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New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

Suspension: A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park

Walk Taken: August 26, 2011

Directions: To access the bridge from the Brooklyn side, You can take the A and C to High Street, the 2 and 3 to Clark Street, or the 2, 3, 4, N, or R to Borough Hall. This page has helpful instructions for walking from various subways.

I don’t have much in the way of an introduction to this piece, except to say that the the bridge really is beautiful and its history really is fascinating. Also, construction equipment on the bridge really was secured prior to the forecasted arrival of Hurricane Irene, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm.

First Stop—Rush Hour

Take the A /C Subway line to the High Street stop. Exit the station at Cadman Plaza East. When you exit, double back away from the bridge, so that the street is on your left, until you come to a cross walk. Cross to the pedestrian entrance and turn left to begin walking across the bridge.

Ric’s blood was rushing. It had been for a week now, partly because fall was arriving and New York was rousing itself from its summer siesta to greet it, partly because there’d been pressure at work to get ahead of schedule in case the hurricane swirling up the coast, due to hit t sometime Saturday, shut down transit into the next work week, and mostly because he had to think about all this while playing host to his Spanish cousin Araceli, who wanted only to wander around the city at Midwestern-grandma-in-Time-Square pace and drink a lot of cheap wine, and this would have been fine, except she seemed to think that as her host, he should do it too.

For example, now she was insisting that he walk her across the Brooklyn Bridge on his way to work that Friday morning. Even after she refused to wake up before 7:30, to leave before she’d brewed and sipped her espresso, and to run fast enough to make the train that paused, doors-open, as they entered the station.

So here they were, crossing the street onto the pedestrian walkway at 8:45 Friday morning, giving them exactly 30 minutes to cross the damn thing if he wanted to catch the train down to Wall Street and make it into the office to start his boss’s coffee brewing before he arrived at 9:25 sharp. And his cousin was taking out that ridiculously expensive camera her parents bought her, even though she was, at twenty-nine, five years older than he was and had spent the past three months camped out in some square in Barcelona with a bunch of other unemployed, anarchist hippies protesting the government for not giving them jobs. Even worse, she’d used her parents’ camera to photograph the protests for some communal blog.

“What are you doing with your camera?” he asked. “You can’t even see anything from here.” It was true—the iconic double-arch of the bridge was around the corner and out of sight.  It looked to Ric as if he were stepping onto a highway.

“Ya,” she said. “I’m just getting ready! You said we’re in such a rush!”

Ari didn’t look anything like the typical Spanish beauty. (When she’d met him and his work buddies for happy hour the night before, he had seen the disappointment in his male colleagues as they refused to lean in to her two-cheek kiss.) She was short and lumpy, with gray-brown hair cut tight around her ears and two permanent wrinkles already branching from her eyes. The skin of her face was rough and yellowish from too many un-sunscreened summers at the family flat in Malaga, and her every sentence began with a glottal stop, followed by a stream of barely consonanted words crescendoeing up and away.

And that was good, thought Ric. Her plainness warded off the glamour that might have swarmed about her if she’d been sleek and tan with large black curls. He could see her for who she was—a woman clinging to youth’s ideals even as youth worked its best to shake her off.  He had made the right choice to join Hessler & Brandt’s communications department; he had grown up.

“I don’t see what you’re so worried about anyway,” Ari went on. “Don’t you work for your father?”

Second Stop—Between Sea and Sky

Walk straight along the pedestrian walkway until you come to the place where the concrete gives way to wood. Stop here to look forward and admire the double arches.

“I don’t work for my father!” he speed-walked ahead, glad they were fighting because if there was one thing Ari would speed up for, it was an argument.

“It’s your father’s company, isn’t it?” She didn’t have his long legs, and her head bobbled up and down as she jerked herself forward with short, swift strides.

“My father works in accounting; he told me about an opening in communications. Which I applied for to the head of the communications department, who chose me. She wouldn’t have hired me if I weren’t qualified.”

“Lots of people are qualified. The question is—would they have looked at your resume if your father hadn’t pointed it out?”

And Ric knew the answer. The answer was no. He’d sent out enough resumes in the year since graduation to know that much.

But what business did Ari have quoting his inner voice in a bad mood? “It doesn’t matter,” he snapped at his cousin. “They looked at my resume and they hired me.”

“And that’s why you work twice as hard as everyone there and freak out about coming in five minutes late, because you don’t doubt for a second that you deserve to be there.”

It wasn’t fair; his cousin was a master at sarcasm in English, whereas he still hadn’t figured out how to be sarcastic in Spanish. Whenever he tried, Ari just asked him why he was speaking with such an American accent. It was true that there was something flat and staccato about sarcasm that seemed to him at odds with the flow of Spanish, but then why was his cousin so damn good at it?

“You’re just saying all this because I work for a ‘corporation.’ If I worked this hard for a non-profit…”

“Shuuuush!” The hush was all “u” when she said it, giving it a tone more of wonder than command. He was going to tell her not to “shuuush” him when he was making a point, but suddenly her warm, chubby hand was pressed against his mouth and her other hand was pointing up.

He followed the point of her short, wide index, and saw that wonder was, in fact, appropriate. The brick archway of the bridge was rising above them as they stood at the border between concrete path and wooden walkway. The suspension cables crisscrossed over the sky between the gothic arches, forming black-outlined diamonds of blue that reminded him of a church window. A large, off-white canvas was tied up to the sides of the walkway like a mainsail furled along a boom. They stepped over the line from concrete to wood in silence, and there was something about standing on unpolished wood, suspended between sea and sky, that made him feel as if he had entered a separate, almost sacred, space—somewhere between a ship and a cathedral.

“¡Es increíble!” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, surprised to mean it, “it is.”

Third Stop—An Adult Under Thirty

Continue walking until you have passed through the narrow corridor created by the suspension cables. Stop here for unobstructed views of New York harbor on your left and Mid Manhattan on your right.

His feet slowed their forward march. Speed was impossible anyway. On the center of the bridge, the pedestrian lane was closed off as workers in orange vests moved past lifting sheets of corrugated tin, and everyone—Brooklyn-and-Manhattan-bound tourists, commuters dragging their bikes behind them—was forced to squeeze past each other on the same strip of wood. Somehow, he didn’t mind. It was as if someone had laid a large sponge against his shoulders and sucked the rush out.

His father had left Catholicism behind when he’d left Franco’s Spain back in 1968 for University and Freedom in the United States, but by the time Ric had been old enough for trans-Atlantic flights, Franco had been dead twenty years, so there had been no reason not to obey Abuela’s summons back for Christmas. Sitting through his first Mass, uncomfortable in the starch of his suit and bored by the drowsy tones of a language he could not understand, six-year-old Ric had reached into his mother’s purse for his Gameboy. But mid-reach, his hand could go no further. It squirmed and strained, and then held still. The hand that had stopped it was nothing but soft skin sagging over trembling bone; it should not have impeded his young hand’s foreward movement, but it had.

Aquí no!” his grandmother whispered harshly in his ear. But it wasn’t her command of “Not here,” that made him sit back and listen; it was the unexplainable, even miraculous, strength of her grip. Even today, atheist that he was, he found himself turning off his cell phone if he happened into a church for any reason, and it was the same now. It felt sacrilegious somehow to check his phone for the time, or to speed around his fellow travelers.

Why? Wasn’t this bridge, which twenty-seven people had died to build, as much a tribute to work, to capitalist work, as the job he had to get to? Weren’t the construction workers who moved beside him, securing construction equipment against the pending hurricane, proof of the importance of rolling up sleeves and getting jobs done.

As if on cue, Ari then decided to do the one thing that annoyed him the most about her. She jerked up to the first worker she could find who looked remotely Mediterranean or Latino and asked him, in Spanish, what he was doing.

And the man gave her the answer he had always feared and hoped she would receive for her constant Spanish profiling. He turned around, looked her right in the eye, and said, “My family’s lived here for 200 years. I don’t speak any foreign language so young.” It was funny, because he was speaking in perfect Latin. Ric knew, he’d minored in classics in undergrad, following a love affair begun when his abuela gave him no choice but to listen in Mass.

But he was so joyfully surprised at the answer that he made a mistake just as grave as his cousin’s—“Then why are you working here?” he blurted out, also in Latin, but that didn’t stop him from immediately sucking his lips between his teeth and staring at his shoes.

‘My cousin’s very sorry,” Ari cut in, in English now. “He hates offending people.”

But the worker just shrugged. He was a head shorter than Ric, with chin-length black hair and a lean, young face that seemed too small for his broad shoulders and thick arms.

He answered, in English this time, “Don’t worry, I don’t offend easily. Just like playing with people’s expectations.”

Ari hardly gave his answer time to sit. All it had done was to confirm her suspicion that offense was something, like the infallibility of markets, that you only believed in if you spent too much time in the United States. “My cousin just wants to know, you see, because he minored in Classics, and now he’s working a job he won’t admit he hates.”

“Well, that’s not my story. I started building things when I was a kid; made myself a tree house, and pretty soon the parents on the block were paying me to build them for my friends, too. I did home repairs to make spending money in high school. Then I got out of college as the recession hit and all of the esoteric publications I might have worked for were only taking unpaid interns. So, I thought, I’ve always liked building things, and things will always need to be built.”

Ric looked up, “Wait, you graduated in 2009?”

He nodded.

“So did I. I spent two years interning in the communications departments of various nonprofits before giving up and going to work for my Dad’s investment firm.”

“Man, that’s rough. You should think about a trade, really. Right now, we’re getting all this equipment secured before the hurricane, it feels like we’re doing something really necessary.”

“It’s not necessary, Ed,” a tall black man in an orange vest shouted out as he passed. “Come to Jamaica sometime; I’ll show you a real hurricane—none of this category-one bullshit.”

“I’m from SoCal,” he yelled back. “We don’t do weather.”

The man snorted, “So why don’t you go back?” But he smiled afterwards, to make it clear he liked having SoCal boy around.

“Ed” turned back to them and shrugged. “Anyway,” he said, without malice, “It feels more necessary than investment banking.”

Ari had a rare expression on her face. Her lips were pressed shut and her eyes seemed to lean over her nose. It was the expression she used when she heard something she thought was really worth listening to. Only when she was sure he had finished speaking did she blink and relax her mouth to speak. “Congratulations,” she said, holding out her hand. “You’re the first adult under thirty I’ve met.” There was no sarcasm in her voice.

Ed shrugged again. “You should talk to my girlfriend about that,” he said. “She seems to believe no grown man is allowed to own an X-box.” But he accepted Ari’s handshake. He was standing with his back to the water, which stretched beyond him, past Staten Island, to the place where its blue disappeared into the blue of the sky. But he was looking up towards midtown, and Ric followed his gaze. A slate cloud sagged over the city, and the buildings seemed huddled around the Empire State Building as if its point could pierce through to the light. Ric knew the cloud had nothing to do with the hurricane—in fact, the hurricane was coming from the now-clear South—but there was something ominous about Manhattan’s darkness, something Ric feared to enter.

“Anyway, salvate!” Ed bid them farewell in Latin., then turned back to join his partners in their work. Literally, he had wished good health, but the word was only an accent away from the Spanish for “Save yourself!”

“Come on,” Ari said. “Don’t you have to go?” And Ric realized that he was standing still, staring at the city and trying to understand why it filled him with dread.

Fourth Stop—Back on the Highway

Walk the rest of the way across the bridge and under the second set of double arches. Pause when the first green highway signs become visible on the other side.

There was a real disappointment in walking through the second pair of arches, off the wooden planks, and back onto the concrete of the walk towards City Hall. It was the end of the vacation, the exit from the fair.

“So that’s adulthood,” Ric finally said, to distract himself from the heaviness resettling on his shoulders. “Getting paid to do something necessary?”

“Getting paid to do something necessary that you love,” Ari said after a moment’s thought

And Ric nodded. That was what was magic in the bridge. It was clearly necessary—millions of commuters, of friends and families separated by the East River—had made it so. And it was beautiful enough that he could believe its builders had loved it. Hadn’t Ari read to him from her guidebook how its designer had died from Tetanus after his foot was crushed on site, how his son had taken over until he was crippled by the bends while digging the foundations underwater, and then how his wife had stepped up to relay his instructions to the crew. Two generations had given themselves to the bridge, nurtured it like child and grandchild.

The green, metallic sheen of the signs announcing the entrances to FDR Drive and Park Row appeared on the horizon. Unless they turned to look back, there was no sign of the bridge. Once again, they might have been walking on a highway.

“When we get to the park,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

“You won’t be late?” Ari asked.

“This is worth it!” He tried to sound joyfully reckless. Ari squinted at him in concern.

“If you think there’s time,” she said.

Last Stop—The Fountain

Continue walking until you get to the entrance to City Hall Park. Cross the street towards the park and turn left. Walk along the park gate past the City Hall entrance and turn into the next opening in the gate. Walk straight into the park and then take your first left towards a fountain surrounded by four lampposts.

It was not as spectacular as he remembered it. But then, he and his boyfriend had discovered it at dusk. He had been surprised by the live flame in the four lampposts that surrounded the fountain, by the way its reflection flickered in the white-blue jets of water and the night-blue pool beneath. It had been the Friday gay marriage was legalized, and, high on one victory, Cam had suggested they try for another and camp out near City Hall with the group protesting Bloomberg’s budget cuts. Cam had studied to be a teacher, and he desperately needed the new-teacher hiring freeze to end so he could go back to his school in Queens and prove to kids like him that there was a way out and it did get better.  At the time, Ric was waiting on a city grant to turn his museum internship into a paying job. They had believed that they could fight and win it all, eternal love and necessary work—adulthood. The unexpected beauty of that fountain had seemed like a promise.

“The future is yours!” cried the flames.

“You will not disappoint yourselves,” the water reassured.

Of course that wasn’t what happened. The hiring freeze did not end and the grant did not come through. Cam had gotten a teaching job in Mississippi and Ric had sent his resume to his father’s firm.  Those two decisions had split them apart for good. The fountain appeared sheepish in the daylight. It shot no jets of water from its center, and Ric had to squint to see the vibration of the flames inside their dusty glass covers.

“Ric?” Ari said gently. He was not used to hearing the tremble of a question in her voice.

“I know it’s not much now; we’ll have to come back at night, so you can see. It’s a perfect harmony of fire and water.”

“Ric, it’s 9:30,” she said.

“I thought you didn’t approve of my job?”

Ari sighed. “I don’t think you approve of your job. But it’s not my place really…”

Ric’s phone rang. He lifted it from his pocket. His boss’s name flashed across the screen.

So this was it. He stared at the fountain, willing the sky to darken to, the water to shoot up, and the flames to burn brighter than the dust containing them. He could do it. His boss would fire him, and he could go back to the moment before he had disappointed himself.

“Ric, are you going to answer?” Her voice was soft.

He held his phone in front of his face. What would happen if he threw it into the water?

Suddenly, he felt it pulled up and out of his hand.

“Yes,” Ari answered. “This is his cousin. We went to buy a flashlight, you know, because the hurricane’s coming this weekend, and our friend said the hardware stores were running out. Yes, we got the last one! But the line’s longer than we planned for. He’ll be there by 10, definitely. Oh, we can pick up some batteries for you, but he’s paying now.—we’ll have to get back in line. Ok, he’ll be there by 10:15 then. Great, bye!” She finished the call. “It’s going to be all right,” she said to him.

Ric felt the hot weight of the phone slide back into his hand.

 

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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.

Happy Walking!

First Stop—The Gazebo

Enter Prospect Park at the corner of Ocean and Parkside Avenues. Once in the park, cross the street at the stoplight and follow the subsequent path left to a wooden gazebo by the side of the lake.

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

The Ledge Follow a dirt path clockwise around the lake until you come to a lamppost next to a concrete-lined gravel overhang that rises above the water’s 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 dWater Lilies irt 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.