Familiar Strangers

by Martin Yip

Strangers come in many types. The usual understanding of ‘stranger’ refers to people with whom you’ve never interacted. People whose existence don’t matter much to you. There is another type: people whose paths barely have crossed yours, like two straight lines which intersect at one point and go on their separate paths, diverging endlessly. These could be your classmates in primary school, or distant relatives that used to visit every now and then. Whoever they were, it is no longer proper to speak of them as acquaintances or anything more; they are, for all intents and purposes, strangers. Yet, there is a third type still. Whereas the word ‘strangers’ connotes alienation, this type amplifies and denies this connotation simultaneously. They are strangers, only because they were once familiar. They are alienated from you like none other, because they were close to you like none other. These are the familiar strangers.

When we embark on the journey that is life, everybody is a stranger, save for perhaps Mum and Dad. But for whatever reason, people gradually come into your life and cease to be strangers – by contingency, by choice, or by whatever powers that be; it doesn’t matter. They are no longer strangers to you, and neither are you to them. So these familiar strangers came into your life, just as everyone else did. They seemed like good people from afar. Nobody spoke ill of them, and they radiated an air of positivity. You saw the effort they put into their passions, and how their devotion lifted the people around them. Like attracts like, and so you grow closer to them. You observed, you received, you learnt kindness and generosity, knowing nothing of the sinister side of human nature.

Slowly but surely, you lowered your mental defences. Your mind is somewhat like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: well-guarded, complex, difficult to access. But you decided to lead them in, beyond the fortifications you had built in self-defence. You wanted to repay their kindness, their generosity, and their appreciation of you. You wanted to show them the intricacies, the brilliant views that are exclusive to only you and the visitors you approve of. Not many people ever make it this far; for some of them, everything went smoothly and today they are still friends, not strangers. Not so for the fated few. 

You never saw it coming, but with perfect hindsight, you can see that the signs had always been there. You were always going to be hurt. It was just that you kept your faith in them. You tried hard to convince yourself – they had always been amazing people; you had misunderstood them somehow; those were not signs, just anomalies. You trusted them. Why would they ever want to hurt you? They wouldn’t, you told yourself; that answer was satisfactory. Alas, that was the wrong question. When the ultimate revelation came, questions of ‘why’ did not matter in the slightest. The damage had been done, and you finally realized its source.

Those moments are so distant, yet their imprints remain. You can almost relive them now: when they come, you can no longer suspend your disbelief. Your world crumbles. Cognitive dissonance sweeps you away, your head spinning faster than houses struck by a tornado. The tides of emotion crush your capacity to think, to feel, to make sense of just about anything that is happening. And yet, amidst the turmoil, you make sure that you are safely hidden in the dark of the night. Nobody shall see or hear your tears. Darkness keeps watch over you, and nothing else.

It was in these moments that the fated few irrevocably become familiar strangers. 

Eventually, everything returned to a calm, at least momentarily. You rebuilt your mental defences, adding even more fortifications, comforted by the safety they purportedly would bring. You managed to lift yourself off the floor and head towards the bathroom. Never had looking in the mirror been that difficult, but you managed to direct your gaze towards it. You didn’t see much save for a silhouette and perhaps some patches of red here and there. Everything seemed so blurry; but isn’t it better to have blurry vision than to see things and people for what they are not?

Your final act of despair was to turn on the taps and let cold water run over your face. Then you looked up, and you found the fourth type of strangers.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Student Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, SCR, Staff. Current Executive Editors: Fanxi Liu, Samanwita Sen, Monim Wains and Martin Yip

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