Cleveland, Ohio – 1972
Why be normal? Normal had to be the most boring word in the English language and the most mundane way to lead one’s life, Natasha thought.
She sauntered by The Higbee Company department store en route to the Terminal Tower complex. At the entrance to the Shaker Rapid transit train she stopped to check her wristwatch. Five o’clock. Great, her only day off from work wasted in the pursuit of frivolous dreams. So much for trying to escape her “vanilla ice cream” life. The world offered a “rainbow sherbet” of opportunities, if only she could partake.
As Natasha pushed open a glass door leading to the underground rail platform, she was greeted by a rush of cool, musty air. Drawing her short wrap-coat closed, she began to descend the steep stairs. Rush-hour commuters brushed by as she slowly walked down the steps. Lost in her thoughts, she reflected on how the past year had taught her that life was irrational, unpredictable, and often unfair. Nothing in her life was going the way she had hoped. Her goal of completing college was shattered with her father’s sudden death and lack of funds, her steady boyfriend’s cheating and today’s rejection. She wondered when her life would ever improve.
Without warning someone bumped her from behind with such force it knocked her off balance. The steps beneath her seemed to give way as she tried unsuccessfully to find something to hang on to. Her leather purse slid from her shoulder and the photographs she had been holding scattered like confetti on New Year’s Eve. There was nothing she could do as she tumbled down the few remaining steps.
Shaken, Natasha sat sprawled on the bottom steps, her gaze focusing on the scene around her. Her purse lay at her feet, its contents strewn over the tile floor and the photographs were still fluttering about as a rush of commuters scurrying to waiting trains trampled them. She was missing a shoe and her new black tights were torn.
Looking back, she watched the beads of her favorite necklace rolling haphazardly down the steps. She wanted to scream, but instead, she cupped her hands over her mouth. Everything was going wrong!
As Natasha removed her hands from her face she suddenly noticed that mixed in with her belongings were some neatly typed papers and nearby lay a leather briefcase, open and partly intact. Questioning, she looked up.
Meeting her gaze, a man towered over her. He was brushing off his dark suit, the narrow blue pinstripes accenting his salt and pepper hair and piercing blue eyes. She stared up in frozen awe at the most handsome man she had ever seen. Everything else around her became a blur as the man’s deep blue eyes met hers, their energy seeming to penetrate the very depths of her being, and she trembled.
“Excuser moi, mademoiselle,” the man apologized in a rich French accent. “Are you all right?”
“I’m alive. Do you make a habit of knocking people down who get in your way?” Natasha mumbled.
“I’m so sorry.” The man removed a handkerchief from his back pants pocket and offered it to her.
She accepted the fine linen kerchief and dabbed her eyes and nose. “Thanks.”
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” he asked.
She avoided his gaze. “I’m just a total mess and my things …”
“Just sit there and calm down.” He reached down and picked up her leather purse. Efficiently, he scooped up its contents, returned the assorted items and handed the purse to her. She accepted it and slung it over her shoulder then watched as he motioned to commuters to detour around them while he bent to retrieve her photographs. Kneeling, he stared at one particular picture and regarded her. He grinned and the thought of him knowing what she looked like under her layers of wool made her squirm.
“You’re a model?” he asked.
“I will be one day,” she replied, snatching the photographs out of his hand.
“Nice.” He nodded.
She arched her brows in irritation, stuffing the damaged prints and kerchief in her purse. “What’s left of them?”
“I think they can be salvaged. Your career isn’t over.”
“It hasn’t even begun,” she mumbled.
He smiled a perfect sparkling smile – even white teeth set in a square jaw. His face was radiantly tanned with cheekbones set high and an aristocratically aquiline nose. It was the kind of face you saw only in magazines.
Picking up her clunky platform shoe, he shook his head as if in disapproval of the faddish style. He looked up. “Yours?”
He proceeded to gently slip the heavy shoe on her foot, brushing her ankle with his hand.
Natasha tingled at his brief touch and for a moment she pictured herself as Cinderella. This was ridiculous.
After standing, he offered her his hand and helped her to her feet.
“Are you able to walk?” he asked.
“I think so. What a mess!” Natasha pointed to the scattered papers and briefcase as she tried to calm her heart that was beating much too fast.
The man scooped up the papers and casually tossed them into the briefcase, clamping it shut. Setting the leather case near his feet, he faced her.
“I’ll let my secretary arrange them,” he said. “I am truly sorry. I was in such a hurry I almost trampled you to death. Did we collect everything?”
Natasha pawed at her neck.
He knelt to gather as many of the thick wooden beads as he could.
“Do you always wreak such havoc?”
He handed her the beads, “Not often.”
She took those loose pieces and stashed them in her purse. It would have been difficult explaining to him the sentimental value of the necklace, the last gift she had received from her late father.
“I hope I didn’t delay you,” he said as a Van Aken bound train screeched as it left the underground terminal.
“I just missed my train.” She raised her hands in frustration as she watched the train disappear from sight.
A frown crossed his face. “It was my train, too.”
Another yellow transit train suddenly squealed into the underground station, the sound echoing through the tunnel, its dark caverns linking the eastern and western suburbs to the downtown area.
“There, we can take that train,” he exclaimed, grabbing his briefcase and her arm. He led her to the entrance gate but at the turnstile Natasha began to fumble in her purse.
“Don’t bother, I took care of it,” he said as he pushed her through the turnstile toward the filling train.
Once on board, Natasha sat near the window. The man slid in beside her. The narrowness of the seat caused his body to gently brush hers. The spicy cologne, his touch, the warmth of his body in such close proximity made the woman in her tingle and her face warm as it did when she blushed. She turned to face the window hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“The Shaker Rapid is similar to our subways in New York,” the man commented.
“You’re from New York? That’s why you were in such a hurry.” Natasha cleared her throat, glancing his way.
“Yes, I’m afraid I’m part of the rat race.”
“I thought you were from Paris.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” He grinned with a sparkle in his eyes. “I came to America as a young man from a village outside of Paris. It seems that my heritage doesn’t want to escape me.”
The train lurched forward and soon moved out of the underground terminal and up into the waning daylight as it began its journey through the city. It whizzed down tracks powered by sparkling electrical connections overhead. Natasha trembled at the electricity being generated by the man seated beside her.
“I really am sorry about the stairway accident,” he said.
“You should be.” She had to admit, though, that he had shown concern for her well-being and her things. He didn’t just abandon her and rush on his way.
“You seem quite upset.” Concern wrinkled his brow.
“I’ll be fine.” She turned her head toward the streaked window, not wanting to share her inner pain with a stranger, albeit a handsome one.
Her eyes focused outside. The Cleveland skyline, dominated by the Terminal Tower, was fading into the distance as the train journeyed east. Natasha gazed out at the moving landscape – the poverty-stricken areas of East Cleveland and the bare and tinted trees of late October.
Scenery flashed before her in a blur while her mind was busy contemplating the stranger seated at her right. He seemed so poised and cosmopolitan in manner and fashion. His accent had reminded her of Charles Boyer in those classic late night movies she liked to watch. She peered at him, his head held regally on broad shoulders. His profile was like that pictured on ancient coins. She glanced down at his hands folded on his lap. His nails were immaculately manicured, an onyx ring on his left ring finger. A heavy Rolex watch and gold chain link bracelet hugged his wrist. He seemed too elite to be using public transportation, even by exclusive Shaker Heights standards. Questions raced through her mind. Who was he? What did he do for a living? Why was he on the Rapid? Was he married? Did she really care? Yes, she had to admit she cared. Interesting men never crossed her path and knocked her off her feet.
“Do you ride the Shaker Rapid often?” he asked, startling her from her thoughts.
“Only when I have to, and you?” she replied, looking right at him.
“When I’m visiting an old friend from my Harvard days I do. Besides, whenever I’m in a new location I try the public transportation. It gives me insight into the real city and its people.” He used his hands expressively as he spoke which she found fascinating.
“You must travel a great deal?”
“My job dictates it. It’s part of an architect’s life.”
“So you’re an architect?” She was intrigued.
“Someone has to do the job.” He smiled.
“So what do you think of our architecture in Cleveland?”
“I find the diversity fascinating. This city really reflects a history of architectural styles.”
“Are you a fan of traditional buildings?” She tilted her head with interest. “Or do you prefer contemporary design?”
“I have a deep admiration for the past; however, my designs are more contemporary.”
“Is there a Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier in my midst?” she jested.
He laughed. “I’m only a fan. You have a fondness for architecture yourself, don’t you?”
“I was a history major in college and I’ve always admired old buildings,” she admitted.
“And I thought you were a model.”
“Not quite. I’m just a sales clerk who’s dreamed of being a model all her life.” Her expression turned solemn.
“Dreams do come true, you know.”
“I’m not so sure,” she said, voice cracking.
“You must never give up your dreams.”
“And what makes you such an expert?”
“I’ve earned every one of these gray hairs,” he said and pointed to his thick, silvering mane.
“You should smile more often, smiling becomes you. It’s the first time you’ve smiled since we met,” he said.
“I haven’t been in a smiling mood. I haven’t been having a very good day.”
“I gather it was more than our stairway mishap?”
“Much more,” she admitted, avoiding his intense gaze. She shifted in her seat.
“Care to talk about it?” he asked.
“I hardly know you.”
“A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met. Besides, I’m a captive audience.”
His eyes were piercing yet seemed honest. The slight tilt of his head showed concern and genuine interest. She drew a deep breath.
“Since my father died last year, I’ve had to withdraw from college. I’ve been working in cosmetics at the May Company’s Southgate store to make ends meet. My manager has been encouraging me to pursue modeling. She even arranged an appointment for me at the city’s top modeling agency. Today was the big day.”
“I was rejected. Maybe I should just give up.” Her voice cracked in frustration.
“No, don’t give up. You’ll never get anywhere that way and you’ll live to regret it. Life has a funny way of making things work out. You’ll see.”
“Shaker Square!” the rapid transit driver announced, interrupting their conversation. The train rolled to a sudden stop at the Shaker Square platform.
Natasha looked at the familiar store names – The Colony Theater, Stouffer’s Restaurant, Halle Brothers Department Store, Franklin-Simon, Woolworths. Shaker Square was the first shopping center ever built in America. With the slate roofs and brick facades accented with white trim it looked very much like a New England town square. Four corners of buildings were built around a square which the transit tracks divided in half. Just as society was divided between the classes, with Shaker Square catering to the “haves” while, Natasha thought, she was among the “have-nots.”
“I’m afraid this is my stop,” the man said, rising, briefcase in hand.
Their eyes met in a long farewell. He took her hand in his magnetic grip.
“May we meet again, mademoiselle, under different circumstances,” he said, then with ease, he lifted her hand, bowed his head, softly kissed the back of her hand, and smiled. As he looked up again, his eyes melted into hers.
“Much … different,” she stammered.
“It has been a pleasure. Remember, smile and never give up hope. Au revoir.”
He exited the train but his touch remained, her hand warmly tingling in remembrance. Once outside, he smiled, caught her gaze, than waved. Natasha tracked him as he crossed the boulevard and made his way toward a street of grand apartments, then the train suddenly jolted to a start.
* * *