Stranger of the Week

New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, South Hall

Illustration by Forsyth Harmon

I’d been resolved not to fall into another of those situations with neighborhood baristas, those relationships of daily small talk and incremental intimacy, where before you know it, it’s plain too late to ask their name. So months back — maybe even a year ago? — I’d introduced myself to you. I’d tried to remember, I’d repeated it to myself, but yours was an unusual name and — I’m sorry — by the next day it had escaped me. A “k” in it, somewhere? That’s all I’ve got. I have a weird name too. Yours, however, did not have the retentive advantage of being shared by a character in a global cultural phenomenon.

Here was the thing that made seeing you a suckerpunch: today, earlier this afternoon, walking through the subway, you’d appeared quite firmly and clearly in my head. You, a person I barely knew and hadn’t seen or thought about in a year! I’d felt a surprise at the thought of you, a what are you doing here? So I didn’t believe it, when, an hour or so after this, I looked up in the South Hall of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library and there, a few tables over, was someone who looked exactly like you. I stared so hard that I felt the person opposite me — an elderly man peering down his spectacles at a laptop which bore a union jack sticker — cast a reproving glance. Like, stop gawping young lady and get to work. I kept gawping. They looked exactly like you because, yes, they were definitely you.

You had the same butch haircut I remembered. Red flannel shirt. You were hunched over a textbook with a yellow highlighter in hand and I wondered what you were studying to become or what you already were, other than the person that had made me a soy matcha latte most mornings for a period of five or six months. We’d shared a little history, minor dramas, all of which had been intensified by me being the only one in the place between the hours of 8am and 11. Which, of course, I now realize, is probably why it shut down.

There’d been the guy on the bike, do you remember him? It was a morning after snow, the roads slushy with it, and I’d looked up out the window and watched him fold right off his bike into the tarmac. And just lie there, on his side, like a bug. You and I had met eyes in surprise, slight horror, then both rushed outside. We’d helped him up, got his bike locked up, called his work, got him in a cab to a medical clinic and the whole time he’d barely said anything, stunned with shock or pain. His bike stayed there, locked up outside, for weeks, causing me to fret each time I saw it. There was him. And then there was that guy who’d peevishly swiped a napkin one summer morning, remember him? You’d yelled at him fruitlessly as he made off with it down the street, sauntering. It was the first time I’d seen seen the waving of white fabric as an antagonistic gesture.

Now, I wanted you to look up and see me, but also not, because there would be unavoidable and false romance in the moment. I thought of that scientific study that claimed that if a pair of strangers did a certain sequence of things, culminating in them staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes, they would, apparently, fall in love. I felt that if you, two desks away, were to raise your gaze and meet my eyes under the pink-flushed clouds of these ancient high ceilings, it would almost as excruciating as staring into a stranger’s eyes for two hundred and forty seconds. Because if you looked up, you’d recognize me, probably, and you’d see me writing and the excruciating thing would be you not knowing that I was writing this, about you.