The Bench (By Cat Matchuk)
She wore a large black, straw hat with a red ribbon, that’s what he first saw and what he first remembered. It was freakishly large, he thought, and perhaps in another life it wasn’t meant to be a hat. It was meant to be a roof. A tent. Shelter for the broken hearted, anything but a hat. In this life it framed her face perfectly and outlined her delicate cheeks and jawline. In this life, it was meant to bring out beauty.
She was sitting on a park bench. The bench, the grass, and even the air around her seemed to be glowing brightly in the afternoon sun. The light, a soft radiance, kept him mesmerized. When her eyes lifted to meet his, he averted his gaze and casually walked over to the bench, making sure to sit on the far side. Away from her. He dug his feet into the earth and stared ahead to the lake. He enjoyed everything that danced across his view. A dragonfly with rainbow skin. A swan gliding across the surface of the water, barely leaving a ripple. Even the screeches of the seagulls that circled above his head, but nothing was louder than this woman’s presence.
He drummed his fingers on his knee impatiently and wondered whether or not he would build up the courage to speak to her. To ask her name, to ask what she likes. Bridge the gap between stranger and friend.
She stood up and walked away before a single word could cross his lips. He thought that was the end of it. The end of something that didn’t even begin, never got a chance to grow. He was wrong.
The next week, he went to the same spot. He took out his notebook and began to sketch the outline of the trees. His hands moved quickly, his eyes were intent on the task. He was so focused he didn’t even see the woman sit down beside him. When he finally lifted his eyes from the page, and glanced up at her smile, he fumbled to close the notebook before she could see his drawing.
“Creativity isn’t a thing to be ashamed of,” she told him.
He felt his cheeks burning with embarrassment, and slowly pulled the notebook out again, placing it on his lap. His secrets were on display. He couldn’t hide. She glanced over, her smile was unwavering.
“Doesn’t look too bad. Are you a beginner?” He wanted to tell her yes. Yes, he was a beginner. He’d been drawing since exactly 42 minutes ago. Since his mind bounced and jumped, not wanting to cling onto anything, next week it’d be something else, something different. So he nodded enthusiastically, yes he told her. He just started. She beamed brightly and reached out her hand. The sun glistened on her darkened skin, just like the first time he had seen her seated on that bench.
“I’m Lori.” He shook her hand, returning the smile.
Lori turned away just as he did. They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes. He felt as if nothing was between them but his skin and hers. Not the layers of clothing. Not the air occupying the space in the middle of them. Words might’ve ruined this moment, if only he had had any to say.
After a half an hour of silence, she stood up and walked away. No more words were exchanged. He finished his sketching, glanced around the scenery once more and was on his way to work.
A week later, on the same day, Oscar sat down on the same bench. He was clutching a ball of yarn in his hand and two knitting needles. Lori wandered up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. She smiled that smile of hers, the one that made his heart drop. She was holding a fistful of dirt when she sat next to him. She didn’t sit on the other side of the bench like the last two times, but right next to him. Less than an arm’s distance away.
“Finding your creative niche?” She asked. He gave her a small smile.
“I guess you could say that.”
Unlike the last time they were together, words flew through the air like bullets. She told him about her big family. Her older twin brothers, and her younger sister. He countered that he was an only child, but found comfort in spending time with his cousins. Family life, holidays, their hometown. Pets, pet peeves, favourite camping spots, and city streets. She talked about her ideal type of work, florist, but how something held her back.
He asked her, “What? What’s holding you back from it?”
But she wouldn’t answer. She changed topics quickly. School, music, favourite actors. They found their conversation going on the path of a steady rhythm. She stood up to leave.
“I’ll see you later, same time, same place?” She left with daisies in her hand, and he looked at them curiously. He forgot to ask about that handful of dirt.
The next time he was carrying a piece of leather and a box of leather carving tools. There was an old couple occupying the bench. When his eyes drifted around, he spotted Lori’s hat, hovering above the rocks, close to the shoreline. He wandered over to join her, bending down to sit on the smooth rock.
“Our spot is taken.” Lori told him, without looking in his direction. Oscar dropped down beside her, then turned his head to glance at the couple. The silver haired woman closed her eyes in bliss and placed her head on the shoulder of the man, who Oscar can only assume is her husband. “It’s really sweet isn’t it?” Oscar agreed, thinking that she was referring to the weather, or their new, temporary spot. “It’d be nice to find someone to grow with.”
Oscar fumbled with the leather carving tools. He began to cut into the leather over the pattern of a simple flower. He dampened the leather and hammered the edges down, all while under the watchful eye of Lori.
“This might be your thing!” She exclaimed.
His hand slipped, driving the head of the wooden hammer into his thumb. She gasped and cradled his hand in hers. The heat of her hands instantly made the pain disappear.
“I want to show you something,” she told him. She reached for a mason jar that he hadn’t seen before. Through the glass he could see the jar packed with dirt. She poured some into her waiting palm and held it out. She waited, and he waited with her. Through the dirt he could see a sprout of green. It happened slowly at first, so quiet and gentle, he couldn’t be sure that it was actually happening at all. Then it grew faster, and faster, until a beautiful purple hibiscus bloomed before his eyes.
“A trick?” he asked in astonishment.
“No trick,” she told him. She told him about her love of flowers and her special ability. She didn’t know why she had it, and she didn’t care to know. For fear of it disappearing all of a sudden, she practiced it every day. She just needed a seed and some dirt. No water. She said how she felt like a cheater if she got into floral work. He frowned, struck by the saddening idea that something so beautiful had to be hidden.
They left that day dragging their feet. Their minds a little bit sluggish.
Next week he came back to the bench, without anything but his phone in his hand. As he approached Lori, she smiled at him and held out a handful of dirt where a white rose began to grow.
A shout shattered the silence, and it was a boy on a bicycle. He was pulling on the sleeve of the woman who had been on the bench yesterday.
“Look grandma, it’s a witch!”
The next few weeks were a disaster. Lori and Oscar were surrounded by talkative strangers wanting to see her grow something out of nothing. Lori, in an angry hushed whisper asked Oscar if he told anyone, he promised he didn’t.
She entertained the crowd in hopes that they would leave her alone if they had seen what they came there for. They tried to keep their sanctuary, they tried to hold onto something that was already long gone.
Eventually, fed up with the hassle of the others, Lori didn’t show up. They hadn’t exchanged numbers, there was no way for them to keep in contact. Other than the bench, their spot.
Oscar kept showing up, on time, every week, in hopes she would change her mind and come back. The crowd didn’t want to see him, they made that very clear with cries of displeasure.
Woodcarving, cross stitching, painting. Nobody wanted to see Oscar struggle with whatever creative idea had crossed his mind. They wanted the girl, they wanted Lori.
Eventually the crowd began dispersing. It became smaller and smaller, the excitement dwindling, the mystery of her powers just becoming a distant memory. Their minds wandered. They didn’t care anymore. They moved onto something else. No one longer wanted to know how a woman could grow a flower in a matter of seconds. Writing it off as an illusion perhaps.
The videos, the webpages dedicated to her, were to be buried deep in the digital world. Deep enough to never surface again.
Oscar was about to give up hope.
He zipped up a sweater over his dress shirt and sat down to look at the overcast sky. The weather was starting to grow cooler, preparing itself for the onslaught of autumn. He sat on the ground in front of the bench, turning around to keep his belongings on the wooden seat. With a cluster of flowers in one hand, he began arranging them in the crystal vase, half filled with water.
After several attempts, all the flowers were clumped together in the vase. He leaned back and looked over his work with pride. One must suffer for their work. They must spend time aching over it and that’s just what he did.
A voice from behind him teasingly said,
“Those flowers are way too clustered together, but you might be on to something.”
Oscar knew the voice, and didn’t need to turn around to see that beautiful face framed by the gigantic black, straw hat.