Casa de Ari
I FACED THE BOLTED GATE of Hostel de Chocolate at 1:00 a.m. in Bogotá. The weight of my traveler’s backpack, haphazardly stuffed with the possessions meant to last me a year, felt both reassuring and heavy as I stood in the darkness.
Austin, my husband of two weeks, searched for a notice or phone number through the curling barbed wire. I clutched the confirmation receipt from the reservation we’d made sometime between the dash to mail our wedding thank-you cards at the nearest post office and boarding the plane for Colombia.
“Now what?” I asked, ready to blame Austin for having clicked the “book” button on a reservation we’d both agreed to.
“We find something else,” he said, unfazed.
I’d never done well with permanent. Husband represented a commitment toward the stereotypical package I’d spent most of my millennial life resisting: Mormon, Married, Mother. The End. Yet here I was, at step 2. I stared at Austin in his J.Crew collared shirt, a buttoned-up look that hid his wildness that I loved. We often debated who was The More Experienced Traveler: Austin had served a two-year Mormon mission to Ukraine and had a long history of outdoorsmanship; I had done anthropology fieldwork as an undergrad and held a more decorated passport. But all traces of my travel confidence had dissolved into anxiety.
Our taxi driver called us back. “Peligroso.” Dangerous. “I know another place,” he said in strained English.
We thanked him and piled into the car again. I gripped my backpack in my lap. Though I had fallen in love fair and square—had agreed to marry Austin of my own free will and had all the agency in the world—sometimes I still felt as if some external wave of happenstance had carried me here.
Austin and I met two years earlier at an interfaith discussion group between Latter-day Saints and Quakers. I’d just moved from Utah to Boston for grad school and a job with Teach For America. He sat across from me in a small circle of folding chairs. He reminded me of a Ken doll—boyishly handsome, brown-blond hair, a square jaw, blue eyes. A Quaker woman asked about women’s roles in Mormonism. “I heard women can’t get to heaven unless they have a husband,” she said, leaning forward, barely hiding her contempt. “Can people get divorced?”
“Divorce happens,” I weighed in. “I don’t think it’s any more stigmatized than in other religions in the US. My parents are divorced.” I wasn’t ready to face, let alone answer, the first part of her question.
“It’s not encouraged,” Austin said, before explaining the orthodox stance: A temple marriage represents the pinnacle of choices to be made and, whether it happens here or in the afterlife, stands as a prerequisite to reach the highest degree of heaven. A temple marriage, also known as a sealing, binds people to their families forever. This is part of the plan of salvation, a name sometimes interchanged with the plan of happiness.
In other words, divorce may be commonplace for modern Mormons (a mere 5 to 10 percent lower than the national average of 50 percent), but theologically, it’s complicated.
I avoided Austin after that comment.
Months later, at a mutual friend’s party, we brushed shoulders on the threshold of a doorway. He paused. “You and I should have a long, philosophical conversation,” he said with a smile, seemingly pleased with his line.
Before long, we were shrieking and leaping into half-frozen lakes in New England under a canopy of stars. He was biking with ice-frosted lashes through blizzards to surprise me at my doorstep, standing there in the spring with a fistful of flowers plucked from the neighbor’s garden, and blowing off homework to take me on picnics at Walden Pond. I was salivating over his book collection and in love with laughing again and keeping a stash of ice cream at his apartment. He “knew” within weeks. His flattering, swift confidence in our relationship exuded an intoxicating persuasion, softening the edges of my concerns.
Austin and I waved off our first impressions from the interfaith discussion and all it said about the different ways we inhabited Mormonism—all it said about how we each viewed marriage.
The taxi headlights and a lone streetlamp revealed a graffiti-lined street. A crowd of men surrounded a radio at a humming pizza stand.
“We’ll be fine,” Austin said, reading my emotions as he looked out the window. “We won’t blow our budget by finding a safe place to stay tonight.”
I frowned. “We may not have enough for the trip to start with.” I’d spent the past two arduous years scrimping, saving twenty thousand dollars from a high school teaching salary to fund a solo trip so I could circumnavigate the globe.
Then, one of two things happened: my relationship with Austin became serious and we decided to make a honeymoon of it; or, as he tells it, I told Austin I would only marry him if he agreed to come. I no longer remember the truer story, just that my original vision morphed into something else. I’d always believed that any trip longer than a few weeks required some sort of inquiry focus, a reason to get up in the morning. Though many subjects interested me (post-colonial literature, dream interpretations, international folktales, etc.), I planned to learn more about marriage and wedding symbolism around the world. I hoped other cultures might reveal some wisdom as I wrestled with the idea of marriage for myself, not realizing that living it—that intensely personal experience—was perhaps the only way to find out. Austin, disillusioned with his MBA program and inspired by my project, wanted to do something similar and study health-care innovations in emerging markets.
Since my savings had not meant to cover two people, Austin had agreed to chip in by working odd jobs virtually whenever he could during our travels. Work hard, play hard. But for every good thing I’d given up to save money—movie tickets, a coat worthy of Boston winters, meals that didn’t feature peanut butter—I felt Austin had indulged himself. He believed in what he called “the good life,” this radical notion that life was to be enjoyed and not just endured. He had a pile of student debt and no savings to his name. Sharing money didn’t sit well with me.
A few minutes later, the taxi rolled to a stop in front of a pale building with Colombian and Israeli flags. A sign read “Casa de Ari.”
The driver pushed a buzzer three times. I held my breath until the door cracked open. A squat woman with puffy gray hair appeared in a nightgown.
The woman unlocked a thick chain, then ushered us in as I offered apologies and gratitude in textbook Spanish. She and the driver stepped outside, speaking in hushed voices.
Austin and I placed our backpacks on the checkered linoleum peeling at the corners of the lobby. There was a faint smell of rotten produce. Framed collages with pictures of tourists covered the walls. We stared at the open door and waited for direction. Dust coated the sun-bleached couches and cobwebs clung to the ceiling. Austin scanned the dim room with curiosity. His lack of distress annoyed me.
The hostel manager pulled a set of faded floral sheets and a mop from a closet, muttered, then walked away.
“I’m going to get some pizza from that place we saw down the road,” Austin said. “I’m hungry.”
“Uh, this is Bogotá. You can’t wander around at night. You don’t even know Spanish.” On the plane, I’d been reading Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel, The Sound of Things Falling, set in Bogotá—the gunshot scenes fresh in my mind.
“It’s only a few blocks away,” Austin said. “And I didn’t know you were such an expert on Bogotá.”
He was right. Despite my belief in the importance of studying a culture before visiting a new place, we’d done little research before booking our one-way tickets to Colombia days earlier. Our time and energy had been spent on wrapping up our jobs and wedding planning. We’d settled on Bogotá because it was the cheapest flight to enter South America from the States.
Austin paused at the doorway, his hair a mess. “Want to come?”
“No. I’ll check us in.”
“I don’t think she’s coming back anytime soon. What did she say to you?”
I had no idea. “Hurry back.”
Standing in the lobby, I heard a crash on the floor above. Then, a large white dog bounded down the stairs. She sat at my feet, panting. A lacy, zebra-striped thong hung from her mouth.
“Hello there.” I crouched to pet the fluffy dog, careful to avoid touching the underwear. I looked up, hoping to see the hostel manager. The dog then fetched a bottle of opened mascara. She cracked the plastic tube with her back teeth. Black goop smeared through her fur as she played.
I tried to get the mascara away from the dog when Austin returned. He held out a parcel of tinfoil. “They called it ‘American pizza,’” he said. “I got the cheapest one. I knew that’s what you’d want.” He paused for my reaction. “Where’d the dog come from?”
The hostel manager, hearing the front door open, reappeared. She led us through a maze of concrete steps to a room on the top floor. The dog trailed us, its bushy tail thwacking the door as we entered. Twin beds flanked each wall. It wasn’t much, but considering our unexpected arrival, we were lucky she could offer us anything. The hostel manager smiled and said something in Spanish, then disappeared again with the dog prancing after her. Austin perched on the edge of one of the mattresses and opened the tinfoil package to examine our dinner.
The room reeked of mildew. Austin watched as I wrinkled my nose while investigating the sheets, finding brown stains on the pillows.
“What?” I asked, my voice strained.
“This pizza has corn on it. That’s what makes it ‘American.’”
I managed a genuine grin, letting go of my backpack with a loud thud.
“I’m not sleeping in these sheets,” I said, pressing my hands to my hair. “I doubt I can sleep at all.”
“It’s going to be okay.” He stood and hugged me with one arm as he cradled a slice in his other hand. I leaned into him.
“Some first night of our honeymoon,” I said.
He offered me a square piece of pizza. A hunk of pineapple slid off in a cascade of rubbery cheese as I took a bite. The crust was crunchy and perfect, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to show too much gratitude after his recklessness.
“At least we have each other,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
I rolled my eyes. “I am not having sex with you here.” Austin huffed, then laughed, and I couldn’t help but laugh too, relieved we’d had a few nights together before leaving home.
After devouring the pizza, we pushed the twin beds together and pulled out one of the few wedding gifts we’d brought on the trip: sheets sewed into thin sleeping bags. I held the clean linen up to my nose, the smell of fresh detergent lingering in my nostrils. I knew it would be a long time before I’d smell that powdery scent again.
I flipped off the lights, kicked off my Chaco sandals, and crawled into my linen sleeping bag with my clothes still on. The bedsprings squeaked. Austin cozied up to me in an awkward sleeping-bag cuddle. “I’m glad to be here with you,” he whispered. I nuzzled into him, thankful we could cope with Casa de Ari together despite my perennial fantasies of solo travel. Soon Austin’s breathing slowed. I felt his warm chest rise and fall against my back. I lay awake.
I’d spent nights with sheets far worse than these in other countries without a second thought. But here I was, caught between the ideal, liberating trip I’d built up for years and the unknown world of commitment I’d entered into. Past travels had offered me some freedom from expectations back home, a chance to revel in the sweet sensation of losing and getting lost, to strip away excess, untether, and immerse myself in the marvelous present—the instant calm of incense, the texture of a moss-eaten wall, the hushed conversation between old women on neighboring balconies. In other words, to continually remember and witness the infinite ways people can live.
But I worried this trip might feel more like an ending, a last hurrah, a fun way to delay the impending death blow to my sense of self. Unlike my other travels, now there seemed something to lose and expectations I could no longer outrun. I felt happy to be with Austin—that wasn’t the problem. I didn’t know if I believed in marriage, let alone eternal marriage.
The night before my wedding, I’d stayed up late trimming baby’s breath bouquets while listening to my dad and stepmom yell at each other behind their closed bedroom door—something about her being late to the rehearsal dinner, regrets about moving back in together. I tightened the aqua ribbons and snipped off the stems. My hands shook. The cheap bouquets smelled like body odor. I spent the night in the twin-size bed from my teenage days, which did not feel that long ago, the bedroom walls bare because I always thought of my dad’s house as temporary.
I arrived late to the Salt Lake Temple, the iconic Mormon venue: a white granite fortress with six Gothic spires. My ancestors, who’d endured the exodus across the desolate plains of the United States to escape religious persecution in the East, helped build this dazzling temple in the middle of a desert. They determined its location a mere four days after their arrival on July 24, 1847. The temple represented a cornerstone of the faith, an urgent project to undertake despite fleeing one temple in Ohio and watching another in Illinois be swallowed up in flames. The Salt Lake Temple required forty years of construction and unimaginable sacrifice. This is where my family members had married for generations, sealed together for eternity. My bagged wedding dress bounced on my shoulder as I ran. I did not like the dress but had not told anyone. As I sprinted for the door, I had time to think:
I’m only twenty-five.
It’s not too late to call it off.
I wonder if my mom will come.