Robert Hirschfield reflects on the absence of words between two travelers and how that too can be a kind of presence.

WE COULD HAVE have had an interesting conversation. I am sure of it.

When you share a month of silence with someone, each of you sitting behind your own banged up tin bowl of sugar, something profound happens. Even at The Blue Sky Café in Calcutta, where backpackers go to eat and talk and meet other backpackers.

We arrived almost at the same time every morning.We were the first to arrive. The stubbornness of habit landed us at adjoining tables. High on our wall, MotherTeresa looked out at the empty street with her luminous prune face and her garland of marigolds our waiter draped around her before taking our order.

Yours was always the same: eggs sunny side up, a bowl of porridge, a cup of coffee. Mine: buttered toast and kali chai, as if preparing for abstemious monkhood.

If you are back in Japan now, with its earthquake and tsunami, and haunted by the crawl of radioactivity, you will not remember me. My memories of you are not triggered by the Fukushima disaster, but by the mystery of the ordinary. Will anything ever seem ordinary to you again? I must ask you that if our paths ever again cross in this life.

More than anything, I recall your wide, serious eyes gazing straight ahead at something. A bridge? A ledger? A line in a poem?

I never asked. Not knowing was somehow satisfying.

It was good not to indulge the traveler’s urge to fill solitude with facts. Facts I am sure I’d have forgotten by now.

What were your eyes looking at?

It was good not to indulge the traveler’s urge to fill solitude with facts. Facts I am sure I’d have forgotten by now.

I think we must have seen something in each other that guaranteed no danger was posed to our shy, contemplative sides by our sitting together.

“Not even a word? A hello?” My partner can’t believe it. “If it were two women, that would never happen.”

I laugh. What do I know about what two women would do?

I do know this: between us there was presence, space, a place that did not need words, that did not need anything but itself. An event without a story but for the one I am now polluting it with, because that’s what writers do.

Community Connection

What’s the most “intimate” experience you’ve ever had with a traveler you never actually met.

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