A tall stranger answered the door. I had knocked because I needed help, and the stranger’s house was pink. Scary people don’t live in pink houses, right?
“Can I use your phone?” I asked. “It’s complicated.”
The stranger let me in and didn’t ask any questions, as if he could sense my discomfort and was determined to chatter until it disappeared. He seemed to forget my request, treating my appearance more like the visit of an old family friend than an awkward foreigner.
He introduced me to his wife and his five boys. Four of them were huddled around a small television, intensely focused on the cricket game. The baby, sitting in a high chair, couldn’t be less interested in the cricket game but was fascinated with swishing around the gooey substance on his tray.
I knew as much about cricket as that baby. As an American expat in Barbados, I stopped following the Mets but never quite got into the Tridents. After seven years of traveling the world for a job without borders, I feel culturally illiterate anywhere I go, a permanent outsider. While the stranger ran to get his cordless landline, I ignored the television and played peek-a-boo with the baby.
The wife gave me a kind smile. “My friend died,” I blurted out. “My phone died, too. I need to call someone.”
I was surprised at my own choice of words. I don’t really have friends anymore, just acquaintances.
I joined the Foreign Service just out of college, which allowed — or forced, depending on how you look at it — me to move to a new country every two years. I left after my son was born, but my husband is a Foreign Service officer, too, and now our whole family is globally mobile, along for the ride. In addition to Barbados, I’ve lived in Israel, India and Morocco. My Facebook feed is full of exotic photos that tell less than the full story.
I can form instant bonds with other expats; we go to cafes together and set up afternoon play dates for our children. But these ties are tenuous, never deep. I didn’t tell a single soul when I found out that I had a miscarriage, for example, because telling an acquaintance that you spent the entire week crying is like telling a one-night stand that you love them. There’s a line you’re not supposed to cross. We’ll help each other out, no questions asked, but we’re not supposed to get close. There’s always an expiration date looming. Exceptions are possible but rare.
And so I never got close with Vince, the “friend” who had died, an outgoing U.S. diplomat in Barbados with a throaty chuckle and a boss whom my husband had only the most positive things to say about. Or with his wife, an Israeli woman I should have bonded with. After all, we both spoke Hebrew; I had lived for two years in her home town; and we were both professionally inclined women who had decided to lean out for a variety of reasons. I never quite got to it.
But I am still distraught after the news of Vince’s death, for reasons I don’t quite understand. I had participated in his memorial service at the Embassy, where his acquaintances sang and eulogized together, desperately turning small moments from the past into meaningful ones. Nobody here can talk about his childhood. Nobody here can give him the eulogy he deserves.
The degree of my grief is matched only by my guilt. I shouldn’t be allowed to be so sad. Craving some sense of connection and validation, I log on to Facebook, eager to feed off its addictive false intimacy. I search for Vince’s Facebook page, only to remember that I hadn’t yet added him as a friend.
I cry. Not for the memories we shared, but because I, too, am an expat. And because the sense of mystery that makes my life seem exciting to some also pushes us away from others who are more rooted than we are. I wonder if my own memorial service will be filled with acquaintances instead of friends, or if it will even be full at all. I cry for the memories I am not making with my family who live on another continent. Although my life is filled with wonderful, colorful people, they are temporary people.
The rotating cast of characters in my life, like the friendly strangers in pink houses, are all just bit players in my story; bit players with full and rich lives of their own, but lives that I will never truly get to be a part of for more than a fleeting moment. My own story suddenly seems severely lacking in main characters.
This loneliness is a defining feature of being an expat on the move. It’s a trade-off I face, in return gaining the chance to shed my skin every few years, to start with a fresh slate, to search for a little piece of happiness in many different locations. That, and plenty of exotic Facebook photos.