In the years since that first letter came, postmarked new delhi and written on pale lavender Claridge’s Hotel stationery, I have begun this story a hundred times, and each time I was afraid. We are entering winter now, much like the one, years ago, when I left my house and a dead relationship behind in the suburbs to stay at a friend’s brick row house on a seedy street in the city, a bleak neighborhood of boarded-up ramshackle buildings, crack heads, and brown kids on roller skates. We called it Orchard House—a home for transient friends, broken hearts, and boozy evenings. Sooty, drafty, with creaking wooden floors and cigarette burns on the furniture, it was a place for great passions.
For a while that December, people came night and day, girls calling Tim on the phone, itinerant buddies bunking upstairs in rooms thick with dust and stale smoke. He had bought the house cheap from a couple who gave up on the block. Tim weeded the small patio out back, put in bricks, and planted tomatoes, basil, and rosemary, which, in wonder, I watched shoot up into city life. Gallery posters picked up in Italy, along with black-and-white blowups of grim scenes of poverty, were hung on the walls next to photos of dreamy girlfriends, all taken by his journalist colleagues and friends. Tim couldn’t throw anything away; books were piled up on tables and desks, under his bed, and on bathroom shelves. He saved postcards, the sillier the better, and stuck them to the refrigerator, on mirrors, on the cupboards.
Any occasion was worth a party. For his big dinners, he walked several blocks to the farmer’s market. There he stocked up on arugula, fennel, red lettuce, and shrimp or swordfish. He would cook up a huge pot of Cajun gumbo stew laced with so much Tabasco sauce, it burned the tongue. He was a dilettante cook, an improviser, who in a snap could create a dish out of nothing. He made it look simple, but he literally sweated out that stew, mopping his face and neck as he chopped onions and garlic, stirred the pot, tossed the salad, mixed drinks, and answered the buzzing doorbell. I used to watch him with envy on those nights, his curly hair matted, his shirt soaked, moving with ease from one guest to another, warming up the crowd, sometimes picking up his guitar and strumming a few chords. I marveled at how he spotted the overflowing ashtray, the empty wineglass, or the lone guest in a corner. I thought he would make a great wife.
Many evenings he was out late. There was nothing for me but the empty night with constant replays of my breakup of weeks earlier. Again and again, I rememebered the winter chill in that rambling house in the suburbs as, over and over, I recalled the last words I said before I picked up my coat and slammed the back door, got into my car, and drove into the city to Tim’splace. It was a cycle familiar to me: pursuit and ardor followed by domesticity, routine, sexual indifference, and the end. We unraveled slowly, going round in seemingly endless circles. By the time I walked out that evening in December 1985 with all the flourishes, tears, and drama the moment demanded, that relationship had been dying for a long time, and I had already fallen for someone else but could not admit it to anyone, not even to myself.
The routine of the workweek gave me only a semblance of ordinary life. I went through the motions, the mindless tasks, getting dressed in jeans, pinstriped shirt, V-neck sweater; picking up the papers thrown on the dining room floor, sorting out the sections, reading them front to back; no food, but cups of strong coffee. By ten o’clock I was bundled up in an old charcoal-gray overcoat and trundling down to work, passing a grubby bodega, a couple of old hardware stores, a twenty-four-hour takeout diner reeking of onions and burned grease, and homeless beggars wrapped in burlap rags, huddling for heat on steam grates. This part of town was a ruin, rusting away. I walked looking at the ground, the strap of my leather bag weighing my shoulder down, hands balled up in my coat pockets.
Thirty minutes it took me to arrive at the brass and glass doors of the newspaper, a 1920s gray and white tower with marble stairways, brass bannisters, and the smell shared by newspapers the world around: ink, cigarette smoke, newsprint. Up on three, the newsroom was a sprawl of battered desks, scuffed floors, and fiberglass-enclosed cubbyholes. The Foreign desk, where I was an editor, was jammed into the northeast corner of the newsroom. We sat elbow to elbow at a cluster of six desks set side by side in two rows, banging our chairs, overhearing each other’s phone conversations, catching dribbles of gossip. I had the far-corner desk, where I could prop up my feet on a windowsill and get a glimmer of sky out a dingy window. Most of the time I was busy, reading and editing copy, empty coffee cups stacking up on my desk.
In those days the Foreign Desk had an aura. We had only six correspondents to cover the wars, revolutions, and coups of the mid-1980s: the carnage of civil war in Beirut, where the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks ratcheted up round-the-clock mayhem; New Delhi, where Sikh guards assassinated Indira Gandhi, her bullet-ridden body bleeding out in her garden; Johannesburg, where the tragedy of racial hatred was played out in violence day after day.
Our reporters rode motorcycles and camels, let their hair grow long and marriages fail, drank heavily, and wandered off into the sub-Saharan deserts to tribal villages and remote refugee camps under siege. We kept a long list of national and metro reporters who wanted to grab the handful of overseas assignments, the plum jobs. They would come over to the Desk and sidle up to the foreign editor, pitching their ideas, offering to go anywhere in the world, inflating their credentials (three languages, world travel, even a license in scuba diving).
We played up the romance of the job, tacking up on our bulletin board the postcards, souvenirs, and goofy snapshots of our correspondents fooling around, in baseball caps, khaki vests, sunglasses, arms manfully crossed on their chests as they lounged in swimming trunks against aqua blue seas and palm trees. Deskbound, wan under the newsroom’s fluorescent lighting, we thought ourselves part of the action out there in the field, imagined ourselves inside the postcards as we sat eating our bland lunches of Cobb salads and tuna sandwiches. It was on the Foreign Desk that my longing for far places came out of nowhere. I was terrified of flying and hadn’t crossed any sea or land in the air for years. But the stories out of Damascus, Eritrea and Mombassa, Goa and Cairo, reminded me of my childhood in hot countries, in the Caribbean, and traveling from Puerto Rico to Havana to Mexico City, where my father studied medicine. They reminded me too of my mother, slowly turning the pages of a copy of the National Geographic, pointing at the places that one day she would visit.
Our days on the desk were punctuated by crises and disasters, occasional bombings. We straggled into the quiet mornings, logged on to and scrolled through the wires, looking out for Associated Press bulletins from godforsaken places such as Bhopal, a city in central India where a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked clouds of toxic gas and chemicals and thousands died. The desk went into high gear immediately. In a flash the desk clerk had tracked down our man in New Delhi and figured out how quickly he could travel the four hundred and sixty-four miles south to Bhopal. The question of how he would file his copy from a devastated area—by telephone or telex—in time to meet the newspaper’s deadline was quickly settled. With bad phone connections and downed lines, it was never easy to report out of India. Bhopal took days.
Aside from t...