She called Marie and wasn’t too disappointed when she reached her voice mail. She had secretly been hoping Marie was still running errands and wouldn’t invite her to join her. The stuffy shopping mall with the glaring fluorescent lights and the hordes of slow-moving but loudly-yelling adolescents was hardly her favorite place in the town, even though in winter it at least had the benefit of being a warm indoors place with free toilets. Not insignificant, in France. But on a late summer late afternoon that was just recovering from being sultry, there was hardly a place she wanted to be less than the shopping mall. Especially since the sales’ stampedes weren’t over.
She slipped through the iron grid into the park.
Afterwards, she couldn’t remember if the old man had already been sitting on the bench facing the lake. But she thought not, because she was in writing mode and so concentrated on the natural aesthetics of the scene in front of her that she wouldn’t have chosen an occupied bench on which to sit and write.
Not that the old man wasn’t harmonious with his surroundings. He was dressed in a mild, gentlemanly fashion, with those slightly too short pants of elderly widowers who don’t really feel they have anyone left to impress.
There he was, and while she kept staring straight ahead and willing herself not to be nice and not to respond to his quiet commentary on the hazy sublimity of nature in front of their eyes, she felt that she would succumb and no story would get written that day.
He spoke slightly, self-effacingly, of small nothings and large somethings. As if willing himself to only reflect the life, not block or shape it, at times forgetting he was speaking, at others forgetting that he was already forgetting and making impassioned gestures with the age-spotted hands, imploring her without imposing on her. Without even looking at her.
After a while the gravel crunched and she saw a middle-aged man with his long hair ponytailed back from an endearing rather than attractive face next to them, his hands resting on the handles of wheelchair. His black shoes showed a likeness to motorcycle boots, a look altogether more fitting for a bar than the pastoral scene he had come upon.
When she looked at him, he pushed the wheelchair with the grandmotherly figure to the other bench, positioning her so that she would just catch the reflections of the sun as it intensified its goodbyes to the day.
With a similar instilled reverence as the elderly man, they spoke quietly of writing articles, paying mortgages, bladder infections, how the new doctor at the clinic was such a sweetheart, and could he, the young one, show her to access her voice mail and make the red light on her phone go away?
And then, daily life being solved or deemed unsolvable, they sat and watched the ducks make rounds on the lake, and ate cherry lozenges. The man with the motorcycle boots leaned over to her bench and offered her and the elderly man a few. They both smiled and accepted. Soon, he wheeled the wheelchair away, adjusting the shawl on its occupant’s shoulders and bumping away over the gravel path.
This was the story she would have written, and she would have ended there, and left the park with the slight aftertaste of cherry lozenges in her mouth and belief in goodness and beauty and love restored. But when after a while she raised her eyes to take one last look at the sea-lake before she left, she realized the dimming sunlight was being blocked.
There was a man standing there.
It was the man with the motorcycle boots. Alone.
He was also looking ahead, intent on the beauty of the scene.
“You have chosen the most beautiful place in the park,” he said.
“I know” she said.
He stood, and she sat, and they both looked.
Later, because it must have been later, if time was still linear, he told her about the ducks, or the ‘water-chickens’. She told him about love. When she thought about it at home however, he had really told her more about love, even though she had done most of the talking. Maybe because he actually knew.
It has fallen into the little forgettings, he said.
Is that possible? Her youth didn’t believe it.
Oui, oui. He assured her. It was so long ago…
And so? she asked. Is that all, her mind questioned.
And now. He said. My love – it is art.
Come by my studio, he said. I will paint your portrait. You will pose for me. We will fight together for this love you have. You must continue to seek it; it cannot resist.
She smiled and nodded her head.
But when she got up from the bench as the evening chill made itself permanent, she knew that they would never meet again, and she hoped he knew that too.