The crisp air nipped my cheeks as I sat still waiting. It had been several weeks since I returned to the garden. I had been drawn by a longing for the sanctuary of Gardner’s presence, but mortification over my behavior when last we’d met, kept me away.
My eyes watered, yet I refused to blink. I would not miss his entrance. Salty streams danced down my cheeks, while my legs sank steadily into slumber.Yet, I sat still on the bench, my body inclined toward the garden entrance, and waited.
Several moments went by. Crystals formed of the streams that had ran down my cheek. My legs stiffened under the spell of a deep sleep. My back pleaded to be relieved of its strained position; nevertheless, I held said position and waited.
I felt a gentle vibration against my wrist. Alas, I could wait no longer. I hesitantly tore my gaze from the garden entrance to my watch’s face. It was Friend.
‘Hey, where are you?’ she asked in a text message.
I turned away from the small screen to the garden entrance once more. I saw no sign of Gardner. I struggled to break free of sleep’s hold on my legs in order to get to my feet. I’m on my way.’ I texted her when I finally stood.
When I entered the cafe, the ambiance which I had often found wonderfully immersive, eluded me. I drifted mindlessly toward my usual table, my heart conspicuously despairing. As I neared the table, two unfamiliar faces came into focus; my footsteps faltered. The weight and warmth of a hand on my shoulder drew to my attention to my left. It was Friend.
“I’m sorry, they were already settled when I got here…” She gazed admiringly at the pair. “They’re adorable aren’t they? I think they’re on a date or something.” She beamed.
I surveyed the room and found several open tables. “And they couldn’t have sat at that table?” I pointed to one of the open tables. “…or that one?” I pointed to another.
I said nothing.
“I got us another table over here.” She linked arms with me as she led me to the other table.
“How was your morning?” She examined my attire. “Did you end up going to the park?”
She slid aside the tablet in front of her at the table and inclined herself toward me.
I said nothing.
“Wow Gracie, thank you for sharing that detailed description of your morning.”
“There isn’t anything to share….he didn’t show.”
“You mean the old man at the park?”
“Gardner… His name’s Gardner. And yes, him.”
“Okay, well did you tell him you were coming?”
“No, I didn’t tell him I was coming. I never have to tell him I’m coming. He’s just always there …he wasn’t there today because he’s finally had enough with me.”
“Honey, I’m sure that’s not it. Maybe something happened to him…it would be unfortunate if that were the case, but you said he was older and–”
“How could you say that?!”
“I’m not saying that something for sure happened to him, but it’s possible.” She took a deep breath. “…I’m just trying to help Gracie.”
“Well, you’re not helping.”
She silently stared at me, then, “Seriously?”
I knew that I had said the wrong thing, but I couldn’t recant it.
She crossed her arms and sat upright in her seat. “Why don’t you tell me what would be helpful to you right now.”
“I’m sorry I said you weren’t being helpful. Can we just move on and talk about wedding stuff?”
“No. I don’t have to talk about wedding stuff right now. I want you to tell me how I can be helpful to you.”
“I’m just having a bad day okay. Maybe you’re right, maybe something happened to Gardner. That would suck, but like you said, he’s old and–”
“Stop! I’m not asking you to tell me what you think I wanna hear so we could move on. You’re having a bad day, why? What’s at the bottom of your bad day?…Because you seem to be having a lot of bad days lately and no matter how hard I try, I find myself on the wrong end of your bad days. So talk.”
The Barista suddenly appeared at our table. “Good morning Ladies, is everything okay?”
Friend glared at me as though waiting for me to err in my response. “Go ahead, answer him, but don’t you dare tell him that everything’s fine.”
She was exactly right in guessing the response on the tip of my tongue. I refrained from making eye contact with her. I redirected my thoughts and addressed The Barista. “Sorry if we were getting loud.” I arose from my seat and picked up my purse. “I was just about to leave.”
“Oh, no you’re not! You absolutely do not get to run away from this conversation!”
I hesitantly turned to face her. She was wide-eyed with a fierce passion that I had not seen before. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. We’re gonna finish this conversation, after which we will talk about my wedding, which you are going to attend!”
“Are you insane right now?”
“Ladies, could you please take this conversation outside?” The Barista gently pleaded with us.
Friend had missed his voice altogether. “I’m not insane, but God help me if you try to leave this place right now.”
“Alright! Stop causing a scene…let’s go outside.” I snatched her tablet from the table while she picked up her purse.
We shuffled past The Barista and made our way to the courtyard in the back of the cafe. As we walked across the floor toward the doors leading out, we passed the couple that was our usual table. I glared at them. They looked back at me perplexed.
My hand lingered a moment on the door knob after I had ensured that the door was closed. I considered my final opportunity of making an escape.
“Don’t even think about it Mary.”
I turned to face her. “I was making sure it was closed.”
“Sure you were.”
“What do you want from me Friend?”
“I want you to know that you are loved and that you’re not alone.”
I heard her words with clarity, but was not convinced that they accurately described my reality.
“Do you know that?”
A barrage of loud and disjointed thoughts raced through my mind; not a single one passing slowly enough to be caught and molded into a coherent response.
I sank into the nearest seat, placing her tablet and my purse on the table in front of me. The cold that had infected the metal seat, rushed into my thighs. I shifted quickly in the chair but remained seated.
Friend joined me at the table, her body inclined toward me, but her arms enclosed about her for warmth.
“I don’t know…sometimes I think I know that, but most of the time…I don’t know….”
“Sure you do. Speak.”
“…sometimes it seems impossible that I could be…loved.”
“Gracie,” gentleness had returned to her voice. “I’m not gonna pretend I understand what it was like for you growing up without your mom or having to deal with all the other things that happened, but I’m here for you and I’m so ready to listen to whatever you have to say…”
“Do you know she’s not talking to me? I’ve called her a few times…her phone is disconnected…for all her pursuing and invading my life, I can’t believe how easy it was for her to just disappear again.”
“That’s not your fault, Gracie….And the things that happened when you were a little girl aren’t your fault either.”
“And the fact that Gardner vanished too?”
She wobbled over to my chair and squeezed in next to me, wrapping an arm around me. “I’m not gonna speculate about why he wasn’t there…that’s clearly not a great idea, but I know this…you are totally lovable and I sincerely love you.”
My head fell forward such that my chin was tabled by her arm around me. “…sometimes I don’t feel lovable…sometimes I wonder if the people in my life really want me around…” The tears that I had repressed earlier came bursting forth. “…sometimes I feel like life would be better if I wasn’t here at all…I wonder if it would even matter…”
She didn’t speak. I heard only the faint sound of her sniffles as she wept with me.
I wept bitterly, giving indistinguishable voice to the pain that had plagued my soul for a long as I could recall. I wept until a sudden shift in the frigid wind arrested my senses. The aimless swirling force which had been bombarding us from all sides, became a steady, calming stream just beyond my nose and lips. Instinctively, I drew it in, filling both my lungs, and belly. As I exhaled, I released the cloak of despair along with the foreboding tension of fear in my chest; my soul was assuaged. For a moment, I perceived the warmth of another pair of arms encircling me. I lifted my eyes to look around, but saw no third person.
“It’s actually really cold out here…” Friend said. Whether through proximity or intimacy, she’d perceived that I felt relief.
“Yes it is. We should go back in.”
I waited for her to get up in order for me to follow. She continued to cling to me. “…You can stop hugging me now.”
“In a minute.”
“….I promise I’m feeling much better.”
“I can tell, but I need to tell you something and it just occurred to me that this may be the safest position from which to do it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s something that happened a while back before some various other things happened–”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Can you just tell me what it is you wanna say?”
“You should know that I’m really excited about my wedding day and I’d be devastated if you weren’t there.”
“You won’t be devastated, of course I’m gonna be there! Say what you wanna say.”
She released me, but remained seated in the chair with me. “I invited Suitor to the wedding.”
The sound of his name coupled with the promise of being in his presence set my heart racing. “Oh really?”
I hastened to my feet and toward the back entrance of the cafe. “That’s fine. Now let’s–”
I turned to her from the door. “Yes…As long as he stays away from me, there won’t be a problem.”
“So you’re not upset?”
“Do you want me to be upset?”
“Oh, no!” She took a few steps towards me. “I’m elated that you’re taking it this well, given how annoyed you were by the very thought of him before.”
I turned away abruptly and opened the door.
She interrupted my stepping through the door. “Why aren’t you upset?”
I closed the door and faced her. “Are you serious?”
Her eyes suddenly widened with excitement. “Did you change your mind about him?”
Her eyes grew even wider. “Did something happen between you two?”
“No–nothing–just no.” I took a deep breath. “It’s your wedding and you want him there, so he’ll be there.”
“I invited him before I introduced to you two.”
“Again, that’s fine…As long as he stays away from me, there won’t be a problem. Can we please go inside and talk about something else?”
Suspicion lingered in her gaze. “Okay…”
I entered the cafe, she followed.