It is already half past seven. She’s very late.
She had always been a traveler, and somehow her work brought her to this town, so she had called me to plan this meet-up. It was a bit sudden, but we decided to meet halfway at this park and talk.
There is quite a lot of people in this park, even though it is already dark. It is annoying, seeing all of the people smiling and talking as if nothing is going on in the world. Their voices sound like flies, polluting the clear air.
She really is quite late.
It was supposed to start half an hour ago. I am not well-known for being the most patient of people, and I haven’t been, even when I was in college. Out of all people, she should know that. I check my watch every now and then. Time seems to stop.
Time always seems to slow down when you’re paying attention to it. I don’t remember who told me that. Maybe it was the same girl, from so long ago.
The girl always in my memories. She grew up with me through elementary school, all the way up through college. Always had wise words to say. Maybe that’s why I think she was the one who imparted those words to me.
The seconds tick by, and I begin to pace restlessly. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m actually looking forward to this meeting, I would have been home long ago, back in the warmth and light. I decide to wait for five more minutes.
I pace around the park, trying to ignore all of the happy people. They are too happy for a quiet night like this, and it’s odd that they care nothing about the bitter cold. If only sound produced more heat, then all those voices and shouts could heat up the entire planet. I really shouldn’t be here, it’s so annoying, but I force myself to wait. She should be here soon, at the very least.
I remember the last time I waited like this. A swing set, back in elementary school.
I always loved the swing set. It was so orderly, mathematical, moving endlessly back and forth. I could probably fall asleep on it if I wanted to. And it was so predictable, if you move yourself this way, the swing would follow. It was fun to just try and get as high as possible, or even to sway back and forth like the grandfather clock that sat in my dad’s room, back from before he was dead.
That grandfather clock is still in my room today, come to think of it. Funny how past and present connect.
The swings were taken one day before I managed to get from the school building to the playground. I remember waiting for a few minutes, watching in envy the kids race up and down, when one of the girls on the swings asked me
“Why are you standing there?”
I remember staring up at her, with her wavy brown hair and pink shirt. “I want to play on the swings.”
So she just hopped off, and held out the chain to my hand. “Okay.”
A hand taps my shoulder. I swivel around to greet it, and am met face to face with a person I don’t know.
I frown. Brown hair, reminds me of the girl in my memories. But the face is all wrong. I don’t recognize it, the blue eyes, the small nose, the thick eyebrows. It is a face I have never seen before, now that I pay attention to it. She is smiling.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Do you need something?”
“I’m sorry?! More like I’M sorry, for making you wait this long! I really do apologize, I’ve been held up in traffic, and then this park was so big, and it was dark, I’ve been wandering around quite a while trying to find you.” she puts down a bag from her shoulder, and takes out a bottle. “Here. As apologies, and as a tribute to old times’ sake.”
I take the bottle, on which is written “Genuine Whiskey”. I don’t remember what kind of old times whiskey brings back.
But I do remember that same girl, now in middle school, giving me half a sandwich. As thanks for something, an event that is inconsequential now.
“You really don’t have to do that, you know. I can manage.”
“Yeah, yeah. But the truth is that you don’t have a lunch, and I have a huge sandwich, so take it already. It’ll make me feel bad if you keep being polite all the time, okay?” A warm smile.
“Alright, then…thanks.” And somehow, I manage to smile in return.
Grasping the bottle by the neck in my left hand, I nod at the familiar woman. “It’s quite alright, thank you. And don’t worry, I didn’t wait long. It’s nice to see you again. You look nice tonight.”
“Oh, thank you, and of course, it is nice to see you too. I can’t believe that it’s already been three years since we graduated. Any new clients recently?”
“It has been a long time,” I say. “And I’m not doing design work anymore.”
“Why not? Pay not good enough?”
“Got fired. Mistook my boss for my idiot brother, and cursed him out in public. Not pleasant.” I sigh.
“Oh…I’m sorry. Are you doing alright?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got myself a new job. Working at a bank in the city now, a lot nicer than the old firm. A lot quieter.”
“Well, that’s good!” she says. “My work’s been taking me all over the place. Seriously, we already have an office out in Los Angeles, don’t drag me all the way here just to talk to the boss of some other department! Although no offense intended, this is a nice city. Very close to where we went to college. Like home, huh?”
“I like it here. No reason to move.”
“You haven’t changed at all, then. Out of all of us, you were the only one that wanted to stay at home.”
“Really, I felt like things have changed a bit.” I shrug, as the lonely wind blows by. “Things have changed, you and I and all of our friends. I like your new look, by the way. Didn’t even recognize you.”
“Huh?” she scrunches her face into a confused expression. “You mean this jacket? I know it’s a bit brighter than my normal wear, but it’s not like I changed my hair or face or anything.”
No, that’s not it. I remember that clearly. The wavy brown hair, the cute little pointy chin, those things I can never forget. Yes, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. This is the same person that I’d been recalling all those years. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her before. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.
“No no, not at all. It’s just the night lighting in this park, that’s all. Left my damned eyeglasses at home, wasn’t paying attention. You look good, you know. Should wear this jacket more often.”
“Thank you! I don’t get to show it off much at home, because it’s a lot warmer there, but I should keep that in mind when I visit the others.”
“How are they, by the way?” I ask.
“Well, you’re the only one still here. Jason always wanted to travel to Europe, and he’s all the way in France now. Paul’s off in Cali, actually he’s close to where I normally work, if you come visit. And I don’t know where Eileen is anymore, she just wanted to ‘get as far away from here as possible’, and I haven’t kept in touch, have you?”
“No, not really. Just decided to meet with you because you were in the region. Maybe we can all get together sometime.”
I don’t know if I would like that. Even talking to this woman is a bit of a hassle, despite the fact that I was always her friend, despite the fact that I always loved her.
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” she laughs, before shivering. “It really is quite cold up here, isn’t it?”
“It is.” The bottle still in my hand is going to freeze my hand off. “Why don’t we go inside? Gives us an excuse to drink this, as a celebration to your work, and to this reunion.”
“Sounds like a good idea, it’s really freezing out here.”
We walk, my breath forming clouds before me.
Along the way, we talk about nothings. About the future. About how she’s overdue for a raise, about how the economy is making it difficult to get said raise.
“Oh, that reminds me, what about you? Ever plan to settle down, and plan to start a family?”
I say that I have no plans. It’s true. I never particularly cared about the future, and I don’t know if I’m going to do something different with my life.
All I have is the past.
I remember the swings. Perhaps the only clear memory I still have, and the one that’s perfect. The little girl who became my best friend, after the first day. Every day after the first, we met at that same swing set, with the black plastic swings and the dead grass around it from when all the kids trampled over the ground.
It has to be a perfect memory. Everything else has become insignificant.
“Hey, you. You look like you want to say something. Actually, wait. You look really nervous, and that’s making me nervous. What’s up?”
High school, now. She is standing just a foot or two away. A conversation I really screwed up.
It was the right moment, and I couldn’t say anything.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
And then I walk away, waving her off with a hand.
She looks worried at me one more time, before disappearing somewhere. I am left alone in an ever-changing world.
I couldn’t say anything. Even though I knew exactly how I felt.
All of the scenes I keep close to me are the ones with her. The girl who was the first to become my friend. Now that I look at her again, she’s grown into a fine young woman.
The scenes are all there, like a woven tapestry, from the first day we met to our graduation from college. But it’s all worn out, and I can’t remember all of it anymore.
I couldn’t tell her that I loved her then. That, even through college, I still loved her. I wanted to tell her how she changed me, but as always, I remained silent. It was just the first day. That time, on the swing set, perhaps that was the best time of my life. Gave me a reason to keep something close to my heart. I didn’t want my precious memories to change.
Everything else changed, instead. Elementary school faded away, then middle and high, and now even my college days are over. And everyone has moved on. Friends come and go. This city that was once all of our homes now only houses one.
Two, for the time being. We reach my house, and I fumble for my keys. It is too damned cold.
“You know, I always liked you. You were always so nice.” A voice behind me, the same voice of my memories. “Do you remember that time, in our freshman year, when we all got stuck in the old asylum?”
“No,” I say, cursing as I drop the keys. I pick them up, and unlock the door to my apartment. A wave of warm air hits me. “I’m afraid I don’t really remember.”
“Well, I don’t blame you, because you acted as though it was perfectly ordinary. But it was my first time doing that, at least, sneaking out in the dark to visit the abandoned asylum at the edge of town. And my last time, for that matter…no way I was doing that again after what happened!”
We go in, and I set the alcohol on a table. I don’t feel like drinking it right now, nor do I feel like talking anymore.
I just nod, and she goes on.
“You really don’t remember? It was pitch black, and dead silent, but that was okay, because that was to be expected. But then one of the rooms, the door got stuck on our way out, and we were banging on it and pounding and shouting, because it really was an abandoned place, and nobody was around. I actually thought I was about to die. You really don’t remember?”
“Vaguely. Something like that did happen once, yeah. I don’t remember what was so special about it.”
“Well, I just thought it was a good story to tell, is all. But you know what? Ever since then, I’ve admired you. Instead of freaking out like the rest of us, you just calmly stood by, absorbing the situation. Then, you went around to calm us all down, and told us you had a solution.”
I worry a bit. If she was there, this should be a part of my memory. Still, this event she is describing is terribly insignificant.
“And?” I ask. I pour drinks for the both of us, down mine in one shot.
“And then you just took a chair, and rammed it right into the door once, and it opened! I don’t even know how, but you saved us that day, and that’s when I knew that you were a reliable person.”
Ah, that. It really wasn’t me at all – their banging had weakened the door, and I had tried to calm them down so that they didn’t break through with bare fists and end up hurting themselves.
I think. At least, it’s what I think I was trying to do now. Or maybe I just wanted to be the one to break down the door so that I’d look brave. Who knows?
I merely shake my head. “It was nothing. I’ve gone through worse.”
She laughs, and her laughter reminds me terribly of the girl on the swing set, always invading my memories.
But I don’t feel bad about her being here.
In fact, now I’m really quite glad that she took the time to stop by and visit an old friend.
I couldn’t tell her that back then, but I have my chance now. It was fate that brought us together on this bitter cold day, I feel.
I down another drink, before starting. “Hey, do you remember the swing set? A long time ago?”
“Not really, sorry. What are you talking about? The time we vandalized the park?”
“No, not that, that was just four years ago.”
Unable to stop myself, my breath thick with alcohol, I tell her my most precious memory.
I tell her about the swings, about the little details and conversations, about her laughter that had propelled me all this way.
But she just shakes her head, the woman who is so familiar and so real in front of me. The woman who I loved, who I should have loved, who I had once loved. “What are you talking about? We didn’t even meet until college.”
My eyes widen to match the fear in hers.
And in my head, a timeless memory plays.
I am on a swing set, with the brown-haired girl standing behind me, pushing me upwards to let me fly.
I hear her laughter, as I look at the blue sky, the scattered white clouds.
I feel the wind on my face as the world spins around me, as the dead grass and the flowers and the plastic falls way to an open sky that can just lift me away,
and as delicate hands push my back to encourage me to keep going.
A timeless, perfect memory. I have it down to the last detail. The black plastic, the metal chains, the cool feeling of the wind at my back, the girl’s innocent laughter and her perfect brown hair and cute pink shirt.
But when I turn my head around, to look at her face,
I see that it is entirely blank.