DO NOT TALK TO STRANGERS

by Jeremy Owens

My husband left me . . .

It was for a long weekend, just across the border in Wisconsin — but still — after a year or ten or however long we’ve been locked in the house together — it felt both terrifying and INCREDIBLE. I love time alone, who doesn’t! I made many plans. I would read a book and take long baths and make all the foods he hates and weed the garden. I made so many plans, but I forgot what it’s like when you’re alone for a few days. The clock fades, the routine sputters out, the lines on the graph paper of life vanish.

The first thing I check off my list is red beans and rice. I made a gigantic pot of the stuff and ate it morning noon and night and for snack breaks in between. I was so proud of myself for staying with the plan, and then it got weird. I mean do you know how long you can sit in a bathtub without anyone around to know how long you’ve been there? I read part of a book in the tub, but then mostly I looked at the ceiling. It’s not even a cute ceiling — it’s just a big white wall hanging there over my face. And the couch. My god. I sat there on the couch and watched the sunlight skate across the wall for an afternoon while my dog snored next to me.

After two days of this — I decided to go for a walk. The forest preserve is right behind my house, so I took myself for an epic trip through the woods. No music, no audio book, no! I would listen to the birds and the traffic and smile at the bitchy little bikers who try to will try to run me over on the path and say hello to strangers — some real deep communing with the Earth shit.

It’s the middle of the day and the sun is blazing, so a couple miles in I’m sweating so much I look like I had jumped into a pool with all my clothes. But, hey — that’s okay — look at me outside in nature. This is so fun. I am alone! Outside! This is so great! I love this! I love the heat and the humidity and these bikers and the humidity and it’s fine that I didn’t bring water or use bug spray — I FEEL SO ALIVE RIGHT NOW.

SERIOUSLY. Look at me. I am so alive! Ha!

I’m doing my version of blissing all the way out and an older woman who is walking toward me with ski poles stops 20 or so feet away and gives me a big smile and friendly wave.

Hi? I say while smiling big and waving back, because GODDAMNIT I like nature and strangers and being alone in the wild. I will be nice. BUT ALSO — OHMYGOD — who is this? Do I know this person? Am I hallucinating? Is this a heat stroke? She looks like my grandmother, except my grandmother died a while back and oh lord maybe I’m just full-on dead — what is happening.

I like your shirt!

Nope. I’m alive. This is fine. This is totally normal. I’m okay. My shirt is navy blue and has the white outline of a goat on it. It’s an advertisement for this restaurant in Wisconsin that makes goat cheese.

Oh, thank you. This is from a restaurant in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

Have you ever pet a goat?

Uhh — OK. Don’t laugh, don’t be weird or mean just go with this. Let this happen. This is normal. This is how people are in the world just talk to her — this is not a big deal.

No, I haven’t, but across the street from this restaurant is this other cool restaurant that has real live actual goats on the roof?

OHMYGOD what am I doing why am I talking about this.

What about a cow or a horse? A chicken?

Uh, no ma’am. Well, we did have horses and cows when I was a kid, but I was afraid of them and never got close.

Good lord why am I continuing to engage in this madness.

You know what I think when I look at you?

She says this and my heart rate quickens, and I can feel it pounding out the seconds in my eyeballs

I let out a — Ha! — while realizing I’m not breathing, so I quickly release the muscles in my torso and take in a big gulp of air.

I think you need to lose weight. She says this and reaches for my tummy as if I am a pregnant person who has invited her to feel my baby kick.

I take this like a gut punch because she’s right. Maybe I do need to lose weight. I was a runner before the pandemic, but I tripped and fell while running and broke my collar bone. It was terrifying and I had to have surgery to put me back together with a metal bar and I suddenly feel the metal in my shoulder and I have been so afraid to run since then and COVID and wine every night and my dog has cancer and I am so sad and — well — mashed potatoes and Doritos — but — here is my body, person I don’t know, you joy hater, you monster walking in the woods with ski pole arms in the middle of summer — please report to me the news of my body as if I don’t know what it’s doing.

The forest fire in my brain dies down and I take extra care to control my face.

Have a nice day I say while returning to my walk.

I am never letting my husband leave the house again.

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