How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 7

So Claudia came walking up with this guy, talking and laughing, and my heart just fell through the floor. I suddenly wanted nothing but to run far, far away. I was the world’s biggest idiot.

Then she looked up and saw me.

She made this little sound, dropped the bag she was carrying, and ran to me, throwing her arms around me.

(In Claudia’s words: I couldn’t believe that Eric was there. I just never expected to see him yet. I’d been missing him so badly and there he was. I wanted to cry, giggle, and babble all at the same time. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.)

In that moment, suddenly everything was all right again. I’d made the right choice. I wasn’t imagining things. She actually did feel about me the way I felt about her. It was the most intense, unbelievable feeling.

(I did feel a small pang for the poor guy who was left standing there awkwardly, suddenly the biggest third wheel in Cairns. But Claudia told me later he was trying to score points with her, even though she’d told him about me, so I didn’t feel too bad for him.)

Then, in the middle of the night, Claudia woke me up, thrashing around. I touched her and she was burning up, moaning, practically delirious. She was complaining of pain in her ear but other than that she didn’t make much sense. Alarmed, I made her an ice bath and got her into it, knowing I needed to bring her temperature down. It worked, but it was still pretty much a sleepless night from then on. I sat by her and held her hand, wondering what else I could do, telling myself over and over that she was going to be all right.

She wasn’t much better in the morning. She had trouble standing and was very dizzy. Standing also made her head hurt a lot more. I asked around and found a health clinic and got us a cab. Just getting her into the cab was difficult. It turned out she had a serious ear infection, picked up while diving, which explained the pain and dizziness.

She was supposed to fly out of Cairns later that day, down to Melbourne, but with the ear infection flying was clearly out. After picking up her prescription at a pharmacy, I got on the phone and got her plane ticket canceled. Then I had to get a hold of the friend she was going to see and tell him not to expect her.

All in all it was a pretty trying 24 hours. To go from the absolute euphoria of once again being back together to dealing with a fairly serious illness was definitely an emotional ride. But it also made me extra glad that I’d followed her, since otherwise she would’ve had to navigate that all by herself—which can be pretty hard to do when you’re in a foreign country and there’s no friends or family to help out.

By Tuesday Claudia was well enough to catch a bus and start moving south. Before we left she had to make her promised weekly phone call to her ex. After the call, she was pretty broken up. She basically stumbled to me and fell into my arms, her eyes closed. It was pretty heartbreaking. I wanted to help her. I wanted to protect her. But she had made it very clear that this was something she had to handle on her own and I knew I had to respect that.

Earlier Claudia had told me that after she left Australia she was going to Spain for a week before going back to work. I, of course, tried to talk her out of Spain to spend another week in Australia. After her phone call that afternoon she admitted to me that she’d refused to cancel the Spain trip because she and her ex had planned to go together and if she canceled the trip he would cry and she couldn’t bear to hurt him that way. She wanted to tell him about us in person and not over the phone.

That hit me pretty hard. I’d just taken a huge leap to follow her and now she was telling me that she’d been hiding this from me. In my fear, I was looking for a way to pull back from her and this gave it to me.

From my journal: “When I heard this something inside me pulled away. Claudia saw this and she sees in my eyes today that I am still different. And I am. I am more cautious now. When tears build up inside me they don’t come out. I feel reluctant to give any more.”

Then, from the next day’s entry: “She has easily reached places inside me that no one else has ever seen. She has tapped into that well of aloneness that I keep dammed inside me and the pain I find there is enough to tear my chest apart. I have spent a strange day, where I felt distant from her, where I felt trapped and doubtful. I felt no love inside me for her and stared at every woman hungrily. I took a nap and when I awakened I told her and burst into tears. That loneliness inside me was tapped for a few minutes and I writhed on the bed. The pain in my chest was real, physical.

“Is it any wonder I’m terrified?

“My defenses have kept me alive and sane my whole life. I have never fully trusted anyone, never let anyone into that area that not even I know how to get into. How could I? It’s locked even to me. So here comes Claudia and without trying, she just rips me open. My brain is reeling, pulling every trick it knows to drag me back from the precipice. I have no control. The steering wheel is broken and the gas pedal is jammed. My brain keeps stomping the brakes but my momentum is too great. The car threatens to roll, the engine explode. My brain sees a precipice and crushing death. My heart sees the ramp for the leap into a promised, longed-for unknown. Which will win?

“She holds the promise of my dearest dream, but to reach for it means risking brutal pain. Today I thought that I just needed some alone time to recharge. I was just tired. That’s all. Now I think maybe that “alone time” is only a trick of my brain to give me time to repair my defenses. To keep my carefully constructed façade intact.”

Fortunately, I didn’t let my fears destroy what was growing between us. I had my chances to run away but somehow I managed to hang in there. We still had about a week together before she was due to leave the country and we essentially spent every minute together in a world that only held the two of us. There was so much we needed to learn about each other and such a short time to do it in. We had to compress as much as we could in those days. A big leap was coming and we both needed lots of reassuring that we were doing the right thing.

Final part

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia)

Claudia and me on our 20th wedding anniversary, 2015

It occurred to me recently that my children don’t really know the whole story of how I met their Swiss mother. So, inspired by the TV show they like so much and by our rapidly-approaching 20th anniversary, I thought I would write a short series detailing the rather bizarre and heartwarming series of occurrences surrounding this event.

First off, children, I want to assure you it will not take ten years to tell you this story. Nor will it end with her untimely demise.

I graduated from the University of Arizona (for the second time) in December of 1992 with a brand new temporary teaching certificate and landed a job almost immediately teaching high school English. That it was in Eloy, Arizona, didn’t concern me overmuch, even if a number of my friends gave me startled looks when I told them where I’d be living. It was a real job making real money and I was gung ho to put my new skills to the test (so to speak).

Fast forward six months. I received my summer pay in a lump sum. I don’t remember how much it was–not a lot I imagine–but it seemed like a lot to someone who up to that point had mostly made minimum wage while working his way through college. For some reason Eloy seemed a lot less glamorous to me by then–out of sheer loneliness I’d gone so far as to put up a sign in the local post office advertising for someone to ride bikes or drink margaritas or do anything with, to no avail–and I looked at that check and had an idea.

Australia.

I’d picked up the traveling bug while touring Europe for two months after my first graduation from college in ’89, I had no girlfriend, no real debt other than a small student loan payment and nothing keeping me in one place. It had also become painfully clear to me that American women weren’t really all that interested in me and I might die bitter and alone if I didn’t get out of Eloy while the getting was good. I might go to Australia and find myself a bride.

Additionally, there was some family precedent. One of the Knight men met his wife while recuperating in Australia during the Pacific War and his son met his wife there years later while traveling around. I also had a step sister living in New Zealand, married to a man she met while traveling around. Lots of promising omens.

So there I was at the end of July boarding a jet to Oz. I had it all worked out. I would scrape by on the barest minimum of cash while I looked for a job on a cattle station (what those zany Ozzies call cattle ranches) somewhere in the Outback. With a little luck I’d be able to stretch my meager funds to cover six months or so in Australia. My return flights would take me via New Zealand–where I hoped to eke out a few more months–and Fiji, which I knew nothing about but sounded exotic.

I was nervous as hell–scratch that, I was downright scared–going down there without knowing a soul, but I tried not to think about it too much. While waiting for my flight in LA I was approached by a sweet little old lady and she asked me if I would take one of her suitcases since she had too many and I naively agreed. It wasn’t until I was going through security that it occurred to me that taking a stranger’s luggage sounds like the opening scene in a movie where the hero either ends up on a hijacked plane or surrounded by armed federal agents while he tries to explain the ten kilos of cocaine.

But it turned out okay as she was actually just a sweet little old lady and not a ruthless drug smuggler-slash-terrorist. I had a layover in Auckland, New Zealand, which was her destination, and her family was kind enough to show me some sights and buy me a meal. I did experience a few moments of pure terror when we drove away from the airport and they took a left turn straight into oncoming traffic and certain death…only to realize that people drive on the wrong side of the street down there and we would actually live. They didn’t even seem too alarmed by my screams.

Her son even told me an amusing story about a mate of his who flew to LA to spend a nice holiday in the States. The poor man rented a car, left the airport and immediately got sucked into the hell of LA freeway traffic for a few white knuckle hours, before finally making his way back to the airport. Whereupon he turned in his rental car, bought a plane ticket and went straight home. At least I was already one up on that guy.

My flight left late and I landed in Cairns, Australia at about eleven o’clock at night. Cairns isn’t a very big place and the airport is (or at least was, God knows where it is now, twenty-some years later) way out beyond the fringes. I didn’t think too much of cabbing into town only to find all the backpackers (what they call hostels Down Under) closed for the night and perhaps being forced to sleep on a park bench so I found a quiet corner of the airport, stretched out on the floor and tried to get some sleep. The security guard who rousted me an hour later was actually pretty nice about it too. He just told me to get up and sit in a chair like a normal person whenever a new flight came in, as his bosses weren’t too keen on vagrants littering up the place.

Bright and early the next morning I shouldered my pack and headed into town. I was sleepy and a little ripe, but ready for the adventure to finally begin.

Part 2