Sandals Man, we first met at an airport terminal in the middle of China. You, recently graduated, unemployed, traveling alone and aimlessly with a well-worn canvas backpack, bright teeth, making friends and chatting up everyone with whom you crossed paths.

I was traveling with a woman when we met. She made me better than I could ever hope to be on my own—I felt that as soon as she and I had been introduced, just a few weeks prior. She, recently divorced, though only twenty-nine years old. Me, recently disentangled from my own long-term mess of a relationship. Both our hearts similarly raw. She stood beside me and suddenly I was kinder to the world, and the world itself felt somehow less jagged.

The impromptu trip was a naive attempt to cleanly disconnect from our past lives. Forty days on the road together. We had time but no money, a circumstance fraught with catastrophic potential; two people who hardly knew one another intertwined through decidedly non-luxurious backpacking.

We were waiting for our flight in that Chinese airport terminal. It was depressing — the terminal — but she wore bright blue linen pants and sat twisted into a pretzel across from me. A yoga teacher, pretzel was her natural form. I made a face at her. She blushed, stuck out her tongue. An announcement was made in crackly Chinese over the intercom.

You stood behind us in line. Tapped my shoulder. Said, “Nice sandals.” We had the same ones. Black Chacos with soft nylon straps and thick Vibram soles. I had traipsed across Cambodia in them; would go on to hike up a glacier in the damn things. We laughed about how one could love a pair of sandals so much. Had my traveling companion not been there I may not have been so friendly. But she was, and so we shared a strange moment of connection as we walked across the tarmac in the dim morning light. We continued chatting aboard the tiny Lhasa-bound prop plane and said farewell when we landed.

That farewell was short lived, and weeks later we met again at a hostel. “Sandals Man!” you yelled across the tiny, dark lobby. We had forgotten your name, and you didn’t offer it. We were too embarrassed to ask. Sandals Man, that’s what we ended up calling you later, recounting the journey for friends.

The circuits had returned us all once more to central China, some nameless city, extruded from dirt and featureless. Backpacker circuits seem large, but are narrow, claustrophobic. Stick it out long enough and you are bound to meet again. We met in this place — a place that, after Tibet, felt so totally empty and without soul. So much so that we were reeling with an eagerness to leave, to head anywhere else.

But since we were all stuck in that sorrowful city for a night, we did the next best thing — we drank ourselves silly.

The three of us made our way from bar to bar, finishing at one with high ceilings that served only hard liquor. Those were my drinking days, my ablution-through-alcohol days. We ordered shots of tequila — always a ridiculous order. But it was the last drink of the night, so why not. This is how one drinks in a sad city.

We threw the shots back. When she excused herself to the bathroom, you turned to me and said: “You really like her.” You made real what I was too afraid to say myself: Without hesitation — saying these words for the first time, at age 26 — I responded with a lucidity that cut through all of the alcohol of the evening: “No, I love her. She is the one.” It sounded inane, but it wasn’t, not to me at least. I felt my heart swell. The one. What a phrase. Was it true? It was. You looked shocked. I smiled to dial down the gravity of what wasn’t intended to be such a weighty statement. “Yeah, man,” I said, feigning folksiness, “she’s pretty great.”

“Well, then!” you said. “We need to drink to that!” And drink we did. Another shot. Blessed my declaration with more alcohol. She returned and sat next to me and I felt for the first time the desire to hold someone so tight as to fuse with them. I hadn’t felt that before, didn’t know it existed in the wardrobe of feelings — though I’ve felt it many times since: like learning a new word, suddenly, it is everywhere.

Between that memory of her as an airport pretzel and that moment you extracted my confession, much had happened. She and I were of weary hearts, still, and although we tried to play it safe, tried to keep a distance, in the end we gave in to almost all of our impulses. Somewhere in the middle of that jumble, it seemed, we had fallen in love.

Though she made me a better person, kinder certainly, the worst of my demons still lingered. I’d go on to ruin the relationship with her over the course of a few more months. It was mine to ruin and ruin it I did. That loss became an inflection point in my life. I used it to sober myself up, to begin running marathons, to start doing the work that I thought I was supposed to be doing. All of it a penance; anything to justify having messed up so unequivocally. And while I’m sure none of her friends would believe it now, in that instant there was a trueness and tenderness to my love. You saw that. It jolted us both. You were there, Sandals Man. Your presence was like a countersignature on my proclamation, pinning down those emotions, allowing me to return to that moment, to believe over the years that I hadn’t imagined it all. To remember that somewhere in the middle of China, for a fleeting moment my heart was capable of opening, and I wasn’t quite alone.


Craig Mod is the co-author of the books Koya Bound: Eight days on the Kumano Kodo and Art Space Tokyo. His essay collection, Bokura no Jidai no Hon (The Books of our Generation), was published in Japanese and Korean. He is a MacDowell and VCCA writing fellow, and Techfellow award recipient. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, California Sunday Magazine, Aeon Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review and other publications.