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The Smiling Man
He held the red ribbon, yes, on the bench- he waited. Every day he waited. He waited, and he thought. Of spring and summer years past, long, long ago- when, no one was quite sure, but yes, he thought of then. Of days passed in the sun’s approving gaze, washed in the showers of spring’s cleansing rain. In the park which had become his second home. The park that was away- away from the city’s roar, the road’s rush, the noise. The park that he loved. Here, on the bench he sat and look at the beautiful bending tree, curved protectively over the winding path. The path lined with cherry trees, pink in their springtime blossom- bending to and fro in the cool breeze. The scent of flowers wafted through the air, stimulated with the cool embrace of spring’s presence. Here, where it was peaceful he thought. He thought, and he smiled, and he waited.
Day after day he waited, week after week, he waited. Seasons passed, leaving their marks on the shoes that everyday sat upon the black, black path which wound between the sun bathed trees. Under the cherry tree he’d wait. His face aged by sun and many happy days long past, lay everyday in the fading light of sunset into star-shining night. Until, as always, he’d pick up his black felt hat, stow the red, red ribbon in his coat pocket, stand up, hitch up his once blue jeans, relieve a moment’s sigh, and walk back towards the bending trees.
But yet everyday he’d come back, smiling as always, and he’d sit. Rain or shine he’d sit there and think of the days he had spent under this very same cherry tree. Spring days that bent and lent their sunshine to the warm hold of summer rays, days that were just like this one. Long ago he was here. With her. Here, happy. Here, in love.
On this bench he thought of her. The way she laughed- like the far-off ringing of bells, her eyes sparkling and looking upon him with their blue, blue shining glory. He thought of her jet black hair tied back, but fighting whatever tamed it as shiny strands fell upon her smiling face. He thought of the peace he’d found so long ago, with her. The peace that he’d lost somewhere in the passing years, lost in all the waiting, the heartbreak, the sadness. Yes, he remembered those days well. He remembered her well.
Children would pass his bench at dusk running home as their mother and fathers had bid them, always keeping their distance from “The Smiling Man” who sat upon that bench each day, smiling and laughing to himself.
“Keep away from that man, children,” the parents would say, “Don’t speak to him. He’s not right up here,” and at this they’d motion to their heads, as if where they were going with the statement was a total mystery. And then they would shake their heads at “that poor man” who sat alone every day and smiled to himself.
They didn’t know he was waiting. They didn’t notice the ribbon he stroked with his idle hands. They didn’t see him watching the path that led to him- him with his old, patient eyes. The old, wise eyes of the Smiling Man. No, no one knew what he knew. Beneath the bending trees he’d watch the children run, the couples kiss, the people pass, none knowing why he watched so intently. But he did, because he was waiting.
When people passed him, he didn’t blink. He remained intent upon those bending trees. He would see them as they were long ago, gracefully bowed over him as he held her hand. As he kissed her. As he laughed with her. As he raced her, falling behind and hearing her laugh when she crossed the finish line ahead of him. This is when he would smile. Yes, they were good days. So good, he thought, that they still held their grasp on his heart. They still left they’re mark. Yes, he still did his best to live in them.
Good days when he was young, when his hair wasn’t so mixed with grey, his hands weren’t wrinkling, his eyes weren’t shadowed with his dark, dark eyebrows. When his heart wasn’t so tired- tired of waiting. His middle age suited him, except for the fact that he was alone. And, he knew, he might always be. But, he thought, pulling the ribbon back and forth between his fingers, he would wait. Yes, he’d told her that he would, and he would.
The people passing didn’t know, but he had promised to wait here. He remembered the day she’d left. He’d begged her not to, but she said she had no choice. She had to go back home, she had to go. She couldn’t stay- at this she faltered, bit her lip. He remembered holding desperately to her hand, watching her tears gather before her beautiful blue eyes, begging it not to be true. Holding onto her, holding onto summer.
“I will write,” he said, wiping the tears from her cheek, pushing a strand of black, black hair from her tearstained face.
“No,” she said. “You can’t- he said…” And at this she tried to turn, but he still held her hand.
“I have a life there. I have to go to college- Med school, I have to grow up. I can’t escape with you…” she paused for a moment, as if trying to think of what to say, “I have my own life to make. I need to figure out who I am before I’m allowed- I mean, I can stay.”
He remembered watching these words pass her face, as if she didn’t quite believe them. As if they were words that someone had spoken for her. And looking back, he suspected that they were.
“I will wait,” he said, forcing her crying eyes to face him. “Every day I will wait. Right here, I’ll wait for you.”
Smiling a small, sad, sad, teary smile, she kissed his hand, and then his forehead, untied the red ribbon from her hair, wrapped it up in his fingers, and then turned and slowly walked away. And then he sat, where he still sat today, with a broken heart, but yet filled with the hope that the good days just might return. Hoping, waiting, with the red ribbon in his hand. And yet, 28 years later, he still sat here, thinking of the old days, waiting. And he’d waited every day since then, every afternoon until evening, on that park bench, smiling and remembering the old days.
He remembered the hope fading as months past, and then a year and more- each leaving their ruthless note on his face and clothes as he grew older- let go of hope and entered the cleansing arms of reminiscence. And yet, each day that he waited fruitlessly, his heart broke a little more and he let himself forget that glimmer of hope he had allowed himself up on sitting down at that bench. But still he sat at this same bench, clothed in fallen cherry blossoms, waiting, not because he held out hope that someday she would come back, but because it was all he knew. To wait. He waited to look back on those days, the only truly happy ones that he’d ever knew. He waited to try to gain back all the happiness he knew he’d wasted all in those spring and summer months so long ago. And he lived in those summer days with her- the last glimmer of hope passing back and forth before his eyes like the last view of her shimmering black hair passing behind those bending trees, too, too far away to reach out and grasp.
And today, this cool summer day, there he sat, still trying to find a way to hold out hope that he knew wasn’t there. Reaching in the nothingness- he could find nothing but the ribbon to tie him to those days so long ago. Something to make it real. He watched the trees sway back and forth, the sun peeking through the trees leaving rays of orange and pink sky seeming to fall down between the trees onto the black path, painting it like stained glass. The smiling man looked down at his feet, saw the years whose days left the laces frayed, the sole pulling from the rest of the shoe, held together with old transparent duct tape. The shoes were left, like he was, tired, but held together with resolve to keep going on. And then, out of pure habit, he pulled back the flap within the shoe and looked there, where it was written in fading pen:
Jack + Lauren 4EVER
Jack sighed. 28 years ago. He’d been 18. So young. So many days on this bench. So many hours spent in dreaming of the past and what tender fruits it bore. His watch clicked- ten times, twenty. He glanced down, saw the minute hand cast over the five, making the time 8:25. He sighed again. Blinking away the tears he knew were coming, he glanced up to the sky and closed his eyes.
He closed his eyes as he did every day when this moment came. When the sun dipped behind the bending trees, bathing the deserted park with the last light of day, yes, he closed his eyes. He closed his eyes because he knew another day was ending, another fruitless day of waiting, one more sunset edging its burning talons into his poorly healed broken heart. He had born many sunsets, many seasons changing, many quiet days- waiting.
Two tears made their solemn way in descending his tired face. Today, his 46th birthday, he had vowed would be his last day. He couldn’t handle any more of the heartbreak, the waiting, and the dreaming. The hope, he realized, was gone. Perhaps it had never been there, but in his heart he had hoped for it to be. He’d hoped for hope. The past had worn its way into his mind, tired out his heart and left him- wondering.
He looked back on that spring, seeing her eyes looking at him across the way, blue as the sky at dawn, and he thought it was love at first sight. Hadn’t she loved him when she held his hand on this very bench? Hadn’t she loved him when she laid her head on his shoulder when she was tired-and even, when she wasn’t? Hadn’t she loved him when she looked her deep blue into his brown ones? These were questions which wrenched his very soul each day he sat there, tortured him when all the smiles were gone. But then- she’d left, at the end of the summer, she left, as if she had had no choice, no desire to stay.
It was her father, he suspected. Her father that put those words in her mouth. It was so cliché in hindsight, so typical of a summer love story, but yet, this was what he suspected. The idea of Lauren falling in love and giving up on college so young scared her practical father- it wasn’t part of the plan. Med school, money, good fortune, and security.
But why hadn’t she come back? Why hadn’t she finished school and found him in this park again? He had waited, and waited, and waited just like he’d told her he would. He missed her shiny black ponytail, always tied back with a colored ribbon. He missed the way she spoke to him, those huge blue eyes looking directly and deep into his own. But now, he knew, it was time to move on, time to forget about the summer. It had been too long.
He laid his head back. Why had he wasted so much time here? 28 years of his life, gone because she didn’t come back. A part of him knew the reason- because he couldn’t let go of how much he loved her, but he wished that he could. Perhaps he had given up long ago, but the last day was a big step to take.
Jack opened his eyes, took a deep breath of the flower scented air, took in every detail of this park- the park which had defined his life for so long. The light song of the running stream. The soft, soft sound of the leaves blowing. The color of the fallen leaves, left behind long after autumn faded. The wind ruffled through the trees, blowing cherry blossoms through the air. The sun was setting, the air was cooling down and soon he knew it would be time to go.
But that day, he took his time, taking in every detail of the bending trees, the winding paths, and the cherry trees, the flower gardens, the occasional boulder left among the green lawn. Jack let another two tears fall down his cheek and then removed the ribbon from his warm jacket pocket. Feeling the cool, smooth material between his thumb and forefinger, trying to absorb all that it had represented for him, Jack tried to keep the flood of memories from crushing him. Opening his palm, he let the ribbon fly away on the breeze. Jack didn’t look to see where it went, he just kept looking forward, smiling a small, painful smile at what he considered a last view of a familiar place.
He remembered a day back that spring, when he and Lauren lay back under the shade of the giant maple. And they just lay there, not talking, but just laying there, as if they could stay there forever. But they didn’t: it was over now.
Jack gathered himself, lifted his hat, secured it on his head, and stood. Turning, he gave the bench one last sidelong glance, smiled to himself, and heaved a great sigh. “Goodbye,” he whispered, and he turned around.
He passed by the finish line of their races, passed the tree that they would climb together, passed where he’d first reached for her hand. He passed that summer, trying with all his heart not the feel the eternal loss that leaving the park meant for him. Footsteps behind him kept rhythm with the blow of the wind, but in his reminiscence, he thought nothing of it. Under the bending trees, he stopped.
This marked the gateway to the rest of his life, he thought to himself. He left Lauren behind him. Under the bending trees, centered in the pathway, he took one last breath, and then he whispered yet again, “Goodbye.” His heart felt the words in all their weight, and yet they offered him an eery amount of comfort. Yes, he thought, finally a true goodbye. A sigh moved through the depths of his lungs, sighing, and then blowing out his lips in a cool release. He put his hands in his pockets, and took another step.
One foot out of the park, Jack could feel all of the pain melting away and he settled back into his routine. He was simply leaving the park behind, like he did every other day of his life, nothing more. There was fluidity in his movement despite his age; he held his head up high, and walked on.
Jack’s fingers fumbled in his pockets, still shaking slightly. At finding his keys, he lifted them and inserted them into the lock. Something clicked; the door opened. His apartment bloomed out of the open door, dark, dusty, quiet.
Home sweet home, he thought to himself, throwing his keys onto the table beside him. “Hmmm…,” he hummed. So little to do here. The gentle sound of the radiator was the only thing to be heard from where he stood. Outside, he could see the first stars beginning to appear in the indigo sky, outlined by the light of the full moon.
Looking around, he glanced at the piles of mail on his kitchen table. Sighing, he supposed to himself that he should look through the gathered catalogs, magazines, and bills from the past week. As he did so, he hummed a solemn song. A letter fell to the floor.
Struggling to keep his balance, Jack reached down and picked the letter up. It was a candy-striped envelope, with curly handwriting dancing across its thin contents. Jack’s heart beat faster. Only one other person that he had known in his life ever wrote in such a way. With the same kind of candy-striped envelope.
His heart beating in his chest, he lifted the letter opener and ripped into the light paper. As he did, a song came to his lips, and he smiled. Singing the same song that he and Lauren had danced to together, he felt the paper in his hands. He opened it and began to read. As he did, the smiling man smiled to himself.
My Dear Jack,……