… And, in the spring— as soon as possible, when the ground was just warming, the snow melting down all the sewers and into the ponds and the reservoir, everything clean and wet and beginning to green— we went as often as we could to Central Park, especially on weekends. We had fallen in love in that park, of course, when I was in high school and he was my much older, wiser, handsome city friend. I met him every Sunday for a few hours, and I cried alone in the tunnel waiting for the train back to the suburbs, because we had such talks— lying on our backs on the hot, black lake-rocks, or walking, a little apart, not even touching hands usually, but just walking slowly along through the grass, over the concrete, into the remnants of pine forest— such talks that my heart began its growing pains, my chest was hurting with happiness and I never wanted to be done then. But we didn’t know we were in love until I came back from school, and we looked at one another, sitting on the swings in the park that May, dangling our legs and laughing, and we looked at one another, and we stopped laughing for a moment and we knew.
So, naturally, we had a special sense of the place. And when we went there, from early spring through late autumn of every year, though it was for the pleasure of each particular day, it was in memory of the past as well. The park made us feel how strong we were together, how we had got on (such a long while, endless delays) and were still here. And then too, it was a sign of how surely we would continue: the park was also for the future.
But in the park, it was not the growing things, the new buildings, the bear turning fat and yellow in a rocky pool, that signified, or at least not for him. He was (suddenly, it seemed, but perhaps it was more gradual than I can recall) captivated and… inspired by the children. Hadn’t they been there all along? But now he was seeing them as if for the first time. We would be strolling slowly hand in hand, talking or not, no particular destination, and suddenly he would cry, “Look!” and I would whirl around, expecting something miraculous, such excitement in his voice, and it would be a tiny, dark-haired child eating an ice cream cone. He was seeing them with new eyes, that much was clear, and asking me, without at first asking, to see them as he did.
They appeared in the playgrounds and in the worn meadows as early in the year as we: infants sleeping, crying in pink, wrapped in blue afghans, their streamlined grey-and-silver carriages pushed along the paths by nurses or grandmothers. Or toddlers in corduroy, red and yellow flashes running circles around their fathers, running away from their primly pretty, well-dressed mothers, who were not much bothering with them anyhow, huddling on the benches together as they did, talking about who knows what— their homes, I imagined, and their dogs and their husband’s jobs and, of course, their children. It was mostly mothers there, even on weekends, and I watched them sometimes the way he watched the kids; only silently, and with a different feeling in the watching. I never wanted that, to sit there with the others in the bright air, on duty, to be stiffly responsible for the well-being of strange little charges, to forget, myself, how to play. I didn’t want it, didn’t want to be one of them; no, thank you, no.
And when, sometimes at night, he would say, “You know, I think now and then about our children, how they will be,” I would only laugh and kiss him goodnight and turn as if to sleep. But there would be tears starting as I pressed my eyelids down hard (I never could stand crying, not even my own). They were angry tears: What was he trying to do to me? I knew it was really my place to say (later, much later) the sort of thing one had heard or read, something, something… such as “Oh, my darling, I do want to have your babies.” And I did love him. But I was young, but I was going to disappoint him, but I would fail; I could feel it all then.
Bitter thoughts, and frightening. So that when, after a long time spent watching children in the park, he began to do more than marvel at this curly haired marbleshooter, or that towhead sailing a two-foot yacht… when he began turning to me once or twice each weekend, and asking “Aren’t we ever going to?” anger and fear took the truth from my mouth. The easier thing was to smile fondly, foolishly, as if to say, Yes, soon, and finally, I did say “Soon.”
Soon. Sooner than that, something else: a chance to go away, to live and study abroad. A chance to escape: I wanted to take it; no, I had to take it. I must have been longing and hoping for this opportunity, this exit; I must have been that scared out of my love. He cried. I cried, too, only because I had never seen a man cry before in my life. I cried for him. He decided to believe I couldn’t leave him, and became calm. We didn’t talk about it again, not for many months. But we didn’t go to the park anymore either. We were waiting, each in our own way.
Then, one week, a new passport appeared on the bureau, in a new leather folder. And the next, a vaccination certificate, traveler’s checks, a plane ticket. He said nothing, his eyes showed nothing either, they were black and cold. But he couldn’t sleep, I knew that.
Late one night, he sat down in the rocking chair beside the bed and spoke to me. “You’re always leaving; you think you can always come back. And maybe that was so in the past. But this is it: if you go this time, I won’t be waiting here for you, not ever again. It’s your choice. But if you’re really going, we’ll settle things now. Not your way, ‘later.’ No. There’s no room in my later for you. If you go.” And he rocked and rocked and rocked, and refused to cry or plead. Only, choose.
I had already chosen. I chose what I had to choose, the long good-bye, the last settling up, and a long, lonely year in industrious exile. I came home on the Fourth of July, the Statue of Liberty glowing in a haze beneath the plane, fireworks in the park, and steaming, cheering crowds at the airport. I picked up, put back together most of the pieces of the life I’d left behind. I worked and lived, I loved some men, and I made it, I made it without him. I never called to tell him I was back, never wrote, never sent any birthday or holiday messages. I would never see him again.
Never not for fifteen years. Yesterday. In the park, it was, and where else would I meet him but there? And yet, it’s a kind of miracle, so unusual for me to go all the way across to the playground. We don’t live as close as I once did, years ago. With him. And I don’t much care for it now, that park.
But it was a beautiful morning, everything clean and sun-washed and so alive and green that it seemed a fine idea. I was pushing the stroller up the last path to the fenced-in asphalt where kids screamed and ran, their mothers turning their own polished faces to the sun. And he was coming down, cautiously, pulling back on the handle of a small, old-fashioned plaid summer carriage.
Of course, we stopped, and we shook hands, we held one another’s hands for a long while, he looking down at my face and I… I was looking at the ground. He knelt before the stroller and tousled the boy’s dark hair, and I told him, “David; he’s almost two and a half.” Side by side, we gazed into the tight little face of the sleeping girl, and he told me her name: Sophie.
“She’s three months old,” he said. “We had lost one… it’s more than three years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But she must make you very happy; you must be very happy now.”
We stood a little apart, then, awkward. So much to say, nothing whatever to say, so much, nothing…
“You’re looking well,” he said.
“You too,” I answered.
There was another long silence between us. And the boy began kicking his feet against the pavement, wanting to move on. “Don’t forget we have to meet Daddy, don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget….”
“I haven’t forgotten, Davie,” I said. He was watching David so closely, thinking, perhaps, He looks just like you… thinking something I wanted to believe must be very sad, his mouth was drawn and trembling. And suddenly, I wished for some one simple thing to say to him, the very thing he would like to hear with all his heart. It would be my last chance. Turning toward him, meeting his serious stare, I said (very quietly and sadly, I wanted that, yes, but still, there was the trace of a smile), “It might have all been so different. And it might have been good; who knows?”
“You’re crazy,” he said, and he laughed, clear and careless and so easy. He was really laughing, as he walked around to the front of his baby’s carriage again. Laughing. Free and easy. “It would have been terrible. You knew it then, before I did. You were right, and I was a fool. But everything’s come out fine, that’s what counts. We got our happy ending after all.” He laughed again and pushed the carriage lightly abreast of the stroller, squeezed my arm as he smiled goodbye, moved on.
The boy was bouncing up and down in his seat, whining, “Daddy’s waiting, come on, come on, come on,” and I was watching the carriage disappear around the curve of hedge behind us. He never looked back, not even a glance, and I was thinking, He is right and I am a fool; he’s happy, I’m happy, everyone’s happy after all…
And, so much happiness, I began to cry standing in the hot sun in the middle of the uphill path. My little boy was frightened; his mother never, ever cries. I stopped then, and said “I’m crying, sweetie, but it’s a special kind of crying, and it’s our secret now, I’m telling you and nobody else.” My sweet love. I wheeled him around, back out through the park. And oh, the sun, the leaves bursting in the air, the flowers pulsing in the new grass, kites hovering, sailboats skittering the ponds— what, no birds singing?
“Sing, Davie,” I said. “Sing now, Going home to Daddy, going home to Daddy… sing louder. Going home, going home, going home to Daddy.” Home, happiness. Home, happy end. Happy, happy day: sing, love.
Image: “Ghost of Central Park” by Albyn David, licensed under CC 2.0.