A fleeting, lasting moment.
One person noticing another person out of a whole crowd of strangers.
What is a perfect stranger?
A perfect stranger does not abbreviate the concept of a stranger who is perfect, but rather, the concept of someone knowing absolutely nothing of one person, and that one person knowing absolutely nothing of that someone. Not even his or her age or appearance, height or eye colour, voice, personality, or attitude. It all singles down to their very breaths, not to mention, the tiny hairs on their skin - the ones you have neither heard nor felt, for all five regular senses have never perceived it.
You have not seen a picture of this person in question, so you do not know what he or she looks like. You have not heard this person’s coughs or sneezes, let alone his voice, so, you do not know what he or she sounds like. You have never picked up his or her scent like a hound on patrol because there was never the urgency; therefore, you do not know what they smell of. You know absolutely nothing about him or her, not even rumours through travelling word from gossips at the local grocery store. Your lack of knowledge of this person thrives on the idea that your entity never co-exists in the same field of vision and space as he or she. You are related to this stranger in no manner whatsoever. This person is neither your hairdresser’s aunt, nor is this person your cousin’s twice removed uncle’s pet iguana’s groomer.
The levels of unknown would be equivalent to that of vacuum space, no lingering speck of dust or atom caught between the crosshairs; it is a stark blank page left lying around that was meant to be the perfect stranger’s life story. In conclusion, there is no way of ever confronting a perfect stranger’s soul, albeit indirectly, forever — because by philosophy, perfect strangers are not meant to be discovered and explored.
You wished Arthur was nothing but one, and for a good reason.
The world ceased moving one day, and you were in the middle of it all.
The masses stood around you, crowding you with their idle statures.
Literally, everyone stopped.
It was a Thursday. Bright and sunny, and so was your disposition, like it was the season after the monsoon. No more rainy days for you — it made your knees sore from all the sitting indoors, and you were happy for being granted the fresh air.
No, you weren’t walking on the pavements of some big city. It was a small town, but there were still an abundance of people scattered across the streets. You were on your own in what you were doing, though, having just exited a small store right around the heart of the town itself. Several steps out the revolving door with an armful of goods, that’s when you noticed the unmistakable glitch in society. The air was stale and dry, and every homosapien in sight stood frozen in time.
You felt your grasp on your newly bought items loosening as you felt faint from the lack of life you could discern from the atmosphere. You wondered to yourself, just what in the name of fuck was happening. You were probably dreaming. That train of thought prompted you to set down the luggage in your arms on the ground. This phenomenon was something you want to indulge and experience in full, even if it was just a dream. Slowly but surely, you breezed past the horde of people, leaving your things behind, reaching a clearing in the middle of the street, completely mobile unlike the rest. You took this opportunity to examine each individual closer with subtle focus only through sight, for you feared that touching them would submit them to inexistence.
The act was foreign. You never took it upon yourself to bother about the citizens that surrounded and walked by you daily. There was no reason to. And now that no one seemed to be breathing, you were as eager as a child on Christmas Eve. Why? Because the whole situation you were forced into appeared to be uncanny? Or because you were alone — afraid?
Pale lips — unnatural — it was gloss. Circular line traced around gray, misty pupils. Messy hair in a hat, and a dirty blonde. May take on the looks of a teenager, but she dressed like a working class woman. The brown ascot was unnoticeable under her slate grey overcoat with a high collar.
Another man dressed like he worked for the White House — of course, he didn’t - the town was miles away from Washington. A finely tailored suit with pricey cufflinks to boot. A suitcase in one hand and a Bulgari watch on his other. His fingers — held to his ear as he tuned into a call from his earpiece. His eyes — sunken and overwhelmed, appearing exhausted and pushed to the brink. You didn’t know who this man was, but you knew that responsibility grew to be the weight of his world, unfortunately.
It was out of your range of close inspection, but it caught your interest. A man old enough to be a father sitting with his daughter of a very young age on the pavement, strumming away with his Dunlop pick, the strings of his Fender guitar in his left hand. They may have looked destitute; having to earn their wealth in such a way, but their dedication to living without complaint was commendable. And with the way they were both grinning from ear to ear, they were definitely meritorious in efforts.
Mid-process, you noticed a man’s lips grow broad across his face in the distance. Smiling right at you, before he strolled in the other direction.
Wait, you yelled. Your hand struck out on accident, hitting a nearby man in the chest. You were thankful that barely anything occurred, merely a shift in posture.
The gradually disappearing clicking and clacking of his shoes on what sounded like a marble floor compelled you to run after this man. It was either the miserable feeling of desolation or blossoming curiosity that nudged you in his general direction, as before long, your feet lifted themselves off the tar ground with resolve, briskly transporting the rest of your body with it in order to imitate the enigma’s hastening pace. You tried your best to avoid bumping shoulders with nearby standers, leaving them unadulterated from skin contact. You beckoned for him to stop once again, this time, with a yell twice the volume. A meager ‘wait’ clearly was not enough to sway him. Soon enough, he rounded a bend and was out of sight. You didn’t cut pursuit. You were finally out of the confining crowd and in the open, and you were sure that you could catch up with the man, provided that he didn’t start sprinting away.
Eventually, you did reach that corner, you even rounded it. But your path was obstructed.
You staggered backward, eyes closed as you felt fingers enclosed around your arms, preventing you from falling on your back. As soon as you felt secure from tumbling, you shook the arms that granted you welfare off your own self. You stepped backward, a heaving gasp escaping from your mouth in fright. You did not particularly care who it was. To riposte in defense was a reflex you sustained.
“Easy there,” comforted the voice, “I don’t mean any harm.”
You weren’t as surprised as to see the man you were tailing right before you, but it confused you as to why he turned back and waited at this corner for you to draw closer.
“There’s no need to rush. You have all the time in the world.”
His hands were raised to his sides to show his amity. Your eyes narrowed at him, still suspicious of his true intentions — until then, you had to be wary. He gazed around, and you followed his movements. The both of you seemed to be the only two free of time’s spell in prospect.
“What’s going on?” you questioned rather curtly and impatiently.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He wasn’t smiling, but he had an amused expression on — probably rapt by your puzzlement.
“There aren’t really any straight answers for something like this, you know.”
“Then…” you murmured, your mind racing as you pondered on what else to demand, “… then why —”
“Look, I know you feel obliged to keep asking on impulse. But just calm —”
“I want answers!” your voice rose a tad higher. The shock from this incident was long due — finally, it was beginning to set in, when it should have, from the second you witnessed it. This was some crazy shit. Some — some Heroes shit. Time manipulation in the works. For some reason, you didn’t think it was a blessing to be able to experience it, but you did think you happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Now, you were face to face with some probable phony that had some backstage strings pulled to confuse the fuck out of you. This was some elaborate gig conceived from the inane mind of this guy, so he could steal your belongings.
Problem was, the scenario was very unlikely. And you had nothing of worth that was even pilfer-able.
“You’ll get them — provided you stop yelling and demanding answers. Also provided that you follow me for the time being and stop questioning nature.”
“Nature?” you scoffed. The man pocketed his hands in his oversized trench coat, dyed a dark, dusty brown — which you had to admit, you found rather appealing. “I can’t even tell if I’m awake or not!”
“Well, you are,” he responded to your bewilderment in a slapdash fashion. His lips tugged into a smug grin before he twirled around. He walked down the pavement, with each step, further away from you. His carefree posture told you that he thought nothing of this happening, and he sought never to.
You pursed your lips before trailing after him.
“Can I —”
“But I didn’t even —”
You were up to speed with him; an arm’s length apart. He eyed you cautiously before admitting defeat through a slumped spine and a downward gaze.
“So… where are we going?”
“There’s something you need to do more often, m’dear,” he said excitedly, enthused that you finally came around, “Be spontaneous. So what if it rains? Go out and dance in it.”
You mumbled unintelligently, ending your dialogue with a sarcastic remark.
It took all afternoon following this man to his desired destination. Whenever you tried to ask a question, he would deflect it with silence, his strongest weapon. You had so many answers, but the silence reminded you of his plain but meaningful mantra, to not question life’s ilk. Those questions that you kept from asking him, were, instead, used to quiz yourself. Each question led your curiosity to survey the man’s every attribute.
Who was this man?
Hair seemed to be combed back and gelled in place. He had a skinny face as well as build, but he was still dapper looking. With the right outfit, he would book the obedient college kid look that was one part an occasional programming geek and another part an ordinary Joe — would get up at eight in the morning, have his coffee in some conspicuous corner store, go to work, achieve something relatively impressive, enjoy a late dinner with his co-workers before getting home to his moderately paid-for apartment to play with his pet German Shepard before hitting the sack. He didn’t look old. You would say he was in your age group. In a nutshell — he looked like someone who had absolute control over his life — his routine, his emotions, his actions. Control — not many people had that, but he did, and the man then struck you as an unusual but strong willed one. Then again, it could have been an anecdotal exterior, fabricated for the likes of you, whom had a penchant for scrutinizing others. Perhaps he would give himself away in the way he dressed?
The trench coat he wore was vaguely familiar — but the more you held it under your stare, the more familiar it became. You had something of your own that resembled his. If anything, it was the male counterpart of your overcoat at home; all the right differences in size, length, and beyond.
No matter how much you gawked like a deer in the city, he kept his composure, allowing your curiosity to be sated while he proceeded to watch the sun settle on the horizon. He elbows slept on the steel railing, stalactites of water hanging dangerously on its underside.
“Is this a dream?”
The wind whistled. The both of you had eyes on a family relishing their last hour at the coast with a game of tic-tac-toe carved in sand and shingle. That moment, of course, was immobilized like every other happening around you. You sighed.
“Right, no questions…”
You formulated yet another context.
“This is a dream.”
“Nice try. But, no.”
You glanced at your watch.
That couldn’t have been right. It didn’t correspond with the sun’s angle.
You were on the verge of pulling out your cellphone when the man stopped you. His palm had lashed out from the pocket that was closest to you, holding your hand down.
“You don’t want to do that. Not yet, at least.”
The both of you looked at each other knowingly.
“Questions…” you grumbled before shoving it angrily back in your own pocket.
“Let’s make a deal.”
Your interest was perked. You turned to him while he turned back to the sea. The air was salty.
“If you manage to not ask a question relevant to the weird shit that’s going on, I’ll give you your answers.”
You cleared your throat, wanting to sound as firm as possible in negotiation.
“Another thing, though.”
“Nothing outlandish, you hear?”
“I hear,” he scoffed jokingly, teeth showing as he smiled at you. He now had only one elbow on the railing, and the other returned to his coat pocket as his body faced you.
“Two things, actually. You have to listen to everything I say, and do everything I tell you to. Last, is to make sure you’ve enjoyed your time with me.”
“And what if I don’t enjoy what you tell me to do, or what you say to me?”
“Then don’t listen to me, or don’t do it. But knowing you, I know you will.”
You shook your head. Bastard was cocky. You quite liked it.
“Fine. Take me to level one.”
He shrugged sheepishly, his reply even more plain than others.
“You’re already here.”
Suddenly, a Rorschach piece painted itself across the sky. Nimbus clouds in place of inkblots, dark and light merging to become one scenic view that was larger than life. The waterscape was bathed in orange light, the reflection of a thousand shimmers rising to the sky as the both of you watched the incredibly calm waves wash up shore. It was peaceful, but also unsettling — the calm before the storm. Something like that happening within seconds before your eyes was indescribable, but so was everything else that was happening around you. Your eyes, at this point, were sparkling in awe. Yet, they grew downcast seconds after your astonishment.
“I… forgot what it’s like to take a breather. A second for myself,” you whispered forlornly.
The sight of the breathtaking — quite literally - scenery before you sent shivers down your spine. You exhaled sharply before forcing your lips shut, not realizing that your fingers had suddenly moved out of comfort’s way to clutch the man’s sleeve as if you were about to tell him your last words on this world. All the ease in your eyes was suddenly drowned by immense fear. Your breaths grew short, and your stare at the sea even shorter. The place — it was suddenly cold, but it wasn’t arid. Suddenly, you felt like it was winter. You thought of snow and everything icy.
Suddenly, it became winter.
“Nineteen ninety five. You almost drowned when you were skating on thin ice. You hated open water since then.”
“Let’s go, then. Sorry. I didn’t think you’d remember that.”
“What did you think I would remember?”
“The figurative kind?”
“More or less. Here,” he mumbled before throwing his own provider of heat around your shoulders. His button up shirt was now coatless and his own shoulders were bare without brown, cotton sleeves.
The cold was escalating, and it didn’t look good. The man sighed as he glanced around like a crow.
“You always had an active imagination.”
“I knew it,” you muttered. At least you weren’t absolutely clueless as to the world you were in now. You cleared your throat, speaking up as you held onto his coat, “Indoors. The snowstorm won’t die down until a while.”
It looked like he was directing you to a nearby bar with the way he had his hand around your shoulder, but really, you were the one leading him to it. Like the gentleman he was, he had his arm extended, reaching for the door handle before you even got close to it. As he leaned his weight into the double doors, you shut your eyes, embracing the thought of a warm fire going on at a hearth — shelter from danger. A dimly lit private room greeted the two of you as you entered.
“What… is this?” the man halfheartedly laughed as he was rather confused for the first time ever since you encountered him.
“Is there a problem?” you asked, “It’s cold outside, after all.”
A nook in the clouds gave way to a bolt of lightning. Thunder roared from the heavens, and echoed throughout every avenue. You carelessly threw his coat onto the rosewood hanger behind the door. Rain pattered heavily, tirelessly, outside the room. It was barely audible, but it was still there. What arctic thrills you might have felt before had vanished under the spell of simply being under a roof. You leapt into the velvety sofa, knees pulled into your torso as you rested your head on your knees, watching the already-burning fire consume large chunks of firewood. Whatever that was being scorched by the tangerine flames left the hearth in soaring embers and ashes. The man stood where he was, still pleasantly surprised by the change of atmosphere.
You looked over your shoulder, and then cocked your head promptly toward the couch next to yours, that also faced the hearth.
“Come on,” you ushered with your words. You turned your back to him again, watching the flames burn as you heard him laugh — unsure as to whether it was a scoff or a chuckle that lacked enthusiasm. By the time he seated himself next to you, he still wore his smirk.
“Interesting… choice of music.”
You hadn’t realized that jazz was playing through the surround-sound speakers until he mentioned it. Unless, that was his doing. You weren’t sure if he was toying with you from the very start or not. Bending ‘reality’ to your will, casting an illusive wall in your eyes — under the impression that you were the one in control, when you obviously weren’t, and was actually foolish to think so.
“You know me, but I don’t even know me. How is that possible?” you ignored his remark.
The only source of light came from the fire. His gaze shifted to your very insecure posture, curled up and all. The light hue shined on only one half of his face, silhouetting the other.
“You don’t have to actually know someone to know them. All it takes is a little analytical practice.”
You turn to him — a stare meant to be held only for a split second — but you both end up locking gazes with each other for a good six seconds.
“The eyes are the windows to your soul. I don’t have to know who you are, or where you came from. I could never have met you, and I would still be able to understand who it is you really are — as long as we look each other in the eye, and as long as you’re... bona fide. Sometimes, perfect strangers don’t need to be strangers, get it?”
“And in my eyes, you see dates?”
“That’s a question.”
You grumbled before curtly moving out of the tense atmosphere, turning to an end table by the side of your sofa, reaching for a mug of dark ecstasy, its bitter fragrance filling the air to your delight. Your throat felt parched and it was just what you needed to keep conversation going before you felt worse for wear.
He held his stare, even when you broke eye contact. You scoffed into your mug, setting it down seconds later. “You see ’love’?”
You shook your head subtly to yourself in denial.
You waited for him to say, possibly, yet another noun, but to no avail.
“… That’s it?”
“Look in my eyes. Tell me what you see.”
Abruptly, the man stood up. His pallid shirt crinkled and creased at the contours of his body (or lack thereof); his tie a rocking pendulum as he shifted toward you, gaze locked with yours once more — a insistent stare, demanding you to rise similarly to your feet as he did. You were unsure as to whether he felt that you had to be inclined to do so out of respect, or just to entertain his rather inane wishes.
You were a hair’s length away from each other within seconds of necessary movement.
You first scratched the surface by having a go at interpreting his lone expression, hoping to extract something about his lifestyle rather than his beliefs. To you, he seemed to lead an abstemious way of life, never overindulgent in bodily needs. His posture straightened, his voice steadied. Eyes focused, yet languid in effort, not allowing the expense of fallacies regarding various situations to be a thing of concern. He blinked at you. That smirk was still there. The half-hearted one. You wondered if it was habitual or otherwise. That, or he knew something about you. Something that he knew, that you should have known, but you didn’t, for some reason untold.
He heaved a sigh, then his smile grew slightly wider.
Another long pause. Yet, he allowed you to maintain that silence. He knew what you were doing, and he let you do it, gifting you consent with his silence.
The rain died down, and so did all content in his eyes; flushed out by whirlpools of mixed emotion. Not the good kind. All of a sudden, you felt drained. You felt like all the stars in the sky falling, and you were watching them drop like pearls from a poorly beaded necklace. It was unlike anything you had ever seen before, unlike anything you have ever felt. There is beauty in watching those stars, feelings, annul his eyes as they burn out into oblivion, but there is also pain in watching them vanish forever, blending into darkness, departed. At this point in time, you were not sure of what you comprehended. You were watching the disappearance of something in his eyes. It was what they reflected. And thus, you understood it as a significant loss in his life.
Was that truly it, though? Was the disappearance of feelings on his part, or on yours? After all, the only sort of mirror image you could perceive in his eyes was you, who stood in vain, in attempt to pierce the veil to reveal the sentiment within a perfect stranger. You did not know this man. What were you even doing?
"What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to be more than all the words I have read in my life."
His fingers on the side of your arm were talons of ice. You shuddered under a mere graze, but then shook under his entire hold. As if a fever had developed, you felt a warm wave wash over you, a glacial draft fan by you; your brain encased in a barrier of rime and your heart set ablaze by a literal fire. You reacted to it hysterically, drawing a breath sourly as you tried to shake the man off, but it only made his clutch firmer. These feelings intensified — then died down.
Like a gunshot next to your head. It struck you first as a startling jolt. Then it rang, and dulled your senses. Cloth upon mouth. Needle upon flesh. Euphoria? No, that wasn’t it. It was nails on your lower back. Lips upon your stomach. Teeth beneath your neck. It was lust, and it was familiar. The bad thing was, you didn’t know why.
“You…” you whispered.
The both of you were no longer indoors. All four seasons seemed to fly by. One moment, you’re standing under a mango tree with this man, another moment; you’re experiencing the blessing of heavy rain in the midst of a dry spell in summer, with no shelter whatsoever. No matter the event, it all seemed… unusually pleasant, even if it seemed nothing more than a mere instance in which anyone else who was the average human being could live through normally. It was a rapid omnibus of memories that stunned you, and you finally realized that with each vivid scene that was recreated before your very eyes, teasing the privation you had on the subject of being unable to remember your life before this whole portent.
You finally realized that you knew this man.
You finally realized that you loved him.
And suddenly, you were in bed with him. Lying next to him. Loving him.
Your eyes were watery. His hands were secured around your waist, and your hands on his chest. You spoke in a much softer voice. Your demeanor made a one-eighty — your attitude toward him. Your sudden recollection augmented the almost forgotten, congenial feelings involving him.
“Arthur, stop it. You can’t keep doing this.”
Your head sunk deeper into the pillows, your hearing slightly subdued as your right ear was blocked by the pillow case itself. He continued to watch you. This time, much less amused by your awareness. If you were on the dot, it was guilt you saw.
It was dark. It was night. The only light that existed was from the Moon from a nearby window.
“Stop making me believe I’m awake.”
You rolled over to your side of the bed, reaching for your cellphone. In desperate attempt to turn the device around, your fingers clawed at its back. The hours and minutes shown on this screen would determine the realm you resided in at present. But of course, Arthur wouldn’t let you do that. He first took your wrist by force and yanked you back to your rightful place, or so he deemed in his eyes. You choked on your own gasps as you struggled to break free, but he then decided to keep you pinned with his whole body over yours. No gaps in-between. You were scared, of both him, and yourself. Your absence was what’s turning him into the desperately impassioned beast. In another words, it was unlike him to act so antagonistically against your will — against anyone’s will. But your warmth was missing from his world, and there was no one to keep him sane.
He pacified your resistance by nuzzling into your neck. One whiff he drew from your skin.
“It’s a bloody coma, Arthur. I’m not supposed to see or feel, then remember it all.”
“You can’t say the same for the way we met. Once upon a dream.”
Fuck. You couldn’t do this.
“Bullshit. You’ve probably known or seen me from before, that’s how we met. I didn’t coincidentally drop into your dreams. We are on two separate paths, Arthur, we always will be. You can look over across the division and watch me, but you can never walk my path with me. But you keep fucking trying to get over the damn fence. It’s there for a reason.”
Words so angry, you spoke through your teeth. But the love of your dreams kept his composure as per usual.
“I don’t want you to spend an eternity alone.”
“It’s not an eternity.”
“It feels like one. I just want to make the time pass. I want to do what I can for you.”
“You don’t belong here. You’ll lose perception of reality if you keep coming back.”
“I have my totem.”
“That’s not the point!”
It was that moment when you noticed your freed hands. Instinctively, one of them reached under the pillow, and sooner than you knew, it wielded a pistol, and it was pointed square in his forehead.
“Tell me this isn’t real.”
A longing stare.
“No, Arthur. It’s not that you can’t. You just don’t want to. You don’t want this dream to end.”
He had no answers for you. For once, he had nothing in store.
“It’s blasphemy, you know? Meeting someone in real life, after you first met in a dream.”
Arthur scoffed, “Whoever said that?”
“No one. It’s the concept of a perfect stranger. To think that you tried to talk me out of it earlier on.”
“You were trying to get rid of me. And you still are. I didn’t like it. And I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“Can’t believe you’re still sore about us. And for the record, I never said ‘no’.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
He leaned closer, the weight of his stomach pressing against your own, and his forehead finally touching the barrel of the gun. You watched him in your sights.
“I wouldn’t be a very good partner. Bed-ridden and all. And I hope you know delving into my own mind isn’t helping me recover any faster.”
You would just adapt to your dreams if he persisted on being with you in them.
“Do me a favor, you idiot: Wait, and don’t let me down.”
“Can we stop drifting apart, then? Can we stop being strangers?”
You knew neither what you wanted, nor what you wanted to be. Because it took courage to know who you would want to become. And you lacked it. You were a coward with a gun, and that was one thing you were not afraid to use.
“Is this a dream?”
“This is a dream.”
You looked over to your end table. He breathed into your exposed jawline. Lips cold and dry.
4HR 44MIN 44SEC
“You bastard,” you whispered, tears immediately moistening your cheeks as you shut your eyes hard before reopening them. His face no longer watched you from inches above, but his right cheek was beside yours. And at the corner of both your eyes, you looked at each other for an evanescent instance.
“I see love,” he whispered into your ear as he held his glance, “What do you see?”
You put your gun to his head.
“I can’t see anything.”
You unfastened the safety catch.
He was gone. And you remained in your state of unconsciousness. Living a faded life in a dream that would last an unbeknownst duration. Waiting until the light of day poured back in your eyes, adjusting to reality, finally handing you the warmth you sought.
“I’m never going to wake up.”
Perhaps, when you did, you would not remember him. And it would be for the best, because the both of you had lost more time than you could recover together.
It would be the phase of moving on.