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Love’s Travel Shop, 2017. I hover near the heavy brown door of the restroom, feign interest in the shirts with INDIANA printed on their backs, and calculate my unease. The man and the boy have pulled me in the wake of their hasty trek to the back of the store.
Probably a father and son, I assure myself, or a kind uncle. But I also think about rest stops like this—Love’s, Flying Js—and the thousands of bodies consumed within their premises every year, not unlike the state-shaped key chains and sunflower seeds hanging on racks.
I wonder if I should enter, and if I do, under what pretense. Feigning the identity of an apologetic international traveler? No, my accents are not good enough. They exit while I am forming a plan, the man carrying underwear and the boy pressed—of his own volition? For comfort?—into the man’s side. I notice now that he is walking on his toes in his tiny gray sneakers and his light sweats are wet. The man gives me a nod and moves the underwear further from view. They leave.
I tell myself that I have done enough, that there was nothing to be done in the first place. That accidents happen. That every boy with pee-soaked underwear who walks on his toes in a Love’s is probably okay.
Remember me, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
The chant is simple, low. Here, during compline, the darkness sits with the few of us gathered, filling in the spaces of the pews we occupy alone. Our stillness freezes even the candle fires, unwavering.
Remember me, remember me…
My words stray toward unknown figures beyond these walls.
Surely, I believe what the old Black spirituals say: Even when discarded by the world, there is one who holds us in hand or in mind, and this is sufficient. But it must also mean something to be held in the memory of people, however faulty; to be cradled as a fleeting signal somewhere within the abstraction of thought, to exist inside the borders of another human, where we all first took form.
I do not know if I made up the yellow dress. Perhaps the girl was in blue or black or not a dress at all, but I could not invent the wretch of her body as she threw up—Orange? Red?—or the sharp knock of her body against the ground or the muted pound of a fist on her back. Again and again.
I think of this girl often and will her to be alive, and not just alive but somehow in a flourishing. I hope she wears box braids and burgundy lipstick and knows a close, kind friend. I wonder if I can forget her.
The more people I have met, the closer I have been to suffering. Many times, this makes me want to not meet more people, and, in fact, un-meet people, like a girl in a video I resent having seen or a boy in a gas station at which I didn’t have to stop. There must be a formula to calculate the positive correlation between knowing people and proximity to pain, but I am not one for math. It is too rational, and it’s not rational to fear that I am the last to remember a person who I do not know. Yet here we all are: me and the boy with tiny gray sneakers and the girl and her violence-d body and the man with the tilt of his eyebrows through the window and the woman with the blue-tinged elbows in winter.
I remember many strangers, cling to them perhaps. I like to think that when they are most alone, this is when I consider them, imagining, willing them to better places when they cannot labor up a dream for themselves. I hope someone does this for me.
Is there a word for when a stranger becomes a memory and her memory becomes familiar? I want one. I also want a word for when a dream turns into a prayer and then enters a body again. I want a word for everything, a memory for everyone. I want and want and want for everyone and still perhaps only want for me. Within the fault lines of memory, I try to contain fragments of people, dreaming that this means safety, willing my body to be safety.
There have been times when I wanted to be forgotten, to be so small as to almost not exist. I know how to lie in the dark and to make the breath little more than the still, surrounding air. I know how to feel a heartbeat and to drown it out with the murmur of blackness dragging in from the corners of a room. I have tried to practice non-existence—not death—the absence of the self from even another’s mind. Now and again, I pray against these times and beg that they will not be taken into account when forces are betting my life in a card game to which I do not know the rules. I am afraid these things will catch up.
I imagine a stranger imagining me: ashy-knee’d kid, goofy preteen, solemn young adult. Somewhere, I am tucked into the farthest corner of a person’s mind, so far that only a certain puff of cottonwood over a warm river or a daydream as deep as sleep could dredge me out by surprise—first as a feeling, then as a body and a blur of foggy sense.
If thinking of someone well, holding a space for a person through thought, offers a kind of life, then I’m beginning to believe more people belong within me than I want. Strangers—a boy in a gas station, a girl in a video—who I know only through a few glances slip into the empty folds of my mind. I could hurry them away. I could also make them a snack, give them the Wi-Fi password, and offer them a place to rest awhile. Maybe there isn’t enough space for everyone, but maybe there is more space than I let myself believe.
 Perhaps I spend too much time imagining the accent.
 I wonder if I should forget her.
 The more people I have met, the closer I have also been to joy.
Charnell Peters is the author of the poetry chapbook Un-becoming (Thirty West). Her previous work has appeared in Apogee, Hippocampus, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere.
"To Remember a Stranger: On the Hospitality of Thought" was originally published in The Waking on June 21, 2018.
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