“I just saw the most stunning man,” my aunt whispers in my ear. “Me too!” I’m squeaking. I’m squeaking at the MoMA over an attractive guy, despite being surrounded by what is probably the most comprehensive display of artistic talent I’ll ever take in all at once.
“Show me yours,” I say. I want to know if we’re talking about the same guy. My aunt stealthy guides my eyes toward a tall guy with dark features. He’s with his girlfriend. I disapprove. Leave it to my aunt to find the one Greek-looking guy at the de Kooning retrospective; it came as natural to her as my being repelled by his resemblance to some homeland cousin I’ll never meet. “Mine’s over there,” I point. He’s lost in a painting again. I’ve caught him three or four times by now, unblinking before these massive canvases. The expression on his face inspires me to do something, but I don’t know what.
My aunt walks over to him and observes the boy, the painting, the painting, the boy. Then she returns to me. “He’s intense.” We agree that the MoMA is a hotbed for attractive, interesting men, then we part ways and continue to mull around the exhibit on our own. My aunt is an architect, she understands shape and structure and color in ways that I can only feign, so when we go to museums together, we explore alone. It’s easier for me to understand what I’m seeing, that way.
I’m staring at Orestes when I realize my stranger is standing behind me. I don’t see him initially, I just feel him. My body tenses up and I feel excited by the idea that we’re looking at the same thing at the same time and seeing something different. I want to ask him what he thinks, but I stay quiet instead. I don’t want to ruin it. We fall in step with each other, mentally dissecting one abstract after another and I wonder how long it’ll last. I don’t want to manipulate my path for him; but I do want us to stay in synch, naturally, for however long we can for no reason other than it feels really good.
These people we don’t know, strangers, are more than we give them credit for. They become teachers, friends, lovers. They can serve a minute purpose, something as simple as unintentionally escorting us through an art exhibit. They can provide catharsis, a place to unload our secrets and fears. They can keep us company on a flight or for the rest of our lives. For better or worse, strangers are equally as important as the people we already count as acquaintances.
Strangers are blank slates. They’re an opportunity. They are bursting with foreign lives replete with memories and knowledge and context that we are unaware of. A stranger isn’t just a novel we’ve never read; it’s one that might as well have never been written until the day we discover it. It is spectacular to think about – yesterday we didn’t know the other one existed, and today we’re standing beside one another and wordlessly sharing an experience.
Strangers give us a chance to understand perspectives alien to our own. Their beliefs and diction and smells and interests prick the bubbles we live in, bursting them and exposing us to things we never considered before. They’re bold and unafraid and unapologetic to be what they are because they don’t know how to be anything else, you’ll always have that in common with a stranger.
They expose us to new planets and galaxies, a new universe; but they also allow us a unique opportunity for introspection. Strangers are the keepers of our first impressions, our impressions belong to them and not to us, and it’s easy to feel out of control with that in mind. It’s common to worry about first impressions; to feel defensive when we learn that a new acquaintance dislikes the one we’ve given them. A bad impression, it’s like a gift someone smiles and accepts while thinking, “I don’t need or want this.” But this is one of the things that makes strangers valuable: their reactions to us force us to reevaluate the way we present ourselves. When you stand too close to a mirror, your view is narrow, blinding. Our friends and family, they’re standing too close. We’re standing too close. Strangers reflect who we are from a distance; they broadcast a limited but just-as-accurate picture.
Whether you’re charming or aloof or a total curmudgeon the first time you meet someone, and whether your demeanor is justified or not, the impression you leave behind reflects on who you are. It parrots the way you deal with inner-conflict, the way your stress manifests, how you behave when you’re feeling humble or fortunate or in love. Strangers keep us in check; they challenge us to be considerate despite our circumstances because we often only have one chance to do so. We have no rapport with them, so they’re not required to accept us at our worst. Ultimately, they have the power to drive us to be better versions of ourselves.
And isn’t that what anyone wants? To be a better version of themselves? To reflect something good, no matter how far or close someone else may be standing? I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to hope that people feel good after encountering you. It’s a reasonable desire to want the people who walk away from you to walk away smiling, whether it’s the only chance you get to leave an impression or the first of many.
We never spoke, the MoMA stranger and I, but I walked away understanding the art on the walls and the art between two strangers and momentarily I felt like a better version of myself; I walked away smiling.