Messages for the Strangers in My Life
We don’t know each other, but there’s so much I would tell you if we did
Hi, it’s your son’s ex-girlfriend. Six months before we broke up, your son and I were doing laundry together. Like always, he pulled everything out of the machine, told me to lay down on the couch, and poured our freshly dried clothes on my body. He thought I liked the warmth, but really, I just liked the smell.
We were getting ready to move so I was stuffing our clean clothes into boxes, writing labels, and inefficiently cutting packing tape with a kitchen knife. Your son repeatedly criticized my methods, warning me to be careful with the knife. The third time he cautioned me, he said, “God, you’re gonna cut yourself with that,” and I wielded the knife above my head, proclaiming that it was my royal scepter.
He told me I didn’t know what a scepter was and pulled out his phone to prove me wrong. In mock-protest, I sliced a piece of tape with a misguided flourish and the knife stabbed directly into the side of my left wrist. Your son wrapped my entire arm in a clean beach towel, and while directing me to the door and applying even pressure to my wrist, he instructed me to sing “I Fought the Law” over and over. Later, he told me he was trying to keep me from passing out.
We walked half a block to a nearby surgeon’s office. We did not have an appointment, and the woman behind the counter was immeasurably pissed off at the suspiciously calm man demanding to be seen by a doctor who absolutely does not accept walk-in patients. I didn’t blame her. Within 30 minutes, though, I had 12 stitches and a prescription for pain medication.
Your son never once said, “I told you to be careful.”
Nobody ever really wants to listen to me describe the mundane things I admire about a person I abruptly broke up with and never spoke to again. You probably don’t either.
Hi, it’s your neighbor. I’ve never heard your voice or seen you in the hall. But last Friday night, I heard you make coffee at 11 p.m., blast Swedish pop music, dance around your apartment, and go to bed 10 minutes later. I thought about all the times I’ve fallen in love with actions instead of people.
Hi, it’s the tenant who moved in after you. Did the fridge always make that noise? Did you leave the plant on purpose? Does it have a name? What did you read on Sunday mornings? Did you ever have sex on the kitchen counter? Did you have dinner parties? Did you make your guests pasta puttanesca? Did you sit down after work and watch shitty TV in the dark? Did it make you feel more alone? Did you ever smoke out the window? Did the sunbeams look like honey to you, too?
Hi, it’s your boyfriend’s one-night stand. The one who was just waiting for a friend and ended up drinking too many vodka sodas because she was told she looked like a lightweight. The one who jokingly put a hex on your boyfriend because he wouldn’t stop shaking his leg against the communal bench at the bar. The one who felt proud when his friends laughed about it. The one who valued feeling included over feeling safe. The one who doesn’t remember the late-night cab ride to your boyfriend’s apartment but remembers the exact color of his walls and the tight grip around her arm and the dog whining and the unintentional crashing and the “unintentional” yelling and the smell of the hallway and the dead plant and the early-morning cab ride.
Hi, it’s your dog’s previous owner. He barks at the TV remote because I accidentally dropped one beside him when he was a puppy and he’s never forgotten. He’s always peed like that. He likes raw carrots. When he’s tired, he sleeps on his back, and when he’s exhausted he curls up into a ball. Sometimes, I think I can still smell his ears. Once, he almost died. Once, he got sand in his eyes and I cupped water in my hands to rinse them out. Once, I took him to a dog training class and the trainer unexpectedly photographed his aura. Apparently, his energy is mostly red. She wanted me to think that was important. Maybe it was.
Hi, it’s your local photography lab technician. One morning, I put your roll of film into the processor, pushed a button, and 20 minutes later, your negatives came out fully developed.
When I was in my second year of university, I developed film in my bathroom, adjusting solutions to achieve optimal pH levels. I could successfully develop a roll of film with just coffee, laundry detergent, and crushed vitamin C tablets. If you asked me to, I could push and pull your film so that it came out properly exposed. I felt indescribable comfort in my ability to control film and manipulate images, but when I was at work, the process was fully automated and out of my control. The processor did everything for me, and I couldn’t see how or when it was doing it.
Once your film was dry, I scanned it. Seven successive pictures of me popped up on the computer screen. In the photographs, I was working and completely unaware that my photograph was being taken. When I scrolled through the frames, I watched myself walk from the computer, to the film processor, and back again.
In the 1880s, a man named Étienne-Jules Marey built a camera that looked like a gun. When he pulled the trigger, the camera would take quick, successive photographs. Marey’s goal was to capture the natural movement of his subjects — that is to say, the natural movement of living things staring down the barrel of a gun — in order to study locomotion. I never really considered the fact that Marey’s subjects probably didn’t see the gun. After being your subject, I considered it.
I spent the next hour trying to decide whether or not to give you the photographs. It felt like I was giving you a piece of me to take home. It didn’t really matter, though. You’d already taken what you wanted.
Hi, it’s your great-granddaughter. In the summer, I used to sit on your daughter’s countertop and watch her sew. I alternated between stabbing needles into a tomato-shaped pin cushion and putting them against my lips in order to pretend they were cigarettes.
Your daughter had a picture of you pinned above her sewing machine and I often wondered why I didn’t really look like you. Once, she told me that I didn’t get your eyes but that I got your character.
As a child, I found the idea of physical sameness endlessly comforting, but the prospect of someone else possessing my personality was somewhat disturbing. As an adult, the opposite is true.
Hi, it’s your daughter.
Hi, it’s your mom’s friend. When your mom and I still lived in the same city, I had a cute apartment on Main Street with a guy I was dating. It was a 10-minute walk from the cemetery and a five-minute walk from the city’s best coffee shop. She was pregnant with you and had a nicer apartment in the suburbs with your dad. As I liked to tease her, it was a 10-minute walk from nothing.
That winter, I started to have an increasing number of bad nights and by the spring, I was having bad mornings as well. On a particularly bad night, your mom picked up the phone to hear me sobbing like a small, frantic child. She and your dad drove across the city, packed all my belongings into their car, and set up a bed for me in your room.
Your mom and I drank Earl Grey tea on your kitchen floor, and I pretended that I was okay. She knew that I needed her to pretend to believe me. I’ve never felt more recognized, before or since.
While your mom and I talked, I wondered if you knew my voice, and I thought about all the voices you hadn’t encountered yet (and the ones you never will).