The next few days I settled into a routine. I would go to work, come home, go for a walk, and then write. I had to admit, I was enjoying it. The writing was therapeutic and once I got typing, I really got into a rhythm. I was meeting my daily word quota of 1600 words. Some days, I would even go over, typing late into the night. I was writing my story, and much of it was straight out of my life, but I was writing it the way it should have been. I was writing it the way I would have liked things to have been. That was the beauty of fiction, after all. I could change characters and events. Heck, I could even make my own character nearly perfect. Who said I couldn’t be drop-dead gorgeous with auburn hair and striking blue eyes? It was my world. I could do whatever I wanted.
But memories sometimes got in the way. Digging up the past meant the past was always on my mind. I would dream of Alan and our time together. In my dreams, we were young and he loved me. We were happy. Then I would wake up, and remember. And it would all come back.
I saw Mike a couple times during the week at the library, but we hadn’t really had a chance to talk. He was busy writing. I was busy working. I did, however, make a point of checking the NaNoWriMo bulletin board regularly. I would post my totals and check the others that were posted, making a special effort to see how Mike was doing. He was catching up on his totals. He must have figured out something to do with that sci-fi novel after all. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had worked me in as a character. Was I really an alien? The prospect was intriguing. He had also left some encouraging messages for the rest of us. “Keep up the good work!” he wrote on several postings, including mine.
Saturday was a beautiful day outside, one of those rare November days in New England when the sun was shining, the air was warm, and one could get by with only a light sweater. New Englanders know those days are to be savored because the skies will soon be grey and snow could come at any time. I didn’t have to work, but I did have to run a few errands, including stopping by the library to pick up my paycheck. I was surprised to see Mike there. I figured he would have other things to do on such a gorgeous day. I decided to walk over and say “hello.”
“Hi.” He looked up, “Hold on just a second? I need to get this thought out before it leaves my brain.” I decided to let that go without saying the smart comment I had in my mind. Instead, I sat down and waited patiently.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “You know how it is. The words start coming and you don’t want them to stop. You have to get them down on paper.”
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked. “I don’t want to interrupt you if you are in a groove.”
“No, it’s OK. I’m happy to see you! I’ve been spending all this time here and haven’t had the chance to talk to you at all. I’d look in the children’s room and see you working, but I didn’t want to bother you,” he said. “I knew that your boss was upset with you the other day when you were late coming back from lunch. I didn’t want to get you in more trouble.”
“Thanks,” I smiled. “You can always come in and say hello, though. Rachel won’t have any problem with that.” He had no idea just how happy Rachel would be.
“So, what are you up to today?” he asked. “You’re not dressed for work.” I looked down and self-consciously realized I had on my bang-around sweats.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I have the day off. I only have to work every third Saturday. I was just out running some errands. I stopped by to pick up my paycheck.”
“That’s an important thing to do.”
“Absolutely! Anyway, it is too nice a day to be cooped up in here.”
He looked out the window. “You know what? You’re right!” He closed his laptop. “Hey, have you ever been to Forest Park?” he asked.
“No, actually, I haven’t.” Forest Park was a huge park in Springfield. I had driven by it lots of times, but had never stopped in.
“Do you want to go? It’s one of my favorite places. I’d love to show you around.”
I was so surprised, I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Um, won’t your girlfriend mind? I realize it’s not a date or anything, but does she care if you go places with other women?” I asked.
“What girlfriend?” he countered with a puzzled look.
“Jennifer?” I said. “At the kick-off party, Chelsea told me that you two were together.”
“Chelsea doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Jennifer and I have been friends for years, but not like that. I’ve known her since high school and we do spend quite a bit of time together, but her boyfriend is in the army and is stationed overseas. She just hates being alone, so I take her out to eat or to the movies every now and then.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I feel stupid. I shouldn’t have said anything.” I got up and started backing away. “I should just get going.”
“No, don’t. I’m not upset with you. I’m upset with Chelsea. She should keep her mouth shut about things that she knows nothing about. I really would like to take you to the park. I’m going to head there anyway, and I’d enjoy having some company.”
I thought about it. Did I really want to do this? Did I want to start down this road, not knowing where it might lead? Was I ready for this? I looked out the window.
“Please. It’s a beautiful day,” he said.
“OK.” I said.
“Great! Come on.” He grabbed his laptop and we started moving toward the door.
He held open the door for me as I got into his car. The car was incredibly messy. It looked like a man’s car! “Just move that stuff out of the way,” he said. “You can toss it in the backseat.” I picked up several empty water bottles and old papers and threw them in the back so I could sit down. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting to be driving anyone around today. Usually, I try to clean up the car a bit if I know someone will be riding in it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The ride was short. As he drove, I looked over at him. I really liked looking at him. He had such a kind face. I even liked the laugh lines around his eyes! I liked his voice, too. It had a soft, soothing quality to it.
“How’s your novel coming along?” I asked, trying to make conversation.
“It’s coming along alright, now at least,” he said. “I had to scrap my original idea and start over.”
“Really? Isn’t that against the rules?”
“No, not at all. Sometimes, you have to scrap what you’re working on. Sometimes, you just can’t get it to work. I know people who have spent the whole month working on a project, only to give up on it the last week. Then they work non-stop for the last few days and manage to meet the deadline. I never should have tried to write a sci-fi novel. I’m not sure what I was thinking. It violated the whole ‘write about what you know’ principle that I usually hold to. At least I realized it fairly early in the month.”
“So, what are you writing about now?”
“You’re going to laugh,” he said as he glanced at me. I wondered what he thought of me. I really wished that I had worn something else. It wasn’t like he was dressed up – just jeans and a sweater, but he wore it well. I looked like something the cat dragged in.
“No, I won’t laugh. I promise.”
“I’m writing a story about the library.”
“Yeah, seriously. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been spending so much time there. I’ve been trying to truly get into the environment.”
“So, what’s happening in the story?”
“There is a librarian who is shelving books one day when an envelope falls out of one of the books. She picks it up and finds a letter inside the envelope. It’s a love letter, written more than 30 years ago. The rest of the story is her trying to return the love letter to its original owner. It’s a romance and mystery rolled all in one,” he paused. “At least I hope that is what it will end up being.”
“It sounds great. I’d love to read it when it is done.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to see about that. I’ve never let anyone read anything I’ve written in these novel projects.”
“Really. I just couldn’t bear the thought of someone ripping all my hard work to shreds. It’s funny. I’m an artist, right? I went through art school where professors specialize in criticizing you to the point that you never want to pick up a paintbrush again. Even today, I know not everyone will like my art. It’s not easy, but I’ve built up a thick skin in that area. I can take the criticism. But with writing, I’m not that confident. Criticism would hit too close to home. If you read it and hated it, I would be so sad.”
“You don’t know, though. I might love what you have written. You could be the best writer ever and you’ll never know it because you weren’t willing to share it.”
“That’s true, I suppose, but I could also be the worst writer ever, and that,” he said emphatically, “I would rather not know!”
“Well, you are truthful. I’ll give you that much. If you change your mind, the offer still stands. OK?
“OK,” he said. “Look, we’re here.”
And so we were. We drove through the tree-lined entrance to Forest Park, and he parked the car near a big field.
“I thought we might go for a walk, if that’s alright with you,” he said as we got out of the car.
“Sure. I love to walk! It is such a beautiful day. We aren’t going to get many more like this.”
“That is so true. Winter is right around the corner.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me! I’ve lived in New England my whole life, and I still don’t like winter. I like snow. I think it is so pretty, but I like to look at it from inside a warm house while drinking hot cocoa. I hate the cold!”
“Well, we need to enjoy today then.”
We walked along quietly for a bit. Strangely, the silence didn’t feel awkward. I felt so comfortable, so safe with Mike. I truly couldn’t explain it. I hadn’t felt that safe in a very long time, if ever.
“The park isn’t very busy today, is it?” I broke the silence.
“No, you should see it in the summer – there are people all over the place. Even then, though, there is enough room here so that you can usually find somewhere to be alone if you really want to be.”
“How big is the park?”
“You know, I’m not sure, exactly. Over 700 acres, I think.”
“Wow, that is big!”
“Yeah, it is one of nicest places in Springfield.”
“What are those things?” I asked, pointing to some large metal sculptures on the side of the road.
“Those are for Bright Nights – it’s a big holiday light display that is put on each year here. It’s great! People come from everywhere to see it. It opens up the day after Thanksgiving, but it is better to wait until there is some snow on the ground. Then the lights really look spectacular. I take my nephews every year. They really enjoy it, but the truth is that I do, too. Maybe I could take you this year?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I answered.
We rounded the corner of the field. Mike pointed over to the left where there were some white trellises standing guard. “There’s a rose garden over there. It’s absolutely gorgeous in the summer.”
“Sounds nice. I’d love to see it when it is in bloom.”
“Yeah, this isn’t the best time to see the park. It’s really at its peak in the spring and summer, or even in the early Fall when the leaves are all in color.” Now, all the leaves were on the ground and crunching under our feet as we walked.
“I’ve always enjoyed the sound of leaves crunching in the fall,” I said.
“It is a good sound! I’m much more fond of the leaves here than I am when they are in my yard and I have to rake them!”
“I know what you mean! There’s a huge oak tree in my back yard. It was great in the summer. I would grab a book and sit in the shade and be as happy as could be. I’m going to have to pay for it now, though. I came home from work one day last week and discovered it had dropped all of its leaves. Now my yard is covered! I had planned to rake them today, but I don’t think that will be happening.”
“Well, if you’d rather be raking . . .”
“No, not at all!” I laughed. “This is much better!”
We continued walking down a hill and took a right around a corner when the path split.
“We are heading down toward the duck pond,” he said.
“Sounds good!” I agreed.
“There is something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Mike began.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“I was wondering where you are from. The other day when we were talking at the library, you mentioned you had volunteered at the library ‘back home.’ I was wondering where ‘back home’ is.”
“I’m from a little town up in northern Vermont. I grew up on a farm.”
“Vermont? That’s pretty country up there – very peaceful. I’ve often thought I’d like to build a log cabin and live in the middle of nowhere like that. But, look at me. Here I am in a city!”
“You’re right. Vermont is very pretty. I liked it a lot, but small town life can wear on you after a while. Everybody knowing everybody can be both a blessing and a curse,” I admitted. “My parents are still up there, though. I miss them.”
“So, what brought you to this neck of the woods?” he asked.
“I guess I just needed a change of scenery. I was looking to start over someplace where no one knew me.”
“Why did you pick here? I mean, I’m glad that you did, but Springfield wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice. There are a lot of other places in the world.”
“Honestly?” I paused. “I knew I wanted to stay in New England. As much as I dislike raking and the cold that winter brings, I’m definitely a four-season type of girl. So, with that in mind, I threw a dart at a map of New England to decide where to go.”
“And it landed on Springfield?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “Well, at least the second time. The first time the dart landed right in the Atlantic Ocean! I decided that wasn’t a good choice, especially since I’ve never been very good on a boat.”
He laughed. “I agree. I think that you made a wise decision to throw the dart a second time.”
“Yeah, it’s worked out alright. I was able to buy a small house on the Springfield / East Longmeadow line and I got the job at the East Longmeadow library. The rest, as they say, is history.” I answered. “What about you? Have you always lived here?”
“Most of my life,” he said. “I went away to college in Worcester and then did a year as a Jesuit Volunteer down in Philadelphia. Since then, though, I’ve been here. I commuted to UMass when I was going to school for my Master’s degree.”
“Jesuit Volunteer, huh? So, you’re Catholic?”
“Yes. Irish Catholic. You? I noticed you wear a necklace with Mary on it.”
“The necklace is from my Mom. She gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. I’ve worn it ever since. I’m Catholic, too, although honestly, I haven’t set foot in a church in quite a while. God and I haven’t exactly been on speaking terms lately. ”
“Hmmm. I went through a stage like that, too, a while ago. The good thing about both God and the Church, though, is that they both are waiting and willing to take you back whenever you’re ready.”
“You sound like a priest,” I said. “Should I start calling you Fr. Duncan?”
“No,” he shook his head and laughed. “I did think about becoming a priest, though, when I was younger.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I met a girl and fell in love. It was right after I came back from Philadelphia.”
“So, what happened to the girl?”
“Oh, she was young . . .”
“Well, being young doesn’t mean it can’t last. What happened?”
“We dated for a while. We had this incredible romance. I had never experienced anything like it, before or since. I thought for sure she was the one for me. I asked her to marry me and she said ‘yes.’ We planned to wait until she was older. She wanted to finish her education, which I definitely supported, although I missed her terribly when she was gone. I would drive to New York to see her whenever I could get away. In the end, though, it just wasn’t meant to be – at least not for her. She met someone else at college and married him a couple of years later. It’s been years but I’ve never been the same. I’ve never been able to forget how I felt when I was with her.”
“Have you dated since then?” I asked.
“Oh, of course,” he hesitated, “Well, to be truthful, not that much. I’ve never really met the right woman. I have lots of friends who are women, but I’ve never found anyone I wanted to have a long-term relationship with. My mother keeps telling me to find a ‘nice girl’ and get married. She has even been suggesting that I try an on-line dating service. I keep telling her I’m happier alone! Besides, I have my sister and my nephews to take care of. I’m certainly not lonely.” He looked at me with a pained expression. “I shouldn’t have told you all this. You must think I’m pathetic.”
“No, not at all. I know what it’s like to have someone you love hurt you. Sometimes it does take a long time to recover. I’m not looking for love right now, either,” I answered truthfully.
Mike seemed relieved. “Well, it’s still nice to make new friends.”
“Yes, it is,” I agreed.
We came up to what looked like an old house in the distance. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
“That’s the Barney Carriage House,” Mike answered. “It’s used for banquets. It used to belong to Everett Barney. He invented clips that could attach ice skates to shoes.”
“Yeah, he owned most of this land. He had a great big estate here. They knocked it down when they were putting in the highway.”
“If his house looked anything like this Carriage House, it must have been amazing. I love old houses. It’s too bad they had to tear it down.”
“I love old houses, too. I think that they have a lot of character. I always imagine that they have a story to tell.”
“You seem to know a lot about this park,” I said.
“I spend a lot of time here. It’s good to know something about the place where you live.”
We had reached the end of the park so we turned around and began retracing our steps.
“It’s starting to get cooler,” I remarked as I wrapped my arms around me in an effort to keep warm.
“Yeah, the sun sets early these days. We’ll all be suffering from lack of sunlight pretty soon. One of the few advantages of getting older is that the winter does pass more quickly. It will be spring before we know it.”
“You’re right! I can remember as a child, the days went so slowly. Waiting for Christmas took forever. Now, all the days seem to pass in a blur.”
“I know! My younger nephew, Tommy, is turning six this week. He’s been waiting forever for his birthday – counting down the days for the past two months. He’s having his party tomorrow. He’s so excited! He can’t wait to see what kinds of presents he’s going to get.”
“What does he want?” I asked.
“Pokémon cards, mostly,” he answered. “It’s his latest thing. They go through these stages when they are just obsessed with one thing, and they basically live, eat, and breathe it for a while. Then one day, they wake up and move on to something else. It’s hard to keep up sometimes.”
“Do you know anything about Pokémon?” I asked.
“Not enough to keep up with them! I’ve read this book all about the different Pokémon to them about a hundred times, but I don’t really understand the game.”
“Yeah, I don’t either. They had a tournament at the library a little while back. I watched the kids play, but I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. They seemed to be having fun, though.”
“Hey, would you like to come to the party tomorrow?” he asked. “It’s at one. We’ll be having pizza and cake and ice cream.”
“Oh, I think I’d be out of place, don’t you?”
“No, you wouldn’t. My sister’s real nice and wouldn’t mind having another person at all. You don’t need to bring a gift. Just come and keep me company. It would be great to have someone to talk to while I’m helping supervise all those little kids. Besides, you said you like old houses. I live in one built in 1899. I think you would enjoy seeing it. Please, say you’ll come.”
I thought about it for a minute. “I guess it would be OK. Another good reason not to rake! Besides, I’m a sucker for cake and ice cream.”
“I feel like we have only been talking about me,” he said. “I don’t know much about you except that you come from northern Vermont.”
“That’s alright. There truly isn’t that much to know,” I told him.
“Did you go to college?” he asked.
“Yes, I did. I went to the University of Vermont for a couple years. I didn’t finish, though. My mom got sick and I had to go back home and help take care of her and help my Dad with the farm. She had breast cancer. It was rough going, there, for quite a while.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That must have been tough.”
“It was, but thankfully she is much better now. She’s been in remission for about three years.”
“I’m happy to hear that. Did you ever get to go back to school?”
“No. Life just kind of moved on. It was never really a priority. I loved college, but I could never decide what I wanted to do. I took classes in everything. I enjoyed all my classes, well, except science – I was never destined to be in the medical profession, that’s for sure! But there was never one area that spoke to me more than another. I couldn’t pick just one to focus on. That’s why I like working in the library so much. There are books on every topic imaginable. Whenever I want to learn about something, I can just pick up a book and study. Maybe someday I’ll go back and get my library science degree. I don’t know. It depends where life takes me.”
“I think you should. Of course, I am somewhat prejudiced, seeing I spent eight years in college and now teach in one,” he said.
“Yes, I can see how you would be.”
We were almost to his car when it started to rain. “I’ll race you,” he said. We ran our hearts out on the way to the car. “Ha! I won!” I shouted a bit too enthusiastically as I touched the car a second before him.
“Yes, but I have the keys to the car!” he retorted, holding them up and waving them tauntingly as the rain came pouring down.
“Oh, come on! Open the door! It’s wet out here.”
“Oh, alright,” he said reluctantly. He unlocked the doors and we both climbed in. “It was funny to see you out there in the rain.”
“You have a poor sense of humor!” I informed him as I tried to wipe some of the water off of me.
“Here, I’ll put the heat on – it will help you dry off,” Mike said as he took off his glasses to wipe off the raindrops.
“How did such a beautiful day turn into this? It wasn’t supposed to rain today,” I mused as we drove back to the library.
“You know the old saying. If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait fifteen minutes. It’ll change.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s true,” I agreed. The heat in the car did help. By the time we got back to the library, I was reasonably dry, only to have to face going back in the rain to get to my car.
“I’ll park next to your car, so you won’t have too far to go.”
“Thanks! That’s kind of you.” I paused before I got out of the car and turned to him. “Thanks for today. I had a really nice time – well, at least until the skies opened!”
“I did, too. I’m looking forward to seeing you at the party tomorrow. Oh, that reminds me, I need to give you my address. Hold on.”
He scribbled it on a napkin he had in the back seat. “Here,” he handed it to me.
“Thanks, it would have been hard for me to get there without this! I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I climbed out and dashed into my own car. It didn’t take me long to get home. It had been a good day, a very good day. Mike was different from the men I had met before. Of course, it helped that he really wasn’t looking to get involved with anyone, either. That made him safe to be around. Could a man and woman just be friends? That was the eternal question, wasn’t it? I admit, I didn’t have much experience in that area – at least not since puberty. I suppose I was about to find out. I was willing to give it a try, anyway. If things got too uncomfortable, I could always gracefully bow out of the relationship.
I took Saturday night off from writing. Instead, I curled up on the couch with Lady beside me and watched a movie while I worked on a quilt. I didn’t watch much TV – a show here and there, but I enjoyed my Saturday night movie nights relaxing with my sewing. My mother had taught me to sew by hand when I was a little girl – nothing fancy, just some simple stitches and a little embroidery. She could make the most amazing quilts. Mine were what could most kindly be termed “serviceable bed coverings.” My stitches would never be small enough, and my blocks were nothing if not simple, but I loved it. It took me about a year to complete a quilt, but that was OK. I enjoyed it, and my mother was always kind enough not to criticize my efforts. Like my mom, I liked hand sewing, the rhythm of the needle going up and down through the layers of fabric. It was soothing, relaxing and therapeutic. It was my artistic expression. I had never been good at drawing or painting, but I could piece scrap fabrics together and sew straight lines, and in the end come out with something beautiful and useful. That was a reward in and of itself.
I enjoy movies, too, although not as much as books. Still, a good movie allows you to lose yourself in the story. A great movie might even make a heartbroken girl believe in love again, at least for a couple hours. My favorites were old black and white classics – movies with stars like Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire; anything with Katherine Hepburn. Musicals were fun also. How many times had I seen The Sound of Music? I knew all the songs by heart, and that famous line “When God closes a door, he always opens a window.” My mother always used to tell me that whenever I got discouraged. It may be true, but somehow it seemed like God often made you search for the window.