by Greg Tennant
Extraordinary. A girl came to sit on the grassy hill in the park in the sunshine. Boy, was it a warm day. She looked for a place to sit, and I watched her. She took off her tight green top and her black stretch shorts, revealing a black bathing suit underneath. There was her rear end, not all of it under that suit. Not much of it under that sleek black suit.
She occasionally turned and rolled, directing her round white cheeks this way and that, undoubtedly aware of all the people looking at her. No one else had a swimsuit on, only shorts or their jeans rolled up or their t-shirt off. Warm sunny days like this don't happen often in this frigid city, and they usually catch us unprepared.
Lots of men stole glances at her as they sat there, or as they passed by, or as they made excuses to get up from sitting there to pass by. I took my share of glances; such pretty sights are indeed pleasant, and we feel very much alive in their presence. In our own ways, each of us men on the hillside probably thanked her for coming to the park that day and taking in the sun the way she did.
I turned around to keep my mind on my work for a while, betting myself that she would most likely be gone when I turned back around, and that would be too bad. It would be best if I could see her leave and then I'd leave just a little bit behind her, and maybe see where she was going on my way home.
By the time I turned around again, she was indeed gone. She had left before I could see which way she was headed. Too bad for me. I packed up my things in my shoulder bag and put my shirt back on. It was such a beautiful warm day. Which way had she come from? I hadn't seen her until she was already at the hill. I thought about where she could possibly live, according to which path she might have taken. I also hoped I'd see her up ahead, but she had already been gone from sight when I looked up, and I could see quite a ways.
I contemplated going a few steps out of my way to glance down the main neighborhood street to see if I could see her down the road, but I'm sure I decided not to. I went my own way. But I did look back toward the crowd of people gathered where the street comes to an end at the park boundary, and I saw a group of hackey sackers, one of whom was doing an incredible job bouncing and jumping and kicking the bag. He kept it up for quite a while, too, longer than I had yet been able to.
That's when, as I was turning away again, I caught a glimpse of a shoulder, a sleeve, a green one with a cut shaped just exactly like the one that girl on the hill wore. I did a double take. Where was she? It wasn't possible, I always think I see things when I catch little glimpses like that, because I want to see them. But there she was, crossing the street in the crowd. How could she only have got this far? I went to the light, waited for the next green, keeping an eye on her as she walked down the sidewalk. Had she stopped to talk to someone? Does she hang out with these people?? They're street people, hippies, Deadheads. Homeless wanderers. I mean, not that I have a problem with that, since I feel more comfortable here than anywhere else I've yet been, except back in the suburbs before I knew there were other places I could go to get away from people who didn't like me. But she didn't appear to be the type who'd stop and talk with longhairs or dropout bohos. She had short blond hair, and she was skinny, and she wore that sexy black bathing suit with the high-cut legs. Her visual style was completely different from those hackey sackers'. She was elegant.
There went the light, and I walked on down the sidewalk about a block behind her, seeing where she went and enjoying the view. She went quite a few blocks, on the sunny side of the street. The air was warm and pleasant, a lot like a Southern California day. Lots of people were out and about, even though it was a Monday. Maybe it was about lunch time. Still, this neighborhood isn't much of a business district, nor a lunch hangout for working types. It's just where people live, most likely people with irregular job hours, or class hours, or just plain irregular hours. I wondered if she was a student, and I also wondered if maybe someday fairly soon I ought not to become a student again, and get on with the program. As it was, I had plenty of time for irresponsible activities such as this. Still, I walked down that street with more purpose and concentration than at any time in recent memory.
Usually I go that way to the laundromat or the post office or the grocery store; sometimes it's to pick out a video to rent. Whenever I walked down this way with Julene, we'd stay one block over to avoid the hassles and crowds and requests from street people for spare change that always came with walking in our neighborhood. It also let us feel more comfortable talking with each other; we didn't have to feel conscious of strangers hearing snippets of our private conversations, and drawing conclusions about what kind of ordinary dull people we were, probably from the suburbs or something.
Occasionally I would lose sight of the girl behind all the people. Was she walking with anyone? It was hard to judge depth from this distance, but eventually I decided there didn't seem to be anyone in her vicinity who stayed near her for any length of time. Where could she be going? Had she really come this far just to go to the park? I wondered if she was going to catch a bus. She looked out at the street sometimes, or across the street, which made me decide that crossing the street wouldn't be best; although I would have a better view of her, she would more likely turn back and see me than if I stayed straight behind her. I made sure I kept her in sight so she wouldn't slip into a store and come out just as I passed by.
She came to the corner. She was crossing. I slowed. Then she turned back on the other side and headed back toward the park. Was she just shopping? Was she just taking a walk down our street, not being a regular in the neighborhood and wanting to check it out before heading off on a bus somewhere back home? Maybe she was going in the pub on the corner, going to meet someone. A delivery van was parked at the curb and I could see her feet going by underneath. No, not the pub.
I got to the corner and I crossed too. I looked down the sidewalk for her, but didn't see her. I hadn't seen her come out from behind the van, so she couldn't have gone to the Greek diner. There was the fruit stand - that's where she was. Had to be. Where was the best place to wait? She might come out and continue on her way, right past me on the corner! I decided to walk past the fruit stand, but not look in. Instead I looked in the liquor store next to it, before the Greek diner, to make sure she hadn't gone in there. I went as far as the pizza place, where I realized we weren't that far down along the street after all.
But where was the best place to wait? Would she come back this way, going back toward the park? Would she continue down on the shady side? Cross back? I decided she had probably crossed and turned back to get to the fruit stand only because she wanted to be crossing at the corner. That made sense. You don't usually cross a street like this in the middle, with all the erratic traffic and double parking, the skates, bikes, people going around each other all the time.
I was still in a risky place, though, because if she did happen to pass back this way and see me, she might recognize me. There had been a moment in the park when I decided I wouldn't try to hide the fact that I was looking over her way, but I didn't keep it up very long because I didn't know what I wanted next. If you make a connection that way, you know, eyes meeting between strangers on a grassy hillside taking in the sun, one shirtless and one in a bathing suit, or anywhere similar, like at a beach, or a cafe, or any place at all public, there were rituals and expectations and procedures to be followed, which I didn't know very well. I was never very good at figuring out those routines. I hated them, they made you feel like a TV character, like an idiot on a soap opera or a sitcom. Only stupid kids in bad teen movies acted that way. Actually, only the kids that ever made any trouble for me acted that way. I didn't like the thought of acting that way. I had felt my similarity to all those other dudes on the hillside, and I was comfortable with it then, but I still didn't know what to do if I ever actually started talking to a woman I'd just met. It seemed that it was supposed to lead to dating of some kind, or to sex, and since married people have no place dating or sleeping around and I had had only low interest in dating even before I was married, certainly none now, I didn't know what would become of things if I actually started talking to that girl. I don't think it would have been a good idea no matter what. Friendship was an outcome I would have liked, at least I once figured it might work, but I knew not many other people agreed with me on that point. Pretty girls are best left alone most of the time. I decided I'd just enjoy the view as long as it was working out, and leave it before it got out of hand.
I was just arguing with myself about what a perfect opportunity to escape that her entry to the fruit shop had provided me, when out she came and started walking down the sidewalk again away from the park, same direction she was going before. She went to the corner and turned. Was it into that pub? No, it was around the corner.
I crossed the street so I'd have a chance to see where she was going while giving her a bit of a head start; I didn't want to round the corner and bump right into her if she'd happened to stop there. I wondered how many of the loafers and hangers-out had seen me standing waiting, looking like I was searching for someone. Surely they'd be able to identify me if anyone had reason to ask them. I also tried to throw off such thoughts, and came up with other rational explanations for why I had been waiting there.
I got to the corner and saw her ascending the hill. She hadn't turned in to one of the apartments yet. I followed her, still keeping a safe distance behind, as she walked up past the next street and on up the steeper part of the hill. A guy on the corner in front of the pasta store hanging out drinking a bottle of water watched her approach, watched her go by, and watched her as she continued on up the hill. Surely this made her uncomfortable. I pretended I wasn't watching her, just in case this guy might notice and figure me out. I pretended I had nothing on my mind, pretended it to myself as I went by him so I wouldn't feel him knowing I was thinking the same thing he was. I would never be that obvious about it. He was crude, and I'm nicer than that.
As we climbed the steep sidewalk, she drinking the drink she'd bought at the fruit stand and I wondering where she was going, I thought about this thing about following people around. Why not just talk to them? What would be so bad? Well, I want to find out about people before they have a chance to hide themselves and tell me lies. Not so I can get the upper hand over them, but so they won't have the upper hand over me. See, if I had all the power in the world, I'd use it wisely. If I had all knowledge and information, I'd use it to treat people with kindness and compassion, not to steal or hurt or cheat, not to dominate but to make the world safe for me. Not at anyone else's expense; I don't see why safety and happiness ever have to come at someone else's expense. What about fairness and equality? Isn't there room enough for everyone? Isn't scarcity a falsely constructed concept to maintain capitalist market economies? Can't an ecosystem support all the life in it? Do some really have to suffer so others can prosper and thrive? Is sharing really something that only happens in kindergarten classes and other small closed systems? Can you really be overrun if you're nice to too many people too much of the time? Is it possible to run out of kindness?
Near the top of the hill, this girl I was following around all over town finally went up some steps. I was quite a ways behind her, but I decided to go across the street and pass her house from over there, and it was a good thing I did because when I got nearer she was still at her mailbox, just closing it up and going to her door. She might have seen me as I went by, and then where would we have been? But we've already gone over that. It's odd how people are afraid of one another.
So that was where she lived, plants in the window, stained glass in the door, left-hand door of three. Was it the first floor, middle floor, or top floor? Who knew. Probably the first. The shades were down. The other floors had shades open, dark interiors. Left-hand door in a building shaped that way, probably the bottom floor. But I didn't know. Hardly mattered anyway. Sure, maybe I could have seen her changing out of her bathing suit, but probably not on a hot sunny day like that, hanging out in front of a row of houses looking across the street into windows. Anybody would have wondered what I thought I was doing, her included. This is a rotten way to think; like I said, it's awful how people are afraid of each other, and it's bad to admit the things it makes you think about, too. Let anybody in on your secret thoughts, and they'll think you're a criminal. You scare people when you let your feelings be known, and you can scare yourself, too.
I looked again at the windows facing the street with the blinds drawn, and crossed the street to head to the next corner and home where I had work to do. Before I got to the other side, a woman approaching me said something to someone over my shoulder. But I glanced back, and there was no one behind me. I realized she was talking to me. She spoke as if I were familiar to her, even though I didn't know her. She was angry. I didn't catch her words at first, but then I heard her say, "You look as if you're going to commit a hate crime!" Good lord, had I really been so obvious about staring at this house that this girl had just gone into? The woman said things like "I see the look in your eyes, you're horrible!" and I tried to step around her, but she blocked my path. She put her hands to her stomach and gasped, then pointed at my shoulder bag. "You're going to pull a knife!" she said in angered surprise, and I thought she might pull one on me. She didn't look like a street person, she was nicely dressed in colorful Guatemalan clothes and her blond hair was graying but it was clean. She looked up at me with anger in her eyes, gesticulating and rambling, and muttered, "You're Jewish and I'm Swedish, but I keep telling you, that's never given you any reason..." and I knew she was crazy. I'm not Jewish, and she doesn't know me.
A man came by just then and I was sure he'd think I had done something to her, because she kept shouting at me. I politely said, "Excuse me, ma'am..." and tried to step around her again. I made a face to the man to indicate I didn't know what this woman was doing, and he rescued me by asking which way was Porter Street. I used him as a foil to distract the woman, gave him his directions and crossed the street away from her. She yabbered on down the sidewalk by herself.
You can never tell what someone will be like just from the way they look. You never know how they'll turn out if you let them speak to you, and you never know how you're going to shake them if they turn out bad. I was lucky that guy came along when he did, or who knows how long she might have dogged me. I wonder what her big problem was, anyway. I bet she'll never know. She probably doesn't even think there's anything wrong with her.