Oh, frabjous day – the moment you’ve been waiting for has arrived: the back to New Zealand trip! Well, yes, also gird your loins for some necessary mush about seeing Gar again (duh), but I’ll try to keep it as non-nauseating as possible. And I can offer you this little additional Cupcake of Enticement: nifty photographs will be served, because what is New Zealand if not kick-ass beautiful?
So, we know my separate ticket booking caused all sorts of trouble when my Orlando plane was delayed, but I finally made it to Auckland nearly a grand lighter (ouch) and a day later (boo) than planned. This had the somewhat positive effect of enabling Gar to pick me up from the airport since I was now arriving on a Saturday, but I wanted to look pretty when I saw him, not transformed after 23 straight hours of travel into a pale, cranky, disheveled [and, being from Florida, face-eating] zombie.
I sped through passport control and customs to the service counter that my oh-so-clever research the day before (i.e., calling the AKL airport i-Site and asking) had identified as offering showers to the weary, crumpled traveler for just a few dollars’ key deposit. Although the shower and changing area were both crammed into a space the size of a decent closet, it was tidy, and hot soapy water is a gift from the gods after a long flight in coach. I returned the key and tarted myself up as best I could in the adjacent ladies room, making a vague attempt to dry my unruly hair under the hand dryers. I texted Gar who confirmed he was waiting in the lobby in a blue t-shirt with his Kindle, and almost immediately after manhandling my luggage cart back out of the ladies room, I spotted him standing alone in the center of the cavernous space, facing away from me.
I was SO nervous. Pounding heart, sweaty palms, kind of wanting to throw up – everything. Trying to stifle any trembling, I sidled up behind him, engrossed as he was in his reading, and put my arms around him. After a momentary hesitation (brooked no doubt in part by a head of unfamiliar-color hair appearing behind his shoulder, since my wonderful stylist got a bit experimental at my last appointment and turned it slightly violet) he turned and hugged me back.
Suddenly, for the first time in 12 weeks, I could look at the actual face of this person I’d felt I inarguably had to see again, who I’d felt so connected to despite 8000 miles of distance, been so hard-backhand smitten with after a few dreamy, stolen days together. Months later, hundreds of email messages had flown back and forth between us, so while I’d gotten to know much more about him, at the same time, I knew nothing. He was like… a beloved stranger. Obviously not ‘love’ in the strict sense, nor a stranger either, but that kind of sums it up all the same.
We talked as he led me out to the parking lot and his car, I think both of us feeling somewhat shy and odd and yet simultaneously very pleased. My heart skipped a beat as I sat down and fondly recognized familiar dust bunnies in the Bluebird interior I remembered from our last trip together to the airport, and could have cried from the sheer joy of going the other direction this time, about to spend almost 16 whole days with him… I was overwhelmed with the indulgence of it and a sense of sheer possibility. And I was proud of myself. Proud that I’d been so stubborn, silly, brash, and optimistic [insert your own adjective here] to make this happen. I knew as I sat there it had been the right thing to do.
The weather was fantastic, warmly comfortable with shiny blue skies, and everything looked golden as Gar threaded the Bluebird down the highway. Something inside me perceivably, almost audibly shifted to a sense of deeply settled calm as I watched the familiar fairy-tale hilly landscape unfurl. It wasn’t just about Gar, happy as I was to see him – it was also about being there again. It is, for me, one of the right places, I think. Funny to contrast it to how I’d felt at times during the prior trip, but also completely congruent because all the groundwork had been laid then. The rest just slipped into place after I returned and noticed quiet in the part of me that had been missing it.
For pretty much for all of Day One, it’s a wonder I didn’t trip and concuss myself because I was enveloped in such a mindless daze of happiness. There was tons of smooching, cold beer, the intense Kiwi sun scalding my comparatively weakly Florida-tanned skin, holding hands, hugs. He made tea and we sat in his mom’s backyard and I marveled to be in the very setting of the movie he made me; I had viewed these same waving tree branches over and over onscreen (I would sometimes rewatch little tidbits of it when I missed him) and now here I was – and here HE was! (yes, sadly, this is indicative of my level of brain function at the time). I couldn’t believe my good fortune. He was wonderful and I was here and we were going to have a great time, I thought to myself.
And so we, essentially, did. Without a doubt, the first entire week there I was as happy as I can recall being in years. He was in school, so he had classes during the day and homework some nights. I’d booked places with little kitchens and internet so I could work while he was at the university, and after he returned from school I’d make him a sandwich and read next to him while he studied, or we’d go over and have dinner with his clever, kind, lovely mum, who was easy to talk to even for someone who tends to be shy and mother-fearing. And in an unexpected boon, Gar turned out to not just have a long Easter weekend off from classes, but the entire second week of my trip as well.
We did tons of fun things – in preparation for the forthcoming new episodes, Gar shepherded me through most of the first season of Game of Thrones, commandeering his TV from his room at home and transporting it to our hotel so we could have an outdoor viewing marathon on the patio while quaffing beer and soaking in the redwood hot tub. We biked along the Waikato River (they have great paved trails in Hamilton) and then borrowed his father’s kayaks and paddled down it another day, trying in vain to stay ahead of the encroaching rain but already too damp for it to matter much, and we had the river to ourselves. Famished on the bike ride, Gar directed us to a tiny Asian fryery that served transcendental fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. We picnicked on it at the nearby park, tiny tin of the mysteriously sublime Watties tomato sauce serving as the perfect dipping condiment. (Gar looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned tartar sauce and asked, “Whadya need that for?” “For the fish,” I said. “Tartar for fish, and ketchup for chips.” He shook his head. “Nope, Watties for both.” He was right – seriously, that sauce was like crack. Alas, it seems one cannot procure it in the States without staggering cost). We had beers out with his friends, barbeques at his mom’s with his ‘round-the-corner-dwelling brother Reid and his (again, lovely) fiancée Sylvie, and at his friends Luke and Aimee’s house, where Gar tested out the new dirt bike trail they’d carved in the back forty and skinned his elbow. He took me out to the famous surf town of Raglan to let me take pictures and wander around for a bit. We attended to a backyard birthday pizza party for his nephew while his grandmother quizzed everyone with esoteric Kiwi trivia questions from the newspaper. Along with their whole group of friends, Gar and I piled into Luke and Aimee’s living room couches to watch the new Game of Thrones episodes and groan and gasp collectively at the plot twists. And before his mom left on a business trip that would have her out of town for my departure, she cooked a marvelous farewell dinner complete with a kiwi-topped pavlova (a fruit-garnished meringue and cream layered dessert that the Aussies and Kiwis both contentiously claim as their own country’s invention). I was utterly content to be a small planet orbiting in this close-knit universe of Gar’s family and friends, however temporarily.
More than any of the ‘conventionally fun’ stuff, it was so great to just be with him. Granted, SO much togetherness and leading such different than normal lifestyles for an extended period was a bit challenging for us both, but for me anyway, the good bits obliterated the import of any small stressors. I was inordinately happy to sit in the backyard with him with Kindles and tea or working next to him on the computer, me writing my purchasing news and him writing his school essays. It was wonderful to wake up to a kiss and snuggles with him, or spend an evening after eating a delicious dinner he’d made holding hands on the couch and watching a movie. For heaven’s sake, I’ve never had fun in a grocery store with anyone else before, but I did with him, and the thought struck me forcibly every time we went shopping, even though it routinely cost several limbs, the deed to a first-born child, and an appendix at the cash register.
It wasn’t the same magic of my first trip. It was different – so was he. And presumably I was too. But that wasn’t necessarily bad – it was a new way of relating to each other. Seeing a little less giddily, a little more clearly, and the person before me was still just as sweet, fascinating, inscrutable, kind, and handsome as before. So of course, I again dreaded leaving. I didn’t like to give him up and go away, to relinquish the deliciousness of sharing affection and time with him. It was an incredible privilege to be able to experience that return trip, a once in a lifetime thing, really. And I was sad as hell to see it coming to a close.