Strangers in the Night

by Tom Swift

Have you ever been drawn to a person before you saw that person?

I don’t mean that you saw a picture only of that person — as in a dating app or on social media. No. I mean that you did not know what they looked like at all, had not seen their face or their hair or even their backside, not any conscious awareness of the person, and yet some part of you was compelled in their direction.

It was my last night in Nashville. (There are worse opening lines to a story.)

I had gone to the Grand Ole Opry because Nashville. And I had had an adult refreshment or two on Broadway because same. And I was heading for the basement.

Literally, the basement. Not the kind you are thinking.

The basement of a hotel.

I was heading for the basement of a hotel in the middle of the night.

I was heading to the basement of a hotel in the middle of the night to look at art.

Yes, I will explain.

When I go to a new city I make it a point to visit at least one art gallery, usually the most prominent one. In downtown Nashville, that is the Frist Art Museum. While at the Frist Art Museum — again, this is a few nights before the connection I am about to describe — I met a woman who I could have written this post about but didn’t. While in the exhibit hall at the Frist this woman and I fell into conversation the moment we realized we were the only two people looking at a row of bright and ornate cloth statues. A university art history teacher passing through Nashville on her way back to Texas, the woman later told me that the best art I could see in Nashville was found in, of all places, a downtown hotel. Viewing is free, she said, as I recall, and, well, it is free, and you can go whenever you want. There is 24/7 art at the 21c Hotel.

Some people just know how to find the party, I guess.

Fast forward. Less than 12 hours before I am to get on a plane, I decided to find the hotel with the art buffet. Once I found 21c my first stop was the basement and this is for two reasons: One, because that was the first floor of the art and, two, because I was looking for a bathroom.

We passed each on the well of the stairs. While this was not the most crowded square foot of real estate in downtown Nashville, I can assure you, I did not see her at all. At least not until after we passed. Yet at some point after we passed each other I instinctively whirled around to regard her. And she did the same in my direction.

I have experienced no moments exactly like this one: we just started talking. We talked so easily. Immediately, our conversation flowed as if we were old friends. I was meeting my sister for the first time.

Her name was Audrey. She had the most famous Audrey’s hair color. She had attended the U2 concert. Her significant other had returned to Chicago to work. She was slim and fit. She looked much younger than her years. I say this not because it’s a cliche but because it proved true: she disclosed that she had recently turned 60. I would have believed her had she said she was 40. I don’t think anyone anywhere would look at her and with a straight face say 50. This was not a person who looked young because of a surgeon or well-placed Botox injections. She had a way about her. The phrase earned grace comes to mind.

We looked at all the art in the hotel basement and all the art in the two floors above the basement. Audrey shared her story. I shared my story. Art showed us our lives, expressed our art.

But before we walked around the gallery, right after I had returned from the bathroom, Audrey and I sat in a small room in which there was a video exhibit, one of those looped installments that change subtly over time. There were two chairs in this room that moved in funky ways. We sat on the funky chairs. Light flashed against our faces. That is the single image, if I had to choose one, that I carry with me eighteen months later: the way the light flickered against her her face, against her hair as we sat on the funky chairs and talked and talked. For hours, we talked.