by Dhwani Yagnaraman
It takes one moment of extraordinary stupidity to do something courageous. I still remember my hand quivering as I wrote out a letter to a stranger, feeling like I was a character in a typically unrealistic romantic comedy.
“Dear Raul”, I began, “You don’t know who I am, and I don’t know who you are, but if you remember, you helped me carry my luggage down from my hotel room three days ago as I was leaving for Heathrow. Just to help you remember, you asked me where I’m from and I told you that I was Indian. I have no idea why I’m writing to you, but I just felt like it so here you are. I hope this entertains you, if not compels you to reply.
“To be honest, I wish I had asked you more about yourself or told you that I wanted to visit your country because I’ve read a great deal about it in books (mostly about Transylvania and Dracula). But I do, in fact, want to visit Romania someday. I also wanted to ask you how you came to be in London and why you wanted to know where I was from. I have a lot of questions, I know. I’m sorry. But half of my mind thinks I might not even post this so I’m not too worried about how curious I sound.
“I really liked the fact that you asked me, a stranger, a question without knowing or anticipating a response. I like people who make the effort and summon the courage to go talk to people they don’t know even when they’re not used to being friendly and social. It’s something I’ve been trying to do a lot in college. I have a feeling that you’re like that too- a bit on the introverted side. You had the same nervousness in your gait that I have when I want to say something more but don’t know if I should. I think that those people are the most interesting because trying to get to know them is such an adventure. You learn something new about them every day you spend with them.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this feeling before but I felt that I was missing
out on something by not speaking to you more and learning more about you. For some reason, quiet people tend to bring out the worst of my curiosity. You reminded me a lot of someone I know and now that I’m about five hundred miles on the other side of the Atlantic, I really wish I had gone ahead and struck up a conversation. So this is me starting that conversation. Who are you, Raul? Besides the guy who helps people with their luggage and holds open the door? Where do you go when you’re not the guy who helps people with their luggage and holds open the door for them? Do you miss home? I know I do, being so far away from my home. I miss little things like hearing my mother tongue being spoken in every corner of the city, the way we jaywalk across busy roads without bothering to check the stoplights and the heat of the sun, although I never thought I’d miss that. I moved away to study. I don’t think I mentioned that. I didn’t even tell you my name. It’s Tara.
“When I spoke to you, in the brief time when the elevator went from the third floor to the ground floor, I formed a mental picture of what you were like. And I just want to know how accurate my perception was. Anyway, I think I’ve exceeded the courtesy of your time so goodbye, it was a pleasure meeting you.
I concluded by adding my home address below my name, cautiously, knowing that anyone close to me would have launched off into a speech about the dangers of trusting a stranger. A part of me screamed out against this crime of absurdity I was committing but the other part just coolly ignored it, licking the stamp and slipping it into an envelope that bore his name and the address of the hotel I had stayed in during my visit to London. I was well aware that I was sending into the world a reason for everyone I knew to worry about me. One doesn’t arbitrarily write letters to strangers.
And then began the wait. Which was composed mainly of oscillations between ‘Oh god, what have I done? He’s probably one of those stalker types we’re always warned about and he’s going to come after me and kill me or do something equally horrible and then I can’t even defend myself because this is all my fault! I’m such an idiot. I should not be allowed to make my own decisions’ to “how long does mail take in this country? Why won’t he reply? Does he think I’m weird? Of course, I’m weird. He could still reply. Maybe he filed a police report and I’m going to get deported! That was stupid, Tara, even for you.”
One week went by and then two. As the third week dawned, I had given up any hope of hearing from this stranger who had so easily captured all my thoughts, secretly hoping that my letter had been lost in the mail or he had thrown it away, unable to remember who I was. I fell deeply into the routine of college, rushing from one class to another, staying up late in the library and spending weekends making regrettable decisions at shady parties and clubs. I didn’t feel like I had lost anything by not hearing from him. Had it been someone who promised to write to me, I might have been a little offended.
But every so often, I would find myself alone, glancing at my watch, which had a little dial adjusted to London time, wondering what the Raul that I had created in my mind was doing. Was he making his way to a boutique grocery store to buy the food that he actually knew how to eat without watching a Londoner eat the same from the corner of his eye? Or had he found people like himself, enjoying the company of people from his own country, which sometimes can’t be compared to the company of anyone else? Maybe he was just waking up, turning the dials of the clock ahead to try and remember what his family would be doing and whether he should call them or not. He could be making his way down the corridor of his cramped London apartment, where stepping off the bed meant stepping out of the room, on his way to work, wondering if someone would figure out he was different, an alien, completely unfamiliar with how this country worked. Or maybe he rubbed his eyes, counted his change and multiplied each pound he earned, bitterly remembering what all he could buy for that amount back home, things he had only looked at as a naïve young boy.
It was more than a month before I found a crisp white envelope on my desk, courtesy of my roommate who, unlike me, knew how to retrieve mail from the labyrinth of rooms and buildings that organized letters. I fiddled with it for a while, wondering whether I should open what was probably another promotion letter or advertisement. Finally, feeling the need to use my obsolete penknife that I still felt guilty about buying, I cut it open. My eyes skipped over the neat childlike writing to the end, giving me a fright as I saw the last name I expected to see. Raul.