I quelled the alarm at 5am and slithered silently out of bed, hushing the kitties clamoring for their morning kibble now that a groggy vertical human with opposable thumbs was on the scene to serve them. I methodically dismembered all of my belongings, spread them out over the kitchen floor, finished drying sufficient laundry to give me clean travel clothes, and tightly rolled and fitted everything into its designated bag, carefully weighing as I went to stay under the required limits. I unpacked the remaining groceries and supplies liberated from the van, leaving behind anything useful and throwing the rest in a trash bag.

Tasks completed, I surveyed my work bleakly. Just a few days ago I’d been so anxious to return home I was willing to pay to move my return ticket ahead – now I’d pay anything to be able to stay. Sure, I’d joked with my friends before the trip about running across a ‘hottie Kiwi sheep farmer’ on my travels, but the jest had somehow become real (swapping a geology student for the sheep farmer). Now I’d blundered into being quite smitten with a snugglable, hot, brilliant boy who I was absolutely loathe to leave. I crawled back in bed and, wrapped in his arms, cried quietly as I tried to embed in my memory every detail of being held close against him. Gar’s ginger tiger kitty, Ninja, jumped up on the bed and curled up next to me, contentedly nuzzling my hand for skritches. Sandwiched in an emotional Oreo cookie of blissful comfort and agonized dread, I glared at the encroaching sunlight through the windows, wanting to drive it away, turn the world back into night, and steal a few more hours of painful happiness.

Finally the moment of arising could no longer be delayed. We dressed, and, as Gar sat on the edge of the bed with his socks, I looked at him seriously and said, “I don’t want to go. I wish I could stay longer. I’d look at trying to move my plane ticket if you wanted, but I know you have to move house this week and get ready for school, and I don’t want to interfere with the things you need to do.” I figured it was enough of an opening for him to say yes if he wanted, but not so pointed he’d be forced to scramble for a polite way to demur. He kissed and rested his head against my tummy, arms drawn around me… and proceeded to get ready to depart. “Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s that.” I knew I’d already kept him far longer on the road than he’d anticipated, even missing his regularly scheduled gaming podcast during our traveling around; there was no more dodging the return of real life.

Van loaded and house locked, Gar led the way in his Nissan to the nearby carwash so I could return the minivan clean as the rental agreement required. He scrubbed the Bongo for me, and then it was time for our parking lot goodbyes. I tried really hard to keep from dissolving totally as he wrote down his email address for me and we smooched and hugged, leaning against the hood of his car. I returned to the van, hiccupping back my sobs, ran back to ask a question about how much gas I was likely to need as I battled to bring my mind back to practical matters (I had no desire to overfill the tank with expensive petrol when I was supposed to return it as I’d gotten it, which was near empty. Gar gamely attempted to give me an estimate based on my vague, hand-waving descriptions of how often I generally found myself filling the Bongo tank – though I’d been curious about my fuel use and the vehicle’s efficiency, I’d never made time to actually calculate it out – and it seemed I probably had enough to get me back to town, possibly with a little top-off).

Poised again to climb into the van, I cast a glance sadly backwards, and, realizing I would likely never see him again, grasped at one last chance to kiss him, darting again across the parking lot for a final smooch, dignity be damned. I hauled myself reluctantly into the wetly gleaming Bongo and started her up, starting to sob in earnest now. He preceded me out of the parking lot, raising a hand in farewell, and we went our separate directions on the highway.

Any remaining dregs of bravery left me as I headed toward Auckland. I wailed aloud, hunching over the crushing grief that had flared in my chest, vision so obscured by tears I nearly had to pull off to the side of the road. I mopped my face with handfuls of blindly yanked Kleenex and continued on my way as best could. Infuriated by an overwhelming sense of the injustice of fate, I reached at a stop light for my phone to text him… something. I don’t even know exactly what – a cry across cell lines, to not be utterly alone in my misery. Possibly something about his mocking crack the day before about Shakespeare’s characterization of parting as sweet sorrow – “Sweet sorrow, my ass,” I cursed to myself; this felt more like emotional Armageddon. As I held the mobile up it vibrated with an incoming text from him. “Serious question: would you like a ride from the rental place to the airport?”

I blinked muzzily at it once, read it again, realized the traffic light had turned green, and shot through the intersection and over to the side of the road as quickly as I safely could. Yes! Yes! Yes! The answer was most definitely yes. More Gar? More smooching? The very idea of a tiny reprieve, however short, instantly dispelled all but my dullest, most deep-seated regret at having to leave. I scrabbled in the glovebox for the manual with the rental place’s address and directions, and tried (with some frustration) to text rapidly on the old school numeric keypad where he’d be able to find me. (Trying to type Karangahape Road in a succession of digits with anxiously fluttering fingers and subsiding sniffles was not easy). Now the thing was to get myself and the van there as quickly as possible, figuring the rental place would need some extra time to inspect the bumper damage I’d found one day when I returned from a trek. (Naturally I blamed some ignorant tourist who had no idea how to safely pilot their behemoth motorhome in a parking lot). And it would probably be good to try to make myself as presentable as my red nose and eyes would allow.

I realized as I bopped happily in my seat, he’d just offered to make a three hour round trip drive to take me about 20 minutes from town to the airport. How crazy. How sweet! “Well, well,” I thought. “Not actually so apathetic as he might seem, then, is he?” The adorable, sneaky weasel…

About forty minutes into the drive I started to get a bit nervous as the needle on the fuel gauge began to drop precipitously. I wasn’t familiar enough with the minivan’s eccentricities to know how much was really left in the tank when it started dusting the red range, but I was already running later than I should have been – a fuel outage would sink me. I wanted to maximize any Gar time, too, and resolved to do whatever I needed to fast. There’s never a proximate gas station when you need one, but I knew the track where Gar most frequently races was coming up soon; I reasoned this would be a good likely turnoff to search for some petrol. Well, it wasn’t – there was nothing there but a gravel driveway to the track. I got back on the highway, monitoring the gauge anxiously, and spotted a sign for a little township – surely a town of people would need gas? I got off and drove hopefully past a school, a few tiny shops, tons of houses… and then the houses petered out, leaving me at what appeared to be the entry to a factory driveway. There was a big Maori guy by the side of the drive, seemingly raking gravel, and I asked him desperately where the nearest fuel would be. He pleasantly informed me there was a place just about 5 kilometers up the road – whew! – which could in fact be reached by simply proceeding the way I was going (I wasn’t just on a driveway). I found the station, dumped $10 worth in the tank, and then spent 15 minutes in a huge backlog of cars and tractor trailers waiting to get out of an extremely awkward entry onto a busy road to return to the highway access ramp.  After another half-hour of driving, including up an enormous hill that had the van wheezing and protesting, the Bongo had again siphoned off what appeared to be all the gas I had put in. Dammit! This time, with the area getting much more urban, there was a service station in the median between the two highway directions, so I stopped again, put $15 in the tank (scolding myself for wasting time by being cheap at the last stop) and sped back onto the road, nervous attention turned now from fuel gauge to clock.

I tried my best to follow the directions I’d texted to Gar from the van manual and quickly found myself totally lost. Thankfully I’d spent three days on foot walking over the entire city, so I backtracked, winged it a bit based on my general sense of where I needed to go, and finally found my way to my destination. I unloaded all my crap from the van and piled it neatly by the door, washed my face hastily, filed the necessary collision paperwork, and then started a long text to Gar to try to correct my flawed directions, fretting that I might have to take a taxi if I’d sent him too far astray. Still texting furiously, I wandered outside to look for conspicuous landmarks to describe, and noticed a flash of headlights – he’d ignored my directions, gone the way he knew, and found it just fine. We loaded up my bags and, after hugging him fiercely and thanking him for coming, headed back toward the airport with me clinging to his shift arm like a small monkey.

I was nervous as hell about being late but we made good time, and I hurried into the ridiculously mobbed check in line to wait my turn, unhappily noting that without a ticket, he couldn’t wait with me. He remained outside the check in area ‘til I was finally served, and we then seated ourselves upstairs in the lobby area just outside the international departures. I nestled as close to him as I could, face buried in his neck. I waved away his first two suggestions that maybe I should queue up: “Just five more minutes,” I pleaded. The third time he gently admonished me, “You’re going to miss your plane.” Well, although just then missing my plane sounded like the best possible ‘bad’ thing that could happen, I was aware it would be a terrible inconvenience to everyone concerned, so I finally acquiesced. We said our goodbyes (me sniffling again) and with one final wave at the door, I trudged miserably and tearfully into passport control.

The line in here was insane too, and after waiting for ten minutes, I heard them start pre-boarding my flight. The line crept incrementally forward. The announcements noted the Los Angeles flight was now open for general boarding. There was more creeping. Another announcement: final boarding. Wth at least 40 people still ahead of me, I freaked and ducked under the ropes (knowing if I did so in the States I’d probably be wrestled to the ground by burly TSA agents and possibly pepper-sprayed) apologizing to the people at the front saying, “I’m SO sorry: I’m going to miss my plane!” The passport control woman available next glared at me and hissed, “You should have gotten here earlier.” I nodded mutely, snatched back my passport, and ran toward security, flung my computers out and darted through the detectors to collect them, scooped everything into my arms and sprinted away. “Passengers Curran, Defarzo, and Fong: please proceed immediately to Gate 10B – your flight will be departing momentarily,” the speakers droned. Dodging strolling people, I streaked through the terminal, up the stairs, past the gates (of course, mine was the farthest one), down the escalators, and drew up short, panting, in front of a small conference table of seated gate attendants. A smiling man at least the width of four of me took my ticket and passport and said soothingly, “It’s okay – you made it. We’re still waiting on the others.” I boarded, found my seat (ignoring the fish eyes from the rest of the seated planeload), and collapsed, sweaty and gasping for air.

I looked out the window at the green hills and thought back to my excited anticipation when I’d landed here six weeks before, thirstily inspecting from the tiny plane porthole every visible detail of this long-white cloud country I’d been hoping for seven years to visit. I thought back on the routes I’d taken, the unexpected things I’d done and seen – meeting my previously unknown relative Jonathan and perspiring as I feasted on a spicy Indonesian banquet; plummeting breathless from a plane towards an endless blue lake; craning up at the hulking mountains of Fiordland; eating salty, succulent corned beef cooked in the sulfur-steaming earth; sharing beery Christmas revels with the family of a bearded, intimidating-looking  biker who turned out to be one of the nicest people imaginable; the fairy-tale hills and forests; my shivering penguin vigil; hiking over top of a glacier in shorts; the profusion of sheep and the even greater profusion of night-sky stars. Ah, the stars… this made me think of Gar, and I hastily waved over the hovering attendant and asked if I might be able to have some Kleenex? She looked at my red eyes and brought over a whole box. I clutched them to me, as, errant passengers finally corralled, we taxied to the runway and took off. I stifled another sob as the ground dropped away, the young guy seated next to me looking at me in some alarm – but that crippling pain in my chest was back, and every foot we ascended, every mile we flew, sharpened it ‘til it was damn near unbearable. I was leaving behind something I passionately wished not to be parted from, but he was far too tall to pack in my bags and bring home with me.