On October 5th of 2022, I went to a stranger's house.
Deep breath. I opened my eyes, and there it was the sunset. It was purple and pink and orange and yellow, and the clouds perfectly swirled into the remaining light. The chilly wind brushed up against my arm, and I breathed in the first scent of autumn. It smelled woody and faint, like the leaves slowly turning the colors of that sunset. Beneath the lingering summer humidity, it smelled cool. Easy.
I took out my phone and faced it toward the sunset, snapping a few photos. For memories - so I can look back at this. The sunset. The season. The atmosphere.
“It sure is pretty, the sky.”
I turned around, and to my left stood an old woman. She was short and stood in a pink, flower-patterned cardigan. Her eyes softly smiled above her mask, and she looked kind.
“Yes, it is. I couldn’t help but take a picture of it.” I replied, smiling.
“I would like to do that too. Would you mind helping me? I don’t know my way around a smartphone camera yet. We didn’t have these when I was young.” she said, lending out her phone. Lowering my height towards her, I reached out for her phone with a friendly hand.
We stood there for the next 15 minutes.
She asked me for my age and my story - and I asked her for hers. She told me she was 88 and worked all her life at a bank whilst traveling the world. She was 65 when she finally retired, and her co-workers gifted her an oil painting as a goodbye present, and she fell in love. Apparently, she now oil paints all of the sights she saw on her trips around the globe.
“You know what, dear, why don’t you come over and I’ll show you my paintings. My house is just a two-minute walk down the road,” she said.
Taken aback by the sudden invite, I stuttered. “I’m honored, but it’s almost sundown. And I would really love to, but you're a stranger. What if you kidnap me?”
“Oh, honey. You’d be a fool if you got kidnapped by an 88-year-old grandma. Plus, this is fate. I can feel a connection between you and me. I like you.” She chuckled back.
I felt warm - not the kind of warmth you feel when you're in a crowded mall, all sticky and damp, but the kind of warmth that comes from inside, like little soundless fireworks going off in your chest and exploding with glitter. This warmth felt sparkly and bright - perhaps it was my heart telling me if it was fate - like she said.
She opened the door, and I took off my shoes. Her walls were covered with oil paintings and walking through the hallway felt like a vacation. From the pyramids in Egypt to the boats in Venice, Italy, her walls shared with me a story of age and life, one filled with freedom and boundlessness.
She urged me to sit at the kitchen table, taking a Daifuku from the refrigerator and placing it in front of me. Sat across from me, she talked - about her trips, the people she’s met, and her friends. I tried to reply to each of her rambles with a humorous and friendly remark, but she would already be on to the next topic. I eventually gave up and nodded while I took big bites out of my daifuku.
On January 18th of 2023, I went to the same stranger's house again.
Deep breath. I opened my eyes, and there it was her house. It looked welcoming and warm, like that feeling of breathing in an autumn sunset. I stood outside her doorstep and placed my index finger on her doorbell, hesitating to press it. It had been nearly four months since I’d seen her. What if she was angry that I hadn’t come and visited her? What if she wasn’t home? What if she’d forgotten about me? I shook off the pessimistic thoughts that lingered between my finger and the doorbell. After all, she said that we were fate.
“Who is it?” muttered a deep voice coming from the monitor. I placed my face in front of the camera staring back at me and explained.
“Hi. I’m not sure if you remember me, but we met back in October. We met on a walk and you invited me to your house to see your oil paintings.”
The same voice replied. “Go home. I don’t know you.”
Panicking, I took out my phone to show the pictures of the sunset that night.
“See, this was that day. We met here.” I said, frantically pointing to my phone screen through the monitor.
“Oh. Yes. The day we saw the sunset. That was you?”
“Yeah. I came here again to see how you were doing.” I heard subtle footsteps from the other side of the door, and the door perked open. I let out a relieved breath.
She sat me down on the same kitchen table, brewing a cup of fresh green tea.
“I’m sorry dear, I can’t seem to remember anything about you. I’ve gotten so old…,” she said.
“That’s okay. There’s nothing about me you need to remember,” I laughingly replied. I couldn’t lie, a part of me felt disappointed that she had forgotten, but I figured it was inevitable.
She then asked me about my future.
“I plan on going to a university now. In the states. Maybe major in education and gender studies.”
She looked at me puzzled. “What’s gender studies?” she asked.
“It’s where you learn about gender. Like sexualities and stuff…,” I explained.
She laughed. “Oh. Like those queers. I can’t help but think that they’re disgusting. Seeing men and men together and women and women together, that’s just not how it’s supposed to be.” She continued, pointing her finger in the air, “I didn’t see that back in my day. Now it’s all over politics - I mean they’re trying to get married! My generation holds certain stereotypes about those people. Just gross.”
I nodded and quietly finished my green tea. I guess you could say that I was speechless, but I was hurt. I was one of the people who she referred to as disgusting. Although, I put on an insincere smile and chuckled - I didn't want to be rude or defensive, or angry. I just wanted to leave.
“Come again sweetheart!” she said. I smiled and bowed, and when I lifted my head, I was faced with a mere wooden door - hard, cold, and unwelcoming.
On my walk home, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been stabbed in the back with a knife. I was used to that feeling - it’s not the first time that homophobia has penetrated me, but this time felt particularly brutal. I held in my tears as it twisted the knife into my spine, I could feel its palms heavy with hatred and disgust. I could almost feel the thick crimson blood run down my leg in the form of humiliation and misery, and it weepingly puddled on the concrete sidewalk with the rest of my trauma. Is this what she meant by fate? That the destiny of our meeting was so that I could be denied? To be called gross? My spine shook with pressure and anger and pounded as my heart cried. As I wiped the tears off my face, it whispered in my ear for the last time, reminding me that it attacks when I am least expecting, and it's here to stay.
I laid in my bed that night, cradling myself in my frail arms. I didn’t want to return there again - but at the same time, I felt selfish. I was the one who visited her again; I was the one who’d believed that it was somehow fate. She was kind enough to let me - a teenage girl she had met on a random autumn walk- into her house. I was the one who had brazenly assumed she was open to the world and would be open to my sexuality too. I figured that was why I stayed silent the whole time I was berated. A part of me couldn’t blame her - she was old and kind, and to be fair, she didn’t know I was “one of the queers.” But another part of me - angry, hurt, and tired- wanted to go back and stand up for myself.
But I couldn’t. I guess I was a fool, who had romanticized a stranger who I met on a random walk.
There is no happy ending to this story. It’s been exactly a month since I’ve seen her, and her words still leave me feeling wounded and aching; I’m exhausted by the flashbacks of that day. I‘ve cried endless tears and journaled endless words, and nothing feels like enough. I’ve deleted the pictures of that sunset in October from my phone, praying that it erases the past. I regret ever meeting her or returning to her house and if I could, I would take it back. But I can’t. And I know that the scars that homophobia has etched into my back will stay there forever, and I will continue to be deceived by homophobia, hiding in the shadows of autumn sunsets and beautifully painted oil paintings and welcoming doors. My weak heart now rests in “fate,” hoping that it won’t betray me this time.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Momoka Ando