All My Strangers

About a year and a half ago — a million years ago, to be exact — I made a goal with some friends. Our shared resolution for 2020, a year filled with promise: we would go out to karaoke at least once every month. Knowing what we know now, this seems like a silly and precious idea. The kind of thing that makes my cynical post-2020 self want to reach back in time, stroke my soft, innocent cheek and say, “Oh, honey.” 

It was silly and precious. And we got to go out to karaoke exactly twice before the pandemic hit and I stopped going out anywhere, ever, at all, for a very long time. 

Those two karaoke nights though? They were the kind of fun that makes me feel not just alive but heart-burstingly grateful to be alive in the exact life and city and building and body and moment I’m in: a sticky dive bar with friends in my beloved Nashville, buzzing with $2 spiked seltzers, voice cracking because I can’t stop laughing long enough to get through the “Heart attack-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK” part of “Movin’ Out.” Bliss.

Both of those nights, we went to the same karaoke bar, and both nights, there was an older guy sitting alone at the table by the stage, nursing a beer. His name was called every fifth or sixth song, and he’d stand up and take the microphone with an air of duty. He sang old, somber songs about wars and shipwrecks.

We whispered about him, of course. 

Who is he? 

Was he a widower singing for a lost love? Was he happy? Was he lonely? Everyone clapped when he finished his songs. Not as loud as they clapped for the bachelorettes singing “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but a respectable applause. 

I thought about a lot of things the year I spent barely leaving my house. I sat in the rain-stained adirondack chair in my front yard watching the ice melt into my whiskey and I thought about life and death and love and loneliness and capitalism and community. I thought about the elasticity of time, the disorienting sensation of a year of my life slipping into the black hole of interminable Sunday afternoons. 

And I thought about that guy at the karaoke bar. Specifically, I missed him. I missed all the strangers whose lives used to intersect with mine in ways that perplexed, delighted, annoyed, and inspired me. How empty life felt in a year devoid of not just my close friends, but all the uncredited characters in the background of every scene — the snippets of conversation floating over from the next booth at the coffee shop; the dive bar ladies’ room pep talks. There’s an intimacy that exists in the middle of a venn diagram of two lives, barely touching. The pinpoint of a moment we share. The full circles of blank space. 

When I lived in Portland I met a guy who was really into subjective reality (this is not an uncommon experience in Portland). He told me that everyone I’ve ever met was a figment of my imagination and an extension of myself. “You already know everything about every person on Earth,” he said, “because they only exist in your own mind.” I hated this idea and told him so. How flat would life become if I presumed to know the answer to “Who are you?”, if I stopped asking it altogether? 

I love imagining not just the inner worlds of strangers, but all the threads of fate and millions of infinitesimal decisions that led to our paths crossing. I have the same question for people I’ve known my whole life and the woman in front of me in line at the gas station: “Who are you?”

We are mysteries made of mysteries. We are galaxies colliding. I’ll never get my answer.

There’s a quote from an interview Barack Obama did many years ago that I think about a lot. He’s describing looking over at Michelle when they’re lying in bed and being struck by the fact that as close as they are, as long as they’ve known each other, he can’t ever truly know her. “I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings,” he said. “It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because even as you build a life of trust and comfort, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.”

Isn’t that so lovely? 

“Who are you?” we ask on the chance meeting, the first date. “Who are you?” we wonder in joy and anger and awe for the rest of our lives. 

A couple weeks ago, fully vaccinated, I went to a bar with friends for the first time in a year and a half. 

A couple hours into the night, I locked eyes with myself in the bathroom mirror while I was washing my hands. A mask covered the bottom half of my face. My eyelids were heavy from a couple too many old fashioneds, and my eyes were wild, sparkling with the thrill and anxiety of being out in the world again. A question flashed through my mind as I examined the reflection of this strange, awkward creature: 

“Who are you?”