12 May 2007

Letter to a Stranger

Coming home at three in the morning when I saw you, I wrote stories about you in a matter of moments: quick, succinct, to the point; I needed to make those snap judgments about you so that I could justify what I did and didn't do.

In the first story--the story that initially came to mind when I saw your hazards flashing and you starting to walk the long walk to the nearest exit, you had gotten off work from the late shift. You were working two jobs to try and save up for a house with a fenced-in yard and a puppy and a flower garden and a spot to put a sprinkler on the hot summer days when the kids wanted to run through something cool. ("Thank you daddy, we love you daddy")

Your kids and wife were waiting for you at home. You'd been late before and when you walked in the door that time, it wasn't your car that delayed you; it was something far more difficult to fix than that. But your wife was giving you a second chance because dammit, you loved her first, and who was she to let one mistake erase all that you had built, and now here you are, an hour late and she's lying there in the dark, thinking, "I can't do this".

Because your wife was writing a story about you, too. In that story, you weren't broke down on a highway, trying to get home as fast as you could because you knew she wasn't going to believe you. You were somewhere else, with someone else and that someone else didn't have stretch marks from bearing your kids and her thighs were smooth and strong and she didn't say, "Please, not tonight" when your thumb rubbed that spot above her knee. And there your wife was, 3:07 a.m., thinking, "Not again".

When our eyes met, I was your hope, your ride home, your access to a phone to call to say, "I'm here, thinking of you, I need a ride, I want to get home to you and the kids".

Not so fast, Mister.

Because I had kids to get home to as well, and the second story that I wrote wasn't as flattering.

In the second story, you were the reason that I park my car under bright lights in parking lots at night, and why I check it three times before I commit to getting in. You were the reason that sometimes I have to get up at least twice during the night to make sure, just one more time, that the doors to the house are locked. You were the singular cause of me having to sleep with a cell phone in my hand and why I have frequent nightmares about it not working correctly when I need it. No I can't hold, didn't you hear me, I can hear him coming down the hall, I can see the knob on the door turning. Hello? Hello?

You were the reason that sometimes I can't catch my breath when I'm out and I start feeling uncomfortable because I'm not familiar with my surroundings, and I start fidgeting and smiling quick little smiles and tapping my legs and rubbing my neck to quell the panic rising inside. You were the reason that I dreaded getting up to go to the bathroom because I hate asking someone to go with me almost as much as I hate walking anywhere alone. I knew for a fact that it was you that made that comment to me when I had to squeeze between you and your friend to get to the bathroom. I knew your friend was waiting to slip around to the driver's side of the car when I rolled down the window to ask you if you needed help. Nice try, you son of a bitch. Burn in hell, you bastard.

While I was writing your second story, I was also reminding myself about the kind of person that I wanted to be. The person that never rushes to judgment about another; the person that wonders what path you must be walking to be so angry, so sad, so mean. The person that holds out a hand instead of pointing a finger, that offers hope instead of turning away.

Because one day in my past, an act of kindness from a stranger changed me. Because sometimes, there are things that you think you can live with, and things that you think you just cannot live with, and sometimes it gets very, very hard to distinguish the two, and right when you think that you've decided where those lines are drawn in the sand, a wave crashes on the shore and erases them.

I promised myself and that person that day (silently, but a promise, nonetheless) that I would try to change the lives of everyone that I met, because the truth is that you never do know when the smallest act that you commit can have a profound effect on someone else. Guess what I did with that promise? I polished it up and kept it when it was easy, but when push came to shove, I looked into the eyes of a stranger that probably needed help and I stepped on the accelerator and left him there, walking in the dark.

And then I thought:

"If you were a dog, I would have stopped to help you". And I hated what that said about me as a human being.

Because I know all about hope looking like a fading tail light in the distance on a cold night, but I also know that if I had it to do over again, the next time, I might not even make eye contact with you. Instead, I'd turn up the song that was playing and sing along, "You were quicker than they thought; you just turned your back and walked, and you're still the same, some things never change"...

What I'm trying to tell you is that you were on my mind all night; for days really. I was thinking of you when I was staring at the ceiling at 4:37 a.m. That's when I wrote a couple of endings for your stories.

The first ending concluded when you got home and your wife kissed you and thanked the stranger that brought you there, and told you that she didn't doubt you, even for a second. In that story, you told her about that woman in a car that you thought was going to help you, but instead drove away. Your wife shook her head, and wondered when people got so self-centered and promised herself that she'd never be that lady--the lady that left people desperate for an act of kindness waving their arms, chasing after you in the dark of the night.

In the second story, you got home, too. Turns out that you really were working two jobs and that it wasn't you saying those things to me tonight in the bar while you made sure that I had to brush up against you to get by. Your wife rolled over when she heard your key in the door and looked at the alarm clock and pretended to be sleeping when your side of the bed sank under your exhausted weight. You never told her about me since the truth was that you never gave me a second thought. Because a long, long time ago you'd given up on a stranger ever offering you hope, let alone a hand.

It was the second ending that made me sob.


slouching mom said...

This was incredibly powerful. Gut-wrenching, even. Wow.

Anonymous said...

The third time I read this, I was still crying. Besides being a mom, you should do something with the talent that you have.

luckyzmom said...

I knew that if I kept checking (and enjoying) you would move me again as you just have. Wow indeed you are talented.

jen said...

oh, wow.

wow. i've not been here before and am so glad to have found you now. that story was incredible.

PDX Mama said...

That was very powerful. I have chills.

I am so sorry, I cannot imagine. Although I've had those fears based on nothing more than my imagination.

(by the way, thank you for stopping by, I can't yet bring myself to give the kids' stuff away for the same reason it's hurting you)

Shawn said...

I am speechless. That is why it took me 3 days of reading this to finally leave a comment. It is amazing that in the 6 or 7 paragraphs that you wrote that I felt like I was you, the stranded guy & his wife all at once. You are SO talented and a beautiful writer. I LOVE the way you think & you have the kindest, biggest heart out of anyone I have ever met. Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise my dear friend.

mamalang said...

That was beautiful.

I have grappled with that feeling...wanting to be nice, to help out another human being, but being so afraid that he wasn't trying to be a good human. It's hard, isn't it? We teach our kids to do unto others and all that, but sometimes, we have to compromise that ideal in order to continue to live another day. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

so sad that I didn't comment until now because shawn took my, "I felt like I was you, the stranded guy & his wife all at once" line straight from my initial reading.


Still, friend, mother, sister, aunt, love, loveuuuuur... and at some point, author, at the risk of sounding like a song lyric "go, walk out the door, don't turn around now" because we got your back, and if the first publisher doesn't feel it there are thousands more to send it to.

No, don't deny it. Just smile, and act like you did when you were ignoring the fact that the Amazon just elbowed you in the left boob.

Jonas said...

That truly was a powerful entry. Thank you.

Christine said...

Can I offer you a third ending, the one that sprung to my mind immediately?

This man walking along the side of the road, is at first disappointed that the car approaching him isn't slowing down. But as you drove by he caught a glimpse of you and saw it was a lone woman, and he not only understood your decision to continue on, but also approved of it...because he would not want his wife to put herself in harms way, and they teach their daughters (and sons) to protect themselves as well.

In my story, he has as much compassion for you as you for him.