She opens the bag. It holds a plain bagel and a chocolate-covered donut with multi-colored sprinkles on top. The bagel is obviously meant for the birds. The donut is her favorite self-indulgence from that coffee shop, the one she saves for special occasions: winning a case, a bump in pay, her birthday….
Instincts collide. One part screams exactly how disturbing it is to have someone know her favorite coffee, her favorite pastry and where she is going. It urges her to run home and lock the door behind her.
Yet, beneath that, a small voice whispers maybe it’s just sweet that someone actually pays attention to her without knowing what she does for a living. This part says that maybe despite herself she has become predictable.
Grace turns the music back on, string instruments filling her ears with peace, and walks the rest of the way to the park. She breathes deeply of the spring air hidden beneath acrid exhaust. Her steps don’t click on the sidewalk today. Glad to be without the sound that follows her every other day, she remembers Jason, the one who’d given her the sneakers. He’d convinced her that running was a great way to stay in shape. However, he’d spent more time at the gym than she’d spent at work. And after a long day at work, it was hard to get hot and sweaty after the run that got her hot and sweaty. He’d left her for a dance major. She’d packed his things and left them outside the apartment after having the super change the locks.
Her favorite spot beside the fountain is empty. Since warmer weather crept into the city, workers have cleaned it and turned it on. The water dances and sparkles from the outstretched hands of the mermaid. Chlorine hints the air. Coins dot the bottom, in this economy wishes are only worth a penny. Copper spots wink at her, some dark and foreboding, some bright like stars beneath the water.
Sitting on the grass, Grace leans against the fountain. It reminded her of her first days in the city, the excitement, the wonder, the one-night-stand Lexi had convinced her to take home. He had left in his boxers for an apartment downstairs. She couldn’t honestly remember if she had kicked him out or ignored him until he’d snuck out the door.
But the jeans he’d left behind are comfortable, she thinks, smiling down at the rip in the knee.
She opens the bag and looks down through the crinkly paper at the donut. She spends a couple of seconds thinking it might be poisoned. But then the scent of sugar and chocolate hits her and she inhales slowly, deeply. She eats slowly, focused on the soft pastry, the silky chocolate, the tiny bursts of sugar as the sprinkles melt in her mouth. Meh, if it is poisoned, she’ll die happy.
Occasionally the wind tosses a faint scent of flowers from the garden on the other side of the park. She licks the last of the chocolate from the tips of her fingers and pulls out the bagel.
She pauses before tearing it. She slips one hand into the bag on her lap and pulls out the camera. She turns it on and balances it on one knee. Now she picks a small bit of bagel and tosses it into the grass. As if bread could give off sonar, two pigeons immediately land next to the piece. Grace smiles and quickly tosses another and another, captivated by their social interactions as more joins the first two until she counts eight.
Pecking order, leader of a social hierarchy, unfettered by gender differences…all this she sees in the simplicity of pigeons, stupid birds, rats with wings, everyone calls them.
Not an experienced photographer, the little point-and-shoot is easy and familiar enough for her to snatch up and capture images while still tossing bits of bagel. Too quickly, the bagel is gone and half of them fly away in search of more goodies.
Fast movement from her left startles the remaining pigeons into immediate flight.
Three boys on skateboards rocket past on the sidewalk less than three feet from her. Even that far away the amount of cologne they’ve dowsed themselves with makes her eyes water. The fact that all three wear the same cheap woody scent instead of three different ones seems to make it worse. They all slide to a graceful, if sudden, halt where the sidewalk broadens into a small picnic area with two wooden tables and their bench counterparts.
Alike in their attempt at nonconformity, they wear ragged sneakers, ripped and faded jeans hanging past the point of decency and rumpled t-shirts advertising local bands. Two of them wear wildly colored knit caps. One has light blonde curls peaking from the bottom.
The other might be using his to keep the length of his dirty blonde hair from getting into his eyes. The bareheaded one is taller than the others and obviously doesn’t care if his black hair hangs into his eyes. His mannerisms are all about flipping strands away, either with his hands or a quick toss of his head.
Grace lifts her camera as they each flick up their boards with one foot one after the other as if choreographed. Another lifetime ago, she’d hang out with these guys. Guys like these had taught her to skate and draw and not care what others thought of her.
She turns her head slightly to feel the collar of the denim jacket, soft after years of wear. It is a nice memory from her high school days walking down the hall hand-in-hand with the star soccer player. She remembers the crap her friends gave her for dating him. He just didn’t fit in with her ambitious crowd, despite his athletic achievements. He took her out to the skate park instead of studying in the library, took her to movies and football games, distracting her from the focus on grades and academic achievements. She stopped caring what everyone thought of her then, and still managed to be valedictorian.
She’d forgotten that last part somewhere in between college and office politics. But what exactly did a free spirit get you in the end?
One guy from her high school crowd still lived with his parents. Another lived on the state in jail for petty theft. A couple more hid in cubicles with different companies, miserable and underpaid. Only one was successful as a doctor somewhere dreaming of the day his two ex-wives remarried so he could actually save the alimony and open his own practice. The two who’d claimed to be her best friends had settled into the stay-at-home-mom life dreaming of the day when they’d divorce their husbands and try to restart the careers they’d left behind.
She’s lost herself somewhere on the road to success and now wondered if there was a way to find a balance. Taking a couple of shots before the boys notice, she thinks of Nathan back at the coffee shop and wonders what he’d found by serving people coffee and pastries.
It doesn’t take long for the boys to see the camera pointed at them. They sneer down at her as they pose. The tall one raises one hand with his finger and thumb in the shape of an “L” aimed at her. She snaps the picture waiting for it to matter to her, waiting for the slump in self-confidence. All they see is an older woman in dumpy clothes and a ponytail taking pictures in the park. They’d don’t know who she is any more than she knows who they will turn out to be: maybe fat, balding divorcees hiding in a cubicle somewhere longing for the days when they were kings of their world.
Grace’s camera lowers. Seeing her losing interest, they make rude gestures and mouth obscenities. Her smile only ticks them off. She can’t hear them with the music playing in her ears, nor does she try to pretend. She watches them toss their boards to the ground and roll away, the tall one flipping her off. She keeps an eye on them for a while remembering when she’d been fearless. She might be rusty now, but back then she could have shown them a move or two.
She keeps an eye on them for a while, appreciating the grace in their balance.
And then her mind’s eye falls on Luke. His long black hair, dark brown eyes and amazing caresses touch her even now, separated by time and space.
Luke – a bittersweet memory, a long-term relationship full of drama – had given her the t-shirt for her twenty-first birthday.
“Just because you don’t smoke it, doesn’t mean you can’t advertise.”
“Who says I don’t smoke it?” she drawled and moved closer.
“The members of the inquest when your life is taken apart piece by piece.” Luke reached over and slipped his hand beneath the cotton.
“And when is that supposed to happen?”
“Long after you’ve left me to do great things in the world of politics.”
Grace smiles to herself. She had left him. It hadn’t been for national politics. It was for the image-conscious law firm in a big city half a continent away.
She removes the music from her ears, carefully wraps the cord around the player and drops it down deep into her bag. Now she hears the laughter, the bright gaiety of others sharing the park on such a fresh spring day. Picnickers ignore the tables beneath shady trees and lay out their feasts on large, bright blankets. Frisbee throwers dance between them. Mothers rule the majority of the sidewalks with their strollers. Joggers weave a path between.
She rises from her solitary spot beside the mermaid’s fountain and brushes off the loose grass. As she ambles back the way she’d come she captures tiny bits of life with the camera: the toddler learning how to walk from Mom to Dad with big sis cheering him on, the couple discovering each other as they glide hand in hand toward the gardens, the elderly lady on the park bench reaching up for the drink held out to her by an elderly man gazing down at her with loving amazement.
She even catches the sunset before walking back down the street towards home. This time she walks on the opposite side figuring she’ll cross over when the mood strikes.
A few blocks down the scent of coffee pulls her from reflection. She wonders if she should go in and thank Nathan for the donut. She is not hiding behind a book and earbuds. She rather wants him to know that, no matter how unimportant it might be in the scheme of things. He is probably the only person in the whole damned city who knows more than her name, her cell number and what she can do for them.
From across the street, the shop looks squished between two taller buildings. It looks like what it is, something left over from another time.
She’s never really paid attention to the outside of the coffee shop before, the aroma of coffee and pastries being the biggest draw without the necessity of seeing the sign that names the place. She’d never looked twice at it from the back of a cab.
Advertised specials decorate the windows in bright primary colors and flowing handwriting like the border of a classroom bulletin board. The canvas awning is bright blue and one of only two on the whole block. White letters painted directly on the bricks above the awning between two windows spell out: Nathan’s.
The irony of it creases her brow. This might be the balance between success and freedom – this tiny little coffee shop with its unpretentious owner bussing tables.
She crosses the street and hears the bell above the door ring as Nathan opens it for her with a welcoming smile.
Grace offers her hand, “My name is Grace, Grace McKenzie.”