The woman in the pale pink raincoat pulls me aside at TJ Maxx, and her voice drips with honey as she drawls that she absolutely loooves my sweater. My knee-jerk instinct is to reply, “Thanks, I love you!” 

I feel my cheeks burn, a crimson flush washing over my face as her thin eyebrows furrow in confusion. How bizarre must it be to hear those words from a stranger, uttered by anyone beyond your family, closest friends and significant other? But though I didn’t intend to let that slip, I mean it. I do love her.

I love her the same way I love the stout old man who owns the bakery on West Warren Avenue. During an unexpected blizzard in high school, my tire explodes on the way to class. After skidding aimlessly for a few minutes, rim grinding against icy concrete, I pull into an empty parking lot to inspect the car. As I stand shaking from the snow and scowling from the inconvenience, I hear a thickly-accented voice call out from behind me, “Come inside. It’s cold.”

Moments later, I am seated adjacent from Issam, the Palestinian bakery owner who has managed to serve me a plate of piping hot manaeesh only seconds after I was whisked into the store. We share the generous serving of bread, tugging warm tendrils of cheese behind it with each slice pulled, and exchange stories while I wait for my mother to call me back. We stumble through the conversation — with his broken English and my underdeveloped Arabic — and I learn about his brothers back home and his eldest daughter with whom I share a name.

He tells me that his bakery is a family, despite the lack of blood relations. I watch them work, smiling warmly and cracking jokes with every passing moment, and I think I see it too. He shoots me a toothy grin and slides a crumpled five-dollar bill to get my tire replaced. As we part ways, he offers me a can of Pepsi and a warmth that seems to thaw the bitter cold outside. Years later,  I still owe him five dollars.

I love her the same way I love the eccentric Jimmy John’s employee who speaks to me in his self-proclaimed “alien language,” an endearing string of foreign noises indecipherable to Earthlings like me. Freshman year makes devoted regulars of my roommate and me, and we find ourselves stumbling into the tiny storefront every other night without fail, only to be greeted by our favorite night-shift worker. Soon, this becomes the highlight of our school year. With every anxiety-inducing all-nighter, we find solace in our Jimmy John’s visits. He makes us laugh so hard we forget our dreadful essays and exams, and soon the fluorescently-lit shop becomes our safe haven on campus. When he informs us that he’s quitting, we’re inconsolable, sobbing on the floor of our tiny room in the residence hall.

My friend Kyra and I pour our hearts into a farewell letter and present it to him on his last day. An unfamiliar ‘80s pop song croons over the speakers, and before we know it, the three of us are swaying back and forth in time with the music. We continue our awkward, wordless dance in the empty State Street sandwich shop before reluctantly saying goodbye to our favorite stranger, clutching our Turkey Toms like an unspoken parting gift. My other friend laughs at this story, asking how we could feel such grief over someone we hardly knew. I respond incredulously, “Because we love him!”

I love people recklessly and often. Passing strangers, Zoom classmates, cheerful Starbucks baristas: All great loves of my life that have come and gone, victims of my naive romanticization. I think it’s my favorite thing to do. A grave mistake we make is assuming that love is a finite, limited commodity — that we must cling to it with unrelenting persistence and grant it to a select few. These reservations around love, particularly the version we’re sold through Hallmark movies and Billboard Top 100 songs, are understandable. It feels malicious and elusive. It hides away from us. It taunts the single and lonely, and it convinces us that we’ll never acquire its joy. I’ve come to find that this version of love has blinded us to the real thing entirely. 

The real thing does not hide. It is not an extraordinary gift that few are blessed to find or receive; love is wherever you allow it to be. It’s not always clasped in the hand of a lover. No, sometimes it sings along to the hum of the engine when your friend drives you home after a long day, a gentle hymn only heard by the two of you. Sometimes it slips through the crack of the door held open by a stranger. Sometimes it is neatly folded in the pile of laundry your mother leaves on your bed, engulfed in the scent of fresh linen or woven into the stories your little sister tells her friends, the ones in which you are always the valiant superhero. Sometimes you don’t know you’ve planted it until you feel the tickle of its leaves on your neck, and sometimes you’ll never realize it was love. But it will fill someone up and unravel them, and they will bask in its warmth which endures for years. 

Love is wherever you find it, so if it slips between your lips, let it curl into your lungs and dance around like smoke, tingeing your skin pink. If it gives up a seat on the bus for you, nod in appreciation and rest your weary bones. If it lands at your feet in shards, make a mosaic and let the light refracted shine brighter than any burning hatred or dull indifference. 

I hope you learn to find love in all of those unexpected places: bakeries, sandwich shops or fleeting conversations. When you do, I hope you recognize it for what it is and allow yourself to either hold it close or pass it on. If you can’t find it there, I hope you at least find it in these words, knowing that I love you, stranger.

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