LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE GUY WHO GAVE ME PIRATE BOOTY IN HONDURAS
BY ALLA GONOPOLSKY
“Just don’t write about me!” you said, minutes after we met.
A purely playful request, as what little I knew about you then would fail to captivate readers: Tall, Cute Guy Spotted At Coffee Shop In Roatán, Honduras. The aforementioned male had towered over my MacBook and asked, with genuine interest, what was I working on? A book proposal, I said. I was a travel writer, or aspired to be.
I would get exactly zero writing done in your presence.
When I asked what brought you to the island of Roatán—aside from every view being a stock photo of tropical paradise—you showed me photos I’d never seen before. A small deep sea submarine, painted a cheerful yellow, its portholes like cartoon eyes.
It’s a one-of-a-kind sub, you explained, that aids in marine research and takes curious, non-claustrophobic civilians to record-setting depths. Yesterday you had plummeted (purposely) to 1,500 feet and waited for hours in cramped darkness with the sub’s creator and pilot, hoping to spot a giant six-gill shark and other elusive creatures that only inhabit the deep. Your camera roll and still palpable excitement confirmed that it was worth the wait.
I’ll admit that I barely noticed the scar on your shaved head. I was too distracted by your stories, or perhaps by the crush I was developing. My friend noticed it, though. Her resolve to work quietly in the corner had weakened at the mention of six-gill sharks and your Jules Vernean adventure.
“How’d you get the scar?” she asked. When you answered, my heart sank deeper than your submarine.
Four years ago, a baseball-sized tumor appeared in your brain. It was removed in a ten-hour surgery fit for a medical drama: the patient stays awake and chats so that doctors don’t damage his speech function while extracting nearly ten percent of his brain.
After surgery you began a long course of chemo. A grad student at MIT at the time, a self-described “dork” obsessed with data and technology, you wanted to learn everything you could about your tumor. So, naturally, you had it genetically sequenced, scanned, 3-D printed, and even molded into Christmas ornaments for family and friends. You gave a TED talk about the ordeal, using your own experience to advocate for open-sourcing patient data and a better system of sharing our medical records—our cellfies—across the global research community to accelerate learning and cures.
When it comes to attraction, I’d always described my type as simply smart and funny. You were smart-and-funny on steroids. But there was nothing funny about what you said next.
After years of clean scans, a routine check-up showed a nasty glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumor. The cancer had returned. You needed another risky surgery, and even if it went well, glioblastomas are incurable. So you called up your closest friends and a week later you were here together in Roatán, ticking off adventures on your bucket list. The deep-diving sub was one.
There are few times in my life when I can recall feeling more acutely that life is so royally un-fucking-fair. This remarkable guy sitting in front of me did not look or act sick, and even when his mouth wasn’t smiling, his eyes were. My mind seemed unwilling to accept the facts.
“So yeah, the surgery is next week,” you said. “I don’t know how much time I have left, but I’d rather spend it happy and enjoying every moment I can.”
Is the bigger tragedy that people get cancer, I wondered, or that more people can’t be happy while perfectly healthy? Why do we need the threat of death to remind us to cherish life?
You needed no reminders. Next on your Honduran bucket list? Hunting for pirate treasure. Today, people associate the Bay Islands, Roatán being the largest, with world-class scuba diving and beaches that rival Hawaii’s. But you taught me about their pirate-filled past. In the 1700’s, Roatán was a safe haven for sea robbers in search of a hideout, both for themselves and their pillaged gold. It’s rumored that treasure is still buried around these parts. So you and your friends hired a local guy with a boat to explore a nearby uninhabited island, armed with machetes and metal detectors.
Did my friend and I want to join the expedition? You were sweet enough to ask. I was unbelievably tempted but declined because I wanted you and your friends to have your bonding time. I did tell you some awful pirate jokes, though. What’s a pirate’s favorite sweater? ARRR-gyle!
We kept running into each other around town. Accidentally, at first. Then, intentionally. Our groups met up for dancing at Frank’s, a beachfront bar with $1 tequila shots and the best reggaeton DJs in town.
You and I outlasted everyone on the dance floor.
The next morning, you went off on your treasure hunt while I scoured for the best dive school to start my open water training. One week into a two-month stay on Roatán and I had already caught the diving bug.
You messaged me with news of pirate booty. After several amusing puns exchanged about assorted booty and who should bring their booty over where, I knew I’d be crazy to turn down the best kind of “booty call” a girl could get:
“Want to pick out some pirate glass for yourself?” you texted.
You had not returned rich, but not empty-handed, either. The loot included a few 18th century coins, some rusty spikes presumed to be old ship parts, and many interesting fragments of glass, metal and rock. I chose a few small pieces that could double as meaningful mementos and easy travel companions.
On your last night in Roatán, we sat outside gazing at stars. You must have felt fear and hope in nearly equal measure, though you tried to conceal the former. I kept searching for words of wisdom, something that didn’t sound like a useless cliché. Words failed. I strummed “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles on my ukulele instead.
“How old are you?” you kept asking when we first met. I kept deflecting until you played the cancer card. “Come on, it can’t be that bad. And I know bad…” (This card also proved handy in convincing your tired friends to take vodka shots.)
Okay, six years older isn’t exactly cougar territory, but your nice round thirty made me feel old. What can I say? Girls get weird about their age after 30.
You would make it to 31. You died the day before my birthday. The sad news wouldn’t reach me until a week later, but on that day I cried several times for no apparent reason. An overreaction to turning another year older, I figured. Another year of dead-end dating and dwindling fertility.
Was an island fling on your bucket list? I’ll never know. And anyway, calling this thing a fling feels cheap. But calling it anything more would be hyperbole.
A week after you left Roatán, you went into brain surgery and spent some nail-biting days in the ICU. Your friend was kind enough to send me updates while you recovered.
A few months later, you reached out to thank me for the good luck note I sent you just before your surgery. “You are such a lovely person and I hope you know that,” you wrote.
“Till the next time we end up in the same place.”
Those would be your last words to me. I wish so much that we could have that next time. But mostly I just wish you had more time.
I replied too casually, trying to keep the mood light and breezy, not wanting to add any more heaviness to your life. “I’m so glad you’re okay!” I wrote. “Takes one to know one, fellow lovely person. Keep searching for pirate booty.”
That’s right. My last words to you were pirate booty. Not my most poetic moment, but it’s because I never believed you would die.
What I meant to say was, thank you. For sweeping into my life like a cool Caribbean breeze and reminding me what a privilege it is to keep aging. And what a treasure to meet people who seem to make time stop.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alla Gonopolsky is a freelance writer and brand strategist whose work has appeared in HuffPost, Campaign Magazine, and various Medium publications. A self-proclaimed binge traveler, Alla spends more than half the year abroad doing some combination of writing, scuba diving, and yoga. Her current temporary home is Boston, which sounds infinitely less exotic than her previous home in the Greek islands. You can find her on Instagram.
Photographs by Alla Gonopolsky