I Have Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers
Between New York and Connecticut: March 11, 2020
With a CVS-manufactured cane covered in cheap florals and two bags worth of case folders, she gestures to the empty seat. I exhale, but not deeply enough to catch the germs. The air must be riddled with them.
A boy’s dirty white sneakers are strewn across an empty train seat. He laughs with the abandon of a child who is never scolded. I study the city in reverse and pretend I do not hear him. She is seeing me without looking at me, and I know I must acknowledge her eventually.
“Thank you,” I say. “You know, for letting me sit here.”
“Oh, stop it, none of that,” she says as she swats the air with thick fingers, expelling my useless conversation. The people we love never abandon us, I’m very sure. They become us. This woman has the hard stare of a mother, the quick wit of a grandmother, the inward-curved shoulders of a father. She relays the warnings of her family long passed with a sharp tongue. She is not afraid of the airborne germs or the careless boy down the aisle. She is, instead, frustrated with her sister, and she tells her so over a call.
“What do you want me to do? Find a taxi? At this hour? Fine.” She squashes the buttons on her spindly flip phone and her fingers curl.
“You know, my great-grandmother raised me,” she says. “And I was very lucky for that.” I nod vigorously. I think of grandparents, of their vulnerability. Of the thick red scars across my grandfather’s body from his knee surgeries, heart surgeries, liver spots. I think of how he used to swim—urging his swollen stomach and curdled limbs gracefully into the water. Not bad, he would affirm with a grin.
“Are you holding on to that bag all right?” She gestures to my thick book encased in the sturdy kind of plastic. “It’ll end up on the ground.” The floor of the train likely has insurmountable germ combinations. Too many to even figure. I grip the handles and wonder how I’ll make use of this environmental sacrilege later.
“Don’t forget that when you get off at your stop, alright? You’ll need it to get home, I’m sure.” She frowns at the cracked screen.
“No one would want to steal this anyway,” I suggest. She smiles, and I know the lines etched into her face are from her own divine design. She frowns often but smiles secretly more than her eyes want to admit. She hobbles off at her stop, stooping under the weight of her bags but with her head high enough that no one will notice. And I wonder if she instilled the same confidence into an artist in her thirties during the sweltering heat. I wonder if she was there when I was, waiting for another taxi.
Between New York and Connecticut: June 23, 2018
I knew I would see that persistent internal human-ugly when the train crawled to a halt in the Bronx. I remembered one landmark in the Bronx: the zoo. Maybe elephants could pull the train the rest of the way. A forty-something man with two phones condemned MetroNorth and his wife, and stared out the window, surely with a violin soundtrack in his ears. An old man with scholarly eyes smiled and patted a hand. He opened his paper and slouched down in his seat, leaving his briefcase hedging the aisle.
I did not meet the artist until after every passenger had been herded into a rescue train and I had nearly nosedived onto the tracks for politely refusing the arm of the attendant.
The women we sat across from looked disgusted with us, the sun glare from the window, the very train itself. They pulled at their earrings like we were going to steal them with mind power alone. But they saw that we looked more or less like their own children and eventually looked us in the eye. I envisioned them bathing in clawfoot bathtubs filled with hand sanitizer once they returned to their summer houses.
The artist on the train was one of the last passengers to find a new seat. She breathlessly asked for permission to sit. The three women made no answer. One wrinkled her nose. I smiled at her with no teeth and basked in the air conditioning of the new train.
The artist asked about the time, about our plans for the day. She prayed for internet connection. “This isn’t so bad when you don’t have to commute for a job. But my boss isn’t going to be happy, see.”
The three women shifted their eyes toward the floor, my face, their nails, which were all similarly garish red tones. The artist frowned deeply but said nothing. I was hoping the screen of the public service announcement would gray and a spokesperson would appear any second to discuss prejudice and ask the audience what they would do. I pressed my lips together and impersonated such a spokesperson as best I could.
I asked about her work and smiled with teeth. I studied her face while she spoke. Her nose was soft without being flat and her hair curled obstinately in several dimensions. Her body was gently but defiantly curvy in a culture of weight loss. She had permission to sit where I sat. I wanted her to know she didn’t need permission anyway.
The three women each hitched their purses up their shoulders before the train stopped at Grand Central. They shooed others away from the aisle. I worried about the aged professor and his wife getting past them unscathed. I hoped the old man would swat them with his newspaper or ask them to analyze Plato.
The artist carried a large quilted bag loosely and thanked us for our company. I wished then I had asked to take her portrait, and to know whether she was really an artist at all. But she looked like one, talked like one. I was sure she had enough brazenness to paint on canvas or scrape clay out from underneath her fingernails. I hoped she would create something the three women did not understand but would fish out their checkbooks to buy someday.
Between Massachusetts and Connecticut September 15, 2013
The beads on her necklace would have uncannily resembled gigantic beehives were it not for their bright primary color scheme. We were eating chicken nuggets at 10 o’clock in the morning and I had survived the length of the drive without feeling motion sickness. Calling this Ms. Frizzle character eclectic or unique would have been lukewarm. She twisted long, bony fingers in her hair and contemplated her French fries.
“I’m going to talk to her.”
“No, we’re leaving soon.”
“I’ll be very quick” I assured her. Linda liked her organization. We all knew that. I reached her table in strides too quick to allow me time to think of something to say. I wanted to know why she was so strange, why she was alone, why she was inspecting her French fry and the stock photo print on the wall. What was she looking for? She had the hesitance of someone who does not yet understand they are an artist.
But generally, my mother advises me to not say anything of that sort to a stranger in a McDonald’s in the morning in September.
“I like your necklace,” I hedged. And it wasn’t a lie. I liked it enough to think about it.
“You do? Really?” Her eyes widened with the innocence and surprise of someone painfully kind. “I made one for my granddaughter but, well, I don’t know if she’ll ever wear it…”
“Oh, well I think it’s great—wonderful!” I overcompensated.
She pretended the desperation in my voice couldn’t be heard over the ice machine. “Well, dear, Michael’s has all the stuff. Michaels has everything. I love it there,” she gushed. Linda’s eyes bulged as she stared at her wristwatch. Linda wore wristwatches still, to always be punctual.
Linda was likely contemplating my fifth birthday party, which she had permitted her only daughter to attend, and this attendance began our friendship. Perhaps she and Emily would have made better use of that time visiting the Mystic Aquarium, but she would never know.
She fluffed her bangs with her fingers while her daughter threw away our trash. Emily was dressed in her signature lime-green shirt and the fluorescent lights lent it the color of science-lab slime.
Emily began to corral me away from the woman and toward the door. Linda would be grumpy for the rest of the day if I could not be dissuaded from my mission.
“It was nice to meet you!” I hollered over Emily’s lime-green shoulder.
“You too, dear!” She smiled. She went back to inspecting her French fry, but she slumped less. I hoped her granddaughter wore the necklace every day or at least pushed the cart for her at Michaels while she ogled the bead selection.
Absolutely every human born is interesting. I have yet to meet someone that is pure, unadulterated drywall-boring. And if I do, they’ll be interesting because they are pure, unadulterated drywall-boring. With certainty comes expectation, and I expect strangers to amble toward me, poised for storytelling. I feel more connected to strangers, anyway. I can imagine our paths connecting and intertwining long before anyone has awkwardly exhaled out of one nostril. Within the people I am supposed to know, I see daunting valleys and illuminated highways—certifiable emptiness.
Speaking to strangers I see the jut of a landing strip, a too-cheerful stewardess and cramped seat—a definitive path. Because it is pretend, a swishing and seductive curtain to stroke, strangers are endlessly entertaining. Strangers are welcoming because they anticipate nothing and appreciate everything.
Jillian Damiani is a senior at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI, pursuing a dual degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She completed an English thesis on 1950s writers Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin in November of 2020. She spends her free time with a camera in hand, begging models to stay “just like that” for one more shot, or running by the ocean. “I Have Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers”is her first publication.