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He seemed to absorb all the light in the room. His soft green eyes, once filled with a kind of optimism envied by those fortunate to gaze into them, now conveyed an indescribable sadness. His skin was unusually pale and had a freezing quality, as though he were carved out of ice. He pushed his dark hair from his face as tears began cascading down his cheeks.
A wave of excuses and apologies poured from her, making the air in the room heavy with lies. He couldn’t even look at her. He kept his eyes on the floor the whole time she was defending herself. He didn’t fight. He didn’t even know this was going to happen. He had gone there to give her something, to show her how much she meant to him. But it was all fake, and he had never hurt so much. He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to keep from crying harder. Then he looked her in the eyes and said in a choked voice, “I wish you were a stranger.”
He squeezed his eyes shut again, tossed a large envelope to the ground, and left.
She was in pieces. She didn’t mean for it to happen like this, she didn’t mean to hurt him, she didn’t know how selfish she was being. She thought it would be for the best. She thought she didn’t need him anymore. She thought she had grown tired of him. She thought she knew what she was doing. She was wrong.
Overwhelmed with emotion, she sat on the couch. Through her wall-to-ceiling windows she could see evening approaching. She felt empty. She couldn’t even cry. She didn’t think it was going to feel like this. She thought he would leave and then she’d go on with her life as if she’d never known him. She thought it would be easy. That’s what she wanted, to be a stranger to him. At least, that’s what she had wanted until she heard him say it. Then its meaning struck her. To be a stranger, to be just some random person on the subway, some passerby, was terrifying. And there was nothing she could do now. She got what she wanted. She got to be a stranger.
The sky was being engulfed by darkness. The lights from the other buildings were makeshift stars against the black sky since it was too bright to see the real ones in the city. She started thinking about the first time she really saw the stars, when things had been good between them. When things were fresh. He picked her up at her apartment just as night was falling. She didn’t know where they were going. He blindfolded her in the car and refused to reveal their destination. She remembered it felt like they drove forever. It was a nice drive, though. She remembered how happy she felt that night. Everything was perfect. After she pleaded to know where they were going, and being refused each time, she felt the car stop. He still wouldn’t let her remove the blindfold. He helped her out and they began walking. She could feel wet grass sticking to her feet through her sandals.
He stopped and pulled her very close. In an excited whisper he told her that they were there. Then he stepped behind her and untied the blindfold. She held her eyes closed for a second longer to build more anticipation and when she opened them she saw the most beautiful thing - she saw the sky and the stars, really saw them. And it was unbelievable. She’d never seen anything so breathtaking. She turned to him and saw a satisfied look on his face. He looked as though if she were happy, he was happy.
She never wanted to see the stars before she met him. It had never even crossed her mind. She was a city girl. She breathed and slept concrete and street lights. She never knew how beautiful things really were, but he showed her. He showed her a lot of things like that. He was a simple guy, and simple things like how picturesque the sky is at night really meant something to him. She used to love that, but after a while it got silly. She thought those things weren’t important. They didn’t get you anywhere.
His whole philosophy on life became foolish to her. He had no direction. He simply did what he wanted to do. He spent a lot of time taking pictures. He loved photography, but it didn’t pay the bills, so he worked odd jobs. Instead of paying for his apartment he worked off his rent as the building’s repairman. He also worked at a bookstore, and then a record store, and a coffee shop, and a restaurant. He always had a job, but never a career. She, however, was an attorney. She came from a wealthy family; he didn’t have any family. His mother died giving birth to him and his father died when he was 19. He was an only child; she had three brothers.
She thought how different they were. They rarely agreed on anything, but never fought. He wouldn’t let them. Each time an argument seemed inevitable, he would do something to make her laugh and they’d forget what they were even talking about. He was always doing something dumb to make her laugh. After a while, it got annoying.
It was totally dark outside now, and she had turned on the lamp next to the couch. She still felt very empty, and the only thing she could think about was him. Memories of firsts and lasts danced through her head and she couldn’t make them stop. The day that they met seemed to stick out in her mind the most. It was really just a coincidence. His car was in the shop having new brake pads installed, and she had lent her car to a friend. She got on the subway, sat in the only vacant seat, and began reading a magazine. He was across from her playing with his camera. For some reason it wasn’t working. It was very old and every now and then it’d give up on him and he would have to play with it to get it working again. All of a sudden she saw a huge flash. Apparently he had accidentally taken a picture of her. He apologized, explaining that he was only trying to fix it and she said it was fine. She remembered thinking how beautiful he was. Even when they were strangers, she felt something about him that made her trust him.
The subway stopped and he got off. That same day he got his car out of the shop, and she got hers back from her friend, but, assuming the other rode that subway regularly, they each began riding it every day. It was inconvenient because it was out of his way, and she had to leave an hour earlier than usual, but they were so fascinated by each other that they rode the subway in hopes of seeing each other, and they did. Every day they learned a little something more about each other. Their conversations were brief but meaningful and after nine days of these conversations, he asked her to dinner. The rest is history.
Looking back, she thinks how silly it was that they were so committed to each other when they were really just strangers. This idea hits her hard. Even when they were just passersby, just random people on a subway, they had meant something to the other.
Then she noticed the envelope next to her coffee table. She untucked the lip of the envelope and pulled out its contents. It was her picture, the picture he had accidentally taken of her on the subway. And on the back in his sloppy handwriting it said: “When we were strangers.” Right then she finally felt something. She loved him.
Tears streamed down her face as she slid on her shoes and ran out of her apartment. She drove all the way to his building. When she got to his door, she took a deep breath, praying he would take her back, and then knocked. He was disheveled and his eyes were red. For a moment they just stood there, looking into each others’ eyes. And then she pulled him close and pressed her lips to his. Confused, he whispered, “I thought you didn’t want to know me anymore.”
And she softly replied “You were never a stranger, I can’t let you be one now.”