When Life Gives You Lemons, Go Buy a Kebab
“Anyone home?” boomed a thick Kiwi accent. I had just dumped my backpack on the floor of my hostel and collapsed onto the bottom bunk when the door opened. In sauntered Simon. Simon looked like the star of the world’s most successful backpacker porno franchise. His blue eyes and sparkling white teeth both seemed to twinkle at me, and I had to fight the urge to stroke his full beard as he introduced himself. He slid his giant pack off with taut, muscular arms, and wiped his brow with the bottom of his shirt, revealing an equally taut abdomen.
I thought I might pass out.
Hailing from New Zealand, Simon explained to me that he was backpacking through Europe solo, and was just staying in Salzburg for the weekend. Hearts danced around my head with every word. We already had so much in common! I was also only staying for the weekend! I also was traveling alone! Never mind that my solo travel experience was limited to the last 12 hours. Never mind that it had taken me four weeks to escape the Alcatraz of fear prisons that my mind had constructed, leaving me trapped in my dorm in Vienna, waterboarded day after day with anxiety. Surely, with Simon’s help, I would soon become a natural. This was LOVE. This was FATE.
As we continued to chat about travel plans and sights to see, I grew increasingly certain that the hills would soon be alive with the sounds of our passionate lovemaking. We made plans to get dinner together later that evening, and I skipped off to photograph the Mirabell Gardens, dreaming of how adorable it would be when we held our wedding there.
I returned to the hostel later that evening, heart palpitating as I frantically tried to assemble a sexy outfit from the two t-shirts and one pair of shorts I had brought. I sent quick messages to my friends back home, telling them not to worry about me if I didn’t return to America on time because I was probably just gallivanting around some exotic coast with my future husband. The door once again creaked open and he strutted in, somehow even more attractive than when we had parted a few hours before.
“Hey!” he said. “Listen, I know we were going to get dinner, but I matched with this total babe on Tinder a few hours ago and we’re going to grab some drinks instead. You’ll be alright by yourself, yeah?”
The room began to spin. I wished with all my might that the cement floor would crack open and I could fall into the flaming pits of hell where I belonged. I couldn’t, for the life of me, begin to fathom what it was about my pit stains, crooked glasses and blatant desperation that had failed to captivate my beloved Simon!
I mumbled something about being a strong, independent woman and sprinted out of the room, eager to drown my sorrows in as many Stiegls as my heartbroken arms could carry.
My beer radar and innate desire to eat my feelings led me to a small kebab shack across the street. Glowing cigarettes danced in the twilight like fireflies as I trudged across the parking lot; a small crowd of old Austrian men shuffled out of my way as I made a beeline for the door. Once inside, the hum of the fluorescent lights overhead was almost loud enough to drown out the hysterical shrieking that persisted in my brain. I should have stayed in Vienna, doing laps to and from the Staatsoper while streaming Joni Mitchell’s entire discography. I didn’t belong here. I didn’t belong anywhere. No one would ever truly love me.
I grabbed three beers from the small fridge and brought them to the counter. My half-hearted attempt to order chicken döner in broken German was met with chuckles from the flock of wrinkled Austrians that had followed me inside and begun a game of cards. Hot waves of shame and insecurity lapped at my body as I slumped at the nearest table and chugged half of a beer in one go.
“Entschuldigung. I noticed you are American. May I have a seat?”
I took a break from wallowing in self-pity to glance up at the speaker. One of the men had gotten up from the game to approach me, undoubtedly to mock my obvious pain and drive me screaming into the mountains, never to be heard from again. The voice belonged to someone who looked like Shrek had covered his body in flesh-coloured paint and thrown in a few oozing sores for good measure. He was at least 150 kilograms and, as he wedged himself between the groaning arms of a plastic chair across from me, his rotting dentures slipped out of his mouth and onto his lap. He slid them back in with a chuckle and scratched at a particularly vicious arm sore with a cracked, yellowing fingernail. My burning shame began to twist into cold, crampy nausea. I set my beer down.
“Um. Hello,” I mustered.
“Thank you for letting me sit with you. I love to practise my English. My name is Wolfgang. What brings you to Salzburg?”
This was it. My final fuck you from the Universe. After having my heart torn to shreds, I was doomed to spend the rest of my evening and probably my life with the Austrian Jabba the Hut. I should just swallow my pride, don a dirndl, and spend the rest of my days buying ointment and denture glue, clipping Wolfgang’s fingernails and trying not to call out Simon’s name in bed. I hesitantly introduced myself and explained that I was in town for the weekend from Vienna, where I was studying abroad for two months.
“Ah! Wien! Such a beautiful city, especially for lovers of art and music. You are one of those?”
And with those few words, Wolfgang and I launched into the most sublime conversation I have ever had the privilege of participating in. We discussed everything from our favourite Egon Schiele paintings and Richard Strauss operas to moon-landing conspiracies and whether or not Bush really did 9/11. An amateur astronomer, he gave me chills when he described the awe-inspiring total solar eclipse he had witnessed in his youth. We drank beer after beer as he grilled me about Americans’ penchant for exceptionalism, and if I thought that I would see an end to institutionalised racism in my lifetime. His knowledge and wit were unparalleled; I was in utter disbelief when he told me that he had never left Salzburg.
I felt my eyes fill with tears as he divulged to me that the love of his life and wife of 40 years had died several years ago, before they got to fulfil their lifelong dream of travelling the world together. His children quickly spent all of his money and left him unable to treat the severe diabetes that covered his body with sores and caused his health to worsen. I yearned to buy him a telescope or a plane ticket or even just some insulin, but he seemed content with his hand-rolled cigarettes and nightly card games at the kebab shack.
By the time one of his friends shuffled over to let him know it was time to go, I was shocked to see that over four hours had passed since he first sat down.
As his friend lifted him to his feet to help him on his increasingly painful walk home, I grasped his hand and thanked him, with all of the sincerity that my judgmental millennial heart could muster, for such a lovely evening. He smiled and waved me off, after making me promise I would see the new production of Strauss’ Elektra that was premiering in Vienna in a few weeks. And with a final auf wiedersehen, he limped out the door into the night.
As I crawled into my bunk later that night, I barely registered that the bed above me was empty. Clearly What’s-His-Face from New Zealand was having a killer night with Tinder Babe. I genuinely did not give a shit. I was too preoccupied with the thought that that was probably the last time I would ever speak to Wolfgang. Sure, our convo hadn’t led to the true love or enduring friendship that my lonely mind so desperately craved. But it was stimulating. It was genuine. And it was actually mutual.