The Familiar Stranger

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who is the intimate stranger in your life? And what should you do when they reappear? A little creative non-fiction from my trip to the West coast and back.

I woke up on couches and beds all the way down the West coast. Road trips were sandwiched around my best friend's wedding - a few days in Seattle, a few in California, then back to Oregon to collect strange postcards and eat way too much rich food. On hard futons and under comforters dense with stuffing, I thought of the bed I had slept in as a child, now sporting faded leopard-print sheets and pillowcases.

In previous years, I spent as little time as possible at home. It felt like being caught in quicksand. I would hole up in coffee shops or run away to Portland, where my best friend lives, to escape. As another ex-patriate from Washington put it, "going home is like taking a sedative." But there's always a lingering question when we talk like this, making my stomach twist. What about our friends and families that still live here? Do they feel the same lethargy? Or is it just another part of home?

On the drive back to Portland from San Francisco, it began to sink in that I was leaving. My mind was already re-arranging itself into to-do lists. I felt the familiar stranger detaching from the shadows in my mind.
My best friend and I stopped off at a gas station in northern California and I picked out a book from a bag in the backseat.
"You can read this to me," I said. It was Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.
We don't really get read to as adults. There is something intimate about it. You and the other person are both sharing literary discoveries at the same time - taking breaks and making small jokes as you go along. I think less about the content than the feelings of the story. I will remember that night as the one when my best friend read to me as our car hydroplaned on highways slick with rain.

When I wake up in New York City, flicking a cockroach off my shoulder, I still don't feel like the sluggishness has worn off. I think about how New York makes me feel like I'm behind on everything. I've taken to a vampiric sleep schedule, sleeping in too late and getting everything at night.
At the top of the stairs, there is a small child peering down at me, asking me why I'm still in bed. No matter how many times I try to explain, to make friends, they disappear when I sit up. I wonder if the sedative has worn off yet, or if it takes a few weeks. In the meantime, I find myself permanently in the blue glow of a computer screen, searching and searching for the next opportunity.

Why haven't you finished your list for today? The small child asks me, daring to come close to the end of my bed.
I ignore them, the dark cluster of shadows with slits for eyes.
Where are the groceries? Where is the end to your story?
They speak in a peevish voice, remaining always in the corner of my eye.
Why can't you listen to good advice?
I realize that this familiar stranger has been following me for quite a long time. I look up.
"I want to be better than ghosts," I say.
I begin to read my words out loud to the dark.