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Letter to a Stranger
Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us
Edited by Colleen Kinder
Foreword by Leslie Jamison
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—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
Sixty-five extraordinary writers grapple with this mystery: How can an ephemeral encounter with a stranger leave such an eternal mark?
When Colleen Kinder put out a call for authors to write a letter to a stranger about an unforgettable encounter, she opened the floodgates. The responses—intimate and addictive, all written in the second person—began pouring in. These short, insightful essays by a remarkable cast of writers, including Elizabeth Kolbert, Pico Iyer, Lauren Groff, Gregory Pardlo, Faith Adiele, Maggie Shipstead, Lia Purpura, Kiki Petrosino, and Jamil Jan Kochai, are organized around such themes as Gratitude, Wonder, and Farewell and guide us both across the globe and through the mysteries of human connection. Addressed to a first responder after a storm, a gambler encountered on jury duty, a waiter in Istanbul, a taxi driver in Paris, a roomful of travelers watching reality TV in La Paz, and dozens of others, the pieces are replete with observations about how to live and what we seek, and how a stranger’s loaded glance, shared smile, or question posed can alter the course of our lives.
Moving and unforgettable, Letter to a Stranger is an irresistible read for the literary traveler and the perfect gift for anyone who is haunted by a person they met once and will remember forever.
To the Traveling Magician
You came around the bar each night and so did I. Funny to say "the bar" as if there were only one, when Calle la Calzada was nothing but, their plastic chairs bearing slogans for Toña and Victoria, the national beers, flocked by children begging money for glue.
You were on crutches and missing part of one leg—I can't remember which, right or left—from the knee down, and I doubt you remember me getting drunk, but I remember you getting drunk, or rather—I remember you being drunk, as if you'd always been and would always be, as if you'd been born that way. It was nothing violent, more like a glaze across your being. You said you were a traveling magician and I guess you were. You taught me the words for what you did, trucos de magia, but I never saw you perform one.
This was in Granada, Nicaragua, during the summer of 2007. You don't remember my name, I'm sure, and I don't remember yours—because you didn't really need one, and I didn't really need one. You were the one-legged magician, like a figure from the tarot deck, and I was just another American girl who maybe glanced back for a couple seconds to look at your damage. The bar we haunted was the bar everyone haunted. We were interchangeable parts in a machine beyond our reckoning, both troubled travelers, and there were spares for both of us, extras, waiting in the wings; more where we came from.
Our bar was the bar where I went after I got my nose broken by a stranger in the street and it was the bar where I went every night my nose didn't get broken by a stranger in the street, because I liked getting drunk where other people would already be drunk before I even got started. I never liked beer, but I drank it a lot because it was basically just beer and rum on offer. I drank rum, too. Rum and cokes were called Nica libres instead of Cuba libres—the revolution in Nicaragua had been like a little sibling, formed in its elder's image.
Those were the early days of Ortega's second lease on the dream, and it went black for hours at a time each night. The government was figuring out how to make electricity a public industry. We'd buy tamales from the woman at the corner of the Parque Central and eat them somewhere with candles, or without candles—just feeling with our hands—and some nights, we piled into unmarked black taxis and rode down by the lake to Oscar's, where people danced and snorted lines of coke, where little black flies lifted in a fluttering scrim over the water at dawn. I worked at a school, and so that's where I spent my hangovers; I remember gulping orange soda in the gully behind the classrooms, picking corn chips from a crinkling bag, and teaching kids how to tuck their fingers down so they could learn subtraction.
You went away, or I went away, but drinking never did.
You were missing part of yourself and drinking anyway—fucking up magic tricks or failing to produce them, and drinking anyway—and I would think of you, years later, when I had a broken foot and drank anyway; when I had both hands gripping crutches and drank anyway; when I tripped and fell going down the steps of the double-wide trailer that was the bar, bandaged foot held aloft, crutches clattering to asphalt; when I made it home, went to bed, woke up the next morning, crutched through the next day—and drank again, inevitably, anyway.
Back then, I wanted to beg you to take better care of yourself—to tell you to treat your broken body as something worth attending to. And whatever in me had wanted to beg you, I knew—when I was tripping down those trailer stairs, or balancing a bottle against my crutches—I knew I needed to bring it back, to beg that of myself.
To the Woman Who Found Me Crying Outside the Senate
You've been a part of the story since the beginning. You're the woman who finds me bawling in the bathroom outside the Senate. It's the late eighties. I'm from rural Wisconsin, in DC for a summer seminar. I'm president of the Young Republicans, a tiny part of a long-range plan to turn Wisconsin red. My family is working class and my father has just been laid off, and I want to make something of myself. I want to go to college. The party insider who recruited me tells me there has never been a better time to be a woman. I'm seventeen, not old enough to vote, but I campaign for men who drink highballs, who call me "little lady" and pat me on the head, saying, "You better watch out for this one. She's after your job."
You must have seen my ill-fitting, scuffed white pumps under the stall. "You alright in there?" you say. Your gruff, scotch-worn voice reminds me of women from back home. I emerge in a baby-blue Nancy Reagan suit, mascara snot on my face, my permed hair melting in the humidity. I'm carrying a briefcase my dad bought for me at a garage sale. You hand me a wad of toilet paper to blow my nose as I tell you about mock Congress, how my bill was just annihilated on live television. Tall private-school boys had jumped in front of me to get on TV. Months of work for nothing. They knew nothing about the research, gave stupid answers, hammed it up for the camera.
You light a cigarette—the reason you're in the bathroom. "Sweetheart," you say. "You've got to learn how to eat your own heart if you want to get into politics." Then you tell me to be a kid, to go out and find some trouble while I still can. This is the part I recount at parties because it was just the permission I needed to break curfew that night. The end of my budding political career. "My first and last political sex scandal," I'd joke.
You couldn't have been much older than I am now. The women I tell wonder what you were doing there. "Do you think she was a senator?" one will ask, and the others will laugh. "Are you kidding? Back then? How many were there?"
Turns out there were just two.
I told you I was tougher than I looked, despite the fact that I had just run crying from a fake meeting of Congress, and even the irreverent British boy who I had a crush on had laughed. I didn't mention the boy to you.
All that week, while I behaved, the other participants snuck out and had adventures. The special sit-down the local party member had arranged with my Republican senator was just a quick photo op. I had toured the House and Senate to find men delivering speeches to empty chambers. I had walked the halls, listened in on deal-making with lobbyists, and understood this was as far as I would go, or even wanted to go. There were back-slapping men everywhere, the scent of aftershave and lunchtime booze. If anyone noticed me, it was to leer. They hid nothing of their conversations because I was of no consequence.
When you coaxed me out of that stall, I didn't want to be what I was. A Midwesterner. A good girl. Most likely a Democrat who would never be able to eat her own heart. That same day, I had snuck away from my group to walk around DC and had seen disparity and segregation. I had visited my Democratic congressman's unglamorous office and sat down for a long meeting. He had one aging secretary and wore a knit-brown leisure suit. No cameras. He looked me in the eyes and talked about the importance of public service.
For years, I told the story, and you were the wizened crone shooing me out into the world, giving me the Don't Let the Assholes Bring You Down talk. But most fiction writers know that a minor character can never be solely at the service of the protagonist. Everyone has their own agenda. You looked so alone and stressed. Your dark hair was turning brittle with silver. You were cigarette-and-work-all-night skinny. I was too young to imagine the sort of life you inhabited.
That night, I stuffed my bed and asked my roommate from the Bronx to cover for me while I snuck off campus with the British boy. I wore a red-white-and-blue short set with zero irony. In a nearby golf course, we watched fireflies, talked, and kissed. It was two or three in morning when we saw the headlights of a golf cart coming at us, driven by one of the law students who was responsible for us. He had a megaphone and was shouting. My star-spangled outfit glowed as the boy and I ran across sandpits. We were alive and laughing. We were breaking the rules. We kept running until they caught us.
The law student delivered us to the director of the program. He was taking his bar exam that morning. I had to write an apology. The director told me she was filing a copy with admissions, that she would see to it I never returned to Georgetown or became a page. When I told the boy how sorry I was that I had gotten him in trouble, he said not to worry. He was having tea with the ambassador in the morning. The next day, without showering or sleeping, I walked into the cafeteria of hushed teenagers to wait for a taxi. My roommate told me the RAs had come by the night before to give me a leadership award and discovered I was gone. Also, she said, "People are saying they found you naked on a golf course with a foreigner."
On the airplane home, I wrote in my journal about my ruined life. I barely mentioned you. That summer, I went to the library to ask how to call London and used the money I made working at a hardware store to send the boy roses. I thought I was in love with him. I didn't yet realize that what I wanted was to be him.
When I tell the story now, I see you in your skirt and blouse, pacing the Senate halls, stealing into the rare women's bathroom. I like to think of you taking your own advice, finding trouble that night, too. Maybe I became the centerpiece of your own funny story. The small-town girl sobbing behind a bathroom stall because she found out she was a Democrat. Or were there too many of us back then? All of us trying to climb the Hill in our borrowed shoes, reminding you of you?
To the Father Paused Under the Tree
Grand Canyon, Arizona
I met you because we were both seeking refuge. We were coming up the Bright Angel Trail, climbing from the bottom to the top of the Grand Canyon, more than 4,000 feet in elevation gain. Bright Angel is the superhighway of trails: broad, crowded, bare to the sun. But you had found the shadow of a tree, and sat down on a rock to catch your breath, and I joined you.
You looked forty-five or fifty, fit and tan, with an anonymously pleasant face. The kind of person I would pass without bothering to look at twice. You spoke first, asked me where I was from, and I answered warily. If my trip had taught me anything up to that point, it was that men assumed a young woman hiking alone was looking for either a lover or a father figure. I had been given advice about "taking it slow" and not "wearing myself out." In the air-conditioned dining hall in the canyon bottom, I had been propositioned by a married man who had not bothered to remove his wedding ring. By the time I met you I was not interested in being offered anything else.
But when I said I was from Pittsburgh you mentioned a distant relative there, and that led us to talking about your wife. I asked if you had children and you said two girls. You looked back down the path, and I realized they were with you, the three of them, hiking more slowly the steps you had already taken. We let that settle for a moment: their imminent presence, the limited time for talking.
You asked me if I wanted to have kids, a question I was asked often in those days, and one that I found irritating and invasive. But somehow, in that place, it seemed an honest inquiry that deserved an honest answer. I said I didn't know. That I thought about it a lot but I didn't think so. I was twenty-seven, well into adulthood, but such choices seemed far off still. You told me to think about it carefully because it was the only decision in life you could never take back. Like jumping off a cliff, you said. It got my attention. I was never good at decisions, always afraid of making the wrong choice, even about small things.
You looked down the trail again, said you loved your girls with all your heart, but that kids take over your life and it is never what it was before. I nodded; this was what I had always suspected about kids. I said I liked to take care of people, and you told me that was even more dangerous, that it made it easy to forget about the things that matter to you until it was too late.
I don't recall any bitterness in your voice as you spoke. All I remember is relief—from the sun, the antlike stream of people moving up and down the trail, the loneliness that always accompanied my stubborn desire to travel alone. But now I wonder what made you walk on ahead of your family. Was it simple impatience, the physical need to move at your own pace? Or was it a deeper desire, a longing to walk right away from them and into some other life, a feeling akin to the one that sent me in and out of canyons and forests and backcountry trails for fifteen years with no one accompanying me, a yearning for something wild and solitary?
It has been a decade since that hike, but I remember you more often than I do the parched air, the burn in my muscles, the excitement of reaching the top, the towering red sandstone walls of the canyon itself. I have two daughters of my own now. Having children has indeed been like jumping off a cliff, in that your old life recedes so quickly there is no time to think about it. You sometimes feel like you are flying, and sometimes like you are about to crash into the ground. Unlike other choices in my life, I've found great pleasure in the finality of this commitment, but I can't say that I have ever found whatever I was searching for in all those miles of hiking. I still have my craving for solitude, my longing for the wild. I think of you sometimes and wonder if it ever left you either.
When we stopped talking, we smiled at each other, and a moment later there was your wife and your children, coming around the bend in the trail. I felt the things we had said float between us like the heat, things too honest for people we loved. Then you said goodbye and walked back to meet them, to join your steps with theirs.
To My Lost Trishaw Driver
Travel is, deep down, an exercise in trust, and sometimes I think it was you who became my life's most enduring teacher. I had every reason to be wary when, in 1985, I clambered out of the overnight train and stepped out into the October sunshine of Mandalay, blinking amidst the dust and bustle of the "City of Kings." I wasn't reassured as you sprang out of the rickety bicycle trishaw in which you'd been sleeping, as you did every night, and I don't think the signs along the sides of your vehicle—b.sc. (maths) and my life—put my mind very much to rest.
To me it seemed like a bold leap of faith—a shot in the dark—to allow a rough-bearded man in a cap to peddle me away from the broad main boulevards and into the broken backstreets, and then to lead me into the little hut where you shared a tiny room with a tired compatriot. Yes, you gave me a piece of jade as we rode and disarmed me with the essays you'd written and now handed me on how to enjoy your town. But I'd grown up on stories of what happens when you're in a foreign place and recklessly neglect a mother's advice to never accept gifts from strangers.
Yet it required trust on your part, too, I realize now, to take in a shabby foreigner in a threadbare jacket, hauling a worn case off the third-class carriage and looking as if he hadn't washed in days (for the very good reason that he hadn't). In New York City—where I lived—it was not taxi drivers who were agents of violence, but their customers.
So we both took a chance, in the hope that we could turn an unscripted meeting into something durable. You won me over in your bare room when you started opening up all the albums in which you'd meticulously transcribed the names of every foreigner you'd taken a snapshot of and showed me the handwritten essays in which you shared your dreams (of earning a further certificate in mathematics; of inviting your parents to your graduation; of one day, perhaps, possessing your own trishaw).
When you pulled out from under your sagging cot a sociology textbook from Australia—Life in Modern America—the way someone else might have pulled out a poster of Jennifer Beals, the world I thought I knew began to feel remade. We might not have been friends yet, but you certainly felt like something closer than a stranger.
Days later, inevitably, I had to be on my way, to Thailand and Nepal; a few weeks later, we were on opposite sides of the world again. Within months, however, I was recognizing your handwriting as soon as I pulled out frayed envelopes from within our mailbox in California, quite often sent—for security's sake—from Bangkok, thanks to some helpful foreigner. You came to recognize my handwriting in return, I'm sure, in registered and untaped envelopes so that your less-than-trusting government would understand that I wasn't dealing in state secrets.
Mine were addressed to a "trishaw stand" outside a big city's central train station; yours to a house high up in the hills of Santa Barbara, home to glamorous blondes and millionaires' villas in the soap opera transmitted daily across your continent.
Then there was silence, and I started to read about the people's uprising in your country, and the government's vicious response. I lived with the evergreen question of how the most blue-skied and unfallen souls I'd met—Norman Lewis writes that taxi drivers in Rangoon used to tip their passengers—could produce and survive such brutal leaders. Was it the trust that had so moved me that left you and your friends so undefended?
I'd never know. But it was no longer safe for you to write, even via Bangkok. So when I described our encounter in my book, I deployed every ruse I knew to shield your identity, even as I was trying to do justice to the very real kindness and integrity of who you seemed to be. I changed your name, but I wanted to honor the details of your life, to highlight Kipling's famous claim that "[T]here is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth" when two souls meet, "though they come from the ends of the earth!"
One year later, your government changed the entire country's name, and the capital's, as well. The party that seemed to promise democracy won an election and was denied victory. Finally, fully fifteen years after our meeting, a letter from another stranger arrived, passing on some news. A traveler had followed the hints in my book, and tracked you down somehow in Mandalay. A different stranger's letter followed, with a photo. I was reassured that you were still alive; I was also chilled, because if strangers could locate you through my book, so too, perhaps, could the tireless surveillance agents of your government.
We began to correspond again, through a series of passing intermediaries, and then a letter arrived, directly from you, telling me how the extension of trust had played out in your life. A kindly couple from Texas—as moved by your story and sweetness as I had been—gave you the two hundred dollars you needed to realize your dream of possessing your own trishaw. A visitor from Italy, a little later, encouraged you to believe you could make good on an even greater dream—to take command of your very own camera.
You had always been a friend of hope, which is how you'd begun to make me one. So you sent the stranger all your savings, and then waited at a street corner at the time he'd mentioned. And waited and waited. Finally, you wrote, you recognized you'd been cheated of everything you owned. You'd been obliged to go back to your village and work for years to support your wife and children. Now, much older, less full of hope, you were back in your trishaw once more, sleeping in the big-city streets yet again, ready to extend trust to fresh strangers tumbling out of the overnight train in the early light.
I never know when the next letter from a stranger will arrive. You, too, I suspect. We don't even know, not having met for thirty-five years, how much to call one another friends. But you opened yourself up to the point where I feel I know you better than I do many of my lifelong companions. I live in the hope that, for all of my writing about us, I remain a friend, and not the stranger you should never have trusted.
I still write letters to old pals, often, and even in our sixties, we favor the jokes and personae we enjoyed when we were kids. But the letters I write to you—even the ones I don't write down—never stop evolving, because the decades keep speeding by and circumstances keep changing. Even as, in memory, we're still just kids in our twenties, on that bright late-autumn day in 1985, walking toward one another through the dusty sunshine, unsure of how much to trust, and whether it might not be better to remain forever strangers.
To the Child on the Plane
The Cascades, Oregon
I stood in the aisle stretching as pretense, but really it was to get a better look at you in action. I loved you instantly. It was your gestures—how you rubbed your freckly nose with the back of a hand, then pushed the long hair out of your face, no thought to smoothing or neatening. With legs tucked under, you loosened the seatbelt as far as possible—the way I still play with the letter of the law on planes.
You were a little loud but not whiney. Direct but not demanding. Athletic but not in a trained-up way—it looked like you knew how to think with your body. You yielded none of your seat space to your sister. You were older, eleven or twelve, and indulgent with the bag of toys, except when your mother had to referee time with the joke book.
When I was twelve, I would have loved a friend like you. I spent my girlhood cajoling reluctants to hike through woods, ride straight down hills, and stay in the ocean past bluing. You'd have met me anywhere. We'd have worn our jeans-and-T-shirt uniform; at that age, I hand-lettered a tee myself (simple black marker on a cast-off from my father that read, "The more I know of man, the more I love my dog," which worried my mother. People were often mean, though, and I did so love my dog).
Your mother's voice broke the spell. You and your sister were fighting over a snack and your mother called out a boy's name. David! What an unexpectedly steep disappointment. You were a boy child. And so it followed: of course, the ease of movement and claiming of territory; of course, the confident voice and reluctance to prettify. All I'd recognized as free, bold, and girl dissolved and slipped out of reach. Oh, girl the sensation was still present, but became again singular, mine to protect, not mirrored in another. Girl went inward and private, a way-of-being known best to animals and trees.
Still, you sent me right back to age twelve. I'd just gotten my period and when I went back out to ride my bike—new pad in place—I realized, with a shock so sharp it was physical, I'd have to carry a bag now. I could be ambushed by the need for supplies at any time, and I'd have to plan for proximity to bathrooms. In a panic, I thought I could just stuff one in my pocket like a tissue or dollar and go. But no. Too bulky. More to the point, we girls were meant to keep them out of sight. Hidden from whom? And how was discretion communicated? With the usual whispers, pantomimes, and codes. The gift of little zippered bags (in pink, the most useless form of camouflage). Such early training in accepting-but-not-naming boys as the central subject of my actions, soon to be the central subject of our collective fear, and yet in need of protection from the reality of our bodies.
A backpack took care of my concerns. Hands free, I could ride easily and hike. I still carry one to this day.
I got a look at your sister, too, before I went back to my aisle and seat. She seemed cool enough, but the usual sort of girl who made dolls talk and wore sparkly barrettes and bracelets—nice, though not someone I'd have had as a pal. You're the one I wondered about, long after that flight. Maybe you were a girl en route to being a boy. Or a boy who liked and would grow his girl-self. Or a long-haired kid refusing to take sides. Such are the possibilities available now, as they were not then. I am grateful for them. All I know is: you caught my eye, winged me back to a lightness, a power I held once so easily at the center of my body, a way of being I recognized immediately, a freedom that still presents as notable.
To My Arctic Vardøger
“Refreshingly unique in voice from one to the next but all sharing a lyrical quality . . . Rich with culture, history, and delicious nuggets of local detail . . . Letter to a Stranger is an endearing reminder of the humanity that surrounds us; messy, awkward, compassionate, vulnerable . . . Enchanting.”
“A celebration of the adventure that is other people.”
—Ariel Levy, author of The Rules Do Not Apply
“The power of brief encounters is illuminated in this moving collection . . . Bright and hopeful, this anthology is sure to delight avid travelers.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Sweet but often poignant collection . . . Mesmerizing . . . This highly recommended collection of letters would appeal to many types of readers, including individuals interested in creative writing, the epistolary form, or travel literature.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Poignant, vividly described and thought-provoking . . . Each one is a thoughtful, engaging, gemlike tribute to a person whose presence changed each writer's life forever.”
—Shelf Awareness (starred review)
“Guaranteed to fill you with wanderlust.”
“A collection that can be read more than once and feel new each time. Readers looking for quiet contemplation as well as conversation starters will find equal satisfaction in these pages.”
“The process of reflecting on what a stranger meant to one, reveals deep, perhaps hidden, truths about one’s own life . . . A very interesting book and a great approach to thoughtful writing.”
—Manhattan Book Review
“[An] intimate collection of letters from some of the most beloved authors of our time, and perfect is an understatement . . . A book that has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and one I do not think I will ever get tired of skimming through.”
—Grace Sullivan (Fountain Bookstore) in The Southern Bookseller Review
“The symphony of voices in Letter to a Stranger is at times rousing and exhilarating, at other times piercing and plaintive. The human condition is on full display, here in these fleeting glimpses of our essential connectedness. This beautiful book is a perfect one for our times. It reminds us that we are witnesses to one another’s joys and heartaches, even if we never exchange a word.”
—Dani Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of Inheritance
“By turns, moving, hilarious, and scary, this collection of taut fiery essays is a sprint around the world—all keyhole portraits of unexpected brushes with that one character who flares with meaning.”
—Jack Hitt, author of Bunch of Amateurs
“A collection of stories from writers who’ve had an amazing experience with someone they don’t know but who has changed their life or impacted their journey . . . Poignant.”
—The Edmonton Journal
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Algonquin Books