Henry's Picnic Blanket
We’ve all seen that sad, pathetic figure dining alone at a small table in a darkened corner of a restaurant, a flickering candle giving off just enough light so that all can learn the identity of the lonesome soul. What might strike you as even more sad, more pathetic, would be the image of Henry walking alone, in broad daylight, unabashed, across a grassy field carrying a colorful blanket and a large woven wood picnic basket. He may have even welcomed recognition so that the whole world could bear witness to his sorry state and perhaps offer a modicum of sympathy for the unfair hand cruel fate had dealt him. There’s the one-man band, the one-man war, and the one-man crusade. Henry had languished in the loneliness of the one-man picnic for years.
Today was special. It was the twentieth anniversary of Henry first spreading that same colorful blanket under the huge oak tree next to the river. Though not quite as faded and worn as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress, the blanket served the same purpose for Henry. It was his go-to reminder of what could have been, but what had been lost forever. Whenever Henry sensed his was losing a grip on just how miserable he was, he would pull that blanket off the wall, wrap himself in it, and sulk. Why do people beat themselves up over painful moments of the past? Is it not wanting to let go of a dream, a fanciful wish that if the scene were replayed enough times, it might have a different ending? Or has misery become so imbedded that it is now in your blood, as much a part of you as the color of your eyes?
This would be his final commemoration of the event, or so he hoped. He had to move on sometime. The menu would change over the years, getting more basic and easier to carry, and certainly not close to the elaborate spread Henry put out that first year. But the same ring was always there in his left front pocket. The event was a memorial of sorts, but a good part of the reason for the ritual was the lingering feeling that it was proper that he occasionally engage in a little self-flagellation. Stupidity garners its own reward.
Everything had been planned so perfectly, right down to the minute detail, save one thing- location. It was ironic that Henry, being a real estate agent, had been scorched by the one thing incessantly preached in his trade- location, location, location. He would never stop beating himself up over it.
Henry had stumbled into one of those most unfortunate circumstances of affairs of the heart. The good news was that Henry had found true love. The bad news was that his true love had found true love in another. Could there possibly be anything worse in the human experience? “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”? You might not want to tell Henry that.
Janet had been the girl of his dreams since his sophomore year in high school. If only Brad had gone to a different high school, or maybe had never been born, or had gotten run over by a bus, or kidnapped by terrorists, or something, anything to make him go away.
It was all the more painful as Henry and Janet were friends, that sad, regrettable status for those who seek more in a relationship. Salt was generously poured into the wound by the fact that Brad was the All-American boy- handsome (if not dashing), athletic (all conference quarterback while Henry rode the bench), and the most popular kid in the school (even Henry voted for him for class President).
It was nauseating for poor Henry. Janet and Brad, or Barbie and Ken, as they were often called, continued through their college years. The emotional trauma was so great that Henry might have considered bringing a barf bag to the Christmas, spring break, and summer gatherings of his high school group. It always pained him to see the two of them together, but that was the only way he could see Janet.
Hope springs eternal! It was the next best thing to a careening bus. After graduation, Brad took a job…in another state! A far away state!! It brought tears to Henry’s eyes. Then time and distance did their thing, and Brad and Janet drifted apart. Janet was sad and lonely, and Henry was there.
It mattered little to Henry that he was catching her on the rebound, just so long as he was catching her. It was the best of times for Henry. The long painful wait was over, and worth it. Their long friendship evolved into something closer to what Henry had dreamed of, at least in his own dewy-eyed mind. Why else would she spend so much time with him? Life looks so much better if you view it only through your own lens. He was so happy, and Janet was, well, a little less sad and lonely. Barbie and Ken had become Barbie and…Henry.
Henry no longer had to admire Janet from afar and pine for her at night as he had done for all those years. Now, without that stupid Brad in the picture, they were together, an item, doing things couples do- the movies, going out for pizza, walks in the parks, bike rides, trips to the zoo. Henry loved every moment he was with Janet, and when he wasn’t with her, he could think only of the next time he would see her. After two years of hopeful, if not exaggerated optimism, he figured it was time. He would ask Janet to marry him.
The ring was so beautiful. It would be even more beautiful on Janet’s finger. Now he had to come up with the perfect setting.
He remembered the place. He had seen Janet there with him in his dreams a thousand times. It was a small clearing next to a winding river lined with powerful oak trees just twenty miles outside of town. He stumbled across it during a long bike ride years ago. It was a beautiful spot, so quiet and peaceful, and the shade of a huge oak tree would be the perfect setting to start their new life together.
Henry would make it a special day, a perfect day. He bought a colorful blanket bordered with roses, Janet’s favorite flower. He added her choice in wine, a block of fine cheese, strawberries, and store-bought dainty sandwiches. He even bought that woven wood picnic basket to give it that final Norman Rockwell touch. Oh, and a single red rose.
It was a perfect fall day, sunny, a light wind, cool, but not too cool. Leaves swirled around them as they walked down a narrow path and through a small field to the bank of a river. Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the stream, and Henry could hear the gentle sounds of flowing water and a joyful chorus of birds in the distance. A rainbow of butterflies greeted the pair as they reached the launchpad for Henry’s “happily ever after” life. He couldn’t have painted a more perfect picture for the moment.
They sat on the colorful blanket under a big oak tree, secluded from the rest of the world. Everything went just the way Henry had planned it, the rose, the wine, the cheese, the strawberries, the special little sandwiches. Henry didn’t need a camera. The image of Janet with her head tilted back and resting on her hands would stay in his mind forever. If it is possible for someone who is beautiful to be even more beautiful, that was Janet on that special day. The sun reflected off her blonde hair as it flickered in the breeze. Her smile made the sunlight seem brighter, and her laugh accented the surrounding, soothing sounds of nature. It was time to stop dreaming of the moment, for the moment had arrived.
Henry secured the small piece of metal in his pocket.
“Janet, there’s something I want to ask you.”
“What is it, Henry?”
“Hey! Janet! Henry!”
The loud voice shattered the air.
The voice was coming from the river. The late afternoon sun was blinding. Henry used his hand, the one not holding the ring that held his future, to shield his eyes to try to make out the figure in the canoe that was approaching the shore.
“Hey, guys, it’s me, Brad!”
Oh, my God. Brad? Are you freaking kidding me? In the river in the middle of nowhere? This was not possible.
The blinding sun bounced off the water, but as the canoe got closer, Henry could make out the person in the canoe. It was Brad. Where is a torpedo launcher when you need one?
Janet looked stunned. Henry looked like he needed that barf bag.
“Brad, what are you doing here?”
“I came back to visit my parents, Janet. I used to kayak down this river. Hey, Henry.”
“Hey, Brad.” (Translation: God dammit, Brad, you #*!%# jerk!! What the %#* are you doing here?!)
“What a surprise to see you guys out here.”
“I wanted to call you, Janet, but I was afraid to. I didn’t know if you would even want to talk to me. But I’m glad I got to see you”
Oh no, this didn’t sound good at all. Henry struggled to come up his next move. Does he tell Brad it was nice to see him, but they would like a little privacy? Does he try to get an angle on him and shove him into the river? It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to pull the ring out now.
“You were thinking about calling me?”
It was getting worse.
“Yes…well I wasn’t sure. Would you even want to talk to me?”
Oh, no! %#@%! Henry’s brain locked up.
“Yes, I guess I would.”
Hello. I’m right here. Do you not see me?
“Maybe we could talk for a couple of minutes right now.”
What?! Are you freaking kidding me?! %#@**!!
“Henry, I’m sorry, but could you give us minute? Maybe you could go to the car and get my flip-flops. My tennies are killing me.”
Flip-flops?! What?! What could he do? Nothing. He had no choice.
“Sure. I’ll be right back.”
Henry headed for the parking lot. His mindset was that of a guy going to the gallows while his body moved as quickly as he could without suggesting panic. He didn’t want that #@&*! Brad alone with Janet for too long. He kept glancing back for as long as they were in eyesight.
As Henry hustled back to the picnic site, flip-flops in hand, he was again looking into the sun and could not see Janet and Brad. There was a reason for that aside from the blinding sun. They weren’t there.
He reached the riverbank just in time to see the canoe, Brad, and Janet rounding the bend in the river. His mind was as muddied as the water. He couldn’t even feel the pain of a broken heart as he was too overwhelmed by the shock of cruel fate showing up in a canoe at the most inopportune time, compounded by the crushing impact of realizing what a fool he had been. Our hapless Henry tossed the flip-flops into the moving water and muttered, “Here’s your flip-flops.”
Today Henry spread his blanket out in the exact same spot where his dreams had been shattered by a voice from the river, a beckoning from the past that ruined everything. The sound of the flowing water was annoying, and the birds were singing off key. He opened a can of Old Milwaukee, unwrapped the gas station ham sandwich, and looked at another old oak tree just 25 yards away. Beneath that towering oak was a small grassy area bordered along one side by tall reeds at the water’s edge, and not visible from the river. Henry had spread his colorful blanket out under the wrong tree.