Alex Selkirk was stuck on a desert island for four years.
Just as I was about to bolt the lock on the bathroom door, Bob pushed through with a smile on his face and a pair of candy-striped panties hanging from his penis like a yacht-club ensign on a yardarm. Deep in the shadows of his side of the hotel suite, on the other side of the bathroom we shared, a pair of dark, slender legs stirred. "I'm, ah, not alone," Bob explained.
Really he was, though, in a sense.
I can sniff out desolation like a sommelier detecting “nice minerality” in a German riesling. Over here's the divorced dad who's still reeling from the loss that took place ten years ago. There’s the habitual masturbator who's zombie-walking through life, resigned to the fact that he’ll do it—all of it—alone, forever. In that corner? That's the young mom trying to materialize her children through her iPhone 6 Plus.
I'm a traveler by trade, one of the self-displaced, a citizen of the nation of the nationless, The Ones Who Never Stick Around. When you're young, you take this kind of job because it subsidizes exciting adventures, but those who stay in this profession are ultimately running away from something. Other tribe members become increasingly recognizable, and you glom on to each other like music nerds by the turntable at a house party. You're each other's new pals, with one unspoken understanding: The shelf life of this friendship is shorter than that of an overpriced airport sandwich.
I once spent eight hours in an airport lounge waiting out a flight delay with a man from Florida who had decided to dedicate his twilight years to disseminating Chick tracts to “the heathen Catholics” of Latin America. (He told me that he sets himself adrift several times a year because his wife prefers that he not spend too much time at home. He didn't need to.) You can force yourself to ignore wildly offensive mindsets for a little small talk about the weather, and you'll find it worth the price, because you'll never see the dwarfish bigot again once you collect your luggage from the carousel.
Then there’s Bev. You probably already know her. She’s a social-media wunderkind with a genuinely awe-inspiring number of followers, all of whom she entertains with her journeys around the world. She’s achieved the 21st-century American dream of shedding her earthbound human body and becoming a Brand, like some perverse reading of the Gnostic Gospels a la Kim and Kanye.
According to her Twitter feed, Bev has tens of thousands of people who accompany her on terribly glamorous trips to Europe, Asia, and beyond. The truth, however, is that she runs through “best friends” like a millennial burns through a data plan; the same superficiality that makes her a self-marketing genius makes for a tyro at fostering sustained relationships. Bev is self-aware enough to sense the hollowness in her life, it’s just that she’s unconstitutionally capable of confronting herself about it. So, like many perpetual travelers, she runs away.
Travel affords Bev the dual benefits of growing her Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat/Vine empire while ensuring that any new friendships she actually makes on those trips remain shallow—and therefore difficult to reject. And so the chase begins: Beverly flies to the poshest corners of the Earth in pursuit of the selfie-taking phantom of genuine social contact, while the soul-wrenching consequences of her slash-and-burn relationships back home (loneliness, for one) nip at her heels. That painfully practiced smile of hers with the Eiffel Tower over her shoulder? That’s the rictus grin of a woman who’s dead inside.
Now let’s get back to Bob. Bob has spent the last few years trying to smother the memory of a string of spectacularly failed marriages by burying himself in as much exotic quim as possible. (He learns the local word for "cock" before he learns how to say "please.") Quantity is key—I think the record so far, at least when I've been with him, was four women in a week—and each “girlfriend” comes with a 48-hour timer. As for men, Bob hasn't made more than a wingman-level friend in a decade. (I got to him before that time, and I stick around because he’s a nice guy aside from his sexual compulsion.) When he's not doing the immediate work of conquering another naive native lass's heart, boredom and then sadness creep onto his face. It's a loneliness that he's neurotically afraid of, and he’s trapped by that fear.
See, in his quest to vanquish that loneliness, Bob has paradoxically come to prefer the no-fuss escape clause written into every implicit contract with a friend with an expiration date. It’s much better than having to acknowledge his pain. And so, instead of doing the slow, steady, uncertain work of building genuine relationships, he flits away to the next hunting grounds, knowing full well that a Francophone 19-year-old he met eight hours before at some bass-filled dance club isn't going to ask him to confront that gaping void at the center of his life.
If you ever meet me, and if we have The Conversation, the one where you tell me you wish you had my job, I’m going to respond with shopworn platitudes about how I can’t complain and how wonderful it all is. I’ve learned from experience that it’s the only answer you’re going to accept. A lot of it sucks, though, especially when, like the kid from The Sixth Sense, I can see the ghosts peering over every other professional traveler’s shoulders. So here’s my real response: Stay home. See your real friends. Cultivate meaningful experiences. Because you and me, we’re only going to last about an hour.