What I remember, 15 years on, is not your face or hair or hands, nor the beach or full moon above us that night. I remember the safety cone. It was bright orange, brand new, and perfectly incongruous, so we stared at it for seven hours.

My friend swung by twice to check on me, maybe three times.

“I’m good,” I said dreamily, as you studied the plastic cone or the silver sea of tinsel before us or the spectacle to our right—hundreds of barefoot bodies gyrating to a techno laser lightshow. Perhaps you looked behind us to the dreadlocked girl with the vacant eyes performing fire poi, twirling and swaying inside her trance of flaming hoops.

I wanted to stand up when the giant paper lanterns drifted like white sparks into the sky, burning ash flakes from a campfire. I should have scrawled my wish on paper and flown it into that blackness, or joined the mob of dancers and truly belonged, then, to the tens of thousands on our tourist-trap party island in Thailand. I contemplated finding my sandals. Instead I stayed captive, promised to one small square of sand and one plastic cone and you.

And so, while bodies in the water coupled, not 20 feet away, you and I would not touch. Still, of all the drugs that night—and there were many—longing was the strongest.

We admired its pointy shape, its cheerful hue, its phantom-tollbooth quality, while we talked. Of Amsterdam, America. Of love and sex and opium, travel, philosophy, altered states, higher powers, politics, prostitution. We talked of meditation and monogamy, and we talked of us, but also of him, my devoted Army sergeant waiting in Florida. And so, while bodies in the water coupled, not 20 feet away, you and I would not touch. Still, of all the drugs that night—and there were many—longing was the strongest.

At dawn, the light revealed our crescent beach, gift-wrapped in broken Singha bottles and cigarette butts, plastic cups and abandoned footwear. We said goodbye, eyes closed, clutching. You smelled of salt and smoke, and I took one long drag off your shirt before we separated.

Nearby, a college kid wearing only shorts and a white shell necklace lay passed out on the sand. Remember? His camera balanced on his sunburned stomach. A passerby stopped, plucked it up, and I was about to yell, protest, but the thief stepped back, took one photo of the kid, returned the camera, and walked on. We laughed, one last laugh along with one final glance at our orange traffic cone, our own undeveloped snapshot to tell the story. Danger, it warned. Proceed with caution. Keep your distance.

We did. Morning ended our affair of words and headlines and secrets laid out like a newspaper on a breakfast table, now folded and tucked away. We would never have this again. We would never have another night so exquisitely our own.

Until, of course, you ruined it. Not once or twice, but three whole fucking times.

First: after the water taxi ferried us back to the big island and everyone slept away the day in dark huts and shady hammocks. That evening, you sauntered past my bar table. Mundane greeting, blithe conversation, and a cocky justification of why you kept company with the teenage Thai girl: saving her from pervy old white guys, you said, as I looked on in disbelief—because wouldn’t she rather be with you: young and virile?

Second: the next night, same thing, only this time you left with a lady-boy. I shouldn’t have been shocked—you were so off the map, and so Dutch, my friends said by way of explanation, and whatever, you couldn’t care less. But where did that leave me? Us? Our sweet stretch of numinous night? Nowhere. Seven hours of life, swept away. I thought of pristine white sand, lapping waves, garbage clinging to the shore.

Still, when I left the island later that week—though I didn’t seek you out to say goodbye—I somehow knew your memory would get off easy. My mind was already rinsing it clean, sanitizing it for a wistful someday. Those hours would remain sacrosanct, unsullied by follow-up, or any expectation of it. I would carry only an image of two strangers, one lost night, and a perfect never-again.

I still remember what you said 15 years ago, as the sun stirred over the sea and the chemicals drained from our bodies. You were happy, you whispered, that I was faithful to my sergeant—it meant we wouldn’t ruin this. Nothing would ruin it.

But you found me, last week, sent a message through Facebook. Proving, at last, that never-agains are the new happily-ever-afters. Elusive, illusory, now a relic of a lost era of travel. We weren’t lovers and we won’t be friends, and now you’ve made it so we can’t even be strangers. We were never more than two paper lanterns drifting separately into blackness, wishes unfulfilled, bracing for the fall.


Lavinia Spalding is series editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, author of Writing Away, and co-author of With a Measure of Grace. She introduced the e-book edition of Edith Wharton’s classic travelogue A Motor-Flight Through France, and her work appears in numerous print and online publications, including Tin House, Post Road, Inkwell, World Hum, Overnight Buses, Yoga Journal, and Sunset. She lives in New Orleans.

Photo Credit: Thisisbossi