Photograph by Marilyn Johnston
They build a small bench, catty-corner to our back property line, a few feet from the hurricane fence. The woman holds the boards while the man screws and nails them together. Every evening they work for a few hours, and the bench takes shape, a wooden seat with a back rest. They do not paint it. I assume the lumber has been treated. It will hold two people comfortably, possibly three in a squeeze.
We assume they are our around-the-corner neighbors on the main road that intersects our cul-de-sac. The undeveloped woods—pine, maple, and oak—are so thick behind our houses that I cannot not see their home on the other side.
I watch through the back fence as the construction project continues. My husband and I are green and juicy, our life force urgent. We have jobs, a mortgage, and babies. Children are tugging at our hems, and we dole out cookies and love. Our days are a panoply of choices and obligations. Our future, a mystery. A yearning for what can be, for us, for our babies. The years lie before us, a field of budding wildflowers about to burst into full array.
The man and woman are older, likely in their early sixties. She is wide in the hips, growing gray. He has a small paunch. They wear jeans, T-shirts, and athletic shoes on their daily trek. Is he a blue-collar worker at the local shipyard as is my husband? I do not know the couple, not even their names, but I make assumptions. Their children are gone. They may have young grandchildren, but I never see them. Maybe they are hoping their grandchildren will visit their wooded oasis. They’ll point out songbirds and squirrels, identify leaves from the surrounding trees. Their chosen spot, blanketed with pine needles, could provide a play area for toy soldiers or Matchbox cars. Maybe a puppy.
Once the bench is finished, the man and woman come every evening and sit for an hour or more. They talk. I see her gesture as he leans toward her. Sometimes he reaches for her hand. No one ever accompanies them. Are they lonely? Do they long for children who are too busy to visit and share their spot? Or do they relish this time alone after work, a time to reconnect and remember why they fell in love?
I am intrigued and envious. Our own lives are hectic with necessary jobs we do not love. My husband complains about his, and I urge him to find another. He does. But then he is overwhelmed with new demands and brings work home.
I yearn to leave my job and start my own business, thinking it will bring creative freedom and more time. Our family grows to include three sons, little birds with beaks open, competing for morsels of attention from our tired bodies and vexed spirits. We give them what we have. I ache for the luxury of time to sit on a bench in the woods with my husband. How lovely that must be.
Months pass. The pair return to their bench through summer and fall, wearing puffy jackets when the weather turns cool. Their steps form a wake in the fallen leaves as they swish through the piles. She laughs from time to time at private jokes I cannot hear. Do they know I am watching? Would they mind? With the sun setting earlier, their visits to the bench grow shorter. They join hands, stalwart as they face the approaching winter, and climb the hill through the trees toward their house.
Some weeks later I realize that I haven’t seen the couple at the bench. Did they grow tired of their ritual? Was it too cold to sit outdoors? Finally, the woman comes, alone. Where is he? She sits with her head down, hands folded. Is she praying? Crying? Worrying?
I want to ask where the man is, but I don’t impose. Eventually I learn through neighbors that the man died unexpectedly, maybe a heart attack. The woman continues to come to the bench, but less and less frequently. Finally, she stops her visits and becomes a ghost.
Nearly four decades later, only a blink, we no longer live at the house with the woods in the back. The children have disappeared into adults. Parenting was taxing and messy, but always there was love. Our sons are busy with jobs, relationships, and obligations. Our granddaughter, now a young adult, vibrates with miracles yet to emerge.
Our house has grown quiet and too big. We are septuagenarians, even older than the couple who came to the bench long ago. I think of them more often than one would expect for such a fleeting, impersonal impression. They have earned a seat in my long-term memory. I sometimes wonder if the bench is still in the woods, now perhaps a termite-infested and rotted pile of sticks. I drive by our old house to check, but I can’t see through the trees. I lack the will and nerve to go into the yard. Has the woman since died? Surely so.
My husband and I sit on the sofa, our own padded bench of sorts. He reaches for my hand and tells me I am beautiful, and, for once, I do not protest. I know he speaks of our history together, of loving and being loved to the bone. The wrangle of childrearing, work, bill-paying, and disease has sanded off our rough spots. We are polished amber containing the fossilized remnants of our struggles, disappointments, and joys. Nothing could have prepared me for how quickly our lives have passed, and how strangely wonderful both the pain and the ecstasy have been.
Soon our bodies will return to the elements: water, calcium, carbon. Stardust, they say. Time always gets its way in the end. Our souls will rise to the ineffable, and we will become one with the wind.