Dear Stranger: About That Last Statement


Dear Strange Man,

We don’t know each other, yet you feel entitled to interrupt my little zone of dual nourishment time. See, one of my guilty (not guilty) pleasures is to take myself to lunch and read a good book.

I am sitting there, thoroughly engrossed in a suspense novel, so it takes me a few moments to realize that you are talking to me. I hear a voice in the almost-empty restaurant and look up to see you staring at me. My silence is somehow encouraging, and you repeat the words I thought I’d heard:

“So, you’re reading, huh?”

“Yes.” I answer. I smile slightly, but not enough to encourage a conversation. I return to my book, but I feel your continued presence as you stand there, staring at me.

When I glance back up at you, you respond with a smirk. “A good lunch date, huh?”

“Yes,” I answer, this time favoring you with a real smile. “The perfect lunch companion.”

“Yeah, because a book won’t break your heart.”

Your words are spit out with such vehemence that I become more than a little uncomfortable, and I cannot help but wonder: why interrupt my quiet when you don’t seem to like women?

Though my plan was to linger over my book, and sip the last of my water as the lunch crowd waned, I am suddenly glad that I’ve already paid my waitress.

I am Southern and exceedingly polite to strangers as I recognize that overtures from people we meet in public usually come from a space of desiring connection. I’m intuitive, too, and deep down I know that the kind of statement you made means that, in the past, you were hurt by someone you loved.

And I am so sorry for your pain. Heartbreak and betrayal is devastating to the mind and soul.

However, your tone crosses the boundaries of polite society, so I break eye contact.

I am grateful when your companion joins you, an elderly woman whom I assume is your mother.

I mark my place in my book, leave a tip, and make my way out as quickly as possible.

There were so many things wrong with our encounter that weeks later, I am still thinking about it. I’m writing you this letter because I want to pass on a little advice.

Maybe you don’t realize this, but being alone in public doesn’t make me “fair game.”  A woman alone in a restaurant is not out looking for a date, and most likely isn’t even seeking conversation. This wasn’t a smoky bar on a Saturday night; it was a family restaurant on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

You may have believed you were saving me from loneliness. I wasn’t lonely because, as you observed, I had companionship: the novel I was reading.

This was not a “missed connection” and you won’t find me seeking you out on Craigslist. Most of our encounter could be seem as misguided attempt at flirting. So let me tell you why I’m still thinking about our encounter: Your last statement to me.

I don’t like to tell folks their beliefs are right or wrong, but I can tell you that you were so wrong when you said reading_wheretheredfierngrowsthat books can’t break your heart.

The first heartbreak I can recall happened in literary form. I was eight and read the story of a boy and two red bone coonhounds. Just writing about Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann makes me tear up forty years later.

That was my first heartbreak, and it sure wasn’t my last.

There was Little Beth and Alice and Leslie and a slew of others.

When we read, we care about the characters and they become our friends. Their lives are often as real to us – while we are reading their stories – as the people who inhabit the three-dimensional world in which we live.

The book I was reading that day was the fifteenth book in a series, so you interrupted my lunch with a longtime friend. I guess you could say Lindsay Boxer and I have a long-term relationship. Spoiler alert: Lindsay had just discovered that her husband and the father of her child had a secret life.

Her heart was breaking and mine was breaking right along with her.

Books take us to faraway places and invite us on adventure. Books ask us to come along on a journey of life, to share the ups and downs and highs and lows. The funny, the sacred, the sad. Books allow us to witness fear and bravery.

Books will break our hearts in a way that we need. Because books prepare us for life’s reality.

Through the lives of the characters we read about, we learn the different ways to navigate the kind of losses we all will face one day: the loss of a pet or a parent, a child, or best friend. Books prepare us for the betrayal of a friend or lover. Books show us how to fall in love without losing ourselves, and let us experience the inevitable joy of mothering children or animals.

Reading books is good for not just our mind, but our souls.

Books don’t just inform us about historical events or scientific theory. Books allow us to learn about other ways of stackofbooksliving, other cultures, and other worlds. Books teach us how to be happy, and how to find our way in the world when we are different.

You were wrong when you said that books can’t break your heart, because they can. And I’m going to share a secret with you because I think you can use this information:  if you have a broken heart, a book can be part of mending it.

If you find this letter, I have one more piece of advice: rather than interrupt the next woman you see reading in a restaurant, I want you to follow her lead and pick up a book.

Though I doubt our paths will cross again, if they do, I hope it will be because you’ve found this letter, taken advantage of some literary therapy, and have a smile on your face.

The Woman at the Restaurant reading 15th Affair

About the Author: Debra Smouse

debra_Smouse_mclDebra Smouse is a self-admitted Tarnished Southern Belle, life coach, and author of Create a Life You Love: Straightforward Wisdom for Creating the Life of Your Dreams. She resides in Dayton, Ohio where she practices the art of living with the Man of Her Dreams. When she’s not waiting for the mailman, you’ll find her reading or plotting when she can play her next round of golf. She’s the Editor in Chief here at Modern Creative Life. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.