On a bench, that’s where I found you. It was a chance risk, asking if the seat were free. You might not have been like me at all; you might have been waiting for a friend. It could have been the pause before a scheduled phone call. There were a lot of folk just milling about in the courtyard. I’d already walked a full circle myself. You were just sitting there, as though it didn’t matter that the rest of us were on our feet. There wasn’t really anything to suggest you were simpatico in the set of your face, or how your hands rested so calmly in your lap, but if I’d waited any longer for further signs then the space next to you on the bench would have been taken by someone else.
Shy and quiet are two different things. We know that, you and I. You with your placed ability to sit, composed, in the middle of a crowd that doesn’t involve you. Me, bobbing and fretting at not being contained by a social sphere. When you started answering my questions, I was ready for us to click. You were supposed to fall into admitting relief at knowing me, not just acknowledge that you didn’t know anyone else . Not just keep sitting there, hands resting with the palms facing up to the midday sun. I’m not a fan of playing games. It isn’t fair to play by different rules like that. You and I, we were sharing a bench. We were bonded. A group of two; a kernel that might prime into anything. Two strangers equals a possibility. We should have been the start of a group.
Seeming about as pleased to be talked to as you had been to sit by yourself, I received a couple of placid smiles, some nods of agreement. You weren’t being impolite. It felt as though we were in the same book, maybe, but not on the same page. And I really wanted to be on the same page as you. Nothing personal – it could have been any stranger on any bench. I’m no good at sitting still. I need pages to turn, or buttons to press, or the edge of a sleeve to worry at. Even if there’s something to watch – a screen, or an old-faced woman rooting in a bin – then I can’t fight the urge to turn to someone to point it out. To weigh my opinion against theirs.
Halfway through an anodyne exchange about the hot weather, you stopped talking. It was so abrupt it was as though it were a deliberate part of what you were saying. You shifted a bit on the wooden slats and I thought you might have finally caught the stale desperation coming off me.
Tears began to chute off your face. It was repellent and fascinating, like blood on the pavement. With only the two of us on the bench, I was responsible. I thought I probably hadn’t caused the tears, but I re-ran what I remembered of what you’d been talking about and tried to pinpoint anything that could have caused you to cry. Nothing. My slow reaction was guilt; had I been listening attentively enough? What had I missed? All these people, they were going to start noticing our bench in a moment. How could I step up and play the shield if I didn’t know what I was defending?
Flapping your hands abstractly as though you could push the emotions away, you started apologising. You said it were nothing. You apologised again, this time for being so stupid. I shushed. You’d provided yourself with a paper napkin. With our bags around us, there wasn’t a natural path for physical contact. I could feel all those eyes on our bench and I knew that any minute I was going to lose you to the collective sympathy, unless I staked out my territory with some kind of confidential display. You might not have ben perfect, but you were the best I had managed to get. After all, how often to spaces on benches open up in situations like these? If I hadn’t spotted you through the minglers then I’d be sinking into the grass by myself, considering another awkward circle round the square.
It’s ok, I told you. You waved your hands again in that odd, brushing motion. I wanted to ask you about it, but the questions would have been a distraction. Other questions teeming up into my mouth were too direct. Too ghoulish. Rude, even. People were glancing across more obviously now – they were starting to do that meaningful head tilt that meant they were thinking about coming over. It was trite, but it was my last chance. I asked if you wanted to talk about it, cutting through the time needed to come up with something better phrased, risking instant denial.
No, you said, but you kept talking anyway. You repeated your litany of apologies. You said I must think you were a mental, and didn’t even pause to hear my mumbled disclaimer. As you squinted and talked, the tears stopped. People began to shrug and pay attention to other things. I thought I’d lost all the opportunities in one. Nobody wants to talk to the dismal unit, self-excluded on a bench. I was almost itching to risk it by myself again, perhaps under the banner of giving you some space. Then you did something quite brilliant. Extraordinary even.
Nobody came across at first, but they did turn and stare. As you continued to howl, your throat open and your eyes squeezed into caves, I felt the tense thrill of being noticed, balanced between success and disaster. They didn’t move until you snapped your chin down again and let the tears back out. As they pounced, I abandoned the safety of your bags and leant across ad gave you that hug. You were limp – nothing more than the sum of your breathing and your sobbing – and put up no resistance.
Crowded by people asking me if you were ok, I grimaced and shook my head until you were still enough to be mopped up. I let them fetch you – us – things. Cold water. More paper napkins. Breath mints. I kept your hand patted between my palms, tethering you in a prayer. You stopped whimpering. I held on more tightly. One of them asked if we wanted to join them for a drink. You thanked her, but declined. People started to drift away.
What are you doing? I hissed. You tugged and your hand popped free.
Thanks, you said. But I’d rather be alone right now. A bell rang and the crowds began to filter into lines. We stayed sitting on our bench. The sun was bright enough that we were both blinking at each other.
Ducking your head, you gathered up your bags. We both stood up. You began to walk towards the gates. I looked at the ends of the lines curling into the brick doorways, turned back to you, opening my mouth to start a question. You shook your head. I asked if you were ok and you nodded. You didn’t ask me if I was ok. You didn’t ask me where I was going. You left me standing by our bench, holding a balled-up wodge of damp paper napkins, still blinking.