Talking To Strangers
It started as nothing. I was outside a café on Capitol Hill holding my coffee and trying to light a cigarette. My senses were flooded. I had just got back in town, to Seattle, but I still had that feeling of being abroad, the quiet electricity of being on new ground. Next to me, another woman was smoking and hiding out from the rain. I noticed her boots. I liked them and I told her so. In her reply I heard an accent so I asked where she was from.
Sarajevo, she said.
No way, I said, I just got back from there.
No, are you serious, she said.
Yeah, I said, and explained. I described my impression of the library with its bullet holes still visible, the small bridges, the street kids in the Turkish Quarter. She leaned a tiny bit closer so I kept talking about my time there: some misadventure I had on a bus, a postcard in my purse I still hadn’t sent, a brief fling I had with a young journalist.
You have to come in and talk to me and my husband, she said, and took me by the hand. I don't think we even finished our cigarettes.
I sat with them in a nook by the window. Hours went by, talking, laughing. One of us would start telling some story only to have to back up to explain what came before it. Then we’d derail, marveling at some detail. We’d lose the thread and regain it again, then one of us would remember another story and we’d all launch into that one. We went on like this until the sun went down.
That weekend they invited my boyfriend and me to their apartment for brunch. The day after that we met up for drinks. The next was dinner at my place. Within a space of weeks there were innumerable exchanges that bled into one another, long evenings where we drank wine spritzers and laughed and argued about America and art and work and love until the drinks ran out and we lost our voices.
They moved to London. The day they moved out I was at their apartment, perched on their bed, the last item in the room. When Brankica went out for a smoke, Ivica handed me some things: two pairs of old rollerblades and a Texas license plate.
Bring these when you come visit, he said. She won't let me keep them but I have to have them, he said.
I wrapped the things up in a sheet and when she came in I tried to mask their awkward bulk as I hugged her goodbye.
I dutifully brought their things to London, packed into a tacky glittery second-hand suitcase when I came to visit that winter. When we unpacked them she looked at Ivica and laughed.
Nearly every day that we had seen each other in the months between when we met and when they moved, one of us would say how amazing it was that we'd become such good friends. Then we'd all fall into a reverie, even if we were talking about something that happened only a week before.
I remember the first time I heard of Park Slope, years before I would have guessed that I'd one day live in Brooklyn—they’d wanted to move there after having seen The Squid and The Whale. The Texas license plate was from their first year as refugees in America, and I carried it years before I happened to move there myself. I generally have a dull heart but these details are like felled electric wires in my chest.
It's beautiful. But it isn't rare. I have known maybe a hundred people in such a way. Conversation, usually softly instigated by me, turns into something compelling and feverish. We stumble together upon some singular commonality and find ourselves somehow bound, entranced. There's a hint of mania as we both gallop along swiftly toward the next jump, the next rush of having found some new, precious fact that drives us further still. We quiz each other: And this, do you like this, too? And this, do you know of this as well? And this, do you believe in this? It's never that, it's always this, like something close.
I've always been the type of person who could just start chatting up a stranger. I don't think it's a matter of being outgoing. Rather, it's my being introverted, alone, and then seeing something in a stranger's face that makes me think, yes, I could know this person. I say something, and then a comfortable space opens between us and we step in. We find some thing, some little thing that we both have, like, share, know, think, and the space becomes our own and we take another step into it.
It's odd, because I don't think there are many things I even like or care about enough that I would bother to befriend someone over. I have my handful of favorite places, stories, thoughts, and I make use of them alone. I don't even like to talk about them, they're so personal.
But I've learned there is always something, enough to build entire worlds with, if two people decide to. I have built such worlds with perfect strangers, and they are every bit as perfect and strange as I could hope. Then I keep the memory, build on it, and the gossamer of relationship grows and becomes something of solidity, something rare and of great value. It comes from nothing and becomes anything, possibly everything. It always feels like travel, like something foreign that becomes your own. It sparkles and opens up into something valuable, significant.
I remember standing under a scaffold in front of the Old Street tube station on some afternoon, coming back to their place in Shoreditch. I smoked a cigarette while it softly rained. Nothing special happened. It was just a day in which I was standing on foreign soil and feeling that excitement, that gratitude for the unfamiliar ground beneath me. On that day I was happy to just be surrounded by accents, overhearing names of places I only know from Suede songs, Pulp songs, Blur, songs by The Jam. Nothing special. From the tube we walked to Spitalfields market and thumbed through racks of clothes. Later we went for dinner on Brick Lane. The things I remember are inconsequential but the memory is like fine silk studded with gems—essentially weightless, formless, but gets tugged, stretched, and is given its shape by the precious things carefully stitched into it.
Last week in Soho, New York's Soho, I came across a cheap jewel encrusted scarf at All Saints Spitalfields and my memory flooded again. I felt I had just got out of the tube with them and was now thumbing through racks of clothes. Or maybe they're in Park Slope, or I just got back in town and we are in Seattle, cold lattes on the table, the glimmer of rain, the sound of it and of voices telling old stories like they are new.
About the Author: Melissa Mesku is a writer, editor, and web developer living in New York City. She can be found on Twitter and on the web.