Intimate Strangers

 

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It’s strange to confess that I’ve just had a relationship, a rather intimate one, with a person I don’t know. I’ve spent each night for the past week with this person, in bed, in the thirty minutes or so before I turn off the light. This is how we met.

Bill, Natalie and I had flown from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where we were going on a couple of college tours. In between tours, we decided to spend two days exploring a favorite neighborhood, with fabulous old houses and panoramic views of the Bay. When we checked into our room at the Inn at the Presidio, we immediately noticed the books. On the coffee table: three photographic histories of the Presidio. On the desk: a walking and restaurant guide. Next to the coffeemaker: maps and a newsletter. We felt right at home being the book lovers we are.

I immediately sat down on the couch and looked through one of the photographic histories, finding the 1885 view outside our window. The Inn was once the home for bachelor officers when the Presidio was a U.S. Army post and, although the rooms have been updated, generous man-sized rocking chairs still line the three balconies. When the wind and fog blew in from the Bay, the rocking chairs gently moved back and forth as if uniformed ghosts were together again, smoking their nighttime cigars.

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Burgess BoysIt wasn’t until bedtime that I noticed a solitary tome on a bookshelf. It was a paperback copy of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. I pulled it out and concluded that a previous guest must have left it in the room. After reading the blurbs on the back cover, I was intrigued and decided to take a break from the book I’d grabbed from my bedside table in Los Angeles. I had no idea I was about to begin an unexpected liaison with a traveler who had slept in the very bed I was about to crawl into. Within ten pages, I was engrossed. I didn’t stop until I reached page 53, which I discovered was dog-eared. I slid my thumb across the pages, but I didn’t notice any more dog-eared pages.What I noticed was a receipt hidden in one of the back pages. One would think after all the detective novels I’ve read that I would have noticed how much one might learn from reading a receipt, but I hadn’t. I learned a few details about my new friend. He or she purchased the book at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on May 30, 2014. In addition to the book, the receipt told me he/she purchased a mini journal. I looked up. Were they alone in this room? Were they on vacation? Was the journal meant to record or discover?

The next night, I continued to read and was relieved to find another dog-eared page I hadn’t seen the night before. Page 117 was folded down with a softer touch than page 53. The next gently folded corner was on page 149. I was happy that “she” had continued reading because I thought the book was wonderful. And yes, by now, I had come to the conclusion that my fellow reader was a woman not because of the book, which would appeal to either male or female reader, but because of the journal.

61cTOPA3hXL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I had Googled the ISBN number printed on the receipt for the mini journal. As soon as I saw the red, green and gold cover pop up, I knew.  “It’s lovely,” I said as if she could hear me.

The next morning we were checking out of the Inn, but I hadn’t finished reading the book. I couldn’t imagine leaving it behind. Before packing, I stopped off at the reception desk and waited until I had a private moment with the concierge.

“If a prior guest left a paperback book in the room that has me enthralled…”

“It’s yours,” he answered before I finished my question.

I finished reading the book a couple of days after returning home to my own bed in Los Angeles. All along, I knew that I was experiencing something more than a simply satisfying reading experience. Nothing like this had ever happened with a library book I had checked out from LAPL. And now before the relationship ended, I wanted to ask her if writing in her journal had helped her to remember things, or resolve troubles, or re-imagine herself. I wanted to tell her how amazed and happy I was that her book waited ten weeks for me to show up. I wanted to confess that I was quite worried until I reached page 117 that she had decided to stop at page 53. I wanted to thank her not just for giving me a wonderful book to read, but for being such wonderful company while I read it.

I wished I could ask her if she read Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful essay at the end of the book. In it she writes, “Time is needed to learn that our view of the world is exactly that: our view, and not a view belonging to someone else. And our view is, and should be, continually open to change. Books help. They help by allowing us to imagine the realities of another person’s inner—and outer—life.”

 

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