Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Friend (11/02/17)
By Jan Ackerson
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She’s not shy. In fact, her job demands that occasionally she must speak to rooms full of people, and she does so with her heart steady and her voice confident.
She’s not depressed. She finds joy in a great many things: the swirl of cream in coffee, a purring cat, the smell of the air after rain.
She’s just quiet, preferring the silence of her own company to the noisy confusion of other voices. She’s happiest in the deep blue evenings or the dove gray dawn, wrapped in something warm and listening to the hush of her house.
Janet is alone, but she’s not lonely. She has a multitude of friends who live inside her electronic devices. Her conversations with these people are rich and varied, and when she taps out her silent dialog with them, she has time to measure her responses, to choose each word for its rhythm and nuance.
Every now and then, though, Janet gets restless, with an itching for a friendly voice, a gentle touch. When her spirit yearns to stretch outward, she drives to a nearby plaza and walks into all the stores, buying a few items and exchanging small talk with the clerks, smiling at fellow shoppers. She buys a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant and sits outside, making eye contact with passersby.
And today, there’s a woman at the little table next to Janet, sipping a hot drink and nibbling a bagel. She looks so similar to Janet that she thinks the woman might be on a mission like hers: to let a bit of human noise inside, to remind herself of the beauty of faces. So Janet looks for an opportunity to connect with this woman; she thinks it might be amusing, if the woman should look her way, to raise her pastry and nod, a silent toast.
Several minutes pass, and the woman finally looks in Janet’s direction, perhaps drawn to the sound of a shop’s bell sounding behind her. Janet quickly makes her little gesture, but the woman looks away, frowning.
Janet thinks, let it be, but in a few minutes, a family comes by—mother, father, three small children—with food trays, looking for an unoccupied table. Without conscious thought, Janet picks up her cappuccino and croissant and nods at the family to take her place, then takes a few steps toward the bagel-eating woman.
“May I?” she says.
The woman looks at her, then at the family settling in nearby, and shrugs. “Sure.”
They sit together, not speaking, but neither feeling any urgency to finish quickly and leave. The air around them is comfortable, so Janet feels it will be all right, finally, to speak.
The woman’s mouth curves a bit. “I’m being ridiculous.” She shakes her head, and her voice catches. “I-I just found out that Pete Seeger’s been dead for years. I thought he was still alive.”
Janet breathes once, twice. “I loved him, too.” They look out at the shops for a few seconds, then without speaking, lift their drinks in wordless acknowledgment of their shared admiration for this long-gone musician.
The woman drains her cup, then says, “I’m Gayle.”
Five minutes later, Gayle stands. “This was…nice,” she says. “See you around, maybe.” She touches Janet’s shoulder with her fingertips, then slips away.
It was nice.
Janet looks for Gayle the next few times she visits the plaza, and the fourth time, she’s there. She approaches her table with an eyebrow raised, and Gayle pushes a chair toward Janet with her foot, making a have a seat gesture with her hand. They nibble their pastries for a while, not speaking.
Then Janet says, “I bought my niece his album of children’s songs.”
There’s a beat, then Gayle replies, “My son loved that album.”
Over the next half an hour, they mostly say nothing at all, but they say enough. Over the next several months, the basket of their words is still only half full, but they have each learned enough about the other to look forward to these visits. Neither woman was broken before they knew each other—but both were incomplete.
They meet now in other places: the park, the beach, their homes. Someone observing them might think that these are two women who don’t care much for each other at all; so little is spoken between them. But the observer would be wrong. These are just two quiet women, occupying the same space.
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