#scintilla: chance encounter

This post is part of Scintilla, a fortnight of storytelling. I am responding to Monday's prompt: 

Write about a chance meeting that has stayed with you ever since.

When I was younger, my mom used to joke that I met no strangers. I talked to people in grocery stores or at the park. I was at home surrounded by people listening to them talk. Growing up in my grandmothers kitchens surrounded by stories made me keenly aware of the power of words and listening. As I get older, I don't reach out as much as I did as a child. I don't open myself to the possibilities for listening, for seeing and acknowledging other people. When I do, I am reminded why it is important. 

Before I began my Master's program, I was in love and swept up in the romance of Europe, of a small village in England and then later, Paris. I spent a great deal of time alone in these places while the people I knew worked what seemed like constantly and in an industry where going for drinks and schmoozing is part of the work, I felt alone even surrounded by others. I did not speak French well, though I was learning thanks to one of the cooks in the kitchen/deli above which I lived. 

One night at a party at a hotel in Paris, I was listening to people talk about work and I was annoyed and cranky, bored and also hungry. So I excused myself and went into the restaurant/bar near the lobby. It was mostly empty except for a couple arguing at one table, a young woman checking her watch every so often and a woman in her fifties sitting at the bar. I asked if I could take the seat next to her. She nodded. I asked the barman if I could order food and he handed me a menu.

"Get one of the crepes," she said to me in English with a fairly thick French accent. "The raspberry one is my favorite."

"I love raspberries," I said also in English. "How did you know I wasn't French?" I asked.

"You seem sad," she responded. I wasn't sure if that was a response to my question or just a comment on my demeanor. 

I said simply, "Yes."

I ordered raspberry crepes and a coffee and watched the woman dab the corner of her lips with a napkin. 

"You are not married," she said as if she were reading details of my life from a notecard.

I shook my head in agreement. But I did not want to talk about my life or the fact that I had come to Paris for one thing, one person and I was beginning to fall out of love with them both. 

I was relieved when she began telling me about her husband who had died recently in a boating accident. She talked about famous men who had also died while boating. I was mesmerized by her. She was what my grandmother would have called regal, tall and slender with expertly bobbed brown hair. She wore little makeup and I found her beautiful. 

She asked me about where I lived in America and about my family. I was terribly homesick and began crying almost immediately when I spoke of them. She held my hand and ran her thumb across my wrist in a gesture that was at once so intimate and comforting that I exhaled sharply, not realizing I'd been holding my breath.

I told her about my brother and how kind he was, always rescuing animals like wounded birds and abanded kittens. But mostly I talked about my grandmothers. 

When she told me about how her own daughter was angry with her because she did not want to move in with her and instead stay in the Paris apartment she'd shared with her husband who'd only been dead a few weeks, I gripped her hand more tightly. And when my crepes arrived I was hesitant to let go of this stranger's hand. She had seen something in me besides a young and naiive American girl, which I certainly was. And I allowed myself to be seen as something else. I listened to her as I ate. She told me about the first time she met her husband and how she'd known as soon as she saw him that she would love him, not that she loved him instantly but that he was someone she could love. "He had promise", she told me. "Sometimes that's all it takes, to see someone with promise."

I do not know how long we sat talking. My crepes were gone and I'd had several coffees when someone from the party drifted over and I felt obligated to return. 

I hugged her and when she said, "Be happy, dear" I knew I would leave Paris, though it took me weeks to actually make the decision and more time to buy the plane ticket but it was that moment that I realized how unhappy I'd become.

I turned back to wave a thank you as I walked back to the party but I often wonder if she knew how much she changed my life with her kindness that night. 

Her name was Maxine. I never saw her again but I think about her openness, how she consoled me while she herself was grieving. I think about how young I was and how desperately I missed my grandmother and her advice, though I was pretty sure what she would say when I called, what she has been saying since I left Alabama, "When are you coming home?" 

But I have found home in so many places and in so many people. Maxine was one of them.