Every Tuesday we would meet in the park. It wasn’t much of a park, but it was equidistant between our apartments, and the curved wooden bench proved a surprisingly comfortable structure that served as our base for our weekly bull sessions.
What made this particular Tuesday stand out, I remember, was the very brief presence of a beautiful woman and the ensuing conversation. She strode past us that day, her stride long and confident, short skirt baring fabulous legs; thick, luscious brown hair bounced with each step. She couldn’t have been more than 25. As she passed, she bathed us in her brilliant smile and nodded, saying "Good afternoon, gentlemen."
Her poise and utter lack of affectation was alluring. She was clearly in her prime as a woman, and along with the faint scent of her perfume we were left with the fading click of her heels and a profound sense of our own mortality.
Chuck was the first to speak.
"Yeah. Okay, two word summation."
He thought for a moment.
It wasn’t a startling assessment, as Chuck was a psychiatrist and often couched his phraseology in analytical terms. He leaned back with his arms spread out along the back of the bench. "Your turn."
I sighed heavily.
He looked at me.
"Huh?" He was staring at me.
"She has no idea how many flush hits to the mouth await her."
"Metaphorically speaking, I hope. And this is a bad thing?"
"Yeah, it is."
It was his turn to sigh. "Maybe those hits are inevitable, but should she be thinking about them? Anticipating them with dread? It’s quite difficult, from a psychological standpoint, to genuinely acknowledge something you have yet to experience."
I nodded. "I know, but it’s sad to see a woman, especially one so young and beautiful and vibrant, cruising along the track thinking the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train."
"Is it a train for everyone?"
As usual, Chuck’s responses were measured and reasoned.
"Ultimately, I believe it is."
"You are, of course, referring to death."
"Yes, and no. I guess I’m talking about the loss of innocence, which with birth and death, are probably the three experiences we all share. The death of innocence is more abstract, obviously. Its impact is probably less measurable."
Chuck looked toward the bend where the woman had disappeared. "The loss of innocence can take many forms and, in fact, is often the first major step in one’s growth. There can be positive ramifications associated with it."
I thought about that.
"Can the death of innocence be subtle?"
"Absolutely," he said, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees. "It’s not always some dramatic event, like losing one’s virginity, or the death of a loved one. It can occur in a multitude of ways, sometimes spreading out over years."
"So then, which is healthier? To lose it in one fell swoop, or to have it deteriorate slowly?"
I could sense his frustration. "You’re oversimplifying. Take this young woman we just saw. If I’m interpreting correctly, you associate her alleged innocence with naiveté."
"In a sense, yes."
"Okay, let’s take it a step further. If you haven’t absorbed the flush hits yet, is it naiveté, or denial, to not focus on the possibility?"
"Well, denial implies the presence of unconscious knowledge."
I continued. "I’d lean towards naiveté. If that woman was 45 instead of 25, would we be having this discussion?"
"No," he said.
We were quiet for a while, watching a trio of squirrels chase one another around the base of a huge oak.
Chuck finally spoke. "Should this young woman not enjoy the unblemished years? I know you better than probably anyone, and you tend to be obsessive about this stuff. You’ve spent a great deal of time trying to find ground zero in your life where innocence was snatched from you. It’s rarely that simple."
"My dad killing himself because my mom left him is fairly unambiguous."
"Touché," he said softly, briefly putting his hand on my shoulder.
I continued. "My older brother killing himself because his wife left him would be hard to classify as subtle."
"Fair enough. I’ve always acknowledged the dramatic events that shaped your childhood."
"I know you have. We’re straying from the subject, however."
"Are we?" He arched his eyebrows.
"I think so. Granted, I was probably too young to anticipate or prepare for my traumatic stuff turning me into a cynical teenager, but when I see someone like that woman, radiating all that is good about life, it brings a bitterness out in me."
Chuck made a sound in his throat that was agreement.
"Does that make me selfish, or even worse, self absorbed?"
"Yes," he said simply. "But I think your outlook is inevitable, given your life experience. You don’t wish bad things on this woman. Au contraire. Your real motivation is of a gallant nature. You want to warn her, maybe even protect her. Shield her from the flush hits, even take them for her. Because you know that you can recover. Her fate is less certain."
"You paint me as more noble than we both know I am."
"Nobility also comes in many forms, my friend. I think given what you’ve endured, you carry with you a rare dignity."
"Next to me," I replied, "you’re almost a Pollyanna. Does my cynicism wear on you?"
He frowned and scratched his beard. "I’m not sure I totally agree with the premise. Isn’t there a dose of healthy skepticism tucked into your mix? I never thought you were an angry cynic."
I shook my head. "I’ve never met a dumb cynic, not to say I’m an intellectual giant, but I’ve always associated cynicism with a sort of gritty intelligence."
"I don’t disagree."
"It’s a pat phrase, trite even, but sometimes I feel all of this can be distilled down to whether you see the glass as half full, or half empty."
"That’s a beautiful simplification."
"I’m what, about half way through my life, maybe a bit more? So far, I’ve been the glass is half empty type."
"Yeah, but haven’t you filled that glass with your own experiences? Don’t you want to keep filling it, get it to a level where it isn’t halfway anymore, but closer to full?"
"You mean force the issue?"
"For lack of a better phrase, yes."
Chuck continued. "Look at it this way. It’s probably more important to determine the quality of what fills the glass. You can separate that from its degree of fullness. Quality over quantity?"
I stroked my own beard thoughtfully.
"Having lived an examined life, for what that’s worth, makes me think whatever’s in the glass is the result, not of circumstance, but of my own doing."
"Yeah,” Chuck agreed. “You’ve controlled as much as you can. But can’t the loss of innocence be a benign determinant of how one lives their life? Does it have to be poisonous?"
"Maybe. It could be one’s response to the loss that is more important."
Chuck extended his palm, which I slapped lightly.
"I agree. Which then, by definition, means that whether the loss of innocence is dramatic, or subtle, it is the response that can render that loss either harmless or devastating."
"So that young woman could try with all her might, as I implied earlier she should, to anticipate what lies ahead, but it still would be how she bounced back that would determine the overall impact."
Around the bend where she had disappeared what seemed like hours ago, we heard the freshening click of heels coming toward us. We watched and waited.
She was on the far side of the curved walk. Her gait was slow. As she passed us, there was no greeting.
She was crying.
Chuck and I just looked at each other.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Literary Fiction
Short Story / Literary Fiction
Short Story / Literary Fiction
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