Golden Pen

The ride on the donkey-driven cart came as part of the package tour of Tunisia. A few of us sat in the makeshift cart made of rough, splintered wood, taking in the heat and arid landscape with fascination as tourists do. The path wide enough to accommodate our cart only. I was on spring break from a study abroad program in Bath UK. The driver, a middle-aged man who looked much older than he probably was, covered in strips of cloth and various rags to protect his head and body from the heat. We were somewhere in rural Tunisia. It could’ve been another planet or a set from a Star Wars film.

Halfway through the ride, I pulled out my journal and pen and started writing. Probably about a guy back home I’d had a crush on but hadn’t heard from since I left for Bath. The old man turned around and with a flash of his eyes, I knew he’d seen something miraculous. My pen. Once he saw it, he couldn’t stop staring at it. Every few seconds, he’d turn around to glimpse it. I grew self-conscious as I wrote. As the minutes went by, he began to turn around for longer periods to watch me hold the pen in my hand and write in loops and curves, his eyes following every movement of the writing instrument.

“Be careful,” I said. To the right of the narrow path was a steep drop off.

Finally, he pointed to my pen the way you point at something repeatedly to a vendor in a crowded marketplace.

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

His son could have it, this clear Bic pen made of cheap plastic, a pen that I could lose or throw away back home and never miss. The kind of pen that came in packs of ten for a few dollars at Walgreens. I knew what it was like to go without—or rather I have secondhand memories of it. My dad had to bring his own chair to school in the Philippines. My maternal grandpa, who emigrated to the US in his 60s, would stop his bike on the streets of East San Jose to pick up broken, run over, chewed up pens and pencils, clean them up best he could back home, wrap them tightly together in a thick rubber band and store them in the closet unused (my siblings and I would refuse to use them). Of course this man could have my pen for his son who goes to school.

It’s difficult to write a long journal entry as someone waits for your pen. I could feel the man’s distrust growing with every word I wrote. At any time I could change my mind. He turned around several more times and we repeated the conversation. He’d grown accustomed to being promised things that never materialized.   

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

Without finishing my journal entry, I closed the pen and handed it over to the man. He grabbed at it vigorously, placed it in a pocket near his heart, and held his hand over it as he drove the cart forward in the desert sun.

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