I thought I married someone who loved to travel.”
His hazel eyes remained steady.
“I do love to travel.”
My blues eyes resisted a blink.
“I know, but you said you wanted to live overseas.”
“For a few months, Tom, not a life of constantly moving.” Exactly what his career as a Navy judge advocate now required of him. Of us.
That’s when the silence filled our beige-walled dining room with the sage curtains left over from the previous owner. The place felt like ours but not ours, even though we’d bought the gray bungalow two years prior when we moved to Newport, Rhode Island. Our first move of his career, away from our home in San Diego. Soon Tom would deploy to Afghanistan for seven months. Soon after his return, we’d move to Japan, where Tom would again deploy on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. Two years in Japan, then … ?
“We’ll take it job by job,” Tom said, breaking our silence with his beloved mantra. A mantra I—bitter about leaving my teaching career, family, and friends behind in Southern California—had previously balked.
“Job by job,” I agreed that time instead of muttering my usual, “Easy for you to say.”
Together we’d nodded, though I still believed he’d never feel the sacrifice of our moves as deeply as I would: he’d always have a job and social network to jump right into, while I’d have to start from scratch each time. After finally settling into our new life in Newport, however, I’d begun to see our move less as dismantling and more as an opportunity to reconstruct my life. I’d re-awakened my love for writing, contributing a weekly Q&A feature to a local arts paper and later pursuing my MFA. I’d interned at a non-profit that was building an academy for orphaned children in rural Kenya. I’d started running half-marathons. I’d attended weekly wine-pairing classes. I’d pursued all of the interests I never had time to pursue while teaching high school English full-time. Being uprooted from the life I’d settled into in San Diego was painful, but the change of terroir had allowed me to grow in unpredicted ways, ways I never would have had we remained comfortably at home. I could no longer deny the perks of moving, but a lot of me longed to return home.
What I had failed to realize in our first few years of marriage was that we had not settled in San Diego—only I had. When we weren’t traveling, Tom was already planning our next adventure. A few years before we married, we backpacked around Europe on a “pre-marriage trial run” that cemented our desire to live life together. We honeymooned in Cinque Terre, Italy, two summers later in 2005. Thereafter we spent almost every break (for me from teaching, for him from law school) traveling somewhere—a summer studying law in London, a spring break scuba diving in Jamaica, a winter break touring Eastern Europe’s Christmas Festivals with his best friends. I’d never realized his love for travel meant more than trips during school vacations. He’d never realized my love for travel meant just that.
That night at the dinner table, our silence said what we did not want to voice aloud: we hadn’t married the person we thought we’d exchanged rings with at the altar. Though this is true to a degree in every marriage, it doesn’t lessen the sting of that moment, when you realize you’re on a different trajectory than the one you thought you’d bound yourself to for life.
“Job by job,” we agreed that night, because we were happy, more in love than we were when we had exchanged rings six years prior. Still I couldn’t shake the sting of that moment, nor the underlying fear that our agreement was merely a fake binding, a Band-Aid that we’d either slowly pull away over the years or painfully rip off, when one of us decided to finally stay and the other continued to go.
Tom left for Afghanistan a few months after that night, a few days after Thanksgiving, 2011, and returned mid-July, 2012. The first sight of him at the Baltimore airport felt like I’d been thrust through a strange time warp: the ache of his absence instantly replaced by the peace of knowing he was safe and home. Just like that, seven months melted away. Him, here in my arms, now, was all that mattered. I had to keep convincing myself that I was awake and not just dreaming about this moment yet again, that, yes, his arms were actually around me, his lips truly pressed against mine.
Two weeks later, we left our home in Newport and flew to our new life in Japan. On the way, we spent a weeklong layover in Southern California, making up for lost time with friends and family, celebrating Tom’s safe return, while simultaneously saying goodbye. Again.
Our “Ta-ta for Now” party felt different than the one we’d thrown for ourselves in San Diego in 2009. Back then, I’d wondered how our friendships would change during our three-year stint on the East Coast, and I worried that we would miss out on too much our loved ones’ lives. We had. But what hadn’t changed was the connection, the way we always easily slide right back into wherever we left off, save for the little ones now vying for our friends’ attention. Vying and winning. Annihilating us, actually. Who can compete with those cheeky grins? A two-year-old learning to give high-fives will always top even the most surprising story about sailors’ salacious behavior or my younger sister’s most recent disastrous date. No doubt. Things had changed.
Seeing our friends all playful and giggly with their little ones made us realize that we surely did want to start a family, but we just as surely wanted a few more years of freedom, a few hundred more nights of good sleep. Moreover, I was terrified of having our first child in a foreign country, far from my support network, while Tom spent half of each year at sea. I wasn’t ready. But a comment by Tom’s friend’s wife stunned me into thinking otherwise. She caught me on the way back from the bathroom.
“I thought I’d be jealous of you two and your lives in Japan,” she’d said. “But I was looking at my family today, and I realized that was just stupid. I’m happy where I am. I know I’m where I need to be.”
Squeals and laughter filtered in from the party outside.
“That’s great,” I’d said. I’d realize later that her words were not for me, but for herself; she needed to give voice to her epiphany, to announce aloud that she had, in fact, made the right decision to start a family, to settle down. In the meantime, she made me question mine. According to our plan, we will be at least thirty-three when we have our first child, which doesn’t matter really, except that our friends’ kids will all be toddlers in pre-school. They’ll have no clue who we are, and our babies will grow up on their own, too young to be besties with our best friends’ kids, like we’d always planned.
Are we making the right decision? I’d wondered as I hesitantly returned her smile. Are we leaving where we need to be or heading there?
Two months later—two months into our next life—I found myself relaying this story to the British backpackers, J and F, I met in Malaysia, after meeting Tom at his second port call.
A little context: As the “military life” predictably and thereby unpredictably goes, life in Japan turned out different than expected. Tom left with the ship less than two weeks after we arrived in Japan, just over a month after returning from Afghanistan. Desperate for time together, we decided I should forego finding a full-time job or getting our house completely settled so I could meet him at every port the ship pulled into during his first three months at sea.
What made the already complicated situation impossibly more complicated was that we could only communicate about port dates and locations in person, which was impossible as he couldn’t even tell me where he was presently floating when we were lucky enough to talk on the phone, let alone where he was heading and when. I found out I was going to the first port call in Guam when Tom emailed me my flight itinerary.
But I’d known about Malaysia for months; Tom emailed me my e-ticket from Afghanistan as an anniversary gift, a gesture to show he’d do whatever he could to keep me close while he again was away. A week before I was supposed to meet him in Malaysia, there were rumors, as always, that the ship was no longer heading to Kuala Lumpur. Playing the game of ports, I quickly learned that I’d never know if I’d actually see him until I actually did, and even then, the ship could leave earlier than planned.
“We don’t even mention children,” J said in response to my story, and my residual wondering about our wandering life, about pushing back Babyland yet again. “It makes F anxious,” J said, lifting her light eyebrows, then making a funny face across the table toward her boyfriend, who shrugged, gave a slight smile, and ate a forkful of fluffy white rice.
The couple brought me to their favorite spot for cheap eats near their hotel in China Town, where they’d been living for over a month. Tucked behind hawker stalls crowded by hungry Saturday night market-goers, the small food court felt spacious and quiet, although it too was filled with food stands. Choosing what to eat had been difficult, though you really can’t go wrong in Malaysia, especially if you enjoy spicy food. Dim sum, dumplings, tandoori, satays, curries, and fried noodles—only a sampling of Malaysia’s deliciously diverse cuisine, inspired by the mostly Malay, Indian, and Chinese population and the Thai influence from up north.
We chatted over our plates, piled high with rice and various saucy mysteries, satays, and grilled meats from the cze char (buffet style “pick and mix”) stall. I didn’t know what was what, save for the cabbage satay and eggplant curry, both disappearing from my plate all too quickly, as I took bite after bite, racing to keep ahead of the fire that would surely spread over my tongue if I paused.
Unlike me, J and F believed they were exactly where they needed to be, at least for the moment. The British couple had been traveling with nothing more than mini-suitcases throughout Asia for eleven months already, and they were feeling the itch to leave Kuala Lumpur. The weather’s been drab lately, they agreed. This idea, that she could move to better weather just because she wanted to, tickled J. Her smile widened with each new country she added to their seemingly endless list of possible destinations.
“Maybe we’ll head to Nepal or go back to Thailand,” she said. “We stayed mostly in the center last time, maybe we can go explore the North or South.” Her scheming sounded even more adventurous, flavored by her English accent.
While they’d loved living in central Thailand, India had been their favorite thus far, the place where their adventure began. After they’d sold most of their belongings and rented out their flat, they headed to India thinking they’d stay for maybe a month or two, but maxed out their visas instead, staying for the full six months. They couldn’t explain exactly why they’d felt compelled to stay. The country was just … fascinating.
When I asked if they thought they’d return to their lives and home in London, they shook their heads. They couldn’t imagine settling any time soon, though J’s family wished otherwise. She’d recently returned to England for a wedding (and a funeral) and felt pressured from all sides. Her family asked when she, already in her mid-thirties, was thinking about coming home, about settling down, about having babies, while her friends with babies urged her to stay away, to keep traveling, to live the adventure they no longer felt they could live. Do it for us, they’d said.
Again I thought of my friend’s comment at our party back home, of the seemingly forced dichotomy—you settle or you roam—and of my burgeoning desire to have a bit of both. As I listened to J and F throw around ideas—How about popping over to Cambodia? Or Laos? Or, ooh, what about Vietnam?—I grew envious of their ability to be grown up and yet so carefree.
Sure, their travels hadn’t always been easy: J had an infected tooth pulled a month or two earlier and was still recovering from a bout of foot and mouth disease. Still, after just one week of exploring Malaysia, I could already see why they never wanted to return to their “normal” lives. There’s something about travel that encourages our childlike curiosity to rebloom. Daily in Kuala Lumpur, I’d found myself paused in wonder, struck by the interesting juxtaposition between the sparkling metropolis and the surrounding rainforest. By the curious combinations of flavors and spices in each dish. By the soul-gripping wail that echoed throughout the city five times a day, calling the faithful to pray. By the interesting people I’d met, whose stories always seemed to showcase yet another way to a fulfilling life. Instead of realizing the obvious—there isn’t just one way—I only grew more torn.
Each day I woke up in Japan, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that this new, exciting life in a foreign land was truly mine. In Japan, even going to the grocery story felt like an adventure. The enormous shelled and tentacled creatures in the seafood aisles seemed more like zoo exhibits than options for dinner. Each time I paid with the correct change felt like a victory, replete with a rush of adrenaline, the craving for more.
But sometimes, I just wanted to go to the store and actually know for sure what I was buying. (Is this one brown liquid, amongst a hundred others labeled in Japanese, soy sauce?) Crazy as it sounded, even to me, I also craved my old routine, longed for the predictability of my former life as a teacher, knowing all the while my nostalgia was for a romanticized version of the school year, filled with days when things actually went as planned, when my students couldn’t wait to read Shakespeare, cried at the loss of Lennie, shared their own writings aloud and basked in the applause of snaps from their peers.
“Really? I don’t miss teaching at all,” J bluntly replied. Sure, she was looking into teaching online, but solely to fund their continued adventures. “I no longer spend my days working and my nights worrying, ‘Will my students be fed when they go home? Will they be safe?’”
Now she was overwhelmed instead by how much of the world they still wanted, no needed, to see.
“You do begin to settle, actually,” J realized later, after we’d finished eating and walked to the stop for a free city bus tour, another of their favorite finds. “When you stay more than a week in a place, you spread your stuff out, you make yourself feel at home,” she said with the same proud smile she probably wore the first time she rode her bike sans training wheels. Satisfied, she was, with her newfound life philosophy—home is where the mini-suitcase is.
Earlier that evening I was nervous about whether J’s bout of foot and mouth disease was contagious. As it turned out, it wasn’t her blisters I took home with me, but her sense of adventure, of “Why not?” Why look back when life is stirring around me, here, now, wherever I am?
J and F weren’t the first people I’d met who lived the traveling life. I’d joined a group of young backpackers in Melaka, where I spent a night biding time, while the ship made its way to Kuala Lumpur.
The sun was setting by the time I cleaned up and headed out to explore the night market, yet the air remained thick and hot, slowly working its way down from the high eighties. Too nervous to wander in the dark alone, I figured I’d be back in an hour or two.
I was staring quizzically at what I was about to eat out of a tightly wrapped banana leaf when a man in thick, black framed glasses ensured me the fish cake was tasty, then asked where I was from.
“California? These guys are from California,” he said, introducing me to another young man in glasses from Brea (near where I grew up), a tall blonde from San Diego (where Tom and I will live again one day), and another donning a UCLA t-shirt. “Join us,” Black Frames said, before turning around and weaving his way through the gorging masses. He owned a hostel and gave his patrons a tour, pointing out the best stalls. When curious enough, a few of us would buy a treat, take a bite, then pass the morsel around the group, which fluctuated in size throughout the evening. It was hard to keep track of who was who, as our noses led us apart, toward the sweet, tangy, and savory smells wafting from wayward stalls.
As the hostel crew shrank and grew, we played conversation tag, getting in a few minutes at each stall with another member of the group. Throughout the night I played patchwork with their stories, quilting a travel tale more complex and adventurous than my own. The first three guys I met had just quit their jobs, sold everything they owned, and set off in search of something their lives after college failed to fulfill.
“It’s nothing,” one said in response to my gasp and widened eyes. “A South African couple at our hostel biked their way here from Korea, along with their little dog.”
I met this legendary couple a few hours later on their hostel rooftop, where we sat around on broken chairs and wooden benches, drinking warm beers in the dim glow of the city lights far below. Apparently, when nobody is home, Black Frames shuts the drink fridge off to save electricity. I don’t like beer even when it’s cold, so it made no difference to me. I wasn’t there for the beer. I was there for the company—for the night out on the town I fought Tom over during our pre-marriage European hostel tour. Tired after long days of walking to museums and ruins and monuments, Tom had always been ready for bed a few hours after dinner, while I wanted to be wherever music was pulsing, people were toasting, cheersing until the sun began to rise.
“Fine. Just stay in,” I’d say. “I’ll go out on my own.” And Tom would nod, knowing as well as I that my words were empty, that I was too scared to explore the night on my own.
Almost ten years later, I was not back in my hotel room as I thought I’d be by this time; in fact I had neither a clue nor a care what time it was. I was lost in conversation, drinking a warm can of beer on a dark Melakan rooftop, inspired by a group of twenty-somethings’ bold willingness to uproot themselves, to just leave everything behind. The idea of becoming a nomad never crossed my twenty-one-year-old mind. My post college adventure was our European tour. I’d returned from that trip sure of two things—I wanted to marry Tom and I wanted to see more of the world. But first, I needed to earn my teaching credential, and then start my career.
On that rooftop, I felt like I was fresh out of college again, but with my path unmapped. A path instead inspired by the young men starting over from scratch, but even more so by the lone traveling ladies, like the freelance event coordinator who decided to explore Singapore and Malaysia before heading to New Zealand for a few weeks, where she would work on a farm (or horse ranch or something) to earn her keep until she decided she liked it and stayed or didn’t like it and returned home to start her own event planning business. She was fed up wondering what life would be like if.
“So you don’t know where your husband is or when he’s coming to meet you,” she asked, transitioning from her travel tale to mine.
I shook my head.
Her eyes ballooned in the way mine had when I heard about all of their impressive quests. Though I knew I would (probably) see Tom in less than forty-eight hours, I wasn’t supposed to share the ship’s whereabouts. I felt a tinge of guilt for not telling her the truth. I felt like a fraud. Even so, I couldn’t help but sip my warm beer, smile back, and soak up her perception of me as I wanted to be seen—as adventurous as she. Or the young woman from Vietnam, also traveling alone. Or the young Malaysian nurse who was moving to Saudi Arabia the following month to save money for travels of her own.
The rooftop filled with chatter about who was going where next. Some were heading to the rainforests in the Malaysian highlands, then moving on to Thailand. Like J and F, many of the hostellers arrived on one-way tickets. Their days were no longer dictated by work schedules, but by their whims and fancies, by wherever weather was better. It was on that night, when my voice joined the backpackers’ chatter, that the idea first began to take root, that maybe Tom and I really didn’t have to decide whether to settle or roam yet, if ever. I no longer felt homeless, more like a slightly settled nomad, creating a new home away from home for us in Japan while traveling wherever and whenever I could possibly see Tom. And every new place, every new person I met, only proved that there was still so much to see, including uncharted territories of myself.
The following morning, I took a bus from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur and checked into our hotel, where Tom would join me the following day. He’d emailed to say he hoped to meet me at our hotel around two, and there I was waiting, with the same nervous excitement of waiting for a first date, as eager as I was a few months earlier when I stood at the international terminal of the Baltimore airport, amidst a crowd of families and friends welcoming the troops returning home from war. Like a game show revealing a secret prize inside, the terminal sliding glass doors had opened each time a group of arrivals approached. When I first saw Tom’s face appear behind the oncoming crowd, I froze. Stared, starry-eyed. Thirty pounds lighter, he looked like the twenty-year-old I’d fallen for almost ten years before. More exhilarating than the free fall on a roller coaster was the feeling of his lips, so soft, against mine.
I paced about the hotel room in Malaysia as I waited for Tom to arrive, the excitement of my night of swapping travel tales with the nomads in Melaka, their sense of freedom and openness to the unknown still pulsing through my veins.
As I waited for Tom this time, there was no National Guard, no crowd, no sliding doors. Nothing more was necessary. Just him and me. Our arms soon wrapped around each other, willing to unbind only for a glimpse of the other’s bright smile, for the exhilaration of another first kiss. I realized I was trembling when we stared at the view of the city outside our window. Here we are, Kuala Lumpur. Never could Tom or I have anticipated this moment or, like everyone, any moments that would and will follow.
It’s inevitable, I realized, that the edge of that Band-Aid will begin to peel, followed by that sting. But who’s to say what lifting such temporary binding would reveal? We’d sense a gaping wound, wouldn’t we? The need to change bandages, clean out the gunk, bind ourselves in a new chance to heal. Or maybe we’d find everything intact. Maybe a faint scar, a reminder of where we’ve been.
“It’s beautiful,” we agreed before giving into silence. The city spread to the horizon before us, hardworking cranes dotting the skyline, verdant trees competing for sunlight among the many buildings, new and old, that would soon sparkle at night. We shared another smile. Another lingering kiss. And soon, I could feel my heart begin to settle, easing into a soft and steady beat.
While BREAWNA POWER EATON’s time in Japan ended in August, 2014, her tales of getting lost and unlost in love, life, and travel can be found on her blog Lady Seeking Adventure, where a recent post reveals their next adventure—a little one due in late November. Bre received an MFA in Creative Writing through Antioch of Los Angeles and is currently seeking representation for a book-length essay surrounding Tom’s deployment in Afghanistan and her burning question: “How did we—as a nation and a couple—end up entangled in our country’s longest war?”