On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Needing to escape reminders of a painful breakup, I took a trip from Vancouver to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend.
In Seattle I stopped and got tattooed for the first time, then explored the city by foot, feeling deliciously free, befriending strangers in cafes and bars, and imagining a new life for myself.
After a late night, I nearly missed my Amtrak the next day. I sat in the first seat I could find and nodded off with my head on the shoulder of the man sitting next to me, who didn’t seem to mind. In my exhaustion I nuzzled closer, put my arm around his waist, and pressed my face into his sweater. The muscles in his chest relaxed, and he placed his arm around my shoulder. I hadn’t felt such intimacy in months, and like a child I wept. We held each other for the next three hours.
When the train pulled into Portland, I jumped from my seat, too embarrassed to look at him, and exited the station. I was grateful to see my friend outside, and I hurried us to her car. As we walked, she kept turning to look behind us. “Do you know that guy?” she asked. “He looks like he knows you.” I walked on.
I will always regret not meeting his eyes, not saying, Thank you.
Early one winter morning I glanced out the passenger window of my husband’s car and thought I saw a body beside the highway. I hesitated to say something at first, but then I whispered, “I think I saw a body on the side of the road.”
My husband circled back, and my fear was confirmed. I dialed 911 and reported it as other cars sped by. I asked my husband to stay in the car while I went to check on the body.
I approached slowly. “Sir? Sir, can you hear me?”
The man wasn’t dead, just asleep — ten feet from the highway. I asked his name and offered mine. He held a Bible with bloody hands, and his face also had blood on it. “How did you get here?” I asked. The temperature outside was below freezing.
I got blankets from the car and tried to keep him warm until help arrived. He said he had spent much of the previous night at a Waffle House and then had started walking. He had no home but was determined to reach a town where he’d once lived, some thirty miles to the west. We talked about his family and his dreams for the future. Thirty minutes later an ambulance and the sheriff arrived. The sheriff and I found him a place in a shelter.
I never saw him again, but he is still with me.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
The first time I met my biological father, I was four, and my mom snapped an awkward photo. In it he and I are cheek to cheek, but my body language shows he was a stranger. He still is.
He was married to someone other than my mom when I was conceived, so he kept me a secret. He had a Texas accent and smelled like cigarettes and mint gum. His letters had a P.O. box for a return address, and he sent two hundred dollars every month until I was eighteen. He never told his wife about me.
I was told not to address him as “Dad” in public, for fear he might be found out. Knowing that my mere existence could ruin people’s lives was overwhelming. I didn’t want to hurt his wife. None of this was her fault.
Because he was a traveling musician, I saw him a handful of times a year at festivals and concerts. I knew all of his songs.
These visits grew more difficult as I got older, and I would cry when we left. My mom thought it was because I missed him, but I cried because I was confused and shouldering a burden no child should have.
My daughter, Leila, was two years old when she was diagnosed with stage-IV neuroblastoma. Throughout the eighteen months of brutal treatment, she remained feisty and funny, charming the nurses and doctors.
Bald and pale, she was unmistakably a child with cancer, and most strangers pretended not to see us. I imagine they didn’t know what to say. Other mothers of young children would occasionally retreat from us, as if Leila’s illness were contagious.
After the treatment ended and she was feeling better, we went camping and spent a day exploring the woods, roasting marshmallows, and throwing pebbles into a stream. I wanted to create new memories to supplant those long, grim days in the hospital.
That night, when she realized we weren’t going home but would be sleeping in a cold and unfamiliar tent, Leila threw a long, loud tantrum. I was mortified and imagined our neighbors in the campground were irritated and judging me for bringing a sick toddler into the woods.
The next morning a middle-aged woman walked over to our campsite. I braced myself for a lecture.
“I just want you to know you’re doing a great job with your little one,” she said. She told me that, though she could tell we’d had a tough time, it was beautiful to see how my husband and I were with her. “Hang in there, honey,” she said.
I mumbled, “Thank you,” as tears filled my eyes. She gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and headed back to her tent.
I grew up in a small town, down the street from the oldest doctor in the area. His office opened early and closed after the last patient was seen. He made house calls and was a general practitioner at a time when family doctors were treated with respect.
In grade school I did yard work for him and his wife. When they weren’t home, I would press my nose against the window of his study and see books and journals stacked on the floor around a big leather chair. Though mine was a family of farmers and preachers, I dreamed of becoming a doctor.
It took almost fifteen years for me to realize that dream. I became a cancer specialist and set up a practice close to my hometown. It seemed like I had connections with almost everyone I treated. My encounters with patients often began with “Do you remember when . . . ?”
A year or so after I started my practice, I was surprised to see on my schedule the name of the physician for whom I had once done yard work, the person who’d inspired me to become a doctor. He and his wife seemed excited that their onetime yard boy was now their blood doctor. He’d been sick for a while with a malignancy and had received all the standard treatments. All I could offer was supportive care, but I saw him regularly.
His decline was relentless. At the end I had to admit him to the hospital to manage his symptoms. I visited his room before my office opened and again at the end of the day after it closed. If his wife wasn’t there, I’d call and give her an update.
Finally his nurse called me to say he had died. I went to his hospital room, nodded to his wife, then performed the ritual bedside exam, listening for the absence of a heartbeat. The contrast between the towering man of my memory and the small, frail one before me was overwhelming.
His wife and I stood together, looking at him. “He was so happy,” she said, “that his doctor wasn’t a stranger.”
After I was born, my grandmother moved from Fujian, China, to Orlando, Florida, to help my mother. My grandmother called me Ah Mei, because I was the youngest. When I learned to talk, I called her Waipo or Popo.
She and I began our lives in America together. She took care of me in a way she hadn’t been able to do with her own children. In keeping with tradition, each of them had been handed off to a wet nurse shortly after they were born, and she’d quickly returned to work at the power plant. But she bathed me and changed my diapers, and when I was sick, she pressed cool washcloths against my forehead. I was always asking her to pick me up and carry me wherever she went.
My grandmother went home shortly after I turned three. Her mother tongue was my first language, but when I reach for a Chinese word now, it does not come.
Last year she fell down the stairs outside her apartment in Fujian and became paralyzed from the waist down. I am trying to find the will to visit her. Part of me does not want to go, but another part of me desperately does. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to confront the fact that we are strangers to each other now.
Los Angeles, California
Men started telling me to smile when I was eleven years old. My family had recently moved to the Bay Area, and I often heard this demand to smile when I took the bus to piano lessons or to visit my older sister at work. Sometimes, when I walked alone to school or the library, strangers in passing cars or men on construction sites catcalled me. On other occasions the comments came from someone I knew: “Why don’t you smile?” “You’d look prettier if you’d smile!”
I was used to being singled out for my red hair — “Carrot top!” “Pippi Longstocking!” — and “Smile!” didn’t feel as personal. I’d even learned to take a request to smile as a compliment of sorts. My knee-jerk reaction was to pull my mouth into a tight-lipped, phony grin, born of fear and a willingness to please.
Today I listen to women on the radio speak about men catcalling, following, threatening, and frightening them. One woman says she thinks men won’t stop telling her to smile until she is dead.
I remember the last time a man asked me to smile: Ten years ago, wanting to be alone, I drove into the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, New Mexico, to hike the trails there. I was walking up a riverbed when a man shouted, “Why don’t you smile?”
I spun around and yelled back, “Because my daughter died a few weeks ago and I don’t feel like smiling!”
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was traveling home to Boston during a snowstorm, and when I finally landed at the airport, hundreds of people waited in line at the taxi stand.
The attendants started calling out town names so we could share taxis and all get home quicker. I secretly hoped I wouldn’t have to share a ride with a stranger, but when the attendant hollered the name of my town, a hand shot up from the back.
The crowd parted to allow a tall, broad man to approach. He looked tired and disheveled. I got in the back seat and politely asked him to sit in front with the driver.
Normally I am ready to chat with just about anyone, but that night I was tired and missed my husband and three young sons and just wanted to get home. We each gave our address, and the stranger asked the driver to drop me off first.
As I reached for my headphones to block out any chance of conversation, my fellow passenger asked where I was coming from.
“Lincoln, Nebraska, a day ago,” I said. To be polite, I asked him the same.
“Calcutta, India, three days ago.”
“You win,” I said. Curious, I asked what he’d been doing in Calcutta.
Years earlier, he said, he had adopted three children from an orphanage in Calcutta and raised them in Boston. He had never been to India himself — the agency had delivered the children to the U.S. — and thought it was important for him, as their father, to understand their heritage. So years later he went to Calcutta. The poverty and lack of resources there moved him deeply, and he started a nonprofit dedicated to helping orphans. He now spends a few weeks each year visiting several orphanages throughout India, bringing supplies, treats, and donations for the children.
At this point in his amazing story, the driver interrupted to explain how a “shared” cab fare worked: I would pay the full fare and tip to my house; then the stranger would pay the full fare and tip to his house, plus a “double-occupancy charge,” which I’d never heard of.
Incensed, I jumped to the defense of the saintly stranger, who graciously said, “No worries, I am happy to pay the extra fare.”
When we pulled up in front of my house, I told the driver, “Do not charge this man any extra!” I was so loud that my husband came out. I paid both fares, and the taxi pulled away in the snow.
The next day my husband called me at my office to say the stranger from the taxi had stopped by with a gift. When I got home that evening, I opened the package to find two beautiful Indian scarves and a small, hand-carved elephant with a thank-you note addressed to “Taxi Angel.”
Fifteen years later we are still friends. He just made his twenty-fifth trip to India. Each year, without fail, I receive an e-mail letting me know that he has arrived home safely.
I’m sitting in a windowless waiting room deep in the bowels of a hospital. There are no magazines, and my cell phone has no reception. Huddled in a chair, trying to escape the chill of the air-conditioning, I wish I had brought my hoodie. I’ve counted the ceiling tiles, mentally recited poems from grade school, studied people’s shoes, prayed — but don’t know how much longer I can hold off panic. I’m several months into treatment for advanced breast cancer.
A tall, skeletal, mostly bald woman next to me is reading a book. Her shirt lies flat across her chest. Why is she so calm? She must be in denial. Anyone can see she’s dreadfully ill. She must be one of those positive thinkers who believe in guardian angels. People like her irritate me, always looking on the bright side of everything.
The room empties slowly until I’m alone with this stranger. A tear falls from my eye, and I discreetly intercept it. A nurse in the hall jokes with a patient as if this were a party. I tuck my trembling hands under my thighs.
The receptionist calls the name of the woman next to me, who gingerly stands and places her hand on my knee. “Good luck, kid,” she says.
I want to run after her and throw my arms around her, but she is gone into the crowded corridor.
Sneads Ferry, North Carolina
My husband, Irwin, was able to remember any phone number after hearing it once, but after having a stroke, he was unable to recall even his own. With years of rehab and speech therapy, he regained the ability to drive and talk.
Then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the man I had married slowly became a stranger. He stole money from me and lied. He was rude to our friends and yelled at waiters. He shouted at the sight of anything he didn’t like. I couldn’t predict who he would be at any given moment.
Love remained, but changed. Through the final ten years of his life, my love for him became the protective, desperate, all-consuming love of a mother for a young child.
He began to fill his days at an off-track betting facility. One day, when he could no longer remember to come outside for me to pick him up, I went in and met the strangers he’d been spending so many hours with: the caring tellers who watched over him, and a virtual United Nations of gamblers with different political views, languages, races, and religions.
When Irwin could no longer remember their names, he called them all “Cookie,” and his name there became “Cookie.” (I became “Mrs. Cookie.”) When he started to leave without his lunch bag or couldn’t find his jacket, they helped him. Whenever I asked if they thought it was time to transfer him to a supervised day-care facility, the answer was always “No! We love him here!”
One day I got a call from one of the tellers: Irwin had passed out and was being taken to the hospital. It was another stroke, and he died five days later without regaining consciousness. His last waking moment was spent in the place he loved, surrounded by strangers who had become friends.
Nyack, New York
While on vacation in Egypt, I stepped into a kiosk brimming with religious items for Muslim pilgrims: framed pictures of the Kaaba in Mecca, Quranic texts etched on marble, woven prayer mats. A collector of devotional paraphernalia, I picked up a string of blue prayer beads.
The proprietor, an elderly Muslim with a henna-dyed beard, stepped out from behind his glass counter. “Are you a Muslim?” he asked.
I suddenly felt unwelcome: a white woman handling Islamic merchandise.
“No,” I said, returning the string of beads to the shelf, “but I am a praying person.” Then I stepped out of the store.
I had hardly gone ten paces when I felt a tap on my shoulder. There was the proprietor, holding up the string of blue prayer beads. “Then pray for Egypt,” he said, dropping them into my hand.
A decade later the beads sit on a prayer shelf between an icon of the Madonna and Child and a bundle of sage. They remind me that our religious and cultural differences don’t have to separate us.
In the 1980s I lived in Denver, Colorado, and would often hitchhike to visit friends in Central City, a sleepy gold-rush town. Being a girl, I didn’t have to wait long for rides. I learned how to handle myself with strangers, asking neutral questions and allowing them to do most of the talking.
Once, on a warm May day, a handsome guy in a Datsun 280Z pulled over for me. I’d never been in a sports car before. It was clean — no empty beer cans or fast-food wrappers in the back seat — and the well-manicured driver navigated the highway with precision and speed.
I attempted small talk, and when he didn’t bite, I wondered if something bad was going to happen. Maybe he wanted something more from me than company on his ride.
After an awkward silence he asked if he could “practice.” I couldn’t imagine what he meant, but I said sure. Then he cleared his throat and started singing opera — loudly. Though I’d hitchhiked through the Clear Creek Canyon hundreds of times, everything suddenly seemed surreal: the aspens, the giant boulders, Black Hawk Creek.
Arriving in town, I climbed out of the car and thanked him for the ride. “Uh, you’re really good,” I added.
He waved and drove off. I guess he had wanted something more than company. He’d wanted an audience.
Los Angeles, California
© Cameron Bloch
When I was twenty-one, I quit college and became a dude-ranch “cowgirl,” leading tourists on horseback rides in the western U.S. My jobs were seasonal, and one off-season I decided to travel to Argentina.
Once there, I took a bus from Buenos Aires to the countryside, feeling like I’d passed through the looking glass. There were flocks of parrots instead of ravens, rheas instead of mule deer. The stars were in different places in the sky.
At the hotel, when my host learned what I did for a living, he invited me to visit his remote cattle ranch. Another guest, a retired U.S. Marine who was on an intercontinental motorcycle adventure, overheard our exchange and offered to take me there the next day.
I got on the back of his touring bike, sans helmet, and we cruised down dirt roads at the base of the Andes. After more than an hour, we found the ranch, and the gauchos who worked there welcomed me with bewilderment. I was to stay in an unfinished room with rough plumbing and a bare mattress. My new friend was reluctant to leave me there, but I assured him it would be OK. He promised to return for me in a week.
In the morning I was given a horse and left to ride anywhere I wanted. At lunch the gauchos shot a steer and roasted it over an open fire. We sat around and enjoyed choice pieces of meat.
The next day, when I got back from my morning ride, the gaucho in charge told me to get my sleeping bag so we could take an overnight ride. Ten other men set off with us. I could stumble through rudimentary conversations in Spanish with my companions but could not follow their conversations with each other. I didn’t know where we were going. I was just thrilled to be on horseback in the wide-open landscape.
When the sun began to set, I realized I might have made a foolhardy decision. This was long before cell phones. I didn’t actually feel afraid, but I was aware that other people might if they were in the same situation.
We stopped at an outpost at the base of the Andes: a shack with a dirt floor built around a stone chimney. Someone slaughtered a goat, and we shared soup, bread, meat, and cartons of red wine. I was given the only cup; everyone else drank out of the box. I was given the only spoon; everyone else sipped soup from their bowls. The gauchos slept on their saddle blankets, except the boss, who gave me his so I would have double padding.
The next day we gathered several hundred head of cattle across the wide country. It was dark when we returned to the ranch. The boss helped me put up my horse and said good night. I hung around for a few more days before the ex-Marine showed up to take me back to town.
Those gauchos didn’t know what my life was like or why I’d come all that way to work with them. There was nothing either appealing or threatening about me. I was a stranger to them. They gave me the same courtesy they would have offered any guest.
I was twelve years old and heading home from football practice with my father in his station wagon. It was 1960, and the name of his business was printed on his car door: STEIN-RIDGWAY HOMEBUILDERS, INC. A driver signaled to my father from the adjacent lane, and both of them slowed and pulled over. The other driver, a Black man, got out and walked back to our car. He asked my father if he owned the home-building company, and my father said he did. They spoke for a few minutes, and then the man got back in his car and followed us to a housing development my father’s company was building.
When we arrived, my father got out and talked to the man. I remember them laughing together. They shook hands, and my father showed him a model home. About ten minutes later my father returned to our car chuckling to himself.
I asked what was so funny, and he said the man had been surprised when my father had actually led him to the housing development; he’d expected my father would drive a hundred miles an hour to lose him.
I told my father I didn’t understand. “Was it because he was a stranger?”
“No, son,” my father said. “He’s no stranger. He’s just a man looking for a good neighborhood to live in and raise his children.”
Marlton, New Jersey
I bike the Stevens Creek Trail each day to the high school where I teach, speeding over smooth pavement under live oaks and past ginkgoes.
In Silicon Valley, where I live, people often don’t take time to say hello to strangers or even acquaintances, but an older gentleman who walks this trail between six and eight every morning exuberantly greets every single passerby, complete with enthusiastic waves: “Good morning! Good morning. Have a nice day! Have a nice day.” On Fridays he adds additional blessings for the weekend. Every person gets this — every hooded teenager, every mom and baby, every cyclist — whether they respond or not.
I don’t know who the man is or what he does with the rest of his time, but calling out, “Good morning!” back to this stranger starts my day out right.
Los Altos, California
My husband and I are strangers to one another half the time. We scoff when people talk about being “soul mates,” but what if we’re the fools? We fell in love because the sex was good and we had fun together, even though in many ways we’re incompatible. I’m an idealist, and he’s a capitalist. When we met, he would spend Sundays watching football while I explored parks and cafes. His coworkers at the bank call me “Hank’s hippie wife.” They laughed when I bought chickens and built a coop for them out of scavenged wood pallets.
I changed my last name when we got married, and I often consider changing it back. I’ve told our four daughters never to change their last name and that I wish I hadn’t. My husband gets sad when I say this.
I chose to stay home with the children instead of going to graduate school. I did eventually get my degree but not a career, while my husband steadily moved up the corporate ladder. Most of the time I don’t resent it. I am happy to be an involved mother to our children while he makes the money. I do wish I were doing something more humanitarian — volunteering in a developing country, maybe — but I tell myself it would be wrong to uproot the kids.
Today is one of the days I feel we are strangers. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m angry because Hank was unhelpful and detached last night. I let the frustration simmer, noticing all the little things he doesn’t do. Next week I will lead a two-week trip to a remote village on the other side of the world, along with three of our kids, two of their friends, and my mother-in-law. He will stay home, hang out with our oldest daughter, and go to work.
He likes to say we make a great team, but sometimes I fantasize about having a spouse who understands my need to make the world a better place and who feels more responsible for the emotional well-being of our children. I imagine he fantasizes about a spouse who doesn’t constantly have second thoughts about our upper-middle-class life and who helps bring home the bacon.
On the worst days it feels like we’re strangers who share a home, along with five children, a cat and a dog, some buried chicken corpses, an urn filled with the ashes of one baby, and a lot of beautiful and heartbreaking memories.
Are these the ravings of an overworked mother sabotaging the best thing that’s ever happened to her? Or is this the nature of marriage?
Oak Park, Illinois
I had gone to a budget clothing store in search of a pair of high-heeled boots — something to bolster my self-esteem during a flagging marriage. Instead I found my husband of more than twenty-five years standing beside a woman I didn’t know. He was supposed to be at work.
Doug had never entered a clothing store with me. He would wait in the car and curse at a basketball game on the radio. Yet here he was, ambling through the petites rack in ladies’ sportswear. The stranger was short and blond, like me. She wore a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the company where Doug worked.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
Startled, my husband said he’d come to get some socks.
“Who is this?” I demanded. The people around us glided away.
“This is Carla,” he said.
I should have known. I’d been receiving anonymous e-mails for months: Your husband is having an affair, the first said. They work together.
Where is your husband? read another.
The subject line always read: Carla. Doug had claimed the e-mails were from a jealous ex-employee of his. And I had believed him.
Carla slunk away into the clearance aisle. “We had a few minutes to kill,” Doug sputtered. “Look, we’re just friends. I swear.” Realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere, he went to “check on” Carla.
Dumbfounded, I fled the store, feeling angry at him but also at myself for ignoring the signs.
Over the following week my rage cooled, and I announced to Doug that I no longer wanted to be married to him. “Go check on Carla,” I said.
Doug and Carla married soon after the divorce. I eventually found love, too, with my new husband. I no longer feel the need to buy clothes to boost my self-esteem.
Asheboro, North Carolina
A man in soiled work clothes approached my car as I was leaving work and held out a handful of wadded bills and coins, his fingers dirty from gardening or contracting. “I have money for gas,” he said. Parked behind him, his pickup truck flashed its hazard lights. He looked afraid, stuck in this neighborhood of million-dollar homes and exclusive private schools.
As an African American man, I thought of Renisha McBride, a Black woman who was shot in the face by a white homeowner whose door she knocked on after she’d wrecked her car. I do all I can not to ask strangers for help: I have AAA coverage and always bring a cell phone and charger when I drive. I don’t want to be mistaken for a carjacker because of the color of my skin.
The man outside my car was a shade lighter than me. When I asked if he had a phone to call a tow truck, he shrugged and shook his head.
I thought he must be new to this country. No one had ever given him The Talk about how to conduct himself as a man of color on the streets of America. Still, he had asked a Black man for help, perhaps hoping for sympathy from a fellow dark face. I would have done the same.
I could not bring myself to drive off and leave him. Though it would make me late for dinner, I offered to take his money, buy him a gas can, and fill it with gas for him.
He hesitated but handed me his only twenty-dollar bill. The gas to fill the can would cost more than that.
“Give me the five, too, just in case.”
The man wavered, but what choice did he have? He exhaled and handed over the five.
The freeway was congested in both directions, and on my way back from the gas station I worried he might have given up and gotten assistance from someone else. But the pickup remained parked on the street, its hazards still flashing. The man’s face brightened, and he jumped up and waved.
When I got out and handed the can to him, his handshake almost dislocated my shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
As he hurried toward his pickup with his prize, I chased after him. “I have your change,” I said.
He looked incredulous.
I placed the bills, coins, and receipt in his hand so he would know I had not shorted him one penny. He shoved the change into his pocket and said something unexpected: “What’s your name?”
I told him mine, and asked his.
After I returned home from a road trip with my kids, the malaise of the real world quickly descended: not only my overloaded inbox and the alienating start of remote schooling, but the creep of fascism, the heartbreak of racism, and the horror of climate catastrophe. I stood in the bathroom trying to figure out which post-apocalyptic skills my daughters should be learning. Perhaps basket weaving?
Then I picked up the September 2020 issue of The Sun. I started with Readers Write on “Strangers” and read story after story of people honoring our common humanity. One by one they cut through the gloom, indifference, and fear.