There is a park at the top of the hill, looking down over the oldest part of the city as it broods, dark and ancient, in the river's embrace. Up here the breeze carries a chill even on the hottest days, and the shadows from the branches overhead dance across the ground.
I was sitting on a bench, sipping my third beer of the afternoon, watching the people around me taking advantage of the first truly beautiful day of the year. It was a false promise, I knew, a deception; more snowflakes would fall before winter was truly over.
Summer. It is not simply a segment of the year, not here. It is a gasp of air for the soul, before it is plunged back into the cold and the dark. Each summer seems shorter, the lift it gives diminished, and I know there will be a summer that is not a summer at all, and it will be my last.
A parade of cheery folks streamed past the bench where I sat. Some moved slowly -- couples taking the same walk they had for fifty years -- while others flashed past, here and gone in an instant -- girls pushing themselves along on rollerblades, toned legs moving rhythmically, dodging dogs and children and grandparents.
"Need a refill?"
I looked up to see someone I vaguely recognized. I hoped she wouldn't be insulted when I couldn't remember her name. "Sure." I reached into my pocket for some change.
She took my glass. "It's on me," she said. "I'm celebrating." She turned and headed over to the beer window. I watched her walk and she seemed more familiar from that angle, as if she had walked away from me many times before. When she reached the line at the beer window she glanced back and caught me looking at her.
I wanted to inspect her as she returned, to see if that rang any bells, but that would have been difficult. Instead I looked out over the city spread below.
"Here you go," she said, handing me my beer. "They raised the price this year."
"I'll get the next round."
"Don't worry about it." She stood holding her beer, this woman who had been here before, who knew me. She was waiting for me to say something. She took a sip and waited some more while her beer-foam mustache went ignored by everyone but me. In her eyes I could see the erosion of confidence, the urge to run.
"Have a seat," I said.
"You don't mind?"
I joked to cover my own discomfort. "It'll cost you."
"I'm sure it will." She sat, not too close, not too far. "Na zdravi."
"Na zdravi." I raised my glass to hers, careful to make eye contact. Around here, toasting without looking the other in the eye is like a limp handshake. She met my gaze. Here eyes were green with golden flecks, and the corners were crunched just a little bit, like there was a smile lurking just beneath the surface -- the punch line to a joke she was enjoying telling.
She watched me for a moment and asked, "aren't you going to ask me?"
I hesitated, then remembered. "Celebrating what?"
The smile came a little closer to the surface. "It's my first anniversary."
"Ah." I raised my glass again. "Happy anniversary." It seemed a strange way to celebrate it, buying beers for guys in the park.
She sipped her beer and looked out on the city of a hundred spires. "This is the second-best bench in the park," she said.
Whoever she was, she knew her benches, as well. "The lady with the plastic hat already had the best one when I got here."
My bench-mate smiled. "She's back? Good."
"Yeah. She's got a new hat."
"I hope it's ugly."
"She's outdone herself this year."
She laughed and took a sip of her beer. "Aren't you going to ask me?"
I thought for a moment. "Anniversary of what?"
"Of the first time I came up here. It was the first warm day last year. I started down by the river and hiked all over until I found myself up here."
The first warm day. A sacred day, a day that can't be put on the calendar but is universally recognized. Not a national holiday, but a human one. On that day everyone in the city opens their windows, breathes in air somehow livelier than yesterday's air, and if at all possible they go to a park and give thanks to whatever is handy for one more chance to know this day. It is everyone's birthday.
"It's my favorite day," I said.
"Mine too. There's so much promise; the air itself is telling us how wonderful the summer is going to be."
I sipped. She was right, but it was also the first day I started to feel the summer slip away, sand though my fingers, lost and gone forever.
"You were on the other bench that day."
"Yeah. The sun was bright, but you were dark and brooding. You scared me."
"Then I caught you checking out my butt."
"I love it up here. I came back every chance I got, and you were always here, on one of these benches, adding a little darkness to the day."
My beer was empty. I wanted to go get another, or find any reason to walk away from this conversation, if only for a moment.
"You think too much," she said.
"You think too much. Nothing is simple for you. When you watch the sun rise you think of night, but when the sun goes down, you know the day will follow. You prefer the dark, because only then can you contemplate light without sadness. But still you take pleasure in the simple things, like sitting on a bench on a sunny day. That's what I like about you, that you can be both happy and sad at the same time." She took my glass and stood. "Aren't you going to ask me?"
I looked up at her standing over me, waiting, expectant. "What's your name?"
The punch line. The smile that used her whole face. "Allison," she said. "I'll get another round. It's our anniversary, after all."
I followed her with my eyes and I thought of the bright days ahead, and the winter that must surely follow.
-- Jerry Seeger
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-10-16