Huiru May Huang: On Encountering a Stranger  

My students were putting on Little Red Riding Hood today and I was the Big Bad Wolf, so I showed up to Sister Marianne’s door in my wolf costume. Sister Marianne is my ninety year-old neighbor. She works at the church next to my school, so we’d walk to work together every day, rain or shine. We wouldn’t say much to each other, but her petite presence always puts my mind at ease. Prolonged silences like these used to drive me out of my skin, but I’ve grown to understand the solitude that comes with silence, and, now, these quiet walks are what I look forward to the most every day. 

Today was just like any other day until we heard the thump. It was the kind that a normal person would just ignore and walk by, which was what I did until Sister Marianne started screaming. I turned around – a man had fallen out of his window onto the concrete sidewalk. We rushed over and there was already a pool of blood growing around his head. I froze – what was I supposed to do? My heart started racing as I instinctively pulled out my phone. Fuck, my fingers were numb, what number do I call? I am twenty-four and a third-grade teacher and I don’t remember if it was 119 or 911. 

I looked over and Sister Marianne was whispering prayers, her eyes shut tight and her brows in a determined furrow. Where does she go when her eyes are closed? In a state of panic, I closed my own eyes as if to follow Sister Marianne to her safe haven, but I saw nothing. I opened my eyes again to the man and his blood. Why did he take his own life? I took a good look at his complexion — his arched eyebrows, high cheekbones and sharp chin all reeked vigor, but his eyes, even closed, conveyed an overwhelming sense of relief that aroused such sorrow in me I almost burst into tears. 

When the ambulance finally came, the man had stopped breathing. Sister Marianne had left for church ten minutes earlier, I guess God had known that this was a lost cause. When the medic saw me in my wolf costume sitting next to the man and his pool of blood, he couldn’t stifle his guilty chuckle. I had never felt emptier in my life. 

Here I was, by this man in the final moments of his life. To think that these would be the only moments I would have ever known him for spiraled me into hysterical curiosity. Why did he do it? I wanted to know so badly. Was it love? This man didn’t look like someone who’d take his own life for love. This man didn’t look like anything, really. If I had seen him walking past me instead of dead on the concrete, I wouldn’t have suspected a thing. In fact, in no other way would he have made a more lasting impression than the way he did today, his grand landing. I ran through countless scenarios in my head and realized that I had nothing to base my imagination off of other than his physicality. His limbs were bashfully long and, upon his crash, twisted in unnatural angles, like if a marionette had been dropped onto the ground. He was also wearing a suit, which seemed like an odd decision for a man attempting suicide – a man with a plan, a man on a mission – I wouldn’t be surprised if he had jumped out of that window with a top hat and a briefcase. 

More medical professionals and police officers had filed in and surrounded the scene, so I stood up from the curb that I was sitting on and kept walking towards my school, as if I had merely stopped to give directions to a stranger. 

As I plodded on, I suddenly remembered an encounter I had many years ago – a memory I often revisited with no particular reason. It wasn’t quite exciting enough to be shared at a dinner party, but it was peculiar enough to have stayed with me throughout the years, haunting me at the strangest of times, like, say, upon witnessing a stranger’s suicide. 

ORIGINAL ART BY YAWEI (@scratchesnsketches)

That day, I had just finished my daily swimming lesson when I spotted him at the café across from the community pool. He was my good friend’s boyfriend at the time. I didn’t know much about him, but I liked him because we had the same taste in music. That was probably the hottest day of that summer, and I stood by the stoplight with a bulky duffle bag slung across my chest, my damp hair pressed to the nape of my neck with a few strands hanging above my shoulders, dripping pool water and sweat. I watched him through the glass window as I waited to cross the street. He was sunk into one of those overly cushioned armchairs that sucked you in like quicksand, with only his large limbs sticking out, flipping through a tiny book. My heart started to pound in anticipation, then even faster at the guilt of that elation. 

As I sat down across from him, my body flamed up like a comet hitting Planet Earth. I asked about his book, then immediately ran out of things to say upon his answer. He told me it was a book he borrowed from his sister. 

“You have a sister,” I repeated back to him. I didn’t know he had a sister. We sat in silence. 

He asked about my duffle bag, so I explained to him the swimming lessons at the community pool, and he laughed at my story about the kid whose swim trunk slipped an inch every stroke. He told me about the summer job at his uncle’s shoe store he took up, and I mused over his analysis on different types of feet odor. When we ran out of anecdotes to share, we talked about Elliott Smith, the singer we both loved but knew nothing about. That was the summer before everyone we knew including ourselves had left home to go to college, so there was a lingering urgency to savor every second we had left, a sense of finality that felt trivial now but was both exciting and heart wrenching at the time. I think we both felt it that day. I could sense it. 

“Can I tell you something that’s totally absurd?” he suddenly asked after a short pause, I nodded, my cheeks suddenly flushed, “have you seen the movie Gattaca?” 

“I have,” I hadn’t. I took a slow sip of my latte that was now cooled to lukewarm. 

“Well, when I was probably eight or nine, I’d watch TV with my sister every night before our parents came home. Every night, we’d catch the middle portion of this movie that replayed, but we could never figure out the name of it, and we never made it to the end because our parents would come home.” 

He shifted side to side in his armchair, then leaned his whole body forward like a wooden cuckoo emerging at striking hour. 

“That went on for months, just the same movie, every night. I would always have this strange determination to finish the movie, as if I could speed up the movie with my willpower. But we never did, so there was just this unresolved desire that was never fulfilled.” 

Some kid at the other side of the café started screaming hysterically like he had just consumed caffeine for the first time in his life. We turned to watch him wriggle on the floor for a few minutes. 

“Anyway, obviously, as many years passed, I forgot about the movie, the same way you’d forget, say, your childhood friends or the family trips from youth. Life kept going, we moved out of that house, then to another, and, eventually, here when my father changed jobs. Those nights I spent huddling in front of the television just became a distant memory I never revisited, you know what I mean?” 

I nodded. 

“Then, two nights ago, I was watching TV with my father when that movie came on again. The moment we switched to that channel, I knew. It was as if I was transported back in time, crouching in front of the same tiny screen in my childhood home. I could recall every little detail, so vividly it almost felt real – the prickly carpet that left dents on my knees, the stuffed pony my sister clung onto every night, the crayon marks on the wall,” he pointed around, as if we were in the room he was describing. 

“And the movie, too, I remembered everything, scene by scene. It felt so surreal, like I was reliving the past. And, get this, I was so overwhelmed in the moment I actually burst into tears! Can you believe it? That was the craziest part. I haven’t cried in years, but, somehow, this movie I’ve watched so many times made me cry like a baby,” he chuckled, sinking back into his chair like a deflated balloon. I watched him pick up the book that had fell to his feet and look right at me, his eyes glossy, with a blankness that felt lost, as if expecting me to fathom an explanation to his experience. I was suddenly washed over by a sense of duty to give a response, to take care of him, cradle his story with wonder, like a mother holding her shaking child who had awaken from a nightmare. But I had no idea what to say. He was silent then, and so was I. 

That was the last time I’d ever talked to him. After his story, we jumped through a few trivial topics before I got up and left the busy coffee shop. Many hours had passed since I first sat down at the café, and the evening sun was hung low in deep orange. I walked past the weekend flea market around the street corner to the station, hopped on the bus, and went home. 

How strange is it? The way closeness is defined between two people. At the end of that summer, I moved from Taipei to Boston, where I went to college. Though I never saw him again, I thought about him a lot, that conversation we had that afternoon. His story was nothing profound – it was but an emotional reaction to a childhood memory – and I happened to be the first person he had talked to following the experience. Yet, what left such a deep mark in my heart was beyond the anecdote – it was a spiritual connection that was masked beneath mundane life, an ethereal mix of sympathy and surprise, of curiosity and familiarity, one that emerged organically, impossible to elicit or reenact, an all-consuming presence that could only be found then and there, in the set moment and time. 

What was the recipe to such chemistry? There are people I see almost every day, with lives I can recount in detail, yet almost none of them have ever made such a lasting impact. I felt almost melancholic at the thought of that. I tried recollecting the emotions that went through my head the afternoon at the café, but grasping onto such abstraction only baffled me further, like attempting to recall a dream. 

My mind went back to the man that jumped out of the window – his long limbs, his arched eyebrows, and his defined cheekbones. Could we have had that kind of connection? I wish I had known him for at least one day – a few hours, even – or seconds. I tried to picture him in a crowd, walking in my direction as I walk towards his, perhaps in a crowded street or a busy train station. I pictured myself noticing him, how he’d tower over everyone around him, his hair disheveled and his tie undone. Maybe he’d be holding a briefcase, or the hand of his young daughter, trotting one step behind him. As we walked past each other, we’d exchange a polite smile, a nice, dishonest smile. 

But maybe somewhere in his smile I’d feel it, I wouldn’t notice at first but moments after our passing I’d feel a pang of unexplainable but familiar sorrow. Maybe then I’d look back. And, by sheer chance, maybe he’d look back, too. We’d exchange another smile — a genuine, reassuring one this time, with a tint of longing. And, for a brief moment, we wouldn’t know why, but we’d feel less alone, the emptiness we carried around every day briefly filled. Then we’d part and continue on with our separate lives. I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about him, and I don’t. Enchanted, punch-drunk. The next day I’d see him on the news, he had killed himself with sleeping pills. I still wouldn’t know why but, this time, I’d understand. 

When I finally snapped back to reality, I was tucked in bed, dressed as the Big Bad Wolf dressed as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to come home. I could hear the faint muffles of my students’ through the thick layers of fabric, but I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. In the finality of a stranger’s life, I felt oddly calm — abruptly anticlimactic, almost. I closed my eyes, still nothing. I took a deep breath and listened to my heart beat slowly.

Huiru May Huang was born in San Jose, California and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She studied biomedical engineering at Boston University. In her spare time, she goes on long runs and watches movies. She writes short stories and essays about her home, wherever it is at the moment, and her family. She has had her poetry published in The Beacon.

You can keep up with Huiru on Instagram and Medium.

This piece features original art by Huiru’s creative partner, Yawei. You can view more of Yawei’s art on their Instagram.

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