Hello Mr.

Essays   POEM | ISSUE 06   Sep 02, 2015

How to Talk to Strangers

Text by Bryan Washington
Lettering by Stephen Grace

Be white.

If you’re not white, be well-spoken. Enunciate. Have a bachelor’s, a master’s, an engineering degree in progress.

Spend the time you aren’t using to pursue an engineering degree in record stores, bookstores, taquerias. Buy books regularly, but never at full price. Use the money you save on an online dating subscription.

Find a coffee shop in midtown. Walk there daily. Observe the occupants behind a novel you’ll never read.

Tip well.

Spend the money you still haven’t tipped with on more coffee. When the stranger across from you looks up from his Wise Blood, his Fader, his One Hundred Years of Solitude, run a hand over your brow. Keep the other one on your coffee.

Come back to this coffee shop daily, around the same time. Wait for the aforementioned stranger.

Learn little things about him.

Learn that he’s attending the college up the road.

Learn that he treats himself to pastries on weekends.

Learn that he’s familiar with the ginger barista, the one you haven’t tipped, the one who fucks your name up. Imagine said ginger walking over to your table and asking for a synopsis of the book in your hands.

Learn that your stranger screens his calls.

Learn that your stranger’s Spanish is poor.

Learn that your stranger is lactose intolerant, that he smokes Camel mints, that he is at least casually interested in Manchester United.

Spend your tipping money on streaming services. When the connection at your place breaks down – the way everyone’s connection in your complex breaks down because the super knows his Latins and blacks won’t phone the boss to straighten it out – don’t let it ruffle you. Wait an hour, maybe two.

Find poorly written romantic comedies and watch them on your laptop, in sweatpants, in the evenings.

Watch Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Lawrence fall in and out of love with dark-haired strangers. Note how similar they are to your stranger. Do not compare. When your mother calls to ask about your extracurricular pursuits, your appropriation of her monthly allowance, your decision not to dabble in fluid dynamics, politely redirect the question. When your mother asks why you haven’t sent your sister, your father, your cousins across the border any money, politely redirect the question.

When your mother asks if you’re seeing anyone, politely redirect the question.

When your mother insists on an answer, imagine what she’d think of your stranger, briefly.

Imagine you and your stranger at home – not home here, but home home. He’s been there before. On a boat, with his parents. Exhaust the joke about how this is something you have in common.

Imagine the two of you walking downtown, a speck in the sea – except, for once you aren’t the speck, you aren’t the thing in the picture that is not like the others.

Imagine him with your family at dinner, around a meal you grew up with, the type of meat your stranger’s only seen on the Discovery Channel, at full speed. And when your stranger speaks to your mother, imagine him gurgling her name like mouthwash, the same way she gurgled his, and though neither of them know it, think that in this way they are the same.

Imagine your sister sitting across the table, smiling amiably, stepping on your toes, and imagine your father – he’s not at the table, he’s out pulling fruit or driving a cab or screwing a neighbor or just standing behind the screen door, cheek in one hand, smoking a cigarette because what would he be doing sitting at the table with your stranger? You cannot even imagine it. It is unimaginable.

When your mother insists on an answer, politely redirect the question.

Cancel your online dating subscription. Pledge to keep it canceled for the rest of the year, the rest of the season, the rest of the month. Until next week.

Pledge to use the money on a latte for the stranger.

See yourself actually approaching the stranger. What you’d say. The face you’d wear.

See the stranger rejecting your latte.

See the stranger accepting your latte, only to choke on it.

See the stranger accepting your latte, only to burst into flames.

See the stranger accepting your latte, shaking your hand, smiling. He gurgles your name, but only the first time. You’ll take his hand, or he’ll take yours, and when he asks you out for dinner act like you’re honestly considering saying no. And after dinner comes and goes, and you’re lying on his sofa, under his body, over his mattress, think that it’s all very nice, really. But don’t get too attached.

Don’t get too attached when his nose brushes your ear, negotiating the smoothie of your bodies.

Don’t get too attached when he comes to your apartment, and he touches everything, asks where all of it’s from, what it all means, and you have to tell him that sometimes things are just things and nothing else.

Don’t get too attached when he introduces you to his friends, and their eyebrows always, always, always rise before they speak.

Don’t get too attached when he asks about your sister, or when you visit his parents. Don’t get attached as he sways to your music, orders your favorite drink at the bar, rubs your shoulders when you call your mother.

Don’t get attached when he asks you what’s wrong, and you don’t know what it is, just what it feels like – like a shattered Christmas ornament in the center of your chest.

Spend the winter seeing these things. Imagining maybes. Dreaming them up.

Allow your stranger to remain strange. Try not to chastise yourself for it.

Watch the leaves fall, the sidewalk turn. Apply to the college up the road.

When your mother calls, screen it.

When your father calls, screen it.

When the college up the road calls you back to inform you that you’re not eligible, hang up.

Do not try again.

When your sister calls, answer. Tell her this country’s so bright, so shiny. Tell her that you’ve applied to school. That she will love it here, that everyone in this country’s in love.

Watch the election, watch the ball drop, watch Jennifer Lopez.

Tip, eventually, meagerly.

Google ‘JUNIOR COLLEGE DOWNTOWN CHEAP TUITION.’ Try again in lowercase.

Resubscribe to the online dating service, before unsubscribing, just to resubscribe again.

When you return to your coffee shop months later, on your lunch break, with an earmarked textbook, and the stranger knocks on your table to ask if they’ve changed the Wi-Fi password, keep an expression that is both muted and all-knowing.


Say you aren’t sure. That you can find out. When he thanks you, don’t stutter.

When he gives you his name, breathe. Shake his hand when he offers it.

Talk to the stranger.

Bryan Washington lives in New Orleans.

This piece was originally published in our sixth issue, available now

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