So often we trust strangers. The normal people similar to us, living black coffee lives, running boring errands like buying milk or paying the electric bill; we trust these people all the time from our safety to our capabilities.
We trust that strangers will stay in their lane when we pass them and not swerve into us. We trust that if we ask a question, we will get a very predictable answer and we answer questions courteously to keep that trust reciprocated. We trust on someone to make space or keep in line. We trust in a glance of acknowledgement if you find yourselves with the same intention of who goes first through a door. And trust in receiving apologies if they pierce your space by accident.
At any moment this trust could be broken, and our days, perhaps even our lives, are in havoc as a result. We keep to our agreement to trust in strangers because at some point, we invented it together.
Books are different. Books are the enticing scent of a savory culinary dish, where a whiff of something can interest you and make your mouth water for it. Whereas strangers, people whom we don’t know a single thing about, are considered the boring sandwiches we slap together and we never consider ourselves pampered for having eaten.
The experts that organize a book store are clever and they are perpetually upgrading things. Sure there are sections and categories, but there is much more beneath the surface. Books have a cover we are allowed to judge. There are displays constructed with books that will give eye contact, make you quirk an eyebrow and take pause to examine further. How often do we stay up late wishing we had read another chapter of an stranger we passed that day?
The desired affect of a new book nudged an elbow into Leah at a non-descriptive book store, crowded with strangers of the most common sort. Which is to say that there wasn’t a sort at all: a rotund mother in sweat pants clucking at her apple cheeked toddler, a balding yet furry templed man in a black business suit with a forgettable tie, a college student in navy sneakers and a too-baggy sweater always reviewing her phone apps. Leah was a stranger with the messy bun and the overlarge purse, who reaches in to pull something out with only a tenth of the same poise as Mary Poppins. Often she is the stranger whom other strangers roll their eyes at.
Curving around the corner to an unoccupied aisle in the literature section, Leah swung her purse in an arc and dropped in on the ground, then quickly squatted over it, skillfully knowing the pocket that held her palm sized notebook that held the title and author she was seeking, locating it in no more than ten seconds. “See? Quick,” she mumbled under her breath in defense of herself, knowing full well the type of stranger she was. Leah lifted the straps, swung the bag over her shoulder and with this move came the chaos.
Several books toppled off the shelves and thumped like a drumroll onto the floor. Paperback covers bent backwards and over each other like hands folded.
Groaning, Leah fell to her knees and tried to reconstruct the art work of the book store shelves using her thoughts to guide the pieces into order.
Here? This works. No, that doesn’t look right. I like this cover with the letter and the wax seal. I loved this book, that should go in front. Wow, this author liked alliteration. Ok, then the rest in order alphabetically.
With this minor accident resolved, Leah once again pursued her goal.
A short moment from then a stranger whispered nearby.
Immediately Leah turned to find a man, near in age to herself with a sharp jaw and sanguine eyes. He had on jeans that looked worn, not made to look worn. She tucked in a piece of her tumbleweed bun behind her ear, wondering if she heard right.
“What was that?” Leah methodically replies, having only changed it at the last second from “fine, thanks” which is the number one hands-down correct thing to say to strangers.
As a rule, we primarily trust strangers not to say anything too forward. Since we are all strangers to someone, we have agreed to minimal noticing of something private like a personality trait or flawed like a mistake we’ve made. All of us strangers know this.
Contradictorily, the man tucked a grin in the corner of his mouth and reiterated himself. “From before, I mean, when you knocked over the books.”
Without moving or even blinking, Leah applied an extra layer of make up. Make up is always applied in encounters such as these; we look in a small mirror with the stranger’s reflection peering back and adjust what needs covering up and take the necessary precautions to improve the impression we make. Brush on some confidence, comb in some wit.
“Oh? I am so clumsy,” Leah says, choosing the acceptable course of self disparagement. Leah is frequently cumbersome and used to giving this response.
“Nah, not then. I meant when you put everything back correctly.”
He, the stranger, is breaking the rules now, he’s practically invited himself in the front door. Leah shifts her weight to the other foot and looks in the direction of the where the books had fallen, expecting the shelving to come to her defense.
“You could have just stacked them back up,” he pursues, nonplussed at her chagrin. His tone confuses her instincts. It sounds jesting, such a unlikely possibility from a stranger that it is practically an old athlete who’s glory and time have evaporated and who’s number has been retired. Leah remains silent and smiles shyly.
“But you didn’t.”
“Didn’t put them back right?” She looks again at her work but knows well enough she went through each book’s name and number.
“Didn’t notice that you put them back correctly.”
His hand is still in his pocket and he hasn’t moved closer to her. But it feels as if he has to Leah. She becomes braver.
“Is it correct?” she ventures, considering that the stranger must work in the bookstore which is why he is being so bold. There is no lanyard or name tag though, not even anything on his long sleeved slate gray t-shirt to comment on.
He leans forward on his toes, delivering a secret.
“Looks fascinating,” he says.
He reaches forward, slowly, so Leah doesn’t feel obligated to move back and make space for him, and takes a book Leah had placed with the cover out, the one with the letter and the wax seal. Instead of looking at the book though, he hands it to Leah and she takes it, she is looking only at him. A page yet to be written, a person soon to be read.
In this, books and strangers are alike: there is an unequaled story written within.