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How to Say Goodbye to a Stranger

Jack Adam May 5

For two decades I’ve lived on this short block in Downtown Brooklyn and I can remember nearly every moving truck that I’ve seen come and go. My mother grew up only several blocks away and so I was taught from a young age that knowing your neighbors is as important a responsibility as any.

The woman shouted that she’d see me tomorrow. It was a date.

Since quarantine began, my block, like many others across the city, has participated in a nightly celebration for essential workers. For the first few uncertain nights, my family crammed into our front windows, shoulders touching as we clapped and hollered, struggling to be seen and heard through the trees which grow in our front yard’s shallow dirt plots. We were without a target but were determined to be present. Even if our enthusiasm wasn’t matched by our neighbors, we were prepared to be — as usual — just a bit scrappier and more old-school than most.

As the celebration continued to spread, new faces emerged daily, bringing their pots, pans and cooped up voices to the street. For a glorious, lawless, uplifting three minutes, we began doing what seemed impossible: creating community in isolation.

These days, community feels like an ever-fleeting concept, gone with the families run away to their weekend homes. It’s been a month since I’ve interacted with another member of my generation and so I become giddy when I think of strolling through the neighborhood and being met by beaming, uncovered, familiar faces. Like much of my dreary life in quarantine, I’ll admit that the clapping has become somewhat of a routine. Daily at around 6:50 I feel an enlivening urge to put on a shirt and push up the windows. I’d grown content with this routine until one evening the celebration began without me.

A young woman directly across the street was leaning confidently out of her window, sounding the alarm with a cowbell and howling at the sky as the hour hand struck seven. I could be contained no longer and threw open the front door, bursting onto the stoop where, barefoot and in baggy sweatpants, I jumped up and down, shaking my novelty maracas toward her window. I felt as if my ship had finally spotted land on the horizon. Only after everyone else had retreated into their windows and doorways did she and I share an enthusiastic parting wave. The woman shouted that she’d see me tomorrow. It was a date.

 From that evening on, sharing the celebration with my new friend became a sort of responsibility. When I’m late to kickoff, I feel as if I’m standing her up. And when I’m early, I feel as Romeo must have when he was beneath Juliet’s balcony. No matter which of us arrives first, we always leave together. 

But now that the rigid oak trees on our block have softened with springtime growth, her face is obscured — until the wind rushes past her fifth-story window and I catch a glimpse of a smile and her walnut-brown hair.

Sometimes it seems that the more we know about this virus, the less certain we are about how our lives will look over the coming months. I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t change the news. But I’m not sure over what else more I can relinquish control. The more we know about this virus, the less I know what to rely on. 

I’ve said goodbye to friends outside airport terminals and on doorsteps — friends with whom I thought I’d be back on campus with by now, friends I should’ve hugged more tightly. As much as I thought it wouldn’t bother me to lose sight of my new friend’s eager face, it’s begun to haunt me with a sense of hopelessness. When we clap, we celebrate our shortcomings and the things we cannot lose: our pots, pans, unsteady spirits — for these are all we can be sure of.

Under other circumstances, I might be unwilling to tell a story without knowing how it ends. Right now, I feel quite content doing so, because uncertainty is one of the few things of which I’ll never have to let go. 

The hour hand is just past seven and my hands are still sore from clapping against the howling wind. Lockdown has to end eventually, right? And won’t we lose interest in this whole clapping thing soon enough, too? So long as I stay between these four walls, I know what to expect from my day and from my block. But when we open up, everything will again be uncertain — novel, difficult, and uncertain. As things are, we’ve said far too many goodbyes, and I’m not ready to say ‘goodbye’ to another stranger.

When I was younger, on the first morning of a new school year, my mother would ask me how I felt. 

“Anxious,” I might say. “Nervous.” She would try to calm me, explaining that I was feeling excited. Since then, I’ve come to characterize most of my anxiety as being of the “first day of kindergarten” type. Go ahead, ask me how I feel today. Just like September, we’re again on the cusp of a great change in our lives. Soon we’ll all learn how to write our names, how to count. We’ll decide what stays and what goes: handshakes, six feet of distance, masks. 

Uncertainty has always been a part of life and lockdown has only amplified that. But this uncertainty is an opportunity for change, much like a new school year or a first date. For the first time in my life, I think I am learning to feel excited, not anxious, about the uncertainty before me.

Even so, there are days when I am hopeless. Just once, I’d like to pull the wool over my eyes and believe that I’m a crucial cog in this big, unprecedented situation. And maybe in a small way, inside the ecosystem of my block, I am essential. The clapping is always there for me and I pledge to be there for it — for the woman across the way, whom I hope to one day know, for the children caught by surprise at the clamor as they scooter by, and for all my neighbors I’ve yet to meet. Come autumn, when the withering oak leaves start to pile up along the curb, I’ll be waiting. We’ll all emerge together and look in awe at one another, an orange glow on our faces as the sun rises on a town reborn.

Jack Adam is a fourth-generation Brooklynite and a junior at Yale College studying art and computer science.

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