Friday, November 4, 2011

Talking to Strangers


Crunching through chips and salsa, a friend and I catch up before work.  The worn, olive-green chair to my right tempts me, making me wish it were Sunday, so I could slouch in it and read all afternoon.  But it isn’t Sunday, nor is it afternoon.  It’s early Monday evening, and my corner bookstore and café is once again a corner bar, that by Wednesday night will be standing room only. 

“Hey, you think I can bum a paper off that guy?”  My friend asks, pointing a chip at the far table next to the bookshelf and door.

I dice a fat tomato with mine.  “Well, considering you’ve only said one thing to him, and shouted it from way over here, it could be a little early.  Plus it looks like he’s leaving.”  

My persistent companion ignores my advice, a common reaction of his, and the diversion questions go out.  After answering a mere two, not only does the guy from Connecticut calm my friend down, he even joins us for a chat.

Impressive.  I think.  What I say is, “So how you do you like Madrid?”

“It’s a great city.”  He says, stepping off his barstool only to reset his sneaker into the wood crosspiece and push himself back up onto it again.  “Really beautiful.  I remember the first time I came out of the subway at that big plaza on the main road.  Reminded me a little of New York.” 

“Yeah, I’ve thought that before too.”  I answer.

“It’s been a real crazy trip though.”  He shifts around some more.  “Every plan I had has fallen through.” 

“Like what?”  My friend asks while I work a feisty sprig of parsley down with my beer.

He answers after adjusting his position a third time, finally deciding on the halfway point of even being on his seat.  “I’m a photographer, and my camera equipment was stolen from my hostel.  And my laptop.”  He adds.  “So that’s got me pretty bummed.”

“I’m so sorry that happened to you while you were here.”  I say, hoping he’ll let go.

“Yeah, almost went home after that.  But I figure, I’m already out here.  Plus I’m sort of on this mission for some guy I met a few days ago.”  He stops for a moment.  “You want to see something crazy?”  Before we can confirm that, yes, we do indeed want to see something crazy, he slides the rest of the way off his seat, unzips a gray backpack and continues.  “You might think I’m morbid.” 

Our eyes are engaged on his deeply digging hands.

“The original plan was to go to India, but, well, like I said, nothing’s really working out as planned.”  He pulls out a cream-colored lip balm tin, covered in delicately painted miniature lavender flowers.  “So, the guy I mentioned.  Well.  I’m carrying his grandmother’s ashes to Egypt.

I look to my friend and am astounded by his calmness.  I turn back to this random stranger and his ashes and declare, “This is exactly why I don’t do original plans.  They don’t give you this.” 

I extend my hand and he puts the tiny urn in my left palm.  The creepiness is absorbed by the honor I feel in having this woman pass through my life, if even for just this moment.  I curl my fingers up, in case of a blessing.

Her carrier tells us about his traveling through Europe and meeting her grandson.  After his own plans had gone awry, he entrusted our new friend with his very personal journey.  But as he talks, it’s clear he’s not very sure why he’s even doing it, and that he may be traveling solely under the weight of a self-imposed obligation.  He is not accustomed to so much change, nor does he know what to do with it.  The rain outside begins to let up, signaling my friend to gather his things.

Outside the three of us make our way down the narrow sidewalks in semi single file.  The first mentally prepares his classroom discussion, the second pines for India and I, at the back, offer other ways of looking at the situation.

“Enjoy the madness that is this trip overseas.”  I say, stepping over a puddle.  Go wherever it takes you.  You can always come back.  And don’t worry about India.  You’ll go when it’s time.  I know it, especially if you’re thinking about it so much.”

We accompany my friend to his work then I ask him if he’d like to see something beautiful.  Before he can answer, I start across the plaza, the one that sits on a street that reminds us a little of a city back home.  I say nothing at the stoplight, nor on the steep, wood-lined steps we begin to make our way up.  Droplets of water slide off the ivy crawling up alongside the path.  Our legs burn and we reach the top pink and panting. 

Even under the winter sky it is an oasis above the city.  We walk through the veil of pear-shaped palm trees and sit on the curb at the park's edge.  It is quiet, apart from the scratching of the lighter beside me.  We watch the gondola below, its single line and simple brown cars gently rocking to the other side of Parque del Oeste.  Like the glow crumbling off the tip of his cigarette, the sun sets a slice of orange peel on us, two strangers, huddled together over falling ash and shared uncertainty.  But the uncertainty is light, its heaviness has moved to the flat pools behind us that swell under the enormous stones of Templo de Debod, a gift to Spain, from Egypt.