Seeing the bus that would eventually deliver me to my Japanese class, I was fumbling for my tokens when a small Filipina woman leaned in close and said: “You don’t need that,” and brandished a transit day pass with the day’s date scratched out.
“Just pretend to be my friend,” she said, as the bus huffed its way to the curb.
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever you want.”
This is how stories about kids getting hustled start. But I have this thing about strangers — I always give them the benefit of the doubt. This has gotten me in trouble before. But it’s also how I’ve heard some of the most interesting (and sad) stories. It’s how I ended up sharing beers with a guy on the train to Babylon while he told me his 9/11 story (everyone has one); it’s how I advised a battered woman to talk to the police about her boyfriend during the weekend shift of my high school job. These people are often deeply lonely. They’re afraid of things they can’t yet name. I wondered if this was one of them, someone with something to confess, some vitally important thing that friends or lovers or priests just can’t hear and only strangers can.
We talked about the weather. And the economy. I told her that my dad now had a job after being without one for quite some time, in a gesture of cosmic irony. She told me about the coat she’d just purchased from Value Village in hushed, embarrassed tones. “It’s just a coat,” she said, as though she were apologizing to me. “I wouldn’t wear anything else from there. Not anything that ever touches your body.”
I wondered if there was a gentle way to inform her that I’d once spent hours scrambling my way into ill-fitting thrift store clothes, yanking ancient polyester over my head, jumping up and down as I struggled to zip a stranger’s discarded trousers. There wasn’t. Wearing abandoned clothes either bothers you, or it doesn’t. It’s never bothered me. This may be why I have always enjoyed writing. Wriggling your way under an imaginary person’s skin and wearing it for a while isn’t much different from finding someone else’s sweater and making it your own.
We talked about her friend, too, who she was visiting. Three kids, all little. My new pretend friend helps out with them on the weekends she doesn’t work. “Going shopping, going to church, getting them in the car,” she said. “It’s all I can do. I don’t have anything else.”
“But it’s the time,” I said. “The time, and the effort, that’s the most important thing.”
Earlier in the week, I had been telling one of my students that money is simply the physical embodiment of time — both time spent working, and time spent building the expertise for which one is paid. This came back to me as I imagined my pretend friend helping the woman with whom she occasionally chatted on her mobile. “She’s from the Philippines, too,” she told me. “I have to get there in time to go to Mass.”
“What are you giving up for Lent?” I asked. She laughed, and I laughed, but she didn’t answer. Maybe I’d misheard her, and she’d not said “Mass” at all. Maybe she didn’t know, yet. Maybe it was too personal, or maybe she doesn’t believe in self-denial anymore, having given up so much already. I’ll never know.
“Do you have kids?” she asked, after we’d made it to the subway. She had learnt I was married, and somehow this is always the next question, when strangers find out you’re married, just like how every headache or moment of indigestion suddenly becomes a possible indicator of pregnancy in the minds of people who never spend any time with you.
“No,” I said.
“I ask because you look young.”
“But you look twenty,” she said.
“Hopefully that trend will persist, as I age.”
“Me, I’m small, but forty.”
All my friends are your age, I wanted to say, but didn’t. It’s not true, anyway — they’re all either a little over that number or far beneath it. None of them are exactly forty, except for my pretend friend.
“What is your name?” she asked, as she left the train. I told her, and she said, “I’m Kalinn.”
“Kalinn. I like that.”
“If I don’t see you, have a nice life.”
In Japanese class, I wished I had the proper verbs to write this story. I possess some of the necessary vocabulary: densha, onna, kodomo, tomodachi, Kirishitan. But it would come out like child-speak, like all my Japanese sentences. David in Seattle once told me that there’s a Japanese verb for “to test a new sword on a passing stranger,” and I’m wondering if there’s a similar word for other encounters with strangers. If not, there should be. It keeps happening to me; I want to know what to call it.