My daily commute includes many familiar faces, all of them strangers. Being so familiar with people I will never know inspired me to write the following short story, about a woman who sees one person every day, yet only wonders about them, saying nothing more to them than “Hello.” Is she supposed to know them? Was she ever supposed to? Was it better that she didn’t?
I Never Knew Your Name
Cities are unique in that they’re filled with familiar strangers. There are enough people that you can sift through them anonymously, yet also enough people doing the same thing as you, or going the same way you’re going, that you recognize them in everything but name.
That is how I knew you. For while I saw you every day, I never knew your name.
I saw you on my way to work, as I see many. We surely all recognize each other, but only you made eye contact with me. Only you smiled. Only you said, “Good morning, ma’am.”
And though I normally find comfort in familiar strangers keeping their distance, I too smiled at you. I too waved. And I too said, “Good morning.”
Thus began our friendship, and that is where it stayed. We’d pass each other, smile, wave, and say “Good morning.” No more, no less.
No one else spoke to you, and you spoke to no one. I wondered what connected us apart from all the others. I’d never seen you anywhere but that sidewalk. I’d never seen anyone else speak to you. I’d never seen you speak to them.
Perhaps you didn’t want them to see you. Perhaps I saw you by accident.
You appeared very suddenly. I saw you on the way to work, then promptly forgot you. I only thought of my morning paper, with its distraught headline: a child was missing. Children had gone missing before. I turned the page and read the comics.
I continued to see you. We would say good morning. You’d walk by others in silence. I would read my paper. Two children went missing. I read the comics, but thought of the three children who were now gone. Where did they go?
I began to think of you even when we didn’t share a sidewalk. I’d seen you so often, you were almost my friend. One whose name I didn’t know. As we passed each other, I’d wonder things about you. Where were you from? Why were you walking opposite the workflow? Did you work at night?
One child missing. The other three had yet to be found.
No one else spoke to you. No one else even waved to you. Could they see you? Were you a ghost? A spirit? A floating friend to greet me hello each morning?
Three more children missing. One of the first to go missing had been found. She’d been by a riverbank and she looked … empty. Like the life had been vacuumed from her. Or, I thought as I read the paper, like her soul had been drained.
Were you responsible?
Like many familiar strangers, you began to flicker out of my routine. Days would go by where I wouldn’t see you, and I thought you’d left. But then you’d reappear. We’d smile, and wave, and say, “Good morning.” You never said anything more. Maybe you knew better.
More children were found. They all looked like the drained girl. A few more disappeared, but now people were on to the attacker. Less children went missing.
I saw you less and less.
Soon no children went missing. The news moved on to celebrities and politicians.
Soon you were gone forever. And I never knew your name.