The Kindness of Strangers

Madeline dipped her fingertips in the palette and streaked them across the page, dragging her inky skin in tangled loops until the whorls of blue paint burgeoned into a cloudburst. She watched as the wet colors spread and deepened, staining the paper irrevocably. She watched as beads of excess blue moisture trickled from her fingers and made tiny splashes on the page, like raindrops.

Finger-painting. Twenty-three years old, and her favorite activity had not changed at all in the last twenty years.

Madeline washed her hands in the water bowl and wiped them on a nearby rag. Then she folded her masterpiece in half, flattening the creased page with her palms to ensure the paint sandwiched together. Now came the best part: peeling the halves apart. Madeline did it slowly, so that she could hear the slurp and crinkle of the wet paint as it separated. Then she eyed her makeshift inkblot test.

It looked like a blue guitar.

Frowning, Madeline pinned the paper up on the clothesline that ran along one wall of her cramped studio apartment. It was where she hung her dirty drawings to dry. She wasn’t even an artist; she was a grad student studying philosophy, with no known artistic talent.

But she did have the urge to finger-paint as therapy. It brought her back to happier times, back when she toddled around a child-proof living room shrieking with glee as her parents chased her, pretending to be monsters. If only her parents had known then that they were the ones who would be chased by monsters.

The apartment was stuffy. Madeline flipped a gypsy shawl around her neck, tied her raven hair into a twist, and ventured out into the cool March air. She wished she had a dog to walk, but she couldn’t afford one. Studying philosophy probably wouldn’t aid her efforts to afford things, but she needed it. She needed to examine the world, to break it down into little pieces, to understand how and why these pieces worked the way they did. Sometimes understanding was beyond her reach; then the simple process of reasoning was enough. Going through the motions.

Madeline decided to stroll through Lavender Park. The namesake flowers were in full bloom, in all their bold purple glory. They made Madeline sad. She wished they would be more discreet with their joy at being alive, more tactful. And then she heard something.

A song. Madeline slowed her steps as she approached the park bench. A young man with black tumbleweed hair and sandstone skin sat playing a guitar. A blue guitar. The boy seemed as though he belonged to the earth, the wind, the sky; the guitar looked as though it belonged to Elvis.

Madeline stood and listened to the song that put into music what her fingers had put onto paper with globs of blue paint. The thing that had no words, that could not be spoken but only expressed as an impression, a vague feeling.

How could this be? One minute she identified a blue guitar in her childish smears, the next she found one within a block of her apartment. Perhaps the painting was a premonition, a symbol bestowed upon her by fate to help her recognize this boy. Maybe he was important – maybe they were destined to meet. Or could it be that Madeline had seen this boy before on previous walks without really seeing him? Had she registered his blue guitar in some dark corner of her mind, filed it way for safekeeping until her subconscious pulled it out again? Then again, maybe it was nothing more than a coincidence. Sometimes a blue guitar was just a blue guitar.

“I’m Ravi,” the boy said. He had stopped playing.

Madeline said nothing. She was not accustomed to speaking with strangers; her trust in strangers had been shattered long ago.

“Donations are accepted,” Ravi said, a smile in his voice.

Madeline had little money, but she found a crumpled dollar bill in the pocket of her jeans and tossed it into Ravi’s guitar case.

“Thank you. Any requests?”

Madeline shook her head and walked away. The longer she lingered, the more likely she was to speak. She heard the patter of footsteps behind her. Feeling a flicker of fear, she began to shuffle her feet faster, on the verge of lunging into a sprint.

“Wait!” Ravi called out behind her. “You dropped your shawl.”

Madeline stopped, embarrassed. “Thank you,” she mumbled. As she reached to grab the shawl from Ravi’s hand, her eyes met his.

It was not love at first sight. Time did not stop. The world around them did not melt away. They did not gaze into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. After the brief eye contact, Madeline draped the shawl around her shoulders once again and made her way home.

But later that night, when she was asleep in her bed, Ravi’s eyes returned to haunt her. They were brown and timeworn, like rusty pennies, but they were knowing. They knew her. It was not love at first sight; it was recognition. Recognition of her inner self, the one far below the surface. Madeline had quickly departed, but when Ravi’s eyes latched on to hers, they never left. They were still with her.

Madeline awoke from the watchful stare of her dream and turned on her side. In the dim bleached wash of the nightlight, she could see the blue guitar hanging from the clothes line. She thought she could hear Ravi’s song in the distance, but she knew it was all in her head. The only sounds that could be heard were the hum of the refrigerator and the waning whine of police sirens. She pressed her eyes shut for the rest of the night, not quite asleep.

The next day, Madeline struggled to remain awake in her classes. She startled herself each time her dozing head began to drop and she had to scramble to regain balance. As she walked across campus toward the parking lot, a tall ginger-haired boy approached her, his face aflame with freckles.

“Hey babe,” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek.

“Kaleb. You’re late.” Madeline shrank into herself. Public displays of affection made her uncomfortable.

Kaleb shrugged, grinning boyishly. “Slept in.”

“Until five o’clock in the evening?”

“I had the graveyard shift last night. I can borrow your notes, right? Don’t be mad, Maddie.” Kaleb chuckled at his play on Madeline’s nickname. “We’re still on for tonight, babe. “

Madeline sighed and allowed Kaleb to slip his fingers through hers and lead her to his wood-paneled Oldsmobile. He called it Wanda and treated it with all the meticulous care of a brand new Aston Martin. One of the many quirks that endeared him to her. Madeline also liked how Kaleb’s rosy spread of freckles made him appear as though he were constantly blushing, how his laughter boomed in such loud, unapologetic tones as to incite giggles from everyone within hearing distance.She liked how he stooped to pick up random stones for his rock collection, how earnest he seemed when he explained to her the difference between granite and dactite.

Kaleb parked on the dingy street near his apartment complex and led Madeline to his door. She liked how he had a large old fashioned key ring that jangled with dozens of different keys, how he needed to sort through them to find his apartment key. She didn’t know why he had so many keys, but she never asked. The less she asked about him, the less he asked about her. That’s the way she liked it.

The door swung open and the scent of sandalwood and roses assaulted them. Madeline squinted into the dim room, confused at first by the multitude of dancing flames. Candles. Kaleb never struck her as the aromatherapy type of guy. Then she noticed the vases of red roses scattered throughout the room. The romantic jazz music playing in the background. The dark chocolate cake on the table, studded with glistening strawberries and topped with even more candles.

“Happy birthday, babe,” Kaleb whispered in her ear, wrapping his arms around her.

Madeline blanched. Private displays of affection made her uncomfortable. She untangled herself from Kaleb’s embrace and, without a word, began to hurry away down the street.

“Maddie!” Kaleb called after her with exasperation. “Come back! I’m sorry. I just wanted to do something special for you.”

Special. But he should know by now that Madeline didn’t like to be singled out, that being showered with attention seemed a small form of torture. She preferred being appreciated from a distance, just as she liked appreciating him from a distance.

When Madeline returned to her apartment, she immediately felt caged. She opened her one square window and rummaged through her closet until she found a can of red paint. Then she spread a large roll of butcher paper out on the floor, holding down each end with a chair leg. She plunged her hands into the paint can and began shaking them violently so splashes of red splattered across the paper like blood. Over and over she did this, tears streaming down her cheeks, until finally she pressed both crimson hands down on the paper while she sobbed silently, her body shivering.

The carmine handprints she left behind made Madeline want to retch. They reminded her of the bloody handprints on the pavement, when her horror-struck father clutched her mother’s bleeding chest before his own seemed to explode from the impact of the bullet, and he collapsed onto the sidewalk, palms down. Madeline had been five, hiding behind a dumpster on her father’s orders. But she couldn’t move even she had wanted to – she was paralyzed, her blood running so cold it had frozen her into an ice statue.

Madeline washed her hands with scalding hot water, enjoying the burning sensation until she could endure it no longer. The open window would not do; she needed to get out of here. Her feet took her to Lavender Park once again. A small part of her hoped she would find Ravi there, but the park bench was empty. Sighing, Madeline sat on it herself and watched as a breeze rustled through the lavender bushes, wafting the lovely fragrance toward her. She thought of the sandalwood candles and the hopeful expression on Kaleb’s face before she had wiped it away with her thanklessness.

Why did she do this to him? She didn’t deserve him. She shouldn’t even be in a relationship; she was such a mess. Solitude suited her far better.

“Hello.”

Madeline flinched as a figure sat down beside her. Ravi. He didn’t say anything more; he simply began playing his guitar, noodling around with it until he found a song. Madeline sat and listened, staring straight ahead at the swaying lavender flowers. She appreciated that he did not try to make conversation. She appreciated the music. Once again, the song seemed to match the raw, strangled emotion splashed across the butcher paper.

Her heart pounded as she thought of the senselessness of it all. Gunshots, blood, lost lives, and all for what? A wallet, a purse, and some jewelry? Madeline had tried so often to erase the gruesome images from her mind, but the more she repressed them , the more they found their way back to her more vivid and violent than ever. The leering faces of the strangers who swiped the belongings of her parents while Madeline watched from behind the dumpster as though in a trance.

“Helado? Helado? Ice cream?”

Madeline snapped out of her reverie as the man with the little ice cream trolley watched her with a question in his eyes. She looked at the faded pictures of treats on the side of the trolley. Her dad used to buy her the Mickey Mouse one, with the gumdrop eyes.

As though reading her mind, Ravi stopped playing and said, “I’ll take the Mickey Mouse.” He pulled out a crumpled dollar bill; it must have been the same one Madeline had given him yesterday. When the man reached out to hand him the ice cream, Ravi shook his head and pointed at Madeline. Blinking with surprise, she accepted the ice cream. She glanced at Ravi, wondering what his angle was. But just when she thought he would ask for her number or try to make some sort of move, Ravi grinned and said, “Enjoy.” And with one last knowing look with his rusty-penny eyes, he stood and walked away with his blue guitar, leaving Madeline alone once more.

Madeline closed her eyes and savored the ice cream as the wind tickled her neck. It was probably her nostalgia that made it taste as delicious as it did. When she had sucked the last bit of cream from the popsicle stick , she suddenly had a craving for cake. Madeline knew what she had to do.

Once she had reached Kaleb’s apartment, she knocked tentatively on the door. The chain could be heard sliding, the bolt clicking, before Kaleb poked his head out. “I was hoping you’d be back,” he said, and his rosy freckled cheeks seemed to flush even deeper. Madeline had the sudden uncharacteristic urge to pinch them affectionately. Kaleb let her in. The apartment lights were now on; all of the candles had been extinguished except for the ones on the cake. The roses had all vanished except for the single-stemmed rose in Kaleb’s hand.

Madeline accepted the flower. This was a bit more manageable. Baby steps.

But then she threw her arms around Kaleb and hugged him more tightly than she ever had before. “So,” she said brightly after she had released him. “How about that cake?”

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