Summer writing circle assignment #6 – On the bench

This one needs a bit of explanation too. It’s the last assignment in the writing circle, which is a shame because I’ve enjoyed it, but then again I’m doing two new writing courses this autumn, so I hope to keep up the momentum.

Anyway, for this one we had to describe a person/animal with a handicap, write about an encounter, include a dialogue and try to express as much as possible between the lines. I had a major mental block with this one and wrote it in a hurry at the last minute. Given that, I’m pleased with how it came out, particularly how I dealt with the handicap part, although admittedly it’s a bit of a cheat.

Cheat #2; this isn’t my photo. Must remember to nip out and take one of a park bench so I can replace it.

On the bench

I’m sitting on the park bench where we’ve met every Tuesday for the last 8 months, and I know this is going to be the last time, one way or another. I can feel the pale spring sun on my face, and I’m picking the flaking paint from the wood beneath my thighs. The breeze brings the scent of awakening earth mixed with the sound of children playing from down the hill near the park gate, and nearby a woman is shouting for a joyfully barking dog to “Come here, you bad boy!” But there’s breathless laughter in her voice and the barking is dopplering as the dog runs around avoiding her, so I know it’s more play scolding than serious.

I lean down and pat the smooth head of Mackenzie, well-behaved as always, tucked in by my feet but alert and interested, his warmth spreading into my leg.

I hear Stefan’s footsteps well before he arrives; that curious light-footed gait that Sara said, the one time they met, reminded her of Mr Spock. And then I catch the scent of him; his deodorant, fresh but somehow intoxicating at the same time.

“Hey sweetie!” he says, and he bends – rustle of his jacket – to kiss me on the forehead. Which gives me all the answer I need, really. I should get up now and walk away, but I keep hoping, as I’ve hoped with increasing disappointment throughout our affair, that I’ll be wrong.

“I’ve been in meetings all morning”, he says, collapsing onto the bench beside me with a sigh and stretching his long legs out in front of him, crunching the gravel beneath his baseball boots.

“Oh yes, the funding meeting for the new show”, I say, pretending that I don’t remember exactly what it’s called. “How did it go?”

And he tells me about what the various attendees said, and what was decided, and I try not to be too interested, not to keep track of who’s who and where they fit into the balance of power within the theatre company that he works for, what that might mean for his eventual promotion prospects.

Finally, his account comes to an end, and I take a couple of bites of my sandwich and chew them thoroughly before saying, “I was thinking that next week…”

“Did you hear the one about the dinosaur who goes into the bar?” he says. And he starts telling me the joke even though it was actually me that first told it to him, a month ago.

I force myself to smile, and wonder if it looks as artificial as it feels. Presumably not, or he’d notice. Maybe. Possibly. I can tell from the sound of his voice that he’s not looking at me, he’s looking off down the hill towards the theatre.

“I’ve been…” I start, but he says something at the same time, and I run out of courage again.

“Sorry, babe”, he says. “What were you going to say?” He’s leaning close to me, I feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek, and I smile again and turn my head away.

“Nothing, it’s not… no, you go on”.

“OK. Well I was just thinking about my buddy David, he’s a photographer and he’s been working with a circus, and he was taking photographs of the clowns and…”

And off we go again. It’s very like being on a swing, really, up and down. Exhilarating but dizzying and you don’t get any time to stop and think about what you’re really doing and then suddenly it’s over and you’re off the swing and it’s someone else’s go.

Not that I didn’t know it from the start. When you meet a married man and he says he’s been doing this for years, with a string of other women, you have to assume that you’ll become part of his past at some point. Only I foolishly believed his assurances that he always stayed friends with his conquests. Actually I do still believe it. I just don’t believe that he knows what being a friend really means. I am – though I try hard not to be – interested in his preoccupations. He no longer even pretends an interest in mine. So I distance myself, and the pain when he doesn’t notice makes it even worse.

Some people will say that it’s my own fault for seeing a married man. But I actually don’t want to live with someone all the time. I’ve got Mackenzie, and my work, and a few friends, and I’m bad enough at standing up for myself when I’m not living with a man.

He’s still talking, now about a play he’s going to see tonight. I’d love to go with him, but he’s long since stopped involving me in his plans.

I interrupt him. “I was thinking that next week I might go to the coast for a couple of days. Can you get away for a night?”

There’s a silence for a few moments, and the world seems to go very quiet. Beyond the park I can still hear the buzz of the city, and the planes rotating around the airport, but close by it’s as if everything has stopped. And I’m thinking ‘This is it. If he changes the subject or makes a joke now, then I’m going to get up and walk away’.

“I’m sorry”, he says, without a hint of sorrow in his voice. “But I don’t want the sexual side of our relationship any more. Can you find it in your heart to just be friends? I’d really love that.”

I think someone’s stolen all my oxygen. Breath just doesn’t seem to be coming. But as my spine turns into ice and my stomach sinks down to my feet I manage to speak all the same. “Oh really? Why’s that then?”

“Oh, the reptile side of my brain just got bored, I guess”, he says. “But the rest of me still feels the same way about you.”

I remember the last time we spent the night together, a fortnight ago. He dragged me through the hotel and practically ripped my clothes off me. We were in bed together five minutes after meeting in the lobby.

Then I think about friendship and about how little he’s ever been a real friend to me. I sigh, and for a moment I wonder whether he’d even notice if I hit him.

“Well thanks for the explanation”, I say. “That makes things a lot clearer.”

Then I get to my feet, fumbling for my bag.

“You’re not going already?” he says. “I haven’t finished my sandwich yet.”

“Sorry about that”, I say, and I’m surprised to hear my voice coming out perfectly level; even civil. “I have to go.”

“Bye sweetie”, he says, cheerfully, giving me a quick, clumsy hug over Mackenzie’s head. “See you online!”

‘Not if I see you first’, I think.

As I walk away, slowly at first, but then gradually more quickly, I feel sad, but I also feel as though a heavy burden has been removed from me. It’s been so difficult to force myself to step back from him, over and over, but now the thing I feared has actually happened what I feel is relief.

It’s as if I’ve been blind, but now I can suddenly see again. The colours seem brighter, the sunshine is more intense, all the couples I pass are smiling and holding hands and looking fondly at each other. I’m wearing my turquoise gloves that he once told me he liked but which I’ve always hated, so I strip them off and throw them in a bin, feeling faintly guilty as I do that I ought to have taken them to the charity shop instead.

I rummage in my zebra-striped bag for Mackenzie’s red frisbee. We’ll have a game, then we’ll go home and I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey tea and a chocolate biscuit and call Sara – who always said I was wasting my time on Stefan – and then I’ll spend my afternoon doing something more worthwhile than wondering when his next email is going to arrive. I know I’ll be really upset at some point, but I also know that I’ll get through it. Because the worst is already over.

I find myself smiling broadly as I walk through the park gates, past the exuberant display of spring flowers. Tulips and daffodils and… No, actually, not daffodils. Narcissi.


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