LETTER TO A STRANGER: WASHINGTON, DC
BY PETER MOUNTFORD
June 14, 1989: I was twelve, walking home from my friend’s house along a tree-lined suburban street, when one of the most violent storms to ever hit Washington, D.C. abruptly took shape above us. And even though I was a little punk rocker with orange hair, you stopped your car, threw open the passenger door, and yelled for me to get in.
The storm only lasted about twenty minutes, but it’s still talked about to this day. The meteorologists had seen nothing notable brewing that morning. It was early summer, and I was fresh out of sixth grade. That whole school year I'd worn black from head to toe. And now, free to do as I pleased, I'd spent the afternoon at my friend Willie's house, sitting in his room listening to The Clash and talking about the girls we liked, girls who did not seem aware that we were alive. By then, we’d been fully ostracized by our classmates, who called us “freaks.” Setting off for home that afternoon, I'd seen some clouds, heard some rumbling thunder, and guessed I might get caught in the rain.
The storm began spectacularly, just minutes after I left Willie's house. Downdraft microbursts spawned gusts of more than 80 miles per hour. Giant branches sheared from trees; rain whipped my face. A tree branch snapped a power line, showering sparks down around me. Seconds later, another tree cracked, collapsing right onto a nearby house. I watched it drag straight through the roof on its way down to the front lawn. You must have seen what happened next: A branch hit me in the back, knocking me onto my hands and knees, ripping my Dead Kennedys t-shirt and drawing a little blood. I was still half a mile from home.
You were a middle-aged woman, probably on your way home from work. You must have seen that branch hit me, because when I stood up, you beckoned me. Once in the passenger seat, I shut the door on the cacophony and wiped my face, drenched and bewildered. Your car had that reassuring smell of a car not yet stained by use. My family was still driving the battered old station wagon we’d had for a decade, but your car was pristine and healthy, the dashboard aglow with bright lights.
You drove a little ways down Brookeville Road, but you couldn’t see much of anything, so you pulled over, and we sat together in your over-air-conditioned car watching the whole world fall down around us. The windshield wipers did nothing against the downpour. You looked at me with concern and asked where I lived. I told you I was just on the other side of Chevy Chase Circle.
It occurred to me, as I presume it did you, that we might die together, crushed by a falling tree. I wondered if you had kids of your own. I assumed so. I assumed they were at home waiting for you. Now that I’m your age, or near enough, I know that owning a new car doesn’t mean you belong to a fully intact nuclear family.
Of course, you didn’t know that my mother had died two years earlier from lung cancer. That I was returning to a home where my sixteen-year-old sister was busy making dinner for the family, while my loving but hapless father hurried home from the office. You didn’t know, but probably could have imagined, that my Walkman was full of young men screaming themselves hoarse over raging guitars. I knew all the lyrics to those songs, but it barely mattered what they said—what was important was their fury, and the suggestion that there was a community somewhere that might understand me. My school was full of future senators, confident that the world was an essentially orderly place. You couldn’t imagine how much I needed someone to pick me up, to offer shelter.
We sat together in silence while the violence raged around us. When the rain slowed, a little, you did a U-turn and drove in the direction of my house, swerving around all the fallen branches. You asked if I was bleeding. I said that I might be, but that if so, it wasn’t bad. I was leaning forward, a little, because I didn’t want to stain the seat.
You said this was crazy, that you’d never seen anything like it before. Neither had I. Twenty-seven years later, I’ve heard the roar of a Sri Lankan monsoon, been blinded by a blizzard in the Scottish Highlands; I’ve been tossed around in a field by the winds of a hurricane in North Carolina. And I’ve never been more terrified of the weather than I was that day.
But as we approached Chevy Chase Circle, the rain halted, like it was simply changing its mind. You pulled over, sighed, and shook your head. And again, you asked me if I was okay, as if you knew that I wasn’t, and that it had nothing to do with the weather.
“There’s my sister,” I said, pointing. And there she was: sixteen, drenched, running up the road like a mother who’d lost her son.
Maybe I thanked you, probably not. In any case, please know that I still think of you. I think about you every time thunder rumbles, too close, and the air is heavy with latent violence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Mountford is the author of the novels A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and The Dismal Science. His work has appeared in Boston Review, The Atlantic, Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine, the NYT's "Modern Love" column, Granta, The Sun, Missouri Review, and elsewhere. He’s currently the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle’s writing center, and is on faculty at the University of Washington, and Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program. His favorite place on nobody else's list? The kitschy paradise of that "Irish pub" on the ground floor of the Hilton Colombo.
Photo from Flickr creative common.