“To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” said Henry.
“You don’t?” Asked the stranger sitting next to him, a burly man with wide earlobes and no hair.
“I don’t know,” Henry said again.
“How can it be that you’ve traveled the entire world looking for something and you don’t know what that something is?” The man adjusted the knot of his too-tight tie and rubbed at a spot of hairless skin near the top of his head.
“But London, Shanghai, Warsaw, Edinburgh, Rio, Osaka … And now off to Byron Bay! Why would you go anywhere if you have no reason to visit?”
“I think maybe that is the reason.”
The man snorted and his large earlobes jiggled. “Ha! I’m heading just outside Corndale to finalize my divorce from a happiness-sucking, money-grubber of an ex-wife, which is not nearly as interesting as what you’re doing. Traveling for the sake of … whatever your sake is. I think you might be the most interesting person I’ve ever met. Although I don’t meet too many interesting people in the car insurance department at Moto-Workies.”
Henry smiled, quick but pleasant, signaling the conversation’s end.
Minutes passed without any words exchanged. Henry looked out at the cloudy nothingness beyond his window. The stranger asked for an extra bag of pretzels and complained to the flight attendant because pretzel companies these days were stingier than ever with how few pretzels they put in the bags. Wasn’t the whole thing absurd that passengers were only offered one bag of pretzels for a three hour flight? It should be one bag for every hour. At least. Doesn’t that sound like a more acceptable pretzel-bag-to-flight-time ratio?
Henry pretended not to hear him. The stranger adjusted his watch strap. The airplane churned through the white sky, 36,000 feet above Earth. The pilot warned to prepare for landing. And the atmosphere in Row 16 of the 1206 Australia Skyliner bound for Ballina Byron Gateway Airport dipped into that funny kind of silence shared between seat mates who revealed too much about their lives and now weren’t sure what to do with the oddly intimate quiet wedged between them.
So they waited until each could nod their taught goodbyes and begin to forget about the one time on a plane to Byron Bay when a man wanted more pretzels than allotted or another told a ridiculous story about hopping across the globe just because. Except at present they must persist with only an armrest to separate Henry and the stranger, as time drained like syrup through a colander and the minutes went on and on …
Henry realized it probably wasn’t the bald, pretzel-eating stranger’s fault. He would keep babbling his pretzel-nonsense if Henry let him. It was Henry who didn’t like to talk about why he roamed the Earth, searching.
Searching for what? People―like Stranger, Seat 16B―always asked. A woman? A job? A passion? Happiness?
Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it, too.
Henry was nervous about returning to Byron Bay. What other excuse could there be to explain why he began speaking with this car insurance stranger about his travels in the first place?
Usually plane rides put him at ease but this one … didn’t.
Get a grip, he told himself.
How can I? Some other part of him asked. What if this is how it ends?
He might be irrational, ridiculous, crazy but Henry was no fool. The journey couldn’t possibly end in Byron Bay. Even if it was the place where everything started six years earlier.
There’s no such thing as a full circle life, he reminded the traitorous half of his brain. Mine was meant to exist without shape, remember?
That sounds pretty right, said the other half. And shapeless things don’t end! They don’t even begin!
The plane jolted to a landing and Henry was thrown forward in his seat.
“Hey, you be careful with those seat belts,” the stranger said after the plane taxied to the gate. “I once had mine on too tight and it cut my bellybutton straight down the middle. I’ve still got a scar from the nasty ordeal and sometimes when I wear shirts made funny, the fabric rubs me wrong, the scar re-opens and before I know it, my whole stomach is covered in blood. Well, goodbye!”
On that sanguine note the man nodded at Henry and walked the middle aisle of the plane toward the exit. In a matter of seconds, he was gone.
Byron Bay, thought Henry hours later when he stood with his khaki pants rolled up and his bare feet stuck in its warm sand, was glorious. There was no other word to describe the sea-glass waves, hurling themselves with emerald crests and crystal-white foam against the glossy shoreline. A dolphin―an actual dolphin―soared out of the water in front of Henry, diving back down again in an effortless display of sea-creature showmanship.
The abundance of life and color in Byron Bay was enough to make anyone ponder the dichotomy of existence, just as Henry had done when he was here years ago: How could there be such intense evil leeching onto the same world that contained such beautiful scenes as this?
“I could stay here forever,” Henry said aloud and he wanted to grab the words and swallow them whole before it was too late. If it wasn’t already.
“You know it’s Earth Day!”
“Huh?” Henry looked up from the sea-blue horizon.
A stout, gray-haired lady appeared from somewhere behind him. “It’s Earth Day today!”
“Yes! Really, definitely it’s Earth Day today!” The woman’s burly frame and snappy demeanor reminded Henry of the pretzel-stranger from the morning plane ride but unlike the exasperation that accompanied his former seat mate, he instead found her presence soothing.
“I figured I’d do my civic duty and walk the beach in case anyone forgot,” she said. “Like you! Even though I can tell you’re a good one. You’ve kept your heart in the Earth. Remember though, you must also keep the Earth in your heart!” Her voice trailed off as she continued along the sand, tapping on the mushed-together shoulders of a young couple mid-kiss.
“You know it’s Earth Day ….”
In a flash of cobalt waves and shattering surf, Henry suddenly understood the reason-less reason he traveled the Earth, searching for a thing he couldn’t name. And even though he still couldn’t name it, at least for this one moment in Byron Bay, he needed to search no more.
[This Earth Day-inspired tiny tale was originally published by Citizen Brooklyn, a lifestyle e-magazine focused on creative culture. It was written as a collaboration with legendary surf photographer Cameron McFarlane. Cameron took every photo featured in this story and you can view more of his incredible wave images here.]