by Brian Joseph

As soon as he sat down on the bench he began to drift back to that Valentine’s Day eighteen years before. It had been at this very same bench. He had been coming here every Valentine’s Day. He would sit for an hour or so and remember her and how he had loved her. He had planned to ask her to marry him on that day eighteen years before. His mind drifted back and in his mind’s eye he could see her and his heart could feel what he had felt on that day.

He had only known her for nine months. When he was twenty-five years old that seemed to be a longer period of time that it now did. He thought about how they had met. People that he worked with were going out for Friday night drinks and they had asked him to come. This was something that they only did a few times a year and he had never gone with them before. When this was pointed out to him he said that he would join them.

It was a large bar and a band was playing classic rock and dance music. He sat at the bar nursing a beer while listening to the music. That was when he first noticed her. She was sitting at a table with another woman. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and in that strange communication that is without words he knew that she knew that he was looking at her. There was about ten minutes of this thing of her noticing him noticing her while he was doing the same. It was interrupted when the band took a break and his co-workers began to chit-chat. As soon as the music started up again he gazed directly at her and in an instant that was unlike him he stepped off of his stool and walked directly towards her table. She watched him as he walked towards her and their eyes met before words were spoken.

“Would you like to dance?”, he asked. Her eyes looked away from his as she said, “I can’t”. It wasn’t the answer that he had hoped for. He muttered “Okay” and started to turn to walk away. Her hand reached out towards his, “No wait, sit down.” He smiled and as soon as he sat down he said, “I can’t dance either.” They sat and talked in staccato conversation at points where the music got lower. One of his co-workers joined him at the table and a few minutes later the co-worker and her friend were up and dancing.

“ Are you sure you don’t want to dance?” She shook her head to say no but her eyes said that she was not definite so he asked, “Are you sure, there is no harm in trying?” She grinned and said, “I really can’t but I’ll try.” As soon as she stood up he noticed the cane hanging on the back of her chair. She walked towards the dance floor without it, dragging her right leg while limping. He followed her slowly and they started to dance. The ‘dancing’ lasted about two minutes before she fell down, landing on her left knee. He helped her back to the table. When she sat down she giggled and said, “I guess that you were wrong about it not hurting to try.”

He sat on the bench and re-played the scene in his mind. The he fast forwarded to that Valentine’s Day eighteen years before, right here at this very same bench. She was from Ohio and had moved to Connecticut two years before they had met. It was a whirlwind relationship and they had both rushed off into the high that comes when two souls touch. He had rehearsed it in his head. They would take a walk in the park and then sit at a bench and he would ask her to marry him. But something had happened that was not part of the rehearsal that he had played in his head. As soon as they sat down she said that she had something to tell him. He listened. Her grandmother was sick. She was going back to Ohio for a few weeks. She would call him and it would not be long before she would see him. He decided to hold off on his question. He would ask her when she got back. They would return to this bench. As soon as he thought this a wave of worry washed over him. It seemingly came out of nowhere. What if he were to never see her again? Instead of the rehearsal that he had played out in his mind he blurted out, “I’m afraid that I won’t see you again.” She smiled a smile that reassured him, “Don’t be afraid I’ll see you soon.” As they stood up he clasped her hand and whispered in her ear,”I love you.” She looked down at her right leg , All of me?” He kissed her gently and whispered softly, “ Every part of you, forever, I promise.”

She would be staying with her cousin, not far from the nursing home where her grandmother was. Two days after she left he called he called the number that she had given him. Her cousin answered and took a message. She phoned him back the following day and they talked for fifteen minutes or so. He only spoke with her once after that. She didn’t return his phone calls until the late night call that he received after not hearing from her for almost two weeks. She said that she was sorry for not calling, she had been busy. They chit-chatted and she said that she would talk to him soon. He sensed that something was different during this conversation and he had been right. Three days later he phoned her and her cousin said that she had moved. He never heard from her again.

In the weeks that followed he wondered a lot. Wondered what had happened. Wondered how he had let it happen. Wondered why he had been so foolish. Wondered how she could mean so much to him that he could not see that he mattered little to her. Wondered if things might have been different if he had followed the script that he had rehearsed in his head for that Valentine’s Day. Wondered what her answer would have been. Wondered if she realized how much she meant to him. Wondered why she did not just tell him that it was over. Wondered why she had whispered “I love you” when the times they had engaged in a lover’s embrace. The worst part about this wondering was that there wasn’t anyone to share it with. He wished that he could unfold it all, the whole story, all of the wondering to another person. Then he could ask, What do you think happened?” But there wasn’t anyone else because he felt to foolish to talk about it with anyone. Two months after the last time that he had spoken with her he phoned her cousin asking how he could reach her. Her cousin’s reply was, “She’s unreachable.” He started to sob right there on the phone. “If you see her please tell her that I still love her and can she please call me?” He gave her cousin his phone number even though he knew that he had given it to her the last time that he had called.

It took a few months but eventually the wondering receded. It didn’t fully go away but he wondered less often. He accepted that there were things that he would not know, that there was no answer to all of the wondering and that anything would just be conjecture. He moved on. That is what survivors of soul wounds do. Some move forward, some become hardened, some hurt others, and some wall themselves off from others. He was determined to move forward but he did not forget her and knew that he never would. In this way she would always be a part of him in some small way. When souls touch they leave graffiti.

One year after the last time that he had seen her he returned to the bench and thought about her and the last day that he had seen her. He sat on the bench on a day that was not unlike that Valentine’s Day the year before. It was still winter but there was a hint of spring in the air and the promise of what would grow and blossom. He felt at the cross and chain hanging around his neck. The word “Love” was engraved on the cross. She had given it to him. He contemplated taking it off and throwing it as far as he could in an act to symbolize closure. He didn’t do it because he knew that it would only be symbolic and that real closure would only come from speaking with her. He imagined what he might say if she could hear him. He reflected on this and reached down into all that he knew of his knowing her. In his mind’s eye he spoke. The words came to him in an instant, utterances from his soul:

There is a place I enter in.

What never was, what might have been.

Where are you now, what do you seek?

Afraid to talk?, me I still speak.

I say the things I never said,

In conversations inside my head.

If you could hear, you’d understand,

What never was, was also planned.

He returned to the bench ever Valentine’s Day and remembered his love for her. Something significant happened before his third Valentine’s Day alone at the bench. Two weeks before Valentine’s Day he received a Sunday morning 10 a.m. phone call from her cousin. There had been complications during childbirth and she had died the night before. “You said that you loved her. I thought that you should know.” If asked if she had been married and was told that she was not. There would be a brief memorial service and she would be cremated. He thanked her cousin for calling and hung up the phone. He went to a drawer and took out the cross and chain that she had given him. He laid down , stared at the ceiling and held the cross in his hand slowly moving his index finger over the word “Love”. He picked up the phone and called her cousin. Could he come to the memorial service? She told him where and when it would be.

The memorial service would be at 10 a.m. Tuesday. He flew to Ohio on Monday arriving late at night and taking a taxi to a motel not far from where the memorial service would be. On Tuesday morning he took a taxi to a small church. He arrived fifteen minutes before the service was to begin and introduced himself to a woman setting out framed photos on a table at the front of the church. The woman was her cousin. He looked at the photos. There she was from little girl to grown woman. In one she looked to be about ten years old and she was sitting on a bicycle. He remembered her voice telling him of the car accident she had been in when she was thirteen years old and how she had become a three legged person referring to her cane. He looked at a photo of her as he had known her. He stared closely at the photo and could see the cross that she was wearing. It was the cross that she had taken off of her neck and put around his. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks as he sat down. He was close to the front of the church. He glanced at her cousin sitting in the row of seats to his right. He shot a quick glance behind him. There were only two other people besides him and her cousin. The minister said some kind words and quoted scripture. It was clear by what was said that the minister did not know her. The service lasted fifteen minutes.

He walked towards the doors of the church. The two people who had been sitting behind him introduced themselves as co-workers from the restaurant where she had worked. They shook his hand and walked down the church steps. He looked at her cousin, “Do you have time to talk?” She forced a smile through teary eyes and they went for coffee. It was between breakfast and lunch and there were few people in the diner. They sat down at a corner booth. He wanted to ask questions about the things that he had wondered about. Maybe this would bring some answers, some closure, or at least something close to it. He didn’t know where to start. Sitting with this stranger had added another wonder. What did she know of him?

He began by asking a question that he had wondered about at the church, right after the two co-workers had introduced themselves. Before that he had thought that the man might be her boyfriend and the baby’s father. “Who’s the father of the baby?” She was silent for a moment, looked down at her coffee, sipped at it, then said, “I don’t know and neither does anyone else. She’s in foster care now and will be put up for adoption.” He didn’t know what to say. His face dropped, “What? How can nobody know who the father is?” Her eyes darted back down towards her coffee. “She slept around a lot.”

There had been too much wondering. He did not want to leave with more questions. He did not want to have another un-finished conversation. He drank deep of what she told him. In her grief she shared in a way that she might not have otherwise. He listened. In a flash of realization he understood that while he had loved her he had not fully known her. He had only known a part of her.

She had never known her father. Her mother was a heroin addict who had become a prostitute to support her habit. One time her mother had ran off with a customer. Her pimp was angry and he waited for her at her apartment. After two days had gone by he became so enraged that he locked her daughter up in a bedroom, bound her hands behind her back and repeatedly raped her. She was only thirteen years old. When he left the bedroom she escaped by crashing through a third floor window. That was how her leg had been injured. There had been nerve damage. When she left the hospital she went to live with her grandmother who was the only adult who had ever treated her decent. She fell in with a bad crowd when she was sixteen years old. Her self-esteem was low and she would do just about anything for some attention. By the time she was eighteen she was addicted to snorting coke and was selling her body on the street. She had gone to Connecticut to escape from her pimp and to get off of coke. The trip had been arranged by a young street preacher whose life had been threatened for helping street girls by helping them to relocate and setting them up with a job and a place to stay. Her cousin wiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’m the one who got him to talk to her. I had him come to my place when I knew that she would be there.” She looked at the cross hanging around his neck. “He gave that to her and told her that the cross was not a symbol of suffering but a symbol of love overcoming suffering.”

Her grandmother had been sick. Three weeks after she had returned to Ohio her grandmother died. She fell back in with some people that she had known before and while she stayed away from hooking she had gotten back into coke. She ended up bouncing from man to man, anew one every month or two. “Most just used her, some were abusive, all of them had coke.” Somewhere during the conversation he had started to cry. He whispered, “I loved her.” Her cousin looked into his eyes and said, “I know. She thought that you were too good for her.” He wiped at his tears with a napkin, “How do you know that?” She reached across the table and touched his hand. “Because she told me. She was worried that she would hurt you if you found out about her past. She felt guilty for lying to you.” There is a communion when strangers share tears with each other and he knew that she meant what she had said. “I wanted to ask her to marry me.”

She clasped at his hand and whispered, “She always spoke well of you.”

Less than two weeks later he sat on the bench on Valentine’s Day. Three years had passed since the last time he had seen her. On this day he replayed in his head what had occurred on that first Valentine’s Day. He could hear the words that they had spoken to each other, words etched upon his soul. His life had been touched by her and he had felt in ways that he had never felt before. The whole thing had been an opening. He could feel more now. He was grateful for the experience. He had come to know himself more.

What he decided that fourth Valentine’s Day on the bench was life changing. But that was long ago.

Now it was eighteen years since that first Valentine’s Day. He sat on the bench and placed the cross around his neck between his thumb and index finger. He said a silent prayer to the Spirit that moves within each of us but is not felt by everyone. It was through this Spirit that he still felt her. There had been others before and after her. There had even been a marriage that had ended two years before. It had only lasted three years. He reflected on that and how it started as a mutual convenience for two people who didn’t have much in common other than approaching middle age, being single, and not wanting to be. It thought it fortunate that they had not had children together. He had dated over the years but most of the woman had seemed fearful of emotional intimacy or perhaps he just felt too deep. It was different with her. He had only been with her for nine months but he had felt closer to her than any of the others. He had never promised anyone what he had promised her.

That first year they had walked to the park but now he lived an hour dive away. It was 3 p.m. and traffic was very light. As he drove home he thought of the joy that had come from the promise that grew out of his love for her. He went into the house and walked into the kitchen. His fifteen year old daughter was sitting at the table sipping tea and looking at a magazine. He opened the refrigerator, took out a bottle of water, and sat down across from her. “Are you okay daddy?” He grinned and said, “I’m fine.” She looked directly at him. “You look like you’ve been crying.” He was silent for a moment. “I was thinking about your mother.” She knew that Valentine’s Day was special to him but she didn’t fully know why. “You must have really loved her. I love you daddy.” He looked across the table, smiled and said, “I love you too Promise.”