Ellen idly searched through the postcards while she waited in line at the information counter at the Byron Bay tourism office. There were plenty of images of the Cape Byron Lighthouse, yet none were the same as the one shown on the worn postcard she kept in her purse. She took it out to look at it again. The sky behind the lighthouse glowed in soft hues and she wondered whether the photo had been taken at sunrise or sunset. The perspective made it difficult to know for sure.
“Next please,” someone called out. Ellen suddenly realized she was being summoned and quickly made her way over to the third stall of the information counter.
“Hi, I was just wondering the best way to get to the lighthouse,” Ellen told the young man in front of her. With his shoulder-length blonde hair tied back and a bronzed complexion, he very much fit the profile of this laid-back surf-loving Australian town.
“Well if you’re up for a bit of a hike, you could go by foot – it’s about 45 minutes from here. Otherwise there’s a shuttle that leaves from across the street in half an hour.”
“I’ll walk,” she told him. It was a clear windy day and she knew the walk would help her sort out the memories and all the emotions attached to them. The employee pulled out a photocopied map of the town and Ellen watched as he highlighted the walking route for her.
A minute later Ellen was stepping out onto the street, taking in the scenery around her. For the first time since arriving in Australia she didn’t feel anxious. She was almost there.
Ellen had arrived in Sydney early the previous morning on a flight from Los Angeles. She then took the first 12-hour bus to Byron Bay and checked into the first budget hotel she found. The combination of jetlag and 30 hours of continuous travel exhausted her into a deep, dreamless sleep until early this afternoon. Now, map in hand, it was time to take the final steps to her destination.
She never imagined that this would be the way she would see Australia. Her spontaneous decision to come here was a result of looking through old journals and wondering what ever happened to an old flame of hers. Twenty minutes on various search engines made it easier than she thought to find the answer. Making arrangements to fly to Sydney after finding that answer was considerably more complicated.
She flipped over the postcard and read the scrawled message for the hundredth time.
Ellen, Thinking of you. Wish you were here. Love, Tim.
Four years ago, after moving to California to find a fresh start, Ellen met Tim early one morning at a vending cart near the beach in Santa Barbara. She had just finished her morning jog; he had just finished his morning surf. When Ellen realized she didn’t have enough cash to buy her drink, Tim stepped in and bought it for her. She offered to repay him with coffee later that day and he accepted.
Three months later they were still seeing each other regularly and Ellen was sure she was falling in love. Tim was much younger – he was 26, she was 35 – but that didn’t seem to matter much. They were good for each other, and they even began talking about moving in together. But then everything changed.
During a romantic picnic on the beach Tim told Ellen he wanted to go to Australia. This wasn’t news to Ellen – he had told her before that he wanted to surf in Australia one day – but now he was talking about making real plans to go there. Soon. He called it a “surfing sabbatical” and said he wanted to spend three or four months there. And he wanted Ellen to come with him.
She wasn’t sure what to think at first, but the idea intrigued her. Living in a foreign country sounded exciting, and it would be an amazing experience to share with Tim. But there were too many other factors to consider. For one thing, Tim had money saved up and she didn’t. He told her he could stretch his savings to cover many of her expenses too, but she knew that would be a mistake; she didn’t want him making sacrifices for her. He had also been planning to leave his job next month regardless of this trip, yet she was still new to her job and didn’t want to lose it. In addition to those obstacles, what if their relatively new relationship didn’t hold up? They would be in a new country, on a tight budget, and living together for the first time. So much could go wrong.
Nevertheless she said she would consider it and over the next week Ellen began to realize what bothered her more than anything in this situation was their age difference. At his age something like this was a great opportunity to see more of the world and have some amazing life experiences. For her, it could become a disruption to the life she had only recently re-started. After wasting away most of her twenties in Chicago thanks to reckless relationships, substance abuse, and credit card debt, she finally felt she was headed in the right direction now in Santa Barbara. She just couldn’t jeopardize that.
And she knew she had to break up with Tim. It was only fair to give him space during this time. After all, he would be back in a few months and they could see where things stood then.
Tim, however, felt differently. He accused Ellen of taking advantage of the opportunity to break up with him because of a fear of commitment. They argued. Then they stopped talking. One month later he left for Australia.
That was August of 2004, Ellen remembered now. A few weeks later she received the postcard from Byron Bay and wondered if there was still hope for a future with him. She looked up the small coastal town on a map and wondered if she should just get on a plane and go there, only for a couple of weeks. But she reminded herself that she needed to let him have this time apart from her. It was only a few months. Nevertheless she emailed him to let him know that she had received his postcard, and that she was missing him. There was no response.
In October of that year Ellen was offered a promotion that included relocation to San Francisco. She emailed Tim to let him know. He responded two weeks later, somewhat coolly, to say congratulations and that he wished her well. He also said everything was going well in Australia and that he may have found a way to stay longer.
That was the last time Ellen heard from him. She emailed him on Thanksgiving, and again on New Year’s Eve, but he didn’t send any replies. I guess that’s it, she said to herself. I guess he’s found a new life and I’ve lost my chance to be a part of it.
It took a long time for Ellen to get over Tim, and walking up towards Cape Byron four years later she knew she never truly got the closure she needed. She would often look back on their relationship with so much regret. Why didn’t I join him in Australia? she asked herself every time she saw the photo of the lighthouse on her refrigerator. Why did I let him go? Finally she took the postcard down and stuck it in her journal. There was no need to have that reminder every day.
It was nearly a year before Ellen even went on another date. Part of her was still hoping that Tim would call her up one day and tell her he was back in California and that he wanted to see her. She resisted the urge to track down Tim’s surfing buddies in Santa Barbara to see if he had come back or made contact. She had too much pride for that. If he wants to see me, he’ll call, she told herself. In the meantime I have to move on.
And she did. Ellen had other relationships, but none quite compared to what she had with Tim. She knew this was probably because it was cut off too soon, before the relationship even had the chance to go wrong. And she was left with the feeling that it had simply been incomplete.
Ellen was suddenly jolted from her memories by some kids running past her, shouting as they raced each other up the path towards the lighthouse now looming in front of her.
She had arrived at her destination.
Ellen looked up at the white tower and then over at the ocean. This was the eastern-most point of the mainland, and she had traveled more than 8,000 miles by air and land over two days to be here and lay eyes on it herself. It was a journey to find peace for a long-regretted decision, but more importantly it was a journey taken to memorialize. She was here, after all, to memorialize Tim.
A week ago when Ellen began going through her old journals she re-discovered the postcard and decided to find out where Tim was these days. She knew rekindling the relationship was probably not very likely but she just wanted to be happy for him, wherever he was and whatever he was doing. So she searched for his name online, hoping to find a blog or a mention of him in some sort of newsletter. Instead, she found his obituary.
Ellen learned from a news article that Tim had only stayed in Australia until the beginning of December. Around that time he traveled to Indonesia and then Thailand with two Australian surfing buddies to seek out world-renown waves. On December 26, 2004, he was one of the 230,000 people killed in the tsunami that devastated the region.
Learning about this nearly put Ellen into a state of shock. She had spent four years not even considering the possibility that he was dead, much less that he was the victim of such a tragic disaster. She remembered watching the news coverage on television and imagining that somewhere in Australia Tim was watching too, but it just never occurred to her that he had contributed to the climbing death toll.
He was gone.
Her shock soon became anger when she realized no one had told her about it at the time. But then she remembered that she moved away and that Tim had only lived in Santa Barbara six months before going to Australia. The few friends of his that she had met may not have even known about his death, and if they did, it wouldn’t have been easy for them to find her and tell her. Or maybe they assumed that she had received the news too.
Ellen read in the obituary that the memorial had been held in his hometown in Florida. He was survived by one sister and his mother. Ellen wondered if Tim had ever mentioned her to either of them.
His body had not been recovered when the accompanying news article was printed, in mid-January 2005. One of the two friends with him survived but was critically injured. The piece ended with a reminder that, at that time, thousands of people were still missing in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.
Ellen sat down on the soft grass facing the ocean. She wasn’t quite sure how to memorialize someone she had really only known a short time. And the more she thought about it the more she realized how crazy it was that she flew all the way across the Pacific a few days after learning about his death. But she felt she owed it to him to be here in Byron Bay. She wanted to visit the place he had spent his last few months. She wanted to envision him surfing the waves here and looking up at the lighthouse just like she was now. She wanted to pay her respects by finally getting on that plane to Australia like he had wanted her to, even it was four years too late.
Ellen tried not to wonder too much what would have happened if she had made a different decision back then. Maybe Tim wouldn’t have had the budget to go to Asia if she had been with him in Australia. Maybe she would have gone with him and been a victim herself. Maybe they would’ve broken up in Australia and he would’ve gone anyway.
She stopped herself from churning through those scenarios again. She had already done so countless times in the past few days and she knew it was pointless. She was here to remember the good times with Tim that did happen, nothing more. By doing that she felt more confident that she could find real closure and move forward in her own life.
As the sun began to set somewhere behind her, Ellen took out the postcard and laid her head down on her bag, waiting to see if the colors of the sky would match the image she had in her hands.
Tim, Thinking of you. Wish you were here. Love, Ellen.