I met my wife on this bench.
I was daydreaming, watching ducks float in the lake when I first saw her. She was running along the bike path, her face full of determination. I expected her to run right past, but she stopped right in front of me instead, kneeling to re-tie her shoes.
She shot me a quick glance as she knelt in front of me, her curly hair tied back in a bun, sweat dampening her shirt. Yet, despite her obvious exhaustion, she seemed… alive.
Nervous and suddenly sweating even more than her, I tried to think of something clever to say…
“I like your shoes,” I said, mentally kicking myself.
She gave me a quizzical look as she finished tying her pink running shoes and took out her earphones. “What?”
Supremely embarrassed, I looked into her eyes and managed a stutter. “Um, I said that I… like your shoes.”
She gave me a weird look, obviously unsure of what to make of me. I didn’t blame her.
“I mean… they look good on you, is all,” I said, giving her a tentative smile in an attempt to seem less creepy.
“Thanks,” she said, returning the smile, “your uniform looks good on you.”
My heart leaped. “Thanks. I iron it myself,” I said, smiling like an idiot.
She nodded sagely, a grin forming on her lips. “Isn’t that mandatory?”
I shrugged, declining to answer.
Her grin broke into a full-out smile. “So when do you ship out?” she asked.
I frowned. “Two days, actually. That’s why I came out here. To re-evaluate my life choices.”
She let out a full-throated laugh, her eyes sparkling as they looked back at me. It was the first time I’d ever made her laugh, and it’s still one of my fondest memories.
“Then we better make this time count then,” she said, holding her hand out. “I’m Sarah.”
I wiped the sweat off on my pants before taking her hand. “Andrew.”
“Then what happened?” Grant asked, taking notes in his little moleskin notebook.
I sighed, wiping away a tear from my eye as I looked out over the lake.
We were sitting on the wooden bench, still damp from the rain that morning. I didn’t mind, running my hand down the arm of the bench, dragging my fingers against the grain as I drug up memories long past.
“What was your project about, again?” I asked, eyeing the young boy.
“To ask a stranger their life story.” He said casually, his pen poised over the notebook.
I eyed him distrustfully for a moment. “It’s not a very happy story.”
Grant shrugged, looking at me expectantly.
“Alright then,” I relented.
I fell in love with Sarah over those next two days. She thought I was foolish for believing that, but it’s true.
She was smart. Smarter than anyone gave her credit for. And she never failed to make me laugh, even in my darkest moods. In a world full of so much suffering, she shined. A lone spark of hope.
But that third morning I left for war… It’s not something I like to talk about. And to tell you the truth, I’ve blocked much of it out. If I start dredging through memories… well, I’d rather not.
Suffice it to say that I was deployed for two years, but only about a third of that time was spent fighting. The rest of those two years were spent thinking about Sarah.
I didn’t send her any letters. She told me not to. But I wrote them anyway and held on to each and every one of them.
But before I could come back to Sarah, I got injured.
Grant stopped writing just long enough to look down at Andrew’s arm, his eyes alight with curiosity.
“And then I came home early,” I said lightly, eyeing Grant.
“But…” Grant said, still staring at my arm.
“But what?” I prompted.
“But, how did it happen?” Grant asked nervously.
I shook my head at the boy. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about the war.”
Grant nodded, his face fallen in disappointment as he readied his pen for more notes.
I rolled my eyes. “My arm was blown clean off,” I said, raising what was left of my right arm.
Grant’s eyes widened, taken aback.
“And that’s all there is to it,” I said, lowering my arm.
Grant nodded vigorously, his eyes still focused on the stub sticking out from my sleeve.
“So,” I continued, “I went home early.”
I was embarrassed to see her again. I didn’t even want my mother to see me the way I was then. I felt half a man.
Still, I looked for her, hoping that when I found her she would look past my injury.
I had built up this image of her while I was away. I imagined her just as she was when I first saw her. I thought about what I would do when I saw her again. What I would say.
We had arranged to meet at this same bench. I arrived early, dressed in my military uniform and sweating with nerves. I was close to bursting with anticipation when I saw her walking down the bike path, just like that very first day.
When I saw her, all other thoughts escaped my mind. The only thing I could think about was how lucky I was to see her again.
She wore a flower dress with sandals, her hair loose around her shoulders. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, a smile breaking out on her face.
I stood, fidgeting with my hand as she walked toward me, unsure of what to do. I wanted to run to her, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
I knew the exact moment she noticed my missing arm, her smile faltering, her eyes squinting in concern.
“Didn’t you have two of those before?” she said, her eyes twinkling.
I smiled, feeling a weight lift from me. “They were pretty strict,” I said playfully. “I couldn’t leave early unless I left a part of me behind.”
She came to a stop right in front of me, smiling as if no time had passed at all.
Blindingly nervous, I gave her half a hug before taking a seat.
“How are you?” I asked, nervously fiddling with my jacket.
She sat on the bench next to me and took my hand in hers. “I’m good,” she said… “A lot has happened.”
I nodded, focused on the warmth of her hands. “For me too, obviously.”
“Was it terrible?” she asked, her eyes full of concern.
“The war? Not really. Not most of it anyway.”
“And… losing your arm?”
I shrugged. “It wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever experienced, but it brought me back to you.”
She smiled sweetly, stroking my hand.
“What about you?” I asked. “Was it terrible… being here without me?”
She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Not so terrible as losing an arm, I would think.”
I shrugged again, smiling back at her. That was when I noticed the ring on her finger.
For a few moments I just stared at it, trying to process what it meant.
“Are you engaged?” I choked.
Her face wilted. “Married,” she admitted.
I pulled my hand away, trying to hide the fact that I was shaking.
“I didn’t know how to tell you,” she whispered.
I shook my head, not knowing how to respond.
“I told you not to wait for me,” she said, a single tear falling down her face.
I couldn’t look at her, running my hand through my hair. I was shaking with anger. At her for moving on, but more so at myself for expecting anything else. She didn’t owe me anything.
I looked at her one last time, forcing the barest hint of a smile onto my face before walking away. I felt broken and lost, but I never looked back.
“But you got married,” Grant said, frowning at me.
I chuckled. “Yes, years later.”
“Can we skip ahead, then?”
I sighed, taking a swig from my bottle, watching the sun begin to set over the lake. “Might as well.”
Three years later, Sarah divorced her husband. I didn’t realize it at first. I wasn’t really in a place to keep tabs on anyone, seeing as I was dealing with my own things.
During those three years, my mother died suddenly. She had lung cancer. I spent all the money I had trying to treat her, but she died anyway.
We only had each other at the end, and then I had no one. She asked me to decide where to spread her ashes. I chose this lake. Not long after, I lost the house along with most everything else. Still, I never loved anyone else.
It was sometime after that when I found out Sarah was divorced. She had apparently tried to reach me for a long time before she finally succeeded. She found me at this very bench, watching over my mother.
I almost didn’t recognize her when she walked up to my bench. She had aged so much over those five years, but she was more beautiful than ever.
As soon as I recognized her, I pulled her into an embrace, overjoyed at the sight of someone I cared about.
She hugged me back, holding me even tighter when I eventually tried to pull away.
I don’t know how much time passed before we let go.
As soon as we sat down on the bench, I couldn’t help but look at her hands. There was no ring.
I proposed to her sixth months later. We were at this bench, and I read to her every letter I’d ever written to her over the years. We both cried. A lot. And it was the happiest day of my life.
“And you both lived happily ever after,” Grant said hesitantly.
I shook my head, gesturing around me with my hand. The park was empty except for my box full of letters and the ducks floating in the lake. “If we lived happily ever after, then where’s Sarah? I told you this wasn’t a happy story.”
Grant shifted uncomfortably. “Well, for a while then, at least, right?”
I nodded, already lost in my memories. “For a while.”
We were happy for a time, but like all things on this earth, it didn’t last. It turns out, Sarah wasn’t perfect, and neither was I.
I still loved her. More than she ever knew. But marriage was hard. Even harder than war.
I hated myself for thinking this, but I began to understand why my father left us when I was little. It didn’t make what he did any better, but at least I understood. He was weak, and so was I.
I eventually turned to alcohol. It became my crutch. My escape from the stresses of marriage and the memories of war.
It was reasonable at first, but then it got worse and worse until it had taken over my life. Alcohol had enslaved me, and it had enslaved our marriage.
“So you got divorced?” Grant asked, strangely somber.
“Not divorced,” I said, “but separated. She was right to leave me. She deserved better.”
Grant’s hands shook, for once not taking notes. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. “It’s not your fault. The blame was entirely on me. Anyway, before she left me, we had a child. A little boy named Bryan. He was fourteen months old when she left with him.”
“And you never saw them again?”
I kept my gaze on the lake, trying to hold myself together. “No. That was about twenty years ago.”
Grant hesitated before closing his notebook and setting it inside his backpack. “How long have you been homeless?”
I gave him a look before taking another swig from my bottle. “I’d say nineteen years or so. There aren’t a lot of jobs for amputated veterans without a degree. It doesn’t matter, though. I’m fond of this bench. Better times and all that.”
Grant wiped away a tear as he looked into my eyes. “And you get to be with your mother.”
“Exactly,” I said, smiling as I placed the bottle next to my box.
“But you never tried to reach out to her?” Grant asked. “To see your son?”
I frowned at him. “Of course I did, but she wanted nothing to do with me. They moved out of town and on with their lives.”
“And you stayed here,” Grant said, a hint of accusation in his voice.
“Here is home,” I said defensively. “If they ever want to see me again, this is the only place she’ll know where to find me. So it’s here that I stay.”
“But you’re still drinking,” said Grant.
I stopped mid-swig, looking Grant in the eyes. “Like I said, I’m weak.”
Grant stood, sighing as he pulled his backpack over his shoulders.
“Thanks for your time,” he said as he dropped a dollar in my box and walked away.
I grunted, taking another swig from my almost empty bottle. It felt good to talk to another person, but it came with a price. My memories better forgotten were more vivid; more painful.
Then I noticed the markings on Grant’s dollar. In pen were the words when you’re ready, followed by an address.
I snatched the dollar up, staring at it blankly, suddenly realizing who Grant really was. My heart leaped as I threw the bottle at the ground, shattering it into pieces.
Clutching the dollar to my chest, I tried to run after my boy, but I was out of shape and he was nowhere to be seen.
I stumbled around the lake a couple of times, hoping to spot him somewhere in the distance, but he was gone.
Both heartbroken and hopeful, I made my way back to the bench and picked up my letters. “By, mama,” I whispered, as I walked away from the bench.
My boy wanted me sober, so that’s what I was going to be.
When I sat down to write this piece, I liked the idea of writing an entire story in one location. But it is incredibly difficult to write an engaging story without significant movement.
So instead of telling a story in space, I tried to tell a story through time. The same location over years of time. Pretty neat in theory, but that brings a whole other issue of consistency.
To start at the beginning of the story and then jump through time in chronological order would be jarring for readers. Therefore, we need a narrator, someone to guide us (hopefully seamlessly) through time.
Hence, this story all centering around a single bench. I hope you enjoyed it!