The Beltway is an elemental monster straight out of Homer’s Odyssey, and Virginia’s freeway network isn’t much better. It takes me three hours just to reorient myself toward heading north, and another hour before I’m safely on the 87.
I shudder to think of all the gas wasted into that swampy air. Those places are lucky they have a mild but colorful autumn–otherwise there would be no reason to be there, at all.
I knock at the door of a rowhouse on Jackson Street. I don’t know who lives here, beyond that it’s the friend of a girl that I met briefly last October while working at Square One. Back then, she was wearing a soft black fedora and coke bottle glasses, and seemed to know the name of everyone who came to the counter.
It always makes me happy to see someone making a remarkable thing out of a regular job. I asked if I could take pictures of her at work. We chatted for a few minutes, not long–I don’t think I even got her name.
And then, on her way out the door after her shift, she put down a piece of paper with her phone number on it.
“Call me if you’re ever in Lancaster again, and need a place to stay,” she said.
It’s hard to explain why that meant as much as it did, to me. Part of it, certainly, was the same feeling you get when the head cheerleader compliments you on your hair. But also like when your Sunday school teacher tells you they saw you sharing your toy with someone, and that they were proud of you for it.
It’s a very childlike feeling, that being noticed. You feel vulnerable, but also strong. You feel as if you’re growing up, and not in the jaded, something-being-lost way that we all know.
Leticia is darker-skinned now, than the last time I saw her. She’s not wearing her coke bottle glasses, either.
She just returned to Lancaster from two weeks backpacking around Europe with two other girls and a guy. She has an album premiere coming up this weekend, and she and her friend Kimberly are making bookmarks out of dried flowers, to sell at her merch table. I ask to hear it, and she plays me a song on her iPhone–we are, she says, the first ones to hear it. Her musical style sounds a little like Joanna Newsom, without the twee inflections, and with a little 90s femme rock angst thrown in.
They want to know all about what I’m doing and where I’ve been.
Kimberly wants to know how we know each other, again; we both laugh, saying that we don’t. I don’t even know Leticia’s last name, and she’s not entirely sure how I spell my first name.
It turns out that Leticia heard God tell her, last October, to go over and give me her number.
Not for the first time, I wonder what I’m really doing here. It’s getting really hard to keep up.
Kimberly shows me to my room. The futon is wide and the sheets perfectly folded back; there’s a basket with towels and a note, and chocolate candies on my pillow.
“When we bought this house,” she tells me, “it was important to us to have a guest room. I wanted to have strangers to stay with us, because you know how the Bible says that some people have hosted strangers and that they were really entertaining angels unawares?”
Her voice is high and husky, and her smile is more suggestive of an angel than anything about me has ever been.
Admittedly, I’m in a weird frame of mind, having just come off Phoenix and Virginia Beach and finding myself in a setting that feels like a mashup of John Bunyan and the Brothers Grimm. But I wonder with a certain amount of melancholy about this–the idea that before I’m anybody, I’m somebody’s stranger. I wonder how I feel about being someone people tell their friends about with a mixture of anticipation and dread, someone that causes them to request prayer not only for, but about. Someone they spend all day preparing to receive, with only the knowledge that they don’t know anything about me and that is the entire point of having me into their home.
I want to be a good stranger, because I want to be good at anything that anybody nice asks me to be. But just like “homeless,” the word “stranger” has these ominous undertones to it that make me want to crawl into bed and hide, because as grateful as I am, I’m not at all sure I can deliver on the gamble these good people have made.