The Perfect Stranger  

She was stunning, unapproachable, out of his league. Jamal had seen her at the Straight before, sitting with the same bunch of girls. Now she was alone, studying her notes and having a late lunch of salad. He came out of the line with a grilled cheese and bacon, his favorite. He sat at the other end of the long table. No doubt she noticed him, because there were so many other places to sit.

He took the letter out of his shoulder bag, still sealed, addressed to him in ink. He propped it against his Coke and squeezed mustard over his sandwich. As he ate, Jamal stared forlornly at the letter. He caught her looking at him.

Her salad was steadily disappearing. That she would stay there longer to study was not a sure bet. The Straight was not the most quiet place on campus. Jamal took a deep breath and slid down the bench, holding the letter between two fingers like something he found in the mud.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I don’t know how to deal with this,” he said, referring to the letter.

“What is it?”

“It’s a letter from my ex-girlfriend.”

“And this is of interest to me why?”

“That’s the point. I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I can’t go to a friend, because…well, my friends weren’t that wild about her anyway. When she dumped me, in a text, and then changed her status on Facebook, she said some terrible things that hurt. They still do. So now she’s sent this letter, and I’m afraid she’s unloaded a year of resentment on me. I wanted to toss it, but I can’t.”

“Okay.”

“Would you be cool with reading it? Please?  Read it like something you found on the floor. You don’t know anybody involved.”

“I wouldn’t read a letter I found on the floor. I would take it to lost and found.”

“Okay, if it feels, like, creepy. I can find someone else. It’s just that you look right, like the perfect stranger.”

“I do?”

“I have a sense about people.”

“Not about your girlfriend, though.”

Jamal smiled. It was said by some to be his best feature, sardonic, maybe dangerous, but somehow disarming.

“If I read it, what then?” she asked him.

“All you have to do is tell me whether or not I should read it.”

“How would I know?”

“You’ll know. I want to stay positive in my life. I wouldn’t want something hateful to be my last memory of her. I’m going to let in only good things from now on.”

She held out her hand and he gave her the letter. She cut one corner with an elegant fingernail and tore it open. He watched her read, but her face revealed nothing of what she might be reading.

She folded the letter and put it back into the envelope.

“Jamal…”

He was startled. “How do you know my name?”

She smiled. “It was on the envelope, and the letter started with, ‘Dear Jamal.’”

“Oh, right.”

“Jamal, you don’t want to read this letter.”

“That bad, huh?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Well, thanks. That’s all the closure I need. It’s too bad…but it could have been worse, I guess. What’s your name?”

“Sheila.”

“Nice. Thanks, Sheila. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

He got up to leave but she invited him to stay and split a sundae. She wanted one desperately but should not eat a whole one by herself. 

As it turned out she ate little of it, but Jamal acted like a child given a treat after a trauma. They followed with coffee and talked for a while about nothing much. Jamal was a grad student, then, in political science. She was doing a dissertation on methods of teaching the novel. They made a date to see whatever French film was showing on Saturday night.

“What shall I do with this?” she asked him as he walked away.

“Burn it.”

Here is what the letter said:

“Dear Jamal, I’m too embarrassed to text or call, so I’m sending this snail mail. I don’t know what came over me. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. You are the sweetest and gentlest and most loving man I’ve ever known and I hate myself for treating you so gross. Can you ever forgive me? Can we start all over, as though I never was such a bitch? I love you. Your Gwen.”

Jamal did not have to know what was in the letter. He wrote it.