Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“The Theologian’s Tale”

We met each other at the smoothie truck in front of the Quad. I was squinting at the menu, attempting to rationalize the $6 avocado smoothie, and you were behind me, calling your best friend, bouncing on your heels. The sun made it unbearable to look at another person, and I pulled my hood strings tighter, hoping to avoid both the rays and your eyes. 

And then we met at the Asian food truck next to the DRL crosswalk, and we both ordered unadon bowls, and we laughed at the coincidence, the unexpected collision. I noticed you then. Our laughs held the same pitch, the same beat-too-long length. And then the halal cart on the sidewalk across Meyerson. And then the MexiCali truck across Perry World House. 

And then we didn’t meet. We passed each other over and over, entangled in nostalgia for familiar food, for home. I know you saw me—I saw myself in you—and your eyes, which, if I had thought to concentrate, looked like milk from the moon, cratered with brown—your slight smile perched constantly, reflexively.

But that was all I saw: myself in you. 

What is a voice? Didactically, a voice is a sound produced by vertebrates by means of lungs, larynx, or syrinx. A right of expression. Abrahamically, the only voice that matters is the voice of God. Falling from the sky, the listener cannot identify the source—only that they can hear and that they can understand. 

A voice hyphenates one’s self, separating and connecting two distinct, indistinguishable identities: the speaker, the body. I know your voice, but I do not know your body. This incorrect sequential order is an almost incomprehensible way of knowing, but it works for us because we do not need to know each other. We are separated by the darkness called unknowing, a congruent blindness to each other’s existence and importance. 

Then, how do I know your voice? You speak the language I understand. Cognitively, that is how anyone recognizes another’s voice, the recognition of context and language-meaning-making. The context: your love of Walt Whitman. The language: You sing the body electric. The meaning-making: poetry. I close my eyes when I hear your poems, each one fracturing you into another knowable person. You crowd the stage at every speakeasy, every open mic,with poems meant not for the stars but for each small, semantical gaze. 

The stars have not stopped burning, but they will, says the linguist. The stars have not stopped burning, but they live for you, says the poet. 

I stand outside the door, your voice unfolding from the loudspeaker. Your voice falls from the sky. 

Did you know? I almost took the same obscure Korean history class as you until my friend convinced me to switch it with a gen-ed, “something useful.” In one year, you’ll take that gen-ed, and I’ll finally add that Korean class to my cart, satisfied that I’m not missing out on something crucial, something irrevocable. 

And when you stopped running to City Hall every Sunday morning, I started two weekends after, determined to lose the late-night mukbangs of Spam with rice and ramen and tteokbokki. Instead, you slept in longer, knowing that your Saturday nights were now filled with her. 

I met her at a party, actually. She brushed behind me, her hand suddenly on the small of my back, and her eyes were made of the eight planets, each one orbiting, slightly levitating as she craned her head back and drank the hazy light from an underwhelming disco ball. We passed each other, but less unknowingly. She carried some of me to you—the imprint of my back, our brief clasp as she glittered. We speak to one another. Why weren’t you there?

How do you know someone through another? All I saw: her in you.

All the near misses that we gathered between. 

At your last poetry reading, I lingered a few minutes longer than usual. I was jarred by your opening line, that it’s possible to know someone through memory alone. How the self is more susceptible to being known than we might like. Do I know you? Are you who you write outwards? After you finished greeting everyone, you tilted towards the exit, the room still perfumed with your voice. I caught your arm. “Thank you,” I started. “I’ve gone to three of your readings, and I’ve never regretted it.” 

“Of course,” you responded. “I appreciate you being here tonight.” A hesitation. “Do I know you from somewhere?” 

I shook my head. That was the truth, wasn’t it? We didn’t know each other at all; maybe the few encounters at the food trucks, but we missed each other too many times. Had I known you, I would have memorized every line of your poem, and you would have traced me with your pencil and performed me in your readings. All you saw would have been me, the subliminal weight of consciousness continually bearing down. Forever existing in your peripheral. Having been found, you would always search for me.  

But we live in near misses. We strayed from the operative narrative of accidents; we didn’t find each other. Limited by time and linearity and care, we passed each other, over and over. And it’s okay, and it doesn’t really matter. We live in transient nonexistence, in love without knowing it, perpetually losing the person we never met and never became.