LETTER TO A STRANGER
In 2013, Off Assignment began asking writers a simple question: "Who haunts you?" They responded in droves. They wrote letters.
The man’s image showed up on walls, windshields, doors, t-shirts, pendants: on any surface against which belief could be affirmed. I have set the postcard of him above my desk. The photograph is of Chiekh Amadou Bamba, a Sufi mystic, and you consider yourself his follower. “I am a Muslim only because of him,” you told me.
We lived in mud huts without running water or electricity, just like our host families. We bathed in water boiled for us each morning by our host families. We ate meals with, and prepared by, our host families. At this, you scowled and shook your head.
They say that after a rain, a glassy surface of water settles over Bolivia’s salt flats, converting the land into the world’s largest mirror. I imagine the brujas, with their black braids and bowler hats, have something to do with this, holding a looking glass to the world. It takes a courage I didn’t have to gaze into it.
Going to Antarctica seemed like a dereliction of duty, or an attempt at escape. Nonetheless the tickets had been bought months before. Staying would not bring him back.
I’m seventeen, not old enough to vote, but I campaign for men who drink highballs, who call me “little lady” and pat me on the head, saying, “You better watch out for this one. She’s after your job.”
I heard your voice before I saw you. You didn’t ask me if I was OK. You just began a conversation, as if we had been talking for a long time. You took my daughter’s hand, and you told me the entrance to Ek Balam’s temple was just a few steps away.
Pamuk, to his credit, understood the rarity of his good fortune and set out to do something purposeful with it. After collecting his loot, he conceived of a fictional project that actually, for once, merited the designation of “novel,” in the adjectival sense of the word, as something had never been tried before.
Still, even as early motherhood plunged me into full-body, full-time fear, I wanted my baby to know the wild openness of travel: bus rides deep into the mountains, a tiny village down a dirt road, turkey calls, coffee and beer at shared tables with strangers.
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.
“She is precious,” I say. “Do you have any other children?” Normally, this would be an innocuous question. Here, in these close, human-crammed camps of families fleeing unspeakable horrors, it’s the kind of query that unlocks a story.
Phnom Penh is built on people. Relationships, memory, loyalty—these are the currencies of Cambodia. Most visitors to the Kingdom will come home and tell of “the people.” Living in Phnom Penh, especially as a barang, or expat/foreigner, became a daily maze of friendships, obligations, and favors.
I watched silhouetted monkeys jump between ornate rooftops as white flames were strung out along the river like eerie street lamps. Men with long sticks stoked these fires, imploring them to burn hotter.
When the lot of you looked at me in the pub, aggressive in your appraisal, I felt delivered, full of purpose. This trip was an experiment in my new late-thirties life, one where I’d left behind my partner of ten years and our city of Chicago.
Loneliness became a familiar friend until you turned up. On first sight, despite how trippy you looked (were you a mystic or a traffic cone? I couldn’t tell), I knew you were a kindred spirit.
I have to admit, for a duck, you looked ordinary to me at first. But what you were doing wasn’t ordinary: you were swimming up to a mirror and gazing at yourself, as if you’d locked eyes with something wonderful.
You were trying to put your chin on my lap but you were still too small, kid, so you just smiled and asked me for a peso—our first conversation that I keep coming back to.
In America certain women can wander a little longer, particularly when the combination of their education and adventurous personality is buffeted by the privilege of money or connections.
"DEAREST STEFIE, It is night, and I am writing to you by the light of an oil lamp in Na village—which has to be one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been. We arrived here yesterday afternoon, via a cave about 6 kilometers from the Hinboun River. You almost have to see this valley to believe it..."
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"...And writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."