At 6 a.m. in the transfer terminal of Nadi Airport, in Fiji, I found a shower. The bathroom downstairs near the first-class lounges was unlocked, unattended, and unoccupied, so I helped myself to warm water and pink liquid hand soap. I had no towel with me (using only carry-on luggage for this 3-week trip to three countries, and feeling quite smug about it) but dried myself with my bathing suit and an old bra, the one I’d been wearing since leaving Florida, and in LA for a day, and on the overnight flight to Fiji.

It’s a relic, this bra — 10 years old, the cotton worn thin in places and worn out to holes in others, and useless as a supportive garment. I planned to wear it one last time on the first leg of this journey, where comfort mattered more than appearance, and then throw it away. It’s disposable clothing. But as I reached towards the trash can, meaning to drop in the soggy, stinky ball of material balled in my fist, I was stopped by seeing a scrap of red yarn.


That one inch of red, sewn with one stitch and then knotted in the elastic, was a remnant of my first trip to Bali in 2002. Ten years ago, newly emigrated to Australia and still not a citizen, I had to leave the country every 4 months to renew my visa. So I took a holiday to Bali with my Australian partner, Nicole. While staying at a casual beach-side resort, we’d taken our laundry to the strip of shops and cafes in the village, where we were relieved of our bundle and our chore by two young women. They inventoried, listed, marked with thread, washed, dried, folded our laundry and returned it with huge smiles and warm greetings to our hotel room the next day, wrapped in brown paper, for about $9. Each item was marked with a bit of bright red yarn, which we deduced was used to distinguish our laundry from other people’s in the washing machine.
The two weeks we were on that trip, we were also closing on the purchase of our first house, a condo in a Melbourne suburb. It was the first house either of us would own, and the beginning of our life together.    

A decade later nearly to the week, I’m dripping in a steamy windowless airport bathroom, trying to throw away the bra I wore on that trip. It’s worn out. I don’t need it anymore. I’m traveling lightly as I fly into Melbourne for what might be the last time. 
Nic and I sold our condo a year ago, and then, 6 days before we were due to leave on an extended trip to Europe, she broke up with me. All of our belongings except what we were taking on vacation were in storage for six months. I had no time and no ability to sort them and to figure what I would need for my life without her.

I went alone to Europe for four months, and then I went to Florida to live near my parents, and pretty early and often after we split up, Nic said she’d made a mistake in breaking up with me — I agreed — and she wanted to get back together. She said she’d meet me in Europe, but she didn’t, and then she said she’d meet me in Florida, but she didn’t, and now she has a new girlfriend. Our plans to reunite and repair and resume our relationship have gone from being on hold to being off.
 I am now going back to Melbourne and the storage unit, to sort out my stuff, doing what I didn’t have time to do last year. In the next 13 days I will examine, evaluate, touch and decide on every single item in a 10-cubic-metre storage unit, and each thing I will give away, sell, or ship to myself. There will be no more storage after I get on my return flight in 2 weeks’ time, and so, presumably, also there will be no question of my coming back.

I look at the small red knot, with frayed ends, against the dingy and sodden white cloth. I will not throw it out, yet. I want to show it to Nic, one more time.
We were amazed that our nine Australian dollars — about enough to pay for a suit to be dry-cleaned, at home — could buy such painstaking work from the two washer-women. The difference in pay for their labor and our own shocked us. On my hourly wage at that time, it would have taken me nine minutes to earn $9. It wasn’t that we felt we were underpaying them — that $9 would buy a lot more for them in Bali than it would for us in Oz. And our standards of living were probably not all that different, in terms of what we ate and were we lived and how we got around. If it took each of them, say, an hour to do our clothes, and that work earned them enough for a couple of days’ groceries, it was relatively similar to our earning potential.

But the work they did seemed different: their was manual labor while ours, ostensibly, was not. But Nic, a reference librarian, had to have a shoulder replacement from handling books, and I, a reporter in Parliament, had to take several months off work to have physical therapy for my left arm and hand, because of strain from typing. I wondered if the Balinese women got such injuries from their jobs, and if they did, if they got treatment.

The bit of yarn brought back all that reflection, that awareness of difference and similarity that is the heart of travel. It also brought back pleasant memories. I remember sitting on some low, shallow steps at the entry to a shop where Nic was buying postcards — for which she did not bargain, thus adding incrementally to the imbalance in prices paid by tourists — and one of the many slim, saronged women who were standing around the shop in their flip-flops, either working in the store or spending time with friends who worked there, started chatting to me. She, very short, was about on eye level with my head as I sat on the low step, with my knees up around my ears. Seeing my belly protruding between my legs, she said, in a friendly way, “You going to have baby?”
 Aghast, embarrassed, and laughing, I said, “No, I’m just fat.” All the ladies laughed, and so did Nic and I, though I sounded a little high-pitched.
Later on, another local, used to spotting tourists from different parts of the world, told Nic she looked as if she came from Stuttgart: we didn’t know if it was Nic’s auburn complexion, her sturdy build, or something else (her refusal to bargain?) that made them make that mistake, and we wondered which was worse: to be thought pregnant, or German.

 At a lush tropical spa, in a shady private outdoor courtyard with a waterfall for background music, Nic and I got a “couples massage” that included oils and creams and rubs and much lovely attention to various parts of our bodies. We shared a milk bath. We drank a strange, opaque, hot fruit-and-cereal beverage. The two slim, beautiful, long-limbed Balinese masseuses helped us shower off the salt scrub, as unselfconscious with us as if we’d been toddlers, not grown-up women and lovers.

 I have no other mementoes from that trip.


 I will be meeting Nic at Melbourne Airport in 12 hours, and soon after that I will throw away that bra.

 And then I have to sort out all the other stuff in storage. One way would be to select and save only things I can remember now, that is, the things I have actually missed in the year since i last saw them, to wit.:
    1)  My cookbooks. My bound, fluttering, pages-falling-out, heavy binder of my own collection of recipes, the Esalen cookbook, and my Cold Pasta paperback. My Calphalon omelette pan and soup pot. My Wusthof  knives.

    2) Canadian artist Jillian Tebbitt’s charcoal-and-ink paintings from her “threshold” series, each about five foot high, which were framed in beautiful silver-and-rust frames and which hung asymmetrically over our staircase in Melbourne. Also some portraits of me and my mother drawn by my late friend Richard Illsley.
    3) The wardrobe. It’s the only piece of furniture I shipped out to Oz in 2001, and the only one I care about. About 150 years old, it’s either French or English, and I got it when we moved into an old house in England when I was 16 — it had been left behind by the previous, French, owners, who must have been either very sad to let it go, or crazy. It’s a medium-dark wood, inlaid with lighter pieces in irregular, soft shapes, like bows and ribbons with long curling ends cascading down the sides of the bevelled mirror. The ribbon-ends are tapered, flowing and symmetrical, the opposite of the chewed-looking torn off yarn ribbon on my bra — and I have never seen any inlay so beautiful and unusual. 

It would cost me at least $1000 to ship it to the USA. I could get perhaps that much, or perhaps much less, if I sold it to an auction house. I have no job and no regular income beyond a modest amount from the proceeds of the sale of my house. It’s the only piece of furniture I own or care about. It’s beautiful. There are other beautiful wardrobes in the world; the world is full of lovely things that other people have had to give up or sell when they’ve moved, and i could buy one with the money I got from selling this one. None of the other beautiful pieces were part of my life when I was 16. It’s only furniture. It’s the only furniture I own.

If I can’t decide what to do with that wardrobe, and if I can’t bear to throw out a wet, twelve-year-old undergarment that no longer serves its purpose, how can I give up on my relationship — a civil union, and essentially a marriage — of twelve years? I can’t imagine how I will do this.

All I know is that it’s related: how I make decisions on the stuff in the storage locker is related to, and affects, and is affected by, how I make decisions in my heart.  But right now, I don’t know how I will manage either one.