We walked hand-in-hand through the park. The summer malaise was starting to give some relief to its dead heat. We were thankful for it; our backs were fairly dry when a week before, on our last stroll through the area, our shirts had soaked through quickly.
My wife and I hadn’t been married long, and our conversation centered around what was next. Always next. How much longer do we stay here? What was the next career move? When should we try and have a baby–should we, with the way the world is?
We were both mildly educated and strongly opinionated on the recent climate change news. Things were not looking good, and “the scientists” gave a bleak outlook for the next eighty years. But this was something still on the back burner of our newly shared consciousness, in the purview of our daily conversations.
After all, there was so much hope to be found right here, in our little joined life. We went to work–found more money than purpose certainly, but weren’t miserable there. We came home and cooked dinner together, always trying to include protein, complex carbs, and a vegetable. And a beer or two each, usually. Then we’d go for our evening walk around the park, and all seemed right with our world.
Yes, the future certainly looked iffy, if the projections were half right. But who were we kidding: we’d have two or three kids, a cat and dog, a mortgage…and we’d live on the best we could. We’d reuse and recycle at all costs, and pass these ideals down to the juniors.
We’d try to be politically aware, and globally conscious. That wasn’t nearly as hard as it used to be. In fact, the hard facts of recent events seemed recently to bombard, more than anything.
We’d live on. No worries, at the end of the day. No stress…if we did stress, we’d do some yoga and wake up for work the next day, to do it all again.
Such were my thoughts, beneath the relatively light conversation I was then sharing with my wife.
“Do you think we should sell one of the cars and get bikes?”
We passed a line of trees, marking the halfway point of our walking loop. We had never stopped there, or even paused.
But now I saw a man sitting underneath one of the trees. I stopped in my response to her, mid-sentence, when the figure came to my attention. She looked at me curiously, and I nodded in his direction.
Something was off, but I wasn’t sure what. Something drew me to him…
He looked respectable, clad in blue jeans and a pastel, dewrinkled polo. Cowboy boots rounded out the look of a man who I guessed to be a mid-level businessman in the area. I passed the same type daily on my lunch break. I worked with men around his age and of a very similar air.
Come to think of it, I had been wearing a very similar “uniform” that day, before changing into basketball shorts and a tee for our walk.
She addressed him as if by instinct, obviously not feeling as probingly curious as me: “Heeeey! How’s it going?” She was always genuinely friendly, especially to complete strangers.
She pulled me by the hand closer to him. He lifted his head, slowly but not with the characteristic slowness of someone lost in intense struggle. He still desired to lift his head up toward us.
“Oh, I’m doing alright…lovely evening, isn’t it?”
I felt that this was my time to break in to the conversation, to introduce myself as a non-threatening acquaintance, despite what my wondering eyes might suggest. Besides, my wife appreciated when I willingly engaged in small talk.
“Yeah, it r–” was all I got out.
“I’m just sitting here, thinking about…how damn lonely I am.”
Silence. He looked up at us, squinting slightly, then returned to a melancholy stare off into the distance.
A beat or two passed as we both thought about his words–not reaching or desperate, but shockingly raw nonetheless.
The man was not wearing a ring. My wife let go of my hand, perhaps out of guilt, or as an unconscious show of solidarity.
“Aww, well, you can still find somebody,” she rationalized. “It’s not too late.”
He turned back to us. “Ehhh everyone is old now. They’re all grandmas by now. Who would want to be with me at this point?”
I distinguished more and more features at this moment: greying temples, forehead lines indicative of many decades of stressful work…but the eyes still full of vigour and something strangely familiar. Had I met this man before?
“Anyway, I had my chance. I had plenty of girlfriends, but never took that step…never took any risks. Now here I am…”
And with the solemn brevity of a Southwestern man, “Well, have a nice day.”
And he meant it. No spite or resentment, no noticeable jealousy. He had accepted his lot, and wished us the best outcome in ours.
“Thanks, you too,” was how I entered and exited the conversation.
We walked away, and finished the rest of our walk in a sort of shocked silence. We locked hands again, but no words were spoken until we were back inside our apartment.
She was the first to speak again: “That was kind of weird, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah it was. I’m not quite sure what to think of that.”
“That man seemed so normal…”
“Yes,” and it hit me. I now knew what it was I saw in the man. “Worryingly normal.”