After being dumped by her latest boyfriend, a 42-year-old woman skips work to sit on a bench in Central Park and reflect on her checkered romantic history.
Published in Wisconsin Review (Volume 43; Issue 1: Fall 2008).
She called in sick and went to Central Park to sit on a park bench. Isn’t that what you were supposed to do when your life turned to crap? Better than going to work and letting her coworkers catch her bawling her eyes out. This was what rock bottom felt like, wasn’t it? Sure, she knew others were worse off—she had a job, a place to live, and enough money in the bank to escape to Barcelona for a week or two if she felt so inclined—but she was 42 and alone again.
Brad—that was the problem right there. Brutality camouflaged by a perfect name. A year down the drain. By her calculation, he was her last hope. If they hit it off, which they did, there would be just enough time to get to like each other, start to spend all their time together, get engaged, married, and start a family. One child right away, then another one the next year, before her reproductive system began to close up shop. But now, to start it all over again—the mixers, the Internet chats, the dating clubs, the word-of-mouth campaign—there would be no babies in this scenario. Not unless she was willing to let some fertility specialist turn her body into a science project.
That wasn’t the whole story anyway. She knew the odds of starting a family this late in life were slim. She was beginning to get comfortable with the possibility of having to settle for love and companionship without children. Not such a bad prospect really. Someone to come home to. Someone who cared if she came home or not. Someone to travel the world with and haul along to family reunions and other occasions where a single woman was a curiosity at best—more likely, a pathetic shame. A mate would shield her from embarrassment and disapproval. Not to mention the thought of dying alone. She looked around the abandoned park and sighed before opening a bag of baked potato chips from the health food store. Off in the distance, she spotted a dog walker and felt momentarily relieved.
The new calamity was the possibility that even companionship and love might be beyond her reach. That she was no better than Miss Anderson, the spinster who taught her how to play the piano when she was growing up back in Illinois. She always felt uncomfortable around the woman, who seemed to have no life other than tending to her aging mother and giving piano lessons in her front parlor to all the indifferent sons and daughters of the neighborhood. She remembered thinking she would never allow herself to sink so low—not as long as there were nursing homes to put mothers in and places out in the world to meet men. But now who had the last laugh? She didn’t even have a mother to care for anymore.
Was it the way she looked, she wondered? Didn’t men frequently tell her they found her attractive? Then again, they never went on at great length about it or provided compelling details to back up their compliments. Her sense of humor? She sometimes struggled to understand other people’s jokes. But she had an infectious laugh, someone once told her. Maybe sexual attraction was simply a mystery.
From her bench at the edge of Strawberry Fields, she stared up at the cloudless sky and wondered how quickly a thunderstorm could roll in. Did the Guinness Book of World Records have anything to say on the subject? Weren’t clouds a prerequisite? There had to be a sign, didn’t there? But where were Brad’s signs? He approached her at the bar, not the other way around. He called her several times a day at work, even though she didn’t like to be interrupted. Her friends liked him; she liked his friends. The sex was great, the conversations even better. Once, he even cried in her presence. Then all of a sudden, the calls trailed off. Plans were difficult to pin down. His attention seemed forced. And the look—she sometimes caught him staring into space as if he were trying to solve a parametric equation. “Hello in there, Brad!” she would joke. His insane work schedule seemed the most logical explanation.
Finally came the big talk. He waited until the end of the evening. An early dinner, a movie, and a session in bed—that was the standard Sunday night formula. But rather than carry her into the bedroom, Tarzan with his Jane, he sat her down and said he needed some time alone. Some breathing room. A reasonable request, she thought, but one accompanied by a bizarre stream of consciousness about God only knew what. She took the bait and asked him if he was trying to break up with her. He sighed and said he was afraid so. Pressed for an explanation, all he could say was, “Something just snapped.”
The phrase haunted her all night as she stared at the ceiling. Snap. She would have to send his things back to him sometime. Or he could rot in hell waiting for them! Snap. There were those hard-to-get tickets for that Broadway show next week. Could they possibly be civil and attend it together? Snap. Surely his mother would miss her. She knew the woman genuinely liked her possible, future daughter-in-law.
A bird landed on the end of the bench, rotated its head spasmodically, and then flew away. She followed its flight, wondering if it, too, were all alone, concluding that it must belong to some flock or other. Birds traveled in flocks, lions in prides, and humans in couples. The way of the world. She was the freak. Or maybe its flock had evicted it. The way Matthew did.
All things considered, at least Brad handled things better than Matthew.
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