I used to hate that word. I can recall time and time again I would write about how life was nothing but a burden. How I spent my entire life suffering and in pain; bogged down by regret and ashamed of past actions. I lived only in the past, waddling around in my own filth and never once allowing myself to see past the muck to the blue skies above.
This week started horribly. Monday was a true test for me. I discovered Chloe was a wreck during my absence. I honestly thought she would be fine. I figured she might miss me and wonder where I was and if I was ok, but I had not expected the complete melt down I hear about. Upon learning of her situation, I nearly lost control of my ability to reason. I panicked and allowed myself to briefly try to do what I always do. Run… Hide… Bury… and Forget. I almost succeeded too.
Despite all the progress I made in making sense of my life and trying to live my life in the present; I still try to find comfort in solitude. I am happy to report that despite my discomfort, I made an effort to stay.
Pat finds me intriguing. I can understand why. I do not really feel the need to clarify myself to him in any real way, although I do engage him in dialogue that often leaves him more puzzled then when we started. I find it fun while he finds it frustrating, but he continues to talk to me regardless. Maybe he feels he will figure me out one day? I can never tell his intentions, but it is possible he just really is bored and confusing or not; I am like a fun puzzle he desperately wants to solve. I am sure it beats what people normally do around here.
This brings me back to life. If there is one thing I sorely miss about Mariposa, besides my journal, it was that life was truly in your face, day in and day out. You had to get out of bed. You had to go hunting or garden for food; you had to scavenge for whatever supplies you needed. I had to work hours on the generators in less than ideal conditions in the hopes of bringing power to the good people down there. I had a sense of purpose, a goal; my life had meaning and structure. I felt like I belonged and was loved and cared for. I find that not so true up here.
It is not that I feel I cannot find that sense of community up here. It just came easier in Mariposa. People had to rely on each other. Survival was not possible if one allowed himself to be consumed by isolationism. Everybody was on an equal playing field. If I did not know any better, I would say that I was describing the core values of communism; but it was not so dictated. People just shared freely. Life was harsh, but the people responded in kind. It was not ideal, it was difficult and I would not recommend it to everyone but I miss the fact that despite all the troubles and difficulties; people did not make excuses. They just rolled up their sleeves and did whatever needed to be done.
I do not see the same kind of behavior around me now.
I admit these people in this half-way house have fallen on hard times. I will not take that away from them. I hear the economy has been weak and shedding job after job with it. Some of these folks really do have it difficult, but what bothers me is that despite their problems they make it worse on themselves by living in the past instead of embracing the present.
I will give you an example.
Wednesday there was a mandatory group to discuss goals and progress made within the past week. This was the first time I attended such a group, so I was only required to state specific goals for this week. When I was given the floor, I said my goals for the week were as follows:
I wanted to learn the most effective way to network with other job seekers and employers.
I wanted to re-establish my credentials with my bank and get access to my retirement money.
I wanted to build a resume.
Simple enough I thought. During the week I managed to get two of three completed. I am having trouble with the bank, but that is because I was declared dead and well; proving you are still alive takes some time.
I am glad I am patient.
What shocked me was how little everyone else accomplished. My bunk mate is a prime example.
Pat has been at the half-way house for over three months. During his time here, he seems to keep a positive attitude and hardly makes a fuss. However, when he stated his goals and what he accomplished I was rather surprised at his answers.
"Hi my name is Pat." He started when his turn on the floor came. "My goals last week were to cold call three companies and inquire about possible job openings. I did not manage to do that. I also said I would attend one optional life exercise, I also failed to do that."
"Why did you not meet your goals?" The moderator asked.
"This book is awesome." He responded.
"You failed to meet your goals because of a book?"
"I guess so. Well… not really. I mean, what's the point? Even if I called those companies they would just say there are no jobs available and life exercises? Ugh…"
"Doing nothing will result in nothing." The moderator replied.
"Sure. But doing nothing and getting nothing is not nearly as bad as working your ass off and getting nothing in return." He said smugly.
I cringed when I realized I once agreed with him.
"That is not a very good way to look at life Pat. I think your goals for this week should be two positive life building exercises where we work on your world view. Can you at least try to meet those goals?"
"I suppose." He said shrugging his shoulders.
I wanted to slap the man. However, that is only because I realized I was once in his shoes and have grown out of it. I needed a trip to Mariposa to bring me out of my funk; Pat had yet to find what he needs to grow up.
The rest of the men in my group shared similar tales. These people all had meaningless no nothing jobs that really did not benefit human society one iota. When the economy crashed, it’s funny I did not find this place full of doctors, or firemen, police men or teachers but rather salesmen, people who worked in entertainment or in Pat's case, construction. I will concede construction is important but he was a common laborer. Anyone can swing a hammer and stroke a brush. I did not find one architect or engineer in the group.
I find my tone judgmental. I believe that is intentional. Each one of these people is intelligent enough to learn a skill and do something worthwhile to themselves and to society as well. However all I hear are excuses.
'All I know how to do is… '
'Education is expensive…'
'I cannot move, where would I go?'
'Why can't I just do what I did before?'
These are the top four excuses. My responses to each one are as follows:
'So learn to do something more useful.'
'Read a fucking book. It's free.'
'Are your legs broken? What is keeping you here?'
'You can, but you aren't likely to get paid for it anymore.'
I do realize I am being insensitive. So what?
I remember when I lived by the same excuses. Even before my latest suicide attempt I was working at Wal-Mart because my condition was far too fragile to handle a real job. I could not attend school because I had no money and no way to get there. Sure, there were grants, and loans and other student programs to help retirees and disabled vets but I did not bother to research any of those. Also… there were buses, and I had a bike and there was Chloe, my parents or even my sister to get me where I needed to be. Hell, I could walk if I really needed too and at the time the exercise could have done me some fucking good. Trust me. I know bogus 'woes me' excuses when I hear them. I was the master as making people feel sorry for me.
I find that with my current outlook on life I no longer tolerate those who cannot help themselves. When I first got to Mariposa, I will be the first to admit I had not a clue how to fend for myself. I knew nothing about survival and it was a difficult adjustment learning the basics just to make it day to day. I also admit that these people probably do not have it as easy because life in modern society is far less community driven as it used to be, but I do not even see these men helping themselves. I worked hard to learn to do things I had never done. I tripped, I messed up, I became frustrated and angry but I always got up and tried again. I never let failure be an option; I never had time to feel sorry for myself.
These people feed off others feeling sorry for them.
In the interest of not being labeled a hypocrite, I did attempt to reach out to Pat. Funny thing, he's only interested in getting into my head. When I attempt to motivate or even inspire him, he buries his head in his book. I see so much of my former self in him it scares me sometimes.
Life bogged these people down. Life had previously bogged me down. The difference is that I got back up and fought back. I do not see it happening with the people around me.
Perhaps I have not given it enough time; it took me years to get off my lazy ass.
"So what are your plans this weekend?" Pat asked me as I finished up my latest journal entry and closed the notepad.
"I'm taking off. I'll be back Monday."
"Gonna return to the mysterious rustic cavern?" He asked.
"Maybe", I joked.
"Can I come?" He asked.
"You want to go to Mariposa?" I asked.
"C'mon… it sounds like fun. Besides I'm tired to of this place. Let me see where you called home."
"Well, I'm not going there tonight. If you are serious, I'll come back to pick you up when I do head there. It's a long walk though." I said as I finished packing my bag and zipped it closed.
"I'll bring a book." He responded as I left him alone in the room.
I suppose if I needed Mariposa to get my life back on track, it might do the same for Pat. He also might run and never come back but there is no harm in taking him there. I am sure of one thing; he will spend a lot less time reading books.
I chuckled to myself as I headed for Lake Eola Park.
"I'm bored… its Friday… entertain me!!" Chloe bellowed annoyingly, poking me on the side as I tried to play video games.
"Don't you have someone else to bug?" I protested as I tried to avoid spinning turtle shells and slow moving mushrooms.
"No… C'mon John… I'm BORED… let's go make trouble!!" She continued the aggravation.
"Fine!" I said frustrated when I was hit with a fireball as I tried to jump a lava pool. "I'm out of lives anyway. What kind of trouble do you want to make?"
"I dunno… wanna crash someone else's back yard?" She said smiling.
"Whose yard haven't we crashed in?"
"Good point." She replied.
"So?" I said… hoping she would allow me to take another crack at the paused video game.
"Wanna crash a park?" She asked.
"Park? Lakeshore Park? That's not really much of a challenge."
"I was thinking somewhere more… upscale." She had a devilish smile on her face.
"I'm listening." I said with a slight pause.
"Grab your bus pass…" She smiled and ran out my door.
I saw the bus slowly approach the stop and I remembered the first time Chloe and I went to Lake Eola Park. Chloe and I loved to camp. We did it all the time and to make it fun we often tried to camp somewhere other than my own back yard. We referred to this game as 'Crashing' and we would often crash in other's yards usually without their knowledge or consent. We got caught a few times but it never deterred us from finding some way to make trouble.
The first time we decided to crash somewhere other than a local back yard happened my sophomore year of high school. I did not know what we were doing, but one minute I was enjoying a round of Mario and the second I was sitting on a Lynx bus headed for downtown. As I boarded the bus and took a seat, I closed my eyes and reminisced about the first adventure we had at what become a weekly ritual for the rest of our high school years.
"Where are we going?" I asked as I ran to the back of the bus.
"I dunno…" She said playfully.
"Really" I said now concerned.
"Yeah… now shut up. Let's play twenty questions." She said annoyed with my petty concerns.
"Ok. Question #1. Where are we going?" I asked with a bold stare.
"A park", she answered flatly.
"Fine. Question #2. Where are we REALLY going?"
"A fucking park!! Ask me again", she replied slyly.
"Question #3. Which park?"
"Are you really gonna ask me twenty different versions of the same dumb ass question?" She asked.
"Question #1 and yes", I replied.
"Dammit… that wasn't a question!" She protested.
"Then tell me where we are going!!!" I said as I began to tickle her.
"HEY!!! Knock it off back there!" The driver yelled from his seat.
"For Pete’s sake… can't even have a little fun on a freaking bus." Chloe said throwing her hands in the air.
"Well… since I ain't getting where we are going from you, question #4 Can we play something else?"
Chloe smiled as she tilted her head playfully. "Can I get my four questions first?"
Rolling my eyes I replied… "Sure."
"Great. Who did you take to the dance last week?"
"Uh… didn't go." I answered.
"Why not?" She asked.
"Dances are gay." I replied.
"You are gay." She said as she poked me in the chest.
"That's real mature." I snickered back.
"I reject your answer and resubmit the question. Why didn't you go to the dance?" She asked.
"I didn't want too."
"And", she asked.
"Is that a question… cause it's your last." I said.
"Fine, yes. So answer up."
"Couldn't find a nice boy to take me", I said sarcastically.
She gasped and replied… "YOU REALLY ARE GAY!"
"Please…" I replied with a snort.
"C'mon John, you haven't even asked a girl out yet. You do know it's normal to date in high school right?" She said as she broke out candy from her pocket and popped it in her mouth.
"So now you want to play therapist?" I said with a raised eyebrow.
"Don't you want a girlfriend?"
"Better question is… don't YOU want a girlfriend?" I joked.
"Hahahahaha…. Hum? A girlfriend?" She began to ponder.
"Ewwww… gross…." I began to say and then I quickly changed my tune. "No wait… maybe not…"
"In your dreams dude!"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" I exclaimed.
She hit me hard in my arm. "Shut up perv. C'mon… tell me why you are still SINGLE." She made sure to emphasize the last word.
"I dunno." I deflected. To pronounce my deflection, I made sure to turn away from her and stare out the window.
"Is something wrong?" She asked.
"I just don't wanna talk about this anymore."
"Ok. But… did I piss you off?" She asked.
I sat silently for a moment and clinched my teeth and tensed every muscle in my body until a calm washed over me that allowed me to relax.
"No." I stated plainly. "Where are we going?" I asked again.
She stared out the window and while doing so she rested her head on my shoulder. I could hear her sucking on her candy and the slight breaths she was taking as she gazed out over the landscape that whizzed by as we rode the bus. None of us moved for what seemed like an hour until we were in downtown Orlando passing a large lake with a fountain in the center.
"Ooohhhh… here!" She said as she leapt up and pressed the exit cord.
"Here where?" I suddenly popped to life watching Chloe run for the exit.
"C'mon!" She screeched as the bus slowed down and the exit door flung open.
I made my way down the exit ramp of the bus and flung my bag over my shoulders. I took a look around the familiar park and realized it had not really changed much over the years. Buildings around the park came and went, the fountain had gone through a few changes as well, but the park itself remained untouched since my first visit here. I cannot recall the last time I was here, but I wasted no time getting my bearings and making my way to where I suspected Chloe to be. As much as her life has changed and despite her difficulties; I knew her to be a creature of habit and would find comfort in something familiar.
We at least shared that one trait in common.
"Wow. Nice eh… fountain." I said as we began walking around this really small lake.
"Oh shut your trap. This place is nice. I came here with some friends for the fourth of July last year. They have a pretty cool fireworks show."
"So we hung out on a bus for a long ride just to take a quick few jogs around this overgrown pond?" I asked sarcastically.
"When have you ever seen a pond with swans?" She retorted.
"Oooohhh… swans. It's just a really big duck." I joked.
"Can't you just ever see the beauty in things? This place is calm, its quiet and ooooh look… musicians!"
Chloe quickly sprinted away from me and pulled up next to this badly dressed but incredibly talented man lazily strumming a quick and infectious tune on his acoustic guitar.
"Hey baby." The musician greeted as she pulled her knees in tight to her body and wrapped her arms around her legs. She greeted him with a warm smile as he continued playing uninterrupted. I eventually caught up with her and while panting, took a seat across from the musician and simply waved at him. "What's up?" He said as he sped up his playing.
"Ooohhh… look at his fingers…" she gasped.
The dude playing guitar simply smiled as he strung out his over the top solo performance.
"I bet he couldn't beat King Koopa without losing a life." I said rather jealous of his impressive skill.
"Who fucking cares?" She asked as she continued listening.
"King Koopa is a prick… can whip his ass with a pick…" The musician began adding lyrics to his playing.
Rolling my eyes I replied… "Yeah…"
Undaunted, the long haired freak of nature continued singing… "While keeping one hand playin' on my axe…"
"Jeez…" I replied in disgust and began walking off.
"No reason to be jealous little man…" The jerk with strings spewed out in response to my leaving. "Only real men…" I heard him say before I covered my ears. I already knew I could not compete with a talented musician and did not feel the need to try. After a few minutes Chloe caught up with me.
"Brad is really funny." She said as she stopped and walked along side me.
"Brad?" I asked rather disgusted.
"Are you jealous?" She joked.
"What if I am?" I answered directly.
"Jealous of what? Brad? Did you smell him?" She joked.
"He smelled like burnt rubber and rotten eggs. He was kind of disgusting." She said in effort to make me feel better.
"You still liked him." I said unmoved.
She pulled in front of me and caused me to stop walking. "He could play the guitar. So what? He was ugly, his hygiene was gross and he was kind of stupid. I mean…'King Koopa is a prick I can whip him with a pick… if he had half a brain he would know King Koopa isn't going to win him any points into getting into my pants. Besides, you are way smarter than him."
"I can't play the guitar." I said still feeling vulnerable.
"You never tried. Besides you have skills that will make you money some day. I bet twenty years from now you will be a successful and happy person and he will still be barefoot and begging from scraps while playing the same ancient guitar." She said matter-of-factly.
I rounded the corner and to my amusement there was slightly older version of the same cocky acoustic guitar player strumming slowly on his instrument nearly in the exact same position I remember him sitting so many years ago. I could not help myself. I had to know if this was the same guy. I walked up to him and sat across from him as he nodded to my presence and simply continued along on his slow tune. I dropped my bag and sat on the ground and just listened to him play. After a couple minutes the song ended and he was about to break into a new one. Before he could I asked… "Brad?"
"Uh… yeah? Do I know you?" The musician asked.
"Nope, I was just curious if that was your name." I said, barely able to hold in my laughter.
"Ok. Good guess I guess." He said as he plucked a few strings and tuned his guitar.
"Actually… maybe you can help me." I said as I realized he spends a lot of time here and might have seen Chloe hanging around on occasion.
He looked up off his guitar but did not say anything.
"I'm looking for a petite brunette, probably has long wavy brown hair, brown eyes and a dark complexion. She likes to hang out here in on Fridays. She probably keeps to herself. Any chance you see anyone like that?" I asked.
"Not with long hair." He said.
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"There's this good lookin' babe that rolls through here a lot on the weekend. Always got a set of earphones plugged in and she simply stares out into empty space with her eyes closed." He pointed off in the direction opposite of the lake that we were on. "She usually sits near the swans. I tried talking to her… but she just shrugs you off. She's skinny and a brunette with killer eyes… but her hair is short. I dunno if that is who ya looking for… but good luck."
"Thanks." I replied as I grabbed my bag and walked off.
"I'm sorry… I don't know what came over me." I said as I laughed at what Chloe thought of the guitar player.
"It's ok. If I didn't know any better I'd think you'd want to go steady with me." She jested.
"You don't know any better." I said blankly.
Dismissing my remark she said… "Do you want to spend the night here?"
"The night?" I said looking around… "Uh… we kinda forgot something, like tents?" I said laughing.
"Yeah… so", she said with a tweaked smile.
"Where are we gonna sleep, on the park bench like hobos?"
"Not likely…" She paused as she pointed to a uniformed park ranger walking in our direction. "The park closes at night, that guy's job is to make sure everyone leaves."
I suddenly realized her game.
"You want to play an all night game of hide and seek with a park ranger?" I asked.
Chloe nodded her head up and down.
"I fucking love it." I said with a devilish grin.
"YAY!" She shrieked and clapped her hands. "Now… where are we gonna hide?" She asked.
"Good question." I replied as I surveyed the area. "Do you think we could pass for swans?" I joked.
"Nah… but I think we could make a good home out of those bushes over there." She said.
"What if they have thorns?"
"I'm the one with the pussy… why you acting like one?" She smirked.
"Language!" I said laughing.
"Oh give me a break… c'mon." She replied as she pulled my shirt and me along with it in the direction of the large bushes that lined the outskirts of the park.
I slowly walked along the path around the north part of the park, past the playground and picnic area and began to head to the west side of the lake where Brad said I could find the mysterious brunette he unsuccessfully courted. I firmly believed that I would find Chloe, sitting alone and listening to something but I had trouble picturing her with short hair. I had never known her to have anything but long hair. I suppose she might have changed during my time away? I know I certainly did. I began to get nervous as I approached the swan feeding area. Off in the distance, I spotted a single person sitting on a big boulder. A few steps more and I could see it was a young woman. A few more steps and I would be able to see if it was her…
"Wow… check this out!" Chloe said as she dug her away around the back end of a large bush.
I slowly made my through the prickly and thick bush to the other side and noticed there was a large gap between the middle of the bush and the fence. The bush grew around in a u-shape and left this sizable gap where we could camp out. "Damn… it's like uncanny, but perfect." I said surprised.
"I kind of wished I brought a tent." She said as she sat down and removed her shoes. She then sat down in the soft grass and motioned for me to join her.
"We don't need a tent. Were we planning on sleeping?" I asked.
"I dunno." She said.
"So what's the plan then? We found this nice spot to camp out. We have no food or drink. I have a few bucks; wanna go get some food and try to sneak back after the sun goes down?"
"Sure." She said. "I'm leaving my shoes. So failure to return is not an option."
"Of course… let's just hope a squirrel doesn't find them and carry them away." I joked.
"They won't steal them… you know my feet stink." She joked.
"You don't say…" I snickered as we left and headed toward Thornton Park shopping district.
I could clearly see the woman sitting a few feet from me on a boulder looking out over the water. Her back was turned toward me, and because of the earphones she did not hear me approach. I still could not get a good view of her face, but I knew it was Chloe because she has a small tattoo on her neck from her college years of a Brazilian icon titled 'Serenity' she saw on a trip she took there one spring break. I used to stare at it whenever she had her hair pinned up but I do not even know if she remembers it is there anymore. As I continued slowly walking toward her, I recognized the earphones she was wearing. I was surprised she was wearing my old Bose® earbuds. I could tell they were mine because I used hot glue to hold the buds in place and I could see my gaudy workmanship. In her hand to my surprise was my old Zune®. Is she listening to my music?
Did she miss me that much?
Chloe and I never saw eye to eye on music. I was into anything loud, obnoxious, independent and generally not main stream. She was Top-40 all the way. When we would take a long car ride anywhere, we would spend more time arguing about what to listen too that we often times never even got around to listening to the radio. I found it odd that she would subject herself to my musical chaos unless she really missed me. I did not even have to speak to her to see that my actions have caused her a great deal of pain. I swallowed hard as I hoped that I could salvage any of our old relationship.
I sat about ten feet away from her. If she turned her head, she could easily see me, but she failed to notice me as I set my bag down and tried to imagine just what song she was listening too. I made no effort to grab her attention. I just spent the next few minutes shooting quick glances at her. I was acting like some embarrassed school boy trying to catch glances of the girl he had a crush on. It would only be a matter of time before she took notice of my awkward glances.
A few minutes had passed before she began to speak. She did not turn her head or remove the earphones, but what she said caught me off guard.
"So far… my favorite song is 'Truth Doesn't Make a Noise.'" She said loud enough for me to hear her.
I ignored her at first. I was not sure she was talking to me. I was not even sure she had seen me.
"I remember you telling me about Jack White. I used to hate his voice… but he sings some amazing songs. I can see why you like him." She continued talking. I suddenly realized she was talking to me.
"How did you know it was me?" I asked as I walked up next to her.
She removed the ear phones and turned toward me. "I sensed…" She started to say but stopped talking as she looked at me.
Her eyes began to swell a tear as she tried hard to speak. All she could do was hop off the boulder and hug me.
I returned her hug as was happy that she hugged me verses clocking me one. I was not sure which reaction I would get.
"I know it's you John…" She said slowly as she grazed her hand across my face. "But I don't…"
She stopped talking again as she quizzically stared at me.
"Chloe?" I asked.
"I don't recognize you. What happened?" She asked.
"It's a long story." I replied.
"It's been a long time." She said slowly as she turned away from me.
"I know. I didn't mean to stay gone that long, things just… it's hard to explain." I said, my stomach was turning into knots and the pain and nervousness was killing me.
"Is it really?" She asked, emotion swelling in her voice. "You left and didn't come back, seem easy to explain that. Just tell me… did you even think about me at all?"
"Yes." I replied honestly.
"So where did you go?" She asked with a twinge of anger.
"Great… that makes it better." She said putting one of the ear buds back in her ear.
"Chloe… listen I thought you didn't want to see me again. I was stupid…." I tried to explain.
"Enough John", she replied with a heavy exhale.
"Can we go somewhere and talk?" I asked.
"Do you know that since you left, I spend the evenings here listening to all your music? Every song, all twenty thousand of them… I am about half-way done."
"Why?" I asked confused.
"I thought I understood you. I thought I knew you. Then we fought and you left… I thought it was my fault. I blamed myself for making you hate me. I wanted to understand you." She said sadly.
"I…" I found I did not know what to say.
"The thing is… I don't understand you at all. You have the craziest tastes. One song is screaming and loud… the other is soft and meaningful. You are a complicated person. Then you disappear for over a year and just like I knew in my heart, you would return one day. I have waited patiently, knowing that you would not disappoint. But when you finally come back you… you… who are you?" She finally asked.
"I know a lot has changed." I finally managed to say.
"For you and me both…" she said.
"So? Am I too late? Do you hate me?" I asked.
"I don't know…" she replied.
I wanted to console her but she pushed me away.
"John. I'm glad you are alive. I… I… just need time to process this. I half expected you to be exactly as I remembered you, but you are different."
"I just look different. I'm still the same person you know." I said.
"No." She said as she looked deep into my eyes. "You are different."
"Different how?" I asked.
"I don't know yet. You seem… better." She finally stammered.
"Isn't that a good thing?" I asked.
She turned away from me and began to sob a little into her own folded up arms.
"Chloe…" I whispered as I gently touched her shoulder.
"FUCK!" She screamed. "What gives you the right? I try for years… YEARS… to get you to… and now you leave and somehow you are… and I'm a mess… and… just leave." She spoke in broken verses between fits of crying.
"Please Chloe… I want to mend my previous mistakes." I said calmly.
"Yeah… how do you plan to do that? Do you even know what my life has been like since you took off?" She asked upset.
"No. Why don't you tell me?" I lied.
"Well you would if you were around or even called." She smirked angrily.
"I can't take back what happened." I said.
"No. You can't." She said. Her body language spoke volumes on how upset she was at me.
"There is nothing I can say that will erase the last year. However, I will try to make up for what happened. Just hear me out." I pleaded.
She looked up at me with tears running freely down her face. I picked up my bag and dug out the notepad Gina had given me earlier. I flipped through the book and found the page where I described her in poem form. I ripped it out and handed it to her. "I never stopped thinking about you. I wanted to come back; I was scared, I was afraid I tore us apart for good. It's no excuse and I'm not looking for a reprieve. I just want a chance to mend our relationship. Please…"
She took the page from my hand and read over my words. After a few seconds she handed the page back to me. "Prove to me you are still the same John. Tell me a story, a memory of us as children."
"You want me to prove I'm me?" I asked confused.
"Tell me a fucking story!" She said distraught.
As I sat next to her, she pulled off the headphones from around her neck and set them on her lap. I stuffed the journal back into my bag and looked over the water. I pointed off to the left and began to tell her the story of our first night here.
"Remember over there, right next to Publix® there was this little café that had the greatest chicken salad sandwiches?" I said.
"Yeah… it closed right after we graduated high school."
"That's right. Our first night here… you were barefoot and hungry. The guy wouldn't let you in." I continued talking.
"My feet were dirty." She replied.
"But I pleaded with the guy for twenty minutes to allow you to come in. Eventually he did remember?"
"Yeah… but only because I offered to dance for him" She retorted.
We both laughed as we remembered the memory together.
"That's right… you told him you took ballerina lessons and that you could do a little dance if he'd let you come in and eat."
"He had a picture of a small girl doing dance near the register, I figured he was a fan." She smiled.
"Remember you tried to do a little twirl but lost your balance and fell over, knocking over a table and three chairs?"
"That hurt." She said.
"I know… but the guy felt so bad he gave us free food?"
"Yeah… then we took our food and came back toward the lake to find the ranger driving around the path. The park was closed."
"We had to get your shoes…" I said smiling.
"Yeah… we toyed with that ranger for hours. Running across the playground, jumping the fence…" She trailed off, lost in her memories.
"Whooping and hollering…" I continued her thought.
She laughed a bit and said… "He eventually called the police. Were we really that much of a nuisance?"
"Absolutely", I replied.
"That was fun." She replied softly.
"Eventually, we distracted the ranger and we snuck back into our newly found camp site. Your shoes were right where you left them."
"Yup", she said with a smile. "And we were exhausted from chasing the ranger around all night. We fell asleep in a matter of minutes."
"And we went back every week from then on."
"Poor Joel… I'm glad he eventually stopped trying to get us to leave. We nearly drove him insane." She said with a quick laugh.
She stood up and stretched out a bit as she gazed over the sky which was dimming quickly as the sun started its descent.
"I'm glad you haven't completely changed." She said as she once again raised her hand to my face.
"No… but you haven't stayed the same. What's with the short hair?" I asked.
"Do you like it?" She asked.
"It looks surprisingly good on you." I said.
"I know." She replied.
I sat next to her as she began to slip her shoes back on.
"So what happens now?" I asked.
"I dunno John. Where are you staying these days?" She asked.
"Downtown at the Salvation Army building, I'm spending some time there as I work out what to do with my life."
"You are at a half-way house?" She asked.
"Where you always there?" She asked.
"Nope… just got there on Monday"
"Where were you before?" She continued the questions.
"I'd have to take you there. I don't think you'd believe me otherwise."
"Ok." She scoffed. "So are you ok?" She asked.
"Are we ok?" I replied.
"Maybe, I dunno. Give me some time to mull this through my head. I suppose I always believed you would come back, but I never actually expected it. I'm not sure what to do now." She said.
I wanted to hold her and tell her that everything can be just like it was, but I also wondered if that was feasible. Chloe and I have a long history and I could see she was happy to see me, however both of us have been through some difficult changes; things were not going to hop right along as if I never left.
"Here is my address." I said as I scribbled down the location of the half-way house on a blank sheet of paper. "Come hang out with me sometime. We'll take this slow, ok?"
"I suppose you want this back?" She asked as she handed me my old music player.
"Nah… you can keep it." I replied.
"Are you sure?" She said.
"I can't explain it
I feel it often
Every time I see her face
But the way you treat her fills me with rage
And I want to tear apart the place"
I sang the lyrics out loud…
She gaffed a bit and sang…
"You try and tell her what to do
And all she does is stare back at you
Her stare is louder than her voice
Because truth doesn't make a noise"
"I like that you are listening to great music." I said as I gave my blessing for her to keep my Zune®.
"Thanks." She replied. "Can I call you?" She asked.
"Not yet. But I'll get a phone as soon as I get to my money." I replied.
"I have some cash…" She began to say.
"It's ok. I'm fine. I am sorry about what happened between us. It was all my fault." I apologized.
"No it wasn't." She replied. "But thanks for saying so. Don't be a stranger this time." She said as I began to head off.
"I don't intend to be. Take care of yourself?" I asked.
"Huh…" She puffed. "We'll see." She finally responded.
"Are you ok?" I stopped and asked.
"Not really… but I've been in worse. Don't worry about me. We can talk about it later. The park is closing."
We would normally hug when we said goodbye; but there was an awkward moment that even made a handshake difficult. Neither of us said anything as I turned around started walking away into the night. I turned around to see if she was waiting, but she had left as quickly as I did. I wondered if too much time had passed. Was I too late? I could probably salvage the friendship, but I wondered if she still loved me.
Sadly… only time could tell.