Originally published in The Indicator’s Fall 2021 issue “Passing,” “Strangers” by Sarah Wu ’25 is republished here as part of a collaboration between The Student’s Arts & Living Section and The Indicator. Find the full issue here.
I see you on the bus first.
Or maybe, it’s you who senses me, turning around just enough for our eyes to meet. Somehow, past the friend I am talking to, past the earbuds pressed tightly against your ears, our eyes lock. You are skinnier than I remember. Age has sharpened your cheekbones, stolen the roundness from your face. The nest of brown pine needles on your head has softened, curling gently at the tips. It is hard to imagine them as the same “rat hair” your mom used to comb through, her fingers gently untangling the knots, the burrs in your curls.
Even sitting down, I can tell you are taller than me. Your arms and legs dangle off the seats like the long legs of the spiders that I used to pluck from the cobwebs on your attic floor, the spiders that scuttled across the palms of my cupped hands. Back then, the spiders scuttled forward and you scuttled backward; back then, you were the same height as I was, but only I was brave enough to catch the spiders dangling from the ceiling.
You were afraid of a lot of things: bugs and slugs, heights and nights, dogs and frogs, bees and trees. When you climbed your very first tree, I was the one with my feet planted on the ground and my shoulders underneath your bare feet. Even after you managed to sling yourself over, I stayed on the ground, in case you were too afraid to climb down. When I cried alone under the tree on my ninth birthday, you were the one there with your grubby, chocolate-covered fingers, clutching a small, misshapen cupcake.
We always went to your house to fight the monsters that slept underneath your bed and slipped into your dreams. You were the king, organizing the valiant troops, barricading the fort with pillows stacked to the ceiling. I was the queen, riding my trusty steed with my sword into battle. It never mattered who was who either way. We ruled over our tiny kingdom that was somehow tall enough to fit both of our crowns snugly perched on our heads.
When we turned 10, the last echoes of childhood faded from the creases of our chubby fingers, the cheeky laughter bubbling from within our throats.
The real monsters didn’t lurk beneath your bed. The real monsters knew how to hide in ways your dream monsters never knew how to, burrowing past the walls of our fortress. They latched onto my thoughts like a tick drinks blood, a fire devours wood. Through the mirror, they stared at me, and I stretched out my fingers to touch the stranger’s face, my growing face, gazing back at me.
The weekends passed by, daily visits turning into Mondays, then just holidays. I stopped turning down the corner of the road to your house. You stopped biking down my street. The kingdoms that were built in your house turned into forts, then soft caves, then just pillows that lay limply on your bed, dull and gray.
But here on the bus, surrounded by the people of the present and the ghosts of the past, we somehow meet eyes. And just for a second, the world stops.
Just for a second, I imagine our fingers stretching out, your knobbly knuckles reaching for my calloused fingertips, just ever so slightly touching, brushing past each other. Your hands would curl around mine, the same hands that swung the imaginary sword, that commanded invisible soldiers to rush into battle; the hand that once held the smudged cupcake under the tree.
I don’t know who turns around first.
The moment breaks. The bus is overwhelmed with sound once more. Someone throws a paper ball. The person behind me impatiently nudges my shoulder.
Somehow, you and I are back to our own separate realities: the quiet boy in his chair, the loud girl walking through the aisle. Our eyes flicker past each other. You resolutely stare at the ground as I push forward, past the tangle of legs and arms, past the silhouette of bright summers and animated laughter stretching further, farther between us. There is a moment when we are close enough that my arm might have brushed against your jacket. But the moment passes, disappears, swirling down the abyss of what was and what could have been.
We are just humans who once knew each other, now strangers passing by.