Going home with strangers.

June 23, 2012 § 12 Comments

Riding down 231, headed to Panama City Beach, my husband was at the wheel, my daughter and grandson in the backseat.

I was firmly fixed in the constellation of my own life and family.

And then a nondescript old truck dogged even with us on the inside lane.

At first the driver was one sunburned arm slung out an open window.  I craned to see a thin, equally tan face beneath the visor of a ball cap. The face looked passive and indifferent.

The truck’s bed was loaded with a mismatched living room suite that could have been picked up off the curb in my neighborhood any day of the week. Beige and stained, the jammed-in loveseat tilted as if about to fall on its face.

Following the truck closely was a van pulling a metal trailer stacked with exposed mattresses and box springs. The flimsy gauze that covered the bottom of the box springs luffed in the wind. At the wheel was a woman with straw-colored hair pulled back hard with a rubber band.

Storm clouds boiled overhead. They were racing a downpour they couldn’t beat. Maybe they hoped to get lucky–maybe they’d given up on luck a long time ago, but they made no effort to pull over and cover their loads.

A preliminary spit dotted our windshield, then the rain poured down.

We had left the short caravan behind, but I continued to travel with them, watching furniture and mattresses in the rearview mirror. All would arrive soaked at the next place the couple would light, half a duplex with a scuffed door and roach droppings in the kitchen cabinets.

I sometimes write these posts to ask a question. Today the question is, do any of you leave the confines of your randomly assigned bodies to inhabit other lives?

We all do this by formal invitation when we read a novel or watch a movie. We suspend disbelief and fall willingly into what we know to be made up. The difference is, I peer through the windows of other people’s real lives. I follow strangers home.

Out for dinner that same evening, I watched an older woman seated at one end of a train of pushed-together tables, the quiet member of a party of twenty-one. Viewed from the outside, her hair was an unlikely glossy red-brown usually favored by dolls.

From inside, I knew the hair color had been chosen from memory, the natural color of her hair when she was young. It had only become strange over time as the face beneath the doll-colored hair aged, a change so gradual she had hardly noticed.

I found myself flickering back-and-forth between being Adrian eating Caesar salad and sitting inside her body, looking at my noisy extended family ranged down the row of tables. As her, the temperature of that family gathering was just right. As her, I didn’t judge the women’s hairstyles or makeup. The slinging of y’alls, the heavy southern accents became natural—I was no longer someone raised by a mother who had insisted on good grammar. The relaxed grammar spoken up and down the table was just fine, the language of inclusion.

When the family finally voted against the tiramisu and hauled out of their chairs, I watched her rock to her feet, pushing up on the arms of her metal chair. As if pumping a swing, she shoved her body forward three times before reaching altitude. When she did I felt a sense of triumph and a twinge in my knees.

Now someone would drive her home to her one-bedroom efficiency where a sweater hung on the back of a chair and her husband, long dead, smiled behind the glass of a picture frame.

I follow these people I don’t know and will never see again as I would a character in a story I am writing. What I see feels solid and real, not made up.

I hope at least one of you says, sure, I go home with strangers all the time, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you why you should.

You have set yourself up as a person who always does this, this, and this. Thinks this, this, and this. Goes here, here, and here. Don’t you sometimes tire of the never-ending job of being yourself?

A life is so small, constrained as it is by gender, age, family, circumstance. Why not become someone else for a while?

A member of the opposite sex.

The wearer of an outfit you would never choose.

Someone whose life asks different questions.

Try it. Go home with a stranger.

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§ 12 Responses to Going home with strangers.

  • Craig reeder says:

    Ok…you got me hooked
    Will try it out today and report back later


  • We are tripping in Texas right now … full of accents and characters I’ve been “going home” with all my life. These people show up in my writing from time to time … and sometimes they don’t. What does show up in my work are places … the blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tall trees in Alabama, eagles in Louisiana, the north-south escarpment in central Texas that yields views all the way to tomorrow just before the road dips down into limestone country. Ah … every writer should go tripping … even if only in their own gardens.


  • KM Huber says:

    The short answer is yes but the longer answer is I no longer go home with strangers (as frequently) but every day, I find a tree, turtle, insect or stone, shell, a wooden bridge and imagine. I may return to “occupying” humans but the enchantment of the life force–“the world in a grain of sand”–occupies my heart for now, and oh, the songs, Adrian, such songs..

    Really enjoyed this post. Striking images.



    • For peace and quiet fascination I often observe insect life and spiders. If I simply want peace and attentive focus I look at one of the rocks I’ve collected. (They cover every windowsill).


  • deb reilly says:

    Thank you, Sensei.


  • Carolyn says:

    Slightly different, I watch things/places I am familiar with through another’s eyes, such as visiting Washington, DC with a Dutch colleague,and hearing him exclaim over the wide streets, large parking spots, majestic monuments and grand white stone buildings, bright blue skies of spring, and roar of the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists arriving. Instead of the normal ‘yes, this is DC, I’ve been here so many times’, in my mind I am comparing it to the narrow streets of Amsterdam, tiny parking spots about to tip into a canal, row houses squeezed together on a grey day, and the ringing of the streetcar bells, and seeing how the scene I have taken for granted would look so different to someone seeing it for the first time….


  • When I was teaching, I often imagined the lives of my students. This habit ingrained itself in my brain after many years. I recently met a well-mannered, soft spoken 14 year old boy, Coleman, from Kentucky. He asked me if I knew any other kids his age. Coleman told me about his shotgun and the coyote he had seen. He wished he could meet some ‘real cowboys’ and work on a horse ranch.
    After forty years of imagining the gang infested neighborhoods and abusive households, a window opened and I could see an entirely different world.


    • Oh, Nathan, I wish you’d had a shot at teaching more than one kind of kid. I visit schools all over the place and the students I meet vary so much. Wide-eyed kids like Coleman exist in abundance away from the coasts and the big cities. I’ve met kids who could “sir” and ma’am” you to death.


  • Debbie Moore says:

    I do not know why but I am always drawn back from time to time to read this article. I love this one and it always opens doors for me at the time I read it. I really think as a teacher I constantly leave my body to inhabit others and I am not sure but that might be a requirement to understanding the heart of the child in front of you. I think sometimes it is difficult to NOT go home with strangers and we get so close that the word “stranger” is no longer appropriate. There are so many writings of yours that I love to read again and again: The Unavoidable Lesson, The Way Love Goes and many more but perhaps this one draws me close because it is at the moment I go home with a stranger that I am able to see through someone else’s eyes and hear through someone else’s ears. Just keeping opening our eyes through your writing – it becomes a truth of the heart speaking.


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