I want to tell you about the time I got into a stranger’s truck, but I don’t know where to begin.
Maybe with the date: October 12, 2016. Yom Kippur, my first time fasting. It was an inadvertent fast. An I-ate-lunch-late-anyway, might-as-well-skip-dinner fast. The curiosity upon waking up the next morning: what would it be like, how would I feel, is it possible I’m more religious than I even know? Or maybe it was just the pull of a test, forever wanting to be a good student, forever wanting to pass.
Or I could start with the previous January, when I packed up my life, the one I had known for over five years, and started anew. My boyfriend and I had broken up. I lived with him in the basement of a century-old family home in the most expensive suburb of New York City. We perfected the art of boxed macaroni. We played old Nintendo games while talking about fractal geometry or ancient Greek myths or shit about our friends. I loved him but I could no longer be with him. I moved to Brooklyn, alone.
Maybe I start with the day in third grade when the fourth graders let me sit in the back of the bus and I didn’t know what to do with all that coolness, so sudden and wild and new. I raised my middle finger against the window of the exit door—did I even know what the gesture meant?—and watched as the driver of the bus behind us pulled down his corded radio and spoke into it. I put my hand back in my lap, then seconds later repeated the move. Again the driver pulled down his radio, and I marveled at the coincidence of it all, a pulley system between my hand and his. It was after the third time I did this our bus pulled over and the driver, so massively tall in my memory, stomped his way to the back. “I’m told the girl in the purple shirt has been flicking people off,” he said. The fourth graders immediately came to my defense—she wouldn’t do that, she’s a good kid—and even though he left it alone, didn’t report me to any authorities, just went back to his seat and drove, I felt the weight of a million crimes crush my kid body into a pulp of shame. I would never do wrong again.
Or the waterfront park—yes, I should start there. It had become my sanctuary in Brooklyn, a short walk from my apartment and nearly undiscovered despite its dazzling views of the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, the waters of New York. It’s where I went on Yom Kippur, with a day off from work and an empty stomach and nothing but hours to kill. I wore the sweater my grandmother knit for herself and then gave to me when I complimented it. In an attempt to honor the holiness of the day, I left my phone at home.
There is something magical that happens when you walk around the city without headphones plugging up your ears. People talk to you. He stopped me a block or two outside the park’s entrance and asked, “What’s over there?” He was unloading a truck, or loading a truck, or doing whatever it is that truck drivers do with trucks when they’re not on the highway slowing down the lane. It was a cargo truck—long and white. He was wearing baggy sweatpants, a black t-shirt, and dark sunglasses obscuring his face. “I’ve seen a few people walk that way, but I don’t know what’s there.” His accent was thick, hispanic. He was in his 20s, or maybe 30 like me. He wasn’t very tall.
“It’s a park!” I said. “It’s so nice. Amazing views of the skyline. You should check it out if you can.”
He shrugged, motioning to the truck. “Wish I could, but I’ve gotta work.”
Inside the park, I did a lap around the path before settling on the very end of the pier, a strip of concrete jutting out into the Bay Ridge Channel bordered by big, glimmering rocks on which is spray-painted “Do Not Sit.” I sat. I pulled out a notebook and pen. My therapist had given me a homework assignment: make a list of 30 things you like about yourself. The first few were easy—the freckle in my eye; the fact that I’m not totally dumb—but I slowed to a halt in the double digits. I was more accustomed to naming quality traits that I wanted to have, not the ones I did. I turned the page and started a new list: Intentions for the New Year. This was much easier; the list went on without pause. Take more risks. Talk to more strangers. Go to more movies alone. Just try to jog.
I was on page two when a voice behind me said, “Thanks for this.”
The truck driver had come.
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he said. From anyone else, I would think they were exaggerating, but nothing about this man seemed embellished. His voice was soft and true. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” He stood on one of the rocks and peered out to the skyline, then turned around and looked at the buildings behind him, dilapidated warehouses mostly unused for years. He pointed to my notebook and asked if I was an artist. A writer, I told him.
“Well I’m sorry to bother you,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you. I’m really glad I came.”
“You’re not bothering me at all!” I told him. “I was actually just writing in my notebook about wanting to talk to more strangers.”
He motioned to a rock near mine. “Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” I said. He sat down on the rock. My knees still pointed to the water, but I twisted my torso to look his way.
“Why do you want to talk to more strangers?” he asked.
I said that I was trying to be more brave. That I had been so scared my entire life—of failure, of getting in trouble, of being rejected, of messing up. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. Or maybe, I wanted to be afraid but do things anyway.
“But why now? What’s changed that you want to be brave now?”
I told him about the break-up, that it had been a particularly challenging year for me but one of heavy self-reflection. He was listening to me the way a therapist might, nodding his head and letting me finish every thought before responding. I found myself talking more freely and openly with him than I had with close friends, my own parents. By this point our bodies had slowly turned toward each other, him on his rock and me on mine. While I wanted to keep talking to him, I became very much aware that we were alone on this pier, practically alone in the whole park. That I was a woman and he was a man and all of the expected fears were there.
“I don’t usually talk to strangers either,” he said. “I don’t want to scare them.”
“Why would you scare them?”
“Because of how I look. Because of who I am. I am the kind of guy who people see at night and cross the street, pick up speed.”
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, but he was right. His eyes were still hidden behind his shades. He had pockmarked cheeks, a pointy mouth. He told me he mostly kept to himself. Worked hard, long hours every day and went home to his place in the Bronx, alone. He told me he wished he had a girlfriend, someone to keep him company, but he was too shy. He never approached women. I pointed out that he was talking to me just fine.
“I’m not trying to pick you up,” he assured me, which immediately made me wonder if he was trying to pick me up. But I wanted to believe him, to have one intimate moment with a man that wasn’t about sex.
I asked him why he decided to come check out the park after telling me he couldn’t. He told me that he really wasn’t planning on it, but a bit after talking to me, he saw a maintenance man and decided to ask him the same thing—“What’s over there?” The man gave him the same response—a beautiful park, nice views, and so on—but then he added something else that the truck driver found very strange. He said, “If you don’t go there, you’ll never find what you’re looking for.” So he decided to use his lunch break to go there. He walked around the path that circles the whole park and was on his way out when he spotted me, my hand-knit sweater, sitting at the end of the pier. “I know this is going to sound strange,” he told me, “but have you ever experienced something like a magnet? Like there’s somewhere you don’t really want to go to, but you feel something pulling you there, like you have to go? That’s what it felt like.”
I told him no, I had never felt something quite like that.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. I nodded. “Who are you?”
I laughed, but I knew it was not meant to be funny. “Well, I’m a writer—”
“No,” he interrupted. “Not what do you do. Who are you?”
“I don’t know how to answer that.”
“What am I making you feel right now?” he asked.
I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. Or maybe, I wanted to be afraid but do things anyway.
I thought about the conversation we were having, two strangers communing in the light of the day as if we had known each other our whole lives.
“Like I’m special,” I said. “And you’re special. That everybody must be this special.”
“No,” he said. His voice turned angry. “We are not talking about anyone else but you. No one else is here. I’m not even here. I’m just like one of these rocks.”
He picked up a small stone and threw it into the water. I remembered for the first time since we started talking that I hadn’t eaten anything since late afternoon the previous day, that it was possible I’d been hallucinating this entire conversation, this whole man.
But I was pretty sure I wasn’t.
The year before we broke up, my ex helped me get over my biggest fear. It’ll sound silly when I tell you, but it was real, deep-rooted, something that plagued me my entire life. I was afraid of tomatoes. I had never eaten one. Despised them in all forms. Couldn’t even handle most red foods for the possibility they were colored by this terrible fruit. It bothered him so much, not that there was a food I didn’t like, but a food I wouldn’t even try, as if this represented all of my problems—too afraid of the unknown. We fought and fought until I stormed out of the apartment one day, drove to the store, and bought a single tomato. Back at home, I sliced it up, sprinkled a piece with salt, and shoved it in my mouth.
“It doesn’t taste like anything,” I said.
The next night he made me spaghetti with homemade meat sauce and I had a new favorite food.
“Who are you?” the truck driver asked again.
I still couldn’t answer. Instead, I started asking him questions, things like his biggest fear (the dark), what he wanted most in life (to fall in love, real love), what he wanted to be remembered for (his hard work ethic), if he believed in God (yes), if he knew why (no). He said what he really wanted was a fresh start. He had had a hard life, and while he never did anything really bad—never hurt anybody, always told the truth—he just wished he could start anew.
That’s when I told him it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. I told him about the atonement, the clean slate, the fresh start for a New Year. If I could see his eyes, I think they might have been twinkling. I imagined him jumping into the water right there, converting to Judaism on the spot.
“Who are you?” he asked once more.
My throat caught. I had no words.
“You need to stop talking with your head, and starting talking from here,” he said, pointing to his heart. This was something my therapist told me all the time. I couldn’t believe these words were coming out of a stranger’s mouth, how quickly he read me, how deeply they cut. “You don’t tell people how you really feel. You put on a projection of who you want to be, but nobody really knows who you are.”
I started to cry. He stood up and reached a hand out to me, suggested we go for a walk.
“Do you want to ever see me again?” he asked as we made our way down the pier. There it was again, that fear that this was just a man trying to get a girl’s number. As if reading my mind, he added once more, “I promise it’s not like that. It’s just, this isn’t normal for me. I’d like to talk to you again.”
“If you want to, I will.”
Anger returned to his voice. He said it wasn’t about what he wanted. It was about what I wanted. That this whole thing had been about me. Even when I was asking him questions about himself, it was for the benefit of me.
When we got to the base of the pier, he stopped and turned us around.
“This is your life,” he said. In front of us was the strip of concrete leading into the grey-blue water. “Only you can choose which direction you go.”
If it was anyone else, any other day, I would have punched their arm in jest. I would have mocked them for the silliness of it all. But this wasn’t anyone else. It wasn’t any other day.
We walked out of the park and landed back where his truck was parked. Hours had gone by, or was it days? I didn’t feel hungry, not even a little bit.
“Have you ever ridden in a truck before?”
My heart skipped a beat. I told him no. He told me to get in. I told him I didn’t think so, that I should probably be getting home. He circled around to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Just get in,” he said.
I thought about every lesson I’d ever learned, every PSA and school assembly and warning from adults that there are bad people in this world, that we have to be on guard at all times. I knew this was crazy—a stupid, stupid thing that shouldn’t be done. And I was scared. Of course I was scared. But like a magnet, I felt myself pulled in.
“You know, the first thing they teach you as a kid is not to get into cars with strangers,” I said as I buckled myself into the passenger seat and he took his place behind the wheel.
“Well this isn’t a car,” he said. “It’s a truck.”
He cracked a smile, devious and sweet.
“Where should we go?” he asked.
“Nowhere far. I mean it.”
“OK,” he said. “I know where we’ll go.”
He drove up 3rd Avenue, its shady video stores and empty diners on each block. My fists clenched in my lap, but I relaxed into my seat. What an odd sensation, I thought, to be so high off the ground yet with feet still touching the floor. It’s easy to feel like a child in a truck, the cars on the road your playthings. After fifteen or so blocks, he pulled over to the shoulder and parked with his hazard lights on. We got out.
Growing up, Yom Kippur was a holiday for adults. Rosh Hashanah was for kids—the apples dipped in honey, the toy shofars, the children’s service at the synagogue. But on Yom Kippur, my parents went off to Kol Nidrei and my older brothers and I were left at home. We’d make our way down to the basement, where they played their video games and I played with my dolls. My parents would get home late in their dark fancy clothes, their blue eyes turned somber. I wondered what ancient secrets were given to them in the sanctuary year after year. I wondered when I would be old enough to find out.
He had driven me to a Dunkin Donuts.
Inside, he tried to buy me a treat, but I told him I was fasting, that I was fine. He got a coffee and two donuts for himself and we sat down at a little table in the corner. He didn’t take his sunglasses off.
“What do you think is the purpose of us meeting?” he asked. He told me that he had never had a conversation like this in his entire life. Not with anyone. I said maybe our meeting proved that he can connect with people, that he can reveal himself to someone, that it is possible for him to find true love.
“I know you think this experience has been special for me,” he said. “That you have helped me in some way. And you have. But this didn’t happen because I needed you; it happened because you needed me.”
I started to cry again.
“This is most likely the last time we’ll ever talk,” he said. “From now on, when you talk to somebody, I want you to think that it’s the last time you ever will. I want you to show them who you really are.”
“I will,” I said. I meant it, I did. Another homework assignment I’d work my entire life to pass.
“I have one more question,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Molly,” I said. “What’s yours?”
With the universe being as strange as it felt that day, I went for the only possibility I could think of: “Angel?”
He laughed. “No. You know the saying, ‘When there’s a will, there’s a way?'” I nodded. “That’s me.”
I told him that I would remember this day for a very long time—my whole life.
“No you won’t,” he said. “You’ll forget about me, what I look like, my face. What we talked about. What this day was like. But you’ll remember my name. Because you’ll use it every day.”
“I will,” I said, “Will.”
We both laughed, and he said laughter was the best note to end on. He stood up. I told him I was going to sit there for a little while, take a minute to breathe. But first I got up to hug him goodbye. We had talked for several hours, yet this was the closest I had gotten to his face, the pointy mouth, the shaded eyes. We embraced, and it was like hugging a dear friend, the kind you take for granted, the kind you know you’ll see again. He left, and I watched him walk outside, climb back into his truck, and drive away.
I sat down and stared at my hands for a while. Eventually, I walked home.