The Stranger's journey has now come full circle.
Join me in the bright sunshine at When Words Go Free...

There are still stories to be told.
Read them at The Stranger Looks Back.

Into My Life

So after breakfast at the diner, I drove her to where she was staying at the time. No plans were made to see each other again, no phone numbers were exchanged. That, it seemed, was the end of that. The following weekend, I got stood up for a romantic adventure, but that story has already been told...

The Friday after that, I was in her area, and on a whim, stopped by where I had dropped her off. Nobody was home, so I left a note on the door with my phone number. By the time I got home an hour later, she had left a message. I called back, she asked what I was doing. I said I was getting ready to leave for a weekend in the country.

I don't remember if I invited or she asked, but another hour later, I was back at her door to pick her up. The next two days were a blur. There was some vodka left over from my catharsis of the previous weekend, she brought some hash, I brought some grass, and we picked up some beer and wine. I know we did a lot of something other than get drunk and high, but the details are not as clear as those of the night in the van.

It must have been good - really good - because early Sunday evening, we were back at her door so she could pick up her stuff, and when we drove away, it wasn't her door anymore.

I Know This Bar

The bartender polished the last of the glasses and slid it into the rack. The jukebox was playing James Carr, which seemed to please the young lady who had asked him to give it a kick. He didn't remember her having been to the bar before, but he did recognize her from a poetry competition he had attended in town earlier.

He noticed that she was much younger than she had seemed at that first meeting; in fact, he now wondered if she were even old enough to be there. The wedding ring on her finger told him she probably was, and the look on her face told him she probably needed to be there.

She sat in relative silence, occasionally getting up to pick a tune, then returning to her seat in the shadows. A few of the regulars dropped in and out for some banter and music, and the bartender filled the intervening silence with his own picks. Some of them brought a smile to her face, others seemed to evoke a bittersweet tear. When she asked him how he picked the perfect song for every moment, he said it was just luck of the draw.

She came in almost every night after that, always sitting at the same table. One of those evenings, a stranger who would not remain one wandered in and pulled up a seat beside the juke. As they took turns dropping the quarters, the bartender appreciated the newcomer's own luck of the draw. The young lady enjoyed the attention from these duelling d.j.s, and the three of them had a most pleasant time together.

One evening when they seemed to be alone there, the bartender noticed that she looked particularly sad, and ventured to ask what was on her mind. She told him of her lover, and how she sometimes doubted his love for her. She showed the bartender a picture of him, one that she kept posted on her bulletin board, and the bartender asked if she had taken the picture. She had.

The bartender pointed at how her lover was looking at the camera she had been holding - how he was looking at her - and said she had no need to doubt this man's love for her. Perhaps, the bartender thought aloud, he was not as skilled at romance as she would sometimes like, but she should not confuse that with any lack of love. He was young, he would learn.

They talked long into the night, and said their goodbyes as the sun came up. After that, she dropped in less often, and the bartender hoped this was because she was spending the time with her lover. Her visits became more infrequent, and eventually, she stopped coming by at all.

The bar grew and flourished, attracting a loyal crowd of regulars and many passers-by, but the bartender never forgot the young lady who had been so much a part of its early days. Sometimes, as he polished a glass or kicked the jukebox, he would glance at the window, and wonder if he had just seen a shadow pass by.

Ticket To Ride

I could hardly believe my luck. It was a long shot, but what else did I have to do at two in the morning? It must have been the largest block in the city, what with the colleges and the hospital and the pharmacy that used to be a museum, further complicated by the maze of one-way streets.

Yet there she was, her thumb still out, right where I had passed her the first time around, when the bus had prevented me from pulling over. I knew she wasn't a hooker - it was the wrong place, and she wasn't dressed for it. Had I thought she was, I would have saved myself the trip around the block. She was going my way, and asked if I wanted to party. How could I not?

She wanted to stop at the friend's she had been on her way to see, to pick up some hash and some beer. I was fine with that. Our route took us down my street, so we ditched the Civic and continued in my extended length 1975 Dodge Tradesman, red inside and out, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling carpeting, captain's seats, and a double bed, complete with privacy curtains. You couldn't ask for a better van to deliver garbage bags with. My grandmother/business partner had called it a whorehouse on wheels, but that's another story.

As her directions brought us to her friend's apartment building, I realized why she looked familiar. "Hey, is your friend Gerry?" "Yeah," she said, "you're the guy who gave him the couch, aren't you?" Small world. I hadn't recognized her at first without the page-boy haircut and bobby-socks. The janitor's niece had mentioned that Gerry's friend thought I was cute, but she had been a little too excited about the couch, and I had thought I wasn't ready for another crazy chick just yet. Silly me.

She got some hash and half a two-four, and we headed off into the night. We ended up in the parking lot of a large urban park. She rolled a joint, and we smoked it as we cracked our first beers over small talk, our captain's seats turned to face each other. I appreciated that the designers had thought to put the engine cover that served as a cup and snack holder far enough ahead of the seats so as not to intrude.

The small talk turned into a small kiss, which turned into a big kiss, which became quite passionate, which led to me picking her up and carrying her to the bed in the back, the kiss uninterrupted. I forgot all about the privacy curtains. Perhaps envious of our lips and tongues, our hands decided to get in on the action, which must have upset our clothes, because they left us rather hurriedly.

Our kiss was interrupted only long enough for her to push me onto my back rather vigorously, but not nearly as vigorously as what came next. I wondered at one point if she thought I was a mechanical bull, but that thought was interrupted by wondering if my lip might be bleeding. I had never been with a biter before, and until then didn't know that I had wanted to be. I also found out that it hurts when it bends, but it's a good hurt.

Some time and another joint and a couple of beers later, it was her turn to face the ceiling. What seemed like a blissful eternity later, I had just enough energy left to rip the open curtain from its track and throw it over us as a blanket before we passed out. At some point, I had a strange sensation of the presence of light, opened my eyes to see the flashlight shining through the windshield, and remained still until it went away. As I watched the car drive off from the back window, I wondered why some people thought all cops were assholes, and fell back asleep.

Over breakfast at a nearby diner in the morning, she told me that we would probably never see each other again. I asked why not, and she said, "That's just the way these things usually go." I said that if we wanted to see each other again, we would. I probably should have gone with what she said.

The Old Schoolyard

He had done well in the playground. Afraid of it for the longest time, one day he mustered up his courage, left the classrooms, and ventured cautiously outside. He had a rough time of it at first, trying (rather awkwardly) to play with the big kids, and getting into his share of scraps before finding his place there.

One of those scraps had been particularly brutal at the time. He knew that it was at least partially his fault, but he thought that the beating was a bit too much - he came close to dropping out of school altogether because of it. Instead, he stuck it out and licked his wounds, and came to realize that what doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.

The next time he had a run-in with the same bullies, he held his own quite well, and seemed to earn their respect for it. Eventually, he came to see them not as bullies at all, but as really tough teachers - the kind you hate at the time, but appreciate once you've grown up and understood the lessons.

After that, he had a lot of fun in the schoolyard, and became one of the big kids himself. He often marvelled at how much he had learned there, and how well much of it served him at home. He made some friends, passing notes away from the other kids, and sometimes even hopped the fence with them to sit and chat under the blue spruce tree that stood in front of the schoolhouse itself.

One time, the principal made a rare visit to the playground and mentioned that they were looking for some new teachers, if anybody cared to spend some time in the classrooms inside the building. Along with the other kids, he listened politely and then resumed his playing, thinking little more of it.

Not so very long after that, he was sitting under the blue spruce when he noticed a ruckus in the playground. He headed back across the fence to find that some kid just passing through had dug up an old spool with footage of a particular scene from that earlier fight, and some of the newer kids had gathered round to watch. One even made a valiant effort to defend him, thinking perhaps that the fight was ongoing.

He took the opportunity not only to point out that the brawl was long over, but also to finally thank his former nemeses for the lessons it had taught him and the strength that it had given him. Just as one of the other big kids mentioned that all's well that ends well, he noticed that the part of the blue spruce that he had been sitting under lately had seemed to wilt a bit, perhaps from the stale air that had escaped the tin that held the spool. He did his best to clear the air, but worried that the damage might already have been done.

At that moment, he realized that it had been a while since he had actually learnt anything in the playground, and that he was now spending more time reminiscing about his earlier days there than enjoying new schoolyard games. He also realized that many of the older kids that he had had so much fun with were gone, and that even some of his newer friends seemed not to enjoy being there so much anymore.

He looked at the schoolhouse and realized that he missed its classrooms, missed the tutoring he used to do there, even missed the notion that he might one day be a teacher. He sat quietly in the corner of the playground for a little while, then got up and walked into the building. He did his best to help some kids with their questions - he was more than a bit rusty, and hoped his answers would be helpful.

After a bit of this, he went to get some air on the front steps. He looked over at the tree and saw that his worry had been misplaced - it seemed different somehow, but was fine. He saw that the part that he had thought was wilting had simply spread its branches in the opposite direction, away from the playground.

He knew then that it was time for him to do the same. Recess was over.

Old Friend, Reconsidered

I was thinking that I may have had an affair...

After I left that morning, it wasn't the same between us. We may have both realized that we might not show such restraint the next time, so we avoided a next time. Not because we didn't want there to be, but because it would have been wrong. At least that's what I led myself to believe.

As it was a trial separation, it was my understanding that our marriage vows were still in play, although I probably should have confirmed that my wife had the same understanding. But that's another story. For me, a physical relationship with someone else was simply out of the question.

The only thing that stood between us, it seemed, was my marriage. As a real friend, she encouraged me to work things out with my wife, which I did at the time. When I reconciled, I ended almost all contact with her, not because it was demanded of me but because I knew I had to if my marriage was to survive. I would regret that now, except that I can walk away from my marriage knowing that she had nothing to do with its failure.

We never had sex, never even touched, other than that one time on the subway. So why do I think that I may have had an affair? Having heard much of other people's affairs, I have come to realize that the only real difference between us and them was the absence of physical intimacy. We even said that we loved each other, although not with any romantic connotation, and we made sure that it sounded to be in jest.

We did not give each other our bodies, but we gave each other every other part of ourselves that lovers do, even as we never thought of ourselves as lovers. We shared our minds, our hearts, even our souls. We "what iffed" about what might have happened under different circumstances. In every way other than sexual, it was very much like an affair. In Jimmy Carter's conception of things, I committed adultery in my heart.

During the years that followed, in fact until discussing it with a dear friend very recently, I took the high road and convinced myself that what stopped us from crossing that line was my commitment to marriage, the unthinkableness of cheating. I now know that wasn't the reason; that if not for the real reason, my marriage vows would have been cast aside in a heartbeat.

The real reason was my lifelong companion, fear. I was afraid of rejection, despite having already admitted our mutual attraction. Because I am an equal opportunity coward, I was afraid of the intimacy, emotional as well as physical, that it might have led to had I not been rejected. I was afraid that I wouldn't live up to her expectations, or she to mine. I was afraid that it might not be perfect, or forever.

In short, I was afraid of all the usual things that some people are afraid of when circumstances do not stand in their way. I was afraid of everything other than the one thing that I convinced myself was the reason I didn't walk up those stairs. If not for all that fear, I wouldn't have walked down those stairs in the first place.

And that is why I think I may have had an affair.