June 10, 2022 /

Letter to a Stranger

Written by Sharanya Deepak

  

It was a cold night in Glasgow – your city, one I knew little and loved well. I had just turned twenty-nine, and was determined to make something meaningful of it. My friend, H, and I were walking down the street searching for a bar, when we bumped into a squad of men, to which you belonged..  We let them circle around each other as we stood on the peripheries, navigating our place in this conversation to which we didn’t yet belong. You made a tiny wave with your hands, sort of Victorian, like one to rich women in old British movies. I remember thinking this and laughing in my head. I wanted to tell you —but everyone else was talking in loud tones of familiarity.

The street was bathed in moldy yellow light, Glasgow’s buildings are beautiful by night— everything seems sad and slow, I loved the way my temperament would suddenly sync with the street lights in the city. You looked like you had been having fun before we met, you kept moving your hair behind your ears and fidgeting with a lighter. You moved up and down on your toes, your body still acclimatizing to the pause from your walk, like you would break into a dance if no one was watching. You looked nervous, or high — maybe you were both. I tried to keep my eyes away but you caught me looking your way, and grinned.  I shivered and put my hands inside my massive parka.  This caught your notice, it probably signaled my foreignness. Everyone else, including you, was in long sleeved T-shirts, padded only by a light jacket, if that. “Are you cold?”, you asked, over the heads of your friends. A rhetorical question, but I welcomed it all the same. “Freezing”, I said. You smiled.

We were brought into the conversation by your friends for hasty introductions in accents I couldn’t entirely comprehend. I realized that the courtly tone, and comical bows of your friends meant that they thought I was in a relationship with H. That these were the kind of boys whose manners turned into gallant gestures and old-school deference when they thought a woman was spoken for. I found the assumption annoying and endearing at the same time. Even though it had been made out of politeness, even respect, it felt unnecessary. Their guess wasn’t entirely wrong, however . Even though I was no girlfriend, it was for him that I was here, desperately in love and the clips of our life together. We had spent years like this, visiting one another in our hometowns across continents. He exhibited specks of affection now and then, while I stayed on standby, waiting for him to come around and tell me what I wanted to hear, knowing well that he wouldn’t.

As we stood around, one of your friends, whom I would see in the week after, turned to me dramatically, and said, with his hands thrown in the air  — “You there, Hello!” He reached into his bag and pulled out a plastic bottle of port wine. I  opened it and drank straight from its mouth. It tasted warm in my mouth, contrasting with the cold night we stood in, so I took long sips and kept the bottle in my hands. This seemed to amuse you, and annoy H, , who scowled at me . “That’s just grand” you said, and laughed out aloud. I was pleased, I thought how perfect I must have seemed to you then — effortless and cool, as I stood on foreign street corners and drank from a bottle of wine.

I started to drink and pace up and down in small steps, and my brisk body movements, and bravado seemed to delight you. As if you couldn’t hold it in any longer, your small laugh poured out a loud one, you bent forward and your hair fell over your head until you moved back up and put it back neatly to the sides of your head. It looked like you wanted to reach out a hand to me and shake it, but you brought back both your arms and planted them to the sides of your body as if ready to march. It was funny, whatever it was that made you laugh, so I did too. Our shared laughter allowed me to look at you without hesitance, my shoulders calmed and my steps lightened in triumph. I realized my own uncharacteristic liberty as I handed your friend the bottle back. I wasn’t like this otherwise, and I felt daring, charged, laughing with a stranger about a joke in his head.

I would think about this an hour later, at how easily you laughed when H and I sat at the bar we had been heading to. I had tried to bring up old memories of us at university to warm our conversation, he had told me that he was glad I was here, but kept his eyes on his phone. He seemed bored and angry, which made me resentful and sad. We had been arguing for days and there didn’t seem to be a way out of the tension. I had looked out of the bar window and wished you and your friends would appear again. Until we met on that street, every time I was in Glasgow, I felt hooked to H, each movement guided by his will even when he wasn’t around.  I was trying to get rid of this weight by succumbing to cliches, like climbing small hills and spending days inside museums, but the best things I would remember about the city later would be unexpected moments, unplanned things that came my way and brightened up entire days.. Through them, I freed myself in a city I loved from someone who refused to love me back .

A postman with a sprightly walk that would ask me about my day at a traffic light. A bright-eyed fisherman, who handed me a couple of oysters as I crossed his shop, asking me to eat them at the door in case I needed extra lemon.  Secret jokes with you in the street corner bathed in the taste of sweet wine and golden light. Blue patches in cloudy skies.

On that street, everyone else continued to talk with the abandon that only comes in the latest of the night’s hours, and we just stood there, fidgeting and stifling smiles like teenagers caught in an act. After our friends stopped talking, they began to shake hands, as men do when they leave rooms in some kind of drill; beginning to take leave, making superficial plans. As the others began to move in the directions they were heading before, you and I stood still. You pointed to the building I had been looking at and said — “That’s blonde sandstone, it’s yellow, but it’s still sandstone” and I was impressed that you knew what I was going to look up on the internet later. “Wow, thankyou!” I said. “I should be going, then” you replied, amid sudden movements and smiles. I studied your accent aggressively. What is your name? I remember thinking but not asking straight out. It seemed too stupid to say.

I remember your friends calling your name from a distance,  and you leaned in and gave me a big hug and said “Well hello then, and also, Goodbye”. I watched as you ran away, almost in a sprint, as if you didn’t want to look back at how I must have reacted; even as I stood in the spot, stalling the moment our bodies were in contact, extending the sensation of it.  It was my turn to run then, to catch up with H’s fast stride,  as he extended his arm to put around my shoulder. We had become habituated to each other’s bodies in the time we knew one another. He often moved in response to mine.  I noticed it every time. “Who was that?” I asked him quietly, one hand still in my parka’s pocket, as I leveled him on the street. “Who?” he said, and I felt angry at his ability to forge camaraderie with people he met and then completely forget about them. “That guy, with the long hair, nice face, really quick movements.” I said, wondering if he would pick up on how much detail I had noticed about you. “We were just with him? Who is that?” I persisted. “I don’t know,” H replied with a shrug. “Not really sure. I didn’t think you were that interested.”

—-

Many months later, when I was back in my own life, in my city, when I returned to the throes of everything familiar and terrifying— I would think about that night. I would play those thirty odd minutes in my head, and wonder how crevices like that can become an unshakeable memory. What name did your friends use as you parted? Connell? Charlie? It was something with a C.  Recounting that scene was almost painful, as if I was looking back onto something stupidly simple and unbound by the terseness of the rest of my life, undefined by the relationships I had destroyed along the way. Other times I would be grateful, that someone, somewhere could absolve me, even momentarily, of how hard it sometimes was to live within myself.

I preserved the memory – of looking into the circle and hearing everyone talk in loud shrill voices, of feeling friendship in your friend’s gesture with the wine, and you on the outside of that circle, reveling in what a nice night it was on that night that was my birthday. Some parts of life can be like that, choreographed and idyllic, like a music video — perfect cues, everyone talking in loud voices of affection to people they barely know — and others can be so banal, so difficult, so lonely. There is something glorious about newness, in which everything is interesting and beautiful for a while. But I think that maybe it wasn’t because I was a stranger, and you didn’t know me, that you laughed with me and studied me curiously.But maybe it was because you did. Maybe sometimes people we meet for small seconds may see us clearer than people we have known our whole life.