How to Invite Strangers was a piece that was published in the Cardigan Press anthology, Byline Legacies, in 2021. The anthology’s theme was all about writers, writing, and the creative process. I chose to reflect on many of the characters from my own novels, as the MC struggled to not only create new characters, but also with trying to remember why/how they’d come up with all of their previous ones. It’s also told in a 2nd-person POV (much like in my novel, This Never Happened), in order to put the reader in a writer’s creative shoes.
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You will roll your pant legs up just below your knees so you can feel the garden tickle your shins; the plants quiver erratically from the summer gusts still blowing in and around towering buildings. Visions of your childhood will return: helping your mother pick the harvest from your modest backyard garden; softly squeezing tomatoes for ripeness; rubbing the foliage of aromatic herbs between your fingers; chewing on a mint leaf. Memories just like these will be returning more frequently. You won’t be certain why. But you’ll take another moment for the feelings to linger, and to allow them to fade again.
You will feel the weight of the shears in your hand, and your eyes will zigzag, landing on the appropriate corner of the rooftop garden. Your tapenade recipe called for three tablespoons of chopped parsley, and you’d almost begun serving it to your guests downstairs before realizing you had forgotten the last ingredient for your canapé spread. It’s an involved recipe, and certain steps of it are sometimes lost when left to memory. Snipping what you need, you will pause again for one last moment of quietude.
There’s a fire escape which you use for rooftop access. The city’s din always seems to reverberate through the suspended iron stairway. You will stop to hear it all—the good and the bad—with every footstep and with each grip of the railing. The day’s heat still emanates from the metal, too. You snake your way down three floors and back inside your apartment through the open kitchen window.
A couple of guests will be in the kitchen: she has mussed-up, jet-black hair and chapped lips, holding a drink unsteadily enough that anyone would know it wasn’t her first of the night, and he is eating a plate of chicken wings like it’s going out of style. Beads of buffalo sauce cling to his overgrown sideburns, glistening. They will be chatting in the way that strangers get to know one another, with small talk and unsure smiles.
You will eye them closely before realizing your bread is overcooking, smoke trickling out of the oven’s slackened door. Without an oven mitt or even a potholder, you remove the tray and toss it on the counter. The warped metal tray will spin around a couple of times in a lazy circle. Taking the parsley to the cutting board, you will chop it finely with a sharp knife, then mix it into the tapenade, spread it on the bread, and top it off with some olive oil. The voices and shuffling of other people in your apartment echo off your bookshelves and hardwood floors. You will stop to breathe in deeply, then wonder why you continue to serve these people in your home. Something inside you will question your reasons for ever having invited them all in the first place.
A man you think you recognize will enter the kitchen confidently, and lean over the counter across from you. You will offer him a canapé. He will refuse implicitly, but when you turn back to wash the knife in the sink, you’re certain you see him taking one anyway. “I’ll be right back,” he’ll say to you with food still crumbling from his mouth. The tiny head of a brown bird will be visible on his t-shirt, peeking out above the top button of the man’s weathered coat. “Just got to wash my hands,” he’ll say. You will direct him to where the bathroom is, but he’ll inform you that he already knows.
Somehow, the couple who were previously in the kitchen will have disappeared. And though there is still a crowd in the next room, everything will suddenly seem empty. You will stop and think about past conversations, the things you wanted to say but got them all wrong, and how it might have been good to think them over first. Write them down, maybe. Things might have been different. Of course, they might have been exactly the same.
With the tray of canapés in your hands, you will stop at the door to consider those around you.
What brought them here.
Who brought who.
When will they leave?
Who will they be leaving with?
They will be an eclectic group. A woman chewing gum behind neon green lips. A guy in a wrinkled t-shirt that reads Surf Tofino, adjusting some of your coffee table knicknacks. An older gentleman in a pin-striped suit and fedora, talking to a woman of mystifying beauty. She’ll have eyes earth-brown in color and a shimmering crystal hanging from her exquisite neck. Both of them will be standing in front of your large oil painting whose only subject is a curious white tree. Two men, twins by all description, on the couch and looking like they’d rather be somewhere else. Another man on the opposing chair with a finger up his nose. And the canapé thief, who had still not washed his hands, will be surreptitiously discussing something with a young man in a faded red shirt and a leg in a cast, balancing awkwardly on crutches.
Who are they all, really?
How well do you truly know them?
The tray will suddenly feel heavy in your hands, and you’ll place it on the floor. Right there, on the kitchen floor. It will try to shine beneath the light, though its sheen has been dullened by time’s aching crawl. The fire escape will call to you, not for more herbs from the rooftop, but so you might take in the city once again. The city has never failed to inspire you. It never will.
There will be someone else outside already, a girl. She was not there before. She’ll wave at you with one hand slowly, cautiously, opening her fingers in the same way as a flower might bloom. A train rumbles past in the distance. You will listen to it carefully: its heavy clack-a-lack clacking reminding you why you came to the city in the first place. Down on the street, late night delivery trucks will be crisscrossing the intersection; a constant loop of the things people want, coming from here and going over there. A circle of unknown, perhaps empty, needs. Across the glass and concrete canyon, you will spy the dark silhouettes of people moving within dimly lit apartments. Some windows fuller than others, perhaps containing parties of their own.
Catching your thoughts drifting, the girl on the fire escape will point inside your own apartment and say, “A bit manic in there, isn’t it?” Her sleeve will be covered in cat hair.
“I don’t even remember inviting some of them,” you will say.
“Sometimes we just show up. Is that what you mean?”
You’ll pull your gaze from across the street and look at her. Her hair an unnatural white, the color of apple meat, if you had to describe it. Piercings lined up on one side of her face: eyebrow, nose, lip. “I guess some of you sometimes do,” you will answer. Often it mystifies you, how quickly they seem to appear and depart. Their presence, whether there or not, leaves vivid impressions on your mind.
“We have the weirdest details, though, don’t we? Me and all those people in there.”
You won’t be sure what it is she means, exactly, so you’ll angle your head to question her further.
“Like, when I lie, I’ll pull at my ear.” She’ll stop to tug one ear as an example. “And I lie about everything. Can’t help it. It’s a trait, I guess.”
“A tic, maybe. We’ve all got them.”
You will breathe in deeply, and there’ll be something familiar in the air. A certain memory, maybe a reminder of how you felt in a different time. And by the time you turn back to the tiny bit of space the girl occupied, she will already be moving along, climbing back in through the window.
“Only because I can’t stay,” she’ll say with an ambiguous wink. “But I’ll be around.” She glides her hand through the air around her, as though simulating a leaf on a breeze. “Like those delivery trucks, I’ll be here and I’ll be there.”
She’s disappeared altogether when you finally go back inside. Someone will have placed the tray of canapés on the kitchen counter. Only a couple have been picked at. Pushed around and poked into different spots on the tray. You frown at the remains, half-upset that they weren’t all eaten. But you leave the tray where it is before walking into the next room. It will seem like a different crowd than before. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s how it always goes. Now it is more like a costume party, like the intentions of the gathering itself have also changed.
There will be a boisterous, know-it-all guy in a bulky, foam Empire State Building costume. A disappointed woman in hospital scrubs. A sad man in a frog costume. Or is it a gecko? A dragon, maybe? Books will be scattered about indiscriminately. There’s an ugly man hidden in the corner. He wears a trench coat, dark feathery wings dangle ominously from underneath. An old woman with one eye of black and one of white.
A celestial sort of haze will overtake the room. A buzzing, too, like a mosquito circling around your head. You won’t remember your walls being painted in Mediterranean blue, either. A song from long ago will be playing on the turntable, its melancholic opening notes returning long missed feelings to you.
Just as you are about to step out the window again for more air, a woman will catch your eye. At first you find yourself thinking she’s the same girl you just saw on the fire escape, but this woman is not really the same. Not really. Her head shaved, a lip stud just enough off-center that you will question its placement. Electric blue cowboy boots. Her arms covered in tattoos; inked inscriptions, scribbled scripts.
You will ask her if she’d like to sit outside with you. You ask in a way that might sound as though you’re simply continuing a previous conversation. She will click her tongue, disappointed in your proposal. “You can’t keep going out there. Up and down that fire escape. You’ve got to mix things up.”
Yes, you will think. A change would be good.
She will pull a cigarette out from somewhere, waving it winsomely, and then say, “How about you take me for a walk so I can smoke this stupid thing?”
As the two of you walk to the door, you will pass a seven-foot tall spaceman of sorts. Incredibly, you had not noticed him before, towering above the crowd, in a golden, shining suit of armor beneath a dark hooded cloak and red-tinted goggles. He will be talking to a fairy, glowing amber-pink with butterfly wings. An actual fairy.
In the downstairs lobby will be a doorman in a colorful uniform; he will eye you indignantly as you and the girl in the blue boots exit the elevator, but you’ve seen him before and you know that’s just his normal greeting. It’s a tic, perhaps. Or a trait.
She will already have her cigarette lit as soon as you step out from under the awning and onto the sidewalk, leading you around the corner. Heat from the long day still lingers in everything, warming your skin as you pass. On apartment stoops and behind windows will be more and more people, as well as the ethereal glow of stories being told within. So many of them.
“They’re no different from you, really,” she will say bluntly, gesturing at the windows with her cigarette. “And they’re all hosting the same parties as yours.”
“All of them?”
“Most of them.” She will take a long, long drag from her cigarette before sitting herself down on the curb. “Yours are better though.”
“My parties or my guests?”
She will simply smile a non-answer in the way that women in stories do, but real women always seem to do it better, you think. You will once again consider all of the characters you invited tonight, still taking up space in your apartment.
“Things we create will want to keep changing. They have to.”
As you sit down beside her, it will feel you’ve already done so. Like you’ve played this sidewalk scene out in your mind over and over again. The gatherings behind windows continue, but outside it feels like a ghost town.
And she will place her free hand on your knee. Her head on your shoulder. And with a tear in her eye she will say, “You still have something else worth saying.”
“Not everyone will want to listen.”
“You expect a lot from people, don’t you?”
You almost say something else, but instead you say, “They matter to me.”
She will blow smoke from the corner of her mouth. You catch a wisp as it floats by, and the smell will remind you of something agreeable, but from a more troubling time.
Then she will note your comment and say, “Only parts of them matter though.”
She will clear the lingering smoke away with a wave before turning to you, a stoic look on her face. “I only exist because of my name. That was all I was at first. Just a name. Then, all of a sudden, I picked up this guitar.” She holds up a guitar case that you hadn’t noticed. “And before I knew it, I had all this ink on me. This one”—with the wet end of her cigarette she points to a tattoo on her arm that reads FALLING— “was one of the first ones.”
You will run your hand along the tattoo, remembering each letter.
Then she will say, “It’s how any of us start out. Her, too.”
A beautiful woman in brown yoga pants and a tight shirt will appear from nowhere, jogging along the sidewalk before stopping in front of you to stretch.
“Her? I don’t recognize her.”
The jogging girl will say, “That’s because I was only invited for my tits.” Indeed, beads of sweat will glisten on her chest. She will shrug her shoulders nonchalantly, then add, “It happens,” before running off again.
And then a man dressed in a white linen suit and a fake mustache will shout from across the street. “I only existed to quote Mark Twain,” he will say. “And I didn’t even get the quote right.”
Next to you, the girl in the blue boots will nod in silent agreement. “It was all that any of us were at first.”
Investigating your thoughts, you will say, “I was lonely.” The street and sidewalk return to their ghost-like state.
“You’re still lonely.”
You will blow a rejected breath from your mouth, realizing that maybe now, the little details of everyone in your apartment don’t matter as much as they used to.
She will flick the remains of her smoke across the street, all the way to the opposite sidewalk. And then, guitar case in one hand, she will stand up and point up to the rooftop with the other. “Don’t keep tending to that garden you’ve got growing up there. Focus on the wildflowers instead. The ones that grow in all the places you haven’t been. Or the places you’ve been too afraid to return to.”
You will notice that your pant legs are still rolled up, from when you’d allowed the garden to tickle your skin. But you will unroll the pants, already thinking about the next place you’ll go.
Before walking away from you, she adds, “And this time, invite that one person you were always afraid to invite. Because you were embarrassed about your feelings for them. Because you didn’t know how they might react. Or what they might say. Invite them in.”
When you return home, the guests will all be gone. Your apartment will be cleaner than you’d left it, the books all back on the shelf.
In the kitchen, the canapés remain on the counter, still mostly untouched. You will eat one yourself—still enjoying it more than you should, maybe—before composting the rest. You will make yourself coffee. You will sit and you will wipe your eyes and you will gather your thoughts.
And when there is a knock on your door, you will invite them in.