Bleeding Gums and Souvlaki Sunsets
Peering over my boyfriend’s shoulder, I saw a pink viscid mess: a mixture of toothpaste, blood, spit, and what appeared to be bits of human flesh.
“Those mushy bits. Do you think they’re parts of my mouth?”
We stood in the cramped bathroom for a while, trying to determine whether the pink chunks floating in the thick saliva were made of phlegm or deteriorated human gums.
At what point do you take someone to hospital? I wondered.
My boyfriend was sick. Not just a shit-yourself-take-some-Imodium-and-get-over-it sick. He was debilitated. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t sleep. His fever had thrown off his balance so severely that he couldn’t walk in a straight line. His gums were so swollen that he couldn’t eat. He was miserable. And he was making me miserable.
We were on the Greek Island of Naxos, where white and blue buildings were hidden down cobble-stoned streets and the skyline was dotted by purple flowers growing out of terracotta pots. Lazy cats draped themselves over sunlit steps and colourful produce was pulled in carts led by donkeys. It was paradise, and I couldn’t enjoy one minute of it.
Before my partner was attacked by bacteria, we had explored the island determined not to let his puffy, bleeding mouth take the best part of our holiday. We got lost down backstreets, and quickly found where to buy the best souvlaki. We spent nights talking under the stars on the beach and days in cafes sitting under freshly caught octopuses that were drying in the sun. We were having a great time, and I made sure that everyone back home knew it too.
Before Naxos, each destination warranted its own flock of photos on Facebook accompanied by some kind of witty or inspirational caption. You know the type: slightly ostentatious, but hopefully not so much that people think you’re bragging. I would crop unsightly details out of pictures or angle them so you couldn’t see the other people, as if I was the only person underneath the Eiffel tower. I never mentioned the hordes of tourists, the three-hour wait in line for some underwhelming site of cultural significance, the time all my money got stolen, or the fact that I was counting down the days until I could go home.
Instead, I would edit my experiences and then sit back and let the praise roll in…
“Oh, I’m so jealous!”
“Looks like you’re having the best time!”
“You’re so lucky!”
For me, Facebook travel had become like plastic surgery: fake, expensive (morally in this case) and highly addictive. Portraying a care-free holiday without homesickness and diarrhoea is much prettier than the reality of a 20-hour bus ride, stuck next to a snorer. I would cut a bit off here, add some fillers there and pretty soon I had a holiday that looked just like everyone else’s. Awesome.
So when my boyfriend’s condition worsened, there was no way I was going to tell everybody the truth. I wasn’t going to tell them that we stayed in our room for two days watching reruns of NCIS and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants because they were the only programs in English. I wasn’t going to tell them that behind the photo of our beautiful sunset dinner was my boyfriend gagging for 20 minutes because he couldn’t chew the food into bite-sized pieces.
I only went by myself to the shops and the closest souvlaki joint. I didn’t want to leave my boyfriend alone unattended lest he choked on his own dislodged teeth and died. It pissed me off because I wanted to explore. But no one else needed to know that.
And so it shamelessly continued. I shaved off bits of the truth like a surgeon would alter a patient’s nose or waistline. I would add in pretty details, like Botox or fake breasts. It sure as hell looked good, but it wasn’t real. And in much the same way as plastic surgery, there’s only so far that you can go before things start to become completely unrecognisable. This was made obvious when people messaged me and were genuinely surprised when they heard what a shit time we were having. It was only then that I wondered why I was lying. Was it because I didn’t want my trip to appear a failure after building up the hype before I left? Or was I simply caught in the pull of societies’ expectations?
My boyfriend’s health eventually improved and he regained the use of his teeth. We left Naxos with heavy hearts and regret that we didn’t get to see more. But that week definitely taught me something. While a bit of online censorship is necessary (nobody wants to be the chronic online whinger), manufacturing your online presence for the praise of others doesn’t bring you as much happiness as living truthfully does.
Cover by Tom Harkin