The woman stepped across the busy intersection and stepped onto the concrete path that made its way through the tall green trees. There was a chain link fence to her right and the low hum of a motor came from that direction, the actual motor was hidden by bushes and tall grass. Two younger women ran by her, both with tiny headphones attached to their ears, both bobbing their heads up and down in sync with each other, like slim little plastic doll heads that bounced back and forth in a little girl’s hands. The woman looked at them and then at herself, as if to ascertain who she was and who she wasn’t. Her body was certainly thicker than theirs, her white skin was certainly more cracked and wrinkled, her breath was rougher and she would never be able to run like they were running. Not now. The woman was wearing a light blue sports jacket and a pair of old blue jeans. Under the jacket, she had a white T-shirt and around her left arm she held her heavy leather purse close to her body, in an instinctive desire to protect the lost treasures that may be wandering around in the darkness inside. She wore large dark glasses, to avoid the glare of the sun on this warm afternoon, a glare that she once had relished and which now made her cry.
The young women ran around her without turning to look, as if she was nothing other than an obstacle to be avoided and immediately forgotten. She turned to look at them moving away, trying to imagine their thoughts, their secret wishes, their hidden fears, and then she continued walking along the path. The two runners could have been her daughter and a friend, or maybe a niece, or maybe the old friend she had in school before she got married, and maybe back then, they would have both run together, just like the runners, and they would have bobbed their heads together, just like them. She thought of walking here back then, when the trees were shorter and the streets were emptier. It wasn’t so long ago. It couldn’t be.
An old dirty homeless man with a long white beard that reached all the way down to his stomach was leaning against a tree, his feet resting on the side of the concrete path. She stepped around him and shook her head. The man muttered something under his breath and his bloodshot eyes rolled around in his sunburnt face. Back then, there had been nobody like this, certainly not here. Back then, this place had been as pure and clean as the breeze that now caressed her face. She could see her father taking her little hand and leading her up a dirt path to the lake, and she could feel the overwhelming wonder of finding this place in a world that was so vast and strange and confusing. She wondered at her father’s wisdom then. How did he know where to go? How did he know where to take her?
The dirt path had long ago been replaced by a concrete stairway and the tiny hand that her father had held had grown bigger and then stronger and then more wrinkled and then weaker again. She reached the bottom of the stairs and leaned on the metal railing to take a breath. A man in long white shorts and a dark green shirt was walking down towards her. He had black hair, a short thick nose, full dark eyebrows and, like her, he also wore dark glasses. As she examined him from her post at the bottom of the railing, he looked straight ahead and didn’t seem to notice her at all. The man walked right past her as if she was a strange old adornment on a rusty metal railing. She could once again listen to her father telling her to always say hello, to always say good morning, to always kindly greet the strangers who happened to cross her path. Somewhere in the deep well of years that had intervened between then and now, she had learned that this was no longer necessary, that two out of three people would not respond at all, and that the ones that did, only did it out of a sense of awkward obligation and nothing else and their smiles would be forced and their wishes would be fake and that would only hurt. But the impulse still remained within her, and it came up in her now, an eagerness to raise her left hand, to wave it and smile, to say "good afternoon" and then to expect an answer. Instead, she just looked at him walk by and stayed as quiet as the stairway, as quiet as the concrete on which his footsteps echoed as he quickly reached the sidewalk and the street beyond. The customs of her youth and the friendliness of strangers were all gone, as gone as the dirt path, as gone as her father who now rested calmly under the earth where there was nobody to greet in the morning, nobody to smile at during lunch, nobody to kiss softly right before bedtime.
She took a deep breath and stepped onto the stairway and slowly started to make her way up, still holding onto the metal railing carefully, still feeling the hint of dirt under her shoes. How many years had it been since she started walking here? It seemed that every year, the stairway got longer, the steps themselves got taller, her breathing got harsher and her hands grew weaker. She had learned to walk slowly and calmly, to breathe deeply and rest whenever necessary. She had learned to set her anger and sadness aside and simply rest when the pain became too great. And still her heart beat intensely and still she could see the quiet streets, just outside the park, where her husband took her one day to look for a new home. Now she could clearly see that she had picked the little green house on the corner because it was so close to this place, to this dirt path that was now a stairway, to these dark green bushes that crowded around her feet like pleading moans from the moist black earth, to this lake where her father brought her once when she wasn’t expecting it, to this gentle chamber where she could, once again, wonder at the beauty of the green water, of the thick twisted trees that stretched out over the soft little waves, of the flocks of pigeons that swirled around her as she took the same steps she had taken, once, twice and a thousand times again.
Once on the main concrete path, she got her first look at the lake, as calm as ever, as peaceful and surprising as it was that first morning when her father first showed it to her. The breeze was stronger here, but still soft enough that it reminded her of her baby daughter’s face pressing up against her own. A little girl walked by her just then, lead by a short man in a buttoned up shirt and brown pants. The little girl wore thick glasses and she peeked curiously at the ducks that danced around the edge of the water. The woman knew that the little girl could be her daughter, so long ago, when they had first come here together, when she had first shown her the ducks that had danced back then just like they danced now, and the boats, and the mountain that stood at the heart of the lake. The little girl could also be herself and as herself she would look up and stare at an older woman looking down at her with peering eyes, a strange apparition that was beyond the reach of questions. As a little girl with glasses, she would look away, and the little girl did look away, maybe distracted by a new wave of pigeons in the sky, maybe wanting to avoid her own eyes meeting her across the dark gulf of time.
The woman walked on, trying to maintain a steady pace but unable to continue walking when she first saw the pagoda across the water: the white railing, the red pillars, the green roof. Then, she could almost feel the hands of her boyfriend on her hips as he pushed her up against one of those pillars and kissed her deeply on the lips, all on a quiet morning when there were very few people around and the air was crisp and charged with the distinct taste of possibility. She could almost hear the words of her boyfriend when he knelt before her, in the dirty floor of the same pagoda, on the day when he decided to become her husband and on the day when she said yes. She could almost hear the coughing of her husband as his pale white skin became even whiter on a bed that had become his prison for too many years. Then, she could almost hear the silence when he decided to leave his bed forever and become a photograph on a mantle piece that she would always carefully clean, every morning before breakfast.
Now, the pagoda was her boyfriend who became her husband who became a photograph as much as the lake was her father who had walked her up the path, and as much as the little girl was her daughter who had become a monthly letter and a yearly kiss, and also her, who had become an old woman who walked and thought and remembered. For a moment here, standing on the side of the water, looking at the past that only appeared to be the present, she could let the illusion slide away and she could be back when her skin was smooth and her thoughts were clear and her life was real, as real as a path made of dirt, as real as the hands of a giant who took her to see a lake on a sunny afternoon.
It was for this moment that she came here every day. It was this moment that erased all moments that came before it, like a soft loving breath with the overwhelming force of a tornado. It was this moment that overcame her and left her shaken, looking at the calm gentle waves and the flocks of pigeons and the couples on their little pedal boats and the little girl looking at the sky and the old men leaning forward on the benches. It was this moment that she hoped for. It was this moment that today she got, like loving grace from a hidden fountain of invisible nectar, a generous and unexpected gift from within the well of tears and laughter. It was this moment that she treasured, a golden fleeting moment that vanished as swiftly and unpredictably as it had arrived. It was this moment that meant everything. It was this moment that made her live.
When the moment had passed, she continued to walk slowly along the concrete path. The illusion that was the present had returned and she was feeling tired. But still she would walk all around the little lake and back down the gray stairway. Still she would complete her daily mission. Still she would remember in flashes of light, sound and laughter. Still she would let the sounds of children tell her that it wasn’t the world itself that had grown old and tired, it was only her.
Once she had known that the only true wisdom was the knowledge of this lake and the path that lead to it. Once she had been right. It wasn’t so long ago. It couldn’t be.