by Mike Nolan
Michael ambled under trees shedding their fall colors, approaching a large expanse of grass. He smiled hearing the crisp sound of broad red and yellow maple leaves crunching underfoot. The park always made him slow down and take notice, acknowledging anyone who might make eye contact.
Everyone in the park wore masks. Since the jungle gym was taped off, children ran across the grass or swung from low-hanging branches in trees. Parents toted bags and pushed baby strollers, while old folks took determined steps with walkers. Couples held hands or walked arm in arm. There . . . that’s what I want, he told himself. Someone I can be myself with, the kind of relationship where we walk together, silent and perfectly content.
Although Michael didn’t notice any familiar faces behind the masks, he felt connected to those around him. My park family, he thought, because the only real family Michael had in the city was Aunt Lidia. He fled the west coast—and the other members of his family—to Aunt Lidia’s welcome on the east coast. Only a few years older than Michael, Lidia was more a big sister than an auntie.
Michael turned his jacket collar up against the autumn chill. Although this was a sunny day, the air was crisp. A glance at his watch told him he was nearly a half hour early, but that didn’t bother him; he’d use the time to get ready.
Giving himself credit for not being a nervous wreck at this point, Michael was the first to admit that he was an absolute shit when it came to meeting people on his own. He couldn’t find the right words, and when he did say something, it came out too fast, and the conversation fell apart. Shaking his head, inwardly cursing his weakness, Michael told himself that’s why he was still single.
Online dating was supposed to be Michael’s savior. It works for everyone else in the world, just not for me. First, he’d felt overwhelmed by all the options, then discouraged when ninety-nine percent of his introductory messages went unanswered. The final straw was being ghosted after three weeks of what he thought was promising communication.
Thank god for Aunt Lidia. If it weren’t for her setting me up, I wouldn’t be meeting ANYBODY. She gets me past the introductions, and then I stand a chance. I don’t have to try cheesy pick-up lines or fumble with small talk. I can be myself.
Aunt Lidia was in high spirits and enthusiasm when she’d phoned. “I’ve told her all about you, Michael, and I think you’re really compatible. A terrific girl.”
Michael remembered smiling. “Set it up for four o’clock, would you, Auntie? I can meet her at the benches at the north end of the park, under that big maple tree. You know the place, right, Auntie? The benches are about six feet apart, so we can sit there—socially distanced—and say hello, then maybe get some takeout.”
He glanced at his watch again and took a deep breath. Aunt Lidia told Michael to look for a woman in a blue sweater. The main thing is, I can be me. I’ll be relaxed.
A majestic, solitary maple dominated the north end of the park, and as Michael approached he could see the two empty benches. He sat on the far end of one bench and admired the fallen maple leaves.
A few minutes later a woman walked beside the opposite bench. She was wearing a light blue sweater under a lavender jacket. Bingo. Nervous enthusiasm made Michael chuckle to himself. Thank you, Aunt Lidia! She sat down at the far end of the bench, and Michael leaned forward. “Hello.”
Her body was angled away; she turned her head. “Hi.” The mask accentuated her large dark brown eyes, which made her look like an anime girl. Cascades of honey-brown hair flowed out from under a lavender wool cap.
“I’m Michael.” He lowered his mask. “You know, I’m the first to admit that I’m terrible when it comes to meeting people . . . ”
She turned toward him.
“I just can’t do small talk and make it sound real.” He broke into a smile. “If I practice lines ahead of time, that’s how it sounds—practiced.”
Her eyes went from curious to amused, and she started to laugh. “Well, you aren’t shy about it.”
“No, it’s true.”
“Pick-up lines are phony,” she agreed. “People want to connect.”
“I do . . . ” Michael nodded, inwardly admiring his composure because by now he’d normally be babbling. At the same time, he felt a tinge of guilt. Why can’t I do this on my own?
Michael peered into anime eyes and warmed to the conversation. “Friends tried to coach me,” he shrugged, “but I can’t say something rehearsed. It’s not real.”
“I appreciate your honesty.” She lowered her mask.
He leaned back, surveying the park and feeling at home. “I love this place in autumn.”
“So do I. It’s become my refuge during the pandemic.”
He leaned a little closer. “I know what you mean. What do you like best about the park?”
“Lots of things . . . mostly, you have all these different people who enjoy being here, so we all agree on that. It gives us common ground—literally—which seems so hard to find these days.”
“Exactly,” Michael said. “Our differences get amplified to the point we lose sight of the things we share.”
“You know, you should give yourself credit.” Now she was smiling. “You’re easy to talk to.”
“Thanks,” Michael said. “There’s a food truck by the park entrance. Do you want to get something to eat?”
They stood, putting masks back on while taking a couple steps toward each other. As they turned toward the park entrance, another woman approached from behind and sat on the opposite bench. She wore a royal blue sweater and black scarf. “Hello,” she said expectantly, “are you Michael?”
Mike is a retired public high school counselor who lives in the seaside town of Port Angeles, WA, on the Olympic Peninsula. He has a web presence at mikenolanstoryteller.com.