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  • By Elizabeth Ladzinski

    It was summer 2010, the kind of day when a trip through the subway leaves you drenched in sweat. Alas, I found myself walking briskly to escape its stinking tunnels, climbing the stairs out to the still-brutal, but blessedly breezy air above the sidewalk at 50th Street and 7th Avenue.

    I'd been living in New York for only a few months and I was nowhere near capable of understanding my way around: the express vs. local trains, the filth, the wanderers—it was all still new to me. I had yet to take a wayward express train into the Bronx. That lesson would come later.

    I had not one foot off the stairs that led to the station below when a man called out to me: "Hey, miss. Miss."

    Despite not knowing my way around the city, I had, regretfully, already experienced my fair share of catcalls and shameless pick-up attempts from strangers at that point. I was wary (though perhaps not wary enough) of any man who approached me on the street. These interactions rarely ended well.

    But, caught off-guard and in a good mood, I decided to help.

    The man was maybe a couple inches taller than me, with tanned skin and the slight scruff of a beard. He looked Middle Eastern, had a thick accent, and was dressed in a button-up shirt and jeans. He fumbled with his words and mixed up tenses.

    "Miss, you help?"

    He reached into his pocket to pull out a folded-up piece of paper and I immediately assumed he was going to ask me for directions.

    "Please...read?"

    The paper was, in fact, a letter containing his HIV test results. My stomach knotted up.

    For a split second I forget where I was, and that this test result was someone else's and not mine. A panicked sweat broke out on my forehead. I noticed I was blushing.

    His eyes pleading, he repeated, "Please, read? What it says?"

    Having never seen an HIV test result letter before, the thing was complicated. Hand-written numbers and plus and minus signs, and then circled in pen, "non-reactive." I took it to mean that he was negative, but I wasn't certain. I remembered something from my health classes about it taking months for HIV to appear in your blood and that it is possible to get a false negative.

    I turned around, looked for any sign of a video camera. Surely, this was a prank. I thought I was being Punk'd.

    But the expectant look on his face told me otherwise. Now I was the one stammering.

    "Um...I think you're OK, man," I said, feebly, with a "thumbs up" to help him understand. "But you really need to talk to a doctor."

    He looked at me questioningly. I was stunned. I was so worried I'd told him something wrong! Who ever wants to be the person explaining this to anyone? (As an aside, this made me realize health care professionals must really have it tough every day.)

    "Talk to a doctor, or nurse. I should NOT be the one telling you this!" I rushed away before he could ask me anything else. I realized I didn't even know his name.

    To this day I don't understand why he asked me to read it. Because I look non-threatening? Perhaps.

    Put in the same situation, perhaps I would have chosen a stranger to break the news to me too. Perhaps having a loved one explain it might be too much to bear.

    Read more, from seven New Yorkers who celebrate the city's unique potential for bizarre and special one-on-one interactions, in Narratively's Tales from Talking to Strangers.

    * * *


    Elizabeth Ladzinski is a visual journalist and Southern transplant inspired by the social impact of documentary film and photography.

    Naomi Elliott is an illustrator living and working in London but dreaming of New York.
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