Sirens of conflict had begun to wail, even before the expected Caller ID found fixation on the screen of Esperanza’s phone. As the despicable dust gradually settled across the globe, it was only natural for the process to be accompanied by a string of twists and turns relative to each survivor, Esperanza inclusive. Her landlord was never one to empathise with his tenants, notwithstanding their status as low-income earners or immigrant students. Esperanza’s hard-fought journey as an immigrant and a working student was all but over and someone needed his dues. Whether or not she had earned any money during the heat of the pandemic was none of her landlord’s concern.

He was coming for blood.

Tossing her phone to her haphazard bed, Esperanza slid down her wall, oblivious to the peels of paint and the scathing itch that came with her downward movement. Nothing in the world struck her as being potent enough to ease her pain. All she could ponder on was a newly-formed paradox that hit her on a different level – the possibility that life takes so much from people, who only want relatively little in return.

For the first time in almost four years, Esperanza’s overkill roadmap had hit a dead end. The last thing on her mind was reaching out to her friends for financial support or even worse, for advice. The circumstances were not even safe enough for her to pitch her tent in another abode for the last couple of weeks she had left in the university. Going ‘home’, which a few of her supposed friends had suggested, was a prospect that sickened her right from the very first time she set her feet in Cairo. More ambitiously, as she and an old friend knew, Cairo was a mere stopover, despite the fact that it was an indefinite one disguised as a four-year undergraduate programme. Said stopover was slowly reintroducing itself as her permanent reality and Esperanza was mere inches away from making peace with it.

Before arising to resume packing her suitcase – a stress-coping mechanism she had recently developed, her eyes stumbled upon an envelope on her adjacent polished stool. After buffering for a moment, she remembered: shortly before the tumultuous call from her landlord, a postman showed up at her door with a letter for her. She reluctantly reached for the envelope and unearthed its contents, caring less to know its source from the label on the envelope’s exterior.

Contrary to her expectations, Esperanza was dismantled by the first line.

Dear Esperanza,

Let it be known that I may or may not have been in Ibiza at the time of writing this. I may have been in Ibiza, near Ibiza or far away; it really does not matter. All that matters is your boundless imagination. Picture the city as vividly and cinematically as you can and hold on to it, like you held on to me before we were separated. Your imagination is all that matters, dear friend.

The plan was always to depart the shores of Tripoli for an unknown El Dorado somewhere in Europe. Your preference for Santorini was an apt reflection of how much of an optimist I hope you still are. Before it became an Internet sensation, you had your heart set on the ethereal ambience exuded by the pictures on Google, as well as the serenity its lucky inhabitants seemed to revel in, within the white structures. It was the least you deserved. The early years of the past decade lodged a crater in your heart so deep, that I fear a thousand years in Santorini may not be able to refill it. Surely, it would come close. Even as you read this – if you do get to read this – you may still be nursing doubts over Ibiza’s potency in my regard. Trust me when I say this: Ibiza is Heaven.

I honestly wish we saw eye-to-eye on an ideal location to start a new life. Who would have thought that we would ever face the prospects of not seeing each other again, even with globalisation and technological advancements? I mean, it was different with our parents. Yours didn’t even live to see the end of the Arab Spring. Mine died long before the Arab Spring. Hardened by a brutish life in the treacherous streets of Tripoli, our respective siblings left early on to chart their courses in the uncertain future of our ‘new’ country. But you and I? We were never ones to limit ourselves to such risk. We even adopted new identities and took a blood oath, never to recall our old names or backgrounds. You chose Esperanza, which subsumed your hope for a blissful life. I chose El Cid, an apt reflection of my ambition to conquer in an entirely new frontier.

To get to our ideal destinations, what could we possibly have done? We were neck-deep in penury as hand-to-mouth labourers with paltry education. I could have fast-tracked the process, but you were so keen on me retaining the identity of the good guy. You saw a halo over my head that I never could, even in the most sparkling of mirrors. You chastised me and lectured me on why I needed to endure all the manure life hurled in our direction. You even joked that we could re-engineer said manure as catalysts for our growth (I still find that hilariously irritating, you know). In hindsight, practically everything worked in your favour. You got back to school and maniacally worked your way through, up until that fortuitous scholarship that took you to Al-Azhar University.

You were just a few steps away from our European El Dorado and I could not have been prouder. I still see the same sadness and regret written in your eyes when I bade you farewell at the airport. Even before your flight took off, we were already worlds apart. Maybe we always were and it did not strike us until that moment. Maybe it would have been different if I listened to you from the very start. As you now know, Esperanza, I was never going to return to school. Or stay away from drugs and organised crime.

You did not deserve the least of my ghosting. You invested so much in reaching out to me almost on a weekly basis, but the last thing I needed was to constantly miss you. The plan was to bury you in the depths of my memories and forge ahead with my life until I had made enough to at least spend a few years partying in Ibiza before reaching out to you, before the authorities would come knocking at my door. That’s the inevitability of the life I chose. However, like the rest of the world, I would instead be greeted by the unpersonified plague that placed the world on standstill. Make no mistake, I made it to Ibiza after so long. But like millions more, I have been afflicted with the coronavirus.

These times have made me regret my cowardly and selfish decision to sever our ties. Thankfully, before my diagnosis, one of the private investigators I hired was able to yield concrete details about your present location. While it is not Santorini as I hoped, I want to believe you have been there at least once. I am also sure that’s the first place you would be visiting after this plague is over. I sincerely hope you remain safe and healthy until that time. I hope I survive, as well.

Call me old-fashioned all you like for opting for a handwritten FedEx-delivered letter, as opposed to a simple email (the private investigator found a way to get your email address, he is that good). But we both know this blast from the past would hit different if you saw my actual handwriting again.

PS: Attached to this letter is a token that would hopefully suffice as peace offering in the meantime. I hope we see each other again.

Forever yours, live in Ibiza,

El Cid.

Esperanza clung to the edge of her bed, trembling and soaked in tears. Time appeared to have lost every ounce of its essence, almost like it never even existed. She wallowed in mental numbness as the next implication was brought to the fore. The date on the envelope’s exterior read March 25, 2020. Nearly five months prior.

Once again, she was a freshman of Al-Azhar, strolling reverentially between her lecture halls with her phone pressed tightly against her sweaty left ear, waiting for a sign of life on the other end of the phone line, but to no avail. She was a far cry from the sophomore who had moved on. Or the junior plagued by an identity crisis. Or the down-to-nothing final year student facing homelessness in a foreign country. In mere minutes, her sole worry in the world had drifted from raising her rent against a clock running at light speed to confirming the state of health of the only true friend she had ever had. Few questions swarmed her mind, tugging at its helms for a definite response, but she opted to simply let the tears trickle through the most apparent reality.

She dug into the envelope one more time and retrieved a folded cheque. Upon straightening it out, it became apparent that she and her friend had two starkly different definitions of the word, ‘token’. Her primal instincts pointed in one direction, which startled her, given that years ago, she would have more morally discerning. Only that there was nothing left to discern. For all life had taken from her, there was only so much she could reclaim.

Her eyes wandered off the cheque to the shutters across her room, to whatever new world that lay beyond it. The choice between evolution and death had never been more apparent to the world at large, let alone her immediate world. It was a familiar cycle for her. Unlike the previous decade, she saw no stopovers.

Written By Clinton Durueke.

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