Conversations with a stranger

It’s not warm outside, but the sky is bright and blue, and the sun is in my eyes. I step out of the post office and start walking. As I do, I think of my friend. Of what she told me, the last time we really talked, face to face, eye to eye, on a prepossessing sunny afternoon like this one.

If I had known the way that conversation would end, that I would be walking home reeling, running from a conversation that I’ll remember forever, and the vestiges of our friendship scattered across the past, I never would have gone. I never would have approached her. I would’ve left it for another time. I keep on walking. There aren’t any cars, and I can see patches of dark cement showing intermittently every now and again where there were cracks in the pavement. Trust that turned into ruin.

The road is narrow and there isn’t a sidewalk, but I keep going until a little park comes into view. It’s not packed, there aren’t many people around, just a couple of kids and their parents, playing and running and laughing.


There’s only one person I recognize, and it’s with an odd sense of both curiosity and confusion.

It’s my neighbor.

A woman who lives in my building, two doors down and to the left, and I don’t know much about her, but I admire her, nonetheless.

She’s an artist, I think. Was an artist, would be better said. She’s been in retirement since last month. She used to be a journalist and wrote articles on high fashion and poets and science. She collects prints of old and famous paintings and plays the piano. I can hear her sometimes, early in the morning or in the late afternoon, when the sun is just setting; renditions of Mozart or Beethoven or Bach. 

When she plays, it isn’t loud, or noisy, but with just the right amount of passion pressed into the keys that it sounds like a dream. I don’t usually listen to classical music, but hearing her play is a joy to my ears.


The walls in my apartment aren’t that thin, but the music flows through them as effortlessly as waves crashing on the beach. The walls my friend built are different. They’re sturdy, tall, and made of bricks that prevent me from seeing that elegant charm she carried about herself. All I can see now is a petty shell of a person I used to share my laughter with. I still love her. 

I just don’t know if I could do it all again. Some ruins are better left untouched. They should be kept in museums and learned from. Used to teach others about what happens when you lie and betray and leave.

For a moment I stop and watch my neighbor from afar. She’s admiring the sky, the trees, the sea, and the horizon in the distance. 

I start walking towards her, not quite sure of what I am about to do. Maybe I should just go, not make it awkward and leave before she sees me and recognizes my face, but it’s too late by the time I make up my mind. She meets my eyes and smiles. I try to smile back, and then come closer.

We live in a small community, and while I know most of my neighbors, she’s the one I see the most. I saw her in a museum once, admiring a sculpture, and then a couple of days later in a coffee shop, reading some old famous book in another language. I couldn’t recognize the title.

She’s an interesting person, and my life recently has been full of uninteresting people. I had someone, quite a while ago, but that’s a little complicated. It’s not that anything is different, or wrong—if anything things are better than ever—it’s just that I’ve gotten used to it all. Getting up early, studying, writing, and sleeping. It’s all become a blur of routine and repeat.

 The manuscript in my bag makes a particularly loud crunch of pages and paper, and I find myself wishing I spent my money on an actual plastic cover instead of a shabby folder.

“Can I sit?” I ask, and she nods, kindly, and gestures to the seat beside her.

The wooden bench is slightly damp from dew, but it’s in the sun, and it isn’t as cold as I expected it to be.

“It’s nice to see you here.” she says, and her voice is calm and relaxed, “I don’t notice many people your age walking outside anymore.”

I smile and nod. She’s right.

“Most people my age are too busy doing…” and my voice trails off. What are they doing? Hanging out? Partying? Studying? I honestly don’t know.

“They’re missing out.” she concludes, “It’s a beautiful day.”

“Yeah,” I say, “it is.”

We sit in silence for a moment, listening to the birds and the faint chatter of people passing by.

“So, what are you doing here? Are you on vacation?”

I think about my answer.

“Sort of.” I am on vacation, and it’s been two long two weeks of hotel rooms and sightseeing. As much as I love to travel, it does exhaust me sometimes.

 This town is our last destination, and as I was waiting for mom earlier, while she was writing her postcards, I was thinking about how lucky I am. It feels selfish sometimes, to travel around the world and visit all these beautiful foreign places and feel tired afterward.

I want to go home. Sleep in my own bed. I can’t wait to wake up and stare at my boring old ceiling and enjoy a normal life.

It’s funny, I think, how controversial life can be.

Things seem one way, and the next moment they’re different, and then we lose track of it all and nothing makes any sense. Or it makes perfect sense. It depends on the person, I guess. It’s all about the experience, and the memories. I’ve barely lived at all, and I have so many of those already. Most good. Some bad. In my pocket, my fingers brush against metal. A charm on my keyring. 

Half a heart. Another promise, now gone. I think about that. 

About my friend at home, and how things ended between us. I don’t understand the consequences of her actions, I don’t think I ever will. It’s been five years. Five, long, torturous years of silence and misunderstandings. I know it’s not my fault, but still, I feel I should have done something earlier. Tried to talk to her more, earlier. Now she’s too far gone. If I tried to explain it all now, she would never believe me.

And my trust in her is gone as well.

Gone like the wind.

Disappeared forever with all the dead leaves and all the other lost things the last time we talked. What followed was months of silence. Self-doubt. Uncertainty. It took me way too long to realize that was who she was. A taker. With her high ponytail and those green eyes, making promises she never meant to keep. I fell for it too easily. Forever, to me, meant something. She, as it turned out, thought differently. Her promises were empty, unlike the threats she so effortlessly gives out.

 The worst part is all the time we lost. 

Clinging on to something that was maybe never even real. In all the thirteen years of knowing her, she was the last person I ever thought would leave the way she did. Without saying why, without telling me for how long, she simply walked away, and left me to fix the broken pieces of a friendship I thought would last my whole life.

I try to imagine her now, somewhere at home, or maybe on a beach, with other people, other friends, laughing. Head tilted back and narrowed eyes, joking, smiling, and being her beautiful, deceitful, complicated self.

 Sometimes I think I ought to warn the people she’s with. I think about telling them what she’s really like, how she’ll only stick with you until all your happiness and your joy, and your passion are sucked out of you and you’re left with nothing.

They’d never believe me.

Or maybe they would, but even now, while I see myself as a wannabe writer, she’s the better storyteller.

She’s the victim.

She’s the helpless damsel in distress, out to get you and everything you love.

I wonder, sometimes, if I ever publish it, of course, would she read my novel one day?

Would she be walking down the street with that same high ponytail and those same green eyes would fall into my name in a bookshop window? I try to imagine her buying the book to see if my retelling of our story is accurate. Would she do that? Maybe. But I know her. I know that face and I know those eyes, and I know her, so I know she’s only going to give it a once-over and look for her own name inside.

She won’t be upset; she won’t be angry.

I think I’d have felt much better if she simply screamed at me or even lied or cried as I did. But no. That’s not her. She just smiled through everything, picture-perfect like every other day. Devoid of all emotion, of everything. How did I not see it before? I picture her, standing there with my book, unphased, unflinching, unperturbed.

A gentle breeze swindles my face and pushes a strand of hair into my eyes. I tuck it behind my ear and turn to the side, towards my neighbor.

An idea pops into my head.

“Can I ask you something?”

My neighbor turns her head, and for the first time since I’ve sat down, she looks at me. Into me. Into my soul. Her eyes can do that. I wonder what else she’s seen.

“Ask away.”

“Do you read a lot?”

“I used to. I should do it more often now that I have the time.” she smiles.

“Would you read something and tell me what you think about it?” I ask.

“What would I be reading?”

My hands hover above the bag that’s in my lap, and I almost back away from this, but I make myself open the latch and pull out the folder that’s inside.

“A novel,” I answered lightly.

“Which novel?”

“It’s not a novel, I guess…” I try to explain, “I… write. Sometimes. I guess I don’t know. It’s a thing I wrote, and I thought you’d be the one to give me an honest opinion on it.”

She listens carefully and looks like she’s thinking about what I said.

“I see. And why me, can I ask?”

I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to come off as weird. It’s easy to read people sometimes. The way they dress, the way they talk. Their unspoken opinions about the world. Of course, you never really know if you’re right until you get to know them, but, maybe that’s what I’m doing here. This woman probably doesn’t have many friends.

 She doesn’t have a job anymore; she doesn’t talk to people that often. Maybe I can help. And she can help me. I need someone with experience. Someone who lived long enough to know what’s what in the world. Someone to be honest. 

But how do I trust anyone after someone I loved with all my heart and soul, someone I called family, did what she did. How do I ever look someone in the eyes again, and tell them something important? My stories are important. They’re my words, my sentences strung together, and held together. They’re my thoughts. Letting someone see into your head can feel like a roller coaster ride. 

There are ups and downs, highs, and lows, just like in life. The only thing is, after a fun park ride you can simply get off and walk away. Life is a bit more difficult. I decided to start with a question.

“You used to be a journalist, right?”

“That’s right.”

Then I decide on the truth. Or a part of it. “I thought you might have some insight on… writing. Talking to authors and poets for all those years, surely you learned a thing or two about what makes a good story.”

“What makes a good story…” she suddenly seems deep in thought. “Well, a good story needs to have an interesting plot. Your characters need personality, layers, and beliefs. It needs to be compelling.”

I try to find all of that in my manuscript. I know every line, every sentence by heart, and yet I feel slightly lost amid all those words and all those pages.

Alluring characters, plot-driven scenes… it all seems so cliché, but it works. It works.

I open the folder and take out the pages, then hand them over to her. She takes them carefully, and I feel a wave of appreciation wash over me. I wonder if she knows how many hours, I’ve spent on this. 

How many afternoons, how many sleepless nights? And I don’t care if it doesn’t turn out a famous book, I just want someone to be able to find themselves in the characters. Somewhere deep in my head, a voice tells me that might be one of my friend’s current acquaintances. One of her pals. Someone who’s currently convinced they’re living the dream. I feel sorry for them. My neighbor flips through the pages, briefly, and her eyes skim over everything, from start to finish.

“I have another copy at home,” I tell her, “So you can write on it if you find any mistakes or anything.”

She nods. “I’ll be sure to do that.”

My phone buzzes in my pocket. I take it out, unlock it, and swipe down. I have three new messages. Two are from my mother, asking where on earth I am, and I quickly text back saying that I’m on my way. The third is a number I haven’t seen for a long time, and it takes me by surprise.

“I need to get going,” I say, and my neighbor only smiles in response. She has a kind smile.

“My mom’s waiting for me. But I appreciate this. And I meant what I said, you can write in whatever you want, just—one thing; leave the last sentence as it is.” I add.

She nods, once, and tells me of course.

“Can I ask, out of curiosity, why the last sentence?”

I smile. The phone in my hand chimes again. My mom says she’s waiting for me at the post office, exactly where I left her. My eyes catch that third text for another second.

I get up and turn around. Our eyes meet for the second time, and in the brown of her irises, I see age, time, and experience. I wonder if she had someone who was as special to her as my friend is to me.

“The last sentence,” I say, “is the most important because it packs the punch. It’s the cherry on top. It leaves the biggest impression.” I smile. “In my opinion, at least.”

“Alright.” my neighbor tells me. “You say hi to your mother and I’ll give this back when we both get home.” she gestures to my manuscript.

“Okay.” I agree.

On the way back I walk through the park and take out my phone again. I stare at that third text on the screen. I spent five years wasting my life on someone who didn’t care. I let my dearest friend ruin my grades, my happiness, and my will to enjoy life as it is. I don’t precisely know where—and even if—I drew the line, but I must’ve done so somewhere. It took me five years to learn that that’s what she does to people. She keeps them close, but not too close. Just enough to keep them on the edge. I suppose I should thank her for one thing, though.


More than one thing, I guess.

The memories we made, before everything started, all of them are happy.

Because of what she did I got into writing, and I somehow learned to push all that emotion and creativity I have in my head onto a page, and into a book. She made me see the world differently. She taught me valuable lessons, and maybe now is my chance to teach her the same. I know what power does to people. Give it to them and they’ll show who they are. I gave her too much. And now, as I make my way down the gravelly road, coated in sunlight, I think that, maybe, just maybe, I won’t reply to her text.

– M.H.