Christopher sat on a bench, waiting. His left leg bounced restlessly, the one sign of movement in the otherwise tranquil garden. The thrum of Bloomfield Hills was muted by the surrounding park, incapable of penetrating those forested boundaries. Once past the second layer of trees people were enveloped in nature’s lull.
His anxiety was due in part to a flight he had to catch. Fearing he’d be late, he always left far too early for events and appointments. About to leave, he’d been inspired to stop at the garden and say a last goodbye to Catherine. She went there on Sundays and her continued absence added to his anxiety. Time seemed to be moving at an accelerated speed in that placid space. He’d have to leave for the airport soon.
He was going to California and would be there indefinitely. He’d miss all of his friends, but was particularly disheartened to leave Catherine. No one who knew them would describe their relationship as intimate, having met through the friends of friends, but he’d recently stumbled upon her in the very garden where he now waited. Since then, he proceeded to visit her there, unbeknownst to the rest of their circle. His job as a consultant had him traveling constantly. Maintaining professional ties often forced him to sacrifice his personal ones. With Catherine, though, it was always easy. He’d come to anticipate the arrival of every Sunday.
A movement caught his eye. Turning to it, he saw her gliding along the path. She’d yet to notice Christopher and it showed. He never saw her as free as when she thought herself alone. In brief spaces of time, when she was grabbing something from her kitchen, or walking up a seemingly vacated staircase, she completely let her guard down. Christopher saw it in the relaxed lines of her shoulders, in the smooth oval of her face. Only then was she truly herself. He took the opportunity to marvel at the sight of her. She dressed her long, slim form in fitted jeans with a white button-down tucked in. Her trim waist peaked through a gray-blue pea coat open to the new spring air. The ensemble was nothing special, but the lack of ostentation to her clothes only heightened her beauty.
Her gaze trailed along a line of azaleas, leading her eyes to meet Christopher’s. The carefree woman he’d just seen vanished as swiftly as sparks when lighting a match. She maneuvered her mouth into a smile, as though her bliss from moments before was nothing compared to laying eyes on someone she knew. Christopher both admired and repulsed at the way she perfectly maintained appearances. When had she mastered that art of social grace, where every gesture and movement, every glance and word spoken, was meticulously decided upon? She knew how to work a room, make people bow before her subtle glamour and mask of agreeability. Before an audience, she was always in complete possession of herself. Their friends were just as counterfeit—even he indulged in their fraudulent mannerisms—but there was a degree of trust in their lies, as if bought in by their own illusions. Nor did they carry it off as well as she did, which made hers all the more alluring.
Catherine strode towards him, her smile deepening. “Hey!”
She laughed at his uninspired response, brushing some of her corkscrew curls from her face. “Shouldn’t you be on a plane by now?”
“Eh, I’ve got some time. Figured I’d come by, see if you were here.” He gestured toward the path. “Shall we?”
They started walking. Dutifully cultivated by a group of elderly women, the garden’s flowerbeds were small clumps organized in straight lines running east to west, with spaces of grass in between the orderly rows. The width of the gaps often tempted them to walk along it and acquire a better look at the flowers, but the garden’s keepers frowned upon such behavior. They preferred people to gaze from a respectable distance. One of the volunteers was there working on her precious flowers, so they appreciated from the path.
Catherine broke the momentary silence. “So, you ready for California?” She exuded the role of sympathetic ear. He obliged with a diatribe on the Golden State.
Having already heard similar complaints, Catherine took that moment to examine him. He looked better than the other night, annoyed as he was by the crowded assemblage of people saying their goodbyes. She wondered if he’d spoken with Jacob. Probably not, much to their friends’ dismay. According to them, Christopher and Jacob were soul mates. They’d been celebrating their one-year anniversary when she’d met them four years back. But Jacob had grown tired of the ease with which Christopher left for work and ended things a few months ago. They hadn’t spoken since, as far as she knew. She could hear Christopher finishing his tirade and floated off her train of thought back to him.
“Anyway, enough about me. How are the plans going?” he said.
She reflexively looked down at the engagement ring, which drank in the sunlight and spewed it out in shards. “They’re fine, thanks. It’s all sort of surreal. Sometimes I have to confirm it. Like, yeah: I’m getting hitched!” She laughed, putting her teeth on display. They were gems in and of themselves: straightened by corrective braces, but not possessing that ostentatious color one sees in oral care commercials. Rather, they glowed with the off-white luminescence of pearls. But her blatant observation fell flat, so she moved on to another pointless consideration. “Seems crazy.”
“Do you love him?” Christopher asked. When they were alone together, she seemed to slide out of her poised shell, but she’d just as easily slip back in. It was her dance, and he could never be sure whether or not she was as natural with him as when by herself. She and Daniel looked the ideal couple, but he assumed it was as much a charade as anything else. He’d never pushed her on this, believing it wasn’t his place. But she’d presented him with an opening and figured he’d look inside.
Catherine halted on the question. No one had thought to ask this. Their friends enthusiastically supported the match, but she thought it made sense to them, considering she and Daniel were the only black people in the group. And what reason would they have not to? By saying yes to the proposal, it was implied that she loved Daniel. She couldn’t say for sure. What was love, anyway? She liked Daniel that was certain. And, at twenty-seven, she was still of the age when getting married was a romantic notion rather than a desperate act. But she couldn’t say that. To save face, she hurriedly said, “Yeah, of course.”
Christopher, though tempted to probe further, acquiesced. The awkward exchange about love left them off-kilter, so they took a few moments to look around. Encircling the garden was a ring of pale trees. Their warped limbs, bare of leaf, looked like hands coming out of the ground, straining for the sky, or maybe something greater and more improbable. The density of the branches enclosed them. Alone, save for the sole garden keeper, there was the sense that they were within their own private world.
She was grateful for the quiet. With Daniel or their friends, the conversation had to flow from hello to goodbye, by force if necessary. It was rare to find someone you could be silent with, where you could just be.
All her life she’d played it safe, saying and doing what was expected of her. As a child, classmates would glare at her hair and dark brown skin. So, she became invisible, closing in on herself and learning to sit perfectly still. She wouldn’t voluntarily answer a question, it had to be put to her by the teacher. When taking notes, she wrote with the tiniest of strokes until the tension in her fingers was unbearable. This worked up through primary school, but things changed once she got to college. Her reticent manners intrigued people. They thought themselves tolerant and began conversing with her. She was amicable to their attentions and friendships ensued. Catherine had been elated, for this was much easier than navigating the world as a ghost. The ease in letting go, coupled with the joy of being accepted, produced the loveliest sensation. Then they became comfortable enough to ask invasive questions and provide ignorant judgments on “her people,” quickly stating that she, of course, was different. They approved of her measured voice and harmless wit. Memories of moving through the world alone staved off her heated replies. The last thing she wanted was to make a scene and consequently lose them forever. One day, she’d been unnerved at how easy it was to put on the mask.
She graduated, but saw the same people, and the circle expanded as time went on. Then Daniel came along and fell under the same spell, entranced to the point of dating her. She admired his audacity, how he always spoke his mind, something she’d never been able to do. But he wouldn’t call people out when it really mattered. She’d wanted to discuss it, but the one time she tried he cut her off, praising her for always doing things with such grace and dignity. She never brought it up again.
There was a physical barrier between them as well. When he teased her neck or brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, she felt nothing. Every part of her body was numb to his delicate touches, neither out of excitement nor revulsion. Every expression of his intimacy did nothing for her. It was as if her nerves were tree roots languishing in stale soil.
Things were different with Christopher. He managed to work through her reserve and establish a candor. And there were times when he seemed to be aware of her discomfort. She’d sense a knowing look from him, letting her know he understood. Then the other night, at his farewell party, he put his hand on her bare forearm as she was leaving. His touch left a charge along her body, and their eyes met. It seemed as if they were exchanging something to keep for their time apart. What had facilitated this, she had no idea, but the moment had been overwhelming. She ran away from it then. Now, with Christopher here, she wasn’t sure what to think.
“I’ll miss this the most,” he said.
“The garden, the change of seasons. California’s just a dry wasteland waiting to fall into the Pacific.”
“It can’t be all that bad. Besides, it’s not forever.” He didn’t reply, so she prodded him. “It isn’t, right?”
“No. Still, I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Things happen, you know?”
“Sure.” Catherine forgot that life with Christopher would be long expanses of waiting for him to return. The brief reprieves of his company would be tinged with the apprehension of him heading off again. Jacob had proven that. She could see her future with Christopher: youth fading, her body grown weak from sitting idly by, loneliness her true companion. What good was a partner if he was merely a presence in your life? At least Daniel would be there.
A large cloud blocked out the sun and a shroud of shade passed over the park. For a moment, the garden seemed to have lost all pigment, just a swathe of gray. As swiftly as it had appeared, the cloud moved along the sky and light fell upon the landscape. Christopher enjoyed watching it race towards him, like drawing back a curtain of shadow across the world to welcome in the sun. As the light descended, he saw Catherine tilt up her face, and her flawless complexion glowed. She stopped to look at a patch of lilies. The faded hues of her clothes and the colorful array of flowers made her shine only brighter. Without thought or consideration he said, “You’re lovely.”
She quickly turned to him at this. Daniel complimented her all of the time, but it seemed like part of a to-do list. With Christopher, his manner was so candid and honest that, when he said something like this, you knew it to be genuine. At a loss for words, she was about to smile, but caught the glance of the woman tending the flowers, who stared at them as if in judgment. Christopher noticed the woman and moved away from the flowerbeds, whispering “We must’ve been too close for her liking.”
Catherine shrugged and they continued walking, but she’d read the look for what it was. She couldn’t feign shock that the woman would oppose their being together, though she’d been mistaken about Christopher. How could he understand the intricacies of her life when he didn’t know even that simple aggression? Daniel refused to talk about it, but at least that came from a place of comprehension. Which was better, in a way. She didn’t have to dwell on the matter and explain, Daniel immediately understood. It took so much work for her just to exist in the world, a relationship should relieve her of that. How can you love someone when they know nothing of what it’s like to be in your skin?
Christopher checked the time on his phone. “Guess I should be heading off.” They stopped near the exit.
“Well then.” She flashed him another one of her smiles. “So long.”
“So long.” He offered his hand.
She hesitated, then accepted it with her own. A jolt went through her body, making it come alive, the way she imagined a flower opened its petals to the sun. Never before had she been so conscious of the canvas that was her body. He managed to acknowledge every fiber through that single point of contact, from the stirring roots of her hair to the humming soles of her feet. In that moment, the trajectory of her life did not seem so absolute. She could call off the wedding. She could wait for Christopher, however long it took, just so that they’d have their chance. Everything seemed possible within the compressed space of their hands holding each other.
He felt it, too. Something had been building up in him for months, kindled by their first meeting in the garden, culminating to the other night. He hadn’t recognized it then, nor understood what brought him to the garden instead of the airport. Looking at her, thus united, he’d never been more certain. Yet something made him let go and leave her.
Catherine remained with her hand extended as if petrified. The fingers, chilled by the breeze, huddled into a fist, the arm falling to her side. She looked off to the pale trees, which she hadn’t given much thought before, but now found mesmerizing. About to crumple, she closed her eyes. Such displays of emotion weren’t suitable in public. Once restored, she exited the garden.
Stephen Jackman’s work can be found in Burnt Pine Magazine and Ellipsis Zine: One.