There was a man sitting on her bench.
And that irritated Molly. She liked her solitude, and he was intruding on it. There would be precious little of it when her daughter flew in from Bakersfield next week and put her in the retirement home like she’d been trying to do ever since Dan had died three years ago.
“Mama, it’s not safe for you to be rattling around in that big old house by yourself,” Leanne had said. “I didn’t worry when Daddy was alive to watch out for you, but now…”
Molly had wanted to laugh. Dan watch out for her? It’d been the other way around. She had taken care of him, waiting on the hateful jerk hand and foot while he cussed and bitched and moaned. But she hadn’t told their daughter that, not wanting to speak ill of her daddy. Why, the shit she could tell Leanne about Dan would curl the girl’s flat-ironed hair!
For two years following Dan’s death Molly had basked in solitude, going about her business with no one to answer to other than herself. Then she’d slipped on a patch of ice on the front porch, tumbled down the steps, and broke her hip.
That’s when Leanne had started in on her to sell the house and move into a retirement home. Molly had managed to keep putting her off, then had taken another tumble. No bones broken that time, but she’d been banged up bad enough that she’d had to spend a couple days in the hospital. And Leanne hadn’t shut up since.
Molly eased down on the end of the park bench, as far away from the intrusive man as she could get, and laid her cane on the seat between them. He glanced up from his book, gave a short nod, and went back to reading.
She did her best to ignore him, tried to enjoy the day, the summer breeze riffling her wispy, white hair, the bright sunshine warming her pale, thin skin. And the swans gliding over the surface of the pond. She came to the park every day the weather allowed, sat alone on this very same bench, and watched the family of swans that called the park home. Something about the graceful birds filled her with peace, something she’d had very little of in her long life.
From time to time, Molly turned her eyes on the man instead of the swans. He was old like her, eighty-something going on ninety, and like her, thin almost to the point of emaciation. He wore neatly-pressed black trousers, white shirt, and black vest. Looks like some college professor, she thought. His hair was thicker than hers, more brown than white, and combed straight back. And the few times he glanced her way—and she quickly averted her gaze—she got a glimpse of piercing green eyes.
She wondered who he was and what he was doing intruding on her space. But mostly, she just wanted him to leave. Every time he turned a page, the paper rustled noisily. Every so often he recrossed his legs, and sighed. She couldn’t find her peaceful place.
Irritation grew into a simmering anger. Didn’t look like he was going anywhere, and since this was a public place she couldn’t very well ask him to leave, so she might as well head home for the day.
She reached for her cane, but her arthritic fingers failed to open wide enough and she knocked it to the ground instead.
“Allow me…” With a popping of joints, the man leaned over and retrieved her cane, and turning the handgrip in her direction, held it out to her.
Flustered, Molly took it, and started to stand. But the tip skidded through the gravel, and she sat back down hard on the wooden bench, a breathy “Humf…” pushing past her lips.
A cool hand wrapped around her wrist. “Are you all right, madam?”
Humiliation heated Molly’s face and curdled in her stomach, fanning her anger. “I’m fucking fine! I just…just…” Their eyes met and held. Molly became acutely aware of the fingers circling her wrist, of the warmth flowing up her arm from the simple contact. “I…I…”
His eyes widened, the green darkened. He glanced briefly at his hand holding her wrist, then back into her eyes. He smiled.
And Molly smiled right back.
He was seated on the bench when she arrived the next day. And the next. And the next. They talked about everything under the sun, sharing their pasts, their faded hopes and unrealized dreams. And they laughed together, oh how they laughed, about the silliest things. Molly didn’t think she had laughed as much in the entirety of her life as she had the last few days. Why, she felt like she’d known the man her entire life.
On the fourth day, when she rose to go, he took her hand and pressed a soft kiss to the palm. She closed her fingers around the kiss, and held it as she walked slowly and carefully back home.
On the fifth day, she told him about Leanne’s plans, that her daughter would be arriving the following day to pack her up and take her to the retirement home.
“You don’t have to go unless you want to,” he said.
Molly asked, “What do you mean?”
“You can come live with me…we can get married.” Bright color suffused his lined face. “That is…if you want…” He looked down at his polished wingtips like a shy school boy.
She couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you serious?”
He lifted his gaze to hers. “I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
“Oh…my…” Should she? Could she? What would Leanne think? There was no doubt in her mind that she and the man would get along splendidly, and on top of that he made her feel things, physical things, that she hadn’t felt in years. But…
Why couldn’t she have met him years ago when they both were young and had their whole lives ahead of them? Why couldn’t he have been the father of her children? Why couldn’t she have gone to sleep beside him every night, and woken to his smiling face every morning? Why had the fates that be waited until her road was coming to an end before placing him in her path? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fucking fair!
A gentle hand brushed her cheek. “Molly, my dearest, why are you crying?”
“I’m just…happy…” And she realized she was. Deliriously, gloriously happy. “I never thought…I figured…I’m happy.” She laughed. “I’m happy!”
He leaned in, and their foreheads touched. “I guess that’s a yes.”
He kissed her lips, and it was the sweetest thing Molly had ever experienced. When it ended, their mouths yet touching, she said, “Yes.”
They sat close, their frail bodies touching, and made plans.
The sun was sinking behind the treetops when Molly remembered Leanne. “I’d best get home and call my daughter,” she told the man. “Have her cancel her flight.”
The man stood and helped her as she planted the cane and pushed to her feet. As he had that first day, he placed a kiss in the palm of her hand, and as she had then, she curled her fingers and held it.
“I’ll see you…” A wave of dizziness washed over her. “…to…tomorrow…” Pain exploded in her skull, mushroomed outward in a gray, pulsing cloud. She stumbled and went down.
She felt herself slip through his fingers, but didn’t feel the ground when she hit. Through the haze of pain, she saw the two swans and their brood, skimming across the placid pond. Don’t they mate for life? I think they do…I think…think…
A face came between her and the white swans. His face, then many faces, one overlaying the other, different yet the same. Familiar. He called her name: “Molly!”
But she couldn’t answer. She was leaving him. Again.
Twenty-two years and nine months later, Mia took her usual half-way break on her evening run. She sat on the park bench and sipped from her water bottle while watching the pair of swans skimming the surface of the small pond. Some days they weren’t there. And for some inexplicable reason, their absence always left her in low spirits.
A man, a runner like her, plopped down on the opposite end of the bench. Sweat ran in rivulets down his tanned face. He swiped his forehead with the back of his hand, then turned to her and smiled.
“Nice day for a run,” he said.
Her eyes met his green ones. Her heart did a little flip-flop.
“Sure is,” she answered returning his broad smile. “A very good day indeed.”