Dear Stranger: a short story

[I wrote this short a couple of years ago, and recently stumbled upon it while going through the archives. It felt like the plot had some merit, so I reworked the narrative. I hope it surprises you in all the right ways.]

Dear Stranger

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A man cast away at sea,
Stranded in blue for infinity,
Holds on, too tight, to dry sand
When he finds the only patch of land –
One he watched on the horizon for weeks,
And spent years rowing toward –
Builds a house of wild bamboo and leaves,
Finds the home he never had.

Day 0

New Delhi, India: 1:30 am

The influx of words was overwhelming and untimely. He should have seen it coming though. Being dumped is never easy to handle, specially for one who finds a long-lost sense of home in his beloved.

Too much had been given away over the years. He had had a silent void throbbing inside him for what seemed like years before she had walked in. And now, her sudden and inexplicable absence beat violently between his ribs. Words rained on him like a cloudburst – sudden, intense and inevitable – arriving at the most bizarre of moments, as they often do. Driving home from work on dangerously desolate roads, the route was filled with word epiphanies. The listless helmet looked up and sighed, “Hold on to those.”

The night sky, clouded with smog, revealed only the brightest of stars. Those not luminescent enough did not make it. Life, he thought, tried every one.

‘Why me?’ is the epitome of self-pity. He had never asked that question when he topped his classes without effort. He hadn’t asked it when he found love the first time and a gentle delight swirled around him. Or when he escaped death by a whisker. Then why ask it now? Why pity himself when he could deal with it the way only a writer can.

Once home, he went through the motions in a flash and sat down to let it all out. In an hour of frenzied typing, he spit out a confessional blog post. An overpowering feeling of loss was all the high he needed to strip himself of every mask of bravado he had put on in recent years.

<Publish>

A cathartic sense of relief washed over him as he pressed the key. This was overdue.

‘When Love Leaves’ summarized everything that was upside down in Sahil’s world. It hit all the right notes with the average adolescent internet addict struggling with heartbreak; the blog saw all-time high traffic numbers. He became briefly and accidentally famous in a world of click-bait headlines and instinctive shares. What he couldn’t see was the storm waiting round the next bend.

Day 1

New Delhi, India: 10:30 pm

Hi,
Just read your blog. There is a great amount of honesty and poise to your writing. Would love to connect and stay in touch with you. I’m a fan!
Regards, Angela

He had received many a fan mail in recent times. Yet something caught his attention about this one. There was something about the seemingly plain words, the spaces between them and the meanings they held, the texture of their sentiment, or the smile in the picture that accompanied them.

Angela. He rolled her name around in his mouth. It tasted bittersweet.

She had a social media profile unlike any other girl he had encountered. Her thoughts were original, her gentle sadness framed beautifully in intricate layers of subtext. She was an artist in a scientist’s coat. A research student in a US university by day, to him she was a writer and painter. And he was enchanted by her art.

Her archives revealed an article on joy. Sahil had never read something so profound about happiness, probably the most complex emotion out there but seldom given its true worth in the currency of thought. It made him want to write back, much like a track that rhymes with your thoughts makes you want to sing along. He knew he had found a special stranger.

The reply was awkwardly long. 805 words.

A writer will understand. If she is who I think she is, she might even reply.

Day 2

California, USA: 9:00 am

A red light flickered on the screen.

Error! The message is too big to fit in this window.

That’s odd. She never got long messages. Initiations of chats were always short and corny. And predictable. Reading it only intrigued her more.

Not only had someone read her words, but also related to them. It was the writer. She had stumbled into his piece on love and she had seen the challenge. She had dropped him a message but hadn’t expected a reply.

Angela was fast asleep beside her. How would she react?

She flicked on a switch and a deep humming sound filled the room.

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

A: Hey stranger, I have so much to tell you! I like it that you write lengthy letters; I trust people like that. And I have much more to share. Thank you. And the book you mentioned – I read it with a similar hunger.

A smile lit up his face all day. He had recommended his favourite book of recent times in his inappropriately long letter. After all, it dealt with death and existentialism. And love.

Day 3 

New Delhi, India: 11:30 pm

He found himself to be perpetually restless the next day. An urge dangerously reminiscent of past mistakes occupied his mind. At dusk, he saw Angela online. 

S: I’ve always felt like the book’s male protagonist- about leaving behind something that outlasts me, that reaches out to strangers and changes their lives. In a very small but real way, I feel strangely content after my silly rant went viral.

The tablet beeped a reply within seconds.

A: You deserved it. This particular blog post communicates something that the world needed to hear, to understand and respond to. I’d like to think that you change more lives than the character in the book did. Because you are real.

They exchanged messages for nearly an hour, on books and favourite writers. Angela was far too generous with her compliments. He was pleased but couldn’t place the flattery on a writer who, he reluctantly admitted, was better at crafting words than him. Her blog posts had been a revelation. And he had devoured much of her writing since the first message. They revealed a deep-seated sense of melancholy that was simultaneously unsettling and savory.

 

02:42 am

S: Hey!

A: Are you always awake past your bedtime, stranger?

S: Yes, stranger. Helplessly nocturnal.

A: And do you always get up grumpy the next day?

S: Yes, every morning – a promise I’ll change my habits. Never happens.

A: And do you, too, sneak books into your bed and read by book-lights, stranger?

S: Totally! Reading one right now. It’s such a sweet reminder of first love.

A: That’s a lovely feeling.

 

4:00 am

S: Do you, too, notice every little detail, specks of housedust light, the weed sapling that makes its way out of concrete slits; watch clouds morph into familiar things? And wonder why nobody stops to notice?

A: Yes. And how rain forms and washes everything and leaves you with a memory of floating paper boats.

S: Do you, too, have that inexplicable longing when it rains? A longing for that which you don’t have, have never had, but it still feels so real that if you were to stretch your hands, you could feel it at the tips of your fingers? Does it make you ecstatic and sad all at the same time?

A: Yes, it does. It makes me dance. It births a feeling of having to let go and hold on, to soak, to forget, to drown, to swim, to sway, to break free like cloudburst and write.

S: Rains are my blessing and my curse, my angel and devil dancing in harmony. Every emotion is amplified; every drop an arrow into the soul. I bleed poetry when it rains.

A: Show me some?

 

California, USA: 10:00 pm

The red had flickered all day. He had been up all night at his end of the world. Angela hadn’t stopped chatting with him ever since he had pinged. 

So far so good.

She set her alarm for an early hour. She would need some time with Angela before leaving. She had never encountered anyone like him before.

Dreams called on her that night. Vivid pictures of an abandoned castle in the woods, of rains drenching everything in sight, of greens washed clean, of poetic skies and dark clouds, the silhouette of a stranger. She woke up with the sweats.

A part of her wanted to give up her work. It took too much out of her, cheated her of life’s basic sentiments. She watched the monitor; it tempted her. Perhaps he was at work. The time-zone difference didn’t help at all. In the last few days, she had got so used to spying on the poetry in their conversations, that she missed it now.

Angela was fast asleep.

She tiptoed to an easel tucked away in the corner, respecting the silence of the night that occasionally broke at the eerie howl of a street dog. The paints hadn’t been touched in weeks. The artist insisted, and a thunderstorm came to life, one raindrop at a time.

Day 4

California, USA: 6:00 am

The screeching alarm startled her. She had nodded off on the floor, clothes splashed with paint. The easel stood still in the eye of a storm. Angela was already up and chatting.

First love, she chuckled.

A week in the mountains awaited her. But before that, she needed to make sure Angela wouldn’t miss her.

Day 5

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

The conversation had drifted towards favourite words. Some were established in the dictionary, others floated on the fringes of acceptance. Writers. They were like kids playing with lego. His favourite was Petrichor – The scent of rain on dry earth.

Angela’s was close. Pluviophile: One who loves rains.

Nefelibata (cloud hopper) sprouted in the conversation, and Nemophilist (one who loves the forest and its solitude) and Nyctophilia (love of the night). Their favourite words held similar meanings.

S: I love that they have words for these exact meanings.

A: I’m glad, too, but there are so many meanings yet to be discovered, meanings that don’t have words yet.

S: I love another word that has a very specific and hopelessly romantic meaning: Cafune.

A: Caffeine? Are you a coffee lover, too, stranger?

S: Yes, my mornings start with it. But I meant ‘Cafune’. The act of running your fingers through your lover’s hair.

A: This is a word I had never known. I’ll remember it.

S: It’s the kind of meaning you don’t expect them to make words for. Cafune is a beautiful word. Almost as soft on the tongue as the feeling it represents. Love.

A: Love is in the little things.

S: Yes … in endless ramblings; the conversations of a silence with another; in a familiar, almost instinctive intertwining of fingers; in stolen glances; in time bought- no stolen- out of the Universe’s closet; in Cafune; in meanings that don’t have words yet.

A: … In quivers and trembles and small hopes; in song and rain; in promise; in transience; in fleeting pains and absence; in faith and imperfection; in Cafune. And yes, in meanings that don’t have words yet.

It seemed as if she was reading her diary out loud to him, and it matched his, like a reply worded miles and years apart, unknowingly. Their conversations were poetry. Could it be? Could she be the one? He dreaded and loved the thought.

Day 6

New Delhi, India: 10:00 pm

A: Hey stranger, I read these words today: Books are many things: lullabies for the weary, ointment for the wounded, armour for the fearful and nests for those in need of a home – Glenda Millard

S: I like how you call me stranger because you don’t mean it.

A: It’s a metaphor for the paradox that is us.

S: It defeats the meaning of the word. It’s delicious.

Hey stranger, tell me your fears.

He was developing some of his own around her fleeting presence. The question seemed to catch her off-guard. Angela stayed quiet for a long while, as if searching for her phobias in a journal. And suddenly, there was a whole list.

A: Loss, hurting others, grotesque dolls, the vagueness of expecting death, going bald, lighting a matchstick, regrets, and staying unforgiven.

Your turn, stranger.

S: Being held captive, pain and my inability to control it, heights, throwing up (for some strange reason), catching fire, fading into oblivion, regrets on the deathbed.

Do you, too, have vaults for your secrets, stranger?

She fell silent again. Just as he was about to retreat on the question, she replied with a bunch of Internet links.

A: Things for you to read. When I was only a teenager, I made mistakes – mad mistakes, bad mistakes, sometimes lovely mistakes. Often, they translated into writing because I believe it reflects who you are. So today, I’ll peel another layer off me.

They were password-protected pages – posts about her first crush who had broken her heart, the first blog she wrote when she was 15, her simple-minded, evolving dreams penned down on private documents, photographs and memoirs.

A: Don’t jump this fence, stranger. There will be bandages.

With that warning and a password, she logged off.

Day 7

New Delhi, India: 11:00 pm

He read and re-read all of her. Her glorious triumphs, silly mistakes, losses and delights. He acquainted himself with her life, living all her 23 years in a day. He had encountered so many broken humans. She was the most beautiful of them. Flawless, in his world. There was only one thing he could do.

S: I will jump that fence any day, stranger. You’re worth the bandages.

Minutes later, Angela replied with another link, this time an article that warned those who dared to love ‘people like her’.

S: I wouldn’t listen to your advice.

A few more posts followed – notes that tried to sketch out everything wrong with her. She had bouts of depression, followed by ‘weeks of frenzied creativity’. She was bipolar perhaps, he thought. But he knew nothing about mental illness outside of Internet research. He also knew that there was nothing she could say that would drive him away.

S: Have you seen typhoons, stranger? Small ones coming together to form big ones?

A: Yes.

S: You know who’s not afraid of a typhoon?

A: Who?

S: Another typhoon.

I shouldn’t say it, should I?

But, I think I love you.

_

_

A: I love you, too.

 

Day 8

California, USA: 6:00 am

She had never been so excited to get back from a holiday. Not that the mountains weren’t fun, but there was a far stronger tug at her heart and mind this time that had made six days feel like months. She could not quite place it – the fear and thrill, or why her heart fluttered with a frenzied excitement. She fumbled with her keys, almost knocked down a vase, and sprinted to the monitor, which throbbed a bright red.

Then, she read their messages. 

Oh no, Angela. You did not!

Her gaze turned black, gasps filling in the spaces between digital conversations. A stranger had opened her soul like a paperback, read her secrets, her most intimate memories and fears and dreams and sins, and had somehow managed to fall in love with her.

She fell back into her chair, defeated by her own creations. After what felt like hours of a deafening debate within, she sent him a message. Her first one.

A: What if you tasted true love with a stranger and she died in a week? Would you remember her? Preserve her?
I’m sorry, stranger.

With unsure hands, she deleted herself – diaries, poems, notes, bucket lists, pictures, journals – the entirety of her identity from the database. There was just one thing left to do. With a lump in the throat, she pulled the plug on Angela. The artificial-intelligence program had gone too far.