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When the sun rose and its light illuminated a cloudless sky, Lizzy’s mother declared that today, she and Lizzy would go to the park. Lizzy, at six years old, derived great joy from this proclamation. As an only child, she lacked playmates, and her neighbors were mostly retirees. Maybe at the park she’d find a companion.
Lizzy, her parents, and her grandparents lived on a cold, silent street of castle-like houses, detached from the center of life of the suburb. It took a solid fifteen minutes to drive to the closest children’s park in Marietta, Georgia.
At the park, Lizzy’s mother sat down on a bench and instructed her daughter to go off and play. Lizzy obeyed, frolicking off toward the playground. After she’d enjoyed all the playground equipment to her satisfaction, she settled at the top of the slide and allowed her imagination to run wild. Today, I will be a kitten, Lizzy decided. A kitten with long, straight brown hair to match her own. Gathering leaves and twigs, she barricaded the slide platform on all sides in order to protect herself from the imaginary monsters that threatened her.
It wasn’t long before another kid clambered up to the slide platform, intent on using the slide. “Excuse me. May I pass?” he asked, remembering his Southern manners.
“Just don’t disrupt my twigs,” Lizzy sighed, seeing that the boy was approximately her age, and that his brown eyes were friendly.
The boy’s curiosity got the better of him. “What are you doing up here?”
And just like that, Lizzy had a playmate. The boy with the dark curly hair and the sharp nose could be a puppy. When he was comfortably situated next to her, preparing to defend himself against the monsters, she asked, “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Willie. What’s yours?”
Neither Lizzy nor Willie, who was also an only child, could have dreamed of a more delightful way to spend an afternoon in the park.
As Eliza and her parents lined up to checkout, her mother decided that a fancy block of cheese would make a great addition to the wine. She placed the credit card in Eliza’s hand. She and Eliza’s father would be back in a jiffy, her mother promised.
Eliza shuffled forward in the line, staring contemptuously at the floor. She reached the front of the line before her parents returned, and she thrust the bottle of wine onto the conveyor belt. Through her eyelashes, Eliza watched an unwrinkled hand grab the wine and stop abruptly.
There was a sharp intake of breath. “Excuse me,” the cashier started. “I’m going to have to check your ID.”
Startled, Eliza looked up to meet the eyes of a boy who looked her age. Now it was her turn to sharply inhale. With his unruly dark curls and angular facial features, this cashier was very cute.
Eliza felt a jolt as the plane touched down on the runway at the Atlanta International Airport. Before long, Eliza’s mother and father were attempting to yank her from her seat. Rolling her eyes, she grumbled and snatched her suitcase from her father’s grasp. Eliza knew she was behaving reprehensibly, but she was too frustrated to care. Martha, Eliza’s best friend since she’d moved to San Diego for her father’s job nine years ago, got to spend her summer playing volleyball with boys and tanning on the beach while Eliza was stuck visiting her grandparents in Georgia. From what she could remember about living on that boring Marietta street as a little girl, there was neither a beach nor any kids her age in sight. This was the summer before her senior year of high school. Eliza was supposed to be enjoying bonfires with Martha in California, not sitting in a stuffy house on the opposite side of the country.
Eliza’s foul mood lasted all the way past the baggage claim and into the rental car. Before they arrived at her grandparents’ house, her mother suggested to her father that they pull over at a grocery store and purchase a bottle of wine to bring as a gift for his parents. Eliza’s father acquiesced. Soon, Eliza found herself walking into a Publix for the first time since they’d moved to San Diego.
She giggled uncomfortably. “Oh, no, no! Um, it’s not for me. My parents will be back in one minute. They just went to grab some, uh, cheese, and they shouldn’t be long. But you’re right that I’m not twenty-one, just seventeen,” rambled Eliza.
“Oh, that’s alright. We can wait for them.” The cashier smiled, his brown eyes meeting hers. “I’m seventeen, too, by the way.”
“That’s cool. I haven’t met anyone my age here yet.” There was something familiar about this boy’s eyes, and Eliza couldn’t look away.
Her parents still hadn’t returned. The boy cleared his throat. “You’re not local, then?”
“I lived here when I was little, but now I live in California. I’m back visiting my grandparents for the summer,” Eliza explained with a sideways grin.
“Well, Georgia isn’t California, but I bet you’ll find your fair share of fun here.” He smiled back.
“Thank you, Will.” She read the name off his employee’s badge.
Just then, Eliza’s parents slid in beside her with the block of aged asiago. They handed it to Will.
“Maybe I’ll see you around this summer,” Will said as Eliza and her parents began to walk away.
“Maybe.” Eliza grinned, then forced herself to turn her back on him.
“Wait!” Will called. “I didn’t get your name!”
Eliza pivoted right in front of the door.
“Eliza!” she shouted, her blue eyes sparkling like the cloudless summer sky.
Then her parents beckoned Eliza through the doors and out into the humid Georgia air. She didn’t see Will all summer.
“Not at all,” The man laughed, waving a hand in the air. “It was straightforward, the questions were simple, and Mr. Intraleen was warm.”
Liz let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. “That’s a relief. I feel much better now, thanks.”
Liz smiled. “So, I can’t go into my interview without knowing the name of my competitor.”
“William,” he said, extending a hand.
Liz shook it. “Liz. Nice to meet you.”
From down the hall, Liz heard her name. “That’s my cue. I hope they’ll take two new hires in the marketing department.”
“I hope so. I’d enjoy working with you, Liz. Good luck.”
Two weeks later, Liz was delighted to learn she’d gotten the job, but on her first day, William was nowhere to be found.
Straightening her suit coat and adjusting her blouse, Liz entered the revolving door of the New York City office building. Her heels click-clacked as she crossed the atrium. She really wanted this marketing job. At twenty-five, only a few years out of college, Liz needed experience if she wanted to go to business school.
The woman at the front desk told Liz that prospective employees were to wait in the lounge on the second floor until the interviewer was ready for them. Liz, taut as a wire on the inside, smiled superficially and proceeded to the elevator.
She had just taken her seat at the edge of the lounge when a door in the hallway opened and a dark-haired young man in a business suit stepped out. From her angle, Liz could only see one side of the interaction. A smile bloomed on the young man’s chiseled face, and his mouth formed a “thank you” as he shook the hand of a man Liz couldn’t see.
Liz wasn’t aware that she was staring as the young man turned, walking down the hallway toward her.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” he asked.
Liz blinked. “Oh, no. I was just in a bit of trance.”
She nodded. “I’m interviewing for a marketing position.”
“Me too. I was stressed before the interview, but I feel so much better now that it’s over. You’ll do great.”
This man was her competition, but for some reason, his open eyes and candid smile calmed her. “Thank you,” she said gratefully. “Do you mind if I ask, how was the interview?”
Liz hoped the person in seat 28-C would be understanding, because the twins couldn’t be trusted to keep quiet during the flight. The airline had assigned the seats, and there was nothing Liz could do about the fact that the four she’d purchased were in pairs ten rows apart. Maura and Martin, the eight-year-old twins, would have to sit together because Liz needed to stay with her youngest, five-year-old Arnie. She wished again that her husband had been able to make the trip, but he hadn’t been able to take a whole week off of work. So it was just Liz and the kids travelling to Georgia to visit her parents, who had retired in her grandparents’ old home. It had been thirty years since Liz lived in Marietta. Her children would resurrect a liveliness on the street that hadn’t been there since she’d moved away.
Liz told the twins to behave themselves in row 28, and then she and Arnie settled into their seats in row 18. The flight passed in a five-hour blur, and then they were landing.
Liz waited until all the passengers near her had deplaned and it was Maura and Martin’s turn to exit before she stood up, holding Arnie’s hand. The person from seat 28-C followed the twins into the aisle. It was a man, probably also in his late thirties, with close-cropped dark hair.
“Maura, Martin!” Liz called. “How was the flight?”
“It was great!” Maura said.
“Yes!” Martin agreed, holding up a piece of paper covered in colored squiggles. “Mr. William gave us coloring pages and crayons! He was so nice!”
Liz stared wide-eyed at the man from seat 28-C. Then she looked back at her children. “Were you two well behaved?”
“Yes!” they chorused.
“You didn’t give Mr. William here too much trouble?”
“No, they didn’t,” Mr. William said.
“You’ve got some delightful kiddos. They were polite the whole flight. You should be proud to have raised them so well.”
Liz laughed. “Well, my work isn’t over yet. Thank you for giving them the books and crayons. That was very generous of you.”
Liz looked down at Maura and Martin. “Say ‘Thank you’ to Mr. William.”
“Thank you, Mr. William!”
With a grateful wave goodbye from Liz, the family moved down the aisle and into the jetway.
Elizabeth sprang from her indoor seat as quickly as her tired body allowed and opened her front door. It couldn’t hurt to be friendly.
“Excuse me?” she started. “You’re new to the retirement community today, correct?”
The man turned his rocking chair to face Elizabeth’s as she sat down in it. “Yes,” he replied. “I’m Bill.”
“Welcome, Bill. I’m Elizabeth. I live next door.”
Bill smiled. “So, what’s your story?”
This was the one thing they had gained in growing old: they each had a full story to share. Elizabeth didn’t usually tell her story, but there was something comforting about Bill’s eyes, something that expressed an openness that made Elizabeth willing to talk.
A new neighbor had moved into the condo adjacent to Elizabeth’s. Life here could be dull, so, for Elizabeth, a newcomer was cause for excitement. She sat tentatively at the window of her apartment, hoping that her neighbor would emerge from the room next door.
Meanwhile, she watched the white-haired people saunter slowly across the courtyard, some with the help of nurses. The retirement home wasn’t really a horrible place to be. She had nothing left for her in the outside world, anyway. Her husband had been gone for five years now, but here, Elizabeth wasn’t alone. She had a whole friendly community to add sparkle to her days.
Still, Elizabeth missed the independence of her youth. Here, people died with such frequency that she hadn’t allowed herself to make any true friends. It hurt less that way, but she missed the comfort of a deep human connection.
As Elizabeth watched the setting sun turn the courtyard golden, the newcomer appeared in the rocking chair outside his front door. His white hair was still curly, and his eyes hadn’t lost their luster with age.
“Well, I’m from Georgia originally, but I really grew up in southern California. As an adult, I spent some time in New York and Texas. That’s where my husband and I raised our three kids. When Arnie, our youngest, went to college, we retired in Florida. But then my husband passed five years ago, and I came full circle, moving back to Georgia to live near my daughter and her family. Two years ago, she relocated Oregon for work, and we decided that this retirement community would be the best choice for me.”
Bill was a good listener, but when Elizabeth finished, he spoke. “I grew up in Georgia, too. I spent a few years in New York City, but I was here, back where I started, by the age of thirty. My wife passed a few months ago, and I didn’t want to be alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said.
“Me too,” Bill said. Then, after a moment, “So, Elizabeth, where in Georgia were you born? Here in Columbus?”
“No, I lived in Marietta until I was eight.”
Bill’s eyes widened. “What a coincidence! I grew up in Marietta too, and I didn’t leave until college!”
They both laughed. “Small world, huh?” Willie, Will, William, Bill said.
“Small world,” Lizzy, Eliza, Liz, Elizabeth agreed.
In the following weeks, Bill and Elizabeth finally were strangers no more. They discussed their major milestones, important moments, greatest successes.
But they never mentioned any of the random encounters they’d had with friendly strangers over the years. Because why should they? In life, encounters with strangers are a dime a dozen. How could one brief encounter hold any significance? How could one encounter be part of an entire life’s story?
Max Afifi (@amrix259) is a rising junior at UC Berkeley. He's been playing the piano for as long as he can remember and began writing music in high school. He finished high school by writing a musical with his dear friend Luke Herzog. Since then, Max has released an album and is working on a new album of folk music. Max is studying Cognitive Science and Spanish and has two jobs. He hopes to move to Europe after graduation and plans to get his PhD.
Raised in Pacific Grove, California, Caroline Coen (@cac_2603) graduated as the Valedictorian of the Pacific Grove High School Class of 2021. An avid reader and writer, she published her first novel, The Angel Oak, in October 2020 (find it online at https://amzn.to/2VlljCF). In her free time, Caroline enjoys running and baking healthy banana muffins. She looks forward to matriculating at Princeton University in Fall 2021, where she plans to study English and statistics.