April 1, 2021 | Narrative
by ourselves, with each other
books, politics, and the sunshine of strangers
I’m sitting outside my public library, you know, the one that issued me a library card when I was eight. I remember that day had been a proud one for me: I had just learned how to write in cursive—crossing my t’s on the dotted middle line, making sure the loop of the lowercase y fell underneath—and all of a sudden, there I was, diplomatically printing my name on the back of an official piece of plastic. I think the frizzy-haired librarian even complimented my penmanship.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time I used cursive with such purpose. I’m not even writing down anything at the moment. I’m recording myself on my phone, sprawled across a scruffy yellow Adirondack, trying not to think about all the missed readings I need to catch up on. Although I’ve journaled a lot, I’ve never actually recorded my life, my voice echoing with awkward inflections. It feels narcissistic and weird, but we’ve tried a lot of things in the past year, haven’t we? Like binging Netflix to no end and buying the sea salt caramel tin at Costco because why not. Like living solely online and wrecking our sleep schedules. Like getting goosebumps when worrying about the 2020 election and getting goosebumps again when a young black woman stole the national scene with her poem.
Anyway, I’m sitting here, and the wind is blowing, and Canadian geese are honking. The pond speaks in burbles, green and gray and very unkept, and the concrete library smiles at me from behind. There are ducks and there are people feeding them, none of them wearing masks. Any other day, I would’ve gotten angry, maybe started rambling to myself about the political and privileged implications of strolling outside unmasked on a Friday afternoon, maybe gotten even angrier because there’s literally a sign next to the pond that says DO NOT FEED BIRDS.
But for some reason, I don’t really care about any of that right now. For some reason, the scene makes me happy—that is, it makes me forget the cotton fabric covering my mouth. I am thrust into my own indie film, the kind that my mom hates because there’s no obviously happy ending but I love because, mom, it’s just good art. This one is a low-budget production with six characters: a father and his three young sons, skirting the edges of a clearly neglected pond, picking up rocks and sticks and a helpless turtle or two; a college kid with a library book, obviously too distracted to read (if you can’t tell, this is me); and an old, white-haired man admiring the scene from an opposite bench. He kind of looks like Bernie on Inauguration Day, minus the mittens.
Everything is okay because we are all separated by 30 yards, which means there is no pressure to converse, or to nod our heads in polite greeting, or to cross to the opposite side of the street in order to socially distance. There is a quiet understanding in the air, an agreement between strangers: we won’t bump into each other again, and so nothing much matters. What matters is the pelican-looking bird perched atop the statue in the center of the pond. What matters is that, in this moment, we are our own versions of happy, by ourselves, with each other.
And considering everything that has happened up until this point, all the national tragedies and the global catastrophes and the personal mournings, this means a lot. For well over 365 days, we have been living in respective isolation, so to see strangers in this shade of spring is a glorious thing. “Probably,” as Carlos Ruiz Zafón writes, “because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.”
I’m not sure if I agree with Zafón, even though I’d like to. Maybe this is because I am at heart a writer, or maybe just a human, which means I like to inscribe things with stories, which means that everyone I bump into becomes a little indie film in themselves. I like to think in poems and potentials. In other words, I’m a dangerous dreamer. So when one of the little boys skips across the bridge and scoops dirty pond water into his pudgy hand, I wonder what kind of man he will grow up to be. Is that seeing him the “way he is”?
I realize that it is the strangers I have missed, which is honestly, well, strange. The chatting with a seat-neighbor on the plane, or the head-dip-and-smiling to a theme park employee, or the standing next to a bespectacled Asian auntie as we sift through the supermarket oranges, without worries of COVID infection rates. “I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk / down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs / to let you by. Or how strangers still say ‘bless you,’” writes poet Danusha Laméris. It is those things I miss, those small reminders that there is good in the world still, that there is love still.
And yet there is this passage I’ve highlighted (in a book I was assigned to have finished weeks ago, Lost Children Archive), reminding me that not all strangeness is immediately comforting. Such is the strangeness of the past year: the unfamiliarity of things we thought were once familiar, the gripping fear and the televised violence, the gradual recognition of growing differences (or maybe differences that had been there all along), the slipping in and out of friendships, the surrender to an in-between because what else can we do. I’ve crayoned the passage in purple, which is the color of hurting hearts but also of blooming lilacs:
The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day, the other can suddenly become a stranger.
When I look up from my book, the old man across the pond has disappeared. The boys and their father are walking further and further from the ducks and the turtles and me, doubtless smiling, doubtless unaware of my bittersweet gaze. Is their strangeness comforting because it cannot hurt me? Is it because I know our intimacy is fleeting, because I don’t attach expectations to it? Or is it because in documenting our encounter, I’ve made sure it “will leave a trace, will reverberate forever”?¹
Whatever the answers may be, it’s getting chilly. Even the numbers on my phone tell me it’s time to bid farewell. And so I will walk back to my hand-me-down car, will pick up my brother from school, and after driving home, will unlock the front door and find myself once again in my childhood bedroom, the one with the yellow walls and flower-print curtains. At some point, my mom might come knocking, asking for a hug, and I might think to myself how much I’ve gotten to know her this past year, and how lovely she is, but also how strange.
And I’ll think of the library ducks and the chubby boys and the old, white-haired man, and maybe then I’ll say to myself, ah, here is my half-answer, here is the reason I am left smiling. Maybe it’s because, regardless of how empty the wind can feel, there is sunshine in strangeness. Maybe it’s because strangeness means not knowing, and not knowing means discovering, and discovering means hope.
¹ Also a quote from Lost Children Archive, which has snuck its way into my Favorite Books and is now seated next to Frankenstein. If you can’t tell, this article/audio entry is somewhat of a love letter to that novel, and to strangers, and to you.