LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WOMAN WHOSE SHOULDER I SLEPT ON FROM NEW YORK TO BOSTON
BY NAOMI GORDON-LOEBL
You came down the aisle of the Greyhound like a five-foot-tall mannequin from the army-navy store, olive green everything and a body-sized duffel in your arms that made your biceps jump with every step you took, the sunlight from the bus window illuminating the thousand fine blond hairs on your arms.
“This seat taken?” you asked, and even though just minutes before I’d been celebrating my good fortune at having the only empty seat on the bus next to me, your appearance set off a tiny detonation inside me, the subject of my gratitude shifting instantly from the empty seat to you, the blonde ponytailed soldier who was about to be my seatmate.
“Nope,” I said, attempting to evoke nonchalance but probably hitting a note closer to drunk.
No matter. You were sitting already, having swung your duffel onto the overhead rack like it was a stuffed animal and lowered yourself into the seat next to me.
“I’m Julie,” you said.
Twisting awkwardly in our seats, we shook on it.
You were the type of woman I probably wouldn’t fall for now. There’s the military thing, which is the kind of political problem I might’ve fetishized at fifteen but cannot leapfrog my conscience on today. But it’s really something else. You had that look—a tomboy with long hair, the kind of woman who would never wear a dress but would never consider leaving her legs unshaven, either.
It makes sense that these were the first women I wanted. They were so visibly gay, so unmistakable in both their queerness and their womanness. I love these women now, but what I feel for them is not the desire that surges from just below my belly button, insistent and unwilling to be refused. I know now that I prefer them as friends, rather than lovers; recognize the tug I feel towards them as affection, affinity, but not want.
But that is now. Then, you were everything: strong, compact, smelling faintly of soap. And you were sitting next to me, asking where I was going.
“To Maine,” I said. “To visit my grandparents. You?”
It turned out that you were a soldier—no surprise there—on leave from Okinawa. You were on your way to visit your mother in Boston, which explained the charming accent I was too young, and too New-York-provincial, to recognize.
“Boston’s home?” I asked.
You shrugged, those round army green shoulders coming up briefly around your face and then falling again. Me: already in love.
“For now,” you said.
As the bus merged onto the West Side Highway, we began to talk. When I’d woken up two hours earlier in Brooklyn, I’d been dreading this long drive with its many hours of highway. Now, suddenly, it didn’t seem so bad. You told me about the military, about how North Carolina made you homesick, but that you weren’t sure for where. I told you about high school and the Riot Grrrls I hung out with—the anti-dieting pamphlets we snuck into glossy magazines at Barnes & Noble, the abortion clinics we stood outside of early on Saturday mornings.
“So,” you asked. “You have a boyfriend?”
The question surprised, then annoyed me. I thought we had been engaged in the act of mutual seeing—and here you had misunderstood me so badly. But then I noticed the way you were looking at me. Your slight squint did not belong to a person who has asked a question; it belonged to a person who has advanced a theory and is awaiting confirmation.
“Nah,” I said, as though this were obvious. My own theory-testing.
“Knew it,” you said. Confirmation: your theory and mine. And then: “I didn’t think those Riot Grrrls had boyfriends.”
I smiled and something passed between us.
After a pause, I asked: “You too?”
“Oh yeah,” you said. “No girlfriend, though.”
In my head, we were getting married. You didn’t have to know that I had never kissed a girl, right?
Somewhere in Connecticut, I fell asleep on your shoulder. When I woke up, noticed the weight of your head on mine. Don’t fall asleep next to a stranger on a Greyhound, I thought. Unless she smells like this one.
The bus parked at Boston’s South Station for a thirty-minute rest stop.
“Want to sit outside for a bit?” you asked, gesturing with your head towards the bus door.
I followed you out of the terminal, and we found a concrete bench to sit on. You pulled a can of chew from your pocket. Exclamation points paraded across the movie screen in my head—I had never seen someone chew before—but I tried not to gape.
“Sorry,” you said. “I know it’s disgusting.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. Was it disgusting? Who knew? Who cared? You straddled the bench and pressed your palms into it. Your triceps formed horseshoes just below the sleeves of that green T-shirt. Kiss me, I thought.
“Hey,” you said. “Want to be penpals?”
It was something. You wrote down your address in a notebook, handed the torn scrap to me. I can see it even now: your round handwriting, the PFC before your name. I held onto that tiny rectangle of paper for a long time.
You had to kiss me, I thought. How could this perfect gay soldier who I had practically manifested onto my Greyhound in the first days of summer not be the first woman I kissed? We sat there, you and your biceps and your triceps and your chew, me and my silent pleas, like a thousand tiny riders on horseback sent from my brain to yours with a single request: Kiss me, please kiss me. It didn’t occur to me that I could kiss you.
But we only talked, the conversation easy but my own dim awareness of the bus inside the terminal becoming less dim. I realized, slowly and then with abrupt certainty, that we would not kiss. I hugged you goodbye; we promised to trade letters. As I walked into the terminal, the bus was pulling away from its berth. No amount of waving my arms seemed to capture the driver’s attention. I watched as the bus disappeared around a curved exit ramp, all of my belongings on board.
We wrote, but only a couple of letters. You never heard about the girl I finally kissed on a private dock next to the West Side Highway, a few miles south of where our bus turned north. But she heard about you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Naomi Gordon-Loebl is a writer, educator, and fellow at Type Media Center. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Nation, Complex, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of residencies and fellowships from Lambda Literary, Monson Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. She was born, raised, and still lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter at @naomigloebl.