An Ordinary Stranger
I was probably thirteen the first time it really hit me. It must have been late July, soft handfuls of freshly cut grass drying sweetly in the sun all around me, my back easy against the south side of the front yard maple tree, a magazine propped on my knees. I was worlds away.
The hero was your standard “ordinary person” dropped unwillingly into an “extraordinary situation.” She was in furious motion, sprinting through the corridors of the evil wizard’s prison tower.
The cell numbers were going down, so she knew she was headed in the right direction. I felt the pressing closeness of the narrow corridor walls as she ran, heard the crisp tap of her boot heels on the stone floor. She flung herself around a corner, and I felt the rush of air and heard the sound of the sudden openness around her as she crossed the threshold back into the great entry chamber. She was going to make it. We were going to make it! We’d get out alive with the stolen amulet.
She was fast and strong, and I was fast and strong with her. Running flat out, she took the steps down to the open door to the outside three at a time, gripping her dagger in one hand and the worn leather bag containing the amulet in the other, and she was really going to make it … we were really going to make it.
But, wait. Wait. How could that be? She’d been running fast through unfamiliar territory with both hands full, and she’d just located and dashed down a flight of stairs? How had she done that? What hand was her cane in? And back in that corridor, how had she known what direction the room numbers were going without another hand free to brush fingertips across them as she passed?
That’s four hands. She’d needed four hands. Ordinary people don’t have four hands. I certainly did not have four hands.
The connection between us broke with an almost audible snap. This was not my story, and she was no kind of ordinary. Not to me, anyway. I knew I was capable of doing the things she’d done: I could run reasonably fast (faster if I was scared) and although the topic of stealing amulets had never come up per se, I was pretty confident that this could be managed as well if required. I could do those things, but not as she had done them. So, if our hero were an ordinary person, what did that make me?
The magazine fell from my lap. It stayed put where it fell—rather than sliding across the grass—because it was not a glossy, flimsy little rectangle. It was a much larger, more comfortable object, unapologetic in its monochrome tan, its thick pages puffed apart by braille dots. It was not recognizable as a magazine. Or so I had been told.
When I sat with it on the school bus, other kids wanted to know what it was. When I said it was a magazine, they seemed skeptical. If it really were a magazine, why did it look like that? Should they ask to touch it? They all wanted to, but mostly, they were unwilling to ask.
It was fitting, in a way, that it was usually a fantasy or science fiction magazine in my hands, because people found it arcane, maybe almost magical. I didn’t tell them that the stories in it were never about me.
It was this set of interacting realities that built my initial understanding of myself as a stranger. A “stranger” because—unlike an outsider or a victim or an outcast or an Other—a stranger retains her core of power. She has a homeland, and she is intact, even strong, and although other people cannot, or will not, understand her truth, she knows who she is.
I did not, of course, feel strange. A stranger on her own turf never does. And mostly I was on my own turf back then. I was comfortable and capable, and I liked my life and my friends. I spent suburban summer afternoons goofing around outside if it was nice, or sprawled in front of the TV if it was raining.
I did my homework, read my books, ate my lunch, and played chess with my geeky friends. But the stories were still never about me, and when my best friend and I went out for a burger, the waiters might pat me as if I were a puppy, or refuse to speak to me directly as though I were a tentacled alien. Sometimes they refused to take my money afterward, signaling that they were willing to have me eat there if necessary, but I was not expected to return. I was not a valued customer.
My carefully-cultivated sense of self-worth as a blind teenager kept uneasy company with the increasingly clear understanding that a great many people found me unsettling, and that the way I did things made them nervous. To these people, I was a cloaked figure stepping from the mist on a February evening; if we were going to make a human connection, it would be up to me to drop my cloak, brush the fog back with my hands, and offer some quaint feat of harmless conjuring which would amuse them and repay them for setting aside their natural wariness.
When I left home, I decided, in a flurry of mixed frustration and arrogance, that what I needed was probably a classier set of people. Maybe my situation was too complicated for your average fantasy writer or restaurant worker to understand. I thought I would go to college and perhaps become a professor of some sort. I would journey to the top of the ivory tower where the air was pure and people were wise, unaffected by superficia.
It would be my real-life quest, and although there would probably be no amulet to steal, it would be my own extraordinary adventure—and finally, in that rarefied air, I was sure I could be an ordinary person.
It is sadly very true that I ignored a great many warnings as I worked my way into the the tower, signs forecasting that this would not work out as I had hoped.
My very first day of graduate school—my stomach tight with anticipation, my hair combed, my feet on the tiled floor in sandals I’d bought on the beach—my hands rested on the new notebook open on the desk in front of me. The professor began the class with a long list of things we would be doing that semester, and with each item my hand zipped across the page, my stylus clicking lightly as I wrote, the paper beneath my hands filling with dots. With mounting elation, I discovered I was keeping up; I was swift and accurate, the words accumulating under my hands. Muscles loosened in my shoulders; I felt my forehead soften. I could do this!
There was a pause, his flow of words cut off, and I wrote a little more, using the extra seconds to add something or other to my notes. When I stopped writing, the room was momentarily silent, and I realized he had moved from his central position in front of the class and was standing directly in front of me. “Miss,” he said to me coldly, “Are you planning to make that noise all semester?”
Years later, more confident, wearing less comfortable clothes, I sat in a carpeted room at a very long wooden table. Clearly designed to make us all feel important, the padded chairs moved silently on their wheeled feet. I made certain to greet the people on both sides of me as we removed coats and pulled out our laptops. They were colleagues I knew slightly from around campus, I discovered—a business instructor on my left and a biologist on my right—and we all chatted amiably, passing the time.
When the meeting was called to order, the first stack of handouts began its journey along the table. The sheets of paper swished against each other, moving toward me as each person took a copy and slid the stack along. Pleased at how easy this was to track, even in such a large room with other things going on, I turned to my left when the business instructor was lifting his copy off the stack, making sure he was aware that I knew I was next.
Instead of sliding the stack along to me, he pushed his chair back from the table. He must have signaled silently to the biologist, because they were both suddenly behind me, chairs pushed back, leaning across the space to pass the stack of papers behind my back. Startled, I spun my chair to the right; the stack was moving rapidly down the table away from me.
“Excuse me,” I heard myself say into that carpeted room, “Can I get a copy of that?” There was a stir. “She wants a copy,” someone whispered. “She can have this one,” someone whispered back. I heard my copy making its long way back to me. The biologist placed the prize on the table in front of me and gave it a reassuring pat, completely ignoring my outstretched hand.
“There you are,” she said with a smile that told me that she didn’t know why on earth I’d wanted it, but she felt really good about helping me out. “I’ll scan it when I get back to my office,” I mumbled, and she made a little noise of approval: the handicapped are doing so many things these days! Our little show completed, the meeting resumed.
Just a few weeks ago, doing some research for an article I was writing, I skimmed through the autobiography of a prominent British neurosurgeon. If I still thought that what I needed was a classier set of people, this was probably going to have to be it. In amongst the stories of intricate surgical interventions and philanthropic travels around the globe, I found, and lingered over, these words: “Leaving somebody completely blind after surgery (it has happened to me twice) is a peculiarly unpleasant experience. It feels worse than leaving them dead.” I wondered if I was supposed to feel sorrier for him … or for those unfortunately-still-living patients. I put the book down. There is no spell you can cast over those words to make them anything but what they are.
The fantasy writer, the kids on the school bus, the restaurant worker, my first professor, my university colleagues, and this insufferably self-absorbed brain surgeon all live in a world to which I must be a stranger. To be otherwise would be to risk delivering myself up to a worldview in which I am inconvenient, incapable, or just plain better-off-dead. If I still have a quest, then, it is to seek those places where a stranger is still given rest and hospitality, while protecting my precious sense of personal ordinariness like a stolen amulet.