Strange. They act the same, yet seem completely different.
My mother, father and brother race to welcome me home. Smiling, laughing. The faces, expressions and mannerisms, exactly as I remember.
I find myself smiling along with them, laughing and hugging and putting on an act of my old self. They seem to buy it.
“What was it like?” My dad asks, when we’re all seated in the living room.
“Did you shoot the bad-guys?” Says my little brother.
“Yeah, sure did,” I find myself saying. We do a fist-pump, like always.
My mother seems a bit more concerned. “Were you ever in danger?”
“Nah,” I lie, as an explosion flashes through my mind, partner blown to pieces. “All the major fighting was over when I got there.”
I’ve lost track of how many I’ve killed.
“Good,” she sighs. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Everything back to normal.”
They smile and hug me.
Later, night terrors wake me up at two a.m. in a cold sweat. I bolt up silently in bed, mind screaming.
Don’t make a sound. I don’t want them to know.
Instead, I get up and pad over to my mirror. Look at the person staring back at me.
Same hair. Same face. Same everything.
But that person looks like a stranger to me, now.
How can I feel so different on the inside, but still look the same outside?
Do I even see it in my eyes?
Yes. That is the one place I see it. Cold and dead. The life drained out of them.
I’m the same, but different.
A familiar stranger.
I’ve lost myself, even though he is standing right in front of me.
I remember that day so well.
Free plastic surgery. Transform your body!
Lose the overly large nose? The too wide hips? The flabby arms? Who would say no?
“You look amazing!” my friend said, the first time she saw me. “I can’t believe it. You look like a different person. I didn’t even recognize you!”
“I know, right!” I said, and we high-fived each other just like always.
But now, on our first shopping trip in my new body, something seems different.
“How does it look?” I ask her, spinning around in a perfectly-fitted dress.
“Fine,” she grumbles, and stomps off to look at shoes.
What did I say?
“What’s wrong?” I ask her, as we walk out the shop, me in my new dress.
“Heyyy, can I get your number?” A man calls out to me.
I pause, stunned. No guy has ever done that to me.
“Keep walking,” my friend says, pulling me along. “Guys like that aren’t worth it.”
Still, I couldn’t help but be stupidly flattered.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” my friend says, as we continue walking and I try not to look back. “You just seem…different.”
“But, I’m the same as I always was.” We’d been laughing together, telling the same stupid, tired jokes.
“I know,” she says. “But it still feels like I’m walking with a stranger.”
“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. Was my friend really that…. shallow?
Our epic shopping trip is cut short and I end up going home early.
Alone, I examine myself in my new dress, spinning in front the mirror in my room.
And I notice how generic I look. The textbook definition of beauty; perfect symmetry, smooth, unblemished skin, small, non-descript nose, high cheekbones. Nothing unique or intriguing.
Completely contrary to my personality.
How can I look so different on the outside, but still feel the same inside?
I’m like a life-sized doll.
No wonder my friend was turned off.
I’m the same, but different.
A familiar stranger.
I’ve lost myself, even though she is standing right in front of me.
College Boy Blues
Tipsy brought him home over Thanksgiving. A “friend from school”, she called him. Her brother Dood came and told me about him, but I had to see for myself.
The car parked at the end of her sidewalk was red, but was unlike any car that I knew, and I knew cars pretty well. It looked fast in a sleek, sexy kind of way. Not the heavy, muscular fast of American steel, but the lightning-quick, unreliable fast of an Italian, or French racer.
I didn’t knock. I never had. Tipsy was my girl, but she was also my friend. My family and I lived three doors down and across the street. My Mother and Father were long and fast friends with Tipsy and Dood's parents. Our folks shared a garden, took us vacationing to the lake together, and were a bridge-night foursome. We were practically one, big family. I had probably stepped through her front door almost as many times as Tipsy herself had over these past seventeen years.
The first thing I noticed once inside was the embarrassment in Mrs. Swain’s eyes. She wouldn’t even look up at me. When I turned the corner into the parlor they were sitting together on the front room sofa. In all of the years I’d known Tipsy and Dood I couldn’t recall ever having been in that front room, much less having been seated on its flowered sofa. So far as I knew there hadn’t anybody ever sat on it, least-wise not up until now.
Tipsy flashed me with challenging eyes when I walked in. Her “friend” removed his hand from hers and stood, taking away my advantage. Mr. Swain stood as well, sensing the possibility of trouble.
“Hey, Tips. I heard it, but didn’t believe it. Had to come see for myself.” My voice stayed low, and calm.
So did hers. “Well, you’ve seen, Levi Hill. Now go on home.”
“That’s plain rude, Tipsy. Are those the manners they teach you at that college? Won’t you introduce me to your new friend?”
Julie Swain was five years old when she picked up her Aunt Shelby’s “orange juice” one Saturday morning. The glass was nearly empty when “Little Jules” hit the floor. The joke is that she was “stone drunk that day, but has only been ‘Tipsy’ ever since.” They say I was there the day she acquired that new nickname. They say I ran crying to plant a kiss on her lips after she fell, trying to “wake up my Princess.” I must have been too young to remember it if I did, but I expect so. Me and Tipsy have been together forever. I just always thought we’d stay that way.
When Tipsy came home for Christmas Vacation I noticed there wasn’t any foreign car at the end of her sidewalk. I didn’t go to ask her why not. I haven’t been through her door since that last Thanksgiving Day, not even to see Dood, who I still call a friend. I don’t aim to go through it again, neither. Momma says I’m being foolish, that I should talk to Tips, but I saw her eyes that day in her parlor. I saw how they had turned, and how easy her “new friend” had turned them. Nope, my Tipsy was gone from me, same as if she’d died, or rather, same as if I had.
When she came home from her college at Spring Break “they” said she’d gained some weight, but there still wasn’t any fancy car out in front of her house. The other things “they” said about Tips burned my ears going in. I just couldn’t believe them. This time I did go over, but it felt different, so I knocked. Tipsy wouldn’t come to the door, but Mr. Swain came out and talked to me, man-to-man. Seems the rumors were true. Tipsy was in trouble and her fancy college boy had blown her off, moving on to some other young, pretty girl, no doubt. I sat on her front stoop for most of three days, but Tipsy wouldn’t come out. It was alright, though. I understood. Luckily, I already had his name from that “introduction” back at Thanksgiving.
It was a long drive and a big campus, but it wasn’t hard to find him. It ain’t never hard to find someone like that, or someone who drives a car like that one he drove. It seems a “show-off” just can’t hide. Funny, he didn’t remember who I was, at least not right away.
I’d be willing to take bets that her fancy college boy won’t forget me again. It is somewhat discouraging that despite all of my efforts he might not change his ways. Some people, no matter how convincing your argument is, just won’t ever get it. That said, however, he’ll sure enough think through his options the next time he’s in the same situation, and he’ll damned sure stay far, far away from Tipsy Swain.
Nope, that baby of Tipsy’s may never look like me, but I still see a chance that it might yet have someone to show it how to treat the good people it encounters in life... and maybe someone to show it how to treat the bad people, too.
The knight placed his helmet to one side of the table. He checked to see if the room was all clear. The door creaked, this made him jump.
A young woman with rosy cheeks, and sparkling eyes walked in. The knight was lost for words.
She asked the knight what he was doing in the kitchen. He stared at the woman and bowed his head.
‘‘Please, forgive me. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.’’
The young lady looked at him. Who did this guy think he was.
From his armor and attire she guessed that he was a knight. Why was he acting nervous around her?
The knight didn’t know what else to say to the maiden. She asked him if he was looking for something or someone.
He shook his head. Then got ready to leave. But each time he tried to pass, she also moved at the same time & in the same direction that he went.
They laughed. He stopped and said to her that she had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. She blushed and smiled.
The knight bent his head lower and asked her what her name was. He moved closer to her, their noses almost even touched.
She thought she was going to faint because he was standing so close, and stealing her air. He brushed his hand across her forehead to place her loose hair back in place.
Trulida felt her heart begin to race. The knight moved to the side and waved goodbye.
She stood in the kitchen wondering what just happened. Who was this stranger that had stolen her heart?
The man was sitting in the old yellow armchair in the corner. That was the first thing she noticed when she awoke. Actually, that wasn’t quite right. First she noticed the aching in her joints, the lethargy in her limbs, the cloudiness of her thoughts, all of which told her she was getting too old for this, whatever ‘this’ might be. Certainly too old to be seeing strange young men in her bedroom.
“Who are you?” she asked calmly, not wishing to startle him into any violent action. Still, he jolted upright in his seat. He had been sleeping, she realized.
Then he stood and approached her bed slowly. Not menacingly, but warily, as if he were the one who needed protection from her. She almost chuckled at the thought.
Instead, she repeated firmly, “Who are you?” This close up, her failing eyes could see that her initial perception had been wrong. He wasn’t young. He had wrinkles and creases and gray hairs. His face was weathered, tired. Middle-aged then, she decided.
“Well, Joe, didn’t your mother raise you better than to enter the rooms of sleeping women?”
His face now took on a strange look. Of discomfort, perhaps, at being scolded? “Ma’am, I’m afraid I’m here to give you some bad news.”
“Don’t tell me you’re Death, here to take me away.” She eyed him suspiciously.
“No ma’am, but . . . Death did take someone yesterday.”
Fear suddenly shot through her. “Who? Not my husband, not my Joseph?” It registered belatedly that she had not woken beside him, that she could not even remember him coming to bed last night.
“Jenny. There was a car crash.” Her confusion must have shown. “Jenny, your daughter.”
She looked at his expression, pinched and appropriately pained, and couldn’t help but smile. It was out of relief, and a bit of amusement—she would not deny that his face looked silly crumpled in that manner. “You must have the wrong room. I don’t have a daughter.”
A nurse chose that moment to enter. “Mrs. Park, I have your breakfast.”
“Yes, yes.” She waved the nurse over.
The man stepped back, towards the door. “Sorry to have bothered you, ma’am. I see now that I was mistaken.” He paused, and for a moment, she thought he would say something else. Then he turned and walked out. For the best, she thought. There was no use in extending their odd, mismatched conversation.
The nurse joined him soon after.
The woman sat up in her bed and diligently ate her pudding. It was chocolate, her favorite.
Outside, the nurse turned to the man. “One of the bad days?”
“Doesn’t your sister usually visit on Wednesdays?”
“She - uh - an accident,” He closed his eyes briefly. “She won’t be coming anymore.”
The nurse reached out and touched his shoulder. “I’m really sorry to hear that. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people.”
He glanced toward his mother, visible through the window in the door, smiling down at her pudding cup. “Neither do I.”
On my first day of work in the city, I got off my train at King and 4th street 51 minutes before I was supposed to. That accounts for a fifteen minute walk from the train station to the office, which is more time than it would’ve actually taken me, but it was my first day, so I calculated for spare. I was so scared something would go wrong that I didn’t even think about what I would do with the 51 minutes I had to myself, and took a breath of relief when I realized I had packed Slaughterhouse-Five in my backpack. It’s a book I have to read for school, but I think I would’ve eventually read it anyway even if it wasn’t. I don’t know why though, because it hasn’t gotten good yet and I’m worried that it won’t ever get good and then I’ll feel guilty for not admiring a book that so many people say is life-changing. I don’t even know why I picked a war story. They sort of anger me. But I’d like to think they anger me in a Mary O’Hare kind of way, so I decided I’d let Kurt Vonnegut go and just read the fucking book.
So anyway, I remembered there was a Philz nearby. I never really go to Philz, but it feels like I’m supposed to like it because everyone does, and I didn’t know where else to go, and I needed a place to sit down to read Slaughterhouse-Five. For some reason I also thought I could handle my coffee without milk that day, which was clearly false, and this is all to say that the whole thing was pretty much unplanned. So I sat down in this deserted corner of the coffee shop, not drinking my coffee, and I opened Slaughterhouse-Five. I took out a pink pen, I think. I’m really particular about my pens, and I’m almost certain it was pink. I think it would be unsettling if the pen was actually purple, or blue, because I characterized that whole morning by a pink pen and I’m not really sure how I would feel if I was wrong about the color. It probably wouldn’t change anything. I feel like it would.
I wasn’t really focusing on the book, because it wasn’t that interesting at that point, and also I was still distracted by my black coffee because I didn’t even think about the fact that it was black when I ordered it, I just sort of didn’t think, so I was sitting in this corner and completely not thinking about anything but thinking about a lot of unnecessary things at the same time. Then this super old disheveled black guy comes in and sits a few feet away from me and he had a walker that was right beside him that I guess he was using before. By the way, I didn’t know it was called a walker. I had to look up “what are the things that old people wheel around” on Google images to figure that out. Well now I know.
So he’s sitting there, and then he just starts mumbling a lot of words I can’t really make out. And he was also facing me, so I thought maybe he was trying to talk to me but I didn’t want to have a conversation with a person I couldn’t understand because it was 7:35am and I didn’t want to do something difficult or be a respectful fucking human being, I guess, so I just kept staring down at this page of Slaugherhouse-Five that I wasn’t retaining. Actually, I wasn’t even reading it. I was just looking at it so that I didn’t have to figure out if this guy was talking to me. I kept thinking, Should I ask him if he’s trying to say something to me? But then I realized that then I would have to talk to him, so I just stayed there, fiddling with what I think was a pink pen, and flipping a page every now and then so that it wouldn’t look suspicious. Not that he probably even noticed.
Then this barista comes up to him, and she tells him that she threw his coffee away because he didn’t come to collect it and it had been so long so it was cold. I thought this was really odd, because it hadn’t been that long at all. And then I realized that if he wasn’t in Philz when I got there, which he wasn’t, he must’ve ordered a coffee much earlier and then went on a walk or something… a walk. There I was, in the city an hour early because I was so worried about being late to work, and this guy who I couldn’t understand wasn’t even worried about picking up his coffee on time. I think the barista was kind of annoyed, but the guy did some more mumbling so she told him she’d make it again for him, and she did, and he thanked her, I think, and that was sort of the end of that.
But it wasn’t. Because the coffee didn’t shut him up. The guy was still mumbling. And still facing me. And it wasn’t even a big deal, but I kept building it up in my head like it mattered or something. I got mad at myself because I didn’t turn to him and ask him if he was talking to me, and I got mad that I was so annoyed that this guy wasn’t letting me read my book even though I was in a public place that he deserved to be in, and I got mad that I was getting so stressed about not understanding a guy that had taken a walk after ordering coffee. That’s the exact kind of person that I should be able to understand. It’s probably the best type of person.
My head got so loud and it felt like one of those dinners where my dad accidentally scrapes his cutlery on a ceramic plate and then apologizes to me because I always react so badly to that noise. It wasn’t even a big deal. I don’t know why I remember it so well.
I was so uncomfortable that I got up. He was still mumbling and (maybe) talking to me as I packed up my things. I tried to be slow and calm, like a normal person leaving a coffee shop. Maybe he noticed. He probably didn’t. I put the book in my bag and the pink pen back in its place and my fingers shook as they closed the buckle of my backpack and then I looked at him and stopped. He was moving his walker aside so that I could pass by him and walk to the door.
I wanted to cry. I hated that I got so stressed out about everything before then. This was just an old guy who took walks after ordering coffee and who moved his walker for me and I didn’t even try to have a conversation with him earlier when I know I probably should’ve.
Gratefully and ashamed, I said, “Thank you, sir,” and his eyes went big and he looked at me and said, “Sir?,” and I was confused by that.
He was mumbling a lot of things and I think what he was saying was that nobody ever calls him sir or he hadn’t been called that in a long time or something like that. I don’t know. I didn’t say anything, because he was still mumbling. Then he said, “What’s your name?”
I understood that. I told him my name and he sort of looked at me accusingly but in a good way and said, “No, really, what’s your name?” and I understood him again. So I told him that was actually my name, it was just a Hebrew name and when he heard that he said “Well, damn, are you Jewish?”
“Yes, yeah, I am,” I said.
“Well, god, I would’ve never guessed that. I would’ve never guessed you were Jewish!” and he laughed to himself for a little bit.
I started walking away through the space he cleared up by moving his walker and I told him that I hope he’d have a nice day, and he yelled after me, unrelatedly, “Carl! My name’s Carl,” and then kept mumbling. I don’t remember if I said anything after that. Maybe I said it was nice meeting him. Maybe I just kept walking. Either way, he was still mumbling when I left the coffee shop, and I walked out a little bit confused but somehow a lot more calm than I was before.
I wondered why he was in Philz of all places, because his clothes were sort of torn up and he didn’t look too wealthy and Philz sells the most expensive coffee in the Bay Area. And honestly, it’s not even good if you don’t get milk. So then maybe he just really cared about quality coffee.
I started liking Carl more for that. He probably gets black coffee even if it’s not as good, because he seems like the kind of guy who could take it. Maybe that’s why he was mumbling the entire time, because all he drinks is Philz coffee without milk so his veins are filled with solely caffeine. Brewed blood. Pink ink. Or maybe he’s going crazy from having to use a walker and move it for judgemental teenage girls who shouldn’t be getting black coffee or reading Slaughterhouse-Five or not talking to him.
I don’t know why I think about Carl so often now. I’ve started to think that maybe he was talking to me the entire time, and just didn’t care that I wasn’t saying anything, and I like that about him, too. I always stop talking if I don’t think someone’s listening to what I’m saying, I don’t want to bother them. Maybe they’re concentrated on a line of a Kurt Vonnegut book they’ve read seventy-two times because they’re trying to avoid me, for example. But even if I was ignoring Carl, I couldn’t really ignore him, and somehow I ended up finding out that he doesn’t think I look Jewish and he thinks my name is sort of weird and he doesn’t get called sir a lot. So something came out of it, I guess.
To be honest, I still feel sort of bad about the whole thing, but I’m glad that it happened. Mostly, I’m just glad that I called him sir. I’d do it again.
A stranger walked across my path
I caught his eye and he ripped it back from me
Annoyed that I was such a good catch
He should have been mad that he was such a good pitcher
A stranger walked across my path,
Like a black cat, his fur bristled
Annoyed that I had taken his can of tuna
But this stranger wasn't my cup of tea
his water was too hot,
it scalded me,
burned like a fresh wound.
A stranger walked across my path,
and then he continued on,
unaware of the silent poetry
that just occured between him and me.
An Unconventional Companion
I stared at the dark wooden box in my lap. I’d just taken money from a stranger to carry this box on the plane, and I was at an absolute loss.
“Sir, I have to ask you to place carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you,” a bright-eyed flight attendant told me.
I jumped at the voice. Stop acting guilty, I told myself as I slid the box onto the floor. You’ve done nothing wrong.
Unless the box had a bomb.
It’s already been through security, a small voice echoed in my head. And it’s not that heavy.
I nodded. Right, of course it couldn’t be a bomb. I was only getting paid to take a box from Indianapolis to San Francisco. I felt an urge to pick up the box again, and I complied.
Besides, you need the money, murmured the same voice, louder this time.
I really did. A hundred thousand dollars was enough to help me get squared away– to pay off student loans, get a new laptop, maybe a down payment on the apartment I'd been eyeing–
The world is run on money.
It was, wasn’t it?
A few hours in, I drummed my fingers nervously on the box. I’d put it down once more but almost immediately picked it up again. I needed to be holding it. Besides, it smelled good. It smelled… exciting. The scent was driving me crazy now. How had I just noticed it?
I nodded fervently. It was, it was very nice.
I wasn’t addicted, though.
Then put the box down.
I obeyed, sliding the box onto the floor. A minute later, it was in my hands again. What?
Try opening the box.
I shook my head. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t my business, I didn’t want to get involved.
The box in my lap trembled a little.
My eyes widened. Was it alive? Had I just taken an animal across national borders? This had to be twelve kinds of illegal.
Not alive, no. The voice told me. At least, not in a conventional sense.
I didn’t know what that meant. I noticed the scent was gone.
If you knew, you’d want to get rid of me, just like the last one.
Rid of… you? I looked carefully at the strange, yet nondescript, box.
“What are you, exactly?” I asked the voice.
I am an unconventional companion, it responded.
“Oh,” I squeaked, bewildered. “I guess that’s fine then.”
The box was talking to me in my head. Okay. I was just going a little insane. Which was fine. I put the box down, resisting the urge to grab it and hold it close. The memory of the enticing smell remained.
You’ll pick it up again, the voice said, quieter. They always do.
I was worried we were becoming friends. Just friends, I mean. Strangers, really. It had been months since we’d spent any waking moments alone-together. I’d actually been spending so much time alone-alone that I was growing increasingly worried I didn’t know how to be alone with another person anymore. But everyone else had made other dinner plans, so for the first time in a long time we made our own.
I chose a spot outside on the patio, which was crowded with tables and chairs but not people. The mid-summer evening sun washed over my face as I took my seat, and I soon began to feel the latticed pattern of the metal chair imprinting itself on the backs of my bare thighs. You smiled at me from across the table and I tried to mimic one back. I wanted so badly to be able to talk about something - anything - that I could think only of nothing at all. As usual, you tried to fill the silence with sporadic bits non-substantial sentiment: You’re so beautiful, so cute. Things I used to love to hear but little did compliments inspire the conversation I now so desperately craved.
As we sat quietly looking at our menus, the barren hollows of my mind suddenly became inundated with a surge of thoughts that I’d been working so diligently to evade: I can’t tell if I have nothing to say at all, or if I have nothing to say to you. What did we used to talk about? I feel so disconnected, polar opposite. What did we used laugh about? Everything seems so senseless now; rudimentary and vapid. I glanced across the table just in time to see you look up and shoot me another grin. You don’t feel the emptiness. How can you not feel this emptiness?
“Can I get you folks started with something to drink?” Our waitress must not have realized that I’d been looking through the menu, not at it. You ordered yourself a beer, and upon my faux-panicked attempt to quickly decide from the sticky menu list full of choices, you gently pointed out that they had one of my favorites on draught. I’ll have that, yes, please – and I could tell you were proud that you knew me so very well.