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It was a quiet evening in the park. Windy and with a sharp cold. I trudged along the cement path, hands in my pockets, with only a couple streetlamps lighting the night. Music floated through my ears, Air Pods connected to the phone in my back pocket. Head down, eyes trailing the cracks in the cement, I walked toward the only place where I could let my thoughts free – the swing set. My feet walking on their own accord, the path I was taking all too familiar. I was only a few feet away from the swing set when I finally looked up – only to stop in my tracks. I noticed an unfamiliar figure already sitting on the swing set, head down with a hood over their head. Hesitantly, I took a step forward before stopping, the thought of just leaving them alone crossing my mind. But I sighed and shook my head. I had already come all the way here; I might as well just stay.
Tentatively, I walked forward slowly, placing my Air Pods back in their case, trying to make as little noise as possible.
“Hey,” I paused to see the person on the swing look at me in surprise, the light from the streetlamp revealing the now-emotionless face of a boy, around my age although I wasn’t sure. “Um, do you mind if I….” I trailed off in uncertainty, gesturing toward the empty swing on the right of him.
He looked me over and I started getting nervous under his stare before he broke the awkward silence, saying, “Go ahead.”
I had come to the swing set in order to sort through my worries but instead, I stumbled upon a situation that only added to those thoughts. I fidgeted with my hands nervously, swaying on the swing with small pushes off the ground.
As my eyes stayed fastened to the ground, I sensed him glancing at me. Thankful for the darkness, my cheeks flushed in embarrassment and panic as I second-guessed my decision.
Oh no, I’ve put him in an uncomfortable position. He couldn’t possibly have said no when I asked him. He would’ve sounded rude, and so that’s probably why he said I could sit here. But I’m probably just bothering him. I should’ve never come here in the first place when I saw him. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should just leave. It’ll cause less trouble and probably make both of us feel better.
Forcing myself to speak up, I started to lift myself off the plastic seat, cringing at my stutters of nervousness when I met his stare. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-I mean, I didn’t mean to ruin your time alone, and so I understand if you don’t want me to sit here. I don’t necessarily like other people barging into my company either. So, you can be honest with me if you want to be by yourself. I’ll leave you alone then…” I trailed off once again with an awkward laugh, now standing.
But before I could turn away, he responded calmly, “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude or give off the wrong message...It-it’s ok.”
When I glanced at him, uncertain, he nodded his head slowly, “Really. It’s fine.”
I watched as he grabbed the ropes of the empty swing and pushed it toward me, continuing to hold onto it so it wouldn't bump me. Slowly, I grabbed the ropes and sat down, still feeling nervous about this entire situation.
Suddenly, I noticed the sharp cold as a breeze passed through. I could hear the leaves rustling around us and although I enjoyed the weather, I couldn’t ignore the biting chill that enveloped me. I crossed my arms, trying to preserve as much body heat as possible, inwardly scolding myself for not thinking about bringing any jacket in this 40-degree weather.
I sensed movement in the corner of my eye, but I ignored it and looked towards the rest of the park. However, my thoughts were soon interrupted by a hand in front of me, holding a sweatshirt. I looked up in surprise to see the boy’s eyes looking down at me, the hoodie I saw him wearing earlier, offered in his hands. I looked to him and saw he was now only in a t-shirt. His comfort wouldn’t last more than a minute in this cold. I smiled gratefully but shook my head, “No, please, don’t worry about me, I’m fine. Thank you though.”
He opened his mouth to object, but I shook my head before surprising myself by firmly saying, “Really, it’s ok. It’s too cold for you to do that. It’s equal anyway, we are both probably the same amount of cold right now so it’s even. And if you gave me your jacket it would just be unfair.”
He smiled a little, and answered in a teasing tone that surprised me, “You had to give a full explanation for such a simple thing?”
His words made me smile, “I just…didn’t think you would listen…either way,” I added.
“Well, probably not.”
I grabbed his sweatshirt only to offer it back to him, and he shook his head with a chuckle before slipping the hoodie back over his head.
Suddenly, I realized that I probably ruined the silence that he had had before I came along. Feeling the need to apologize, my sentences came out in jumbles and I stumbled over a couple words. “Um, I’m sorry…actually. I usually come here when I need to sort through my thoughts, so I understand if that’s why you are here too. I know how it feels and I don’t exactly like when people interrupt me either, so I’ll try to stay silent from now on, I promise. So just-y’know forget I’m here…”
He glanced at me, and I could make out a small smile on his face. “I guess I could, but you seem to be talking a lot right now.”
I lowered my head, laughing nervously and cheeks flushing, “I-I’m sorry, I...I just get nervous when talking to strangers.”
He looked at me, “You also apologize a lot.”
“I’m sor-I mean…” I didn’t know what to say anymore, so I just fell silent.
He laughed again, “I’m just kidding, it’s fine.” He then reaches his hand out to me. “I’m Andrew.”
I looked at him, startled at his unexpected introduction before cautiously grabbing his hand and offering a small smile. “Oh…Nora. I’m Nora.”
“Cool,” he flashed another smile that put me more at ease, at least by a little bit. “Now we aren’t strangers anymore.”
I laughed shyly, “Uh yeah, I guess.”
For some reason, he found my uncertainty funny. I glanced at him as he asked, “So, you’re still nervous.”
He said it more like a statement than as a question. I smiled apologetically, “Yeah, I am. Thank you, though.”
I looked at him in surprise, unsure of how to answer. “Oh…um, I guess-Well I’m not all that sure to be honest…”
He laughed, and it encouraged me to continue. “I guess…thanks for trying to make me less nervous,” I laughed awkwardly, failing at trying to seem more confident.
In response, he laughed with real amusement. “It doesn’t seem to be working though.”
We sat in silence for only a little before another breeze passed and I shivered instinctively. I glanced up at him, hoping that he didn’t notice. But when I looked up, I met his intent stare. I winced inwardly as I saw him reach toward the hem of his sweatshirt. But I shook my head quickly with a silent answer. He shook his head in disbelief but also somehow knew that no matter how much he insisted, I wouldn’t take it.
I looked up at him as he broke the silence. “So, you come here often?”
He breathed in sharply, “I must have interrupted your night then, didn’t I?”
I leaned back in my seat, waving my hands frantically. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, this is usually the place I come to in order to get alone time but it’s not like I’m the only one who ever comes here. So, don’t worry.”
He smiled at my rant and nodded slowly, but I could tell he still felt a little guilty even if he tried not to show it.
“Did you have a lot of thoughts on your mind then?”
At that question, I felt the emotions I felt long before coming to the park sweeping back to me. I nodded silently, unsure whether I should explain but, either way, not daring to look up because I knew this boy was watching me. I tried my best to hide my emotions, discreetly taking a breath. But I could feel his piercing stare on me as if he knew exactly what I was feeling. And, of course, with my annoyingly sensitive nature, with the attention of his gaze on me, as much I tried to fight it, tears stubbornly welled up in my eyes.
With my eyes never leaving the ground, I was grateful for the hair that covered my face from his view, and I blinked back the tears before looking up at him. I made myself meet his eyes while forcing a smile. “I’m fine, really. It isn’t anything too bad.”
He stayed silent but from the way he didn't take his eyes off of my face, I knew he didn’t believe me. I met his eyes and, although there was the same hardness in there that I saw when I first met him, for the first time, I also saw some genuine worry within. For some reason, that glimmer of concern broke me because, for the first time, someone actually wanted to know my feelings, thoughts, and worries. And for some reason, with this stranger, I trusted that he would listen.
I stayed silent for a few seconds, but he started talking, his eyes never leaving me. He started off slowly, as if testing the waters. “For me…this is the first time coming here because….there’s just…been a lot of stress, y’know? I assume you understand. I…I just all of a sudden felt the need to get away. Maybe get a new change of pace or something. I’m not exactly sure what I was feeling and so…I just wanted to think. Not about school, for once,” He let out an embarrassed chuckle, and from the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head to stare at the street lamps instead before continuing, “I guess, instead of school, I just wanted to think about myself for once. I feel like sinking most days. I don’t know if that makes sense and I don’t know how to describe it, but my emotions are just…heavy. Every day. And I feel like I don’t want to do anything anymore. I feel like I don’t have the energy to even talk some days.”
His words cut through my throbbing spirit, and I looked up at him with glassy eyes. He turned to look at me and I finally saw myself in his eyes. I felt his worries and the stress that all mirrored my own. Deep beneath his hardened gaze, I glimpsed the cracks of self-doubt that hid behind his veiled black orbs. Suddenly, I wanted to just cry. Not for myself, but for him too. I wanted to let out the tears I had been holding back for so long, and I wanted to ask the universe why life had to be so hard, why life couldn’t be simple if it wouldn’t be easy. I wished I could help this boy so bad because I knew exactly how he felt. I knew exactly how exhausting it must be to dread waking up each day, to pretend to be fine with family and friends, and even to your own self, even though deep down you knew you needed help. You knew you needed someone or something to help carry you through. But you were too scared to ask, too scared to talk. I was reminded of the nights when I ran here without a second thought, when I knew I could not stay still without my tears betraying me. I was reminded of the nights when I escaped to this very place, taking comfort in the privacy and crying all I needed to with only the wind to listen to me.
Now deep in my thoughts, I was absentmindedly pushing off the ground until my feet were just barely off the floor, my hands gripping the ropes above me. But, because of that cloud of absentmindedness, I suddenly felt the confidence to speak.
“I…I feel like that too most days...” I didn’t dare meet the boy’s surprised gaze. I knew he hadn’t expected me to talk, but I knew if I did look at him, I would get too scared to continue. So I kept my eyes on the empty park and abandoned fields, looking out to the shadowed horizon. And I let myself talk. “I have insecurities. A whole lot of them. Sometimes…I hate my timidity, I hate my sensitivity, I hate how I look, and I’ll wonder if I have any skills, anything to show for. I watch my older sisters who seem to learn things so well, who seem to be able to do so much, while, even though I try so hard, I think I can never be as good as them. And I know it's wrong, but I think, is there any point then to trying...I know that mindset isn't good but...I just...I don't know what else to think because I feel like it's just too true. They are so much better than me at everything, and I just don't even know why I'm here if I'm just...useless.
And all these insecurities...to my family and friends, I’m scared to tell them. I’m scared to let them know just how empty and dark and worried I am each and every day. I don’t know what I’m scared of though. It might be because I’m scared of their reaction and if they will even take me seriously or if they will care. But it might also be because I’m scared of embarrassing myself, of saying the wrong things, of talking in way that makes them think I’m being overdramatic. And I don’t know how to say it – to anyone.” I paused, glancing at the unmoving presence next to me before taking a deep breath and continuing. “At this point, I assumed I would just live my life without telling anyone, and I thought I’d just handle my own problems by myself. I honestly never thought anyone other than me would know these things…and…I-I never thought I’d have the confidence to say it to be honest. Not just to others but…but to myself too….”
As I finally trailed off, I looked to the boy, meeting his eyes. And instead of pity like I expected, I saw understanding.
He let out a pained chuckle under his breath. He said flatly, “Life is hard, isn’t it?”
I smiled, grateful for his effort to lighten the mood.
Then he continued, his expression hardening. “If I’m being honest…I can’t know what you are feeling right now. But…but I’m glad you told me.”
I looked at him in surprise and he gave me a sad smile, “You should talk, y’know. You should let people know. It isn’t healthy to bottle it up inside and you’ll break someday, worse than before.”
“I know, but I-I just…I can’t…”
He looked at me with such a sudden fire and urging persistence that was so abrupt it almost scared me. I heard his firm tone of voice that half convinced me as he insisted, “No. You can. I know you can. You talked to me, didn’t you? You just have to be confident.”
Fidgeting with my fingers, I whispered, “But how…how can I when I-“
His voice was low now yet stronger still, his eyes darkened with resolve. His tone didn’t let me argue, and, although I gave up trying to explain, his firm determination in me stirred up some hidden confidence. I looked to him with a smile, tears threatening to fall from my eyes.
He gave me a smile – a smile full of so many emotions that probably mirrored my own. It was one, not only of sadness and of pain, but of understanding and of warmth.
By now, despite how hard I tried, the tears had escaped, and they slid silently down my cheeks. By now, my voice became a whisper as I tried to fight back the flood of emotions.
“Thank you…for listening.”
I felt his hands on my shoulders and I looked up, surprised to see him now standing in front of me. My vision hazy and my breathing quickening, I looked up into his face, and now, all I could feel was not my worries and doubts, but it was instead a shattering relief of a lightened conscience and a gratefulness to the boy in front of me that I could not explain.
I felt his cold hand on my cheek, brushing away my tears, and, in the light of the streetlamp, I saw his shining eyes and tear-stained face. I closed my eyes, my voice breaking as emotions poured out.
I opened my eyes.
“Thank you so so much.”
We stayed like that for a while longer – me sitting on the swing, him standing in front of me, both of us, heads down, silently releasing the tears that we previously held back, letting go of the burdens we had carried for far too long.
Washed in the light of that streetlamp, we clung to each other, taking comfort in our silent yet cherished understanding and the companionship that we could have only found through those bitter pain-filled memories.
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