A Sunrise Over Bali by Sandy Barker

Chapter One

Icatch my top lip between my teeth as I wait for the video call to connect. Cat usually answers right away―we talk most weekends around the same time―but after ten rings, I tap the red button and end the call. I stare at my reflection on the phone screen. I look confused and scared, and that just makes me more confused and scared. I hope she calls me back right away. She’s my guinea pig, the first person I’m sharing my news with―and it’s big.

I need this practice run. I’m having lunch with my parents tomorrow and I have no idea how to tell them that I’m leaving my job—my life—for two months. They’ll flip. Well, my mom will―Tina Tan, overbearing mom extraordinaire. If America’s Got Talented Moms existed, she’d be standing onstage at the end of the competition under a deluge of glittering gold confetti.

Echoes of her voice threaten my resolve. ‘You are a strong independent girl, Jaelee. Study hard, work hard, make your own money—always. You can only rely on yourself.’ Heady stuff for a seven-year-old.

Still, it worked.

I am thirty-five years old. I have a BA in Communications and a Master’s in Public Relations, and I’m a Junior Vice President at the second-largest PR firm in Florida. I’m ahead on the mortgage of a condo in South Beach, and I own forty-seven pairs of (mostly) designer shoes bought with my own money. I am all the things my mother wanted for me.

I am miserable.

That came out wrong—I don’t think my mom wants me to be miserable. But I am.

My phone rings, startling me, and I connect the call. ‘Hi, sorry, I was on the loo,’ says Cat. My mouth stretches into a smile and I shake my head at her. ‘I know, TMI―sorry. How are you? You look terrible.’ This is what I love about Cat. She’s honest to a fault―a bit like me. ‘Well, not terrible, ’cause you’re you, but something’s up.’ She frowns at me, an emotional inspection.

‘Hang on, the kettle’s just boiled,’ she says, jumping up and taking her phone with her into the kitchen. Cat may be Australian, but after a decade of living in London, she’s very British―right down to drinking copious amounts of hot tea … with milk. Or maybe Aussies do that too.

She props her phone on the counter while she makes her tea and I pull my legs up onto the sofa, crossing them and sitting taller. Maybe good posture will boost my confidence. ‘I have news,’ I say. ‘I’m going to a place called UROP.’

She leans down to peer straight into the camera. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of it. We were there together, remember? Big coach, whirlwind tour, you bought a suitcase full of designer clothes.’

‘You’re hilarious, Cat—really—but not that Europe. I’m going to UROP—U-R-O-P—in Bali.’

‘You’re going to Bali?’ I hear the spoon ping against the side of her mug, then land in the sink, and I wait until she’s back on her sofa before replying.

‘Yes. I’m going to Bali on sabbatical.’ The word sounds strange coming out of my mouth. Sabbatical. ‘For two months,’ I add.

‘Wow. So, is this some kind of Eat, Pray, Love thing?’

‘Hah! As if. Can you imagine me at one of those ashram places?’

‘No,’ she deadpans, a glint of humour in her eyes. ‘But what’s with the name, UROP?’

‘It’s a play on words―or letters, really―it stands for “You Are Our People”. It’s sorta lame …’ Cat nods in agreement, but I forge ahead with my spiel. ‘It’s a co-living space.’

‘So, not an ashram—just a hippy commune.’

I bark out another wry laugh. ‘It’s neither. It’s for digital nomads.’

‘Now you’re just making up words,’ she teases.

‘I am not. A digital noma— Hey, are you being contrary on purpose?’

‘It’s our thing, Jae.’

‘I know, but this … it’s important,’ I admit.

‘Sorry. Go on then.’

A slow breath escapes my lips, then I commence my spiel. ‘I’ve had enough and I’m taking a leave of absence. Miami feels stifling right now and I need to be anywhere else. So, I thought, “Where can I go on the other side of the world, someplace where no one knows me?”’

‘And you chose Bali,’ she affirms.

‘Yeah. God, maybe this is an Eat, Pray, Love thing. Do you think I subconsciously chose Bali because of the movie?’

‘It was a book first,’ she says unhelpfully.

‘Sure, okay, but which part is Bali again? Praying or eating? Tell me it’s eating, ’cause I could seriously get into Indonesian food.’

‘Bali was the love part,’ she says.

‘Dammit.’ Love is the reason I’m doing this―well, mostly. I have yet to brave the depths of serious introspection but when I do, I suspect I’ll also discover that designer shoes and dancing in clubs no longer spark as much joy as they used to. Fricking Marie Kondo. Cat looks at me expectantly. ‘I’m not explaining this very well, am I?’ I ask, already knowing the answer.

‘So far, your explanation sucks.’

‘Okay, how about this? I want to go someplace where I can hang out and be myself and just breathe.’

‘Breathing is an excellent idea,’ she says. ‘I have it on good authority that it keeps us alive.’

I dismiss her attempt to make me laugh, self-doubt looming. ‘I’m doing the right thing, aren’t I?’

‘Honestly, Jae, I have no idea. Tell me what’s going on.’

‘Right,’ I say, realising I haven’t explained the impetus for my decision. ‘Well, you know how I messaged last week that I saw my ex?’ She nods―she’d replied with a GIF of a teddy bear smothering another teddy bear with a hug. ‘Well, what I didn’t tell you was that it was at Ali’s birthday party.’ She cringes. ‘I know, right? It was awful and now I just …’ I exhale another long breath, struggling to find the right words to convey why I’m running away.

Cat pulls a cushion onto her lap and tilts her head to the side, silently inviting me to ‘spill’. God, I love this girl―I’m so grateful she’s my friend. She’s one of only two people in my life I can talk to candidly and, right now, I’m not speaking to the other one―Ali.

Ali’s my best friend―has been for years, ever since we met at work. We started on the same day and bonded fast and firmly, initially over a shared love of salsa dancing, expensive shoes, and Chris Hemsworth and, eventually, because we found a kinship that neither of us had experienced before.

She gets me. And I get her. And neither of us is the type of woman that other women really get.

We’ve both moved on to other companies since then, but we say that we’re each other’s sister from another mister, which is hilarious to us, because she’s a curvy natural blonde with curls and I’m half-Korean with straight black hair and no curves to speak of. We couldn’t look less alike, but on the inside, we’re practically twins.

Last week, I showed up at her fortieth birthday party with a giant bunch of gold balloons, a magnum of Mumm—her favourite—and a tiny gift bag containing a gold pendant I bought for her when I was in Florence last year. As she squealed in delight at my gift-giving extravagance and hugged me tightly, I spied over her shoulder the one person I didn’t want to see. And not just at her party—ever again.

My ex, Paco.

With his new-ish bride.

And sure, I’d pored over their honeymoon photos on Facebook―I can be stupid and masochistic sometimes―but seeing her in the flesh, that was a sucker punch. Paco’s wife is beautiful―like, Miami-grade beautiful. Tall, large breasts, legs for days, long blonde wavy hair, and a gorgeous face. The exact opposite of me.

And the two of them looked perfect together―perfectly happy.

When Ali clocked my expression, she shot a glance over her shoulder, then looked back at me, her face transforming from elated to contrite in a microsecond. ‘Oh, Jae, I’m so sorry. I forgot to tell you ahead of time.’

I met her eyes, seeing my own horrified expression reflected back at me. ‘You forgot? Why is he even here, Ali? How could you invite him? And her?’

Ali gaped at me, obviously unsure of what else to say, a small furrow creasing her otherwise smooth forehead. ‘He’s my friend, Jae,’ she replied lamely. ‘And it’s been so long now, I thought it would be okay.’

If that’s true, then why would you need to warn me ahead of time?

I had a decision to make. Be a big girl and celebrate my best friend’s milestone birthday, or shove my gifts into her hands, turn on my expensive heels, and make a run for it.

It’s extremelydifficult to run in five-inch heels, but I channelled my inner Carrie Bradshaw and did exactly that, Ali calling after me. ‘Come on, Jae,’ she cajoled from her doorway as I stabbed repeatedly at the elevator button. Then the clincher. ‘You’re being ridiculous.’ Ridiculous! That was rich.

The last thing I heard before the elevator doors closed was Paco’s voice asking, ‘Was that Jaelee?’ I wasn’t sure what broke my heart more―Ali completely disregarding my feelings or hearing Paco say my name.

‘I haven’t spoken to Ali since,’ I say, wrapping up my tale of woe.

‘God, Jae, that’s terrible.’ Seeing compassion on Cat’s face, I feel awash with relief. I’ve been going back and forth on whether I’m a terrible person for abandoning Ali on her special day. That and asking myself if I’ll ever be able to forgive her. ‘But you’re going to sort things out before you go to Bali, right?’ Cat asks. Ah, yes, the million-dollar question.

‘I don’t know. She’s sent me a bunch of texts, but I haven’t replied. I honestly don’t know what to say to her. And I hate that I couldn’t just stay and celebrate with her―like an adult―but seeing Paco with Kimberly … It just brought it all back. I’m not over him, Cat.’

‘I’m so sorry, Jae.’

And she called me “ridiculous”,’ I say, almost to myself. I’m not over that either.

‘I don’t think that’s fair. I’m loved-up now, but even so, there’s no way I’d stick around at a party if Scott was there, no matter whose party it was—especially if he’d brought his wife.’ Scott is Cat’s scuzzy cheating ex.

Paco is my not-at-all-scuzzy ex. Paco is the only man I’ve ever loved, only I realised way too late—after I’d refused his proposal, after he’d met and fallen in love with someone else, and after he’d invited me to his wedding.

I didn’t go.

I purposefully attended a conference on the other side of the country so I wouldn’t be tempted to show up. When that did nothing to salve my heartbreak, I took myself off to Europe last-minute to board a whistle-stop bus trip―fourteen days, a dozen destinations. That’s how I met Cat. From day one, we hung out as a foursome with Dani from Montreal and Lou from Vancouver. We also ‘adopted’ a young guy from Oregon named Craig.

The trip to Europe helped somewhat, especially meeting the girls. They all had their own stuff going on so that gave me something to focus on other than Paco. And the couple of times I did talk about him, Cat was a good listener.

When I got home, I was ready for a fresh start—or I thought I was. I threw myself back into my job and got the promotion I’d been working my ass off for. I went out dancing with my girlfriends and flirted with hot guys in clubs, and kissed a few. I even went on a date with a friend of a friend. He was cute—not really for me, but nice enough. At least I’d got back on the horse, so to speak. I’m not completely broken.

‘So, how did you end up booking the trip to Bali?’ Cat prods. My mind keeps wandering off. That’s been happening a lot this past week.

‘Oh … It was the night of Ali’s party. I came back to my condo and just started trawling the internet. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for―just something―and you know how those things go. Hours later, when I was seriously down the rabbit hole, I discovered the whole sabbatical thing. That led to the stuff about digital nomads and that’s when I found UROP.’

She nods.

‘I’m running away,’ I say, wallowing. That’s been happening a lot in the past week too.

‘Hmm, not necessarily. Think of it as running to something. You’re getting a fresh perspective on everyday life, having a break.’

‘But wasn’t I doing that in Europe?’

‘I don’t think a coach trip is the same thing as a sabbatical. It was pretty full-on,’ she says, her face scrunched up.

‘Mmm, true. Still …’

‘Look, when we met, I had run away. Remember, I was the “love fugitive”?’ Her eyes widen as she makes fun of herself and I chuckle softly. Compared with my self-imposed heartbreak, Lou being on the verge of divorce, and Dani’s shitty best friend eloping to Mexico without her, Cat’s love fugitive status was practically comic. She’d slept with her roommate, not knowing he was in love with her, then ran off to Europe to escape.

‘What you’re doing,’ Cat continues, ‘it’s about figuring out what you want from life. Isn’t it?’

‘That’s what I’m hoping. And you’re right about Europe. It was mostly go, go, go and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking … I mean, I know we talked about Paco a bit, but mostly I was pretending that everything was fine. I shopped, drank a lot of wine, and there was the fling with Marc.’ Marc was a hot French winemaker and an overnight stay at his cottage had been a welcomed distraction.

‘Exactly. And with this UROP place, you’ll be there the whole time, right?’

‘I think so. I might do some short trips within Indonesia, but mostly I’ll be staying put.’

‘See? Think of how much time you’ll have to just be. You don’t have to rush, you don’t have to work. You’ll just be a digital nomad, whatever the fuck that is.’

I laugh. ‘Actually, I won’t even be one of those. They’re people who live anywhere they want because they can work remotely. I’m going to UROP because of the co-living part―so I won’t be alone. I mean, I’ll be on my own, but not alone, you know?’

‘Right, makes sense.’ I’m sure she’s just being kind. I’m going to have to practise my spiel again before tomorrow, omitting―of course―the main reason I’m going to Bali. I doubt Tina will be sympathetic to me abandoning my life to mend my broken heart. She’ll just harp on about how reckless I’ve been getting myself into this predicament in the first place.

‘So, when do you go?’ Cat asks.

‘I leave in a week. It took some major ass-kissing to get my boss to agree. I’ve only been in my role six months, but I sold it as a “long-term investment in Jaelee” sort of thing.’

‘You PR-ed it.’

‘I guess I did. And I promised that if anything super important comes up, she can call me.’

‘Oh,’ she says, cringing.

‘What? You think that was a mistake?’

‘Hard to know. What constitutes a PR emergency?’

My stomach starts churning. Dammit, have I screwed this up too? ‘So, you think I shouldn’t make myself available?’

‘Jae, I’m sure it will be fine.’ I bite my top lip again, suddenly doubtful. ‘Hey!’ My eyes snap back to Cat’s. ‘Now listen,’ she says, laying on her schoolteacher voice.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I say, half teasing her.

‘This will be good for you, Jae. This isn’t a whirlwind trip around Europe, spending up a storm on clothes you don’t need.’ Ouch, that stings a little. ‘This is you in one place, disconnected—well, mostly—and sorting stuff out. Where’s the Jaelee who found UROP and booked this trip? Where’s that girl?’

‘She disappeared as soon as the confirmation email arrived.’

‘Well, bloody well find her. You’re amazing, Jae and this trip will be brilliant. All right?’

‘You’re pretty good at pep talks, you know?’

‘Of course, I am. It’s at least half my job.’ Cat teaches high school. ‘Plus, I owe you one. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have Jean-Luc.’ She’s right. On our trip to Europe last year, the man I stopped on the street in Paris turned out to be Cat’s long-lost love from her teens. ‘And I don’t just mean because you accosted him—’

I blink at her. ‘Accosted? That’s a bit of an overstatement. I simply asked if he could recommend someplace to go on our only night out in Paris.’

She waves off my protestation with a scoffing laugh. ‘Hardly, but I’m not talking about that. I mean how I nearly fucked things up. You and the girls—I owe you big time for getting me to see what an idiot I was―and for helping me get back to Paris.’

‘Okay, I’ll give you that. Anyway, thank you―for listening and for not thinking I’m making the biggest mistake of my life—again.’

‘You’re not. We’re only young—well, reasonably young, anyway—and I’m sure our biggest mistakes are ahead of us.’

‘That’s comforting,’ I say, laying on the sarcasm.

She laughs and it turns into a yawn. ‘Sorry, Jae, I’ve gotta go. I need to be up early. Jean-Luc’s arriving in the morning.’

‘Oh, that’s right. Say hi from me.’

‘Will do.’

‘And I’ll send you a postcard from Bali.’

She smiles sleepily. ‘Night, Jae.’

‘Goodnight, Cat.’

I drop my phone into my lap and stare out the window at the white sand and aquamarine water, gentle rows of waves lapping at the shore. Cat’s question loops around on replay. Where’s the Jaelee who found UROP and booked this trip?

Great question, Cat. I’d better fricking find her―and soon.