3: Jim and the Familiar Strangers

Jim rode a city bike, the newly-implemented City Cycle or something, a network of rentable bikes with stands throughout the metro area, to the stop almost nearest his house. There was one closer, but across the street from this stand (or rack or station) was a local Chinese place, which was where he decided dinner would come from that evening.

It wasn’t a regular occurrence, the inauthentic Chinese takeout, but his roommate would be out of the house this evening and he could use a lazy evening in front of the TV or computer, being intentionally unproductive and zoning out a little bit before welcoming the food coma and going to sleep.

Jim ordered enough food to embarrass one person, but asked for two sets of chopsticks, and the unspoken assumption was that it was for two people. Two soups, even, and if he didn’t finish it, he could always put it in the fridge and warm it up later. He ordered what he usually got, some kind of rice with chicken, a noodle dish, wonton soup, and a few egg rolls. There was something so strangely American about this entire establishment, almost like the way they put on a foreign-looking edifice at a carnival or theme park and don’t even really pretend to be genuine, as if it really is the thought that counts. Jim had never been to Asia, but had heard that this cuisine would be practically unidentifiable to just about anyone from China. But it didn’t matter. It was good.

He put in his order, mostly by means of numbered dishes, and walked outside on the street to wait for the bell to ring. The bell was for employees to pick up the dishes and bring them to the front counter, but Jim knew its ring and if there wasn’t anyone else waiting on their orders, and there wasn’t, it meant his dinner was packed and ready to go, two fortune cookies and all. Dessert would be nice, but nothing came to mind.

Except fried ice cream. That seemed delicious for some reason.

He stood outside on the street, leaning up against the brick storefront and watched the cars go by here and there as he looked up from his phone. He didn’t think of himself as the kind of person who was addicted to his phone, although he knew he was. He reasoned that it wasn’t for shopping, or chatting with friends, or playing goofy candy or jewel games, but to do the daily crossword from the New York Times, or read a Wikipedia article, or make notes to himself about something or other, and occasionally a work message or two came through. In short, it felt productive.

Old people always talked about “looking up from your phone” and “don’t miss the moment”, but what is the moment? Staring across the street at the other wall? Granted, there were times when it was nice to unfocus and observe people, like the person who had just picked out Jim’s recently-ridden bike from the rack, swiped his metro card, and rode off. The handles might even have still been warm, and the seat. At least they didn’t know it was him.

It was getting dark earlier and earlier in the evening, as autumn led to winter, but it hadn’t gotten uncomfortably chilly yet. Jim looked up at an almost unbelievably picturesque glimpse of the sunset. The sun had actually already disappeared behind the buildings, and might still be just above the horizon, but it was already saying goodbye. The light it cast across the darkening blue sky sent an indistinct horizontal line across the horizon, one side yellowish orange, the other blue fading into darkness, and in between those, just on the blue side, was the moon, with its distant companion for at least the next few days, Venus. Or Jupiter. Or Mars. It didn’t glimmer, but just shone, solidly, cutting through the evening.

No bell yet.

Jim went back to his phone, switching between apps, checking on this or that the way someone does when they don’t have anything better to do but pretend to be busy on their phone, but then he heard something.

Looking up from his phone, across the street, he saw someone skipping, or galloping, or twirling down the sidewalk, scarf wrapped around a head of unruly hair, wearing probably too little for this time of year, but looking extremely happy, but then expressionless, quiet, once making the kind of ‘I’m a monster’ gesture with ‘claws’ in the air, stomping a few times. He was singing, or else yelling melodiously, to himself between bursts of uninhibited laughter or mumbles audible even across the street.

He couldn’t be entirely sure, but it seemed to be one of the baristas from down the street, someone he hadn’t seen in a while. The scarf and the hair and the person’s irregular motions made him difficult to identify, but he was almost positive it was Andy, or Hank, a short name with a less-used consonant at the end…

He observed without moving his head, only his eyes, as the uncontrolled, unpredictable frolic moved across his field of view, like a human tumbleweed, and it made Jim almost embarrassed to look, and quite unsettled.

Don’t you know you’re in public?

There’s something disturbing about someone throwing the social constructs to the wind. If someone stares at you, or smiles uncomfortably, or is rude during a polite exchange, it’s startling, maybe slightly offensive, but nothing so shocking as seeing someone scurry, jump, laugh, sing, whisper, mumble to themselves, all within the space of a single city block… Especially someone you know, who you’ve interacted with, and the words so often used to describe it, like ‘snapped’ or ‘cracked’ seemed somehow perfectly apt, like even if you could get in front of this person and speak to him, say ‘Hey buddy, other people can see you. Let’s take you home,’ that somehow you wouldn’t get through, that there was another person, not the barista who’d smile at customers and make a decent espresso and burn my bagel a little bit every time, but someone else, at the helm, like looking through the eye holes of a costume and trying to get at the person inside, to no avail.

Jim put his phone away and walked inside, slightly embarrassed, but also sad, and confused.


Jim handed in the number he’d received with his receipt and picked up his food. Before walking out the door, mostly without pausing, he looked to see if the barista was still around, and it seemed he’d moved on down the road.

Jim thought about this, about people’s lives and tragedy and the proverbial skeletons or demons that everyone has, and he supposed that in contrast, his new roommate wasn’t so bad. He’d only been in his new place but a few months, and they were just getting to the point that they were dispensing, even as men, with some of the formalities and platitudes of sharing your personal space with a (relative) stranger.

But at least for the evening, it was his space, and his alone.


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