The Stranger

(The power of unknown)

She was walking through a narrow alley among the oldest streets of Paris, a street hidden from outsiders and only known by locals.

It was a day not much different from the other days in the past months of her life in a new city. Except this time it felt different. Maybe because seeing the street fully submerged under a thick layer of morning fog made her feel an unusual sense of mystery.

She stopped in front of an art gallery that she must have passed many times, but had never noticed before.

“Art De Vie” was painted in gold on a small weather-worn wooden plank that hung over the door.

Coming closer, she pressed her forehead against the gallery’s frozen window, with the tip of her nose brushing the cold surface, and watched the warm steam of her breath as it spread around her reflection in the glass.

Suddenly she pulled away, as if she had seen something she wasn’t supposed to. Wiping the fog of her breath away from the window with the side of her elbow, she looked inside. Then she took a startled step back from the glass.

She was looking at her own image. But it was inside the gallery, not reflected in the window.

Her own familiar grey eyes stared back at her from a painting inside the gallery, eyes filled with sadness and hope at the same time. It was unmistakably a painting of her.

Her dark curls tumbled around her face. Her shoulders were wrapped in a knitted shawl, very much like the one she was wearing now. Her pale reflection in the window blended with the beautiful oil painting behind it, inside the gallery.

Framing her face with both hands and pressing them against the window to see better, she peered into the darkness of the gallery, which was still closed at this early hour. She tried to make out the details of painted images hanging on the walls. Some oils, some pastels, they all had one thing in common. Every painting depicted the same subject: herself.

She felt her heart pulsing loudly in her head. Suddenly the shawl she wore felt too hot. She removed it from the top of her head. She looked again, trying to make sense of the strange scene in front of her, and realized that the scene in each painting was captured from her recent life.

Her eyes stopped at one of the paintings. In the picture her eyes were closed, head tilted to the side, the violin gently propped up by one slender arm. The other arm held the bow, resting it lightly against the strings. Her body was swaying, captured in mid-motion by the painter’s masterful brush. If someone stared long enough, they could almost hear the melancholic sound of her soul.

She remembered the exact moment that the painting depicted. How could she forget? It was the first time she had seen him. He had opened the door of her apartment, the apartment she had just recently moved into, and interrupted her with her instrument.

The young man, not much older then her, walked into her world as if he had always belonged there. When he entered, she stopped playing and grasped the violin with both hands, wanting to scream but not certain if she should.

He stood there, looking at her for a second or two. To her the seconds felt like an eternity.

He smiled.
 “You do not live here,” she finally whispered, her voice broken by fright.
 “No, I don’t,” he said calmly. “But I used to.”
 He walked into the living room where she stood. Scared, she thought of running toward the entrance door, but his kind smile and radiant eyes had grasped her attention. She felt he was a man who could do no harm.

Finally he asked, “Do you live alone?” He continued to smile, looking around.

“No,” she said quietly, ”With my mother. She is very ill. And a girl,” she added after a brief pause. She looked at his eyes, wanting to see his reaction. ”My daughter.”

The young man didn’t pay much attention. It seemed that he was lost in memories of his own life in this apartment.

“Who lives there?” He jerked his head toward the bedroom. “I do,” she answered, surprised by his bold question.
 “May I?”
 “May you what?”

Without waiting for her response, the young man walked inside her room. She felt frozen by shock as she heard him opening the closet door, followed by the sounds of objects being moved. After a minute he walked out again, carrying what looked like art supplies rolled up in a large piece of old leather.

“Sorry… That used to be my room,” he said, and kept on walking to the door. Before he disappeared, he turned around and said, “It’s beautiful!”
 Not sure what he meant, she looked at him with a question in her eyes.
 “Your music. It’s beautiful! “

Now, standing in front of the gallery window, she thought of how much those words had meant to her.

She remembered that day as if it was yesterday. She had watched him leave, still holding her violin. When he was gone from sight she dropped the violin in its case and ran after him, not certain why. She swung the apartment door open and looked down the staircase. He was moving fast and was already near the bottom of the stairs. She pursued him quickly, sprinting down the steps to catch up.

He was already gone when she ran outside. She opened the front door and found that it was raining. A cold breeze cooled her overheated senses. She stared into the darkness of the autumn night, lit dimly by the flickering street lamps. She didn’t know his name or who he was, but his presence had forever captivated her.

Returning from thoughts of the past, she wiped the gallery window with a corner of her shawl, clearing the fog again to see better. She peered into the near corner of the gallery and saw another painting of herself, wearing an apron, with a white ruffled cap set atop her hair. The painting showed her bent forward, holding the edge of a wooden table while wiping the top of it with her other hand. She remembered this too… not the exact day depicted with talented brushstrokes, but the day she had applied for a job at that restaurant.

She had walked in and asked for a waitressing position, but she was turned away. Just before she left, she saw her mystery man. He was sitting at one of the tables, surrounded by friends. They were all laughing and drinking wine.

His eyes met hers and held them for as long as she allowed him. Finally she turned her gaze downward. She felt angry and disappointed. She hated that he always looked so jolly, so carefree, without a single worry in his life. Her girlish admiration of him was slowly turning to disillusionment.

She walked out of the restaurant and once again found herself on the cold streets of Paris, looking for a way to pay the rent and buy some food. She hid her ripped wool mittens in the pockets of her thin coat and headed for home.

Suddenly she was stopped by a young man who worked at the restaurant. She waited for him to speak. She watched a stream of hot air emerge from his month as he spoke, and watched as it evaporated into the cold winter air. He had said something about the job at the restaurant. She could start tomorrow at noon.

As she remembered that moment, it suddenly became clear to her. She was chased and given that job because of him, the stranger from her apartment. Just like every other

good thing that happened to her in the past few months, all so clearly depicted on these paintings.

She saw a painting of her little girl being given lollipops at the local store, treats that she couldn’t afford to buy.

In another picture, she saw a ray of sunlight hitting the frosty window of her room, and a young girl playing violin. She recognized that girl as one of her students. A student like the many others who had come to her seemingly from nowhere, allowing her to earn money and survive.

How could it be? How was it that the stranger she had learned to despise — the stranger she often seen out and about, laughing and drinking with his friends, was helping her all along, when she never even had a clue.

She took a step back from the window. She realized that just like him, she had been painting too, forming a portrait of that young man based only on her assumptions.

When in reality, he was an artist who wasn’t scared to paint his true feelings for her even if standing in the shadow.