Letter to a Stranger: Windhoek, Namibia
by Mary Margaret Alvarado
“You came up behind me and picked me right off the ground, one man on each side. That stunned me for a moment. I hadn’t known I was so movable.”
This letter originally appeared in Off Assignment’s “Letter to a Stranger” series.
I was walking specifically where I’d been told not to walk — far from the shebeen where someone said Jesus lived, away from the low streams of sewage, out of sight of the houses that were still organized in the murderous grid of apartheid: by tribe first, then family.
This was in Windhoek, Namibia, nine years after independence. I was in the pale green sundress that I wore all the time and my purse was a plastic bag. I felt you before I heard you. You were two men who acted like one. You arrived as a force, a rearrangement in the air. When you started walking faster, I did too, forgetting entirely the advice of a junior high hall monitor re: empty parking lots — splay your keys between your knuckles (he showed us, cheerfully); walk with your hand in a fist. And forgetting entirely the advice of a high school biology teacher re: rape — act insane; yell, “I have AIDS”; foam at the mouth; pull at your hair; or better yet, wet yourself.
My girlfriends at CU-Boulder were given rape whistles at orientation. When I visited them, I showered with a whistle, because everybody did. Not long after that I wrote a story at my own college. “When I start to name the names, I get so tired,” it began. Mostly it happened while drunk, the boys locking doors behind them. But sometimes a girl would be taken from the place where she’d been.
You picked me up. You came up behind me and picked me right off the ground, one man on each side. That stunned me for a moment. I hadn’t known I was so movable. You held my arms back, but the sum total posture was not violent: it was like you had made me a chair. Briefly, I hoped that were so. This was a game, and here was my seat. But then how could you have laughed like you did? I turned my head to one of you. You were not Herero. You were not Afrikaaners. You were not German or San. Maybe you were Nama? You looked a little older than me. You looked like soccer players, and one of you wore sandals with Adidas stripes that reminded me of Mike Archuleta and high school. In a different context, I would have called you cute.
“Don’t be such a jerk,” I said. This was not an impressive thing to say. You carried me further. You were laughing, and laughing at me. You had plans to take me somewhere, but first we had to go down that hill and then we began to turn. My brain broke like kindling. Nope, I thought. You don’t get to pick me up off of the ground and take me wherever you want.
The term for what I became is temporarily insane. I don’t remember what I did or said, but I remember that I started to fight you, the first man I’d turned too, with your pretty eyes. Did I pinch? Did I bite? Did I make a feral sound? It went on. Then you dropped me, which only made me madder. You looked at me like I’d broken our pact. I started sprinting after you, the exact wrong way. And screaming something, but what? You started to run. And then you dropped my bag.
I hauled up the hill, waved down the first car I saw and jumped in, no questions.
The strangest thing was that I’d dreamt it all before. In my dream it was a man for whom I used to babysit and his brother. They said I wouldn’t be going home that night and they picked me up off the ground. Same way, same chair, same hold on my arms. And they laughed too. It was recurring, my dream, and it was always so clear. So when the father called to ask me to babysit, I said no. The time after that, I said no again.
Because I’d been hitchhiking for several months, and had published an article extolling the virtues of getting around that way, a stranger had mailed me a book. It was called The Gift of Fear, which wasn’t a gift I wanted. I aspired to be like the fox, “who makes more tracks than necessary / some in the wrong direction.”
My own story ends with more of the same. I kept cutting across open fields. But a better ending turns, like this: “and having been warned in a dream not to return, they went home by another way.”
Mary Margaret Alvarado
is the author of Hey Folly (Dos Madres). Her work has appeared recently in The Boston Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Rumpus, Wag’s Revue and on poetryfoundation.org.
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