Welcome, first day of spring and International Happiness Day! But what's with your impermanence, as the East Coast weather forecast for next week indicates? We weary winter survivors are placed in a game of temptation and retreat resembling Dangerous Liaisons and the dramas of eighteenth century seduction novels.
We had a preview of spring last Tuesday -- for a day. I had class to prepare, but at least I could work outside. I grabbed my copy of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, picked up a salad and settled onto the one empty bench facing the lake in Central Park. The sun shone on my face and Woolf's elegant words echoed in my head. Paradise found.
I was enjoying Woolf's passages as the conversation of a couple seated on the adjacent bench wafted into my ears. At first, it seemed banal. He boasted about having given someone they knew a fine-fitting chocolate brown shearling coat. She praised him. In painstaking detail, he described another purchase of a tailor-made sport coat. She cooed and flattered. I raised my eyes from Orlando and glanced over. The couple appeared in their late fifties, dressed neatly, and wore wedding bands. His arm draped over her shoulder, his ringed left hand faced me. Seemingly self-satisfied and appreciative of the beautiful weather, the man declared: "This is how life should always be." His companion agreed. I agreed too, although I found all of the talk of luxurious fabrics strangely disquieting. Maybe it was the note of awkwardness in their talk, the extra pauses. The woman asked whether the man had heard of the book The Hunger Games? She described the basic plot, although she hadn't read it. Both expressed horror at such an unabashed portrayal of survival and voyeurism. This genteel couple seemed flummoxed by what might be appealing in such a raw story of competition.
My eavesdropping at this point was only half-conscious. Their talk hummed in the background as I lingered over Woolf's fabulous and humorous sentences. My cheeks drank in the afternoon sunshine and I sipped my iced hazelnut coffee. The couple was just a part of the scene that I had the good fortune to appreciate as I enjoyed the onset of spring.
Just as a cool breeze can suddenly emerge, I sensed a change between my park bench neighbors. His arm remained draped over her shoulder, but his tone shifted abruptly. "You told me it was over," he asserted forcefully. I could barely hear her response, but his continued agitation indicated that "it" was not entirely over. "You can't have it both ways," he informed her. I assume that she responded quietly but from over on my bench, it sounded like a one-sided conversation. "How do you think this is going to work? Think about the facts. Where are you going to spend holidays? Have you really thought through the details of what this means?" His questions continued without her voice reaching my ears. The threats began. "You know, this is going to change everything," he warned. "It will end it all." I heard her acknowledge that his dire prediction might well be true. I had to look up from my book at this point. Yes, I was intruding, invading their privacy. Yet, they chose to discuss the future of their relationship here, on this bench in Central Park, next to me. I couldn't close my ears, could I? Plus, by this point, I needed to know how things would turn out between them. Much as I had been put off by his braggadocio, I felt for him. I could tell that he didn't want to lose her.
His assertions grew stronger. "Things will change. Have you thought of that? You'll have to get a lawyer. It can't continue this way, you know." He berated her like an unreasonable child. If only she would come to her senses, then they could return to their pleasant afternoon lunch. Quiet as she was, she remained ambivalent. "People make these kinds of decisions all of the time, you know. It's simple. Just let him go. You have to take action," he declared. He had a point.
Sometimes, one does have to stop debating and take action. Yet, she remained unconvinced. The fact that his rational arguments dominated the airwaves while I could hardly hear her indicated that something was awry in the balance between these two.
Just as the breeze had shifted their conversation from trite pleasantries to relationship crisis, I was jolted from my eavesdropping. A young woman came and sat on my bench, inserting herself between the couple and me. Moments later, this young woman shrieked. "Gross!" she exclaimed as a gigantic fish was caught from out of the lake and wriggled about at our feet. "I'm sorry," she said to me after screaming. "That freaked me out."
"It's hard to watch something die," I observed at the sight of the enormous, writhing wet fish body. Perhaps I was still thinking about the couple. We were both relieved when the fisherman released the fish back into the lake (although my son informs me that the fish probably died anyway from the lack of water and the hook temporarily lodged in its throat).
If that weren't enough excitement, a guide dressed in a bright orange vest then stepped directly in front of our bench. "Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and... (pause) ... another guy," he informed his assembled tour group. We were stunned. Vaux!" my new friend called out to educate the city's visitors. Not one seemed to notice my bench mate's contribution. She and I rolled our eyes and giggled.
I had been captivated by the opportunity the spring day allowed me to peek into the lives of others. But that guide was my breaking point; paradise lost. You see, I was allured by those fighting with life to make it work. The fish was struggling to survive. The man was pressing to retain his relationship. The woman wasn't letting go of her lover. There was purpose. But the guide and his group blithely accepted ignorance. They didn't even respond when history was offered to him. It was more than I could bear.
My bench mate and I said goodbye. I glanced at the couple, still debating their future. I'll never know what happened. I wanted to tell the man to stop talking and to give the woman more of a chance to express herself. It wasn't about reasserting his story, however rational it was, but about hearing hers.
As I left with so many unanswered questions -- Would the fish live? Would the woman find her voice and keep her lover? -- I still felt the promise of the spring afternoon when a park bench allows us to eavesdrop, to meet the world afresh and to greet the stories that re-introduce life's originality.