I never meant to meet someone at Burning Man. I’d heard more than enough horror stories on the internet about how terrible an idea it is – how being at Burning Man fries all your cognitive sensibilities – and we’ve all read that “things not to do in the first three weeks after Burning Man” essay. Don’t quit your job, don’t decide to go traveling, don’t move in with your playa boyfriend and don’t divorce your parakeet. But what happened was different, completely. I felt so smug and so lucky to have been the exception to this rule.
I got to the Playa at 4am, my second burn, in a car full of panicky virgins. I’d flown in from London about 24 hours before, completely alone, and my head was in bits. Drinking rum and coke alone in the TGI Fridays in the Dallas Airport at 8pm local time, god-knows-what-my-time, and I contemplated how I was recently single. I fully intended for my experience of Burning Man to be a poignant, heartbreaking and eye-opening string of snogs, flirtations and maybe a few casual shags. Then I’d come home, everything normal(ish), decompress HARD and get on with my life.
While my virgin pals set up their tents with gusto, I decided I could not be bothered at all with it, and went to get (reasonably) drunk at the nearest bar alone. The bar I ended up at was absolutely heaving with people, and I remembered from my first burn two years prior how they’d given me a pint of ale (being English, of course I had a pint cup) and how vile it was and how I had to drink it rather than pour it away. I stood around the flaming trash can out front, buzzing my tits off with the fact I was finally here, adapting to my new surroundings, laughing out loud at my first glimpse of a giant elephant art car, wearing my pajamas and furry coat standing in the frigid cold and dark and smoke.
I made friends with the bar staff, we charmed each other instantly, me smiling drinking this foul vodka pineapple. Then, suddenly, the atmosphere shifted dramatically – people were moving, something was happening. They said, “Coming to watch the sunrise?” “What, now?” “Yes, RIGHT NOW! We don’t have much time! We have to go!” So, we left. Myself, these people from San Francisco and the pale British girl all scuffling through the dust in our boots as the pale dawn’s light around the Temple turned everything grey and hazy.
Then it happened: we met. One of the girls from the bar was walking next to me, offering me honey rum, and saying she might be able to get me a lift out to Reno on Sunday. She pointed to her friend in hoodie and kilt who’s hanging back, chatting. “I hate that guy,” she says, “he’s the only one who gives me a run for my money with my tattoos.” I’m drunk, so: “COME HERE!” I shout, “COME HERE, I WANT TO SEE!” And they show me. And I introduce myself.
Eventually, we’re at a small, almost-dead bar. Everyone’s gone. It’s just me and him and the barman. I consider this strange, skinny creature covered in tattoos, sitting so quietly, while I’m sipping beer and babbling. From under the bar’s canopy, the red sun is in the morning sky, and we’re smoking endless cigarettes together. Some people nearby are working on an art piece, a swing, which they suddenly complete. Of course, we decide to take it for its inaugural flight, so we run over, sitting together on this two-person swing, trying to hold our beers, and onto the swing without necessarily having to hold onto each other
“There’s this strange way about you that makes it hard for me to talk to you,” he said. I thought maybe it was because he was from South America, so I apologized for speaking so fast. “No no, it’s more like… you’re like the wind and I’m a kite.” I’d never been spoken to like that and inside I melted, but said nothing.
I have no tent yet, right? I love Burning Man. No tent, no issue, we just sleep on a beanbag. He doesn’t try to kiss me, and I loved him for that. We just cuddled up under my fur coat and slept deep, real, gently-drunk and jetlagged sleep. When we woke up, he quietly and shyly tells me I’m beautiful. I look at him, and suddenly I realize, he’s beautiful too. We kiss. He smiles broadly and shakes his head at his disbelief and joy.
By the time we’re done getting coffee, waking up to the heady realization of each other and our shared affection, we’re holding hands, and my whole camp has been built without any of my damn help.
It all starts there. I spend the next five days unable to ride past his camp without staring in for the tattooed man with the kilt. On Tuesday night, we go out on a ‘date’. He picks me up and we immediately begin talking about pornography and pissing ourselves laughing. Only at Burning Man. We walk arm around each other’s shoulders, and at 4am, someone will tell us we’re so cute together and both of us will silently buzz with the shared quiet bliss of being exactly where we want to be with each other. I couldn’t believe I’d never met this person before.
Love stories are about what you feel, not what you do. It doesn’t matter that we exchanged war stories of our broken hearts with complete barefaced honesty outside the Thunder Dome during a crazy fight. Or that I talked about my grandmother and next thing I know I’m sobbing with my hoarse, playafied-voice into his leather jacket while he holds me and there’s neon lights all around. Or that we danced together, jumping around to huge, mad music in a dust storm with me in my underwear while an aeroplane fuselage/DJ booth shot gigantic hot flames up into the sky. Or how the first time we had sex we spent a hilarious hour talking about where the fuck we were going to do it and then my campmates stood by my tent the whole time. That week, it was him and I, full of love and companionship, and when it wasn’t, it was waiting to meet again.
Our final night was your standard long and completely magical Playa night, the kind you try to tell your friends about but can’t describe. Even though you can cover the theme camps you hit, the art cars you climbed on, you can’t really quite explain to them how hearing Chopin miles from your tent made you lie down in the dust. I just remember holding his hand and look at the pale blue sunrise and crying with happiness. That morning, we shuffle into my shivery cold tent and he’s holding me tight and warming up my trashed, drugged-out body and he whispers “Lucy…?” and I think, oh my god. “I’m in love with you.” “I don’t know what to do with that.” I reply. “That’s absolutely fine but that’s how I feel, that’s where I am. That’s the truth.” I feel like crying. Everything is so amazing. I’ve met the most amazing man alive and he wants me. I was in love with him.
All that really stands out after that was at the end how I cried, and he cried, and we realized that we were going to try to make this work. He lived in Europe, as did I, so this WAS doable, we were going to try this. And I spent my Sunday so desperate to leave Burning Man bristling with hurry-the-fuck-up-I-need-to-get-to-civilization, absolutely inconceivably on fire with such a sense of love I’ve never felt in my life. I got to my hotel after Exodus, alone, in this huge hotel suite, with a four poster fucking bed, at 10pm and aching, matted curls and burned skin, too exhausted to enjoy it and all I could do was switch on my phone, and there he was. Alive, and real, and took away any doubt I ever had. When room service came, the bellboy asked me if I had been at Burning Man, and my excitement was such that he gave me a hug.
One week later, he landed back in Amsterdam, and immediately booked flights to come and see me. And not long after, we meet again at Gatwick. Wearing normal clothes! Being indoors! Sex in a BED! And everything was as it should have been, and perfect and lovely. We spent two months sending love letters, phone, email, in person, sharing music, all of it. And it was working – Burning Man relationships don’t work, but we were! I felt sure we would be together forever, though I knew I sounded mad.
And I was, totally mad. Because despite all your best intentions, and your absolute certainty, (despite everything you might say to your friends, you feel certain in your heart), there’s no accounting for how much Burning Man affects your sense of reality. Over that single week in August in the Black Rock Desert, you quickly learn to accept the strange pathways that appear your life, and to follow them. I was soon planning to move to Amsterdam. Every step feels righter more right and more freeing, you feel more and more sure-footed, until the path you’re taking is so far removed from sober reality, when it abruptly ends, the shock is indescribable.
I hadn’t visited him in the Netherlands yet. When he picked me up at the airport, it was a terribly romantic cinematic greeting, running through the long halls of the arrivals lounge into his arms in my green jumper, hopelessly, magnificently in love and untouchable. Then five days later, I’m back in the airport in the same green jumper a day early, at 6am on one hour of sleep having taken a nap on sofas opposite each other, after realizing it’s all over.
It’s hard to describe what went wrong. But being there, in his space, he realized quickly he couldn’t handle sharing his life with someone, despite everything Burning Man had done for him to open him up to the world. “It can’t work, it never can,” he shakily explained to me, as I sobbed into my hands. He was devastated and so was I. I left for the airport, suddenly alone again in this foreign country.
I cried almost every day of November. My cheeks peel, my neck seizes up and I can’t sleep. The thought of attending Decompression makes me feel sick. I avoid all planning meetings, and give the ticket I bought for him to my best friend. I swear never to go back to Burning Man and promise to forget every happy memory.
But of course that’s crazy – I remember every minute of it. I miss him, still. I miss his tattooed back, blue and green, and the way he said my name, and the way he looked at me.
There’s no lesson or moral here. It wasn’t wrong to fall in love or let this happen, nor was it the right thing to do either. It was simply the path that arose. In the spirit of all things radical, I committed to it utterly, and for a little while at least, it worked. For one amazing week, I found real home in another person. Hand in hand sprinting after art cars, we drank absinthe and ate watermelon, and in the small hours, after a night out on opposite sides of BRC, we found each other again, arms around each other’s necks, and whispered over and over, “You’re here! It’s you, you’re here!”