to you

Song of a rainy day’s indoor afternoon

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
        why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?
–Walt Whitman, “To You”

Earbuds in, scarf askew, you were jolting up the steps to Salomon on a Tuesday afternoon. Two, two, and two. Almost tripped, but no one saw you.

Nurse to a small black coffee, you were backing through the glass door of the Brown Bookstore. You noticed the coffee, kissed a spill on the rim. Left through the other glass door.

Five minutes to two on a Sunday night, you were typing in a swivel chair in a library’s windowless corner, typing slow-jointed, one knee dipped, back bent to tireless white lighting.

You were locking a bike to a rusting street sign.

You were scrambling for a plate at the Ratty.

You were closing a paperback over a blue pencil and looking briskly into a face.

“Credit and points?” you said to me.

“Have a good one,” you answered me.

“Going up?” you asked me in an elevator.

“Sorry,” you said to me at Faunce, on the rainy day when we slid through the same glass door and bounced, wacky legs dancing to avoid the hug. Was it you not watching? Me not watching? “Sorry,” I said.

You waited as I passed in. Then, you went out.

Passing, I had, and forgive me for this, Stranger, you couldn’t know this but, only, right then, when the door shut, I had this crazy hot notion just to turn around and run back out there after you.

To run back out and stop you cold with a hand urgent on the shoulder and a look as you turned, scalded, eager, saying –

Thinking, I walked to the bottom of the stairs. I stopped and stood in line for the printer. I reached for my phone and looked at the time. The time was 3:42. There were three people in line for the printer. Well, what would I have said to you, supposing?

– Excuse me – (breathless) – do I know you from somewhere?

No? – but, you’re sure? But of course I’ve seen you somewhere, I have surely lived a life with you somewhere—that’s Whitman, do you like poetry? Yeah, me neither, I hate the stuff. Do you go here? Where are you from? Shall we walk? I’m Cissy.

Say you’ll walk with me. And then?

You know it as well as I do, then. The surprise. The blush. The silence, the dread silence, the brave run at small talk, the faltering words, the pause, the shame, the shy child’s shame, the inside clench, the slippery sidelong look, the brief parting, the relief. Afterwards, the unease. She was okay. Would I talk to her again? I wonder. I guess. I don’t know.

How we inure to strangers and friends and brothers when they turn out to be what we expected. How tirelessly we try to become what’s expected.

I stood second in line for the printer. Now I heard two people walking up behind me. I heard them stop. On a starry impulse I turned to see them. One tall and one short, both in sweatshirt and khakis. They were looking at their phone screens. So was I, now, so was I.

The time was 3:43. My class was at four. If only we students weren’t so busy. If we could be unbridled like the Greeks, strolling in sandals, dipping in each other’s conversation all day, and by night romping wine-drunk with our fair-headed friends and indulging in lusty street-side activities.

But I’m kidding. We wouldn’t be. We are Brown University students, you and I. We know it with a certain scorn, and a certain dignity. Stranger, if you’ll allow it, I’ll try to guess a few things: you are young, smart, well-practiced at studying, not from a poor family (and maybe, like me, some of this makes you uneasy). You’ve learned in this place, more or less, some things, say: how to think, how to defend, how to jostle chin-to-chin with the noisy set of teachers, practitioners, and talkers the donors call the community.

It was 3:50. I stood quietly. Around and above me walked, screamed, and slept the Brown community. Somewhere among them you were walking. Left right left, left right left, trying to keep those thoughts from sloshing out of your skull and running the walls in. Super, trooper. Keep it tight, tight, tight as a lidded coffin in daytime.

If only we could share notes, on some impossible balcony. If we could duck together to some high-up balcony like two guests bored at a charity ball, and there, hiding from the crowd, sharing a cigarette, if we could watch the glisten of the pre-dawn city and listen to the party below, music afar as if a memory.

Imagine us, two smokers in disarrayed evening dress, all courtesies and bow ties flung aside for the moment. Now we linger. Soon, we must join the party. Now we can tell all, curse, cry, and argue. Soon, when the cigarette dies, we will part ways and return, smiling, pleased to meet someone’s cousin Jeremy.

Stranger, I—

It was almost my turn for the printer. Click, and gone was my dreamful balcony. What’s a balcony? I looked for my wallet. I found it in my pocket. I waited for this guy to finish his printing. He was being really slow. I checked my phone. It was 3:53. What the hell? This guy was being really fucking slow. Jesus. What a fucking jack-ass.

Who is this guy?

Doesn’t he see this line? Does he think we don’t have some place to be?

I always end up behind this guy, is that it? Safeway checkouts, airport security, and that time in London Heathrow with the midget family.

London Heathrow. My first time in England. A hell of an airport. Floors clean as licked candy, soothing escalator with a woman’s voice, everywhere glass and spun crystal and air as heady as lemonade. So many steps and echoes of steps, so many passing strangers.

There I had scuffed my travel case along the gleam, one hand scuffing, another in my pocket, eyes akimbo at tsunami-proportion advertisements and rocket-proportion Swiss flight attendants, their high-heeled feet gunning forward, forward, and me trailing scuff like a slug on a countertop.

And if I’d passed you there, Stranger, then, would I have stopped? Called you out from that layover fog? Do I know you from somewhere? Shall we talk? We are travelers from one country, you are far from home, I am waiting for a plane, you are waiting for a different one, you are drawn and distant, I am lonely, we are tired. We pass each other by.

What did one passing traveler say to another?

Not here, but somewhere, I will speak to you, and you to me.

Not now, but afterwards, after passing through this airport and that university and all those other passing places—flitting by each other how many times—after passing through our own private phases—careers and traumas and a second divorce—I see you now as the ones you will be—after all of that passing fast and blurred there comes a day when for one or the two of us the passing ends.

Tell me that then, we will speak.

It was 3:57.

It was my turn for the printer. Two people were waiting behind me. I pressed any key and swiped my card. I printed two sheets double-sided and looked at them. It was 3:58. I checked my phone and walked hurrying past all the people up the stairs and through the glass doors and back out into the rain.