- Published: 12 August 2021
- ISBN: 9780241557655
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $32.99
We Were Never Here
A Reese Witherspoon Bookclub Pick soon to be a major Netflix film
Kristen trotted to the patio’s edge and crouched, long arm outstretched. Her fingers groped along a vine, lifting leaves, exposing the tender stalks beneath. I pictured her tipping over and tumbling off, there and then not there, the afterimage of her silhouette still hanging in my vision. I don’t know why. For a wild moment, I pictured pushing her.
Instead I half stood from the table. “Kristen, don’t,” I called. The wooden patio perched on stilts above the vines below and we were alone, as we had been almost everywhere we’d stopped this week. Empty restaurants, empty markets, empty tourist information centers. An occasional cluster of other visitors standing or sitting nearby despite everyone having all the space in the world.
A snapping sound and Kristen stood, holding up a blob of green grapes. She popped one into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Not bad. Catch.”
I missed the toss and the grapes bounced onto the glass tabletop. I glanced around, then tried one—it burst bright and tart on my tongue.
“He said their yield sucks this year. You didn’t need to take an entire bunch.”
She sank into her chair and lifted her pisco sour, lime green and frothy. “I’ll leave ’em a few extra pesos on the way out. I was hungry.” She nudged her glass against mine. “You’d rather see me steal some grapes than get low blood sugar, right?”
“Fair point.” Hangry Kristen could cut to the core.
A man with a bandanna looped around his head was watching us from far out in the fields, just before the grapevines bumped up against a row of bushy trees. Beyond that, braided hills cut a jagged horizon. Kristen waved at the worker and he nodded.
I let the last of my drink linger on my tongue. We’d been sipping these daily: lime juice, powdered sugar, and the yellowish brandy the Chileans swore predated Peruvian pisco. I felt the swell of yet an-other one of those well- isn’t- this nice moments, one blissfully free from the fear that’d prickled my brain nonstop for the last thirteen months. Here I was, on the trip of a lifetime: seven nights in South America, exploring the rough mountains and the ripe valleys be-tween with my best friend of more than a decade. A cocktail so bracing and sweet, it tasted like stepping into the surf. And we still had two nights to go.
Kristen made everything better, her confidence like a bell jar of security in a strange and gnarled world. When we’d hugged at the airport almost a week ago, tears of relief had coated my eyes. I hadn’t seen her in a year— a year pockmarked by panic attacks, nightmares, and screaming into my pillow or the shower or occasionally my fist. But in Santiago, as we’d picked up our rental car and driven north on barren highways, Kristen was her usual boisterous self. She whooped when the Pacific came into view; she honked at a clump of plush alpacas by the side of the road. She pointed and gasped at roadside fruit stands, rippling cornfields with laser- straight rows, fat fields of vegetables growing bushy in the sun. And sky, sky, so much blue sky, almost crackling in its crispness, the way it shot down into the ocean on one side and the crinkled peaks on the other. Her presence was like a calming scent, aerosolized Xanax, and I allowed my-self to relax.
We spent the first night in La Serena, where we carried leaky ice- cream cones around a leafy town square and stayed in a hotel with bright colors on the walls, where paintings of saints watched us as we slept. Too touristy, we decided, and the next morning we drove inland. In Pisco Elqui we took a yoga class from a woman with bowed knees and hip- length hair; as we stood in Mountain Pose, our chests puffed out, she announced, “Your smile powers your corazón, your heart.” On the second night there, three college-age guys from Germany cornered us in a bar, and the panic came roaring back like a panther lying in wait. Kristen had taken the lead—she was charming, could talk to anybody—and when she’d noticed the fear in my eyes, she politely disentangled us from the cocky trio and led me back into the night.
“It’s okay, it’s me, I’m here,” she kept murmuring as we walked the dark streets back to our hotel. “Kristen’s here.” Her voice was a balm; her words a weighted blanket. We’d packed up and left the following day.
And this morning we arrived here, in Quiteria. At first, I’d been alarmed by its emptiness. We’d parked in a lot and wandered the hilly streets, our suitcases trailing behind us like dejected toddlers, for what felt like hours before we found an open hotel. There I scored the keys to a small suite, the duvet damp despite the dry mountain air. The sun was sinking, and I realized the city’s vacancy would be an asset: fewer men to bother us, two women walking the streets at night. You know what they say about women traveling alone.
Kristen swallowed the last of her pisco sour. “You know what we should do? Birthday wishes.”
“My birthday’s not for two weeks.”
“I know, but I want to do it in person. And it’s a big one!”
It was our tradition, telling the other what we hoped would happen for them that year. I’d had the idea after I read about two best-friends-slash-business-partners who wrote each other’s New Year’s resolutions.
“I’ll go first,” she said, turning toward the grapevines. “My birthday wish for you, my darling Emily . . . is that your company gets its head out of its ass and gives you the promotion you deserve.”
“That would be nice.” I’d thrown my name in the hat for a director-level position months ago, but my employer, Kibble, was disorganized and putzy and dragging its feet. I liked my job there, though, promotion or not: project manager of a start-up that shipped raw, organic cat food to pet owners with too much money. I had hip young co-workers, including my work wife, Priya, and cat photos literally everywhere.
Still, I didn’t tell Kristen that my secret wish, whenever I saw a shooting star or caught a dandelion fluff or spotted a clock at 11:11, was to land a great partner, settle down. It felt too antifeminist, too needy to put into words. But with Kristen halfway around the world and all my friends getting married (hell, having kids), my patience was wearing thin. And maybe I was finally headed in the right direction . . .
“He said they’re gonna start interviewing candidates this month,” I told her. “It’s funny, he acts like there’s no time to even think about the open position. Like he’s too busy saving the world, one feline digestive tract at a time.”
“Cat people are the worst people. I say that as a card-carrying cat lover stymied only by allergies.”
“I think his devotion is kinda sweet!”
Kristen snorted. “It’s an entire business predicated on people being obsessed with a disinterested animal.”
“Russell’s cat isn’t disinterested. Mochi loves him back. I’ve seen the videos.” Kristen rolled her eyes and I leaned forward. “C’mon, I like my job.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She waved a hand. “Okay, now you go.”
“Right. My birthday wish for you, a full four months early, is that, hmm.” I tapped the stem of my glass. That you realize you hate Australia. That you move back to Milwaukee. That we go back to the way things were. “I hope you get your stupid boss fired and your job gets a million times better. Or you find a new job that makes you happy.”
“No fair, you just copied me!”
“This is what our thirties are all about, right? Vaulting forward in our careers. At least we have jobs.”
“True. And thank God we put that disposable income to good use.” She swept her arm out across the vines, whose pristine rows narrowed in the distance. Behind them, rumpled mountains reddened in the dipping sunlight. A bird landed on the edge of the distillery’s deck and uttered a squeaky trill. A cute sierra finch, yellow as an egg yolk—I recognized it from some idle research I’d done at my desk in Milwaukee.
Nearby, a thumping sound. It was probably a woodpecker, but before I realized that, the memory flashed before me: Stop. Stop. Stop. Kristen’s eyes wide as she stepped back, blood speckling her shoes. The moment that changed everything, when life cracked neatly into Before and After.
Kristen slid up her sunglasses and gave me an indulgent smile. I grinned back.
I’d been wrong to worry. Even the incident with the trio of Germans had been harmless. There’d been no strange men hulking in corners, their eyes following us hungrily. No drunken dudes who’d stood a little too close or followed too few steps behind us on darkened streets. No cause for alarm.
I gazed at Kristen and felt a rush of warmth.
Everything had gone perfectly.
A fat bee bumbled around our glasses, and Kristen waved her hand, fearless.
“Feels like we’re the only non-locals for miles,” I said. The isolation was both thrilling and unsettling.
“It won’t last. My guidebook says all the tourist buses arrive on Saturdays.” She stretched her arms, recrossed her muscular legs. Kristen had gotten into CrossFit in Sydney, and sometimes her limbs still looked off to me. Tawny and taut, like they belonged on another body.
Kristen had moved to Sydney eighteen months ago; her market research firm opened up an Australian office and her boss encouraged her to apply. To my dismay, she’d complied, murmuring about how she was over Milwaukee—her hometown—with its smallish size and polarized communities.
Kristen in Australia: It’d seemed like a whim, fleeting and outlandish. I didn’t know adulthood without her, from when we became friends as fellow econ majors at Northwestern to when we both found jobs in Wisconsin and shared a ramshackle apartment off Brady Street. Together we fumbled through our postgrad years, through bad dates and good job news and rough nights and even rougher mornings, until we emerged, fresh-faced and triumphant, in our late twenties, me with my very own apartment in the Fifth Ward, her a few miles away in Riverwest. We spoke casually of how we’d someday be each other’s maids of honor, how she’d eventually be my future children’s “auntie.” I’d grown to love Milwaukee by then, with its broad lakefront and myriad festivals and friendly little art-and-music scene, all of the talent and none of the pretension of larger cities. I’d tried hard not to take her digs at the city personally.
I’d been happy for her, of course, but almost glowing with self-pity: left out and left behind and left, left, left. I dipped into depression in her absence, forcing myself through life as if there were a layer of dust dampening every moment. But we kept up a tradition we’d kicked off in Milwaukee: annual trips to someplace exotic, far-flung places most people never put on their lists.
I’d only been to popular international destinations (London, Cancún, Paris . . .), so each vacation with Kristen felt like slipping into a wormhole and appearing in another dimension, dizzy with sounds and smells and sights. Vietnam had been first, Hoi An and Hanoi, exploring tube houses and night markets and elaborate temples, more colorful than a field of poppies. Then Uganda, all our savings poured into once-in-a-lifetime experiences that piled up like snow, miraculous at first and then oddly normal: staring into the marble eyes of gorillas in Bwindi, boating past Nile crocodiles and bloats of fat hippopotami, clutching each other from the back of a jeep as a lion regarded us during a game drive in Kidepo Valley.
The third trip—Cambodia—was when things had gone awry. It was our first time meeting up from opposite corners of the globe, and I couldn’t wait for all that concentrated face time, the kind we took for granted when we both lived in Milwaukee. I never imagined it’d take a turn for the terrifying, become my own personal horror movie. But Kristen, as always, had helped me, saved me, taken care of me. And here we were, with our final hours in Chile’s Elqui Valley dwindling like the flame of an old candle, and everything felt gushing and good between us.
Kristen plucked a grape from the bunch and tossed it into the air, catching it neatly in her mouth. She grinned as she chewed.
“Open your mouth, Em.” She held another up, like a dart.
“Let me try! I have really good aim.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Hey, you’re talking to King of Kings’ three-time basketball MVP. Here, throw one in my mouth.” She unhinged her jaw.
“This is not going to end well,” I warned, giggling as I pitched a grape her way. It bounced off her chin and landed, rather miraculously, in her empty glass, and we both stared in quiet awe.
It’d taken a few hours to find our rhythm here in Chile. On the long drive up from the Santiago airport, I’d been grateful to bask in Kristen’s aura again, her casual confidence and glinting wit. But my nerves had hardened and sparked when she’d crunched our rental car onto the dirt in front of an empanada stand. We ate lunch leaning on the car’s hot hood as the cook, a stout lady with leathery skin, looked on. A woman out here all alone, nothing but stubby trees and choky dust for miles—I tried to give her a friendly smile.
Packed inside each doughy triangle was an entire hard-boiled egg and seasoned ground meat, and without thinking, I lifted my phone to snap a photo.
“What are you doing?” Kristen swallowed her bite and raised her eyebrows. “Did you forget?”
“I wasn’t gonna post it,” I muttered, blushing.
“Hand it over.” The sun beat into Kristen’s open palm. UV rays shooting onto each crease in her palm, each groove of her fingertips. I didn’t move and she flicked her wrist. “You know the rules.”
A breeze sent the bushes and shrubs around us hissing. The woman glanced up from the counter, where she was rolling out dough.
I dropped my phone into Kristen’s hand and grinned. “Digital detox commencing now.”
It hadn’t come up again. Our phones were in our purses now, there in case of emergency, but turned off, dead blocks of metal and glass. Our Cambodia trip had involved a no-phones-allowed two-night yoga retreat at the beginning, and we’d both agreed to keep it up. And then the decision had served us so well. So much luck, so many incidental details lining up to bring us here: alive, safe, free.
“So where should we go next year?” I asked.
Kristen rolled a grape between her fingers. “Turkey’s still high on my list. And didn’t you say you’d heard good things about Georgia?”
I shook my head. “Georgia, the country? I don’t know anything about it.”
“I could swear you were talking about it.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Well, Turkey could be cool,” I said. “Istanbul’s supposed to be super vibrant.”
“I was also thinking Morocco. Haggling in bazaars and riding camels in the desert and whatnot.”
A thought cropped up and I swallowed it just in time: Aaron went to Marrakech a few years back. He and I had been on four dates, after months of casual banter at the coffee shop where he worked. Apparently four dates was just enough for him to hijack my mind, my daydreams floating out like bubbles toward potential coupledom.
I hadn’t mentioned him to Kristen yet—not after she’d dismissed my “Met any cool guys lately?” on the first night with a scoff and a no. Kristen hadn’t had a serious boyfriend in all the time I’d known her, and she’d gotten rid of her dating apps six months into Sydney, disappointed to learn that mate-seeking was just as frustrating there as it was stateside. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to tell her, I just hadn’t wanted boy talk to dominate the week, drowning out the conversation around our dreams and plans and inner worlds . . . and I’d sooner die than rub my dating luck in her face. Aaron was the first guy I’d felt this excited about in years, and I didn’t want to jinx it. I’d even set up a stupid, secret test: I’d turn my phone on sometime soon and see if he’d bothered to text me. If he was still demonstrably interested, I’d tell Kristen about him.
I jumped—out of nowhere, the distillery’s owner leaned over my shoulder. He scooped up both our glasses. My fingers tingled from the cortisol spike, such an outsize reaction.
“Do you like anything else?” he asked. “We are closing now.”
On the way out, Kristen extended her hand and asked for his name again. “Thank you so much, Pedro,” she repeated, and behind her I stamped the air with a few more gracias-es. We’d joked about it on the drive from Santiago—she read out every road sign the American way and I threw on my best Spanish accent, my tongue flitting the way I’d learned in grade school: “That’s Chigualoco, and I’m glad I can repay you for your chauffeur services with my terrible translation services.”
Kristen had beamed, her honey-brown hair fluttering from the open window. “You know you never have to repay me for anything.”
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak
Inside Laura's head, Deidre spoke. The trouble with you, Laura, she said, is that you make bad choices.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.