Miles of Looping Change

Submitted into Contest #118 in response to: Start your story with “Today’s the day I change.”... view prompt

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Friendship Contemporary Inspirational

Today’s the day I change. I need a shift in my current path, and I’m running out of time. She’s jogging around the corner through a curtain of drifting oak leaves. In a few seconds, our eyes will meet. Our time together plays through vibrant flashes of memories.

***

When I forced my aching knees onto the park trail that morning, I didn’t know I would pick up a passenger. A sweet voice called to me, just as I rounded the fountain. I turned to the young woman filing in beside me. I had seen her many times, walking the mile loop just like me. Smiling was her native language.

We had never spoken before.

She tracked the full circumference with me, chatting about calling hawks and curious fawns we spotted along the wooded area. Not once did she flinch at my smile, scarred by a motorcycle accident decades ago. The boys used to call me “Gruff Ben” back in the service.

The scent of damp leaves and humidity guided us along the trail. She told me she visits in the morning to keep her fair skin from the sun. I found nothing wrong with her skin or any other part of her, from light brown hair to size eight sneakers.

Our random meetings occurred once or twice a week. At times, she was away with her husband, and I didn’t see her for near a month. With every encounter, our chats resumed as if no time passed.

After miles of pavement spent at her side, I found myself intrigued by her. Two main problems arose from this wishful scenario.

She’s married, and she must be half my age.

It was wrong. Her twisted-up hair and bright eyes shouldn’t have called to an early retiree, but they did. The contrast between us was like rocks and pudding. Her matching attire hugged her slender frame, gaining attention from other park visitors. My khakis and thinning gray streaks blended with the shedding trees and boulders alongside the trail. Even the faint scars by my mouth were in opposition to her complete lack of wrinkles.

My simple appearance never bothered me before. Maybe that changed.

***

Again, she popped into my routine course while the sun peeked through rustling leaves. We moved along, our pace quickening. She spoke of the wonders of life with a depth of appreciation I’d never shared with a woman. My ex-wife had obsessed over designer handbags and suits. Anything superfluous—a vase of flowers or whimsical artwork—was an obstruction.

We didn’t last eight years.

The discomfort that weaved through me was like banging an old injury on a table edge. Though I enjoyed life without scrutiny at home, the walls were empty and chilled. This young woman threatened my agenda, enticed me closer with her upturned lips and stories. I didn't even know her name.

How much longer could I ignore that pull? It was hopeless for me without my two reasons. I clung to them like my last coin.

She’s married. Half my age.

***

On another memorable day, I turned to the sound of laughter behind me. She tried to match my footsteps just a few feet behind without me noticing. I laughed along. She took her place beside me and shared her name.

Melly. I was sure it must be short for Melinda or Melissa, but Melly suited her energy.

For half a mile, she spoke of a book she was reading. She enjoyed fantasy and science fiction. So did I.

She encouraged me to keep walking, that consistency attributed to a healthy body. My doctor said the same. I walked farther and faster, but the reason had nothing to do with my elevated blood pressure.

When Melly peels off at the park entrance to head home, I’m both saddened and relieved. I wished her well, that I’ll see her again soon.

I counted on her to color my drab mornings.

At home, while growing my paunch with my favorite scotch, I thought of her lithe body and exuberant spirit. Each morning when I left for the park, I wondered if I’d see her. If I could just catch a glimpse of that sweet smile, like living sunshine, I’d have enough joy to sustain myself.

***

I spotted her again, right when I stepped onto the sidewalk. Just a flash of fiesta colors on a slender frame, but I knew those swaying hips. If she continued jogging in that direction, we would meet at the intersection by the little free library. I never used to deviate from my path.

That day, I did.

It was Saturday. Her husband was playing basketball while she ran. I waved at him as I passed the courts. He smiled, said, “Hey, Ben,” and continued to dribble. He made the shot off the backboard. Fit and capable, just like her.

The dog park was ahead. All the wagging tails and exuberant barks used to slow my pace. I often paused and watched the blurs of fur chase balls and frisbees, but all I wanted was for my path to join with Melly’s. Then again, it may not. Unlike me, she’s a free spirit with no set course.

I felt my scar stretching, but I shook the smile away.

She’s married. Half my age.

I focused on my sneakers crunching the repaved path, nodding to other regulars as I went. For years, I’d walked this same park most mornings. I couldn’t recall how many times I’d walked with Melly or the exact number of years since we officially met.

It didn’t matter. My lungs filled with warm air when she came over the hill toward me.

Beaming, she twisted around to join me. I told her she didn’t have to change course, but she waved the notion away.

“Of course, I don’t have to. I enjoy our chats,” she said.

That ache would have been easier to manage if she hadn’t voiced my exact thoughts.

I’m not sure how we got on the topic, but I learned she’s much older than she looks. With a chuckle, she attributed her youthful features to having a stress-free household. A tiny pocket of hope bulged inside me. Half of my excuses were gone.

She’s married. That’s all.

My marriage didn’t last forever, so hers may not either.

When we passed the basketball courts again, speaking of caterpillars and book titles, I didn’t make eye contact with her husband. A grunt, a clank, and a cheer rang out. Melly blew him a kiss for another perfect basket.

***

I awakened from a dream, sweating. Melly and I were alone at the park. Rain fell from a darkened sky, though we’d never seen each other at night. We ran to the tunnel. She peeled off her shirt, revealing a turquoise bra, and dried her face. I couldn’t look away when she stepped closer. I reached for her, though I’ve never touched her before. The tunnel lights flickered.

The dream ended too soon.

I didn’t go to the park that day. I couldn’t face her after the dream bloated my bitter longing. Instead, I sat on my screen porch with my coffee in hand. Two squirrels scurried up the pines, chattering and teasing each other. Melly would be content to discuss their behavior in depth. My ex-wife would have told me they were vermin and to stop speaking of nonsensical matters.

I settled into my rocker, a hand on my brow.

Melly’s married.

My longing turned me inward. I didn’t want to hate myself over her, to hope that one day she’d confess her husband hits her or drinks more than I do. The evil part of me would rejoice at the chance to pursue her. It would be different than it was with my ex. I would stop drinking so much if I could just hold Melly and absorb her glow.

Wishing ill on her when she’s shown me nothing but kindness was wretched. How could I stop? I rubbed my hand over my leathery face.

***

Three weeks passed before I saw her again. She was out later than usual, her face in her phone. For once, I snuck up on her. We greeted each other as if our meeting was planned. We were just two people, enjoying a chat and some cardio.

I wished it was that simple.

The ache renewed when she stooped to examine a giant spider web stretched between two holly bushes. A bulbous shape sat in the center. I had seen people crush them or destroy their webs. Not Melly.

She gestures while craning her neck for a full examination. Though I knew all the facts she relayed about this particular species of orb weaver, I smiled and added my knowledge. She shot to her feet, excited to learn a facet of their behavior she didn’t know.

The recognition clenched my chest. My wife believed she knew everything.

My eyes dropped to the pavement. Perhaps I was no better than that spider alongside the trail, hoping to catch Melly in my web. What would I do with her then? Thinking about her, speaking to her with such familiarity was unwise. I knew this, but her light coaxed me from my darkened corner.

I clenched my jaw when her colors faded down the sidewalk after fond goodbyes. None of the building lust inside me was her fault. I’d seen her speak to and walk with others, both men and women, as if she considered everyone a friend. That was her way, and I was simultaneously embittered by and grateful for it.

I no longer thought about life’s end on long nights, so I shouldn’t hope for anything more.

She’s married.

***

But this morning, when our eyes met, Melly’s smile is faint. The selfish side of me rejoices, hoping this will be the day she shares a condemning secret about her husband with me. If it is, I’ll take it as a sign.

She small talks with me around the pond where the turtles swim. I keep the topics light until she opens up. With her eyes on the water, she says, “A good friend of mine is severely depressed. Support and prayers only do so much. What if she vanishes right in front of me?”

I push my hands into my jacket pockets. It’s just like Melly to think of others so fondly. How does she see me, I wonder?

I say, “I’m sure your encouragement helps her. You’re very kind.” The compliment comes off more neutral than it feels. It’s better if she doesn’t hear the catch in my voice.

She shakes her head. “The credit isn’t mine.”

“Sure it is.”

“Very little. The light of Jesus compels me to keep smiling even when I’m sad. That one small gesture could boost someone in a fragile mental state. It costs me nothing to try.”

I may not understand her divine motivation, but that light she described has permeated my life. She has no idea. Now, I want to drown myself in the pond.

Our pace slows up the hill behind the baseball field. The change I need to make is clear now.

Tonight, I won’t slosh my scotch while wishing her husband would die in an accident. When Melly and I pass through the approaching tunnel, I won’t picture my dream.

Her kindness is free for everyone. It affects more than just me and isn’t mine to keep. So, I’ll release it to continue its good work.

She thanks me for listening and turns to jog home. My shoulders are looser, lighter. I call after her, “Say hello to your husband for me.”

This isn't the first time I’ve sent her off that way. It is, however, the first time in months that I meant it with no spite attached. It hurts to acknowledge, but I now have a new resolve.

The next time I see her husband, I’ll wave and be glad he supports her journey. The next time I walk, it will be for my blood pressure and to enjoy nature. The next time Melly shares her time with me, I’ll accept it as a gift. I won’t desire anything more from her.

The more I walk this new path in my mind, the sooner it will become real. It will take time, but that arduous journey starts now.

Nothing has changed outside of me. Melly’s still married, still younger. I’m still single, still approaching sixty. Inside, I’ll clear away my desire and follow her example.

As I walk back to my Jeep, I smile at everyone who meets my eyes. The final mile passes in a blur of morning greetings and crinkling eyes.

November 01, 2021 20:02

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