“You’re traveling into the future,” my friend typed into a Facebook chat box before I embarked on the 17-hour journey across the international dateline to his hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I was counting the final days until December 27, eager for another adventure, a new addiction. But when the moment came to get into my sister’s car for a ride to SFO, there were the old anxieties. So many hours over the ocean; no land in sight; only piercing deep-sea where plane crash survivors would bitterly perish.
Nothing of that sort happened, of course, and I made it to Australia.
So now it’s the morning of December 29. I haven’t slept and I’m pacing the lobby of Tullamarine Airport, looking for my friend.
Christos Pikoulis is his name. He’s “Greek first before Australian,” I learned in San Francisco more than a year ago. I saw the Greek Orthodox icons his mother hid in his backpack. He called her regularly, reassuring her in words that were his only language upon entering the Australian public school system at age six. An offer on the couchsurfing website to host him for a couple of days turned into a couple of weeks. Before I knew it, this kid had weaseled his way from the unheated spare room into my cozy bedroom, where we slept like brother and sister, until he moved on to Salt Lake City.
“Look, it’s cold in there, and uncomfortable,” he said as he dragged his stuff into my room. “We’ve gone past the whole couchsurfing thing, all right. We’re friends now, so I’m sleeping in here.”
And then, a slight weight huddled in a sleeping bag on the other side of my bed, unwashed scent growing more pungent as he slept more comfortably each passing night. An impromptu road trip to San Diego and Los Angeles. The days following that he spent bedridden with an ear infection, helpless and immobile in my bedroom, watching my collection of Battlestar Galactica DVDs and eating soup, waiting to feel well enough for his Utah-bound train. Then, the feeling after he left. The apartment quiet and isolating again.
Here at the airport now I continue scanning people’s faces, looking for those familiar features of his. I think about one of the last things my friend said when we were chatting online before I left: “I’m crazy excited!” I want to feel the same way.
I remember the last time I saw Christos. I hugged him goodbye after eating at an Italian restaurant in North Beach with a couple of his friends, who were also traveling in the States at the time. We were just a couple blocks from the bar where we first met before I hosted him, when I was in desperate need of company after losing my job in San Diego and moving to San Francisco for grad school without any real friends to speak of in the city. It was a symbiotic arrangement, really. I wanted to couchsurf for the first time during an upcoming trip to the U.K., and I needed references. It was his first time leaving Australia, and he couldn’t afford to stay in hostels for the whole three months.
I remember what he yelled into my ear the night before we last parted ways. “You’re my favorite,” he uttered with a loose smile and a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon between his fingertips.
“Your favorite what?” I asked.
“I don’t know, just my favorite.”
As I continue walking past the rows of unfamiliar airport stores, listening to the beautifully crude sound of Australians conversing, I start to worry that we might not be such good friends now that I’m here, now that more than a year has passed. What if his girlfriend doesn’t like me? What if his friends think I’m old? I am seven years their senior.
Suddenly, relief wins over anxiety. I spot his deceptively cherubic, familiar face. The long mane I remember is much shorter, though, and he’s wearing a different outfit than the one I got used to. Cutoff shorts and a v-neck instead of winter wear.
“This is weird,” he says, stopping to look at me for a moment before we hug.
It is weird, for a moment. We take stock of one another to see if we’re the same people we remember, but his roommate’s car is waiting outside in the paid parking lot so we’ve got to get going. I wanted to be self sufficient, but he insisted that he owes me a lot of free rides, and I shouldn’t have to take the expensive shuttle to downtown Melbourne followed by the 86 tram to Thornbury, where he lives with three guys and two chickens. I get into the passenger side after almost getting into the driver’s side, and he laughs at me. The moment he starts teasing me—“takin’ the piss” as they say—I know he’s the same dude. We’re the same friends.
We roll out of the parking structure in a dilapidated, boxy sedan with empty beer bottles rolling around in the back. Christos explains the recent tropical storms that knocked over palm and eucalyptus trees, and tells me we’re going to his local café. I’m going to have my first long black—“the best coffee of your life,” according to his roommate Beau.
We drive along a distant highway, my friend pointing out every uniquely Australian thing we pass. We fall into comfortable conversation. Somehow, I’m not even tired. I’m feeling that crazy excitement I’ve been waiting for as I keep a promise I made to a friend more than a year ago.
Gaia Veenis is a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State University. After studying journalism at San Diego State and being published in newspapers and magazines, she got sidetracked with a silly corporate job. Now she’s happily writing fiction and creative nonfiction and couchsurfing her way around the world.