I watch you.  Around Christmas, you stood in line at the toy store.  Your kids were stealing candy from the bins and you didn’t even notice.  Their mouths were crusted with green rock candy.  One of them picked his nose and left it in a bucket of caramel corn.  

One night, I saw the day glow of your window from the bus stop.  The curtains were open, do you remember?  You were sitting down to dinner.  Pot roast, was it, or maybe meat loaf?  I couldn’t tell.  Your house is nicer than mine.  I wonder what your life feels like. 

You were at my coffee shop.  I had to find a different table on the terrace.  Across the street, trees were just beginning to yellow.  The air tasted like fall.  But I doubt you noticed:  you were on your cell phone, telling the whole restaurant about your life.  Your mother had a colonoscopy? 

I stood behind you on the elevator.  You were all dressed up.  I wondered where you were going.  Those shoes you wore, those aren’t practical.  What’s the point?  Who are you trying to impress?  For a minute I was worried you were going to turn around, like my thoughts had passed right into your head.  I was practically breathing down your neck.  I bet you smelled my sour breath.  

I’ve wanted to hurt you before, can I say that?  And it wasn’t even that you did something wrong.  Maybe just the way you looked.

At the park, I thought your daughters were lovely.  Could I have said that?  Or would it have been inappropriate? 

When you’re jogging, you check yourself out in the windows of cars you pass.  People will think you’re trying to steal something.  And don’t worry about the wrinkles under your eyes.  I see you playing with your wrinkles.  I have them too.

I saw your car accident.  I pulled over after you went down in the ditch.  Water was up to the wheel wells.  But you wouldn’t have cared about the water; you could barely move.  I shivered in the rain.  Do you want to hear what your face looked like?  There was so much glass in your cheek.  Your mouth opened and closed like a fish.  I didn’t want to touch you.    

Before you judge me, call me a voyeur or a liar or a narcissist, let me tell you something:  you watch me too.

Do you remember the subway?  Our cars were end to end in the dark tunnel.  You looked forward into my car, right at my face.  You must have thought it was a mirror (some people make that mistake).  You raised a hand to adjust your glasses, and then looked shocked when my arm didn’t move. 

We’ve met before, remember?  You passed me in the hallway of your hotel.  You had that look.  You know, that eight in the morning look, before coffee, rubbing sleep from your eyes.  I smiled and said hello.  You didn’t.

I’ve seen the way you look at me.  You want to know what makes me different.  You might have noticed the spots on my skin.  Or that the food I eat is different than your food.

Maybe I’ve lived in Detroit and San Francisco, Madrid, Cairo. Maybe you’ve been to those places too, or maybe you haven’t.  Does it matter?

You wonder why the lines on my face are longer than yours.  You wonder why I sit alone, why I have cream cheese on my lips (can’t I eat right?), why I’m at the airport bar at nine in the morning (what’s wrong with me?). 

Maybe I know what war smells like.  Do you? 

Maybe my kids are older than yours, or shorter, fatter, dumber, taller, smarter.  Does that make me different? 

You’ve seen me at my worst and at my best.  Could you tell the difference?  I was seated on a park bench when you walked by.  The sun was coming up and I’d just gotten a new job.  There were sweat stains under my arm pits, so maybe you thought I’d been exercising, but I hadn’t—caffeine, stress, they do that sometimes.  Did you know that was a good day for me?

You could ask me questions, but you don’t.  Most of the time, you don’t even want to look me in the eyes.  You’ve thought terrible things about me.  You’ve respected me.  Maybe it was my suit (my dress), the bounce in my step, the briefcase I carried (the purse), the wrinkles in my shirt, the ten I left in the homeless man’s bucket, the old man I gave my cab to.  If you asked me questions, you’d just be scratching the surface.

After the car accident, if you’d opened your eyes you would have seen me standing in the rain in my t-shirt.  I wasn’t ready for that, but neither were you.

You see me at the airport and the bus stop.  The grocery store.  The interstate rest stop off. 

You see me nearly every day.  You call me that guy, woman, kid.  You call me stranger.  You call me worse things.  Maybe you need to wake up, or maybe I do.  Because you and me, we’re the same.

Elliot Sanders lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Missouri, a place with more cows and chickens than people.  His fiction can (or will soon) be found at PANK, Carolina Quarterly, JMWW, War, Literature & the Arts, Echo Ink Review, Bartleby Snopes and Punchnel’s.

I wrote this piece after a turbid week of conferences, airports, and hotel-stays.  I was a little disjointed emotionally.  I started to think about the way we treat strangers.  These are people we meet everyday, people we spend a large part of our lives with, especially those of us who live in cities and tight urban spaces.  It's a funny thing: the presumptions we make, the perceived differences, the jarring similarities. 




Copyright 2009