A Letter from Essaouira
Essaouira, Morocco, March 13th, 2001
Elizabeth and Robert Stern were on their way to Essaouira on March 30th, two days after receiving their daughter’s letter.
Abby had left for Spain the previous September and had gone to Morocco two months later. She had been in regular contact with her parents, but had never expressed sadness or depression, leave alone suicidal tendencies. Or at least so it seemed to her parents. In 48 hours their world had been turned upside down.
The Sterns lived in a wealthy upper middle class suburb of Baltimore. Elizabeth was an accountant, Robert an attorney. Abby was their only child, and they had sent her to Duke for her undergraduate studies. She became a fine arts major. Maybe not exactly what the Sterns had hoped for, but Abby’s life was her life and she had been a good student.
Equally, the Sterns weren’t psyched when Abby told them about her plans to do a “gap year” in Europe, but, as good parents, they did support her generously in the end since it was what Abby wanted to do. And she had even convincingly argued that the Spanish language diploma she wanted to get could be helpful in whatever career she’d wanna choose after the graduate studies her parents hoped for her to do at Stanford. (The one-good-school-east-one-good-school-west theme was very well groomed at the Stern’s: Elizabeth had been to Yale and Berkeley, Robert to Columbia and UCLA.)
They were a bit puzzled when Abby told them two months after she had left for Spain that she’d be going to Morocco instead. The Spanish diploma would be replaced with an Arabic course. None of this made much sense to the Sterns, especially since they considered it not very safe for their daughter to travel to Northern Africa by herself. But what were they gonna do other than wish her good luck?
Abby’s emails continued to arrive regularly. According to them, she was doing fine, lived in Casablanca and attended Arabic classes five times a week. None of this was true, however. But how were the Sterns supposed to know?
When Abby first got to Madrid, she made but a fable attempt at any kind of course. She had never really intended to do a course anyway. Her year in Europe was meant to chase the freedom she had denied herself for too long.
At first, freedom mainly meant drugs, and Abby soon found herself amongst the trance scene along the southern Spanish coast. It was there she met Thierry, whom she then joined on his way to Morocco.
Thierry was a 30-year-old New Age adherent from Marseille who traveled and lived in his old Volkswagen minibus. He had lived in India for two years (or so he claimed), had been a Kŗşņa devotee for another two, and then realized that the truth actually lay in the Buddha. Abby could never remember all the monasteries and temples he had been to in order to push his meditation technique to higher levels, but she was impressed. Thierry was like no other man she had ever been with. He was knowledgeable, interesting, well-traveled, intriguing. She didn’t really like all the things he made her do in bed, but she thought that was part of it, and not being able to overcome feelings of shame when being humiliated was only ‘cause of her uptight upbringing.
Abby adored Thierry. He made her feel to be part of something. Something important. Something higher than the mundane lives ordinary people lived. At least that’s what Thierry said. Other people suffered from ignorance. Their lives were controlled by greed and competition. The lives of the enlightened, on the other hand, were free. Of course his own life was an enlightened one. And through him Abby could live an enlightened life too. So he told her. And Abby believed him. Poor thing.
I knew Thierry. He was an asshole. An arrogant and egocentric patriarch in hippie clothes and no shoes, constantly babbling pathetic nonsense about maya, levels of consciousness, or spiritual liberation. I hated his guts. He came around Essaouira all the time. I spent six months out of the year there to paint. It was cheap and pleasant enough. I had no better excuse.
Thierry usually camped with his hippie friends in Sidi Kaouki, down the coast from town. That’s also where he took Abby.
Thierry had many girls around Essaouira. Abby soon realized that Thierry screwed other girls all the time while she was there, but he told her that bourgeois norms didn’t apply to their relationship. Of course Abby had to accept this. She found it a little odd that at the same time Thierry got mad at her almost every time she’d talk to another guy for more than ten minutes, but this wasn’t ‘cause he was jealous – a feeling he declared himself incapable of - but because the guys she talked to were all ignorant and imprisoned in maya, and if she socialized with such people she’d never advance anywhere.
I think Abby figured out that Thierry was an asshole very soon herself. But somehow he had become her master, and the little hippie community around him her family, and she felt like that’s where she belonged. Or she didn’t know where else she’d belong to now. Or she was just confused. I don’t know how these things work. But I know I liked Abby. I saw her often enough around Moulay Hassan square. Unfortunately, mostly in company of Thierry, the asshole. When she had first arrived, I talked to her sometimes. I had lived in Philadelphia for a few years as a kid, and we talked about the East Coast, trips to New York City, favorite cartoons on breakfast TV. She was nice, pretty, soft-spoken, with a winning smile. But soon, we wouldn’t really talk anymore. When she came around by herself I might have gotten a smile and a few words out of her, but when the asshole was with her, I would be ignored altogether.
I was definitely on Thierry’s shitlist. He knew what I thought of him. I had never bothered engaging him in an argument about his nonsensical Buddhist lectures when he still preached to me, but he wasn’t stupid, I give him that much. After a while he realized I’d never make a disciple, and so I became a lost cause. Maybe even a dangerous influence on his followers. I don’t know. I didn’t care either. I just wanted to paint.
Once I found out about Abby’s letter and about her disappearance, I thought I should have cared about Thierry, however. I knew that he used and brainwashed other people, mainly girls like Abby, but I just never considered it my duty to save grown-ups from situations they had maneuvered themselves into. It simply didn’t seem like any of my business. If someone asked for help, sure. But if not – their lives were their lives, why would I interfere with them and tell them what to do? That’s what assholes like Thierry did. But not me. I was no savior. I really just wanted to paint.
However, I thought that someone should have saved that nice girl when I first heard that an American couple was in town looking for one Abby Stern who had sent them a suicide note two weeks earlier. I instantly assumed that she was dead. I just had that feeling. But so far, no suicide of an Abby Stern had been reported to the police, and no body had been found. Besides, when checking for Abby in Sidi Kaouki, not only were there no traces of her, but Thierry and his van had also disappeared. Other campers there said he had just taken off one early morning without giving anyone notice. I then thought that, maybe, she was still alive, and that the letter had been a sick prank, or an expression of extreme distress, confusion, maybe craziness? Maybe she hid somewhere in the desert with the French Buddha reincarnated.
The Sterns stayed in Essaouira for ten days, keeping their hopes up that their daughter was still alive. Many locals helped with the search and collected information. Then two boys found Abby’s body at an isolated beach a few miles south of Sidi Kaouki.
She had drowned. There was nothing indicating that she might have been drowned by someone else, and, given the suicide note to her parents, the police considered the case closed.
The Sterns spent another week in Essaouira, trying to gather information about Abby’s life before her death. I guess they were trying to understand. But what was there to be understood? An overprotected childhood, a charismatic microfascist, the vast ocean. What else was there to say?
People had told them that I knew Abby, so they came to talk to me one day. We had tea. I felt very uncomfortable. I told them stuff I thought would help them feel like it wasn’t their fault. I don’t know if it worked. They asked me if there hadn’t been any signs that Abby was getting worse? If nothing could have been done? I hated it, and I have no idea what I muttered as a response. Probably (hopefully) something that didn’t make any sense. Finally, they left. I decided that I didn’t wanna feel guilty, and so I didn’t. After a few days it even worked. I still didn’t like it, however, when the Sterns came around to thank me on the day they were leaving to go back to Baltimore. Elizabeth Stern giving me a hug was the worst.
Thierry reappeared in Essaouira about a month later. He claimed that Abby hadn’t left him a note and that he thought she might have run off to the desert. He said he had been looking for her there, then a friend told him what had happened, so he came back. I thought it was all bullshit, but what was one gonna do? Thierry, the asshole, was simply around again. And there was still no law against being an asshole.
Whether Abby had left him a note and he freaked out over it, or whether he took off after a fight and she decided to kill herself, or whatever, I don’t care. The story didn’t make much sense, but it was bad. That’s all that mattered.
I came back to Essaouira for six-month stints two more times. Thierry was around with new girlfriends. Young, timid, looking lost. I talked to them when they dared talk to me. Did I ever ask them if they were happy? No. That was none of my business. And I still was no savior either. Besides, they were grown-ups.
Eventually, I got bored of Essaouira. I went to paint in Italy instead.