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The Girl in the Park
There was something so strange about her.
Something mystifying and enchanting and utterly feral, something that I have tried to identify for decades. I will always be haunted with memories of her and her brilliantly peculiar way of being. She remains the greatest mystery of my life, an impenetrable enigma, a puzzle I was never quite able to solve. I don’t know that I loved her. She was never completely embedded in my heart, but she did engulf my soul, and for the years that I knew her she stuck in my thoughts like a blade.
I was nine when I met her. She was in the park, wearing a coat with embroidered teal spirals on a backdrop of tangerine wool, a plaid scarf wound once around her ginger curls and rainbow striped leggings tucked into knee-high converse sneakers. It was a very unusual ensemble for a young girl, and I was instantly a little afraid of her. I imagined she had special powers, like a young sorceress, and thought she might jinx me if I came too close. Instead of approaching, I zipped up my navy jacket and went to sit on the swings, breathing in the sharp, smoky tang of autumn and oncoming darkness.
I dragged the toes of my private school loafers through the dying grass; sneaking furtive looks at the freckle faced girl. She was sitting on a grafftitied bench at the perimeter of the playground and she was bent over a sketch pad, brows knitted in fierce concentration. I was suddenly wild with curiosity, seized with a dreadful urge to march over and demand to look at her sketch. I didn’t know her, yet I believed she must have drawn something bizarre and magnificent. And at the time, I would have sold an organ for the chance to see it.
I squirmed on the swing, picking at my unraveling sleeve. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her move; she glanced up, noticing me for the first time, and put her drawing aside. I could feel her watching me with this burning, unsettling focus, waiting to see what I would do next. I turned my face to the sky, where stars were beginning to emerge. It was a game of strategy now, and it was my move. I turned my head a little to the right, looking her reluctantly in the eye, and felt my cheeks grow hot under her sharp gaze.
We stared at each other. I clenched my jaw, fearing that I would burst into a sudden fit of helpless giggles. The moment stretched between us like a gossamer thread. The slightest ill step could snap it.
Then she raised her small, mittened hand in a solemn wave, and just like that, her world opened to include to me.
I stood up, heart thumping behind my ribs.
She stood, too. A tendril of carroty hair escaped from beneath her scarf, slipping over one eye. She clasped her hands behind her back and looked squarely at me. I blushed a second time, stomach fluttering with an odd, ambiguous mixture of fear, embarrassment, and defiance.
I was a lonely child; far too accustomed to others’ cruelty. I had a habit of assuming the worst about people, believing they were judging when they were only observing me, or convincing myself that the whispered conversations at recess were about my ill-fitting second hand uniform and derelict school bag.
I never imagined this girl might be lonely, too.
I stared at her for a moment, wagering the risks I might face if I chose to speak to her. Pros and cons chased themselves around and around in my head only to leave me where I started, curious and a little frightened, overwhelmed with the inexplicable urge to know more about the girl staring back at me.
So, I took a cautious step in her direction. She granted me the ghost of a smile.
I walked nervously up to her, stopping when there was little more than a foot between us. She regarded me with large, grey eyes.
With shaking hands and pounding heart, I swallowed and drew myself up to my full height.
“I was wondering if I could see your drawing,” I choked out.
“You can,” she said calmly, “If you show me something of yours.”
I gaped at her. I was a thoroughly uncreative child, and my artistic skills extended to a few badly painted family portraits and three homemade model airplanes. I had nothing of value to show her.
“I’ll leave, then,” I said impetuously. “Because I don’t have anything to show you and I’m not going to ask you to bend the rules for me. I’m really not worth it.”
She looked funny, as though she was on the verge of laughing and sobbing all at once. “That’s okay,” she said. “Don’t leave.”
“But what about—“
“You don’t have to show me now. You will someday.”
She said this as though she had seen into the future and knew that I kept my promise. And I probably would, because I was stupidly honorable. Even then.
“I will,” I said. “I promise. I’m Jay, by the way.”
She extended her hand in the dusky dimness, and I shook it.
“That’s funny,” she said, dimples showing in her freckled cheeks.
“Your initials are the reverse of mine. I’m Cornelia Jackson. Well. Cornelia Feather Jackson.”
I frowned at her middle name, baffled. “Feather?”
“My great aunt wanted it to be Angel, but my mother thought that was too silly. She decided to name me after a part of an angel’s wings, instead. She thinks of it as a more subtle allusion.”
“Oh,” I said. I was nine years and three months old and still struggled with words like coax and calculate. “Wow.”
Cornelia retracted her mittened fingers from my grasp and turned to the bench, lifting her sketch pad to the light of a nearby street lamp. She opened it and flipped through the ink laced pages until she came to the last drawing. She held it out to me, and I took it, cradling it as though it were a fragile family heirloom.
She nudged her chin at it. “What do you think?”
Like a swimmer preparing to dive into deep waters, I took a great gulp of air and looked down at the paper in my hands. Sprawled on the page was an elaborate, delicately rooted sapling, which seemed to be an artful hybrid of plant and human. Veins twisted up the sapling's thin trunk and I saw that one of them had been severed; it bled drops of black blood.
The image made my head swim. “Damn,” I breathed.
I had been brought up not to swear, but no amount of alphabetic sawdust seemed able to express my wonderment. Cornelia couldn’t be much older than me, but she already possessed more skill and passion than most adults.
I wanted to tell her that her drawing was as bizarre and magnificent as I thought it would be, but as I stood absorbing her strange, wonderful picture, all words deserted me. I was awestruck.
“It’s amazing,” I murmured after a long pause. “It’s incredible.”
“Have it,” said Cornelia.
I shook my head violently. “No, I’ll rip it or lose it or spill something on it, and then you’ll regret giving it to me for the rest of your life.”
She took the sketch book back from me and in one swift motion, she ripped the drawing free. It flapped in her hand like a bird crafted from paper and ink, and I imagined it flying off into the infinite night sky stretching over our heads. She reached into the pocket of her funny, embroidered coat and fished a pen from it. Then she wrote a few quick words beneath the roots of her baby tree.
“Take it,” she said in that low, warm voice I would come to treasure. “You have to go.”
I stared at her, confused. She nodded to a spot over my left shoulder, and I swung around to see my father leaning against our ancient red Volkswagen. He waved at me and pointed to his watch.
“How did you know—“
Cornelia pressed the paper into my hands. “He stands just like you.”
I took another look at my father. His shoulders were slumped, his arms crossed tight across his chest and the top of his thinning scalp was visible as he stared at the ground, dragging his shoe through the dirt. He looked as though life had been a great disappointment to him.
And I realized Cornelia was exactly right.
I clutched onto her drawing with a kind of ferocious desperation I’d never felt before.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Something akin to hope bloomed in my chest as I imagined seeing her again. Despite all her eccentricity, I felt I could trust her with anything and I believed we could become friends. The universe had brought us together for some weird and wonderful reason, and now we were irreversibly connected. The world could fall and all of civilization turn to dust, but nothing could break our bond. Of that I was certain.
“Goodbye,” said Cornelia.
“I’ll look for you,” I called over my shoulder, scrambling off into the shadows toward my waiting father.
I didn’t see her again for a long time.
I returned to the park the next day, and many after that, searching fruitlessly for a glimpse of a ginger haired girl in an embroidered coat and plaid scarf. I was determined to find Cornelia, inflated with hope and assurance, but as the days slipped past with no sign of her, I grew angry. Soon she would be no better than a ghost; all I had of her was a fragile memory. And that drawing. And those two words squeezed between the inky roots of her sapling:
I graduated college when I was twenty-one, full of exhaustion and contentment and pride. My family glowed with my accomplishment, and when I returned home with my parents, they paraded me around my aunts and uncles and grandparents like wind-up toy. I was a symbol of success and achievement—the first of my family to attend college—and everyone seemed to forget that I was a human being as well. No one asked me if I’d kissed a girl or stayed out until four in the morning; dancing and drinking and laughing, or sneaked onto the rooftop of the astronomy center to watch airplanes mingle with the stars. Their interest in my college experience seemed only to extend to academics. The rest was not of any importance.
So I became a recluse that summer, keeping to my room where I read great Latin classics, studied mold colonies under my old microscope, and painted bleak, brooding pictures of eyeballs and black butterflies and other strange things. It was a lonely time, made worse by the fact that no one seemed to understand the thoughts churning inside my head.
On a sinfully humid day in August, I left the house and went wandering down to the park where I had spent so much time as a child. It was empty of people. The swings hung listlessly and the glaring sun shone hotly on the metal slides, blinding me for a moment. I picked my way through the sun burnt grass and went to sit on one of the swings. It creaked in protest and felt too feeble to support my new, adult stature. I hadn’t sat on the swings since I was fourteen.
As I sat there, I began to think of Cornelia Jackson. The memory of her made my chest ache, and I was overwhelmed with a horrid sense of melancholy. What had happened to her? Why had she never returned to the park? It occurred to me that she had never promised to come back, but my childish optimism had always believed she would. Funny how some people interacted with you on a daily basis for decades and had little impact, while others flitted into your life for an instant and changed everything.
I was just getting ready to abandon the park and return home, when out of the blue, someone sat down on the neighboring swing. I turned to see who it was.
When I did, the world stuttered on its axis.
A long limbed, ginger haired, freckle faced young woman was gazing at me, eyes soft and wild. I was so utterly flabbergasted I was hardly able to remember my own name, but a thought did drift to me, as though through fog. She looked tremendously sad, infinitely so. She had the face of someone who had seen stars die.
I gawked dazedly at her. My mind was blank and my body was humming, every fiber stretched taut as a violin string. This was Cornelia, and though she was older and much changed, she still had that air of inscrutability and knowing. It was unrepeatable, unmistakable, unforgettable.
She looked as though she might speak, but before she could say a word I hurled myself at her and kissed her hard, heart spasming with years of pent up frustration, fear, and grief. A brief moment passed, then she tore her mouth from mine and shoved me back. I stumbled, struggling to stay balanced.
She seized my shoulders with her pale hands and looked into my eyes. “Jay, do you remember the drawing?”
“I—well, yes, of course.” I still had it, tucked in the bottom drawer of my desk.
“Do you remember what I wrote on it?”
“Yes.” I swallowed, still feverish and bewildered from kissing.
“What did I say?”
“You said ‘I’m sorry.’”
Cornelia released her grip and stood. A tear glistened on her cheekbone. “I am sorry,” she said. “I truly am.”
I had never heard a human voice sound so much like breaking glass.
“I looked for you,” I said, mortified when my voice shook. “I looked for you and you never came back.”
One of Cornelia’s flaming curls slipped over her eye, as it had done so many years ago.
“We could have been friends,” I went on. “I wanted us to be friends. I was so goddamn lonely, and I’m still goddamn lonely and I needed someone to trust. I needed you.”
The tear slipped softly down the freckled slant of her cheek, and I wanted so badly to reach out and brush it away. Instead I stood guarded and stiff, my insecurities reawakened as I gazed into her galaxy eyes.
“And I still do.”
The hem of Cornelia’s yellow dress flicked a little in the breeze. She looked like someone who was balanced on the edge of a knife blade; no matter which way she fell her life would never be the same.
I stared at her, throat tight. “Who the hell even are you?”
She did not answer. She turned sharply on her heel, walking barefoot away from me.
“No!” I bellowed. “Don’t do this! I need an answer; I need to know why you came back!”
Cornelia strode unflinchingly past the monkey bars and I marched furiously in her wake. A flock of sparrows took flight in alarm.
“I was looking for you,” she said suddenly, and I stopped dead, blooding pounding in my ears.
“Yeah, well. It didn’t make any difference, did it?”
“It isn’t going to.”
She spun around to face me, and I felt vaguely nauseous.
“No, you’re right, because I waited thirteen years for you and never came back.”
“I couldn’t,” she whispered fiercely, despite the fact that we were the only ones on the playground.
“Why not? Because you liked being all mysterious, dangling the hope of friendship over my head? If you didn’t like me, why didn’t you just come out and say so? You left me with so much misery and confusion and unanswered questions, and look what it’s done to me!”
I was screaming.
“You must know it wasn’t that at all, Jay. It wasn’t about you. I liked you and believed in you the very instant you asked you to see my drawing, but I knew we. . .I knew it wouldn’t work out. It couldn’t.”
“Just tell me why!”
“I wish I could,” said Cornelia. “More than anything in the universe.”
And then she was walking again, making a beeline for a cluster of trees beside the curb. Her ginger hair was so long and wavy and luminous streaming down her back. The sight of it made my heart stutter.
I bit back a sob.
She was extraordinary, and it killed me.
Life pushed on.
I landed a job as a high school art professor and suffered through daily bus commutes to my main office in Queens, New York. I met a vivacious, intelligent English teacher at a teacher-staff costume party—I came as Albert Einstein and she came as Amy Pond, and after several dates we fell in love.
I did not think about Cornelia. I never forgot her, but the pain of remembering her was too exquisite to bear. I lived my life as though we’d never met, as though none of it had been real—and I may as well have been right, for Cornelia seemed as real as an apparition; baffling and beautiful, lost in the cold material world.
I never spoke of her to my wife, but struggled silently through my little heartbreak, only getting relief from it when we had our first child, Gregory, and I was swept up in the joyful turmoil of parenthood. I welcomed the chaos, and let Cornelia fall from my mind like sand slipping helplessly through a person’s fingers. But despite my greatest efforts, I was never able to sever the invisible bond between us. It is still anchored in my chest, thrumming warmly, and I believe it will remain there until the day I die.
Fifteen years and another son later, I was teaching fine art to college students in Manhattan, and thoroughly enjoying life. My wife was more remarkable than ever, my two sons were clumsy, adolescent wonders, and my career stretched before me with dizzying potential.
All was wonderful.
On a dreary Tuesday morning in March I stood shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for my bus to arrive. A light drizzle was falling and it created great pillows of mist that draped over the tree tops, muffling the sounds of early morning traffic.
I closed my transparent bubble umbrella as the greyhound bus rolled to a stop at the water stained curb. I boarded it with five other commuters, and we took our seats. Mine was always the window seat in the sixth row. I brushed raindrops from my leather satchel and sighed, leaning contently back on the Styrofoam headrest. With a soft hiss of steam, the bus pulled away from the sidewalk and began its ninety minute trek to the city. We rolled smoothly past restaurants and shoes stores and supermarkets, slowing a little as we came to the last stop on the route before Manhattan. A small, grey haired woman struggled up the rubber lined steps and onto the bus. She swiped her transit card, then tottered down the narrow aisle, looking for a place to sit.
She stopped at my row. I glanced up at her and flashed her a perfunctory smile.
“Do you mind?” she asked, pulling out one of her electric blue ear buds. A tinny strain of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” drifted from it.
“Not at all.” I moved my satchel to the floor, sandwiching it between my feet.
The woman sat and pulled a monstrous ball of yarn from her carpet bag. She glowered at it. “Every time I have a birthday, the only things my family can think of to give me are these damn balls of yarn. I don’t knit,” she muttered. “Doesn’t anyone know that? I don’t knit.”
She popped her ear bud back in and I smiled to myself.
I pulled my half completed book of Sudoku from my bag, and began solving a medium-hard puzzle on page forty-two. I was scribbling possible answers in the margins, utterly stumped, when my elderly seat mate smacked me on the arm.
I jumped and glared at her in angry bewilderment. “What?”
She jabbed her thumb at the window. “Someone’s trying to get your attention!”
The bus halted at a stop light just as I turned to look out the window. We were sitting beside the old playground I’d loved so dearly as a boy. The playground equipment was glistening with rain water. Nothing seemed out of place. Then I looked left, and saw a scarlet haired woman standing precariously on a grafftitied bench at the perimeter of the playground.
She knew it was me. And I knew it was her.
I rose halfway out of my seat, pressing my face to the cold window pane. The rain was falling harder now, soaking the grey eyed specter. Sudden tears stung my eyes and I grinned like a wild man, certain that I would split apart from the colossal swell of sorrow and joy within me.
The bus driver shot me a sour look in the rear view mirror and motioned for me to sit down. He eased down on the gas pedal and we began to inch forward. We had mere seconds before the traffic light turned and everything changed.
Tears spilled freely down my face, and I knew those weren’t just raindrops on Cornelia’s cheeks.
There were so many things I wanted to tell her and ask her, and I knew in my gut I would never get the chance. As I stood there gazing at her through the rain slicked window, I was filled with the most poignant kind of sadness, the kind associated with the unsaid, the unfinished, the incomplete.
The light turned green.
Cornelia raised her hand in a solemn wave, and just like that, her world opened to include me.
I raised my hand, too, and a smile flickered briefly on her face. Then the bus lurched forward and pulled into traffic, leaving her alone in the torrential rain.
I never saw her again.
There are two framed drawings on the wall of my art classroom. One of them is raw and rather poignant; a child’s depiction of a young tree struggling to survive in the world. There are two words written between the sapling’s shallow roots:
The other is of a strong, deeply rooted oak. It is covered with beautiful bark and lush with ink-crafted leaves. It, too, has a message tangled in its roots:
These drawings are the last thing I see before I leave my classroom each day.
They are beautiful.