by Melanie Kitzan
“Bonjour!” said the stranger, as he slid past me to the window seat. I smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I don’t speak French,” I said. The stranger’s bright blue eyes met mine and he said, “No? You aren’t from Toronto?”
“No, I live in Seattle,” I said, as I nodded beyond the airplane window.
“I thought you were headed home like the rest of us,” the stranger said. “My name is Michel.” He held out his hand in a short- armed shake between us. His forearm had a colorful tattoo of the face of a woman. I tried not to stare at it.
“Why are you traveling to Toronto?” came his question.
I smiled slightly and said, “Just passing through.”
“Alone?” Michel asked, as he looked across the aisle in an attempt to pair me with the elderly woman who sat there. I glanced over at her and smiled.
“Yes,“ I said.
“Why do you travel alone? You have no one to travel with?“ Michel asked.
“No, I don’t,” I said a little defensively. “But I like it, too. I travel to not be inside my own life all the time, but to walk around a little in the lives of others.”
“You don’t get afraid or lonely?” he asked.
I shook my head, and said, “I feel out of place almost everywhere, so at least when I am wandering around somewhere new that feeling becomes normal and I end up feeling more at home than anywhere else.”
“Well, if you are interested in having some company while you’re in Toronto, will you let me know?” Michel asked as he pulled a small white airline napkin from the seat pocket and scribbled his number on the back.
“I prefer to travel alone,” I said with a smile.
“Well, I work at a bar near Graffiti Alley. It has prayer flags outside, you’ll know it when you see it. Stop by, and I’ll give you a drink,” Michel smiled. “You should see the murals over there no matter what,” he said.
“OK, I’ll be sure to get over there,” I said.
I tucked the napkin with his number into a side pocket of my backpack and never expected to see him again.
The next day, I grabbed coffee from a lowbrow coffee shop next to my hotel and ventured out to see the city. I wove my way through bustling traffic and came to long stretches of alleys with wall after wall of brightly colored murals. I stopped suddenly when I realized I stood squarely in front of a brick building with prayer flags wrapped around the streetlight out front. There was a large tiki mask on the front door.
“This must be it,” I thought, as I opened the door and went inside. Before I could adjust my eyes from the sunshine outside, I heard someone call my name.
“Mel-anie! How are you?” I heard in a French-English accent. I looked to the back of the bar, where Michel stood drying glasses.
“Is it too early for a drink?” I asked, glancing around.
“Not at all, sit down!” Michel said. “What would you like?” he asked.
“Surprise me!” I said, as I dropped my backpack next to a bright aqua bar stool. I looked up at a coconut carved to look like the face of a monkey and stared at its long lashes and red lipstick.
“How is Toronto treating you?” Michel asked as he tilted a shiny silver shaker up to rock back and forth at his shoulder. I looked at him and back at the coconut monkey face.
“I love it!” I said. “It’s a very busy city. It has real energy. And I love Graffiti Alley.”
“Yes! Did you see mine?” Michel asked.
“Your what? You painted a mural?” I asked. I began to rifle through the images in my mind of the murals I had seen that day, trying to figure out what a tattooed bartender would paint. Every single one was all I could think.
“Do you remember your first love?” Michel asked.
“Of course,” I said, blinking suddenly. “Everyone does, right?”
“I think so, too,” Michel said, then he added, “I painted a portrait of my first love in the alley.” He set the cocktail down in front of me. It was dark pink with a sprig of mint on the side. I sipped it--tart and tangy.
“This cocktail is wonderful. What is it called?”
“Wandering Stranger,” Michel said, and he gave me a toothy grin.
“Thank you,” I said. “Tell me about this woman you painted.”
“She was beautiful, and of course as all first loves do—she broke my heart.” Michel said sadly. “We were quite young when we met, but she was killed by a drunk driver.”
“Omigod, I’m so sorry,” I said.
Michel slowly wiped down the bar counter and said sadly, “We had a huge fight, she was here in this bar. And she left angry. Angry at me. She was hit as she crossed a street not far from here. I heard the ambulance siren. She was gone by the time I ran to her. Part of me was gone, too. I painted her picture on the wall facing that street corner.”
“That is one of the worst love stories I have ever heard,” I said, swallowing down the tart cocktail and swallowing back tears.
“You reminded me of her when I first saw you,” Michel said. “She was always wandering, too.”
Michel reached up to the coconut monkey, and pulled off a leather banded necklace from around its neck. On the leather band was a small silver charm. A pair of shoes.
“I would like to give this to you for your travels,” Michel said as he held out his hand. “I was going to give it to my girl the night she died. She was heading to Europe the following week but never got to go. These are shoes of a nomad. They are shoes for you.”
Melanie K. Kitzan was born in North Dakota, and now makes her home near Seattle in the House of She with her daughters and dogs. She has at times in her life been a scientist, lawyer, mother, and vagabond, not necessarily in that order. Melanie has a passion for hiking, traveling and coconut gelato.