STRANGERS

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There’s a quote somewhere that says how each person you meet in your life, you are destined to know for a certain amount of time; whether it be 5 minutes or 5 years. Most of the time, we don’t know how long our journey with someone is supposed to be until it’s over.
But there have been a handful of times in my life where I’ve met someone and seen our expiration date right away.
When I met Louis, a Tinder match, at a tiny underground bar on the Lower East Side, I knew instantly that I would only know him for tonight. I couldn’t tell you exactly how. But I can say that at that time, fatigued by failed relationship attempts, I was especially interested in the here and now, the fleeting moments that required no risk.
I walked over to the bar from my office on a drizzly November evening, when it was just starting to get chilly in New York.
Louis wore a light blue button-down shirt with jeans, and had glasses. I wouldn’t notice until later when we stood up, but he was about as tall as me, maybe a tiny bit shorter. He had curly, sand-colored hair that I couldn’t stop staring at.
He hugged me when I arrived at the bar, and we ordered drinks.
Louis was 29 and had traveled the world and was a Ph. D candidate at Columbia, studying something impressive that I can’t remember. Statistics? Philosophy?
He was funny in a quiet, intelligent way and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. We talked about everything: our families, our career goals, our hobbies, and interests. I talked about my relationship with my sister and he asked thoughtful questions.
Eventually, he placed his hand on my thigh, the international sign for “I want to fuck you after this.” I was attracted to him, but also a bit taken aback by his forwardness, given his seemingly reserved demeanor.
I had also just ended things with someone and it still felt strange to be touched by a person that wasn’t him.
He paid the check and we huddled in the entryway of the bar to avoid the rain. We both lived on the west side of Manhattan, him near Columbia and me in Harlem, so he suggested we share a car. He made up some nonsense about the car service not going past 125th street as a flimsy way to ask me over, but I had planned on that anyway, so I just agreed.
The car service turned out to be a rideshare, and when we got in the car, a girl of about 14 was sitting in the backseat. She had a long ponytail and had her legs propped up comfortably on the seat in front of her, and was wearing athletic shorts and kneepads. She looked so at home that for a second I wondered if maybe she was the driver’s daughter, forced to come along on his shift because he couldn’t find a sitter.
I was still considering that possibility as we crammed in next to her. Louis climbed in the middle and I took the seat on his left when the girl turned to us and asked where we were coming from. Louis and I were both a bit stunned by her candor, but he managed to mutter something about the bar we had been at.
The girl was quick to let us know that she was a student at a prestigious prep school in the city, and was on her way home from volleyball practice.
She talked for the entirety of the ride, bragging about her athletic scholarship and team’s latest victory. Louis was sitting in the middle seat, feigning interest in the mostly one-sided conversation on his right while sliding his hand further and further up my thigh on his left. I was getting seriously turned on by the secretiveness of what he was doing, and wishing this annoying child would shut up about her stupid life already.
She finally got out at 94th street, and we continued up to Louis’ apartment.
I was impressed to find that he had a fairly spacious one bedroom apartment, with minimal décor and plenty of books. I excused myself to the bathroom and when I stepped out, he was kissing me. He took my shirt of and I took off his.
We moved to the bed. “I wanted to finger you in the cab,” he breathed in my ear.
We continued making out for a while until I gently put a hand on his chest and said “I’m actually on my period. Not sure how you feel about that.”
I was hoping that he would do what most guys do in that scenario: not care, grab a towel to put down, and keep going.
But instead, we kissed for a little while longer, both of us with our pants still on, and eventually he rolled over to lay down beside me. We stayed there for a while, me lying in the crook of his arm, staring at his profile, noticing the way his face moved when he spoke.
We talked about life and TV shows and things we found funny. Occasionally, his lips would find mine for a bit.
At some point, he brought me a fancy bar of chocolate and we ate pieces of it.
Eventually, it was clear to me that he was not interested in having sex with me in my state. I told him that I should be going and he offered to call me an Uber. I decided in that moment that having a man call me an Uber was my favorite thing in the entire world.
I remember hovering at the door for a second, giving him a quick kiss on the lips before I left, how wrong that felt and how instantly I regretted it. He closed the door and I pushed the button for the elevator, certain that I would never see or hear from this man again.
I wasn’t sad about it, I was just sure.
I was also right.
On the car ride home, I thought about lying next to him, staring at the side of his face. I thought about how much I liked staring at the side-faces of men whose last names I never learned, even if they weren’t particularly nice to me. Was I the only one?
I’ve spent most of my life on a quest to be known, understood, loved. But there is a specific intimacy in moments like this. Sharing a space with a stranger, in their home, in their bed, can somehow feel more personal than with someone you love.
There is beauty in familiarity, but there is a strange comfort in anonymity.
On evening walks as a kid, my mother always liked gazing into the glowing windows of neighbors’ homes as we passed by. My sister and I called her a weirdo, of course, but as an adult I understand her fascination completely.
In the midst of our own lives and experiences, there’s a certain amount of intrigue in being a fly on the wall in someone else’s.
In peering into a life, without the complexity of being a part of it.
No one gets hurt.

Story / Catherine Santino

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