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The Woman on the Bench

She sits there perfectly still: arms folded neatly in her lap; legs close together; soles of her black winter boots perfectly flat on the ground. Her head is still, her body twisted ever so slightly to the left. The red hood on her winter jacket completely covers the back of her head.

She doesn’t move and I can’t tell if her eyes are open or closed; it appears as if she is staring out over the water and the frozen abyss of winter. The smokestacks on the other side of the river emit white smoke that lazily circles up high into the air overhead.

I had seen her on my morning walks, always there at an exact time, always sitting on the same bench, in the same way, at the same time, every day. Not a minute earlier or later, but at exactly the same time every day. I had noticed her as I had taken up residence on a bench barely fifty feet from her, but my bench pointed towards the bay, whereas hers pointed out toward the river.

This went on throughout the winter, the both of us sitting on our respective benches daily. As the snow melted and winter turned into spring she was always there, every morning at the same time. As the seasons changed and the weather warmed, so did her attire. The bitterly cold mornings were replaced by cool mornings and finally by warm mornings. Now a lighter jacket, still red, its hood still covering her head. Then spring turned into summer, and now a red sweater, and a brightly colored matching scarf to cover her head, even on the humid July mornings.

I would wonder what she was thinking each day. She always sat the same way, looked the same direction, never a movement or gesture, expressionless. Sitting perfectly still. I wondered what she was thinking about: A loved one? Children and/or grandchildren? Husband? Was she troubled? Were they happy thoughts? Or sad thoughts? Thoughts of despair or concern? Was someone suffering from an illness? Cancer? Or was it she herself that was suffering? So many times I wanted to ask, to see if she was okay. Did she want or need someone to talk to? But I never did.

One morning I decided I was going to get there early and watch her arrive and time how long she stayed. But she was already there and ninety minutes later I gave up as she was still there, sitting perfectly still.

One day when she wasn’t there, on her bench, sitting perfectly still, I took her place, sitting on her bench, sitting perfectly still, wondering if I could feel what she was thinking. But try as I might, even imitating her posture, I couldn’t feel anything.

Another day, when I was sitting on my bench and her on hers, both lost in our own thoughts, I sensed the feeling that she was watching me, but when I glanced over, her back was to me, as always, sitting perfectly still. I waited briefly then looked over again quickly, but no, she hadn’t moved; her back was to me, and she faced the water. Perfectly still.

As summer turned into fall, the seasons changed, the leaves turning then falling, the temperature dropping, the winds picking up. Her attire changed, but never she. Every morning, the same bench, the same sitting position. The only thing that was changing was everything around her. Everything but her. Time was marching on except for her.

One rainy, cold, damp, late fall morning, sitting on my bench, I was struggling with something. I fought back the tears that slowly ran down both cheeks, the warm droplets turning colder the further down my cheeks they ran. I heard some rustling, but this wasn’t the brown and green leaves that lay strewn all around us. This was her. Out of the corner of my eye I peeked and saw her get up, gently brush her hands down the front of her black pants, and pull the hood of her jacket more tightly around her head. Then, with a gentle elegance she turned towards me. It was the very first time I had actually seen her face. After almost a year.

Her eyes were round, sad like, with small dark circles under them. Her nose was square, almost pug nose shaped. Her cheeks were full and pink, and her small mouth showed cracks running along her lips. Her gaze seemed vacant though, and it felt like she was looking right through me. My eyes blinked and I tried to make eye contact. But she didn’t notice and we didn’t connect.

I watched as she slowly and deliberately stepped through the leaves on the ground until she found the pathway behind our benches. My eyes followed her, my head and finally my body twisting almost completely around, until I had to stop and take my eyes off her.

Turning quickly in the other direction I saw her slowly moving along the pathway to my right. I tried to make eye contact again but she stared straight ahead. I watched as she shuffled slowly to within ten feet of my right, now parallel with me. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and wanted to speak, to acknowledge her presence, after all this time. But my tongue was tied, frozen to the roof of my mouth, which had now become extremely dry. All I could do was look. I blinked rapidly a couple of times, trying to wash away the tears that had been suspended at the corners of my eyes, and a few last ones escaped and rolled down my cheeks. Quickly, I drew my hand across one cheek, then the other, wiping them away.

I hoped that she would finally break the silence, and seeing me troubled on this day, she might ask how I was, and possibly offer some pearly words of wisdom, sympathy, or encouragement, and maybe even pass along a bit of perspective.

She turned towards me, facing me head-on now, but still with that same blank expression, not making a sound. Her stare was no longer vacant and our eyes locked, briefly, connecting. I smiled. Then she abruptly turned away. Not a word, not an expression, not a sound, not a smile. No acknowledgement of any kind. She simply turned away and started walking towards the pathway that led out alongside the red brick building and towards the street. I watched as she rounded the corner and disappeared. I turned and stared out towards the water.

Dumbfounded, I admonished myself: What? Just because we shared benches, fifty feet apart, for the better part of a year, we are connected? A bench bond? Bench buddies?

I came back the next morning and there she was. Fighting off the urge to approach her I sat on my bench and tried to accept things for what they were: Two people going through life, together it seemed, fifty feet apart, every morning; two strangers, carrying who knows what, and not even recognizing, or validating the other. Who knows? Maybe we could have provided comfort to each other. But that wasn’t what she wanted. She seemed perfectly content to sit on that same bench, the same way, at the same time every morning. Maybe that was all the comfort she needed.

One morning about six weeks later she wasn’t there. The familiar red jacket with the hood, black pants, hands perfectly placed in the lap, legs tightly together, feet flat on the ground, not in their usual place on her bench. She had missed the odd day here and there before, but I had a sense of foreboding that morning and my sit felt less comforting. And she wasn’t there the next morning or the one after that. Two weeks later I had to admit to myself that she wasn’t coming back.

Though we had never spoken and had only made brief eye contact that one time, that one and only time, I realized how accustomed I had become to her presence. Just knowing she was there every morning, in the same place, had been comforting enough for me. It had taken me all this time to realize that after all, I didn’t need to approach someone, or interact with them, just because they had become part of my day. Just their presence is, was, can be, enough. And maybe that was enough for her also. But I would never know.

I decided that day to keep coming to my bench every morning. Like she had done, I began to come to the bench at exactly the same time; I sat in exactly the same spot, sat exactly the same way, wore exactly the same attire. And indeed that was comforting enough.

Then one morning, as I came around the corner of the red brick building, I saw there was someone new sitting on her bench. She was taller, thinner, with long dark hair cascading over a bright orange hooded rain jacket. Her legs were crossed, right over left, her left arm casually stretched across the back of the bench. But she sat perfectly still, seemingly content. I smiled as I took my usual place fifty feet from the woman on the bench.

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1 Comment

Diane Lynn Amadie
Diane Lynn Amadie
Mar 14, 2022

That is beautiful.

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