(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)
Peter looked anxiously at his watch. The school bus was running late, again. Depending on traffic, the parking lot at the Springwood Parks Playground would be full. It was a crapshoot every week, especially in the early spring. Everyone with a hint of cabin fever was eager to get outside and shed a few layers of clothes.
He knew Max preferred Zilker Park. It was tough to argue with a six-year-old; the park did have everything. Trying to keep him from riding the Zilker Zephyr was a challenge in itself. The one thing Zilker didn’t have was, “her.”
Peter had no idea who “she,” the young raven-haired mom was. He had seen her on his last several trips to the park. Friendly smiles of acknowledgment were exchanged. The late afternoon Texas sun framed her head reminding him of religious frescoes he studied as an undergrad.
Her daughter was roughly the same age as Max. He watched them playing on the merry go round together, but never long enough to spark a conversation between the parents. How much of a monster was he hoping that Max would push the merry go round too hard and knock her off? He would rush over profusely apologetic. His son was more of a gentleman than he.
This is what life has become. Hoping his child acts like a sociopath in order to foster an introduction. Well- adjusted adults simply made small talk about how nicely the kids got along, school, or the weather. This is what outgoing, socially adaptable people did.
Peter was far from outgoing. Introverted to a fault, he would never have met his former wife had serendipity not intervened and paired them as writing partners during graduate school. The trips to the park were her domain. It wasn’t a patrician choice; it was due to his crippling social anxiety. He would gladly handle all domestic chores in the house in order to limit interactions with the outside world.
He was human nonetheless, and had needs. They were kept firmly locked down in the deepest recesses of his mind. It wasn’t so much a suffering of wanton biological urges. He was lonely. The comfort of daily routines was missing. Small talk about the mundane of any given day gave way to shopping lists and half-hearted battles over what to watch on Netflix. It was about the routine and the regular, and he was out of sync without it.
He had long made peace with the angry demons that tormented him. The days of cursing doctors in their white coats with their hushed tones explaining hospice care while holding his wife’s hand among a tangle of squid-like wires had long passed.
Mourning had no timeframe, but an internal clock reminded him of the need for some level of companionship. The opportunity seemingly presented itself once a week when they saw each other in the park.
Peter noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring. It really didn’t signify anything, but at least he felt he could approach safely without appearing crass or inappropriate.
Even if he did approach, he had no idea what to say. Pithy, “Lovely day, isn’t it” or “They grow up so fast” just seemed painfully clichéd.
These were the thoughts that crippled him on the way to the park. Each week was going to be “the day,” but the courage was never mustered and the opportunity was squandered.
Today would be different. It was a solemn vow, although he had no idea who would hold him accountable.
The yellow bus’s hulking presence shuddered to a halt, and Max scrambled off eagerly into Peter’s waiting arms. They were both enthusiastic to go to the park. Max chattered away about the highly important second grade details of the day. His enthusiasm was contagious, giving Peter’s courage a further spike.
Pulling into the parking lot, Peter craned his head at the parked cars trying to determine which was “hers.”
Max made an immediate beeline to the merry go round. Peter gave an obligatory, “Be careful” tinged with a hint of dejection. Searching the park, his raven-haired ghost was nowhere to be seen.
After ten minutes, he let out an audible sigh. It looked like he missed her this week. Perhaps, he may never see her again. His mind dissolved into a series of “what if’s” as the click, click, click of the merry go round mocked him in the background.
Lost in his thoughts he looked up in a panic having lost track of Max. A father’s greatest fear realized as he was selfishly playing house in the long dormant recesses of his mind.
Peter caught a glimpse of Max by in a patch of wild flowers just off the entrance to the hiking trail.
Max brightened as Peter rushed over face red and ready to reprimand him for wandering off.
Max handed Peter a miniature bouquet of wildflowers. It deflated the whirlwind of parental anger and anguish that had gripped him. Peter’s face softened; Max scrunched up his own.
“Not for you. For her!”
Max motioned towards the mysterious mom who was exiting the hiking trail and entering the park with her miniature raven-haired replica in tow.
Before Peter could say anything, Max blurted out, “My daddy got you flowers!”
Sheepishly, Peter approached, the crimson in his cheeks matching the red Hurricane lilies he clutched with a vise like grip.
Despite clearing his throat, Peter croaked out his introduction.
“I see our kids know each other.”
Her radiant smile defrosted the coating of ice that blanketed his heart.
“I’m Maria. The flowers are beautiful.”
Max giggled and raced off hand in hand with Maria’s daughter to the merry go round.