It's Friday & We're Here
He was restless and didn't want to be. He blamed me. Even if going to the park had been his idea. The people there infuriated him. Jogging, power walking, pushing baby strollers, or — and this was the worst — gathered around picnic tables, hoisting pinatas, holding birthday cakes, children in chorus around them. Everyone with something they were doing. They didn't entertain him. He blamed me.
"Here we are,” he announced. “In the park. On a Friday night."
And there went the heel of his left boot, hard on wood, tapping out war drum music. We were standing on a garden bridge, modeled after a postcard from Kyoto — low curved, double rails, painted red — connecting two sides of a chemical blue pond they’d named Beau Dupont Lake, the centerpiece of Beau Dupont Park, a well-watered, well-manicured oasis somewhere next to center of Covington, Louisiana. Tall pine trees, Bermuda grass, primary-colored playgrounds, gently curving gray asphalt walkways. An old woman wearing a visor over thick sunglasses passed us on the bridge, power-walking, her elbows locked at her sides, skin-draped arms gruesome in their exercise. He sneered at her. It was probably involuntary. I hoped it was involuntary.
"Let's do something,” he said.
"There's nothing to do."
"Let's go cruising.”
"There's no one here."
There were plenty of people, but no, not one of us, no one so well-practiced in quick looks and backwards glances. No one like us. They were mothers and fathers and grandparents and children. People surrounded by the definitions of themselves. We were strangers in our own hometown, marooned in this suburbia by our failures. He a failed actor. Myself a failed writer. Both of us good but not good enough, that crucial line separating us from our ambitions, dreams. Too-long-lived fantasies. So we were home again, suffering the end of a long adolescence in our childhood bedrooms, living with our parents, seeing them hide their disappointment each day we met each other in the kitchen, as they made lunch, as we made breakfast. But we were lucky at least in this, he and I, to have failed together. Lucky to have been friends in high school, known each other in college, seen each other, time and again, in New Orleans, lucky to be stuck together now, hitching rides with one another to the city for job interviews, parties, nights out. For necessary encounters.
“I know,” he said, leaning over the railing, as if talking to his reflection below. The profile of his face a portrait — the asshole knew it — the delicate angle of his cheek, the rich tones, those dark features so well suited to evening light, the single eye glancing at me, knowing I was looking, lips curved up. Down in the city, they loved him, they asked him where he had been, they pulled him on their laps, they found him on the dance floor. In the city he got numbers and spent his days in exile with his thumbs on his phone, texting, preparing for the next weekend, telling me stories about the things he and his new lovers were going to do to each other. The drama of how they fell in love with him.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s cruise each other.”
“Not for real. Just pretend. Just to do something. God, let’s at least do something.”
He was teasing me. He enjoyed teasing me. His punishment for being less than him — less popular, less attractive. Less alive. Punishment for being a shining boy’s shadow. He knew — I never told him but he knew — I had fantasies of us as strangers, crossing paths in a park like this, or maybe on a dark dance floor, leather costumes, spotlight on us, caught together inside. He knew I imagined his head on my pillow. Still. His juvenile sneakers and raw denim, his thin flannel shirt. A Kokopelli earring, of all things, proudly strutting across his right earlobe. The greased, perfectly shaped black hair. A lonely costume for a place called Beau Dupont Park. I agreed.
We started on opposite ends of the bridge. We approached one another, him looking out over the water, whistling, playing the clown, me playing the desperate, head down, eyes roving, both of us with our hands in our pockets massaging. I glanced at him, tried to catch his eye. He didn’t look at me and passed whistling. I turned my head to look. He didn’t turn his.
“Don’t be an asshole,” I told him.
He laughed, relenting, and gave a signal to start again. We crossed the bridge. We caught each other’s eye. When I turned my head to look back, his was already turned. Our eyes met. And even pretending, I swear, there was a magic in it. The unremitting asshole. He could make you a believer in eyes meeting, that across a crowded room two people might accidentally stumble into forever. I believed it. Then he turned and walked off the bridge. He paused, turned his head slightly, smiled without looking at me, and walked away to the nearest treeline. A wonderful performance. They were applauding him, all the well-wishers he kept in his mind. I followed him, trying to look unhurried, keeping an eye out for reproaching looks. But no one was watching us. In that last daylight hour they were busy with whatever they had in front of them. They all had something in front of them. Their children. Their friends. The last minutes of another busy day. I had the treeline. I ducked underneath a pine branch and walked inside.
In the trees it was already evening, the light low, the colors restrained. The trees themselves towered above me, suddenly much wilder. Weeds and scrub scratched my exposed ankles and shins. I whispered his name. Nothing. A dove cooing, or maybe a pigeon. The slight scratch of leaves as a wind slipped through. But nothing. At length I came to a small clearing, and I was bolder there, nearly shouted his name. Still no answer. I imagined him, laughing into his fist, crouched behind some bush or fallen limb, watching me look for him, entertaining himself. Or maybe, maybe he waited for me deeper in these woods, in a place where it was already night. A place we wouldn’t have to see each other as we met. That maybe hung over me like a prophecy.
I called his name again, without answer, without expecting an answer. And found I wasn’t angry. I understood. I’m not sure if he did, but I understood. We needed each other lonely. Because we were the two loneliest people I knew. The revered and the ignored. I think he understood. Maybe that’s why he remained hidden. Or left me there, in the wood. I wasn’t angry, I swear. I knew cruelty was his way of showing affection. I knew that. All of it. And still. I waited. I waited until I was sure he wouldn’t call me. Until night overtook me. Then I left. The park was empty. Lampposts and blank sidewalks. Shadows of trees. Everyone gone home. I walked slowly. I guess I was still waiting to hear him, to hear someone. Anyone. Waiting to hear my name.
William Hawkins is a recent graduate of the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at UC Irvine. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Vasilisa Romanenko is a Connecticut-based fine artist, illustrator, and designer. She earned her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Her paintings are inspired by nature, mythology, fashion, and folk art.