A cold dank bench was by far a better place to meditate than my parents' dry musty apartment booming Led Zeppelin. Rain trickled down my cheeks. Two hours had gone by and not a remote sign, not a nudge of inspiration, but random electric guitar chords set off in my mind. Slouching forward, my right leg and a clump of wet leaves partially covered the initials G.B, which stood for Gladys Brooks, my imaginary girlfriend. Shivering in my damp T-shirt I tossed stale bread to pigeons. It really bothered me that the fattest ones gobbled up the bread crumbs first. Fat pigeons like hungry students pounced on opportunity when it was presented to them. Hungry teenage boys pounced on young girls. My shaking leg uncovered G.B I Lov. The carved was hardy visible. The heavier the rain fell the more I brooded over letting a whole year slip by without applying to college. Procrastination in general sucks. At the moment my college entrance essay was a series fragments. By some people's standards, which by my wannabe hippie parents' standards, was the gateway to college. I had control of filling out my applications but not the weather. My head was soaked. I ran my fingers through spiky hair then shook it. The very front of my forehead, my widow's peak, inherited by a grandmother I never knew, felt exceptionally damp and itchy. My short spiky hair accentuated this feature. I hated my widow's peak. My bushy eyebrows were no prize either. I'd pluck them, but I'm sure it hurts like hell.Somewhere in me there must be a college essay, but where and about what? For what purpose? What really bothered me wasn't so much that I was eighteen and not interested in girls, but rather feeling the need to pretend to. I just didn't find them interesting and despite having high cheekbones and other feminine characteristics I did not have an interest in males either. I stared at the bubbles fizzling from my shoe bottoms. For a moment I felt a momentary triumph of meditation concentrating on the water bubbles. The wind blew some soggy leaves over my shoes. I then felt the damp coldness of my socks and my pants clinging to my body. A dark orange leaf, colored and coiled like a burned burrito was carried by the wind floating atop a nearby stream toward the sewer. The leaf was choked through the narrow opening.
It was then that I felt a cold bony hand grab my wrist. I flinched, rarely having been approached by anyone in the park, let alone on such a dismal, showery day. I lifted my head allowing a full view of my widow's peak to an elderly woman, clutching a thin cane. Was this the ghost of my grandmother? Frazzled, my mouth remained silent but ajar. She looked me over, perhaps to pick me up. Maybe I reminded her of someone. I hoped it was the latter. How would I respond if she made a play for me? I was a neophyte in that department. Girls my age weren't attracted to me so why should a senior citizen, and I should emphasize the senior, since she looks on the senior side of the sixty-five-plusers. She muttered something in nasally. Her voice was so nasal in fact it sounded French. Knowing at best five words or less in French I was saved by ignorance. Water dripped down her forehead; she too was unshielded from the rain.
"Is that Hillary on the cover?" She said. Her expression was forsaken. Her hand trembled but held onto her cane tightly. "Hillary Clinton, is she on the front page?"
She spoke English. That was a drag. If I wanted to be left alone I would have to act retarded or insane to ward her off. Scratching my head, as if it was infested with lice, it didn't occur to me that my hands and fingernails were covered with moist breadcrumbs. My head was now covered with crumbs. After scratching for a minute or so my scalp really started to itch. Hunkered forward on the bench I couldn't find the energy to keep up my charade.
"That's not the Post," she continued.
I hadn't the foggiest idea what she was referring to till I saw a Village Voice on the right side of the bench. I quickly grabbed the soggy paper, pretending it was mine holding it up to block her from sight. Flipping through the various Jazz and Funk club ads I found nothing of interest, except the newsprint on my fingers and possibly that we both were unprotected from this heavy rain. Uncanny. More like a coincidence. But what was this old woman doing out on a day like this? And where did she come from? "
"It didn't matter that she cut it. He hasn't noticed yet -the president that is. Y'know Hillary chopped it off yesterday."
Why was she still here I thought? I wasn't even reading the right paper.
"I can't believe it's not on the front cover. It's real human interest. Fred and Don Imus were discussing it on the radio today. It has to be in the papers. They probably buried it somewhere in the middle, the way they always do." She leaned toward me, looking at what I was reading, grabbing my wrist tighter. Her concern for the first lady seemed to be personal. Was she acquainted or related to her? She didn't look anything like her. She leaned closer and I noticed by her cane?s angle that she was losing balance. Before long she started wobbling. And then before I had a chance to move she plopped onto my lap along with the paper. She squirmed around. Mortified I threw my shoulders to the back of the bench. Was she going to kiss me? Her pink lipstick was smeared above and below her lips and her heavy make-up melted down her cheeks. I helped her to her feet, but her stubborn body landed a few inches from my legs. Her hazel eyes sought my undivided attention but she was too bashful to ask me for it. This time she sat beside me babbling incessantly. She finally freed my wrist. Still leaning against the cold bench rest I looked her way every so often when the pitch of her voice rose or fell to keep an eye on her. Pressing onto her thin cane I was certain it would snap, but somehow she managed to preserve her twig, raising herself up from the bench. "I love you G.B" was fully visible. She turned her body to leave.
"When I was a girl, around nineteen, I too had short hair. It was popular back then. They called it the boyish look."
"Really," I said matter-of-factly, watching her wet bony hand tremble. She clenched her cane tightly.
"It's funny girls want it short nowadays and the boys want it long. I suppose it's been that way for a while. Vincent thought it was crazy in the eighties when there were so many different types of women getting short haircuts. Pat Benittar, Princess Dianna, the late Dianna made short hair fashionable in the eighties and others too. Vincent thought women should have only shoulder length hair or longer," she said focusing her hazel eyes just above my forehead. "I too had my hair cut short then. Vincent thought I bought a new dress the day I had it cut, nineteen years ago. I bought it years before that. He never noticed much." She sat back down on the bench and looked away from me. I looked in her direction curious about her familiarity with pop culture. It impressed me since I was born in the eighties and that decade was murky to me, but I was familiar with the name Benittar and her perennial classic "Hit me with your Best Shot," and that my sister wore bandanas around her head and leg like her. Junk like that was played and discussed all the time in our apartment, our humble shrine to rock and roll. It was bad enough being subjected to the noise from the stereo but when my parents went on about the good old rocking days of Zeppelin and The Doors I couldn't take it. Somehow though I didn't mind listening to this old woman. Something about her intrigued me. Her tone was soothing, almost syrupy but not saccharine. What surprised me was that she didn't mention Hillary anymore. Had she forgotten why she originally wanted to look at my paper? She stared at my widow's peek though. Clutching her thin cane instead of my wrist I no longer was a captive audience. Or was I? Maybe the Hillary thing was just a ploy? Maybe she was just a lonely old lady and wanted to pass some time. Her time spent wasn't procrastination as in my case but I couldn't help it the more I listened the more I thought about never having a grandmother of my own to share conversations. They both died when I was very young. This nameless hazel-eyed woman could fill that need. Listening to her, forgetting what I had originally come to the park for wasn't killing time, rather I was making up for time that I never had with my grandmother. Oddly though she probably needed someone more than I did, her face was full of such grief that even the heavy makeup couldn't hide her pain. I noticed her watching some of the fat pigeons chomping away at the crumbs. Seeing her pain made me feel a little better about myself even though I didn't exactly know what was eating at her. The more I studied her the more I realized that her posture was remarkably solid, better than mine as I slouched on the weathered bench. Despite this she was quite old, wrinkled, whose days were numbered. One could probably figure her age by counting the rings beneath her eyes, but as curious as I was, I tamed the urge. Fortunately she told me that placing eighty-three candles on a cake would be a fire hazard.
"Light them, but have an extinguisher by your side," I said. She laughed and we both sat getting wetter. "I recently graduated from Stuyvessant."
"That's a fine school, what college do you go to?"
"I'm taking the year off to get some work experience under my belt."
"That's good it'll help you find yourself. There's no rush."
If she only knew that I placed price tags on a ton of kitty litter packages. It was a job to kill time, mindless work to postpone the inevitable, the real world.
I decided to level with her. "Honestly I've really been killing time. I haven't applied anywhere. I have a stack of applications in my room that keeps on growing. I'm not sure if I have more laundry laying around my room or more applications. I hardly look at either. It's funny, if I just filled out one line a day, then I'd be in school. Instead I blame work and my sister for my procrastination. I pick fights with her just to waste time."
"Like intentionally squirting ketchup on her favorite blouse or arguing over toothpaste."
"Not exactly, but those are some good ideas."
"I once squirted ketchup on my Vincent's shirt. Vincent was my husband, a nice plain man. Anyway I squirted this ketchup on his shirt, just to get a response and I did. He said 'Gloria, could you move your blocking my view.'"
"Are you serious with anyone?"
"No." I stared at the dampness on her face. Her eyes were pinkish, more pinkish around the edges now than they were earlier detracting from their hazel color. Was she crying? It was hard to distinguish the fallen and falling rain on her face from the tears.
"Never let your girlfriend or spouse mold you, you don't want to end up like me."
"What are you talking about? I hope I'll be as lively when I'm - I mean if I ever reach your age." I thought for a moment about what I said and I suppose that it was the least that I could've said considering I was using her misery earlier to make me feel better. But then I reflected on what she said. She meant never let your partner, shape or change you, but somehow holding onto those old bread bits I couldn't help but think of mold. Mold was on my mind; it was in my hands. Did she see me in my old age?
"I bet he lets that floozy of his block the T.V? All I've been to him is a roommate." She held her tears back, her teeth bit into her lower lip. She sighed. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
I was hesitant to respond, but she made me nervous. I spoke quickly. "I've been my own lately. Finding myself I suppose. I like my space. I mean when you're in a relationship there?s the sex thing that always gets in the way. Is sex always necessary?" I said lousing up the context of Thurber's joke, from an essay I had read earlier that day. The words seemed to hang in the air and for some reason the wind had died down. Where was it when I needed it? As if the wind could really blow away my words. I looked away watching some more leaves get sucked down the sewer. Could she tell that I was a virgin? She was wise. Age seemed not to have affected her memory. At least she didn?t appear effected by it. Her youthful brain read my aging body.She couldn't contain herself any longer. She wept. Her eyes were puffy and she panted deeply. Uncovered her dank body shivered, her memories taken over amidst a sullenly gray sky with nothing to shield her from the elements. My arm was perched to comfort her, but I couldn?t bring myself to place it on her shoulder. I rested it on the back of the bench instead.
"Did she have to be so young? Why did I complain? And he was wearing his Hawaiian shirt, the one he wore on our honeymoon -carrying our luggage, a wedding present from our fortieth wedding anniversary. I would've stood by him too. He made a mistake. It was those damn Viagra pills. I never should have told him to get a prescription." It suddenly made sense; she wanted to see my paper to see if the first lady's expression of rejection matched her own.
Just then the sun, no more than a coppery speck, set in the sky. It lightened the charcoal backdrop into a light gray and once again I saw the hazel in Gloria's eyes mixed with the tint yellow and orange, reflections of the leaves on the bench and throughout the park. A ray of light traced the carving I love you G.B on the bench. It was then that I saw Gloria move her lips. I barely heard her say Vincent aloud. The second part was too muffled for me to tell what she said after that. I paid careful attention to her lips. "You once loved me as Gloria Brown." She was the real Gladys Brooks, the one I invented. Gloria Brown was the owner of the carved initials. It occurred to me that before today I looked at old people as a bunch of useless crumbled leaves. Gazing into her eyes it was obvious to me that this woman possessed a timeless beauty. It also dawned on me that she would be the perfect inspiration for my college entrance essay. Surrounded by this ambient beauty, I thought for a moment of how cruel and undeserving it was to stuff a thousand-word essay on natural beauty into a manila envelope. It was even worse having used her despair to make me feel better. Gloria standing in her solid oak posture seemed to hold a tree full of wondrous multi-colored leaves within her eyes. Beauty wasn't monopolized by nature. I looked at a penny on the ground, then looked up at the sun that bore a similar color. The man-made penny lying on the floor was no less beautiful than the heavenly coppery sun. Gloria staring at me didn't unsettle me anymore for it wasn't my widow's peek that she was concerned with but maybe to preserve a little of her youth in the company of the young. I sat upright with my back pressed against the bench. Gloria sat there with her head tilted down, both her hands rested palms down on her lap. I offered my hand to her. Her uncertain hands quivered but didn't budge. I made the effort to reach for her hand. When I touched the back of her hand she didn't look my way. Holding her cold wet bony hand I couldn't change the fact that her husband had walked out on her, but I could hold her hand till it felt warm. She looked at the ground. The green leaves, the few that were left, were not as pretty as the brown, red and yellow leaves and the sun itself, at the end of the day was much more beautiful fading from us. Beauty was the aging process itself. She looked at me. It had only been a short time that we spent together but we had a special bond. Crazy how I believed I needed to be alone that afternoon when all along I needed company. And Gloria much in need of someone to talk was silent. We held hands for quite awhile without saying a word.