The man came up from the south, walking slowly up the stained stone stairways that cut the great park in two. He came up through the thick old trees that rustled with the faint breeze of the sunny afternoon. He came up in the silence that is the exclusive realm of birds and leaves and dirt. He came up looking ahead towards the last few steps and the open doorway of curved trees, but his mind was firmly placed in the murky past that embraced him like a hot invisible coat. He came up with eyes covered by glasses, with his body covered by a gray jacket and dark pants, with his heart covered by the ice that had built up over so many years of being left without shelter. He came up and he stepped onto the cement path, the one that made its way all around the lake that rested like a giant living mirror at the top of the hill. There he rested for a moment. The man came up and he had no purpose or reason, and now he stood helpless, not knowing where to go or what to do. The man looked back towards the stone steps which were still quiet, lonely and silent. Then he looked to the cement path which was littered here and there with people walking back and forth. Then he looked to the lake where little pedal boats and row boats crisscrossed the calm green water. Then he looked to the mountain in the center, where the brown soil formed the background for a web of branches and leaves. The man then turned to the right and started to walk.
A man came by running, wearing bright red shorts, a sweaty T-shirt and thin white wires hanging from his ears. The whisper of loud music surrounded him like a swarm of sleepy buzzing bees. The man that walked saw the man running and stepped aside. The man faintly nodded in greeting but the running man was too lost in his music of bees and screeches to notice a greeting of such subtlety.
The man that walked continued to walk and looked at a great big stone on the side of the path where a couple had etched their names around a rough skinny heart. He wondered how long ago they had been here. He wondered if they were still together, if the heart that had been carved here still was burning bright in between them and if they could still watch the sunset blazing in each other’s eyes. He knew he couldn’t. It had been a long time since he could. But maybe the couple that etched their name here still strolled through this path today, this very afternoon, or maybe the man, even now, rowed a wooden boat slowly, while his beloved leaned back on the curved wooden surface, looking up at the empty sky.
The man kept on walking, while a little boy ran past him. The little boy’s mouth was wide open and his eyes were pressed tightly in a sign of intense pleasure. A tall muscular blond man walked behind him, cautioning him to stay close. The man that walked once again nodded in greeting but the blond man didn’t see him, or pretended not to see him. Then a flock of pigeons rose up to the sky from the bush to the man’s left and the boy ran towards them and a shadow fell upon the blond man’s face and then he called for the boy to be careful once again and the man that walked just kept on walking.
He heard the clicking of heels on the cement behind him. The clicks were quick and frequent and soon a woman in a flowery brown dress walked past him, holding a large square cardboard box. The box was pink and slightly stained and the woman held it up with great care. In the distance ahead, the man could see a group of little girls that screamed and ran on the path and along its edge. The woman with the box moved quickly towards them and they descended on her like pigeons flying to a mountain of seed. The man made his way around them carefully, and he saw the woman open the box to reveal the cake inside and the little girls squealed with pleasure and anticipation. Behind the trees, away from the lake, there was a woman kissing a man, both lying down, the woman pressing her body against his in a show of intense lust, both oblivious to the girly squeals and the laughter just above them.
The man reached the edge of the stone bridge and stopped. Beyond the bridge was the mountain, with its intertwining paths and its shadow world of unknowns and sudden surprises. Beyond the bridge was the pagoda and the dirt path and the commitment of journeys that may be much longer than one can initially anticipate. Behind the bridge stood a woman he hadn’t seen in years and he was with her and their hands were together and they walked as if the whole world belonged to them and every bright flower that fell was a gift from the goddess mother of the world, just for them and for them alone, and the air itself was shining and trembling, sharing in the delight that they felt in simply walking together. Behind the bridge was the realization that the woman was no longer there, that his hand was only in his pocket and that the world was no longer his and the air was no longer shining. Behind the bridge was horror and despair. The man turned away from the bridge and kept on walking.
He came to where a woman was sitting alone on the bench, looking at her watch and reading a piece of paper. The woman seemed impatient and she looked at him with eyes that fused hope with sadness, anger with desire. He nodded to her as he nodded to everyone but his nod was so subtle, so tentative, so shy, that the woman couldn’t see it and instead she looked at the man that walked behind him and then at the one that might come even further back. The man walked by her and saw the boats passing nearby, a pair of men in long shorts laughing loudly, a pair of thick women staring away in silence, a small blonde family in a large boat that rocked with their screams and jokes and eagerness. The man passed by a strong black woman leaning on a bench who talked in random spurts to a man in a wheelchair, across the path from her. The man who walked passed in between them and the woman nodded at him and he nodded back, wishing he could say something but unable to find the words.
The man saw a little old lady, bent over and drenched in sweat, offering mountains of seed to the birds of the lake and he saw the birds come in great flocks of unified hunger and descend upon the seed like flying ants on a bowl of soft honey. There were two women taking pictures of the feast, and they were happily commenting on what the old woman was doing. Two older women walked by and loudly expressed their disapproval, shaking their heads and talking of rats with wings and people who couldn’t obey simple instructions. An old skinny man sat on a green bench reading a book, his shirt was off and his ribs were pressing out against his skin. There was another man on the same bench, a homeless man with dark skin and ripped jeans and no shoes. The homeless man simply looked at the man that walked with great big round eyes full of empty curiosity. The man that walked passed by the bench and, as he passed, he felt the man’s eyes on him, like tickling rays of electrical need reaching across a gulf of unknowable emptiness. He came to where the boats were tethered and he saw a single lonely row boat waiting for a couple to make it complete. He saw its faded paint and its curved underbelly and the signs of small graffiti that had been left as reminders of other gentle afternoons and he saw it rocking back and forth with the touch of the gentle waves that made their way across the lake. The man looked with soft eyes of sadness and then the man kept on walking.
The man that walked came once again to the choice that was engraved in the bridge of stone. It was a different bridge but it was the same one, and the woman still stood on the other side, looking at him with eyes of lost stormy evenings and dark clouds lined with lightning. She was wearing her pink dress as always, her hair flowed around her shoulders, as always, her hands were on her hips as always. She was as she always was, except that she wasn’t there at all, and so she wasn’t like she was at all. A little white dog rummaged through the leaves on the side of the bridge and then made its way across. The man saw his little white body bobbing back and forth as it crossed the arched surface of stone. He felt within him for a sign of courage, a sign that now things may be different, a sign that he could face and resist the shadows that were lined up against him on the other side, a sign that now he could be like a white dog and find some simple satisfaction in dead leaves and empty holes on the ground. Finding nothing, no sign, no response, the man that walked just kept on walking.
After many times around, after finding the same people once, twice and many times over again, after seeing that the cake had been eaten away and the box had been discarded, after seeing the couple kiss and touch and kiss and touch again, after seeing the waiting woman walk away and the man in the wheelchair pushed away by the strong black woman and after the air started to turn cold, after the bridge had appeared and disappeared so many times that he had lost count and every time the woman on the other side waited calmly, knowing that nothing would ever change and she could wait forever, after all that, the man came back to the stone steps that descended to the south and away from the lake. He looked around and found that he had no purpose or reason, that he stood helpless and alone, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then the man started to walk down the stained stone steps, away from the bridge of stone that lead to darkness and back to a simple loneliness that could be covered in a blanket of forgetfulness and quiet noise. The bridge of stone would still be there tomorrow.