The Old Man and the Young Woman

What time is it, he wonders and slowly turns to the clock.  6:45. The sun is painting its way through the side window and Hallie is already out of bed, probably gone for her regular walk with Janice.

Good lord, he never used to sleep this late.  But there’s no particular reason to get up.  He could go back to sleep.  He could doze and awaken, doze and awaken.  That’s a new luxury that he’s begun to cherish.  He could stay under his covers, still as could be, and daydream.

If you can say this about such a gentle activity, daydreaming has become his passion.  He loves to let his mind wander or to simply wonder what he’s going to do today or tomorrow or next year, for that matter.  There would be travels or small projects or visits with friends.  Almost anything is possible and absolutely anything is imaginable.  It’s like looking onto an eternal horizon, bright with morning sunshine, and a world of possibilities.  It’s the kind of freedom he could only contemplate as a boy.

Eventually, he does leave the bed.  As usual, he’s greeted by a little backache to make the first few minutes a trial, but it soon resolves the way a rusty bicycle begins to move freely with a little WD-40 lubricant.  He makes some coffee—as usual with the red, single cup filter holder that he’s used for decades.  French roast, of course.  Then a breakfast of granola with 1%, lactose-free milk, and the newspaper.  Except for the news, itself, which is more awful every day since Donald Trump took office, the ritual remains satisfying after all these years.

Once the newspaper is placed carefully in the recycle bin, he decides to take a walk.  Maybe not just around the neighborhood.  A little adventure is in order.  He decides to drive into Cambridge so he can walk along the Charles.  The path is flat and the bridges let him circle back whenever he wants.  The sun is warm, the river is flowing within its banks.  All around him, cars and runners and bicyclists are moving swiftly.

Not the old man.  He’s strolling along, making no effort to exercise.  He’s not thinking.  He’s just looking around and feeling the air.  Within a few minutes he has created an island of slow serenity around himself.  He can barely hear the traffic.

As he walks, the old man comes upon a young woman wearing a blue skirt, lavender blouse, and bright green running shoes.  She seems to be looking at him in a puzzling way and he asks himself whether to stop to see what she wants.  That might be taken the wrong way, so he decides against it; but, before they pass one another completely, she stops to ask him if he is alright.

“Yes, of course.  Why do you ask?”

“Your eyes were a little unfocused,” she says.  “You seem a little lost.”

The old man is taken aback.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s just enjoying himself.  So he says, “Thanks for asking but I’m fine.  In fact, I’m better than fine.  I’m enjoying the motion of my body, the warmth of the air, and the flow of the river.”

This response seems a little strange to the young woman.  It worries her.  So she decides to walk along with the old man for a while.  She doesn’t make a big deal of it, nothing patronizing.  She just walks by his side.

What an extraordinarily kind young woman, he’s thinking.  I wonder if she’s lonely.  So he asks her.  It turns out that she’s new to Cambridge and hasn’t met many people yet.  Actually she hasn’t met anyone.  Everyone seems to be moving so quickly and purposefully, and she wouldn’t want to interrupt them.

At this point, the old man is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He had really been enjoying his solitude.  Normally, he guards it carefully, as if guarding a secret garden from the hoards who might invade.  But he is touched by her sweet loneliness and continues to walk with her.  There will be lots of time for solitude when the talking is done.

As it happens, the old man’s daughter has recently moved with her husband and three children to Austin to pursue her work at the University.  There is no one like her for him.  When they’re together, they talk and talk about almost any subject.  It’s so easy and unself-conscious.  They laugh about family and work and politics, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next.  Often, but not necessarily over drinks.  He likes that best because it seems to add an extra brightness to the conversation.  And, when they’re off, alone, it seems a little naughty.

Now she’s gone.  It was the right thing.  She couldn’t pass up this opportunity.  But he misses her terribly.

Maybe the young woman reminds him of a much younger version of his daughter, Rebecca, or maybe just reminds him of the loneliness he often felt in her, a feeling that reached deeply into his heart.  Ever since his daughter was born, the old man had wanted to heal that primitive feeling he sensed in her, even knowing that it probably wouldn’t yield to any known cure.  Maybe the loneliness he felt in her was in him.

But now he decided that he was getting too philosophical, too inward, and he wrenched his attention towards the young woman.

“Now that you’ve moved to Cambridge, what are your plans?”

“There aren’t many,” she says, seemingly grateful to resume their conversation. “I want to get a job and find some friends.  I’m not greedy.”

“We’re a little like each other,” he says.  “I don’t have many plans either.  But now I like it that way.  I like figuring out what to do, each day.  When I don’t have plans, life is more of an adventure.”

That thought brings a long silence to the old man and the young woman.  Is he speaking about her?  She’s the one who is on an adventure, far from home, far from clear about what she’s doing.  Finally, he says: “Wouldn’t a plan be a good thing for a young person like you?”

“Of course,” she tells him.  But she doesn’t have a plan, only a certainty that she had to travel far from her home.

He is wondering if he’s said too much, been a little preachy.  He has that tendency.  But no.  He said what he meant, and she will make of it as she will.

Maybe she’ll leave him now.  Maybe she’ll see that he’s alright.  Maybe she’ll decide that she doesn’t need someone telling her what to think.  But maybe he doesn’t have a clue about her thinking, and that, he decides, is a better way to approach her.

Now they walk on for a long while in silence, and once again the old man feels like he has regained that slow island of serenity.  Only this time there are two of them.  Now it’s a little more like a dance.  There are narrow pathways along the Charles, deeply rutted by years of runners pounding the turf.  It’s hard for the old man to walk within their bounds.  Frequently the only way he can catch his balance is by stepping up onto the grass. When he does, the young woman moves to the rutted path.  But he prefers the ruts and steps down again, and she steps up.  The choreography is oddly graceful.

For some reason, the dance reminds him of bicycle rides with Rebecca, who at seven and eight only wanted to go down hill.  Going up the hills was too tiring, she insisted.  Oh, he loved that comment.  He loved how totally sincere she was.  He missed those days.  He missed the years when he dressed her and bathed her and dropped her off at the day care center.  He even liked shopping for Rebecca.  He bought almost all of her clothes at Sears, which he could readily afford.  But he also had a purpose.  It was the early nineteen seventies and, as a young father, he didn’t want to make her too girly.  She was strong and exuberant and independent, and she looked great in overalls.  He would laugh and laugh when his feminist friends insisted that Rebecca needed a few dresses.

As the walk continues, the old man comes out of his reverie, musing on what an amazing panorama of experience opens and opens so easily to him these days.  His whole life on the big screen of daydreams.  And he can direct it.  If it strays in painful direction, he simply refocuses his camera.  If he wants to understand what he is seeing, he lingers.  It’s his theater, after all.

Observing his intense concentration, the young woman wonders aloud what he’s thinking about.

“My daughter,” he says.  “I was remembering her as a child.”

“How old is she now?”

“She’s fifty.”

“Is she close by?”

“No, not any more.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Tremendously.  My love for her—and for my younger daughter—is the purest love in my life.”

She turns silent.  She’s wondering what that might be like: to have a father who could love her so.  Tears trickle down her cheeks.

He sees but he doesn’t know what to do.  He hardly knows this young woman.  He wants to hug her but quickly imagines a scene.  In the scene, she objects.  He soothes and says it’s alright.  All of a sudden, though, she grows nervous about him and abruptly pushes him away.  He apologizes but passers by have witnessed the scene and rush over to help.  Is she alright?  Should they call the police?

Just as the reverie is building to a horrible crescendo, the old man awakens.  He knows that he can’t hold her.  It would be too dangerous.  He simply says how sorry he is if he’s made her cry, and he walks on.

She is yearning to be held but thinks it unseemly, forward, ridiculous.  What is the matter with her?  She just met this old man.  She was trying to help him, not be helped.  How did she become the object of care?  She tells him that it’s alright.  She’s just a little lonely in this big, new city.  And she walk on, too.

They were side by side now and neither talked.  The silence was safer.  They walked for a long time like this before she bid the old man goodbye and they went their separate ways.