Strangers

Unlike my previous entry, this isn’t an experience. It’s a story instead and it’s one I wrote nearly a year ago. I’ve changed a lot since then but I can never not identify with that which gave rise to this story in the first place even if I have learnt to overcome it…

…This isn’t the road I usually take on my drive back home.Then again, today hadn’t been an usual day. I could use the solitude this road offered. There was nothing truly remarkable about it. Streetlights lined both sides but most of them had long since been broken by drunken revelers. It wasn’t very wide either and there were vast fields on either side which were a nostalgic golden this time of the year, swaying gently to the evening breeze.
I slowed down to enjoy the view. The sun hadn’t set yet but was on its way down to the horizon, the sky tinged with shades of pink and gold. Thin clouds drifted along and distant birds completed the view of a world that was at peace. My mind was anything but.
Lost in the surroundings I nearly didn’t notice him at first. The man who sat on the sidewalk like he’d lost everything this life could ever offer. A stranger on an unfamiliar road.
It was his bike I noticed first, lying on the ground beside him but as I came closer it became clear that there hadn’t been any accident. He simply couldn’t bring himself to park it.
I brought my own bike to a halt. I do not know what made me do it. Maybe it was how broken the stranger appeared and that called out to me. I got off the bike and went to stand beside him. My shadow made him turn around and it was clear that he didn’t want the intrusion, preferring the distant horizon over this  earthly mortal.
I made a vague gesture indicating my desire to sit beside him. I couldn’t trust my voice at the moment. It was still raw from all the crying.
He stared at me and I stared back. His was a rugged face, with a thick and matted beard which went well with his lanky hair. His eyes were a melancholic black, beneath his bushy eyebrows.
I know not what he saw in me but I think it must have been my eyes that were so similar to his own. He nodded and then turned away, continuing to stare.
I sat beside him and stared along. I didn’t think I could stay silent for very long. Patience had never been my strongest suit but there was something about his company coupled with the rustic atmosphere that offered the solace I didn’t know I had been looking for. The minutes flowed into hours and the sun went gently behind the distant hills, the sky ablaze in iridescent shades of red and yellow, aflame. For the longest time we were both absolutely silent, the only noise coming from our breaths.
“It was my fault.” He said, as the first stars began to twinkle overhead and twilight began to set in. “I don’t know whose fault it was or if there is even a fault.” I replied. “Must be you. You’ve got the look of a loser, same as me.” He said, his gruff voice befitting him.
I chuckled. So that’s what he saw in me. There was a time when I would have retorted in indignation but right now, I couldn’t have put it better.
“What’d you do?” I asked. He took a deep breath and exhaled before answering in that gruff voice of his, “I proposed to her mate.” The air was colder now and the wind blew more gently. I stayed silent. The only thing I could honestly claim to be good at was listening. He continued to stare ahead as he shared what followed the proposal.
“I thought she knew mate. Not the exact day I was gonna propose, I wasn’t gonna ruin the surprise but I thought she knew I was gonna. We were serious and for real. And you know what she did? She cried mate. Not tears of joy, those. She cried!” He paused for a while, staring at the ground to collect his thoughts before continuing, “She told me she loved me, over and over, crying all the while but that this was too soon. That we needed more time. She was still gonna say yes mate, I could see that but I didn’t wanna hear that because she… she was pressured, get it? I left mate, ring and all…”
He put his hand into his pocket, rummaging around for a moment before pulling out a ring. It was a simple thing, slender platinum with a diamond set in. He rested it on his palm, staring at it.
“Kinda makes you question everything when the one certainty of your life is shaken. I mean, I thought it was mutual. Yeah, it’s been little over a year and people do wait longer but I thought we didn’t need to. It was perfect mate, all of it. But I screwed it up. Maybe she didn’t want to hitch herself to me for the long run. Damn me but there’s no one else I wanna be with mate!” He sighed before finally asking the question, “You been through any shit like this?”
I owed him an answer and I would give him one but right now, this wasn’t about me. “What are you gonna do next?” Thankfully, he didn’t mind the question, “Right now, all I wanna do is run away mate but I’ll have to face up to her eventually, right? I’ll… I’ll give her the space she needs. Keep my distance so that it don’t get awkward for her. Pull away slowly, get it?”
I shook my head, “Don’t you think you are going about this the wrong way? Did she ask for space or for distance?”
He turned around to look at me, “She fucking cried. If I ain’t the one for her then I don’t wanna be a burden, alright. I love her mate. But no, she didn’t say them words.”
It was my turn to look at him. “Exactly. She didn’t say those words. She did say another and that’s all you really need to give. Time.”
“You really think that’s what this is about? Getting to know each other better? That a man should propose only after he knows every fucking thing he could possibly know about a woman? This is about trust mate and trust is this… this instinct, get it? You don’t need to know a person forever to trust them. Trust just happens and it happened with us. I could leave my life in her hands and walk away with a certainty that would make God jealous.”
“So you believe in love at first sight then?” I asked. He snorted and returned to looking straight ahead. It truly was twilight now and there were more stars above though there was no moon. Very soon, the fields would be difficult to discern and the wind was picking up speed again. “That’s bullshit, mate! No such thing as that and that ain’t what I’m talking about here. Trust is, it’s different. It don’t happen with a look. You speak mate, you see what makes them tick and then it just clicks. And it ain’t absolute from the start. It just, it kinda grows on you, get it? It ain’t about sharing every fucking detail. It’s about knowing that when you do, they’ll listen! And we earned ours.”
I nodded. “We are in agreement there. So, can’t you trust her now? Because marriage is something you grow into too and you’ll earn yours by sticking around, not running away.”
I could see that he was taken aback, “But… but the proposal…” he sputtered, turning around and shifting his body so that he sat facing me. I returned the courtesy and continued, “It wasn’t refuting your love. Marriage is different and you’ll get there, same as trust or love, with time. It’s a different thing, living together with everything that entails but you must persevere.”
We were both silent for a moment before I asked, “Did she tell you she loves you?” “Yeah.” “And do you believe she meant it?” “Yeah.” He answered again. I looked up at the stars, growing in numbers as darkness settled in. “Then you’ve got life’s most beautiful gift right there.” He turned his head skyward and mumbled a yes but his voice lacked the appreciation I’d hoped for and I knew I couldn’t let this pass. Here was a man who was loved. He deserved to know what it meant.
“We are born into love, in the form of relationships we have no say over. Parents, siblings and the likes but it’s the love that you earn that is truly special. It’s different.” He turned back to me and I continued, “That’s where it’s beauty lies. That you, purely by virtue of being you, matter to someone. That you are acknowledged.” The words followed one after the other like I had this speech imprinted on my mind, “Some call it friendship while others go for more romanticized words but love is what it is. It is to know someone, to care and to let them matter to you and in doing so, to give them a meaning larger than themselves. That’s what it means to be loved. You cease to be an isolated being, that bond elevating you to something higher because you came here on your own and forged that bond, connecting yourself to the universe. It’s a lonely place, this universe, stretching farther out than our minds can ever conceive and our planet holds as much significance as a dust mote. We are ephemeral beings, our greatest accomplishments and even our very existence little more than a cosmic footnote in a universe whose life spans billions of years so if you managed to do this, if you managed to make someone look beyond themself in this world with 6 billion centres and let you matter to them and if you could do the same to them then I’d call it a life well lived. Could there ever be anything more beautiful and would any amount of time be too long for what awaits you?”
He turned to stare at the horizon again and I didn’t blame him. The view was majestic, the cosmos stretching out all around us, a vista transcending time and space as starlight, eons old, illumined the otherwise dark sky. Maybe it would serve to accentuate my words, this vastness. The few streetlights that had survived sputtered to life, flickering on and off and it was in that dull yellow glow that I saw his eyes glistening. “A lifetime wouldn’t be long enough.” He said and then for the first time, he smiled, “Found myself quite the sage, I did.”
I smiled back, “Time for you to get back then.” He shook his head. “Not until you tell me what’s wrong with ya.”
I sighed. “I don’t matter my friend. I’ve spent my entire life letting others matter that somewhere I’ve lost sight of myself. I love to love and I don’t regret it. There’s no other way I’d rather have it but sometimes there’s this deep longing ache within to matter to someone. For someone to acknowledge me. For someone to tell me that I mean something to them.  To be the center of somebody’s universe. Maybe I even do but it would feel so good to just hear it once. That someone loves me. Just those words, for once.” I trailed off, flustered at what I had just said.
He looked at me, strangely amused. “Who’s the insecure self pitying asshole now?” For a moment, just one, there was absolute silence as even the wind stood still and then we both burst out laughing, unrestrained and pure. Our laughter rang across the fields and he had the most beautiful laugh I’d ever heard, throaty and deep, rumbling along.
“I called it as I saw it.” He said when we finally winded down. I nodded my assent. “Whoever they are, these ones you love, do you really believe you don’t matter to them mate?” I breathed out of my mouth and hung my head, “I lack conviction.” I explained. “I just can’t bring myself to think I could matter to them. I’m… I’m not worth it.” As I spoke those words, my fists clenched, my nails digging into my palm. They rang with the truth.
To my surprise, he rested his hand on my shoulder and gave the gentlest of squeezes. “Your problem my friend, is that you don’t let yourself matter to yourself.”  He pushed himself up to his feet and stared at me for a moment, surprised at what he had just said, and then he headed to his bike. He paused midway and turned around with a smile, “Thanks mate.” A smile rose unbidden to my lips and reflected his in its frankness. I waved to him and he pulled up his bike. He hit the ignition before turning back to me one last time, “Maybe some stranger will remind you about what you have forgotten mate.” He looked up at the sky where clouds now gathered and the wind was stronger than it had ever been before. “There’s a storm coming. Best leave now my friend.” With a wave, he left and I stared at his taillights until they were lost in the darkness.
The remaining streetlights finally gave up their struggle to survive and absolute darkness set in. It began to drizzle, gently at first but growing more intense with each passing moment. The wind was howling now and my bike was knocked down, sideways. I was drenched to the core and shivering and trembling. My teeth clattered. I hugged myself but it was of no use.
My stranger had been wrong. My problem was that I was afraid of it having a solution. I’d lived with it so long that it became my crutch, my excuse, my one dependable in this life. There was a security in my insecurity. I couldn’t accept me being worth something to anybody. The alternative somehow scared me. I was so used to letting others become the center of my life that I forgot that they led their own lives. People didn’t tie themselves down to others the way I did. I didn’t blame them. How could I? But I felt like I belonged to the ones I loved, guilt arising when I formed new bonds and the saddest bit was that the absurdity of it all didn’t bother me. This is who I was.
I lay back in the mushy ground, letting the rain lash me over and over. Helpless and powerless in the face of nature. It pounded upon me incessant and I lost all sense of time until lightning struck somewhere in this distance and the world was awash with the most brilliant light, hauntingly beautiful in it’s stark loneliness. I let the tears flow without any shame. I felt small, insignificant and somehow it felt liberating. A nervous chuckle escaped my lips at first and before I knew it I was laughing, harder than ever before. I could step out of the confines of my own making and be a part of the universe again. I could connect and maybe even believe that I could matter.
Because today had meant something. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to be this person forever. Seeing how drenched and cold I was, I knew I might end up dying here. The thought had never scared me before but today, I wanted a chance.
The storm began to relent. When I saw lights from a bike in the distance, I pushed myself back to sitting. To give myself a chance.
A stranger on an unfamiliar road…

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