LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE GUY IN GUATEMALA WHO NEARLY UNTIED MY TONGUE
BY ALLA GONOPOLSKY
I sat alone but not lonely. Perched on the edge of a wide dock, dangling my bare feet over the clear water of Lake Atitlan. Strumming my wooden ukulele, its size made for travel, whilst staring at San Pedro volcano, its size made for staring. Could I feel any more like a carefree hippie, I wondered.
But then you gave me something to care about. You walked toward my end of the dock with assertive footsteps. Our eyes locked like two Lego bricks. You smiled at me and said “hey” and I couldn’t say “hey” back.
Not because your dirty-hot surfer vibe and dirty-blond manbun left me tongue-tied, but because my tongue had already been tied for three days. I was three days into a five-day silent retreat at Las Piramides, a prominent meditation center here in San Marcos.
If I’d been wearing one of those adorable mini chalkboards around my neck like people in movies wear when they take a vow of silence, perhaps I would scribble hello, handsome stranger along with a brief explanation. It’s not you, it’s my silent retreat. But nothing hung around my neck except the weary albatross of singlehood.
When you’ve been dating for the better part of two decades and still haven’t found your copilot, you can’t help but wonder if you missed him somehow. Did I fail to return a glance or not give someone a long enough chance? Was I trying too hard or not hard enough? What was I missing (aside from my voice)?
A local shaman would later assure me that the only way to miss a cosmic appointment from the universe is to worry about missing it. But telling a single gal at 35 not to worry is like telling a marathoner in second place at mile 25 not to hurry.
Is the universe annoying enough to schedule a soulmate meeting in the middle of a silent retreat? It does tend to summon me for jury duty during the worst times ever. So maybe.
I returned your smile in silence and quickly looked away. Perhaps this wasn’t an appointment from the universe but rather a test. I had come to Guatemala in search of clarity. To assess where my life should go next. To ease up on myself for not having all the answers. And to find more effortless enjoyment in my own company. To that end I went a bit extreme, within reason: a digital-and-diet-detoxing silent retreat, with training wheels—we could wander freely through the lakeside Mayan village and meditate almost anywhere. But freedom is often served with a side of temptation.
The temptation heated up as you sat down next to me, about one ukulele-length away. “It’s cool that you play,” you said, in an accent that was maybe British or perhaps Australian, but undoubtedly irresistible. I smiled again and tried to say thanks with my eyes. One more compliment, and I’d be ready to flunk this test by resuming usage of my siren voice (if you find my American accent even half as attractive, we’re in business). Whoever calculated that 70% of all communication is non-verbal failed to weigh the value of reciprocity. This lopsided half-verbal, half-mute flirting feels about as satisfying as steering a shopping cart with one screwy wheel that keeps veering left.
We stared in synched silence at the extinct volcano and the dormant fishermen floating patiently on what Aldous Huxley once dubbed the most beautiful lake in the world.
Was our attraction to each other, or simply to this magnetic body of water? My yoga teacher had pointed to it during class and, rather dramatically, dubbed it a manifestational vortex with the power to give you what you truly desired in life. If only I knew what—or who—I truly desired. I had stopped trusting my instincts about a hundred Tinder matches ago.
This enigmatic lake surrounded by volcanoes, some still active, seemed just as capable of awakening nightmares as granting wishes. The locals avoid crossing it at night. Their motorized lanchas (water taxis) stop operating at sundown.
“Have you heard the legend of why Lake Atitlan suddenly gets choppy around midday?” I would have asked you if I could. It was a tale I’d learned during trivia night at a lively bar nearby.
The lake was once home to two warring kingdoms. A princess from one kingdom fell in love with a prince from the enemy clan. Romeo and Juliet, Mayan edition. When their romance was discovered, it was, predictably, condemned on both sides. The two lovers continued to meet, predictably, in secret. And always on the lake. As they paddled out, its sprawling width and cavernous depth excelled at keeping secrets.
Until it didn’t. When their respective kings learned of the ongoing tryst, they sent warriors to break up the next canoodle sesh. (Canoe-dle.) But tragedy struck and the lovers both drowned. Now legend has it that their souls still live in the water. Each afternoon they surface to dance and make love, disturbing the smooth-as-glass Lake Atitlan of the morning with the frisky, white-capped waves of mid-day. Scientists offer a more logical explanation for these strong local Winds of Xocomil, but I still prefer Water Ghosts Having a Nooner.
Today it is well before noon on our dock. In the motionless clarity of the morning water reflecting two seated strangers—and perhaps with the mindful clarity of three days’ silence and meditation—I sense that you are not my appointment from the universe. You are simply a cute guy who wanted to rest his legs and gaze at a gorgeous lake at the same time I wanted to rest my voice and gaze inward at my life.
As if on cue, you suddenly got up and walked away. Not quickly, but decisively. Detached, like you’d had enough of the view. Or the company. My silence probably sounded a lot like disinterest. Or hell, equally likely, the attraction was all in my head. A few days without talking, texting or Netflix, and you start hallucinating social interactions like Tom Hanks with a volleyball.
If I could talk, I might have called after you. “Sorry I wasn’t more chatty. This lake kind of leaves me speechless.” And that, too, would be the truth.
Take away the noise, and what you’re left with isn’t actually silence. It’s appreciation. For the beauty around you. For the life you have. And for all the people in it—like the ones who flitter in for a mere moment and remind you to keep your heart open, even when your mouth is closed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alla Gonopolsky is a freelance writer and brand strategist whose work has appeared in HuffPost, Campaign Magazine, and various Medium publications.
She struggles to answer the most common question asked of travelers ("Where are you from?") after spending nearly equal stretches of time living in Texas, California, New York, and Belarus. Her current temporary home is Morocco, where she intends to finish writing a travel book or simply drink an alarming quantity of tea on rooftops. Find her at instagram.
Photographs by Alla Gonopolsky