Stephenson passed his hand over the cold iron seat of the park bench littered with leaves. Settling back, he occupied the middle section and stretched out so that no one would be compelled to sit next to him. The dreary day juxtaposed to the joyful park goers with all their enthusiasm over the first authentically autumn day of the season made for a perplexing scene. He tilted his head back and stared into the overcast sky, breathing in deeply until his whole world became gray.
The laughter of children and barking of dogs was drowned out momentarily by a roaring gust of wind. It filled his nostrils and singed his esophagus. Closing his eyes tightly from the blast, he was startled when something light slapped him across the face. A hand full of leaves had collected on his chest. The leaves had scratched his face slightly and he itched. He shook off the little dried-up buds they carried with them and checked himself for ants. Looking down, he was surprised to see so many leaves piled at his ankles. He quickly kicked himself free and settled back into the bench and watched them scoot across the sidewalk pushed along by a few smaller zephyrs.
One leaf lingered as it was full of holes and lacked the flatness to ride the full distance on the wind. Centimeter for centimeter, it seemed to crawl away on the back on a caterpillar. He watched it make its way, mildly amused but mostly absentminded, until a medium gust flipped the leaf on its side and the words popped out at him.
“I still love you.”
He sat up. He had heard that people saw faces and animals in clouds and such because the human brain was predisposed to identify faces from infancy, but words, a complete sentence, out of the veins of a maple leaf was something different. He hunched forward and leaned in enough to pinch the stem with the tips of his fingers and draw it in.
“I still love you, but you don’t love me anymore. The only way I can show how much I care is by watching you leave, not saying a word. So, this is me letting you go.”
The words were written with a ball point pen. Writing had cracked the leaf in a few spots where too much pressure had been applied. Here and there, there were indentations of letters with no ink where the pen probably stopped producing pigment. Despite the imperfections, it was clear the message was written with great care and contemplation. Someone had left a piece of their very soul on this leaf, one that meant the world to them, but no longer serves a purpose in their life.
The lifeless discarded limb of a nameless maple tree seemed to have a warmth of its own. This wasn’t a lyric rejected by a pondering poet lacking a notepad, slumming at the park for inspiration for the perfect verse to complete a commissioned piece, nor was it the delusional showcase of a sociopathic ex-boyfriend scratching his head at why his girlfriend was always so emotional, trying to win her over yet again with one of his tricks of romance. This was a declaration of real, hopeful, forlorn love, and it had breathed new life into the cells of a dead plant. Stephenson collected his thoughts and redirected his attention to a more obvious and logical explanation. The leaf was warm, yes, but not from the intensity of passion and sincerity from which it was written, but from the heat of friction and a person’s hand. It had just been released.
He skimmed the park for any on-goer who may be staring at him in embarrassment to have their secret declaration found. They had perhaps been following the leaf’s journey into inexistence and froze humiliated watching it slap him across his face. In a split second’s fantasy, he imagined it was an intelligent, artful woman. She may even perceive the leaf finding its way to him as a sign of finding her true love. He invented a girl with thick red shoulder length hair held together by a goldenrod skullcap she had knitted herself, rosy cheeks in perpetual shyness dotted with freckles along her nose and a bashful smile. He imagined their whole life together in a millisecond. No such person caught his eye.
It had been a long time since he had imagined being loved. He had decided a long time ago that he did not possess the necessary devices for a long-lasting relationship, nor did any woman possess the grace to accept his flaws. His history with love comprised of a few flings of whom had taken a liking to the idea of him and quickly lost interest when they discovered the person attached to them. He had never initiated a breakup, not because he loved deeply, but because he avoided confrontation at all costs.
He was always perplexed by how much negative criticism he would receive from people whenever he’d make it apparent that he wasn’t ready to move on. He couldn’t understand how it was possible to build your life around someone you love, then pack up all his feelings, like an evicted tenant, and never see each other again. It was like taking down Christmas decorations on the 26th of December. ‘People don’t even take down their decorations the day after Christmas, because they don’t want it to end yet!’ he would think to himself. ‘So clearly, letting go is not as easy as it sounds.’
This made him worry about his male friends, those nights at the pub drinking away heartache, trashing the names of their exes, and then rebounding back into the prey of new women. He wondered if they were only hiding their pain, if society was just pressuring one another into faking something that is contrary to human behavior. He wondered if all of humanity had been conditioned to judge one another when all anyone desperately wanted was to not be judged. He thought about the leaf again, about how he had felt. He knew there was someone at this park who felt like no one cared that they weren’t ready for the inevitable changes in their life, someone who desperately wished everyone would just stop saying, “there are plenty of fish in the sea,” and that someone would step up and say the words Stephenson’s was thinking.
Without a second thought, he leaped onto the only vacant picnic table near the clearing where most of the people were gathered, waved his hands in the air, and shouted, “Hey! I found your leaf, whoever you are!” The whole park stopped chatting, jogging, picking up their dogs’ droppings, as he released his words like so many autumn leaves. “It’s okay that you haven’t moved on. It’s hard to walk away from something that means a lot to you, especially when you’re not finished loving that person. You can’t stop them from leaving, but you’re expected to stop loving them. It’s one of the most messed up aspects of life. But I want you to know that you’re doing the right thing, taking the necessary steps to heal.” He held up the leaf, “But you don’t have to force yourself to let go. It’s okay if next week, this leaf is stuck on your windshield, metaphorically speaking. I mean that it’s okay if you’re still in love. The key is not to let go, so much as to grab hold of your heart as they are letting it go. Take back your life, the life you changed to fit another person and remember that it was whole before you met them.” Most of the people went on with what they were doing before, but a few lingered. Hoping this narrowed down the search, he held the leaf up higher and spoke out louder. “This is a good step in the right direction. But more importantly, where’s the leaf with your love for yourself? Go find that one.”
He looked out into the crowd. Only a handful of people stayed watching, but none seemed invested enough for him to think he had found the writer. He stepped down off the bench. A few people clapped, thinking he must’ve been a university student acting out some sort of monologue on a dare, but most strutted off in confused silence, shaking of heads. He skimmed for anyone that might be lingering or reflecting his words but found none. The unfortunate truth was staring him in the face. The person was not here, and he had stood in the middle of the park and made an ass of himself for no reason. He stared at the blank side of the leaf incredulously, half believing he would turn it over and find no writing at all, his mind having made up a grand production to get him to humiliate himself. A gust of wind echoed in the distance and without confirming his suspicions, he opened his hand in time for the breeze to pick up the leaf and take it away.
He stuffed his hands in his coat, rubbing them against the fleece inner layer of the pockets. The sidewalk was congested now. The crowd had decided the weather was no longer endearing and were fleeing the ever-chilling wind. He tried walk alongside the concrete to avoid them, but a couple running as they struggled to stuff their picnic blanket into their basket nudged him dead center into the oncoming walkers. He nearly bumped into an old man walking at a quickened pace, darting right quick enough to dodge him, but nearly bumping into a young woman with her face nearly covered in a massive scarf. Before he had the chance to apologize, the words came his way, invading his world and deafening all other sounds.