The first had one brilliant blue eye and one clouded white eye.
A gummy fluid slowly leaked from the clouded white eye’s inner corner. It had dried into a crusty golden layer coating the bottom eyelid. Instead of blinking, the stranger winked with her blue eye; she winked at all the other strangers bustling past her corner at the Union Station metro stop. She winked at the sad pigeons and drifting McDonalds sandwich wrappers that collected at her feet. When I sat next to her, she winked at me.
“How are you?” I asked, because I was too shy to ask the questions I really wanted to, questions like:
“How did someone with such a beautiful blue eye end up sitting alone here on a stoop, holding a Styrofoam cup full of pennies and dimes, watching strangers step into rain puddles to avoid her smile?”
She nodded at me, but didn’t say anything.
Maybe she sensed my unasked question and was embarrassed by it. Maybe she didn’t have the right sentences to answer me with, or maybe she worried that I simply wouldn’t hear them. Maybe she didn’t speak this language.
The second stranger was in the middle of a lively debate with himself when I sat down next to him, which made it easier for me to jump into the conversation. He was a very large man in a purple T-shirt, and I was a small woman in a white blouse. Sitting next to him, I could instantly feel the stares of passing tourists and commuters, pedestrians startled by the dichotomy of youth and age, clean and dirty, light skin and dark.
I didn’t have to initiate anything, because moments after I sat down, he said, “Well, hey there. This is D.C. baby! This is where it all goes down!”
Eloquent and prepared as always, I said, “Hi.”
He grinned at me so I grinned back, watching the dimples in his cheeks and the friendly gaps between his white teeth. His smile was exceptional.
“What’s your name, baby?”
I told him it was Brenna, and he repeated a modified version of it to himself with a smile.
“Bri-anna. That’s a pretty little name.”
“It is a pretty name. I really like the name Brianna,” I said.
“Have you ever been with a black man before, Brianna?”
Across from me, a thin woman put down her iPhone and began listening into our conversation. Wonderment, concern, and disapproval played across her sharp face in swaths. I tried to smile at her reassuringly, only to watch as she hastily retreated to her IPhone.
“Yep, I have. My boyfriend is Cape Verdean.”
The stranger grinned again and nodded his head, pleased that his hypothesis had been validated. He explained that he had a sense for these things; he could tell that I had been with a black man from the moment I sat down. I confessed that I didn’t possess a similar power.
He asked, had I ever been with a morbidly fat man before?
“You mean someone who’s morbidly obese? No…I don’t think so. I haven’t.”
The stranger’s beautiful grin slipped away at this, replaced by a distant, faraway sadness. He pushed his hands together, rough palms touching and fingers aligned, as if in prayer.
“My girlfriend weighs 300 pounds,” he breathed, more to himself than to me. “She is the fattest woman I know, and I want her to gain another 20 pounds. All these supermodels and TV stars, all these Kardashians, they all weigh nothing. And they’re empty on the inside. My girlfriend, she’s 300 pounds and just beautiful on the inside. I don’t understand why more men don’t love fat women. Someone has to love them, you know? We can’t just love the skinny women and leave the fat ones alone. So I love them, because who else is going to?”
Everyone deserves to be loved by someone. My second stranger seemed to understand this.
I saw this stranger several times after work over the course of the summer, talking to himself at Union Station. I always waved and smiled, but I never met his girlfriend.
The third stranger suffered from vitiligo, a condition that affects skin pigmentation. Huge splashes of white were painted across the dark skin of his face, neck, and arms like sloppy bleach stains on a fine dark suit.
A few minutes into our conversation, I worked up to the courage to ask if the spots were painful, and the stranger said no. But the spots were growing, and this creeping expansion scared the hell out of him.
“You don’t understand…it’s more than just a health thing. It’s the whole turning-into-a-white-guy thing. My whole life I’ve been black. And now it’s all changing, so that I don’t know what I am anymore…society, you know? All my life, it’s treated me one way, and now? Who knows how it’ll treat me different. I don’t want to be white. I really don’t want to be white.”
He looked so fragile, sitting there on the bench like a broken piece of art; the catch in his voice was heartbreaking.
“I’m so sorry. I used to have shingles on my side,” I offered, as if this past infection were comparable to his vitiligo-born identity crisis in any way.
(This was met with a stunted, bitter laugh.)
“And I don’t think it looks bad! I think it actually looks nice. It makes you unique.”
He laughed again. Then he stood up and left my ignorant, monochromatic self alone on the bench.
The fourth stranger watched me cry outside a bus stop.
I was sitting with my knees hugged to my chest, blowing my nose on crumpled Starbucks napkins and struggling to combat the gray lines of mascara tracking down my cheeks. To cheer me up, he gave me a hug that smelled of urine and potato chips.
I wish I hadn’t recoiled from the kindness, but I did. It was the only hug I received that day; most people looked away from my tears with awkward aversion, twisting their bodies in the opposite direction and whipping out cell phones, stealing occasional glances before becoming happily absorbed in the myriad social media websites shining across their phone screens.
I didn’t blame them. To them, after all, I was just a stranger.