The Love of a Stranger–flash fiction by Jillian Burgie

Jillian Burgie
The Love of a Stranger
There is no place in the world so lonely as an elevator. She thinks this every morning as she rises, languid, through the decades of stories to her office. Sometimes she wished there were windows, so she could watch the world shrink as she rose. Instead it was only confined stale air, uncanny artificial light, bad music. She clutched her briefcase and sighed.
This was never where she thought she would be. A high-heels and business-suits job, a towering office building, a cubicle. Sometimes her world felt like an elevator, a little box of old air climbing to something else. It never reached that place; at least, it hadn’t yet.
A small ding sounded and the elevator halted, opening wide jaws to welcome a stranger to its tiny domain. He wore jeans and a polo, a clean-cut, respectable-looking man. The kind she would have glanced at twice, or more, when she was younger. When things like that mattered.
The door slid closed, sealing them in this little lonely space, oddly together. He leaned against a wall, watching the numbers climb steadily. She thought he had a nice face. Grey eyes, cast down politely. Primly cropped hair, good posture. He seemed a decent man.
Not like Mark. His face had been hostile and cold, jagged blue eyes over a stubbly strong chin. His hands had been strong too. Great paws like pinchers, easily reaching around her biceps and leaving black and blue stripes, a painful tattoo of mistakes and bruises. She’d stayed there far too long.
Sometimes she thought of the time there wasted, thought that she had squandered her youth and beauty in a foul marsh of ingratitude and disrespect. Those were the most wretched days, the days she felt age tugging at her edges, felt tired and used up and alone. Thinking of what she’d been then. What she was now.
The elevator moved steadily upwards. The man shifted, sliding his hands into his pockets.
“Long way up.” He smiled. It was a great shining smile, a joyous, youthful grin of a young man. It immediately took years from his face and she stared, surprised, as he returned to his stoic gaze at the floor.
She nodded politely, glancing at him. Where did he come from? She had never noticed him before, a fresh face on an elevator ride she made every morning. She found it refreshing, welcomed his presence, his calmness, his smile. He did not seem tired. He did not seem worn out by the endless elevator rides and work days. Something about him was still lively, still hopeful. She stared shamelessly at him. What was his secret? How did he guard against the futility she felt clawing at her every day? How did he survive in this little tiny world with so great a joy?
She knew he felt her staring at him, but she didn’t care. She wanted to understand. She wanted to know how to get her life to open up onto the upper stories of happiness and fulfillment. She wanted to know what it was like to look back and see that all was not wasted, that every step was merely getting her here, wherever that may be. Wherever he was. She wanted her smile to shine like that. Not to attract the gaze of any nice man, not to flirt and win any hearts, not even to feel beautiful again. Simply to know that she could, that she had reason. She wanted that vitality. She stared, seeking his secret, searching every laugh line in his face.  How do you do it?
He met her gaze and smiled. Suddenly, with no more warning than that calm, nice smile, he stepped toward her, stretching a hand to her face, and before she could even stiffen or yell he kissed her. Gently. Simply. He pressed his smile into her tired lips and breathed a touch of magic on her face. For a moment she saw it, the answer, the beautiful simple secret to this stranger’s brilliant joy. She gaped, overjoyed, shivering, lost in the baffling moment of that one strange kiss. It was no more than a glimpse, and then it was gone, and he was on the other side of elevator, staring at the floor.
She gaped at him. She knew she should be outraged, but instead she found herself calm, as she had not been in years. This man was happy, not because he did anything differently than she. He rode this elevator to work every morning. He toiled in his cubicle all day. He went home to whatever family or friends he might have. He too had made mistakes, and they haunted him. But yet he did all with a smile, a determined liberty and decided joy. He lived with the courage to kiss complete strangers and relished the little moments when the infinite space between people dissolved. That, he understood, was what mattered, come whatever tiny worlds or soulless jobs that dared. It was simple, really. Brilliant. Beautiful.
The elevator dinged again and he exited, no less a stranger than he had entered. He made soft footsteps on the carpet, crossed the threshold, and ducked into the bustling crowd on the other side. And was gone.
She found herself waving goodbye anyway, a smile tugging at her lips. She rode the rest of the way up to her office in silence, grinning softly. As the ring sounded for her floor and the doors spread wide before her, she stepped out confidently, and offered a little prayer of gratitude for the love of a stranger.
Jillian Burgie is a junior at St. John’s College, doing a lot of reading, thinking, and essay writing. She finds her sanctuary in fiction, and hopes to continue writing as a career. She hopes her story amuses.

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