The first time I saw her, all I could think about was that she smelled like the rain. A very specific kind of rain, too. Not a drizzle either, but a monsoon. The kind of storm that wipes away everything you have, everything you know, and leaves you empty, slightly wet, and wondering what the hell just happened.

She also had very nice eyes.

The first time I saw her, it was nearly midnight. Late for respectable people, but perfect for her and I. I had been hard at work wasting away another night of my life, but she had the audacity to sit down in front of me and interrupt. Bold, but fortunately for her, I liked that kind of fire. Plus, I was drunk. Xanadu had a way of doing that.

That was the other thing about her. At all times, she was unabashedly her. Many people live their whole lives pretending to be people who they are not, running away from the ever-present shadow of their actual selves. Not her. She had the courage to look herself in the eye, faults and all, and say, “Fuck off.” In a city full of runaways such as myself, it was a breath of fresh air. She radiated that kind of confidence when she sat down and introduced herself. I’m not quite sure what I said to her in response, my garbled knowledge of the language at the time only good enough to say, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “beer,” but it was evidently enough to get me to round 2 with her. Maybe it was the accent.

Xanadu is a place where people came to get lost, forgotten, and brushed aside. I came here a long time ago to do all of the above. The city draws exiles like flies to honey, and all runaways, waifs, and lost souls end up in Xanadu at one point or another. It is a collection of people, transplanted from nations and locales across time and space, all seeking to lose themselves under the alien sun of an exotic locale. Xanadu existed everywhere and nowhere at once. It had existed for longer than anyone could remember, and would continue to exist so long as there were lost wanderers drawn to its beacon.

The first time I saw her, she told me she was a student. She had come here from far away, seeking to explore some place new for university before entering the world. She had been studying some kind of history, wanting to go and make a difference back home. Her thesis was long and had a lot of words in it that sneeringly told me I needed to drink more craft beer to understand what they meant. I remember spending long nights with her, where she’d talk about what she was trying to do, how she wanted to expose the inequities of society, how she had hoped to change the world. I didn’t get it, but she was so passionate, so genuine, that I couldn’t help but be intoxicated by everything she did. How could anyone not? The very sight of her was a drink of water to a man dying of thirst.

The first time I saw her, we ended up hand in hand, running through the back alleys and twisting passages of Xanadu. The air was crisp, not cold enough to cut our night short, but just cold enough to gently nudge her into my arms. The city’s lights sparkled in the night, like new constellations guiding us to nowhere. Two strangers, following a broken map, unable to communicate, but somehow sharing an unspoken conversation that spoke volumes. I can scarcely remember where we went or how we got there, but I do know that somehow, we ended up by the water, bathed in the glow of a foreign city’s nighttime rituals. The city had come alive at night, promising us endless numbers of distractions to take the edge off of a hard day, week, or lifetime. The streets became clogged with people, forming a human tide that pulled more and more people into its current. All were seduced by Xanadu’s whispers, all looking for the same thing. I knew, because I had followed them too, once upon a time. I remember looking at her then, seeing her stand against the crowd, before she grabbed my hand, and pulled me the other way.

She was strong like that.

Much stronger than me.

The next time I saw her, I had learned enough of the language to say something to her without having to reach for a dictionary. We promised each other that we wouldn’t see each other often, that we would keep things brief. Business-like, even. By the next time I saw her, we had broken our promises, and made new ones. It was to be expected. She wasn’t the kind of person who hid how she felt. She was too strong-willed, too stubborn to do that.

Xanadu has a way of enveloping those who fell into its depths. When I had first arrived, I had found it all too easy to sink in. The land of a thousand nations, where all were welcome, and those without a home could find something vaguely analogous to that long-forgotten concept. It was undeniably beautiful. For one raised so far away, Xanadu is a dangerous paradise, on the one hand promising endless pleasures, but on the other hand promising addiction to the very same. I wonder if I would have fallen even further without her to pull me out.

And yet, every moment we spent together reminded me that she didn’t really belong here. Xanadu was a place for those without a home, for those without a purpose. Empty pleasures and endless diversions. It was a place for foreigners such as myself, not for those with a purpose like her. It was ironic. Me, a foreigner, belonged in Xanadu more than she, a native, ever had. She used to joke about it, asking me if I was really sure I had come from far away. Eventually, the joke became less funny when it became obvious what was happening. Bit by bit, cracks started to appear. Bit by bit, I lost her.

Imagine a rock in the harbor. It stands straight, proud, stoically indifferent to the constant assault of the waves against its perch. Haughtily, it resists their efforts, defying nature itself to stand tall. Yet, even the rock must eventually yield to the onset of time, and before long, the waves will claim it, pulling it beneath the water piece by piece, until only the barest remnant of what once seemed so strong is but an imprint in the sand.

The time we spent together was, all things considered, an intermission in my life’s play. A time to stretch your legs, adjust an uncomfortable position, and perhaps go to the bathroom before the next act started. It was simply too brief to be anything else. But I cherished it, nonetheless. Each and every moment. Even the awful, horrible, painful ones.

The last time I saw her, her words spoke a story that her eyes betrayed with every word. She spoke of home, her real home, not Xanadu. It was time, she said. Time for her to go to where she really belonged. She regretted nothing, but it was simply the right moment to let go.

She left the words hanging in the air, each one pregnant with emotion, like fat rainclouds just about to burst. She hesitated, waiting for me to speak, her very nice eyes begging me to say something back, anything, just to fill this horrible emptiness that sits between us.

But I say nothing.

I am not strong like her.

And so, she left.

Here in Xanadu, a lost soul can find endless diversions to distract themselves. The foreign lights invite one in, promising relief from the world outside. It beckons me now, calling me back to the fold, telling me to continue where I had left off, before she roared into my life. The city lights still dance in the sky, and it seems as if nothing has truly changed. And yet, here I sit. Slightly wet. Listening to the call of a foreign city’s promises, but suspecting that my Xanadu has already been lost forever.