A few flakes still swirled down, danced on the nasty gusts of bitter wind that always flush city streets in winter. The parking garage across the street was dark, and most of the restaurants and bars had closed early because it was a weeknight, and cold.
I was catching a breath of air outside the Hyatt House in the Mosaic District of Fairfax outside Washington, DC. Probably I was trying to decide if I should walk a block or two to see if anything was still open, if it was worth it to brave the cold to eat alone, or go back up to my room and take the salad I bought at the fancy Super Target across the street, the one with the escalator, out of the mini fridge and finishing watching Beauty and the Beast.
Among the few stragglers on the street, there was a man smoking a cigarette outside the Hyatt who glanced at me once, twice, and made his way over.
Oh, here we go.
“Cold enough for you?” he asks.
“From out of town? Here on business?”
“Me, too. My name’s (insert name). I do sales. Travel a lot.”
Maybe his name was Larry. He looked like a Larry. I never remember names on the first or second go-round. Actually, I think he had a more surprising name, something hip or young, like Mike or Liam. He was a couple inches shorter than me, round beneath his expensive suit, probably 15 to 20 years older, bald with some graying hair around the edges.
“Yah. I travel all over. Been to Chicago, Grand Rapids, Dallas-Ft.Worth, and that’s just last month.”
I waited to hear where this was going. It could be anything. It wasn’t that I automatically thought he was going to hit on me, although it was one possibility.
“Am I holding you up? Were you waiting on someone?” he asked, looking around like my phantom lover was about to appear. I looked, too.
“No. Just getting some air.”
He lit another cigarette, got a sad look in his eyes, kind of glanced across the street at the empty stores and sidewalks.
“So, yeah,” he said. “You travel all the time, kind of miss out on a lot. Aren’t always there for the family, wife and kids, you know?”
I thought of my own son at home, fending for himself for the first time, cooking ramen.
“My wife has to put up with a lot on her own, you know? See, my daughter, she’s had some problems…”
Ok. Stop. If I’m alone in this, it’s a curse.
In this case, it’s the fact that we are two travelers meeting in a strange city, alone. It’s the anonymity. He is never going to see me again. If I judge him for what he is about to say, it doesn’t matter much. I make a good stranger.
It’s part of the reason I avoid people. It’s also what will make me great at what I have come here to be trained to do. People ache to tell their stories. If you give them the chance, you don’t have to yank confessions like teeth. They just fall right out.
My card is The Fool. I’m just a weary wanderer stumbling through life, occasionally falling off cliffs. Somehow I come off like The High Priestess. I pick up my tramp sack and sling it over my shoulder, and it gets heavier all the time. I can’t set it down. It would leak secrets and those secrets are acid. They would eat a hole in the pavement right through the core of the earth. Maybe if someone could feel how heavy this pack is, they might carry it for a while.
There was a man who bought me a drink in a bar I used to frequent. I must’ve been about 19. He was quite a few under the table already. When I said I wouldn’t go out with him, he told me he just murdered his wife and buried her up off GA-400. His story turned out to be true. People tell me everything — people who’ve had things happen that never should have, people who have done things that you don’t ever want to know people actually do. People. The dark undercurrents of humanity flow like a cesspool into the steaming sewer called reality, while the citizens above walk the paradisiacal paved streets dressed in Armani and Louis Vuitton.
Every once in a while someone says or does something that shakes me to the core, something beautiful, innocent, surprising. Once in a blue moon. I never wanted to be this jaded. Every time a new dark secret gets added to my bag, I feel like I’ve been robbed of something else.
So the wind still bites and I’m sure Beauty has run to save her Beast from the villagers’ torches by now, and it’s kind of disappointing that he is actually a handsome prince when she was just getting used to the Beast.
The man standing beside me, Mike or Liam or Larry, blinks back tears because of his daughter’s battle with anorexia. If I were a better person, a more honest person, I would probably say exactly what I’m thinking which is maybe he should send her out to the bush because anorexia is a culture-induced entitled white girl problem and if she had to go survive on her own without attention or comfort or food for a few weeks she would be eating grub-worms quick enough and quit breaking her father’s heart. But, instead, I feel sorry that he is sorry, so I don’t say anything.
“You’re shivering,” he says. “Better get inside where it’s warm.”
I slip under the stainless white comforter in my suite and prepare to fall into a dreamless coma, wonder if there is anyone on earth who I could trust enough to tell my stories to.
Abigail Swire is just a wandering stranger, and only dangerous sometimes.