You’re in a city called Baños, which is the Spanish word for bathroom. You didn’t know much about Ecuador until you started researching the trip, and even now that you’re here, you don’t know if you can tell anybody anything about it. Instead of going out and exploring, getting your bearings, you spend most of your first night there constructing a map of the city with pictures you’ve printed out from a Google image search.
Baños seems, despite its name, like a very nice place. You’ve printed so many pictures from Google that when you lay them all out on your hotel bed, you already feel as though you’ve been there. You can pretty much call it a day. There’s a park and a cathedral—the one with the sculpture of the Virgen de Agua Santa, the statue that gives the city its name. There are some mountains, and some more mountains, and oh look, some more mountains. One of these mountains is The Mountain, your eventual destination, like you’re Frodo on your way to Mount Doom. You wish Samwise was there with you—Samwise meaning your sister. In fact, you are here because you promised your sister that you’d eventually come here.
A fact you read recently: twins have been known to interact with one another in the womb. In one study, fourteen weeks into the gestational period, twins were observed reaching out for one another. Researchers found that at eighteen weeks, twins often reached out for one another more than they touched their own bodies.
You start to fall asleep, tired from the weight of just being there. You feel the pure movie-music-swelling significance of it. In your mind’s eye you can see a waterfall, and you swear to yourself that even though it’s nighttime you see it cascading down the mountain, the water rushing like exaggerated tears in an anime cartoon.
But you can’t sleep. You venture outside your hotel and decide to enter the absolute closest bar you can find. It was Tolkien who said that it was dangerous business just walking outside your front door, wasn’t it?
At this bar, you spot a girl who looks lonely, but in that vaguely empowered way, a confident and self-imposed loneliness. You can tell she’s American by the way she tries arduously not to give away her status as a stranger in a strange land. You introduce yourself.
“Hey,” she says, “it’s always nice to see another American.” She pauses, screws up her face. “I don’t mean that in a nationalistic way. It’s actually one of my favorite things about traveling to foreign countries.”
You ask, “Why’s that?”
She considers this for a few seconds before landing on, “I don’t know.”
“I think I get it,” you tell her.
She always travels alone, she says. Always. She says that’s how traveling should be. She says, Why travel if you don’t want to learn about yourself?
You laugh, uncertain. The uncertainty comes from asking yourself if you are really there to learn about yourself. You’re there to do a particular thing.
You ask her, “Do you know about The Swing?”
“Of course,” she says. “Is that why you’re here?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“I don’t know.”
There is a large gap in the conversation, during which the two of you look around the bar. Unspoken small talk flutters through the air, like embers from a bonfire on a windy night. There’s something about this girl—you want her to keep talking, want her to know that you are here and that you are listening.
You say, “I’m Alex, by the way.”
She laughs. “Cory.”
“My sister’s name is Skyler.”
You tell Cory the story of how your mom gave both you and your sister names before she even found out about the sexes of her babies, so that all the pressure would be off. You tell her that you spent a good portion of your formative years being jealous of Skyler, just because of her name, the distinctiveness of it, the fact that it has the word “sky” in it, which of course became the shortened version of her name, what her friends and family would call her.
Cory looks down at her glass and swirls it around. The ice clinks up against the side of it. “So the swing,” she says. “You want to do it? I mean, go together.”
“Yes,” you tell her.
The next day you spend hours walking around the city centre with Cory. The flatness of the city takes you by surprise. You and Cory spend most of your time asking each other what you should do next. You pass at least half a dozen storefronts selling melcocha, this taffy that’s made from pure sugar cane, and while the syrupy smell is almost enough to get you to stop and buy some, it’s only when you see a guy take a large cricket-bat-sized stick of the stuff and whack it against the store’s doorframe that you’re compelled to try it. Even the many summers spent at Seaside Heights couldn’t get Skyler to like salt-water taffy, but you have a feeling that Skyler would be too taken with the sight of this dude wielding a sword of taffy, striking it against every surface in order to forge it, to say no.
You realize that everything looks different here, and you wonder if Cory isn’t a part of that. She reminds you of Skyler (which is perhaps vaguely narcissistic, given that you were twins). Everything here in Baños is somehow simpler, more beautiful, more colorful, more peaceful, but also more desolate—basically how you see Skyler: you, but amplified in all the most interesting ways.
You ask Cory about her life as a way to avoid talking about your own. You ask her about her family and friends and the books she loves and the movies she’s seen and her favorite incarnation of James Bond and whether or not she gives a shit about James Bond at all and her favorite foods and her favorite smell and if she thinks people would realize their own masochism if there wasn’t a word for it and what her answer to the mind/body problem is and if she “gets” abstract art and if she’s into watching or playing sports and the other places she’s been or where she’s going. Somewhere along the line, you become less interested in the answers and more interested in hearing her give them—the white noise of it.
You walk past the cathedral with the sculpture of the Virgen de Agua Santa.
“The Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water must be the most preposterously religious name for a church I’ve ever heard,” Cory says. “Someone’s overcompensating.”
You go inside the church and don’t feel anything. Or is that you feel everything all at once? The color black is not the absence of color but the appearance of all the colors at the same time.
Nearly a quarter of all twins develop facing one another, so that each twin becomes a mirror of the other.
Really, you’re in Baños because your mom once told you a story about it. You and Skyler couldn’t sleep one night. Your mom asks, You guys ever heard of a place called Ecuador? It’s a beautiful country in South America. Somewhere near the center of this country lies a city called Baños—the full name of which is Baños de Agua Santa, which literally means Bath of the Holy Water, so named because it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared near a waterfall there. Now, whether you believe that or not, the place is still pretty amazing. I don’t believe that, Skyler says. Me either, you say. Your mom shrugs, says, I don’t know if I do either, but it’s still kind of cool, no? You and your sister look back and forth between one another and come to some kind of agreement that, yes, it is still kind of cool. So, your mom continues, towards the outskirts of this city is a trail that leads to—get ready for this—a treehouse. Skyler says, A treehouse? You mean like the one in the Roberts’ backyard? Yes, your mom says, just like the one in the Roberts’ backyard, but a lot taller. This treehouse, it overlooks a humungous canyon. But here’s the best part: attached to this treehouse is a swing, and when you’re swinging on it, you’re swinging right over this humongous canyon, this abyss that just keeps going down and down and down. Some people call it The Swing at the End of the World.
The Swing at the End of the World. Is there any string of words in the English language that has more potential to inspire both paralyzing fear and twitchy excitement in the hearts of two sheltered suburban kids? You and Skyler held onto that string of words, started using the idea of it as your own private joke, your own version of “you only live once.” Got a biology test on Monday, but I think I might go to this party; fuck it—Swing at the End of the World, right? Sometimes you would use it as a faux-suicidal bon mot: failed that Biology test, where’s the Swing at the End of the World?
The place became more than an idea, though, something more than a dream even. You and you sister started talking about The Swing in the same breath as life-goals like school and employment and families and making a shit-ton of money playing music. This treehouse in the middle of the woods in South America became a kind of Mecca and you and your sister all but rearrange the beds in your shared bedroom to face where Ecuador might be.
You’re in Baños because your sister can’t be.
After emerging from the womb, twins have been known to develop their own language.
In order to get to the swing, you have to hike for three hours, giving you ample time to turn back around and say forget the whole thing. Cory says something about the Bellavista Cloud Forest Viewpoint and, goddamn, the images that start to surface in your mind are so beautiful that it’s almost enough to just picture them for a while and call it a day. Bellavista Cloud Forest—isn’t that where Lando Calrissian is from? Only in a place like Ecuador could you find a cloud forest. Even Cory says, “Doesn’t Bellavista Cloud forest sound kind of like a euphemism for heaven? Like, yeah, my grandma passed away last year, and now she’s in the Bellavista Cloud Forest.” It’s hard not to think of Skyler.
When you get there, it’s everything and nothing like what you have imagined. Thousands of Google image searches can’t prepare you for the sight of it. There really is a treehouse and that treehouse really does overlook a gigantic chasm in the earth and it really does have a swing attached to it that sways right over this hole in the world.
You and Cory are shocked to find that there are only three other people there—a mother, a father, and their young daughter. It seems like it would be a tourist spot for sure, an adrenaline junkie’s version of the Blarney stone. You actually smile when you see the lack of other people. You look over at Cory and see that she too is smiling, and you wonder if it’s not for the same reason. The young daughter is asking her parents if she can take a swing and the mother is shaking her head adamantly, but you can tell she’s being swayed by her daughter’s excitement. She has the same look on her face as Skyler had on hers the first time she heard about The Swing. The father is laughing. Cory puts her lips real close to your ear and says, “Gosh, you know, I don’t know if I would let my kid go on that thing.” You can still smell the sweet, honeyed tang of the melcocha on her breath, the scent at once exuberant and melancholic.
While the family tosses the idea back and forth, your eyes drift upward, following the rickety staircase that leads up to the house. It’s just this tiny, white house. It almost looks like something you’d see on the back of a truck with a WIDE LOAD banner plastered on it. There is actually a black-and-yellow sign on the back of the house that reads CASA DEL ARBOL. The sight of the house almost distracts you from everything else surrounding it, until Cory yanks on your arm and points to the mountain. Holy shit, Cory says. And yes, you think, it really does look like some Holy Shit. You’re amazed at how accurate the phrase “Cloud Forest” actually is. Sure, there’s the enormous mountain, the huge, dark-green slope of it and the ashen peak—which definitely looks volcanic, but maybe that’s just because that’s where you are on the Fuck This scale. But it’s the clouds that get you. They’re somehow both ominous and inviting. It’s divine, definitely, but it feels like less heaven and more like a different planet entirely.
You’re too busy getting lost in the clouds and the slope of Mount Tungurahua to notice that the young daughter has gotten onto the swing. This girl, this little girl, in this pink puffy jacket, she’s sitting there on a flimsy swing right on the edge of an enormous canyon, trying not to look down, but just too excited not to. There’s a Nietzsche quote in there somewhere. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed. Pretty soon you have to anchor yourself to the ground. Cory asks, “Are you okay?” She sits next to you on the ground and you look up and see that the girl on the swing has stopped her build-up and is now looking at you with some combination of “really, dude?” and “well, if this grown-ass woman is that messed up over it, then what am I supposed to do?”
You tell Cory about Skyler, about the story, about the myth of The Swing. You also tell her about how you couldn’t go back to school after Skyler died and about how you’ve all but emptied out your bank account for this one trip to Ecuador to see a treehouse and a swing. You tell her about something you read on the Internet that said if one twin dies, then the life expectancy of the other twin drops noticeably. You tell her that the last words Skyler said to you were “Swing at the End of the World, right?” and how for her that meant that she was ready and how for you that meant that you were not.
“Fuck,” Cory says, and the expletive is enough to make you feel temporarily better. She says, “I’m going to tell you something that’s either going to come off as a one-up or a consolation. Here goes: my older brother was in the Army. He was a part of the initial deployment to Iraq and I remember in the buildup to his leaving he kept saying something about how the world was so much bigger than we realized. He said it, like, in a way that sounded exciting. He was genuinely excited to be doing something somewhere else. As these things tend to go, he came back not quite right. He came back and he just sort of started living in his head all the time, which I guess is the great irony, right? That he was so excited to go out and see how big the world really was and came back and the world became as small as it could possibly be.”
Cory then says, “I think I know what you’re feeling,” which is a good thing, because you absolutely do not know what you’re feeling. Mostly dizziness. Dizziness from being so high up on this mountain, sure, but also from the way Cory talks, the way her fevered rambling makes her sometimes lofty statements seem like uncertainties.
You sit there looking at the cliff, at the girl in the puffy pink jacket who’s about to swing over it and then you look at Cory. Together you both watch as the girl in the puffy pink jacket takes off.
You go there to watch this. You go there to listen to this brave little girl shriek with joy as she swings over a canyon that puts the Grand one in Arizona to shame. You go there because after this girl is done and after she rejoins her family at the base of the treehouse and after they all laugh and hug and salute you and Cory as they make their way back down the mountain, you’re up.