Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stross_Dead-Lies-Dreaming_Lightspeed

Advertisement

Fiction

Destinations of Love

From the Lost Travelers’ Tour Guide

Your guidebook writers are—alas—very familiar with booking tickets in search of love. How many of us haven’t packed our bags for the new continent with this foolish goal in mind? We’ve stumbled through our travels, searching cities and villages for romance. In cafés, opera houses, and hotel rooms, we felt acutely alone. Why, even the most exquisite restaurants were dulled by the empty chair across from us. And when the city became illuminated with music and lights, and glowing boats sailed across a moonlit lake, we saw couples kissing and our hearts ached.

Of course, there are some who travel to escape love. And while they easily find themselves kissed by strangers in foreign cities, they quickly wrestle themselves free, as though love was a beast intent on suffocating them. For such travelers, the balconies where their new lovers serve them coffee are closer to cafés than homes, and their newfound trysts are nothing more than layovers. They leave only the souvenirs of their stay behind them: a barrette on a bedside table, a t-shirt beneath a couch, a note on a kitchen counter, and the residue of solitude in every bed they share.

This is not to dismiss lust—for which many tourists have packed their bags—and there’s certainly no shortage of it amid the destinations we’ve visited. Lust calls from every discotheque and bar in all the cities of the Eighth continent; you can easily book your reservation for it. Love, on the other hand, proves much harder to find.

Of course, you may discover love in one of the following destinations, or awaiting you in a library, or perhaps even as you approach the counter in a coffee shop to order your espresso. As for your guidebook writers, we’ve learned to comfort ourselves with the mystery of its sudden appearance, and while we cannot provide you with its coordinates, we can offer you our advice. When the time comes, and you’re fortunate enough to stumble across the place where love resides, we highly suggest you unpack your bags, sell your suitcase, and make it your new home.

The City of Ísbraug

There are destinations which one can’t help but fall in love with. Such is the case with the city of Ísbraug. For decades, the city had been a sleepy one, visited by few—no one was interested in its bookstores or asked its hotels about vacancies—until a group of backpackers discovered it. And soon, one by one, the visitors came, until tourists were arriving by the planeload. How happy Ísbraug was then! The city welcomed travelers as warmly as newfound sweethearts. It showed them its cobblestone streets, its blue painted houses and candlelit restaurants; it turned spare bedrooms into guesthouses, opened its doors wide, and awoke travelers in the morning with hot cocoa and scones.

For those of us who visited the city during its heyday, our memories of past vacations faded quickly. Sure, we’d enjoyed those other travels, but they’d been minor preludes, layovers on our way to this city whose company we never again wished to leave. In the following years, we returned again and again, spending our savings on plane tickets, filling our albums with its photos, and counting the hours until we were back in its embrace.

But, alas, even cities can fall out of love with us. We could feel Ísbraug growing distant as we walked its streets, our lungs full of its air, our bodies warm from its nighttime duvets. The citizens began to shut their doors and roll down their shades; museums closed earlier; storekeepers no longer greeted us; and restaurants told us there was an hour-long wait, though locals were seated immediately. And then, finally, Ísbraug left us for good. Its tourist bureau closed, its border control wouldn’t stamp our passports, and its bureau of immigration no longer returned our calls.

Being dumped by a city hasn’t been easy. The most resilient of your guidebook writers remember warm days of sunshine when Ísbraug’s beer gardens were open and servers brought us mugs of elderflower ale. Others, whose hearts still ache, recall Ísbraug as a city of betrayal, a destination they once loved who they never want to see again. What can we do? We can write the country letters, but they go unanswered. We can send desperate emails to the tourist board, but they only solidify Ísbraug’s wish for distance. We look at the magnets on our fridge or the woolen blankets we brought back with us and spend a last moment recalling the city’s embrace. Then we pack up our souvenirs and donate them to the local thrift store. And like we’ve had to do so many times before, we book our travels elsewhere.

The Hotel Aulaun

Have you been spurned or betrayed, cuckolded or deceived? Has your heart craved love but only found rejection? If so, come at once to The Hotel Aulaun, where even the most jaded hearts are healed. Here, bickering couples will find they’re unable to access the bitter tongues they were once fluent in. Instead, they recall the movement of a partner’s body across an apartment where they first lived, or a checkered shirt their spouse used to wear—and suddenly the closed fist of their heart opens and they wish only to seize their partners and ravage them behind the closed doors of the hotel’s bedrooms.

So it goes at The Hotel Aulaun, where everyone is in love. In all of its rooms, only the most sacred rituals are practiced: the wetting of lips, the kissing of necks, sheets wrapped around ankles, comforters flung to the floor—and, always, the request for more, more, and more.

As for the city itself, we’re afraid not much can be reported. Not a single one of your guidebook writers has seen anything other than the hotel’s bedrooms. We could, I suppose, tell you of sweat on a forearm, the glint of candlelight on a belly, pillows positioned every which way except for sleeping—but such details are too intimate an affair to write about in a travel guide. Are there museums and monuments? Well . . . yes . . . most likely. Restaurants? We imagine so. However, all we ever saw were glimpses of the city through our bedroom window. We watched the sky grow dark, the outline of roofs illuminated by moonlight, and once we saw a woman on a distant balcony smoking a cigarette. But more often than not, the curtains were drawn, and a light wind cooled our bodies before we were taken again, clothing tossed hither-thither, rolled and rubbed and pleasured forever.

What can we say? As your guidebook writers, we apologize.

We do, however, feel it necessary to note an important detail which any traveler checking into the hotel should know: The spell of love is broken the moment one checks out—and upon returning the keys, bickering couples find themselves bickering again; passionate lovers scold one another for the delays which their morning lovemaking caused; and everyone finds the world outside just as unpleasant as they’d left it.

But don’t lose all hope. There are those travelers—far wiser than us—who never officially check out. They escape through their hotel room windows on knotted bed sheets; they build makeshift hang-gliders from curtain rods and set sail across rooftops; and they return to their hometowns while remaining checked-in to the hotel so far away. Everyone has seen them in our cities. Across the restaurant where we sit, they lean toward one another, their fingers entwined by the candlelight which burns with the glow of the hotel’s bedrooms. We pass them pressed in embrace against the doorways of art galleries, and we hear them making love through the walls of our apartments. And if our hearts bristle upon hearing these sounds, if we curse our bad luck and turn up the music to drown out their moans, let us remember one thing: The Hotel Aulaun is always awaiting our reservations; we were the ones who choose to check out.

The Museum of Heartbreak

At The Museum of Heartbreak, visitors will experience a wide collection of exhibits which are bound to shatter our hearts forever. Admission is paid at the museum’s entrance, where one encounters a ticket seller so stunning that it leaves you tongue-tied. Many visitors end up silently chastising themselves for lacking the courage to even ask for a name. They stumble toward the galleries and wander exhibits rehearsing lines to say, but on exiting find only a dour employee frowning at them. Worse are the patrons who muster the courage to suggest a date when purchasing tickets. To this, the ticket seller will look up, the shine of their eyes suddenly dull. How kind of us, they say with the distance of a school teacher, but they only date people far younger, smarter, skinnier, or sexier.

In the first floor’s photography gallery, visitors will discover a wide selection of erotic black and white photos of recent exes with their new lovers. Picking up the attached headphones, we can listen to post-coital pillow talk as they describe our deficiencies to their new partners. Along the far wall are complimentary pens, paper, and envelopes with which to write long impassioned letters that will never be answered.

Passing through to the main hall, we encounter our first true love, the one we’d hoped to marry. We’d almost moved in together, had gotten rid of one set of pot holders, duplicates of books; had spoken in excited terms to friends and family using words like eternity. Our ex is wandering the museum with their fiancé. They both shake our hand. They just bought a house together, they tell us. Our ex is certain we’ll meet the right person someday.

Those visiting the museum with romantic partners are certain to never forget the third-floor gallery, where beneath the bright lights of its many displays, partners will finally make up their minds to leave us forever. By bronzed statues of goddesses, husbands will reveal decade-long affairs and wives will admit to scores of infidelities. In the darkness of the video display room, one first hears about divorce lawyers. At the central podium is a collection of text messages between our husbands and wives and the people they’ve cheated on us with.

Wherever one goes, from the sculpture garden to the rooftop patio, the museum is filled with emotional pains that will wound us forever. Many patrons can be found sitting in the lobby, openly weeping, and everyone stumbles from the museum’s exit, dazed and blinking in the daylight. Why, we wonder, did we ever visit the museum in the first place? All we wanted was a little bit of joy, a moment of delight—every one of us clueless to the suffering our tickets would provide.

The Quzetch Parasite

For those planning to travel to Quzetch, we must warn you about a common parasite found regularly in both the cities and countryside of this otherwise lovely country. Many tourists acquire the bug from bathing in populated rivers or visiting beachside resorts, though one can find it in bus and rail stations, art galleries, and singles bars. And while the creature’s initial size is no larger than a poppy seed, it quickly burrows beneath skin, subsisting off the host’s blood, and becoming increasingly engorged over several months.

The most notable symptom is that those infected will begin to speak effusively of love. Over coffee, the infected tell stories which revolve entirely around themselves, their eyes glassy as they harangue innocent family members with confessions of how happy they are. When asked for a name or a description, they often avoid answering, stating that it’s too new to say, before returning to how their hearts can barely keep from bursting.

It’s this very symptom that leads others to ignore the early warning signs. One can only bear to suffer a few encounters with the newly infected before avoiding contact completely. It’s often months later when those closest to the victim realize the person has disappeared from all social gatherings. And so the clear signs of infection go untreated as the parasite grows.

For, unlike the common tick, which eventually detaches itself once fully engorged, the Quzetch Parasite continues to feed—growing over time to the size of a golf ball, then a grapefruit, and eventually surpassing the size of a watermelon, impeding the host’s mobility and desire to engage in any activities which previously gave them joy. They’re never seen going to the movies, cannot be found staying after work for drinks, nor donating time to the local charities where they once were active. They can reluctantly be found attending to work duties, or on intense prodding will appear at a best friend’s birthday—but one finds them dragging along their growth and staying just long enough to have the requisite drink before making excuses for an early departure.

By the time the parasite has grown to the size of a bicycle tire, its symptoms have become evident to everyone except its host. The infected person appears lethargic, their eyes ringed with sleeplessness, and their voice reveals an absence of joy. When witnessed by friends or family, they appear distant from conversation, interested only in stroking their growth as manically as some check cellphones for text messages. The infected will refuse to listen to advice from concerned acquaintances or medical professionals who insist they get the parasite removed. In fact, such suggestions result in anger and further separation, the host refusing to seek treatment, and ultimately choosing to isolate themselves completely from family and coworkers. Best friends are unfriended on social media, family members are blocked, and the host moves apartments, telling no one of their new address, happy to finally be alone with their growth. For many, there’s little hope once infected. They spend their last hours alone in bed, stroking the parasite beneath their skin, whispering to it, over and over, I love you so much.

The City of Rouxman

The city of Rouxman has grown tired of tourists who arrive with their insatiable appetites wishing for a short-lived romp. And while it’s difficult to believe a city might actively dislike its visitors, there’s little else to conclude when encountering its dark streets. For the city hisses at new arrivals with thunderstorms, and shows the claws of its pickpockets and rabid cats. Whether traveling for business or vacation, you’ll always arrive late, and the taxi driver will leave you at the far end of town where the streetlights are busted and the cobblestones are crooked. There are no hotels here, only shuttered windows, and if you’re fortunate enough to find an open restaurant, your meal is bound to be cold.

There are few words to accurately describe the despair of the first nights in Rouxman. You’d looked forward to this layover; had told friends and family of your plans; had watered the plants; held the mail; packed your best clothes, only to arrive to this? A godawful town where no one asks your name and your clothes are soaked by downpour. Many tourists soon fill outboxes with outraged messages. Awful time in Rouxman. Horrible city! Never coming back! In fact, it’s so miserable that on encountering the third day of rain most travelers rebook tickets to nearby cities.

And yet, for those who quiet their complaints, swallow their pride, and relent to the rain, Rouxman begins to soften. It slinks on cautious paws from the doorstep and crosses the cobblestones, allows its face to caress our palm, flicks its tail against our shins, and then, with a contented purr, rolls out its sunshine and birdsong. And suddenly the streets are alive with children and bicycles; sunflowers stretch lazily against brick walls; at taverns, women sing beautiful ballads; and the local café serves warm biscuits slathered with homemade jam.

Yes, for those of us patient enough to wait, we’ve come to love the city. Thank goodness we didn’t listen to our buffoonish coworkers, foolish travelers embittered from overnight visits to a city which treated them with the same indifference they’d shown it. Thank goodness we gave the city a chance. Like anyone, Rouxman merely wanted to know we’d stay long enough to make it through its dark clouds, its passing showers, its momentary darkness.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and Electric Literature. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University.