She sat on the bench—under a sky swirled like used sherbet—and tried not to think about her problems.
Behind the small campus, a shaded trail wound along the wire fence until it spilled out into an open field. Somehow, even as it spread out in every direction, the field seemed to cradle and hold close what lay inside of it. The deep pink, orange, baby blue, and turquoise in the sky leaked across the cloudy horizon like a painter’s palette after a long day. Lavender flowers skipped in the light wind.
Crunch! A knot of brown weeds flattened under her shoes, as she stepped out of the building for privacy, cupping the phone close to her ear. Finches lit on the oak canopy, while she listened to the voice on the other end and tried not to smile. During a quiet lull in activity, they had been writing online for the last 30 minutes—about jobs and rude patrons and how much they loved the weekends. He’d finally decided to cut the chat short and call her instead. Probably the third call he’d ever made to her phone, her stomach did a somersault when she saw his name appear on the screen.
“How about I bring over coffee,” her friend said through a sharp patch of static, “and we can just hang until you have to leave for dinner?”
It was a breezy evening, despite the 80 degrees, and her blonde hair blew across her face, pieces sticking to her glossy lips. Pulling off the sticky strands, she leaned over the handrail and gazed at the old barn on the furthest end of the field—which was so faint and derelict, it looked like a scene off an Ansel Adams calendar.
“Sure,” she answered, turning away from the group of students in black hoodies that walked toward the door of the computer lab. “I clock out in 20 minutes, so I can meet you out front then.” She didn’t even drink coffee, but could convert for that hour. Walking back down the long corridor to the front desk, she hid the smile that kept trying to leak out the sides of her mouth. Her co-worker caught it but didn’t say anything, being sensitive to the way her friend could blush.
Twenty minutes later, he showed up on the outside steps in his teal work shirt, holding two steaming cups of liquid. She slipped past the freshmen chattering about nothing and stepped into his shadow, taking the white cup and trying to blow off the steam like a seasoned professional.
She hoped the wild scenery would be enough to distract all the question marks waving furiously at her passing train of thoughts; but empty hills don’t always free a mind at war. They can stockade it too.
The hill that supported their splintered perch was attractive in that rugged, Ansel Adams sort of way, with shadows creeping closer from the nearby lanes of trees. Its neglected pathways overgrown with grasses and half-dried wildflowers were like those you’d find squashed in a naturalist’s book. The weeds were ugly but provided a needed distraction, as two sets of tan fingers plucked and played with them. Soft tree branches obstructed her view of the college buildings, which should have settled her mind. But it wasn’t school that created that unsettled feeling. It was the person standing by the bench next to her. His carefree voice broke the gentle soundtrack that nature hummed in the background.
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
He stepped with confidence over fallen logs and tumbleweeds strewn over the field the way he probably had in boot camp. Some girls may have found that question patronizing, but this one played along with a spirited raise of the eyebrows.
“Well,” she started, proud that her stoic friend was at least making an effort at conversation, “I want to write. And play music. And a bunch of other things. I wish I knew how it would all pan out, but, you know. That never happens. What about you?”
He didn’t have to think twice.
“Oh, I think I want to be an astronaut.”
His twinkling eyes added a spark to the otherwise dry humor.
He was what lots considered handsome—rugged, like the bench they were now sitting on. A baseball cap shielded the thick head of brown hair, sweaty from manual labor in the harsh sun. He had come on campus to visit after her stressful workday, wrestling with phone conversations, which always added a few new grey hairs to the head.
He had his faults like the best of them and could be pretty darn maddening. In fact, before they were friends, she’d once complained about how she’d wanted to punch him in the face more than once. But still there was always the charm—the boyish smile hidden under the cold exterior, like a teddy bear in a combat uniform. Why didn’t he realize that everyone liked the teddy bear better?
Despite the cold exterior, she always felt comfortable by him.
The world was easier to handle near his shadow, like being relieved from heavy pieces of luggage. Part of the charm lay in his idiotically strong opinions. And he was good with words, able to pluck random vocabulary out of the air like cottonwood fuzz. Some people just had the gift of making anything sound good. There in the field she gazed happily into nothing, hoping to absorb his intelligence by osmosis. But an anxious spirit hovered, as her legs rocked over her cold hands. So many thoughts shouted, needing to be heard. But she couldn’t say them. Her friend went into his signature pensive state, eyes glazed into oblivion, hinting at the concoction of grand future plans.
But usually he was just tired. Chin rested on his sturdy fists, he sighed and kept looking forward.
What’s he thinking about? she wondered. How could he be so generous and still as cold as an iceberg? And what’s the point of letting people sit next to you if you never let them in?
He came back to reality with a shiver and a sheepish smile, clearly oblivious of her internal debate.
Three hours passed like a snap of the fingers.
They talked about nothing of much interest. The horizon heated to a burnt orange, while temperatures dropped lower and lower until cotton shirts no longer warded off the cold wind. They abandoned the bench.
. . .
“Darn,” she sighed, driving home.
Irrefutable. And so hard to swallow—again. She’d seen it in his disinterested eyes, even as she pretended to look away. The loud radio and gusts of wind whistling through cracked windows made the drive home a little pleasanter, but still freezing. If only she could get that image out of her mind from last week on the soccer field. The whole group dashed about the lawn like madmen, laughing, running after leather balls, soaking in the night air, and he’d put out his hand for her to grab before playfully flinging her into the air.
Suddenly, she felt as cold inside as he had looked all day. Of course, she should be thankful she hadn’t had to spend her Friday night alone, or at least in the computer lab, ending with a bitter phone call from a student’s helicopter mom. She should be thankful for the company and coffee and generous conversation.
And she was.
At least if there was one thing she could pride herself on, it was being a good friend. But friendship was tiring. Never did she imagine it feeling so cold and solitary, so lonely and fragile—like flickering flames just before they go out.
. . .
Finals week ended, and she passed by that wooden bench for the last time. It would still be there—weathering, splintered—as long as its legs could hold it. But those three hours were gone. They felt stolen and indulgent now, evanescent as the old footprints leading up the dirt trail.
In August, she switched addresses, switched degrees, and started a new chapter of trying not to think about her problems.