Seeing beauty felt empty. Janelle and I had spent the morning picking our way through ancient temples covered in vines, bathed in sun. I hated it. A queasy, trapped feeling that reminded me of being driven home in a high school boy’s dad’s BMW after a bad date and counting the minutes until we pulled into my driveway. I’m supposed to like this. Get me the hell out of here.
Partially we’d seen too many temples all in a row, and the carvings and the old-ness grew stale after temple number five in the searing heat, where we were followed by groups of kids yelling, “LADY!” and holding up cheap souvenirs. Too much. But also, I missed sharing this beauty with someone I was in love with. And then I hated myself for needing that.
I really lost it in the courtyard of the last temple. I just broke down, stupid tears!, and sat on a wall in a quiet section of the temple courtyard, in my floppy hat and thin flowered sundress. Janelle (bless her heart) came over and sat next to me. She listened for a bit and then distracted me by talking about books, because we both love books and stories and the structure of a story. Even in a puddle-like state I can still talk about books, so I said I’d read this screenwriting book called Story by Robert McKee — “…people say it’s formulaic, but positive and negative stuff happens to characters in every good story, and it’s all about reversals of fortune, like –“
Toby walked up. A scruffy stranger, bearded, dirty (no — tattery) t-shirt and cargo shorts, British accent. “Have you two been out here all day, too? Hot one. It just took me half an hour to buy this cardboard tube.” He held up a poster-mailing tube. “I just wanted the tube, you know, because I got a painting that I want to keep nice, but he wanted me to buy what was _in_ the tube too….” Suddenly we were off into Toby’s story. He “threw the toys out of the pram,” a.k.a, had just quit his job and took off around the world. Hiked a mountain with a crazy Polish girl. Almost died because they didn’t bring enough food. He’s about to go teach English on an island off the coast. “Do you know how to teach English to kids when I don’t speak anything, I mean anything, of Khmer? Just do a lot of charades I guess?”
I barely said anything the whole time and let Janelle talk, because my eyes were still red and I couldn’t quite feel like a normal chatty person yet. About half an hour later Toby went on his way, scratching his many mosquito bites. But the air had shifted, the stories and small-talk had pushed aside the storm clouds. Nothing seemed quite so dire.
I stood up from our dusty stone wall and opened my water bottle for a lukewarm sip — when I remembered our original, interrupted conversation about the structure of stories.
“This book, about screenwriting. It’s all about how every good plot has reversals of fortune. When a character reaches his lowest point, things flip.”