Honorable mention, 1980 fiction contest
The wind was blowing in gusts, wrapping my skirt around my legs so I could move only inches at a time. The drizzle had ceased, but the air was freighted with water, damp and worrisome.
There was a young couple already sitting on the bench. He had his back to me, and the young lady—more a girl from what I could see—was sitting primly, her hands folded on the books on her lap. College textbooks. They were students, of course. They always were.
He was wearing a nylon jacket and no hat. His hair was thick and wavy, and the way he set his head, young and strong. It has gone the whole way around, how men wear their hair. It was sideburns and mustaches when I began noticing; then crewcuts; then long over the ears; and now, somewhere in between again.
She was pouting. She looked up momentarily when I edged sideways to take over the empty space on the bench. Then he turned, too, murmuring something polite that had nothing to do with me, and moved to help me sit. I put my cane aside, arranged the bags on my lap, and bent over to unwrap my skirt from my legs. He turned his attention again to her.
I caught snatches of their conversation as they struggled fitfully to speak against the wind. The sound was carried to me in bursts, like bubbles popping. Despite the new consciousness a contemporary woman is supposed to be aware of, she was exercising the limit of her femininity.
“For heaven’s sake,” he was saying. “Why don’t you come straight out and say what you mean?”
She was breathing harshly so I could see her chest heave. Her eyes were red-rimmed against tears falling, and the wind. “I already told you. I’m not going to ruin your day by going through that again. If you can’t remember from one minute to the next—”
He gave a disgusted snort and swung away from her, fixing his gaze at the bench across the street. An old man sat there patiently, hanging onto the brim on his hat to keep it from flying away. He had a newspaper spread on his bony knees, but was unable to read it. We smiled at each other across the pavement. I might have even waved, but the young couple would have seen.
We always waved at each other, any place, any time. Across the benches in church, peeking while our mothers were looking away. When he sat on the other side of the Sunday School class, when our hearts were lost at an age when romance is unforgivable. When he was on the playing field, and I watched. When I sawed on the viola, and he listened, in the darkened auditorium. When he mounted the steps to the train, in his new hat, with his leatherbound books under his arm, without purse or scrip, bound away, away, as the narrow windows gained momentum and flew. My tenuous self-control gave way and I began to cry.
“Don’t cry,” he said softly. The wind was whipping the words out of his mouth, carrying them to me. The girl was calming herself. She had long, reddish hair, flying like silk around her. She closed her eyes, bent her head. “It’s so stupid,” she said. “I thought—I thought everything would be so perfect. I never really looked beyond the actual event—do you know what I mean? I mean a goal you’ve planned for all your life, you’ve looked forward to, you’ve been told is the most important event in your life—and you don’t look beyond it; you live just for it now, and here it is, and I’m still alive, I’ve got years and years ahead of me, eons and eternity—Do you know what I mean?”
He had his hands clasped between his knees. He looked vulnerable.
“Will it help, getting on that bus?”
“You don’t know what I mean,” she sighed, gesturing with her shoulders, imploring heaven.
“Well, I—well, I think you mean it all scares you.”
She nodded. “Doesn’t it scare you?”
“If I thought about it as much as you do, it probably would.”
They were silent for a while. The wind had died down momentarily. The damp air brought the sounds as clear as music across the water. My throat was aching.
The lulls came more frequently in the course of our life together, the storms fewer. Not that the storms were hurricanes; they were mild, sweet breezes that blew away the last of our independences and made us cleave one to another. When the boys came, one by one, our circle bulged and expanded and we meshed in thought and desire. No, never boring, because in progress and striving there is too much effort to allow boredom. When the boys left, one by one, I never knew what it was like to give a daughter away. The circle closed around us two. Now it is just me alone.
“I just think it would help if I went back home and talked to mom awhile. Does the thought of that bother you so much?”
“Of course it does!” he exploded, finally. I wondered how long he had been holding it in, or if he had exploded before. She opened her eyes wide. He said, “Can you really believe you’re off on your own if you keep going back home to your mother? You’re the one that keeps telling me about what it says in the Bible about leaving your father and mother—”
“I’m not going back forever. I’m just going to talk to her.”
“Why don’t you call?”
“We don’t have a phone! You think it’s funny, telling everyone there isn’t any phone so I can’t run up long-distance bills talking to my mother!”
“You might as well go pack a suitcase, then. All you’ve got with you is your books.”
“I don’t want to go back there again.” She jerked her head in the direction opposite that the bus would be going. She was beginning to cry in earnest now, the tears spilling down, shining in the dimming evening. She was trying to control herself, but not hard enough for him not to see her effort. “I doubt you’ll even notice I’m gone.”
When he left that morning there was nothing unusual about it, no warning to my constantly questing heart. He kissed me as he usually did, took the sack lunch I held out (how many thousand lunch bags had I given him?), and got into the big green Chevy and drove away. When the phone call came I had no premonitions, as I sometimes did, that the news would break my heart. His head down on his desk, as if he were sleeping. Just like that. And when I hung up the phone I said to myself, in some kind of crushing elation, I’m so glad you didn’t leave me with hard words between us. Even knowing his soul was there comforting me, I could be sure of that much, that our earthly marriage ended in happiness.
The bus loomed suddenly, boxy and silver-gray, grinding its gears. I clutched my bags to me and heaved my weight onto the cane, positioning the rubber tip against the damp cement. The swinging doors creaked open, vibrating, sending out dark waves of warmth.
The stairs seemed unattainably steep.
It had begun to rain again, the droplets cold and chilling. The young man roused himself off the bench and came up behind me, pushing me gently and with surprising firmness, propelling me into the waiting bus. There was a gold band on his left hand. He said over his shoulder to her, “Are you going to get on?”
I couldn’t turn around. I didn’t hear her reply, if there was one. I was fumbling for the quarter to put in the slot.
The young man was still speaking. “Don’t you think we can work it out ourselves?” and her faint voice saying something.
The change clanked musically into the glass bowl. I turned to see them. Preoccupied, he waved at the driver to shut the door.
He was saying, “I love you, that’s why.”
The doors were shut. I sat at the front, opposite the driver, where I could see them.
She was standing up, smoothing her skirt, clutching her books to her. She looked up at him, tremulous. She was very young. I looked for her ring, and caught a dull flash.
The big gears were grinding. The bus lurched. I clung, with my bags on my lap, to the metal rod beside me. The rain was coming down, splashing big against the warm windows of the bus. But the couple below me was unaware. She was looking up at him, and his arm was around her.
The bus turned the corner, and they were lost to view.