Half past noon on a weekday, the middle of summer. Sunny and hot. The flags outside the municipal buildings sway not in the least, which is a way of saying that the air is as still as it can possibly be—not even the premonition of a breeze, even for those who have premonitions.
In the historic part of the city, two women are having lunch on one of the benches surrounding a public playground. Now when I say “bench,” you may be picturing a strictly utilitarian apparatus, backless and with a hard slab for a seat. But in fact, these benches are nearly like sofas. They’ve been designed with more than mere utility in mind: they are for parents and teachers who need a place to sit while they supervise children on seesaws and monkey bars; retirees who come here to read, or to remind themselves of the world they used to inhabit; and working people like Ann and Petra who meet once in a while on their lunch break, who prefer to do so outdoors when the weather is good, and whose experience of their hour together is enhanced many times over by the fact that they can share the wide, curved, cushiony surface made of a soft yet indestructible polymer and, when they tire of sitting upright, lean against a backrest of the same material, placed at just the right distance and angle in relation to the seat. (At the unveiling, dozens of toss pillows provided color and decoration, but those have of course long since disappeared.) And yes, since you may be wondering, there are armrests, too.
When the benches first appeared, replacing the old, hard, backless ones, the two women remarked almost every time they met about how amazing it was: such a treat, so unexpected. But that was a number of years ago. It’s been ages since they’ve mentioned it, now.
The women are not young anymore—that’s important to know. They’re not all that far from retirement. Neither of them likes to think about this too much, though for different reasons.
Petra has brought her usual: a sandwich, chips, and an apple packed from home. Ann always buys her lunch from one of the many vendors lining the cobblestone path leading to the playground, which lies almost exactly halfway between the buildings in which the women work. Petra has a more important and higher-paying job than Ann, although Ann likes her job more than Petra likes hers.
Today Ann has picked up souvlaki, which she unwraps slowly after she and Petra greet each other and sit down. It is only with Petra that she chooses what to her are exotic foods, even though Petra’s own exoticism (owing mostly to the foreignness of her name) has worn off. Petra has no way of knowing it, but Ann is considering putting an end to these lunches, occasional though they are. The past few times—well, more than that, really—Petra’s mood has been dark, and her energy low, and it really does Ann no good at all to be around her. It was one thing at the beginning, when she was kind of fascinated by Petra’s worldliness. But now it’s just, frankly, a drag.
Ann feels guilty for thinking this way, because if she were a true friend, wouldn’t she ask Petra if something was wrong? And if she could help?
But it doesn’t actually feel like true friendship. They met at the fiftieth birthday dinner of a mutual friend, and discovered they worked near each other. These lunches started out pleasant enough, and it’s convenient, but nothing more. If Ann weren’t already in the city because of her ob, and taking a break at midday anyway, she wouldn’t be meeting Petra for lunch or anything else.
A red rubber ball rolls near their feet, and one of the children from the playground calls to ask if they will send it back over the fence. Petra either hasn’t heard the request or is pretending not to have heard it, so Ann puts down her souvlaki, picks up the ball, and drop-kicks it back to where the children are waiting. A few of the kids snicker, old enough to be amused by the sight of a woman who could be their grandmother kicking a ball with the toe of her pointy, professional shoe.
But they would also have to admit to feeling impressed that she kicked it so well. Surely, firmly, and confident in her aim. In fact, one of the boys will remember this image for most of his life, usually when he is called upon for courage—to do something he is afraid of and thinks he cannot do.
When Ann sits back down to resume eating her sandwich, Petra tells her “I’m no good at sports,” as if this has to do with anything.
And something in what she sees in her “friend” then—the slump of Petra’s shoulders, the frown in her brow—causes Ann to snap, as it were, and she smashes the slim but substantial wall, the one made of politeness, that has always existed between them. “What is the matter with you? I haven’t seen you smile in months. I’m telling you, it’s too much… lately when I go back to work after seeing you, I have a bad afternoon, or I just about fall asleep at my desk.”
None of this seems to surprise Petra, which surprises Ann. Does this mean she could or should have said something sooner? Petra looks not surprised, but even sadder than she did before. “I tried to throw the ball back once,” she explains, “and it hit the top of the fence and punctured on one of those metal spikes. The kids laughed. Some of them even booed.”
“So what? They’re children.”
Petra shakes her head. “You don’t understand. When you’re sensitive, everything cuts the same, whether it’s big or little.”
Ann keeps herself from speaking the phrase that occurs to her, which is pity party.
Petra says, “I read a lot of books” as if this it has to do with anything.
“… ?” Now Ann is the one who frowns, fumbling for a response. “Well, that’s good, isn’t it? It’s great that you read books. Too many people don’t.” I don’t, she doesn’t add, because it dismays her that this has become the case.
“But is it great?” Petra shades her eyes against the sun. “I’ve been reading things lately, the Russians, that make me think I should be looking for a different kind of book. Books that don’t ask questions. Books that don’t make me think. Maybe I would be happier.”
“… ?” Again, Ann can think of nothing to offer by way of following up.
“They talk a lot about the meaning of life. Whether life has any meaning. Take the one I’m reading now.” Petra reaches into her bag to pull out a paperback. “Basically, the author says that everything we do, every action we take, is only aimed at distracting us from the fact that it all ends in death.”
“A kind of ‘Life sucks and then you die’ kind of thing?” As soon as it leaves her mouth Ann regrets her sarcasm, but luckily, Petra seems not to notice or to mind.
“Some of them seem to think that if life does have meaning,” she concedes, “that meaning is love. The connections we make with other people. There’s this one story about a woman who talks to her sugar bowl, it just sits there on her table and she becomes friends with it. I like that one a lot.”
“Well, there you go! What’s wrong with that?” Ann had not expected to hear so much relief in her own voice.
“That’s easy for you to say—you have love.”
Oh, dear. Is Petra asking Ann to say she loves her? She can’t do it—it isn’t true. But before she can figure out how to respond, Petra has reached over to grab her by the arm, almost as if she hasn’t even realized it. Aside from the hugs they exchange when they meet and part each time—which, in the way of such things, are not really hugs—they have never touched each other. What is this?!
“Are you saying it hasn’t happened to you, yet? Because I don’t believe it. At our age it happens more often than not—the lying awake at night, wondering what you’ve done with your life, where all that time’s gone, and how much you have left. And on top of that, wondering What is the point?”
Ann shakes off Petra’s hand with more resentment and vigor than she would have liked to reveal. “What a cliché! And if you don’t mind, I came here to have a nice lunch, not talk about dying!” She looks up at the clock on the bank tower, wishing she were back in her office instead of sitting on this bench next to Petra. Then she tells herself Stop—that isn’t being mindful. It isn’t being here. She’s been advised that trying to be mindful, and here, will improve her experience of life. “Who says you have to believe what’s in that book?” She nods at the paperback.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Petra says. She puts the other half of her sandwich away, as if the turn of their conversation has spoiled her appetite.
“I’m just saying that you could choose to have a different opinion. You could decide for yourself that life has any meaning you want.” Ann is not entirely sure where she’s going with this, but she likes the sound of it—she likes hearing something remotely intellectual, maybe even remotely profound, in her own voice. She licks the last of the yogurt sauce, which has a fancier name she always forgets, from her fingers. As usual, she neglected to pick up any napkins from the vendor’s stand, and this makes her irritated at herself.
Petra feels her lips give off a brief but violent quiver, and wonders if Ann notices. Probably not, she decides. After all, they are sitting less across from each other than side by side, and she’s never been particularly impressed by Ann’s powers of perception.
But Ann has more on the ball than Petra gives her credit for. “You think those kids are worried about any of that?” Ann gestures widely toward the playground, upon which the sun has chosen to direct its strongest rays. “Whether life has any meaning? They couldn’t care less.”
Petra follows the track of Ann’s hand, then shakes her head. “No. But that’s exactly my point. They don’t know about death, yet.”
“Well, neither do you. Not really. You only know it in the abstract.”
“What?!” Can Ann really be saying this? Petra hardly believes what she’s hearing. “My father ran over that boy when I was in middle school—”
“I know, you’ve told me that story.”
“—and I’ve watched both of my parents die… I took care of both of them at the end… I know death as well as anyone alive can know it!”
“And that’s exactly my point.” It feels good to Ann, being able to say this. Somehow, she realizes, she’s always assumed that Petra’s depression makes her the smarter of the two of them. Not so—right? At least, she is determined to divest herself of that idea. A person can be happy and smart at the same time. Though she knows people who would disagree with her, she refuses to believe that the two can’t co-exist.
She must have murmured something without realizing, because Petra says, “What?”
Ann shakes her head. “I’m thinking of something I want to say to you, but I don’t know whether it’ll make you feel better or worse. It usually makes me feel better, but I think we might be different in that.”
“What is it?” If Petra’s trying to conceal the fact that she’s intrigued—hopeful, even—it isn’t working.
“It’s from a sign on a Buddhist temple in Thailand.”
“Wait—you’ve been to Thailand?”
How greatly Ann wishes to respond that yes, she has! How greatly she wishes for a single exotic experience of her own. Too late, she’d realized that of course Petra would ask. And how much Ann also wishes to avoid confessing the truth, which is that she saw the temple inscription only on social media.
But she prides herself more than anything on being a person who—despite being tempted, she’s working on that—doesn’t allow herself to put on airs that she hasn’t earned. “No, it’s just a post I saw, a photo, by someone I know who did go. Anyway, the sign over the door says ‘Remember, one hundred years from now, all new people.’”
She draws out the last three words because they are, of course, the important ones. They are, after all, the point. Watching Petra’s eyes, she can tell that it takes a moment for the meaning to sink in—as, Ann recalls, it did with her. Then she sees the click of Petra comprehending, before the dam finally gives way. “Why did you have to tell me that? Isn’t that another way of saying that everything’s irrelevant—whatever any of us do—because it will all be forgotten and we’re all going to be replaced anyway? Doesn’t it reinforce what those Russians are writing about, that none of it means anything?”
Though this has occurred to Ann herself, she’s chosen to reject this interpretation. “No. What I’m saying, what it’s saying, is that whatever we’re worried or sad about, in the long run it’s not a big deal. Doesn’t that take some of the pressure off? Doesn’t that make you feel… I don’t know, lighter?”
But Petra’s crying. For God’s sake! Ann’s not going to sit here and listen to that.
“I think you need to dwell in possibility,” she continues, before Petra can deliver another morose rebuff. The phrase—Dwell in possibility—popped into Ann’s head as she cast around for a path out of this pity party, though she could not name its source. Probably it is etched on one of the decorative stones a hippie friend of hers at work keeps in a shallow dish on her desk, for inspiration. Believe. This too shall pass. The best is yet to come.
“All these sayings. They’re just so much hot air.” Petra waves dismissively. At least she isn’t crying anymore. She places the bag with her remaining half sandwich into her purse, as if preparing to take off. Ann would be fine—more than fine—with her leaving, but instead Petra says, “Tell me what you mean by ‘possibility,’” sounding almost as if she might be doing Ann a favor by asking.
Once, at work, Ann was directed at the last minute to lead a meeting on a subject she knew nothing about. She feels that way now, forced to occupy the head of a table at which people sit waiting for her to educate them.
“Well, just look around you, it’s everywhere,” she says vaguely. The first thing she sees, looking around, is the playground. “One of those kids might grow up to do something remarkable, someday. More than one of them might. Invent something. Cure cancer.”
“Oh, please. Why not just say, ‘They’re the hope of the future’? I mean really, talk about a cliché.”
“Well, then, you might do something remarkable. You might feel something you never expected to feel.” Who’s the hippie now? she says then, but only inside her own head.
Petra has truly hoped for an answer she could hang her hat on. Instead what she gets is this mindless pablum about possibility… what a crock. “If we don’t die of cancer, we’ll just die of something else. And all those kids might just as easily end up homeless or on drugs. Or depressed, like me. At best they’ll be automatons, living inside their phones like all the rest of them.”
Why had she thought today might be different? She woke up thinking that something might come along to change her heart. But clearly, it isn’t going to be lunch with Ann that does it.
By now, though, Ann has grown invested in convincing Petra. Or is it in convincing herself? And of what, again? Oh, right—the idea that life is worth living. That it all has meaning, even if we can’t figure out what it is. That there’s some purpose to being here.
Are those all the same, or three separate things?
“You’re impossible!” she cries out. “Okay, if you need something less abstract, then take this bench.”
“This bench. How comfy it is. Remember how bad those old benches used to be? We almost stopped coming, we were going to meet somewhere else. But we couldn’t decide where, so we came to the park one last time, and here was this new bench just waiting for us. You can see how much thought and care has gone into it. First, in the design. Then a prototype, which I’m sure the company tested on regular people like us. Asked them questions. Improved and adjusted things, according to the feedback they heard. Then produced them to spec, and installed them in this park, all so we could have a more comfortable place to sit while we eat our lunch and argue about whether anything in this world is worth doing, whether it has any meaning at all.”
Saying this takes Ann’s breath away. At work and at home, she hardly every utters more than one sentence at a time.
“You act as if they did it out of concern for us.” Petra clutches her purse to her side even though she is still seated. “Purely for our comfort. When in fact, they did it for money.”
“So? Why shouldn’t they get paid for a job well done—for something that’s useful to somebody else, or to the world? Would you do your job if you weren’t getting paid? Of course not.” Ann makes a more obnoxious sound than she intended, emphasizing this conclusion. To temper it she modulates her tone and adds, “My point is, there’s always the possibility that something—a situation, a person, a mood—will change for the better.”
“Or for the worse,” Petra says.
“Well, of course, but the odds are fifty-fifty, aren’t they? Why not anticipate they’ll land on the ‘better’ side?” When Petra doesn’t answer, Ann lets the momentum propel her forward. “Do you remember how it used to feel, sitting here? My butt would get numb. Now, it’s practically like sitting on a couch in my own living room. It’s made a difference in my life, this bench, and in yours, too, whether you admit it or not.”
Petra admits, “Yes, it has made a difference.” Her voice is little more than a murmur, but it’s loud enough to be heard. “This moment right now is better for us than it would be, if not for this bench.”
She’s almost got it, Ann thinks. What she feels creeping up to her comprehension, what she wants to express. The answer to Petra’s question: Tell me what you mean by ‘possibility.’
But now, interrupting, comes the same red rubber ball from the playground, rolling again at their feet. The kids clamor at the fence as they did the last time, calling for the women to send it back. “Your turn this time,” Ann says, annoyed that the ball has bounced the insight—the revelation?—straight out of her head.
“But they’ll laugh at me.”
“If you don’t try, how will you find out? Maybe this time they won’t.”
Petra smiles the smile of someone who knows better, picks up the ball, takes a few steps toward the playground, and tosses it as high as she can. To her surprise, it lands precisely in front of the child who’d kicked it by accident out of bounds, a first-grader who bullies kids his own age but—because he has been punished for doing otherwise—will, for another year or two beyond now, treat adults with the respect he’s been told they deserve. “Thanks, lady!” he shouts, picking it up before running back to his friends.
“That means nothing,” Petra tells Ann, returning to the bench. “That hardly proves your point.”
Ann’s smile is also the smile of one who knows better. But they can’t both be right— or can they? By mutual agreement and because the clock on the bank tower shows them it’s time, they dispose of their trash, “hug” good-bye, and head in opposite directions toward their respective desks. Petra looks down at her feet, afraid as always of tripping over a cobblestone. Ann watches her retreat as she puts in her earbuds, but something’s gone haywire with her music; she won’t be able to listen to her favorite divertimento on the way back. This disturbs her to the point of tears—or is it something else that blurs the path before her? The sun seems higher than it did when she arrived in the park at noon, though she knows this cannot be. She lifts her eyes and squints against it, panicked in momentary blindness before the relief comes again of being able to see.
The children on the playground laugh as she passes, but she decides not to contemplate why.
Image: “playground” by Celine Nadeau, licensed under CC 2.0.
I’d been reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which opens with two male acquaintances meeting to sit on a bench for refreshments and conversation. I liked the omniscient perspective—“And here it is worth noting the first strange thing about that terrible May evening”—and because most of what I write is restricted to one character’s point of view, either in the first or third person, I wanted to try the freedom of entering each woman’s mind as well as allowing for the wider authority of an observing, knowledgeable narrator. In the novel, the men are discussing the nature of Jesus Christ when a “foreigner” appears, and questions them about their belief in God. My scene depicting Ann and Petra on their lunch hour doesn’t contain the same external drama, but it’s meant to be significant when the ball from the playground enters their sphere, and each woman is affected in a different way after Petra subverts her own expectations and manages to return the ball. In addition to playing with the point of view, I enjoyed writing the exchange about whether it might make one happier to avoid reading books—and specifically, Russian books—that pose questions about whether life has any meaning, and I was pleased to include a reference to one of my own fictional characters, the Russian fabulist writer Nadezhda Chaykovskaya, whose best known work is about a housewife whose sugar bowl interrogates her regularly about the way she conducts her life.