“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
I fancied you’d return the way you said,– Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”
Couple of things: The main characters in this story are only referred by their pronouns; she/he, her/him. It was done deliberately as this is purely a work of fiction with no resemblance to anyone in real life. 😉
She sits under the thick canopy of the old red oak tree that they loved so much. Trying to map the patterns made by the rays of sunshine filtering through the leaves, on the grass. That one looks like a dog. That other one looks like a flower. This one doesn’t make any sense. She thinks, while smiling.
“MOM!!!”, the call from her son breaks her out of her reverie. She looks up immediately. It’s never a relaxed and simple “Mom” with this boy. It’s always the urgent, anxiety ridden “MOM” in shouty capitals. He is just so restless, just like her.
She gets up, dusting off her light sundress, which was threadbare now. The white of the material not so white anymore. I wear it too much. She thinks to herself. But its just so hot this summer. Which reminds her, “What’s wrong honey? Are you thirsty?” She calls out to her son as he nears her.
She sees him walking towards her, actually stomping towards her, with his expression thunderous, eyebrows drawn, nose scrunched up and mouth a thin line. “Uh-oh”, she says under her breath, bracing herself for the onslaught of complaints about whoever bothered him while he was in his “cone of silence”, i.e., the lonesome crooked swing at the corner of the playground that no children ever used. He is the only one who sits on it. Quietly contemplating. Maybe plotting the fall of the empire. No one really knows.
“No! I am not thirsty!”, he comes and stands right in front of her with folded arms and an angry face, which looked completely comical on him given his unbearable cuteness.
She pulls him into a hug, which is becoming easier each day as he keeps growing taller and taller. This makes her both happy and incredibly sad at the same time.
“What’s going on baby?”, she asks him. Stroking his back. Trying to calm his racing heart. He hugs her middle and squeezes her. He does this when he wants to feel extra safe. She places her cheek on the top of his head, inhaling deeply his little boy scent. He’s here. He’s safe. She reminds herself. There was nothing going on with him but as a mother with anxiety issues she had come up with this technique of reassuring herself of his safety when he was born and she’d started getting random panic attacks.
He looks up at her. With the same vulnerable expression that would get her every time. Big puppy dog eyes. Eyebrows up. The “mommy-can-you-fix-the-world-for-me-?” expression. And he knew she would. For him. In a heartbeat.
“Someone is sitting on my swing!”, he says, then turns and points in its direction.
“It’s not really your swing honey”, she tells him while stroking her fingers over his pointy needle like black hair that were sticking out in every direction due to sweat and humidity.
“But nobody has ever sat on it for so many days and suddenly now, out of nowhere, there’s a girl sitting on it. I want you come with me and help me get rid of her”, as if they both were the mafia and his mother was the boss.
She folds her arms and looks at him skeptically. When he sees that she was not as concerned as he wanted her to be, he catches hold of her hand and starts pulling her towards “his swing “.
“Okay. Okay. Slow down. I’m coming.” She tells him.
When they reach there, she sees a little girl. In bright pink sundress, with dirty blonde pigtails, a couple of years younger than her son for sure. She was sitting on “his swing” by herself, lightly swaying on it, with her head down, her little legs not making it to the ground below. As soon as she senses them approaching, she sits up immediately, raising her head defiantly. Watching them with beautiful big cornflower blue eyes full of insolence and determination. She crosses her hands over her chest.
God these days even 6 year olds are intimidating. She thinks to herself. She smiles lightly at the grit on this little girl’s face.
“Mom! Stop smiling at her! Ask her to get off my swing!”, her son whispers to her urgently.
“Honey that’s not how it works. You always play on that swing. Let her play today”, she replies to him in a hushed tone.
“Awwwww. Did you run off to your mommy because you were scared of me little boy?”, the girl says loudly, from her perch on the swing.
Stunned, they both turn to look at her. She is taken aback by the level of animosity that such a tiny body could hold, while her son looks shocked and embarassed, because that’s exactly what he did. But hadn’t realised that he had done something wrong until the girl pointed it out so helpfully. As if this was against some well-known sacred playground rule? Don’t involve your parents in petty fights. She is unable to stop herself this time from bursting out with laughter. The belligrent expression on the little girl’s face melts a little and a small smile appears on her lips, while her son looks on between them with confusion.
“Rosie?”, she hears a vaguely familiar voice call out from behind them. They all stop and glance back at where the voice came from. And just like that all humour leaves her body when she sees the man walking towards them, who stops in his tracks as soon as he catches sight of her.
They look at each other and as their eyes meet, all the years and distance seem to melt away. They transform into the same people they were 15 years ago. When they’d first met.
“Hi”, he breathes out, too quietly. But she hears him loud and clear.
“Hi”, she replies.
They both feel a little disoriented. How did we get here? How long has it been? It can’t be that long. He is still the same as he’d been all those years ago. So tall and surrounded by an air of mystery. To make matters worse, he seemed to have aged gracefully. His green eyes seemed more intelligent than before. The laugh lines around his mouth and eyes more pronounced; the signs of a life well-lived. He watches her the same way he used to. As if trying to figure out the solution for the most difficult mathematical equation.
They’d met for the first time while studying engineering at the university. Both were in different disciplines but had taken some of the same classes. She was bold and flamboyant while he was quite and contemplative. She had this loud laugh and big personality which everyone flocked towards, while he was more introverted, quietly observed her being thronged by her many loyal friends & admirers. But despite of the obvious differences in their personalities it was clear to everyone that they were attracted to each other.
There were incidents of searing glances and almost touches. Debates in the classroom that would get away from them and end up in shouting matches reluctantly refereed by their very confused lecturer. But it never developed to anything because as soon as they’d step out of the class they’d put as much distance between each other as possible. Until one evening when they ended up attending a house party hosted by some common friends.
He’d gotten his guitar to play at the party at the insistence of his friends. She’d watched him play from the corner of the room, quietly sipping her drink. And from the moment their eyes met from across the room, he only played for her. Song after song. Drink after drink. They never lost sight of each other for the whole night. Her friends later told her that the connection between them was so palpable it made the whole room vibrate with anticipation.
As soon as he finished his set, he strode towards her, with determination. She put away her drink and looked back him; completely unfazed, awaited him. He backed her up against the wall, and kissed her. And that was the beginning of their short lived love story. That burned brightly for as long as it did, but extinguished as fast as it was lit.
There were days of heated arguments, in the classroom and out of it. Which sometimes ended in bruised egos and hurt feelings. Both stubborn, headstrong and competitive; unwilling to admit defeat. After all, being in love didn’t mean that they’d give up on their beliefs. Then there were nights of equally passionate lovemaking. Both not willing to give up on each other. After which they would hold on to one another. Afraid that if one would let go, the other would disappear. It was this fear of losing each other, maybe, that made them to drag their already doomed relationship for far too long.
Then came the moment of truth. She was being awarded a fellowship at a reputable University in another country. Which meant she would have to give up her place here, her scholarship, her friends and most importantly, him. The thought of which she couldn’t bear. It made her heart ache and her head feel dizzy. She thought long and hard and decided that she would give it up. But when he came to know that she was going to give up on such an amazing opportunity he knew exactly what he must do.
At dinner, on a flawless summer evening, he told her that he didn’t think that their relationship had any future. That he simply couldn’t see them move forward together. And if they stayed together, they would just end up going through the motions of life; fighting and making up, but never really making a difference in each other’s lives. He told her he wanted to break up with her because he felt that he should be with someone who shared his same opinions and values. Someone who would agree with him for a change. The last bit really hurt her.
So they broke up. And she broke apart. While he was shattered. She moved away. Threw herself in her research. He finished his degree and moved on to Germany to work at a product firm. They decided never to keep in touch and stay away from each other’s social media. Erase that one year from their lives. And they were successful for the most part. Although they would crop up sometimes, in eachother’s thoughts.
Spring especially reminded him of her because of her love for bright colours. Green of the baby leaves reminded him of her green summer dress which brought out the brown in her eyes. Pink of the cherry blossoms reminded him of her lips, which would bear the brunt of her anxiety as she’d continuously bite into them, until he would distract her and make her stop. In times like those he would let himself have that moment of feeling closer to her in his thoughts. He would close his eyes and let himself feel her around him.
While in her case, any kind of music reminded her of him. It was torturous. She had to stop listening to anything with the sounds of guitar in it, as for the longest time she couldn’t listen to a strum or a twang or a distortion without imagining his fingers playing along the strings. So, essentially all music.
And then as if time was the biggest fixer, they both glued the pieces of their broken hearts together; without caring which part went where. It resembled an ill-made puzzle, with gaps here and there. Some parts would bleed now and then. But at least nothing was missing & everything looked intact, still functioning. It ached sometimes though. A song, a scent, a passing comment, or the way someone laughed. Things like these would momentarily take them both back. But they got better at dragging themselves to the present moment, ignoring the pain and carrying on. It didn’t have to be this way, but it was better this way. Because it was the only way.
With time they both found themselves in wholesome loving relationships. She got married, had her son. Took a break from her research, to focus on teaching her son her native language and finding out which parts of his body were the most ticklish. With time she forgot that there was a part of her that wanted to change the world. She just immersed herself in motherhood. The first time her son laughed, she was amazed at how that sound was a balm to her very soul. And she also found out that she could make absolute sense of his nonsensical baby babbles. There was nothing that brought her more joy than watching him grow.
Meanwhile, he never got married to his partner. They just didn’t believe in the whole institution. So they had their daughter after they decided that they were infact comfortable enough with having a child. Which meant they had travelled to their heart’s content, taken up multiple adventure sports and excelled in them, were doing very well in their respective careers, bought a house etc. Basically, crossed every item in their to-do list before bringing their daughter into this world.
Yet, she’d still cross his mind, from time to time. Like when his determined daughter would get upset about things like “gender specific toys” and “casual sexism in playground”, he would be taken back to similar incidents which happened 15 years ago. When he and she would have arguments about “toxic masculinity” and “sexism in professional space”. He couldn’t comprehend at that time why it was a big deal. Because of which she’d call him sexist, and they’d fight. He understood now why she used to get so upset at these “little things”. Why it was important to be upset and why these things weren’t as little as he’d thought.
And now. They were here. In front of each other. After more than 15 years. What would he say to her? She looked so different. The smattering of grey hair was the first thing he noticed, as they’d come lose from her pony tail and were flying over her face. Weirdly enough he felt the urge to remove the offending pieces of hair, just so he could get a good look at her face. The laugh lines and the little flaws, which he had memorised at one time. He wanted to know if there were new ones. But he stood rooted to his spot. Because he couldn’t believe she was there.
She seemed to be shocked too. But then her son, he recognised that the boy next to her was her son by his thick needle like black hair and big brown eyes, just like his mum’s, tugs at her hand and she looks away. Breaking whatever spell they were under. The boy pulls her down to whisper something in her ear, she smiles at him.
She stands up again and looks his way. And then before their silence could venture into the awkward territory again, he says, “You look well”, smiling gently, because he meant it.
She responds with a smile of her own and says, “You look well, too.”
Okay. Next question. He thinks to himself. Why is this so difficult?
“How old is your daughter?”, she beats him to it and asks him.
“She’s 6”, he replies. “How old is your son?”
“He’s turning 8 next month”, she says.
After which they just couldn’t bring themselves to make more small talk and ask mundane questions to catch up with each other’s lives. It was clear that they both had moved on, moved forward, lived and laughed, conquered and surrendered. Were there any remnants of the old her and the old him? They didn’t know and it didn’t matter anymore anyway. They had moved on. Moved forward.
After a while of just standing and staring at one another, at a loss for words, she says, “Well it was nice seeing you, after such a long time.”
He clears his throat and says, “Yes, it was nice seeing you too.”
“I have to go actually. My son needs me. So, goodbye”, she says.
“Yes, of course. Maybe we will see you around here some time”, he replies.
“Sure”, she says noncommittally and turns to his daughter with a look he hadn’t seen in 15 years. A look full of pure mischief, so unique to her, which to his surprise his daughter returns. And an unspoken sense of camaraderie passes between them. What was that about? He thinks to himself. But before he could ask her anything, she walks away, her son in tow, who glances back at his daughter, puzzled. Join the club buddy. He says in his mind.
His daughter tugs at his hand and tells him that she was hungry.
“What happened here before I came?”, he asks her.
“Oh nothing daddy. The boy wouldn’t let me have a chance on the swing so I pushed him off. So he went running to his mommy”, she says with a matter of fact tone and zero remorse.
“It’s not nice to push people off of swings Rosie. I have told you many times you cannot get upset on such little things”, he tells her. “You would apologise to him when you see him tomorrow.” She looks at him defiantly at first. But then looks down at her shoes and nods faintly. That’s a win. And he will take any wins that came his way.
As they walk back home hand in hand, he finds himself waiting eagerly for the next day, when he would bring his daughter back to the playground. Maybe the mother and son will be here tomorrow. He thinks. And maybe we will be able to catch up this time like we are supposed to. And maybe it will give us both the much needed closure.