It was a beautiful midwest fall afternoon, like something out of one of those nature documentaries on television. Most of the leaves were still clinging to the trees, some green, most not. Other than an occasional squirrel she hadn’t seen another living being for some time. There was a gentle wind blowing and it moved the leaves on the ground around her and the trees above her, making a soft soothing sound that reminded her of her childhood. She had grown up in a suburb but spent most of her summer and fall weekends at her grandparents’ farm. They’d had a large tract of land that came up against an even larger untouched wooded area. She and her sister would build imaginary houses in the woods near a small dried up creek and pretend that the world was run by kids just like them. In their world, dinner was whenever they were done playing, Fruit Loops cereal was a staple and bedtime was whenever they were tired. Her older sister Cathy was always the more imaginative of the two and she would conjure up these amazing adventures for them in their “kids only” world. She sighed nostalgically for those easy days of freedom, joyful purposelessness and purity of spirit.
She was sitting on a park bench wearing a trench coat and the scarf he had given her for Christmas two years prior. She lowered her hands from her lap down beside her and ran them over the bench seat she sat upon. It felt real and strong and it somehow anchored her. It was an old worn bench cold to the touch with chipping brown paint. She shivered a little and pulled her hands into the sleeves of her coat. “You should have brought your gloves!” she heard him admonish her in her mind. She chuckled aloud to herself softly and shifted on the bench to look around her as though looking for him, running her hands down the crease of her black pants and stretching her legs out in front of her. The back of her coat drooped under her legs and brushed the grass that was starting to turn brown as she shifted on the bench. The sun was shining but it was chilly and things were dying, it seemed somehow to fit her melancholy mood.
She sat looking back on her life with him and remembered fondly the day they had met. He had walked into the coffee shop her best friend Ted ran. She had been sitting in the back of the shop with Ted studying a brochure. They were trying to figure out how to work the new espresso machine he had purchased with some of the money she had helped him procure from the SBA. They were laughing and trying to read the French directions to each other using their very bad college French. She had just tossed a paper coffee cup at Ted and had looked up to see where it landed when she realized it had missed Ted by a mile. She found herself looking right into the most soulful brown eyes she had ever seen in her life. Later he told her that her laugh was so joyful and so beautiful that it nearly brought him to tears that night. She told him that looking into his eyes had made her feel as though she were sitting in front of a roaring fireplace. She had never believed in love at first sight, being a practical person by nature, but the moment they met she felt like she had come home.
She started out of her reverie and looked up somewhat hopefully when she heard the sound of feet shuffling through the leaves. An older woman walking a small energetic dog came around the curve heading down the narrow blacktop path. The woman was moving slowly and hesitantly but with a look of determination on her small wizened face. The dog would run forward as far as the leash would let him and then bound back toward his little owner with a yap and a whine. The woman looked up and nodded timidly to her as she and her excited companion moved past her down the pathway. She smiled and said “Good Afternoon”. Her own voice sounded foreign to her or as if she hadn’t spoken in a very long time.
She had really wanted a dog or cat but he was highly allergic and she couldn’t bear the thought of him being uncomfortable because of her. Once he had brought her a small aquarium and a couple dozen neon tetras. She’d had him set it up in her office and she loved to sit and watch them when she took a break from her paperwork. With her travel schedule though it was difficult to keep them fed and they had finally given them to her sister’s children extracting a promise that she could come and visit them whenever she was lonely. She remembered that he had laughed at her as she pretended to be distraught as they were leaving Josh and Jonathon’s bedroom where he had set up the aquarium.
“Oh the J Boys” she suddenly thought with a twinge of regret. It had been six weeks since she had seen them or spoken to them. She made a decision to stop by her sister’s house next weekend on her way to the airport. The “J Boys” as she had called them since six year old Jonathon was born were her favorite people in the world and they adored her too. Sometimes they would pick the boys up to give her sister Cathy a day off and spend the day flying kites in the park or exploring the Science Museum or just hanging out at her house watching movies. The boys loved him too, everyone did.
She traveled so much with her job it was difficult to find the time to see friends and family but she tried to make the time. She had also left her schedule as open as she could for him. He would come and see her as much as possible but it was never enough. They never tired of each other and that had always amazed them both. In the seven years they had been together they had been on short vacations together twice.
Once she had taken him with her on a business trip to Las Vegas. They had walked around the city, her arm tucked in his, watching the people and absorbing the sights and sounds and smells. They stayed for four days and three nights and it was the first time that they had spent the entire night together. They fell asleep in each others arms still talking about the things they had seen and the sights they were going to see the next day. He told her he loved her for the first time while they sat on a stone bench watching the fountains at Bellagio.
She looked around her little bench with tears of happiness and fond memory in her eyes. She had such beautiful memories of their time together and she thanked God every day for bringing him into her life. She grabbed her tote and stood up to walk the pathway after the old woman and her rambunctious puppy. She had gotten a few steps away and stopped. She wasn’t ready to leave yet; it wasn’t time. She turned on her heel, walked haltingly back to the bench, found the warm spot where she had been sitting for so long and sat back down. Taking a deep breath she reached into her tote bag and pulled out the book she had brought with her.
The book was one that he had given her the last time he was at her apartment. He was an avid reader and when he would finish a book he would bring it for her to read. They had spent many hours talking about the things that they had read. He always told her he loved her for her mind first, her laugh second and everything else came after. A love of books was just one more of the many things that they had in common. He would say “There is something magical about immersing yourself in a story.” He was the first person aside from Cathy who understood the sadness one could feel when a good book ended. The characters became real and opening the book to the bookmark after an absence was a thing to celebrate and look forward to. Reading was not just an escape but as important to her as food and water, books were nourishment for the mind and salve for the soul.
Their second vacation together had been to a book sale in Chicago. They had bought books to have shipped home and then they bought books to take with them back to their hotel. They sat in the matching armchairs in the shabby suite at an old hotel on the outskirts of the city. The only sounds they heard for hours was an occasional door slamming or room service cart out in the hall, the sound of pages turning and the soft jazz playing on the little clock radio next to the bed. They shopped during the day, read in the evening and made love. They had bought the book she had in her hand that weekend and she could almost smell his aftershave as he exited the small bathroom in the hotel room.
He was an old soul and had the heart of a poet. He had told her that many years before he had met her he had written poetry for another woman. The woman had broken his heart and he stopped writing. He said he had been damaged for a long time after that and had only begun to heal when he left his sales job and opened his own book store. His store became his new love and slowly he came out of his depression and started to live his life again. She loved his honesty and his vulnerability; he seemed almost fragile at times but at other times when she needed him to be he was a rock.
When Ted had passed away suddenly from a heart attack three years before, he had been there for her, talking to her whenever he could, holding her hand, handing her tissues. When she found out that Ted had left her his little coffee shop he was the one who told her it would be okay to cash out if it wasn’t what she wanted. She had felt that she was betraying Ted’s memory because he had loved the shop so much. He reminded her that Ted had found his dream and would never want her to stop looking for hers. She had eventually sold the shop and put the money into the college fund she had started for her sister’s boys.
After college she had worked at a few accounting firms but was restless and unhappy. Ted was constantly telling her to get out but she couldn’t bring herself to quit without another job. It wasn’t until she met him that she found the courage to venture out and find something else. Thanks to his love and encouragement she was able to apply for and get the job of her dreams. She now traveled the country auditing businesses that had put themselves on the selling block. It was a demanding job but she loved every minute of it and without him she never would have had the guts to try.
The breeze had started to pick up and the leaves were tittering across the blacktop path. The sun was starting to go down in the western sky and she knew it was time to leave but it was so beautiful and peaceful there she just couldn’t bear the thought of walking away. She shifted on the bench and stretched her arms above her head. She heard what sounded like children shouting in the distance and a truck backfiring. She remembered seeing a small playground at the intersection right before she turned into the gate that had lead her to this little bench.
She thought back again to the first time they had met at Ted’s shop. He had introduced himself to her with a quiet dignity and asked if he could sit and talk with her for a while. It had felt like a scene from an old romance movie. She knew he was a few years older than her but that had just added to the intrigue. She had forsaken Ted and his new espresso machine for an evening of discovery with him. He was so intelligent and kind and gentle. When it was time for them to say good bye they’d had such a hard time. He asked her if he could call her and she had quickly agreed pulling a pen and paper from her purse. When she went to give him the paper however he had taken her hands in his and looked at her with remorse and longing. He confessed to her that he was not free to pursue a romantic relationship with anyone but he very much wanted to know her better. Although disappointed to find out that he was married to someone else she couldn’t bring herself to turn away. She pressed the paper into his hands and asked him to please call her soon.
They were friends for six months before they became lovers. He had shared every aspect of his life with her telling her about his home life and his struggles to keep his family together and his business going. He had met his wife when she began working at his bookshop and now they ran it together. He hated being a cliché. She told him over and over again that it didn’t matter. She knew although she didn’t tell him then that she was already falling in love with him. In her weakest moments she would become angry with him and his family but she was honest enough with herself to know that she wouldn’t leave him because of it. Her sister and Ted were very impatient with her and constantly reminded her that she could “do better” but she knew she could not. He was her soul mate, her strength, the love of her life. She knew that he felt the same way about her and she was content to live with that.
Their love affair was nearly perfect and she knew she would never find anyone who made her feel as special as he did. Tears came to her eyes as the wind picked up again and she wrapped her scarf around her neck and crossed her arms across her front shivering a little.
Today he had left her. She had sat stoically on this very bench and watched as he moved away from her surrounded by his family and friends. She wanted to call after him and plead with him not to go. They could figure something out, this couldn’t be over. She wasn’t ready.
His wife looked very dignified and proper walking quietly behind him and his children. She irreverently thought “she would never have played naked twister with him” and then immediately felt remorseful. His children were almost grown up now and she marveled to see them in person after only knowing them through their pictures and his stories. He was so proud of his children and so in love with fatherhood. It was another thing that made her love and respect him all that much more. She regretted now not having had his child. Maybe if she had become pregnant he wouldn’t have left her alone today.
She felt a flush of anger come over her but she didn’t know who she was angry with. Was she ticked off at him for leaving? His wife for taking him away? Herself for allowing him to go? She didn’t know but she felt the anger boiling up inside her stomach and rolling up into her esophagus. She put her hands against her abdomen and doubled over on the bench with her eyes closed. She took deep cleansing breaths of the cold air and tried valiantly to hold back the tears. There were tears running down her cheeks now and she felt her nose starting to run. She was NOT going to cry for him! He left her!
The tears started to come unchecked now and there was nothing she could do to stop them. Her nose was running and she was sobbing quietly into the sleeve of her coat. She wanted the anger back, somehow it seemed easier to be angry than to grieve. How could he do this to her? How could he leave her when they were still so very much in love? Her heart was pounding in her ears and her head hurt every time she moved. He always had a handkerchief in his pants pocket and his hands were strong and confident. He could massage away her headaches and wipe away her tears.
She didn’t know how long she sat in that quiet space listening to the wind in the leaves and feeling the wood under her fingertips. She didn’t know how long she cried and moaned and clutched her hands into fists and begged God to make him come back to her. She had gone way past sobbing to deep painful heaving cries with no sound. The tears kept coming and her cheeks were red and chapped from the tears, the wind and cold. The sleeves of her coat and cardigan were wet and stiff. She was emotionally and physically exhausted and she wasn’t sure she would have the strength to walk back to her car on the other end of the blacktop.
Her sister had wanted to come with her today but she had told her no. If he was going to leave her she wanted to say good bye to him privately. Her sister had never been supportive of their relationship although she very much liked him. Everyone in her life had liked him. Being with Cathy right now was not what she needed and it was just too much for her to handle right now.
She drew herself up and took another deep breath. The sun had gone down and it was getting quite chilly out. It was time for her to leave and come back another day. She ran her hands almost fondly across the back of the bench and then bent over to pull her tote bag closer to her. With a sigh she picked up the book she had taken out earlier and reached into the tote with her free hand pulling out a small bouquet of daisies. She stood and with leaden feet began to walk across the small blacktop path to the grassy area on the other side. She was hugging the book and flowers to her chest and the bag dangled from her arm. A few minutes of walking later she stopped and looked down at the mound of dirt at her feet. She knelt down next to the small stone among the wreaths and flowers left by friends and loved ones. She nestled the book and flowers among the foliage and then fell back onto her backside to rest and remember.
She sat for a while her coat and legs becoming damp from the grass. The leaves crunched under her whenever she shifted her weight. She sat with her legs bent and her arms around them, her chin resting on her knees. She reminisced about the last time they were together. He was so strong and so lovely. She couldn’t begin to fathom how in just two short months he had gone from that to this. If it hadn’t been for his friend Carol at the book store she might not have even known he was so ill. She began to talk to him as though he were sitting there across from her on the grass. She spoke to him about her fears of being alone. She told him how much she had liked the book he had given her and showed him that it was there with her. She railed at him for lost opportunities and abandonment and then promptly expressed remorse. She lamented the loss of “them” now that it was just her. She lowered her forehead to her knees and felt all of the feelings and thought all of the thoughts until there were no more.
She stirred and stretched as if awakening from a nap a long time later and leaning forward onto her knees again brushed some dirt and leaves away from the book she had placed there. She stood and brushed the leaves off her pants legs and stretched. She looked down sadly at the final resting place of the love of her life. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the breeze. She imagined him standing there next to her running his hands down the back of her hair like he always had. She could feel him there with her now and she could smell his cologne and feel his strength.
Her head came down and her hair blew across her face catching in her mouth and on her damp cheeks. She opened her eyes and looking at the scene including her very favorite possession, an old bedraggled well read and well loved copy of “Love in the Time of Cholera” before her. Quietly she whispered into the wind “Good bye my love”.