This is Not a Love Story: An Unromantic Stroll Around Prospect Park Lake
Walk Taken: July 19, 2011
Directions: Take the Q or the B train to the Parkside Avenue stop.
My first story is based on a walk I took around the Prospect Park Lake at the beginning of this unbearable heatwave. As I walked and wrote, the humidity was a major source of inspiration (and perspiration!) for me.
Since this is my first post, I’m going to explain how this works. Each story consists of five parts, or stops, on a particular walk. The directions posted in italics at the beginning of each post explain where to begin each walk and how to move from one stop to the next.
First Stop—The Gazebo
She caught him in the act of putting on his shirt. He was standing with his naked back towards her—the morning’s humidity lining the bulge of his muscles in silver against the dark of his skin. He dressed as if he were alone, as if there were no homeless man curled up on the gazebo bench beside his backpack, and Gloria walked closer, secure in the power of his back curving up into the t-shirt bunched around his head. For a moment she saw not her friend of ten-odd years, but the M.I.T. bound soccer star her younger cousin Norma had made eyes at during her graduation party.
Then Carl shrugged into his shirt, turned around so she could see its Star Wars logo, pinched his glasses onto his thin nose, and Gloria saw once again the scrawny boy with glasses too big for his face who had stuck his tongue out at her when he won the third-grade spelling bee. Gloria had never let him win again.
“I can’t believe you actually went running in this heat,” she said.
“I can’t believe you could stay asleep in it,” he replied. It was their way of saying hello when they met for their weekly morning walks around the lake, and on some days they would keep the ribbing up until they said goodbye. But today his face grew strangely serious. Usually, the corners of his lips twitched upwards, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled towards a wink. But now the line of his lips was straight, and the skin around his eyes was smooth. It was his running face, his programming face. “May I escort you around the lake this fine morning?” he asked. And he held out his arm.
Gloria waited for his face to break, but he was stubborn in his stillness. Gloria shifted her feet; finally, she forced sniffed a laugh out her nose. Then, he allowed his lips to curve, and the tightness in Gloria’s shoulders left.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, taking his arm. “Escort away.”
Second Stop—On the Edge
They stopped to watch a family of ducks lined up along a concrete edge that jutted out into the water. She was surprised by how gracefully their bodies curved on dry land, where you could see the thin curve of their feet complete the S their beaks began. These weren’t the springtime babies Gloria and Carl had seen following the mother on past walks, but almost adults with only an inch or two left to grow, and when the pair crunched forward onto the gravel, and the birds flap-splashed like feathered sea planes into the water, the smaller ducks were the ones to lead their mother out of the bright green algae scumming up the shallows into the white-blue, sky-reflecting distance.
“It’s too obvious of a metaphor,” Gloria said. “Birds ready to leave the nest.”
“I actually got a graduation card with a little owl flying out of a nest in a cap and gown,” Carl’s voice rose and his head began bobbing up and down in excited agreement. It was one of the things she would miss about him: how honest he was in his enthusiasm.
“So why does seeing the ducks take off like that still make me a little sad?” she asked.
Gloria had removed her arm from Carl’s after the first few paces; she didn’t want him to think she read anything into his joke about escorting her around the lake, and besides, the same moisture that fogged the air above the trees liked to seep into the cracks where skin touched skin. But now his slippery fingers found hers and squeezed.
The excitement drained from his voice as he said, “I’ll miss you.”
Gloria slid her hand from his and went to sit down on the ledge the ducks had evacuated. “Boston’s not that far away. You’ll be back for vacations, and I’ll come up on the Chinatown bus and visit you some weekend.”
“Maybe you could transfer to a Boston school after your first year at Hunter,” he said, sitting down besides her.
But she shook her head. “Even then it wouldn’t be the same.”
For so long they had been equals, rivals, enemies in a childish way as they raced each other for first place in elementary-school competitions, highest GPA when that began to matter, top scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. When they both won admission to Stuyvesant High School and found themselves alone together in a new world, they discovered they were less enemies than friends.
But then he had chosen numbers and she had chosen images. So while he had no trouble finding scholarships that would help reduce the burden of the loans he would likely pay back anyways, she was stuck admitting that it didn’t make sense to put herself $25,000 in debt to attend Yale or Rhode Island School of Design only to then try to make it as a starving artist. Internally, she was at peace with their diverging paths. After a lifetime of following the rubric that would supposedly set them up to fulfill their parents’ American Dream, each was finally branching off to follow dreams of his or her own. And anyway, Hunter’s art program was nothing to sneeze at. But it bothered her more than it should have the way that friends and family now looked at the two of them—as if Carl were swimming off into the clear, deep, sky-reflecting future while she stayed to float upon oily swirls of empty promise at the water’s edge. She’d even heard her Aunt Shirley whisper loudly to her mother at the graduation party, after one cup too many of uncle Darren’s rum punch, “It’s such a shame about Gloria. You should encourage her to move things to the next level with that Carl, if you know what I mean. At least he’s going places.”
Gloria stood. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s finish this before it gets any hotter.”
Third Stop—Sitting in a Tree
Continue left around the lake until you pass a “No Barbecue” sign. On your left you’ll see a dirt beach where a thick tree is silhouetted against the lake. Pause beside the tree looking out towards the water.
They spoke of everything but the future after that, as they walked past a wall of rushes and around the wide bottom curve of the lake. Gloria told him about the old man with the sagging belly who cornered her at the book store while she was shelving art history and kept yammering at her about his busted air conditioner. Carl told her of a classmate of theirs who had called his under-the-table tech-support business in a panic because the screen of the new laptop had gone blank. Had he tried pressing the increase-brightness key? Silence. Problem solved.
Then there were times when the path stretched through sun, and the thick air sat heavily on the ledge of their upper lips, preventing speech at all. In those moments they heard no other human voices, only the buzz of insects, the whisper of birds, and the beeps and thuds of a distance construction site, and they felt themselves alone together again.
The tree, for Gloria, interrupted the constant pressure of the heat. It was thick-trunked and deep brown against the bright lake, with three branches that reached up and joined leaves with an endless canopy of green and gold. It was one of those moments for her when she saw a painting ready for a canvas, as if God had drawn it out and given to only her the ability to see where it’s frame ended and the rest of the creation began. As she walked towards it she could imagine herself entering a two-dimensional image and discovering its depth. Then there was a new wonder to sitting down on one of the tree’s thick, flat roots to watch the tiny waves kiss the shore.
“You like this tree? Or did you just want to rest,” he asked, sitting besides her.
“It’s like a tree out of a painting,” she said.
“And would anything happen under this tree,” he asked, “in your painting?” He reached his arm around her, but it was heavy and wet with sweat.
“Please don’t,” she said. “It’s way too hot.”
Suddenly he was squatting in front of her, and his hands pressed down on her knees, and he was looking at her with his serious face, so that she felt like a goal net or a page of code.
“I love you,” his serious face said to her.
The wind died down, and, despite the shade, the clay-like air molded itself around their bodies, holding them in place.
“Me? But how? It’s too fast…”
“Fast? I’ve known you since elementary school—that’s most of our lives. How much more time do I need?”
“But why?” She felt as if her mouth had to fight the thick air just to open enough to let the question out, but Carl didn’t seem to have the same problem.
“Why? Because you’re smart, and you’ll never let me win a competition, but outside of that you’re always there to listen when I need you, and I think you’re so brave for following your passions instead of doing whatever would get you the best job. And I guess I knew all of that all along, but I only just realized it this year when you were all dressed up for the graduation party, and I realized that you’re so beautiful! So I was thinking, if you could at all like me back, maybe we could be together this summer and then maybe you could find a community college in Boston and…”
Up until that moment, Gloria had wanted few things more than to have a man tell her, in earnest, that she was beautiful. Not her father being kind, not the men outside the jerk-chicken joint being sleazy. But now, she felt the word like an extra burst of heat hardening the clay around her. She broke out the only way she could think—she stood and ran.
Fourth Stop—Water Lilies in Bloom
Follow the dirt path left through the trees. Turn right after the “Nature at Work” sign and right again to follow the dirt path along the water’s edge until it rejoins the concrete path. Follow the concrete path leftwards until you reach another dirt path with a wood border. Walk straight on this path and follow it when it veers right to the water’s edge. Stop facing the lily pads.
Running was to Carl’s advantage, not hers, and she knew it as her legs ached, her lungs hurt, her flip flops stumbled over rocks and roots, and the air fought every forward bend of her legs and punch of her arms. Behind her, she could hear Carl’s quiet breaths and the steady plod of his sneakers. He wasn’t running as fast as he could or he would have caught up by now. He didn’t want to lose her, but he would give her time to think, and for that she was grateful.
He was a good guy. That wasn’t the problem. Physical attraction wasn’t the problem either; she could get used to seeing the muscles stretch in his naked back the way they had in the gazebo that morning. And she wouldn’t feel inadequate physically. He said she was beautiful, and when she got over the fact that part of her would always see herself as four-eyed and flat-chested, she could see his point of view. Her skin had always shown gold in sunlight, and her dark hair had always framed her face in tight curls. But in the past year, the baby fat had left her belly and her cheeks so that her smaller breasts now echoed her rounded hips, and her glasses sat elegantly on high cheekbones. She wouldn’t be bored with him, wouldn’t have to talk down to him or be afraid that he would talk down to her. So why did his words weigh on her so heavily that she was fighting the heavy air to flee them?
Could it be that to be called beautiful was to be defined all over again? And this time not for anything she had done, like make the honor roll. To accept being beautiful just as she was losing her status as “high achiever with bright future” felt like accepting Aunt Shirley’s vision of her worth in the world. For years her love of finding and making pictures had taken a back seat to her desire to fulfill that second definition. Now was not the time to be anyone else’s Gloria; now was the time to make herself into the Gloria she wanted to be.
She saw a flash of yellow through the trees. Even the algae’s rotting in this heat, she thought. But, following the path down towards a clearing at the water’s edge, she was halted by the truth. Tiny yellow flowers stood tiptoe on the lily pads that lined the shore. If this were a Romantic-era painting, she thought as Carl came up besides her, it would have been the perfect spot for two figures to meet in a kiss.
Carl looked from her to the lilies and seemed to see it too. His eyes were so wide they rose above his square glasses, and sweat streamed from their corners like tears. For a moment, Gloria felt a surge of power. Here he was, on his way to sure success, placing his happiness in the hands of his disappointing formal rival. And why shouldn’t I enjoy it? She thought. Why should he get to make me feel guilty just because he’s suddenly decided I’m beautiful? But then she remembered the little boy with the too-big glasses, and she was only sad.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m just not ready to be loved.”
Last Stop—Over Scummy Water
Keep walking left around the lake on the concrete path. Follow the path right into the trees and continue left on a dirt road. When you see a bridge to your right, turn towards it and stop at its center. To exit the park, continue across the bridge. When you see a picnic hut, turn left towards it and continue past it until you come to a set of stairs. Descend the stairs onto the street. Cross and exit onto Ocean Avenue
They walked the last leg through the trees in silence. The lake now was only a thin green ribbon of algae. Gloria tried to find an explanation she could offer out of everything she’d thought while running. It reminded her, uncannily, of searching a page of brainstorming for a thesis statement. When she found it, the feeling of triumph was the same too. They were out of the trees now, halfway over the bridge that led out of the shaded path and towards the park exit.
She paused and said, “I have to figure out how to really be myself before I can be somebody else’s.
“And there’s no chance we can figure it out together?” he asked.
“We’ve known each other too long. We’ll always see each other as who we were. I can’t be held to that person now.”
“So,” he asked, “Can we still do this? Same time next week?”
“I’d like that, if you’re not mad…”
Finally, the line of his serious face curved upward into an eighth of a forced smile. “What could I expect?” he asked. “Since third grade you’ve never let me win.”
They leaned against the rail of the bridge and looked out. The lake here was covered in algae, but it was a lovely color for scum—the sea green of her favorite crayon in the Crayola box. It would have been another perfect place for a kiss, only it was so hot and their faces so wet with the work of forward motion, it would have been hard to tell saliva from sweat and lips from chin.