Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

Musing

Soon I’ll clear the cobwebs out of my mind. They’re softening the corners, white and frail, sagging a little, cradling dead flies. In a little while I’ll find a broom and I’ll sweep the floor, leaving clean boards in my wake and shuffling dust into a pile. Puffs will rise from it like smoke. The wood will be smooth and my feet will touch the floor without prickles or grit. Before too long I will organize. Everything will be on the floor and I will put it back where it belongs, some things stacked neatly in the cabinets and others in a row on the shelves. There will be room to stretch my arms as far as my muscles will allow. My fingertips will not graze the piles that rise, teetering, threatening. Soon I will tidy up my mind. For now I will live with the clutter.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.