Happy (dead) Mother’s Day

EK_0182For so many years, I’ve sulked on Mother’s Day and watched, yearningly, as bouquets of flowers and warm, squishy hugs were exchanged, brunches were savored, and moms and daughters in flowing sundresses got pedicures together. I can’t bring myself to get pedicures on Mother’s Day, in fact. The nail salons are just too crowded. I can get flower painted on my toe any other day of the year. But I want this year to be different. I want to honor my mom in a way I never have before, to spend the day thinking about what a radiant light she was, how hilarious, kind, loving, and supportive she was, and most of all, how grateful I am to have had such a remarkable woman for a mother. So, I shall share a couple of chapters from our story, from the carefree days before the sickness and suffering set in, from the happiest of the 21 years we walked together on this planet. She lived for her kids…we were the beat of her heart and the song of her soul, and we miss her profoundly each and every day.

Tell my daughter to lose weight again. I dare you.
EK_0508I’m not sure if child molestation was extra popular in the 80’s, or if it was just extra popular in my mom’s imagination, but in her world, everyone was a potential pedophile (not just priests)… trusted teachers, uncles, neighbors, coaches, and even Mr. Rogers had devious behavior lurking under the surface. This is why, five nights a week, three hours per night, for five years straight, my mom watched my gymnastics practice. Sure, other parents did the same thing. But they were only there to criticize their children and yell at them when they fell off the balance beam. My mom could care less if I fell off the balance beam. For her, this was an important life lesson – that’s what happens when you hurl your body through the air over a 4-inch-wide beam. Now get back up and try again.

She sat on the cold, hard bleachers in the parent’s section, happy as can be, reading her romance novels, making friends with the coaches, telling jokes…always able to make even the meanest coach of them all, Dennis, crack a smile. Dennis had a reputation for having a fiery temper, and he’d been known to throw chairs at little girls for not sticking their landings after a vault. But he was never mean to me, because my mom watched him like a hawk. One night, Dennis herded my team into a corner of the gym and spread us out on mats to practice all three splits. From where my mom was perched, she couldn’t see what was happening. But there was a scale in that corner, and one by one, we were told to step onto the scale as Dennis arbitrarily decided how much weight each of us needed to lose.

I was 10 years old and weighed 62 lbs. I was a tight, tiny bundle of skin, bone, and solid muscle. But Dennis said I had a “bubble butt,” and he commanded me to lose 1 lb., immediately. I was shocked, not only because I was the smallest kid at school but also because even at that tender young age, thanks to my mom, I had a positive self body image. On the drive home from the gym that night, my mom sensed something was bothering me, but I refused to tell her what had happened. She began to notice, though, over the next few days, that I wasn’t eating a whole lot, and she demanded to know what was going on. “You either tell me, or I’m taking you to Dr. Wong.” That did it. Our pediatrician made it a habit to do a rectal exam every single time we went to see him. Sinus infection? Finger in the butt. Broken ankle? Finger in the butt. Spider bite? Finger in the butt.

“Dennis told me I have to lose one pound!!” I blurted out, as I started to cry. And then I watched as my normally calm, sunny mother turned from mama to mama bear, as she reached into the refrigerator and grabbed a package of steak, picked up her car keys and her purse, and ordered me into the car. Now. I’d never seen her so infuriated, and I was frankly a little scared. I didn’t utter a single word on the way to the gym, and I was convinced my gymnastics career was over, because she was going to hit that coach over the head with a side of beef.

She unwrapped the meat in the car and marched me straight into Dennis’ office, slammed the bloody chunk of raw steak down on his desk, and in that quiet, don’t-you-dare-fuck-with-me scream that can really only come from a mother, said “Do you know what this is?” The color drained from Dennis’ face. “This is a pound, you asshole! If you ever tell my 10-year-old daughter to lose weight again, my dad will break your kneecaps. Am I clear?” Dennis stammered an insincere apology as my mom took me by the hand and spat “You make me sick,” on our way out of his office, and I wondered how my sweet, old, Italian grandpa knew how to break a kneecap.

But my mom didn’t stop there. She drove me straight to Dr. Wong’s for a weight assessment, in case she hadn’t yet convinced me that my body was perfectly healthy. I was, in fact, underweight. So from there we went to my favorite restaurant, Tom’s Place, where she ordered me my most beloved meal – the one usually reserved for birthdays and mediocre report cards – a strawberry milkshake and French fries. “Eat up, honey. We’re not about to let some asshole give you an eating disorder.”

Half-up Side Pony, please.
EK_0693When we were little and my mom would tire of her three rambunctious children running around the house like wild banshees, she’d claw her head with both hands and yell, “Enough!! Get out of my hair!” And we’d glance at that mess of curls on her head and immediately look away, embarrassed, wondering how anything could find its way out of that thick, frizzy, Italian nest.

My brother, Ryan, inherited those thick brown curls, and on him, they had this ethereal quality that made him look like a sweet, little angel. My mom cherished his hair so much that she refused to cut it, even when it grew bushy and tangled and always smelled of milk, and even when it became so long that strangers would comment to my mom, “What a beautiful little girl she is!” It didn’t help that he let me paint his fingernails bright pink and dress him in tutus.

I was born with stick straight, shiny brown hair, and I loved it. It always did whatever was asked of it when I was a child, and I used to toss it over my shoulder and flaunt it on the playground every chance I got. And then puberty set in. Have you ever seen that movie, Teen Wolf? Much like Michael J. Fox, my metamorphosis also seemed to emerge overnight. I’d watch that movie over and over again, feeling a special connection with that dorky, awkward teenager who had no control over what was happening to his body. When I received the gift of teenage-onset thick, curly hair, this was, I thought, the worst thing that could happen to me…worse than wearing braces, worse than full face acne, and still worse than getting good grades.

This is why, every single morning from ages 12 – 16, my mom got up an hour earlier than she needed to in order to style my hair for school. She used to tell me, “You have to suffer to be beautiful, honey.” This, as she yanked and tugged and combed out those messy curls, miraculously coercing them into something I was only somewhat embarrassed of. “How do you want your hair today, sweetie?” She always asked in her cheerful way, even though we both knew the answer. “Half-up side pony, please, mom.” It didn’t help that this was in the eighties. You couldn’t just tie your hair up into a messy bun and get on with your day. You had to style your hair, tease your bangs, spray it stiff with White Rain Extra Hold hairspray, and put a matching scrunchie in it. Sometimes two.

My mom never once complained about the sacrifices she made for her children, including waking up an hour early every day to do her teenage daughter’s hair. I took this seemingly small act for granted, and when she got sick when I was 14 years old, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation, and I found myself wondering if she’d still be able to do my hair every morning. Of course she did. And what I realize now is that she wasn’t just sculpting my hair. She was gently shaping my self-esteem. This was one of the most valuable gifts she gave me. Every morning, she’d tell me how much I’d appreciate this thick head of wild curls when I got older (I do), how lucky I was to be different from all the other kids (I was), and how the only thing that really, truly, mattered was the beauty that shined from within me. Though I wish I could’ve learned this last lesson a little differently, my mom courageously showed me what this meant when she got sick and lost all of her hair, yet somehow remained as beautiful, if not more so, than ever before.

EK_0367She never ever faltered as a mom. No matter how awful she felt or how terrified she was of dying, even on her worst days, she was a strong, selfless mom through and through. She stood by me, she stood up for me, she gave me everything she had, and she loved me fiercely. I’ll never forget the last conversation I had with her. She held my hand in hers, as tears spilled from her big, brown eyes, and she said, “Five more years. I just want five more years with you. I want to watch you dance and be there for you when you get your heart broken. I want to cry happy tears for you at your wedding and hold your babies in my arms.” And though I was in far too much pain to articulate what I was feeling, I looked into those beautiful eyes one last time, hugged her so hard I could feel our hearts beating together, and whispered, “Mom, we could never ever have enough time together.”


9 Lives

I’ll never forget the time my cat, Orangie, died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the Communication major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time…the one with George Clooney. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either.

When my mom and dad arrived at the vet a few minutes later, and learned that Orangie had come back to life but was being examined just in case, my mom was outraged. “Why are they examining him if he came back to life?” she inquired. “I don’t know, mom! I was just trying to do the right thing. You know how much I love Orangie!” I knew that line would get her. $500 later, we all returned home with a perfectly healthy kitty. We still don’t know why he died that night, but this was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

About a year prior to this, my older brother, Ryan, brought Orangie home for my mom, who had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor’s visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let Orangie stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran over him with his sweet, white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, look at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had  9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

In 2012, Orangie developed a series of illnesses which prompted the vet to tell my brother they just needed to keep him comfortable and love him as much as possible. He lost half his body weight, wouldn’t eat, and wheezed constantly. When I went to visit my brother in May, 2012, I said goodbye to withering Orangie, seeing that he was so frail and so sick. There was no way he’d make it out of this one alive.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it? Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

I think my knee hurts

I’ve never felt lonelier, more melancholy, or chunkier than I did my freshman year in college. I had come from a snooty Orange County high school, where I was the most popular kid…in the nerd crowd. High school was excruciating for me. I had frizzy hair, was missing two front teeth, which forced me to wear a retainer with fake teeth in it, and couldn’t justify wearing a training bra. I was ashamed of both myself and of my friends, and yearned to be one of the popular girls…a girl who’s glossy Wet n’ Wild lips got kissed by boys with athletic ability. My loving mom, ever worried about my self-esteem, reassured me that college would be different.

I dreamed of going away to “that party school in San Diego” all through high school. SDSU had quite the reputation, and I figured…SDSU, UCSD, same thing. Since the two schools were in the same city, I thought everyone hung out together as one giant group of buddies. I couldn’t WAIT to get away from home, reinvent myself, and party the nights away with all my new friends. I fantasized about brazenly doing the walk of shame on Saturday mornings, still a little drunk, mascara smudges under my eyes, maybe a little sore.

So imagine my disappointment when I arrived that first week not at the party school, but at UCSD, the place where parties go to die, a college so solely focused on academics that you could walk through the dorms on a Friday night and the loudest noise you’d hear is a group of engineering majors quietly quarreling over a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

When I realized the grave mistake I’d made in selecting a college, I was heartbroken. On top of this, I’d missed out on the dorm giveaway and got squeezed into an on-campus apartment with a recluse. Never in my life had I found it so difficult to make friends. I tried to join the dance team, and though I was an ok dancer, there was that chunky thing, and I didn’t make the cut. I really got tricked by that non-fat food craze of the late 90’s, and in my isolation, I’d sit around for hours on end in my sad, little bedroom, stuffing myself full of Lucky Charms and Snack Wells cookies.

After one semester of utter misery, I was ready to call it quits, go back home, and start high school part two with all my friends. That’s when I met the girl next door, Angela. Though she was studious, responsible, & shopped at Old Navy (all of the same qualities I was trying to shed), there was something desperately attractive about her – a car. Not only did she have a car, but she was willing to use it to take us to TJ at least four nights a week – 5 if Monday was a holiday.

Having solidified the foundation of a virtuous friendship, we began to spend every day together. Unlike me, Angela knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she chose UCSD, and that suited her just fine. She would bury her nose in biochemistry books while I lied on her floor, drank Coors Light, and repeatedly made her tell me the story about how she’d once given a guy a blowjob in high school. We were so lonely, and we saw something in each other we both longed for – she, my carefree attitude and obsession with having fun…me, her car.

We only needed $3 each for a night of good, clean south of the border fun. We could get into the club for free if we were willing to bartend. There was the blue drink and the red drink, and because we went to UCSD and not SDSU, we knew how to make a purple drink. We poured the colors into plastic cups, grabbed the sailors’ money, stuffed it into our bras, and took tequila shots in between. We’d spend $1 on street tacos on our way back across the border and still have money the next morning to buy a non-fat coffee shake.

The only catch was that we had to walk back across the border at 4am instead of pay for a taxi. But as long as we left the club by 3am, we’d be across the border by 4am, home by 5am, and able to squeeze in a refreshing two hour nap before it was time to wake up, change into our overalls, and run to class.

My mom would call me every day to make sure I was still alive, and her supernatural mom radar betrayed me relentlessly. “You’re not going to TJ, are you? Honey, I don’t want you to get pregnant. Please tell me you’re not going to TJ.”

“Mom, we only go to TJ during the day, and it’s because we have to go watch Ballet Folklorico for dance class. They’re MAKING me go.” I really thought I was pulling one over on her, until she dragged me to the ladies-only doctor midway through my freshman year and forced me to get on birth control (thank god). And since the only danger she associated with TJ was premature grandmothering, she didn’t worry about the fact that her 18-year-old, her only girl, the baby of the family, was getting wasted and then walking an hour back across a dark, dank border, only stopping long enough to vomit all over herself or publicly urinate.

On one of our epic walks back across the border, my normally hearty stomach started rumbling, and I knew trouble was ahead. Midway through our walks, we always stopped at the same empty fountain in the same desolate plaza to pee. But this time was different. When I pulled up my denim mini-skirt and squatted, the “pee” came out of both places. That fountain really got more than it bargained for, but I didn’t care. I became desperate to get across the border, knowing there was more sex on the beach and carne asada begging to come out.

“Come ON, Angela!! We need to hurry. I feel GROSS.” I HAD to get to a non-fountain toilet, so I hustled us along in our Payless ShoeSource heels. As we approached the border crossing and saw the unusually long line, I panicked. The pre-911 border crossing was a pathetic joke, but it appeared as if they might be straying from their usual routine of herding drunk college kids across without a second glance and were actually checking I.D.’s that night. That’s when I spotted a hole in a chain-link fence, which would definitely cut our wait time. It was a small hole, low to the ground, and only big enough for an excessively drunk person to fit through.

“NO WAY!” Angela said. “I am NOT squatting under that fence. It’s ILLEGAL!”

“Oh, come ON, Angela. Don’t be such a pussy.” I taunted her, willing myself to hide my own fear of getting in trouble.

Poor Angela’s biggest mistake was being too sober. Everyone knows drunk people have tougher bodies. The second she squatted under that fence, she froze. “What’s wrong, Angela?? Hurry up! I REALLY have to get to an American bathroom.”

“I can’t move!” cried Angela. I knew her to err on the side of drama when it came to ailments, so when she crouched under that fence and couldn’t get back up, I wasn’t worried. Plus I was a selfish monster, so I grabbed her arm, yanked her up, and pushed her limping legs across the border, through tears and pleas for an ambulance. MY stomach hurt, and I wasn’t about to be deterred by her make believe injury. Furthermore, instead of cutting in line, we’d bypassed the line altogether and accidentally crossed straight into America, meaning we could get to a bathroom even sooner.

We finally made it to Angela’s gray Ford Taurus, where I lied down in the plush back seat and forgot all about her fake knee pain. We drove for about 30 seconds before I knew my stomach just wouldn’t hold. “I’m gonna hurl!!”

“Oh my god, Jen. Here, barf into this Kleenex box.” She tossed a full Kleenex box into the back seat, I tore the tissues out, threw them on the floor, and filled that sucker up. When it was full, I drunkenly pressed the automatic window button and emptied the box onto the 5 freeway, filled it back up, and repeated the whole process twice more. I was really proud of myself for containing my barf so well, and I told Angela as much the next day.

“Oh really? “Then why was I scraping your pink barf off the side of the Taurus, scrubbing it out of the back seat, and prying it out of the seat belt buckle today for three hours while you were lying on the couch eating Doritos? Oh, and by the way, my knee is swollen and purple, and I can barely walk.”

“Oh, puhlease. Lemme see it,” I said as I buried my guilt somewhere deep inside. Her right knee did look a little different from the left one, but I knew she just wanted attention. “Well, you probably strained it. Put some ice on it and it’ll be fine in 2 days.”

The first knee surgery happened two weeks later, over spring break. Angela had to lie to her parents and tell them she injured her knee on the elliptical machine at the gym. They’d raised a nice Catholic girl, sent her to the nerdiest school in America, and had no idea she’d become best friends with a girl who coaxed their daughter into spending her nights in TJ. I kept telling myself Angela probably had a pre-existing knee injury. Telling myself this made me feel like less of an asshole. After this happened, Angela wouldn’t drive me to TJ for weeks. She got over herself when I promised to pay for a cab to haul us back and forth across the border, and she was considerate enough to schedule her future knee surgeries for winter and summer breaks, so as not to ruin our fun. It was then that I knew Angela wasn’t just somebody to fill the void, but that she would be a lifelong friend.

Six knee surgeries later and a knee replacement on the horizon, Angela still won’t forget about that night in TJ. It’s a miracle she’s still my friend, but I’m sure it’s her way of thanking me for making her squat underneath that border fence twenty years ago and setting her on the path to find her true calling in life. Through her agonizing pain, complicated surgeries, and intense rehab, she developed a passion for helping injured people, and she’s now one of San Diego’s most successful physical therapists. So you’re welcome, bitch.

All Roads Lead to Machu Picchu

Part 1 – ¿Cuánto Quesadilla?

I used to be an asshole when I traveled to other countries. Not your stereotypical obnoxious American asshole traveler, but a whole different breed of asshole (assholes do come in many colors and sizes, after all)…one who showed up boldly to other countries unannounced, too cool to make any plans ahead of time, expecting everything to work out in my favor. And it did for awhile. Until the hand of Peru reached out and bitch slapped me something fierce.

My husband and I arrived in Lima in April, 2009, knowing only that we wanted to visit two places – Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu. And yes, I wanted to go to Lake Titicaca for the reason you think. We headed straight for the bus station, planning to jump on a bus headed for the best-named lake in all of the land. But the buses to Titicaca were canceled on account of a farmer’s strike, and rumors circulated that if you tried to take a bus down there, angry farmers would launch giant carrots (or was it rocks?) at you from the side of the road.

So instead we hopped on an overnight bus to Cusco (jumping off point to Machu Picchu). But not before we indulged in giant bowls of the famous Peruvian ceviche and tall glasses of Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. We gloated in our ability to go with the flow and allow things to work out as they should.

As we boarded the double decker bus and climbed up to the top level, the driver stopped each person and asked us to state our name and country of origin into a video camera. A twinge of uneasiness set in. When I asked the driver, “¿Por qué?” he said, “Requirement.” Satisfied with that explanation, we snuggled into our plush seats, covered ourselves with soft blankets, and I popped a Dramamine.

I’ve got a pretty rocky relationship with motion sickness. I’ve spent hours barfing off the sides of boats, out the windows of cars, into the breathing apparatus while scuba diving in 50 feet of water, in airplane bathrooms, and after swimming in a pool (a pool!). But 99% of the time, I’m ok so long as I take a Dramamine. So I closed my eyes and dozed off as the bus began ascending up into the Andes.

I quickly awoke feeling rather woozy. A dread-filled anxiety washed over me as I realized we were 20 minutes into a 12-hour bus ride and I was already sick. It was pitch black outside and we were on the top level of a bus whipping around sharp switchbacks at 50 miles per hour. I glanced over at Eric, whom possesses what I consider to be a superpower – the ability to read in the car, and he, too, looked green around the gills.

“Eric, are you ok?” I asked halfheartedly, consumed by my own horrible sickness. He was sweating and vurping. “Dude, go throw up in the bathroom. You’ll feel so much better. I’ll hold my barf and go next.” But when he stood up out of his seat, we began to realize we weren’t in this alone. Both toilets were Ocupado by other people who just wanted to feel so much better, too. Passengers began stirring, whispering regrets to each other about taking the bus when flights were almost just as cheap, and my ingenuity kicked in. I reached into my backpack, emptied out my Ziploc toiletries bag, and threw it at Eric.

Then I tore off my favorite pink hoodie, grateful I’d chosen to wear something with a hood (aka, bucket), barfed into it, and then held it in my lap like a hammock. We were so sick we wanted to die. I looked over at Eric, a string of ceviche and Pisco sour barf trickling down my chin, and said, “God. I hope this bus gets hijacked.” Eric, returning my hopeful sentiment, said, “I hope this bus careens off the side of this fucking mountain.” As we fantasized about dying, I told Eric I loved him, just in case our dreams came true.

Thirty minutes passed before we were rearing up to go again. This time I managed to fight my way into the bathroom, but the toilet had clogged from everyone else’s vomit, and had begun to overflow into the aisles, so every time the bus made a turn, the collective barf would slosh back and forth across the floor. When I returned to my seat, I saw Eric holding his luxury bus blanket in a wad on his lap. He’d had nowhere else to store his barf after he’d filled up the Ziploc bag.

Passengers were calling out to the bus driver, begging him to pull over for a break and to let us out to clean ourselves up and get some fresh air. But he would stop for nothing.

“¡No puedo!” he shouted back at us. “¡Sí, se puedes!” I yelled back at him. And our 12-hour bus ride continued in this way until we’d puked everything out and had only gut-wrenching dry heaves and no more fucks to give, when we finally pulled into the Cusco bus station at 7:30am. As we grabbed our backpacks, the beautiful, young Peruvian bus attendant shyly asked Eric to pay for the blanket and explained that the bus company took money out of her salary to cover the cost of “damaged blankets.”

“¿Cuánto quesadilla?” Eric asked, demonstrating his command of the Spanish language by knowing how to ask how much something costs. $20 later, we stepped off the bus and meandered around Cusco in a putrid cloud of bile stench, and for the first time in our adult lives began questioning the choices we made while traveling.

Part 2 – I don’t think my brakes work

Because we were cocky dicks (ha!), we’d falsely assumed we didn’t need to book the hike to Machu Picchu ahead of time. We reckoned we could weasel our way into an already established group. Not only was this impossible, it was rude and presumptuous. But Cusco has a backup plan for people like us, and it’s called the “Hike & Bike,” the “More funner way to get to Machu Picchu!” They told us they only used top of the line bicycles – Treks.

And the bike ride through the mountains was absolutely stunning. We were deep into the Andes on a well-paved road, flanked by emerald green valleys on both sides, along with the occasional view of a waterfall. The sun was warm, there were big, puffy clouds in the sky, birds chirping in the trees, Incan mamas toting babies on their backs alongside the road, and a cool breeze in our faces as we sped downhill on our bikes.

And speaking of speeding downhill on our bikes, I couldn’t help but notice I was going quite fast. “Eric!!!” I shouted. “I don’t think my brakes are working!!”

“You gotta squeeze them harder, baby. You’re not squeezing hard enough.” he yelled into the wind as he peddled frantically to keep up with me. I glanced down at my white knuckles, which had begun to cramp from squeezing so hard, and wondered how much harder I could possibly squeeze. After I flew past Eric, I knew I was fucked. I had been humming that song from Wizard of Oz the naughty witch cackles when she’s driving her bicycle through the sky….do do do do do doodoo, do do do do do doodooh shit..

The guy in front of me braked suddenly, and I crashed directly into his back tire at full speed, flew over my handlebars, and landed on my back in a ditch. In a thick bed of daisies. I smiled as I gazed up at the clouds, knowing I was dead, and that heaven was indeed beautiful.

Eric scrambled over to me, thinking my serene smile was the result of head trauma. I lazily turned my head toward his and said, “Told you my brakes didn’t work.” I stood up, unharmed, and moved to climb back onto the horse, as they say, but Eric stopped me. He picked up my bike, shook it, and the back tire dropped onto the pavement. The guide was kind enough to give me his bike while he rode in the backup van.

The next leg of our Hike & Bike was a taxi, driven by a 12-year-old boy without shoes. By this point we were at 12,000 feet, and the road, more like a poorly maintained trail, was fraught with cavernous potholes and giant boulders that continually tumbled down the mountain wall from above us. We stopped several times to get out of the car and push these enormous boulders out of the way so our car could pass. And every time the window fogged up, the driver reached down under the passenger seat and ripped off little squares from a roll of toilet paper to wipe the condensation off the window and smear wet chunks of toilet paper onto the window. We again said our goodbyes to each other; certain that taxi was a one-way ride to the river thousands of feet below us.

Part 3 – Are you on cocaine, or are you just happy to see me?

We finally made it to the last leg of our journey – the 12-mile hike to Machu Picchu. We were experienced hikers on a clearly marked trail, so we finally relaxed, knowing the rest of the way would be easy. But our guide, Elmer, kept veering off the trail into tiny, remote villages and telling us to continue without him. When the otherwise grumpy, sluggish Elmer would catch up with us an hour later, he was euphorically happy, eyes red, pupils dilated, enthusiastic, and chatty. And with every disappearance and reappearance, he’d have a different backpack on. That’s when one of the members of the group, who’d been living in Peru for a few years said, “Oh, this is just how the guides make extra money. They run cocaine through the mountains.” “That’s cool,” I said, feeling utterly defeated after the previous days’ adventures.

When we got up the next morning at 4 a.m. to climb the primitive, treacherous staircase to Machu Picchu, it was dark and raining. It had become apparent that our tour operator maybe wouldn’t get all 5 stars on TripAdvisor, and as such, hadn’t told anybody to bring headlamps. “Don’t worry,” Elmer reassured us. “I have light.” So he lit the way with the dull, purple light of his tiny flip phone, while the members of our group slipped and fell and crawled on hands and knees up the mile-long staircase. We never saw Elmer again after we entered Machu Picchu, and I was actually a little sad because I kind of really love ridiculous assholes like him.

But Eric and I were just getting started, and we had ourselves a magical time in Peru, making it not only to Lake Titicaca, one of the most unique and incredible places I’ve ever seen, but also to the beautiful colonial town of Arequipa, where we drank delicious cafés con leche on our hotel balcony with a view of a volcano in the background, not letting our severe, 5-day-long, diarrhea deter us one bit. Nothing a little Immodium can’t handle. And we promised each other next time would be different. We’d plan everything ahead of time. Traveling like this was ok in our 20s, but we’re in our 30s now, and we’re too old for this shit.

Six months later, we boarded a plane for Japan, without a hotel room, transportation, or plan in sight…