A lot of days I like to sit in the town square and eat my lunch—egg salad on crumbling white bread and grape juice usually. It’s quiet enough but just the right rhythm. I slide under the same tree, depending on the weather, not too mindful about getting dirt on my pants—that’s what black slacks are for. The clock chimes noon and by fifteen after I’ll have peeled back the plastic wrap, alternating my focus between my meal and the cars passing by, going wherever they’re supposed to go, places not on my list of to-dos. Most of them come and go on bikes, riding in cars, elbows on windows and cigarettes snug between fingers, walking briskly by, eager to squeeze an appointment in the lunch hour. Always coming and going, focusing on saving time or wasting it.
Sometimes though, you get the people attracted by the square, the ones who amble aimlessly around the city, looking for something to make their day matter or to inspire them. They’re the only ones who come here. I don’t quite know why—for me it’s the proximity of it to my office, a bleak place that always seems to leave me achy for a little sunlight, even from a rundown square like this one. But they stop, take a look around, have lunch perched on the fountain in the center; it’s a crumbling one, spare stones caught between worn crevices, a nostalgic throwback caught from some Greek deity and dragged to a nowhere American town. The centerpiece pays tribute to some goddess, Juno, I think, but I can’t be sure. At any rate, she’s missing a few fingers, her ring and middle, and looks as if she’s taken a blow to the cheek, probably by the same wind that’s causing her death grip on that sheet pressed against and pulled from her contours. The people who stop by usually either ignore her presence or stare at her romantically, a little too strongly for my taste, like they’re staring at a piece in the Louvre instead of a marble mirage drowning in a crumbling brick courtyard. I get tempted to tell them to knock it off but they’d be too blind to see that anyways.
So I keep my teeth behind my closed lips and just watch them get on with it and sometimes I’ll see something that interests me. Every once in a while, a couple will stop by out of boredom and try to capture a romantic moment. It’s generally cliche or forced—they’ll try to hold hands just the right way, smile at just the right angles as if being photographed in time. Memory doesn’t really work that way but it will take a few years for them to realize that—to grasp the idea that memories usually trigger involuntary emotional reactions, not glorified black-and-white or sepia tones. But okay.
A lot of them are young couples, like the one I saw early spring, hatchlings just shedding their last bits of shell. She was pretty, but in an awkward way—an honest but unwrinkled smile that looked like it sat just where it belonged, followed by a body that was all elbows and knock-knees. She was a bit sheepish and her lashes long and dark like a lamb’s, shades over unscathed eyes. Ivory skin covered bony fingers which grazed the palm of a boy about the same age, maybe sixteen, maybe a year older than her. He had one of those closely-shaven buzz cuts freshly done in mom’s kitchen, a school baseball tee covering scrawny limbs which would be trunks by the end of spring, and high tops just a little too long for his legs.
They took forever to get up to the fountain, him stopping periodically to tickle her sides, her to giggle and wriggle away—both of them trying to avoid stomping the daisies planted all around them, placed in spots a little too delicate for walkways. When they finally got up to the fountain, in the midst of all that marble, she looked up in awe at the goddess like a young kid does at a baseball star. I smirked—she reminded me of someone I once knew, someone with the same endlessness in her eyes. He didn’t spend much time staring at the fountain but instead focused on his companion, frozen in step. He took a breath, as if he was about to dive into the water before them. I waited, knowing it would happen. It always did and it had to at some point. He slid off his shoes and socks, dipped a toe in, bobbing his head forward a moment. Then he dove, leaning in, nose first, face breaking the water’s surface, lightly brushing his lips at the corner of her mouth, and then resting them there. She shied away a moment, smiling as if it tickled, and then faced him to return the kiss. Feeling a bit strange, I turned my head, watched a few passing cars. I observed the patches of grass worn out by treading feet, left only with mud and a few struggling blades. I searched for a passing bird, looking down on the same scene. But I found nothing so lively, nothing that wasn’t automated, nothing else in the passing world that had anything to say to me. Nothing that soothed the forced feeling of longing that was itching its way up my skin. Something here was all too familiar.
Inevitably, I ran out of things to peer at: the cars all seeming to look the same, new or dented metal, purring or choking engines; a million cracks in the sidewalk, all different but too much the same. Possibly because of this, my attention wasn’t diverted for long. When I looked back, they were sitting on the edge of the fountain, afraid to get comfortable too unwilling to go back to standing. Her head rested on his shoulder, her hair draping down his chest—he seemed to be talking softly to her. They lingered for a bit, then the clock struck and Cinderella and her prince were nudged away. They walked home, eventually, I would imagine, making their own ways back to soup and sandwiches mom was probably making or Saturday movie specials—perhaps grilled cheese rather than egg salad and some hit action film rather than Sanford and Son.
Whatever they went on to eat, or whatever they watched, it seems like forever since they were here. I can’t really say I minded them either. They kept to themselves more than most kids and their innocence, their ignorance, was cute. She hadn’t begun to consider words like cheating, lying, or feelings like the inability to trust, betrayal, or shock. He hadn’t been struck by the condition of the wandering eye or feelings of inadequacy. It was sweet, short-lived, but sweet—sweet to see that though things wouldn’t always be like that, and they weren’t, but that they could be, one quiet afternoon picked from a lifetime of days. Like any wildflower, it would wilt and die, not meant to be taken from its field, but nevertheless it had been there once and I had seen it, once.
But of course they were not the only couple and were followed by others, not all as respectable, but inevitable nonetheless. That summer following was particularly hot but not a glamorous sunglasses on the beach, long, bronze legs kind of hot—more of a grungy, muggy, turn the pits of your white button-up yellow kind of hot. I felt dirty just sitting there, slithering around in my own slime and sweat, and looked toward the fountain longingly, its formally algae infested waters become a crystalline blue pool. A passing couple must have thought the same because they stopped by, looking into the mirage. The woman spread herself out on the edge, dangling over the side into the water. Her stretching motion pulled her top up to her midriff , exposing her naval. The tips of her scarlet hair danced tantalizingly on the water’s surface. The gentleman with her stared at the exposing stomach, running his eyes up and down the places his hands should have been. She dipped a ringless hand into the water and then ran it through the base of her hair, wetting her scalp and smiling boldly back up at him. He leaned over her, trapping her against the marble and under the fierce eyes of Juno. He placed a claw along her waist and eased it upwards, his other palm digging into the jagged stump, holding him up. She scratched the arm from the palm to the shoulder and back again. The brass on his third finger glared in the sunlight.
I turned my head, finally sickened by what I was seeing, unable to watch, thinking of the one who was waiting for him, probably at the greasy spoon diner around the corner, a cold coffee ring under her mug, skinny knees and legs dangling from the spinning stool. And here he was, whispering sweet nothings into the ear of some mermaid who would only swim away, sweet nothings which were breaking so many somethings. It made me sick, learning what a man was capable of, learning what I was capable of. I turned my head and never looked back at either of them.
The memory of that afternoon made me cringe all throughout the summer and early autumn, up until the time it started getting cold. Then people started peeking their heads outside in turtle necks, venturing out in sweaters. That was about the time I pulled out my own navy wool sweater. The same afternoon an old couple crossed the square. Unlike most other couples, they walked side by side, foot by foot—not one habitually leading the other from a few steps ahead, dragging a weak link. On unsteady and shaking knees, she ambled forward, gripping a cane in one hand and his hand tighter in the other, a set of golden wedding bands hit by specks of snow.
They must have been out for their afternoon walk and chosen another route, choosing to rest beneath Juno’s gaze. His walk was a bit stronger, like he had stepped across the cracked marble slats before, her’s was a bit slower, uneasy, yet trusting with his grip. They and stared out to their left at the all the cars had passed by. He pulled a melon shawl up over her shoulder like he was gently pulling a blanket over her sleeping. They continued to watch, two bony hands held one another in silence. She watched snow sweep along the street as he turned to watch her face, running his eyes along the crow’s feet, the dimples framing her smile.
As he reached beneath his lens to scratch an eye, I got tempted to throw a rock, to stop him from looking away, from closing his eyes even for a moment. Juno took a deep breath against the winter wind and dropped a rock from her fountain. It lay there on the ground before them both, only for a moment, and I was the only one who saw it, a perfect , marble pebble, soft and precious like a pearl, all up to the moment the wind carried it away. When the old man opened his eyes, days later, their sun-kissed glow, warmed in the spring and burned until the end of the Indian summer, was gone.
He returned there alone the rest of the days that winter, no footsteps mirroring his own. And he sat here, the season and all those following, never going near Juno or her fountain, not tempted by the false, voluptuous antiquity she offered or the tempting cool water to break the growing heat—but waiting. For what, I’m unsure; I’m not too sure he knew. But we gave one another a respectful distance, me watching, him searching, for whatever it was he had lost that fall afternoon, waiting on the wind to bring it back. Both of us were unable to move on to a new lunch spot, or to be driven in by the coming cold, me because I had seen too much and him because he had seen something he could not forget—all up to the point that I got the courage to speak and that next winter, I croaked over the wind and told him to go home.