I don’t know what drew me to him.
Maybe the fact that he was feeding the ducks, which no one seems to do anymore, or that he was wearing a shirt that said “Van Gogh, Van Goghing, Van Gone” with corresponding pictures, or perhaps it was because, out of everyone else in the park, he was the only one standing still.
There were a dozen people in Hathaway Park that day, and most of them were moving hurriedly from one end to the other, head down, mask on, walking, walking, walking, getting on with their busy, important life. The few people who weren’t rushing from place to place were all doing something, interacting with their dog or stamping their feet to keep warm. Everyone was occupied.
But here this man was, standing at the edge of the nearly-frozen pond, feeding the ducks.
I wasn’t really doing anything, either. It was the end of March, and my university classes had just started going completely online. I hated it less than I thought I would, but I still didn’t like it. No one was learning anything, least of all me.
It was a Friday. I was done with school for the day, and sick of Zoom, of staring at a screen, of watching my classmates leave to get laptop chargers or stare inconspicuously at their phones and mumble an answer whenever they were talked to. I was sick of it. Education was never meant to be this way. It’s downright wrong.
Anyways, I was finished with classes and, having been “temporarily” furloughed from my job at the library, I had, really, nothing to do. One of my roommates was spending the week with her family, and the other was working at Wendy’s, because apparently consuming a Frosty and medium fries is more essential than reading a book.
What a twisted world we live in.
I walked along the edge of the pond, hearing the white, hard snow crunch with every step. I stared at my grey winter boots and snuck glances at the man a few meters away from me. He was staring straight ahead, tossing halved grapes into the water. That was interesting. I’d only ever seen ducks eat bread before.
I shouldn’t have done it. I don’t know what made me say it. I have social anxiety, which, in my own words, means I’m scared to death of people and even more so of conversation. I’m an introvert. I never speak up. But maybe fate just knew.
“I like your shirt.”
He turned to look at me. Barely an inch of my skin was visible, between my black leggings and long open coat and chunky-knit sweater and pompom beanie and, most especially, the mask covering half my face. Only my eyes peeked out.
Everyone’s always told me I had beautiful eyes. I’ve never believed them.
While the man was searching for a response, I studied him. He, too (of course) was wearing a mask, white with beach balls scattered across it. Mine was just blue. He had yellowish brown skin and curly, impish light brown hair. He was holding a ziploc bag in his right hand, a moist grape poised between the fingers of his left. His dark grey-brown eyes stared inquisitively into mine.
“Thank you,” he said. “You have beautiful eyes.”
“People always tell me so. I never believe them.”
That is, I’d never believed them until now.
“You should. I can tell just by looking at you. You’re kind.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I blurted, “Can I have a grape?”
The man looked amused. “For eating, or for feeding?” He gestured to the ducks and threw a fruit out at them.
I laughed sheepishly. “For the ducks.”
“Go ahead.” He extended the bag towards me, and my mittened fingers grasped a handful. I quickly retreated, for social distancing’s sake, and threw the grapes, one by one, into the water. They landed with quiet plops and were soon gobbled up by the birds.
I grinned, watching them. Ducks didn’t care about corona, or masks, or government, or tests or hospitals or any of the dozen things that were constantly plaguing my mind with worry.
“Do you like animals?” the man asked.
I nodded. “I have a cat at home. Her name’s Sriracha.”
The man winked. “I can tell I like her already.” After a few seconds, he offered, “I’m Olly.”
“Isn’t that, like, a gummy vitamin brand or something?” I wrinkled my nose. “Sorry, that was rude. London.” I held my hand out.
He glanced at it briefly. I retracted it, wincing. “Sorry, I forgot--”
He rolled his eyes and extended his hand. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” We shook hands--or, in my case, mittens. “And to answer your question, London, my name’s Oliver, actually, but my friends call me Olly.”
“I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to have friends,” I murmured, mostly to myself.
Olly laughed. His laugh sounded like he was actually saying “ha.” He grabbed the last grape out of the bag and tossed it to the ducks. “Me too.”
“But you just said--” I began, slightly embarrassed that he’d heard what I said.
“I know, and by that, I mean my family. I don’t have friends, not really. They always say that’s what college is for, but…” He trailed off and stared at the empty bag.
“I actually feel the same way,” I said quietly, picking at a loose thread on my mittens. “I lie to my mom about my roommates, usually. As she knows it, we’re all buddy-buddy, but…” I exhaled sharply. “I can’t even breathe in this stupid mask.”
“You can take it off. I want to see your face,” Olly said quietly. We both nodded and pulled our masks down. His face was covered with bristly stubble, and his lips were chapped. I wondered if I had lipstick on my teeth.
“Just to be clear, when you say you have no friends, you mean it, right?” Olly asked. “This isn’t some self-deprecating nonsense. You really have no one truly close to you who you feel is a part of you? No one who’s an actual friend?”
I shook my head. “I had an arbitrary best friend back in middle and high school. When we were seniors, she started dating this guy whom she quickly became infatuated with. I haven’t talked to her in months. Years, maybe.”
“Maybe we can agree, then,” Olly murmured, fingering the grape bag.
“Agree on what?” I asked, although I kind of suspected what he was getting at.
Olly looked over at me and smiled. “Do you want to be friends?”
Still, to this day, I can’t believe my luck.
In grade seven, I started a sort of bucket list notebook titled “Things I really, really want to do before I graduate high school (or whenever).” It was filled with things like “Explore an abandoned building,” and “Steal a hot air balloon,” and “Spend an entire night on a roof.” I’d never found anyone who would do those things with me.
I only ever had that one friend, really, and she would never consent to doing things like that for fear of the consequences, most especially, her parents finding out. I understood her point of view, but it became so tiring, after a while, for me to suggest doing something with even the smallest tinge of adventure and for her to always, without fail, turn it down.
Olly wasn’t like that.
Before parting at the park, we exchanged numbers, and for days afterwards we texted back and forth. A nagging developed inside of me and grew until it was impossible to ignore. I proposed we meet again, in an abandoned building. I half expected him to say no.
But instead, he sent me a link to a website titled “Abandoned Buildings In Your Area,” and asked, “Which one?”
That’s when I knew we clicked.
Over the next several months, I discovered just how much we had in common. Neither of us had jobs, at the time (we were getting unemployment), so at the beginning of summer, we did whatever we wanted.
And I think, in that summer of 2020, is when I finally began to understand the meaning of life.
In June, we drove an hour outside of the city until we came to a field of yellow wheat. We parked nearby and talked in the car until after dusk, then snuck into the middle of the field with a picnic basket and blanket. We stayed there (trespassing, don’t tell) for hours, eating pretzels and drinking root beer and staring up at the stars and talking about life and death and the point of it all.
Mostly just stargazing, though. We both love the galaxy.
A week later, we stood on a street corner with a megaphone and shouted compliments at people as they drove by. It was Olly’s idea. I thought, as an introvert, that something like that would have been hard, but it wasn’t. Seeing everyone’s genuine smiles through their car windows was so rewarding, a few days later, I decided to do it again.
The day after, we decided to peoplewatch. We walked around downtown, examining peoples’ appearance, behaviour, and personality, writing it down as we went, and compiled a manual of our findings. Then we went back to his apartment, made caramel corn, and pirated Cats (2019) on his computer. Olly’s really smart, by the way.
Every single day brought a new adventure.
Near the end of June, I shared this idea with him, of wandering around the city at night. It was unsafe, yes, but at this point I trusted Olly with my life. That very night, we strapped on some musty old pairs of rollerblades, stuck our phones in our pockets (I brought along some pepper spray, as well), and got lost. We skated throughout the city, meandering into neighborhoods, boroughs, and blocks to which we’d never been, admiring the darkness of the night and the lights of the city. Eventually we came to a deserted concrete bridge that ran over a river. We stopped and stared down into the water for a while, and I found myself musing, “I wonder what it’d be like if I jumped in.”
Olly grinned. “Why don’t we find out?”
At this point, either of us could have said that this was unsafe, unsanitary, and unwise.
But instead, we took off our roller blades and jackets and stowed them in a nearby bush. I shone my phone’s flashlight down into the stream. The flow looked gentle, deep, and clean. I ran to stash my phone in the bush, then stepped over the railing and looked down at the water maybe four or five meters below. I took Olly’s hand. “Ready?”
And without waiting for a response, he jumped. I had no choice but to follow.
We crashed into the shockingly cold water with a splash! so loud I was sure all the whole country had heard. My socked feet barely brushed the river bottom of pebbles and sand before I sprang above the surface of the water, coughing, my teeth chattering. I grabbed hold of a rock jutting out of the water near the riverbank and hung on to it, dismayed to see one of my socks being carried away by the current. “Noooo,” I moaned, laughing.
Olly drifted by and grabbed hold of my foot. “Well, that was fun,” he remarked snidely.
I pulled myself onto dry land, swatting at Olly to let go of my ankle. We climbed back up the slope to the top of the bridge, laughing and shivering.
We strapped on our roller blades, donned our jackets, and made our way to my apartment, where Olly didn’t have the energy to drive back to his place, and neither of us had the energy to take a shower, change, or get food, so, cold, wet, and hungry, we fell asleep on the couch with Sriracha, swaddled in blankets. In the morning, my roommates just tried to pretend we weren’t there.
In July, we drove back out into the country, rambling for hours before we came upon a horse pasture. It looked like it was privately owned; there was a large house and a barn nearby, but no one in sight. Inside the white wooden fence was just one horse, creamy light brown with dapples of white. We’d brought apples. I stood at the edge of the fence for a while, feeding the horse, then asked Olly to boost me over.
He did so without hesitation.
Once in the pasture, I stroked the horse, feeling how beautiful it was. It didn’t seem to mind. I considered mounting it, then realized how likely it was I would probably die. At one point, while I was admiring its mane, Olly whispered, “London, someone’s coming!” I immediately vaulted over the fence, landed ungracefully on my behind, and took off running towards the car. We hopped in, slammed the doors, and drove away, giggling hysterically, glancing behind to make sure we weren’t followed.
A week later, we explored some woods. We wandered through the trees, becoming hopelessly lost, and eventually found a shallow brook. We took off our boots and soaked our feet in the cool water, listening to the sounds of birds and squirrels as they went on with their daily business, unafraid, all around us.
We did so, so many other things.
We started a succulent garden on my apartment building’s roof. We wrote a book from Sriracha’s perspective. We met this sweet old Haitian lady at the grocery store and I had a conversation with her in French. Olly taught me how to do trig. We rented a tandem bike. He made me a flower crown, and I braided his hair. We visited a local cemetery and night and just walked around, looking at all the headstones.
I bleached my hair. The whole bridge incident inspired another one in which we jumped off a pier at 5 AM. We revisited that bridge and spray-painted graffiti on the sides. While under the bridge, Olly found a frog, and we both kissed it. We popped an entire roll of bubble wrap.
Olly finally helped me understand why life is so insanely wonderful.
A lot of the things we did, they’re illegal. And I believe in laws like not killing someone, or not driving drunk, or not kidnapping children. But when whatever you’re doing isn’t harming anyone, does it really matter?
Some of the things we did were little, though, small dealings with succulents and bubble wrap and nature. But every single thing—whether it was huge or insignificant, legal or bending the law or breaking it—everything we did was memorable, and it brought me joy. And I believe, because of every single one of these things, my life is all that much more worth the living.
It’s August, now. It’s been approximately five months to the day since I first met him. And I’m that much more broke from all our crazy shenanigans and that much more tired from all the running around and that much more stressed from having to deal with everything this chaotic world has to offer, but I’ve finally figured out one thing.
I love Olly.
Don’t try to convince yourself that your relationship with your best friend is platonic, because it’s not, you’ll soon figure out.
But I do love this man. I love him with every fiber of my being. And you know what?
I’m starting to think he loves me back.
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What a great story of friendship and love. The rhythm of your prose drew me in. I tried to predict what the ending might be. To my misfortune, I was wrong. Your excellent dialogue helped me improve my own writing. Thank you for the chance to read your poignant story.
Oh my goodness, that means a ton. Thank you so much!!
Loved this. So nicely done and so relevant to what all of us are experiencing. I wanted more from these characters. Great job!
Thanks! The title is a real fluke since I submitted this last-minute and had idea what to call it but I’m glad you liked it!
Yeah, see? This is great. I love the voice you use. Very relatable with an appealing cadence. It's missing conflict, but you manage to keep the momentum going with the way you jump from memory to memory, and you wrap it up before it starts to drag. Loved it.