The young woman found the small park almost completely by accident.
After taking a stroll through the winding roads of the town, she had found herself wandering aimlessly as she attempted to acquaint herself with her new home. She hadn't been used to the way that the slim roadways and back alleys had a tendency of looping and whirling in ways that often left her back where she started. She was a city girl, always had been, and in some ways missed the mathematical, precise nature of the grid-like infrastructure.
Still, there was definitely a beauty in the uncertainty that at any given moment you could end up in a completely different part of the city, a million miles across the world. It certainly felt that way to her, stumbling from an alcove lined with potted plants and dark, brooding cats and into a brightly lit plaza, children ducking beneath fences after balls that had run errant while other adults yelled after them. One second you could find yourself beneath the neon glow of a posh cafe, the patron's expressions a mixture of sunglasses, cigarettes and bluetooth headsets, and the next... You could sidle along a wooden cart of indiscernible age, flanked by knives with a millstone in tow, pulled by a horse with its head lowered, belying the gaiety of the chiming bells from within. The young woman brushed the hair from her eyes and stepped through a huge arch, a dip in the road that gave her a temporary view of the ocean, an azure vista that oddly reminded her of her days in grade school.
She plucked a feather from the air as she blinked into the open sky, the pigeons she had disturbed from their lazy bathing fluttering to the clay shingles of the ancient rooftops. She held the feather like a good omen, soft and warm between her fingers.
She wasn't particularly worried of getting lost, grateful that it had become almost an impossibility with the technology that existed in the tiny phone in her purse. Still though, she didn't want to stray too far lest she find herself facing a daunting trek later on. It was early, and she supposed if worst came to worst she could hail a taxi, if even to the train station. She knew how to get home from the train station.
She ran a hand along the speckled plaster of a greying building, light carvings in its side whittled down by time. The bas relief depicted strange images, mostly of animals and ornate designs, repeated every ten feet or so. She wondered mildly if people actually lived in the building this piece decorated, and if so she tried to imagine what lives they lead. She continued this way for a while, until she noticed a passerby give her a curious glance, and she became self aware and hurried forward. She hadn't gone long before the cloudy aroma of baked goods hit her, and without realizing it she was already underway. She maneuvered through the tight street she was on, wary of the large cobblestones which paved the road. She had regretted bringing her flipflops, having caught them once already between the gaping fissures between the stones and nearly losing her balance, but with a little deliberation she found it wasn't so bad. On the shaded stoop of an ivy-infested home, a young boy hummed to himself as he tried to pluck the right notes from a worn ukulele.
She turned the corner onto a wide thoroughfare, the sun gleaming across the high windows on the far buildings. To her right the houses gradually dropped away, leading to a wide expanse of well-kept grass that was interspersed with large trees. The trees appeared to be of varying hues, although it could have been a trick of the lighting. The whole scene appeared to be something of a park, with a great brass monument poised above a crystalline fountain. The main path continued straight to the statue, the lamps on either side adorned with brightly coloured flags, the significance of which eluded her. She was struck by the statue, a man of some importance on horseback. The entire figure was almost two storeys high, polished to a sheen and largely ignored by the surrounding people. She was too far away to glean any of the finer details, but she imagined from where she was that in one hand he held a sack that slung over the shoulder of his meager shirt, and in the other a shield with an ornate crest. The figure didn't look at all like a soldier or knight, and so she immediately assumed he had either been some type of missionary or just a local legend.
She stood where she was a few moments longer, deciding whether to take a photo or not, and finally deciding against it. Her stomach grumbled involuntarily, and in another moment she was reminded of the odour she had followed. She looked about the park, unsure if she had missed something, when far in the distance she noticed a row of merchant kiosks set up along the far path, facing the opposite buildings. Uncertain, she headed straight. As she went, she dropped the tiny feather into her purse, perhaps for safe-keeping, perhaps out of habit.
As the young woman walked, she realized the park was completely enclosed within the perimeter of the surrounding homes and small three-storey buildings. The path she followed actually split into three at the outset of this perimeter, forming an almost perfect circle with the main path cutting directly through the centre. The grassy area she had thought only covered the right hand side actually encompassed the entire grounds, having been hidden behind a row of peach coloured homes. She passed a young couple who handed each other a paper cup of ice cream so that the other could take a scoop with the tiny wooden paddles they carried. They looked at her, and she them. The girl smiled to her, and she smiled back.
As she continued, she became increasingly more aware at how busy the park seemed to be, though it was only about one in the afternoon, and on a Friday. She smiled to herself, thinking this might be a lifestyle she could easily get used to. When she reached the fork in the path, she headed along the right side, assured by the growing aroma that she was indeed headed in the proper direction. The paths here were far better crafted, smooth red interlocked stones that were completely bereft of any of the garbage or refuse that she was used to. It made her walking far more comfortable, and for the first time in a while she was able to absorb her surroundings without having to keep one eye on her clumsy feet.
Music was playing somewhere in the direction of the kiosks, though the quality of it suggested that it wasn't recorded and rather being performed live. On her left, between a large clearing in the trees, two boys and a girl kicked a soccer ball back and forth, the girl laughing every time one of the boys pretended to miss his kick and fall onto the grass. They were maybe seven or eight years old. She wondered if they had school or not, then decided they probably did. The path clear in front of her, she regarded the statue again as she moved, wondering at its significance. If she could remember later, she thought when she got back to her loft she might see if she could make anything of it on the internet. She had half a mind to perhaps approach the children and ask them, but thought better of it.
She moved towards the first set of vendor booths, and could see now that there was indeed a band playing, their music a kind of acoustic folk in a tongue she couldn't recognize. The singer, a man with a trimmed beard and brightly coloured shirt, strummed his guitar, his eyes serious but his mouth smiling. There was a drummer who bobbed his head as he blew bubbles with the gum in his mouth, and there was a third man holding a large instrument that she couldn't recall by name, a large bass that touched the floor and went up to the man's head in height. A yellow balloon with a happy face emblazoned on it floated above, tied to one of the tuning eys of the singer's guitar. It fluttered dreamily in the light afternoon breeze. The music was light and upbeat, the kind she could imagine being played by a sea-side restaurant as the sun set and the gulls squawked at the odour of cooked seafood. In the bright sun, the band played before a crown of a few dozen, some with children on their shoulders, others holding hands.
She watched them for a few minutes, wondering if they were a mainstay to the park or a group of traveling musicians. The young woman considered, thinking she might approach them later and ask whether they had any cd's to sell. It wasn't necessarily her cup of tea normally, but she couldn't help be be enraptured by the light gallop of the tunes, the raspy way the singer hit the high noted, the subtle ruffle of the brush against the drums. She thought again that they were the kind of musicians she would love to have playing over dinner, and then remembered the empty air that rumbled in her stomach. She turned back and crossed the vendors.
The first seemed to sell nothing but various pieces of jewelry. Deep topazes studded ornate clasps, bright aquamarines fitted into chains of various lengths and designs, and even the onyx encrusted bracelets glared in the sun as if they had been chiseled from the ice of prehistoric glaciers. The woman behind the counter, haggard and just about the most darling crature the young woman had ever seen, smiled a toothless grin and said something in a language she didn't understand. The young woman smiled and waved her hand, but remained a moment longer, perusing each piece before moving on.
The next few booths sold other various wares, exotic rugs and tapestries, rows of jams and preserves, kitchenware and small, sleekly designed appliances. One booth sold nothing but books, some so old that their pages were dog-eared and missing covers, others brand new translations of popular American authors. She looked over them, the vendor a man with his nose between the pages of some giant tome, and fancied that he might as well be the luckiest man on Earth. She stared at titles, roman letters arranged in ways her brain couldn't process, words she silently mouthed, feeling their texture on her tongue. She moved on.
The next kiosk she arrived at was the one she had been looking for. Roughly the same size as all the other booths and kiosks, its interior seemed far more spacious somehow, despite having two occupants. The front of the kiosk was a glass display, with three shelves which were crowded nearly to overfilling. They housed baked goods of immeasurable quantity and variation, all perfectly crafted and delicious looking. Flans, creme brulees and custards sat in cozy paper shells, their surfaces lightly roasted a golden brown. Pastries of all kinds lay side by side, a hospital nursery of assortments, lightly dusted in icing sugar and cinnamon. Doughnuts and dumplings lay nestled in pyramids atop finely painted china, while there lay piles of what the only thing the young woman could relate to as crepes towered on silver platters, their ranks separated by thin sheets of wax paper. Cupcakes, muffins and odd truffles glowed with frostings and glazes. Individual slices of cake were neatly arranged on paper doilies, covered with plastic lids, their various icings and jams appearing viscous and warm, as if they had just been prepared not a moment before.
The man in the front, standing by the register, gave her a surly look that wasn't without a wink of humour. The second man, younger and entirely engrossed, was in a few feet behind, preparing something in a pan that resembled very much the crepes the young woman had previously espied. To her he seemed like a surgeon, all of his will and focus on the task at hand, though his face was grizzled and stern, like a sailor who had woken one morning to find that he had hated the sea all along.
The young woman returned the man in front of the register's gaze, and smiled. The man didn't say anything, so she decided to look again over her options. Whether she was going to buy something was no longer a question, but more so how many items and with a slight consideration into how she would later transport them back home. A moment of mental gymnastics later, she pointed to a row of small blueberry turnovers, which the man followed with his eyes, and she raised a hand with two fingers extended.
"Two of those?"
She nodded, then smiled. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you spoke English. Yes, two please."
The man grunted, but smiled. "English for me is not very good. But I can get by." He tossed a thumb to the man behind him. "My brother, he doesn't speak."
She assumed he meant English and not in general, and only nodded her understanding. "This is a very lovely shop. Do you make everything here?"
The man raised a brow to her, as if she had said something ridiculous, and before long the young woman realized that she had; aside from the burners in the back, there was no sight anywhere of a stove, mixer or even a small convection oven. "Sorry. Silly question. It's just that it all looks and smells so fresh."
He pointed to the glass counter. "General Electric. Keeps cool, even in sun. We bring the rest from our family's bakery. We make pretty good money here in the park. Plus, gets me and Frank away from parents. Too hot in bakery as is, don't need more heat between us."
The young woman giggled uncontrollably. "I understand that."
The man nodded again as if this were simple fact. "Anything else?"
She thought it over, then pointed to the man the cashier called Frank. "What is he making back there? It smells delicious."
"Crepes, fresh. We put anything you want in it. Or nothing. Best choice here in the park. Very refreshing with a nice strawberry filling. And cream cheese."
The woman was delighted. "Then two of those as well, please. With strawberry and cream cheese. You know, I could smell your food from all the way up the hill."
The man nodded, his expression never changing. "Good. But you wait for three minutes. They will be perfect."
The young woman smiled and agreed, and paid the man while she waited for the crepes to finish. They sizzled on the pan, jumping with bubbles of exquisite oil-soaked flavour. She asked to get the two turnovers to go, and she placed the small plastic container she received delicately into her purse - mindful of the feather she had kept - already imagining herself eating them on her balcony after dinner, a glass of wine in her hand. And oh! to have an accordion playing while she ruminated on all the dreams of the world.
She leaned against the counter as she waited, the only patron, fishing her sunglasses from her bag and being careful not to disturb her deserts. She watched as the band finished their set, the members mingling with the crowd, the drummer with a beer in hand. The singer, now with guitar stowed under-arm, was fastening the balloon he sported to the tiny wrist of the girl who sat perched on her father's shoulders. It bobbed and weaved with the girl's enthusiasm, and words were exchanged in secret, the conversation of two children who happened to be separated by a great many a year. The singer smiled while the girl stroked his small beard, and the young woman found herself smiling too. Everything seemed quiet but for the popping of fried dough behind her.
She noticed for the first time a bench that sat opposite her, facing the park, and the boy on it. He was holding his head in his hands and heaving, obviously distraught. It was a sight that had caught her off guard, seemingly incongruous with the rest of the world. When he raised his head, the young woman could see his face was red and puffy, glistening in the sun from wetness. He momentarily caught her glance, appeared to pretend to not notice, and then turned his head again to cry some more.
She turned to the man behind the counter. "Is that guy okay?"
The burly man looked at her, then followed her point to the boy on the bench behind her. He guffawed, a single heave in his chest that seemed a little over dramatic. Finally when she didn't say anything, the man gave her a stern look.
"He's fine. Nothing to worry about."
"You know him?"
"No. Yes. Here all the time, he is. Just a silly boy."
The young woman turned back to the boy, then to the cashier. She fished through her purse, then put her hands in her pockets, then turned back to the boy. Her flipflops tapped uncontrollably on the interlocked bricks beneath her. The boy - perhaps not a boy, but a young man - continued to sob, then flitted his eyelids in the sun, and smiled. It was an odd sight to see
Finally she turned to the cashier. "Do you have any napkins?"
The man nodded, turned, then stopped. He swiveled back slowly. "Not for him, are they?"
She tried not to stammer. "Maybe. Who says that's what I was going to do?"
He shrugged. "You were looking at him." He handed her a wad of napkins, which she folded and held in her hand. The cashier looked from her, to the person on the bench, and then back to her again. "He is... Do you know of Don Quixote?"
It seemed to ring a bell, but she couldn't place the reference. She shook her head.
The man nodded. "No, maybe not a good example. That guy," he said, nodding to the person on the bench, "he likes to be too dramatic, I think. He makes big deal out of nothing."
The young woman wondered what on Earth he could mean. "So he's there all the time? I thought you said you didn't know him. Is he always this sad?"
The cashier regarded her with curiosity. "He comes and goes. Not always sad. But often. We see him every Friday. Same thing every week."
"And nobody has gone to talk to him?"
"Not me. No time. He leaves soon. I still have to work."
The woman nodded, and waited for her crepes to finish. The man called Frank flipped them once more, then satisfied, slid them off the huge skillet onto a sheet of wax paper. Here, he quickly but carefully spooned s generous helping of strawberry filling down the centre of each, uniform rows that came purely with experience. Then with a small silver icing gun, he squeezed a generous serving of soft cream cheese into them. When he was done, he took each from the wax paper sheet and transferred them to individual paper sheets. Delicately, he rolled them up, pinching the soft ends to keep them intact, and then rolled them in the paper sleeves.
The young woman stood with the two crepes in her hands, thanked the two men with a gracious smile and then turned around. The crowd was still gathered about the band, although the band themselves didn't seem to be in any hurry to get back to their set. The young woman looked down at her flip-flops, undecided. She looked back up at the young man sitting on the bench. He seemed to have composed himself, and if she hadn't known better she would have said that he looked like someone who was simply enjoying the beautiful afternoon.
She wrinkled her nose, took a tentative step forward and stopped. She inhaled, held her breath a moment, biting her lip. She exhaled, smiled, and walked over. It felt like very footfall she made on the smooth bricks brought with it a soft clap, a flutter in the breeze.
The man caught her approach and looked up at her. When she was a few feet away she stopped, still holding the crepes in each hand. Neither of them spoke for a moment.
"Hello," said the woman.
The man only looked at her, a little puzzled.
When the silence grew thick, she cleared her throat. "I just... I came because I saw you from over there."
When she pointed to the kiosk she had arrived from, the man followed with his eyes and then turned back to her. His lips were slightly parted, as if he was ready to speak. She wondered foolishly if the man even spoke English, and whether he was understanding anything she was saying.
When he didn't speak, she forced herself to continue. "Well, I just wanted to see if everything was okay? You looked like... You were crying. I thought I'd see if you were all right?"
The man continued to look up at her from the bench. She noticed that neither was he a boy, but once his expression had cleared a little was actually an attractive man. Perhaps around her age. He blinked a few times, whether processing the information or completely dumbfounded, she couldn't say.
Mercifully, he spoke. "Right. Well yes. I'm okay. Thank you kindly for your concern."
She almost gasped. He spoke English - had, in fact, a British accent - and more importantly didn't immediately find her concern a form of complete insanity.
Again, a silence fell over them. She shifted her weight on her feet, looked down, and then almost as a reaction held out one of the crepes she held to him. "Would you like one? I bought two, but I think my eyes are bigger than my stomach."
The man looked at her hands as if she had been holding a smoldering branding iron instead of the treats.
She coughed, nervously. "I just bought them. Honestly, I couldn't eat both. I don't even know what I was thinking."
The man blinked, then smiled sympathetically. "Indeed, it can be hard to use discretion sometimes when faced with something so delicious."
She laughed. "Well, what do you say?"
"I would love one. Thank you." When she approached, he patted the empty space on the bench next to him. She sat, and handed him one of the warm crepes. She bit into hers tentatively, afraid it might be too hot. It wasn't, and the strawberry filling poured into her mouth, bittersweet. She smiled, wanting to make her approval vocal but feeling a little self-conscious. Instead the two of them ate in silence, perhaps a full five minutes before they were completely done. She unfolded the wad of napkins she held, and handed the man one. He smiled graciously, and they both wiped their mouths.
Somewhere in the distance a church bell rang, and she wondered mildly what its significance might be at this time of the day. Perhaps a wedding. She sighed, supposing there would be all sorts of things she would find herself mildly wondering about over the next little while. Finally, she settled on the notion that perhaps it wasn't even worth wondering about; she would either find out or not.
Finally, the man spoke beside her. "Thank you."
"It's no big deal."
"You're not from around here?"
She sighed, but smiled to him. "Is it that obvious?"
He only shrugged. "From the States?"
"No. Canada. But close enough."
He nodded with little surprise. "Traveling?"
"No, not quite."
He raised a brow. "Business then?"
She turned her head toward the park. The sun was warm on her legs, and she crossed her legs beneath her dress. She thought of her job, the one she had quit only the week before. Then she thought of her parents. Then her friends. She thought of her goldfish Sparkle, and of the large print of James Dean that hung in her apartment living room. She thought of the way the rain would sometimes make the yellow streetlights shimmer across the reflective surface of the road below her bedroom.
Finally she looked back at the man, who sat patiently. He was well dressed, but she noticed for the first time that he seemed somehow naked. After a bit she understood; he wasn't holding a cellphone or book in his hands, wasn't listening to music or playing a game on his tablet. He just sat on the bench, the antithesis of the people she had grown used to seeing in the city.
"Something like that. I just moved here," she explained.
Again he nodded, and the two felt silent.
One of the boys who had been playing soccer kicked the ball a little too hard and sent it sailing across the grass. It settled near the large monument, the boy following, laughing, disturbing a crowd of pigeons that were being fed bread crumbs, tossed from a bag held by an old woman. The woman said something to the boy, and he waved back, a friendly apology.
She regarded the man. "Okay, so now it's your turn."
She shrugged. "I answered your questions. Now you have to tell me what's wrong. You can't tell me everything is fine when I just saw you crying a minute ago. Unless it's too personal, of course."
He sighed. "No. It's just... Complicated. Embarrassing, actually."
She leaned in a bit closer, as if to tell him a secret. "Who cares? I'm a stranger. Besides, you owe me for that crepe."
He smirked, feigning betrayal. "Okay, that seems fair. Just, you know, don't take the piss out of me when I'm done."
She gave an exaggerated gasp. "Of course not!"
He gave her a suspicious glance, but settled back into the bench. She could tell he was deciding how to proceed.
"Four years ago, I moved here. Got a job offer and thought it was a good opportunity to see some of the world. Shortly after that, I fell in love. A woman of exotic beauty and grace, she was. We fell for each other instantly, and spent a year or so lost in each other's eyes. We would go for walks, watch the waves roll in by the beach, stroll through the market eating and laughing. Eventually we moved in together, and then sometimes we would spend entire days lying in bed, listening to the people outside or talking over the record player. Nina Simone was her favourite. It was simple, and everything was perfect for a while.
"After a couple of years, I asked her to marry me. At the time I couldn't imagine living with anybody else, spending my life with anyone but her. I would either marry her or not at all. But when I proposed, she didn't have an answer. Said she needed time to think about it. I asked how long she thought she needed."
The young woman shook her head. "That must have been hard."
"Yeah. I couldn't understand what she needed to think about, but I wasn't going to give up. And I would have waited forever if I had to."
The man grunted. "I asked her what she needed from me to prove I loved her and wanted her as my wife. She said time. Time alone for a while, so she could think about it. She said to me, 'Go to the place where we met. .Wait there at one o'clock every Friday afternoon, and if you wait I will come and give you your answer.' I thought it strange and slightly infuriating, but again, I wasn't going to give up."
The woman didn't say anything. She thought she had a pretty good idea where this was going.
"So," he continued, "as you can guess that place she spoke of was right here. This park. And I chose this bench so I could see her arrive when she came. And since then, I've been coming here every Friday, waiting for her."
The young woman furrowed her brows, shaking her head. "But I don't understand. If you said you moved here four years ago..."
He sighed. "Yes, I've been waiting here for ninety-seven weeks."
The woman's eyes widened in disbelief. "Ninety-seven weeks? But that's... Well, that's a really long time! And you haven't heard from her since then? She still hasn't come? How do you know something hasn't happened to her?"
"Nothing's happened to her." He frowned. "Nothing drastic, if that's what you're asking, anyway. She got married, eventually. Or maybe still hasn't yet, I don't really know. Some guy from Spain or something. They may have moved there, but I'm not sure about that."
She was staring across the park. The man in the bakery had given her a few furtive glances she'd pretended not to see. There was now a small crowd in front of his kiosk, as well as most of the others. Somehow it seemed as if the park were getting more busy, and again she had time to wonder if that meant people were on their work breaks or if it had just been coincidence. She also might just not have originally noticed, only now taking in the scope of her surroundings. People kept bustling two and fro across the brick paths, and in the distance there was a sharp whistling, as of a firecracker, though why anyone would set one off in the middle of the day eluded her completely.
Nobody else seemed to notice though. She was confused by the man's story, but the day itself had a way of melting those concerns away, as if the deep summer sun could obliterate any doubt just through sheer brilliance. She could now see that what she had originally mistaken for small insects shimmering in the bright sky were actually just specks of pollen, as if the park were carved out of a wild field rather than grass and stone. She looked up at the trees and noticed for the first time that many of them were covered in luminous, tiny flowers of all colours and sizes, and she couldn't help but feel slightly abashed at having not realized the fact sooner. She had merely thought of them as being discoloured, much like the changing leaves in fall. The effect was dazzling, a mist that sifted through the air. She thanked the powers that be that she didn't suffer from allergies, and at once felt at ease.
"How do you know all of that?" she asked.
The man smiled. "Friends. Or, in this day and age it's not hard to find those things out, if you're looking."
She smiled in spite of herself. "But then I don't understand. Why are you still here, if you know all of that about her?"
The man sighed, bowed his head, and thought over the question a while. Finally he looked upwards, nodding, as if he too had just noticed the trees in bloom. "Well, that took my a while to figure out. At first, I was a little put off, but still enthusiastic. I would come here, and read passages of books that I would be able to relate to her when she came. I would write letters and poetry - all not very good, mind you - and keep them so that when she finally walked over to me sitting here I could hand them over, proof of my love for her. I would listen to all of the music that we would listen to at our place, memorizing the lyrics so maybe I could sing them to her when she finally came back."
"But she never came back."
"No, she never came back. So then I started to become sad. I couldn't understand what I had done that would send her away like that. I started to run through all the conversations that we had had, trying to see if I could find that one small thing that had put her off, made her upset. I tried to play back every moment leading up to my proposal that could even be slightly mistaken for a bad situation. Something that might anger or upset her. For a while, I had begin to convince myself that it was my fault, that of course she didn't want to marry me because I was wrong, that I was at fault. I began to hate myself for being such a fool, and I would come here hoping that if she came I could beg her to stay this time, that I could change and then things would be better. We could still get married, and I would be better than I had been before and everything would turn out okay."
The woman frowned, and saw that she had been twisting the napkin in her hands into a tight knot. She loosened her grip and let the taught paper fall into her purse, her knuckles white. Had she felt that same way before? Full of self-doubt and regret, afraid that all of the things that had gone wrong were her fault, that she was the problem behind all of her misfortunes? She knew she had.
"I know how that feels," she almost whispered.
"Aye, aye. We all do, I think at some point in our lives. But that wasn't good enough for me, because the more I went over it in my mind, the more frustrated I became. What could I have done that was so bad, so horrible, that she would want to leave me? And then I became angry for a time. What right did she have to leave me here, to just abandon everything without explanation or... Or at least a decent goodbye? Who was she to just up and walk away like that? I would come here, and begin to think of all the things I wanted to say to her - no, to shout at her - when she came back. I was going to tell her she could go to hell and that I deserved better, that there was no reason to treat a person like that. I would come here and sometimes get so fired up in my own head that by the time I left again my body would be tight and sore. Like I had run a marathon instead of just sat here."
The young woman sighed to herself. She could remember those nights, the ones in which she would toss in her bed, gripping her pillow to her face, as if she could stifle the heat and tears in her face, to smother them out of existence and with them, the clouds that threatened to burst from just beyond her eyes. She remembered those nights where her only company was the blinding rage of fear and loss, and her only outlet was a place that she couldn't find, was sure didn't even exist at all.
"By the time I found out that she had already been seeing somebody else," he continued, "I had become angry and sad. It was like somebody had kicked me in the stomach, and I would wake up with a tight knot in my belly. I felt empty all the time, and I couldn't make sense of it. I hated the world for being such a cruel place. A place where people died and people went hungry and children stopped laughing and all the while, even if you could somehow leap those hurdles, if you could make it on top and avoid all of that, that... That the one person you loved, the one you had devoted yourself to could turn around and step on that. I hated a world where even if you could ignore the fact that the world had turned its back on you long ago, you still had to face the people who had done the same. I hated a world that could somehow be filled with so many people all the time and yet still leave you feeling completely alone."
The woman coughed, a lump in her throat. She had thought she had run away from that, left it all behind at home. She had thought that the plane ticket that still lay on her unpacked suitcases in her still unfurnished apartment was the the only evidence left that her old life had existed at all, a piece of paper that would soon be in the trash and forgotten over time like so many other memories and lives that were swallowed by time.
"I'm sorry. " It was all she could think of saying.
The man turned to her. "For what?"
She blinked, and ran the back of her hand across one eye. "Just... Well, I know what that feeling can be like. Sometimes you wish you could run away and leave those things behind. I guess you try and convince yourself you don't need any of it anymore. I can understand why you'd be sad."
The man furrowed his brow, then smiled wryly. "Who ever said I was sad, now?"
She looked at him, confused. "But... Well you just said... I was standing over there, and I saw you crying."
He laughed now, something so unexpected and out of the ordinary that her only reaction was to laugh as well.
"Well," he chuckled, "you didn't let me finish my story."
"Okay," she said, wrinkling her nose.
He folded his hands in his lap, and swiveled on the bench so that he was now face to face with her. His eyes were a bark blue and vibrant, full of life. He leaned in slightly. "Well, yes, you may have seen me crying. That, I cannot deny. But those weren't tears of sadness, my friend."
When he could tell that she was still confused, he elaborated. "I spent a lot of time here, running through things in my mind over and over again. I spent every Friday coming up with all the things I would either say or not say to her when she came, and they always changed, but they never stopped coming. Filling my head. And after being so sad and so angry, I told myself that I would never love anyone again, that it was pointless and nothing good ever came of such things. Love, well to me it was just a recipe for disaster, something to be avoided at all costs. And I kept telling myself those things over and over again, and finally I got tired. I got tired at being angry and sad all the time.
"Finally, maybe six months ago or so, I was sitting here, on a Friday afternoon just like all the others. I sat here for hours. And suddenly I looked around, saw this park. It was the same park I had looked at over and over, maybe more than anything else I've ever had to look at over and over. But I finally saw it for the first time. You know, like truly saw it. I had spent so much time wandering around my own head that I had missed everything that had been around me for so long. The trees, and the grass, and the way that in the fall the sun sits lower on the horizon and makes the paths here look golden. I had missed the old man that would sometimes play the accordion near the fountain, how he would sit on the ledge near the water and play for hours with a box at his feet for tips. I had missed," he pointed, "that old woman who comes and feeds the birds just about every day. I had missed all of those things because the whole time I was convinced that the world had turned its back on me, really, I had just turned my back on the world."
He waved his hand, as if to encompass everything; the children, the band, the far buildings, the distant sea that poked through the park's skyline. "I got up that afternoon and realized for the first time in years, I had come here and sat down for hours and the entire time, not even once, had I thought about that girl or what she had done to me."
The young woman smiled wanly. "But then why are you here? It took you so long to get over it, why come back?"
He inhaled deeply. "Because it reminds me. For a long time this park represented everything that was wrong with my life to me. Thinking of coming here only brought up bad memories, and I associated it with those bad feelings inside of me. But the truth was, I just hadn't seen how beautiful it was. It had always been beautiful, but I had just ignored it and seen only what I wanted to see.
"The world is beautiful. It took me a long time - probably far longer than it should have, I have to confess - but I realized that day that I had finally forgiven her. That she couldn't hurt me anymore, and that in fact I was happy for her. Happy that she was happy, even if it meant being with someone other than me. I haven't spoken or seen her since that day long, long ago, but now I feel like we had said all we needed to say. I grew to accept that sometimes certain things don't need to be said, and even if it was maybe only time itself that creates forgiveness, that's good enough.
"Most of all though, I realized that I could love again. In a way, I always had. I stood up that day and knew for maybe the first time ever that I wasn't broken, that the world hadn't created a dud, something to ignore. I was a little scarred sure, but I wasn't broken. And I knew that if I could love again, then everybody could, that there was the potential for love in all things. All it took me was two years and this bench to understand that. I had been waiting for something that I already had."
He chuckled to himself, as if he had told the world's greatest joke. The woman couldn't help it this time, and let the tear fall onto her lap, slowly soaking into her dress, a glimmer turned dark and then gone forever.
When she looked up at the man, she could tell he was concerned. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that that might have been the sweetest thing I've ever heard."
When he smiled, she realized she was wrong. His smile might have been the sweetest thing ever. She leaned over, gave him a brief hug and stood up, stretching. She turned to the man, who only sat and regarded her patiently. "Say," she said, already cheered up, "what are you doing right now?"
"Well, it was mostly just going to be a little more of this. Why?"
She shrugged. "I'm new here. I just moved in a few days ago. I don't even have an oven yet. I was hoping maybe somebody might be able to show me around a bit? You know, where all the good restaurants are and stuff?"
The man stood up slowly, winking. "Well, that's something I think I can help you with."
They turned without speaking and began walking up the path, their strides almost in sync.
After a time he turned to her as they walked. "Well now, I've just about told you my whole life's story. Well, minus maybe the time me and old Ralphie Thompson got into that scuffle in grade three."
She laughed at this.
"But what about you?" he asked. "What exactly is it that you've been waiting for?"
She blinked, looking around. The man at the desert kiosk was speaking boisterously to a customer while the man named Frank continued to create baked wonders silently in the back. The band had started to play again, and the crowd had grown considerably from before. The small girl with the balloon was still there, waving her tiny hands energetically and causing the smiley face to bob up and down like a buoy at sea. The children who had been playing soccer were now with the old woman by the fountain, and the four of them had begun taking turns pulling crumbs from the bag in the woman's hands, tossing them to the pigeons. A soft breeze rippled through the trees, casting wavering slants of light through their boughs that danced on the grass below. She remembered the feather she had held, kept in secrecy, and fished it out of her purse. She ran it between her fingers a moment, feeling the delicate fibers brushing against her skin, and let it drop slowly, fluttering to the floor.
There was an energy the young woman could feel, coursing through the air. It was the energy of new starts and breaking waves and endless horizons. It was the power of now.
Finally she turned back to him. "This, I think."
He patted her shoulder and they walked up the path, the peal of the distant church bell humming in the cloudless sky.