February 20, 2012 – Bench Sitting
On Thursdays when Pilar comes to clean the apartment I like to head out so as not to be underfoot. This Thursday is no exception. I pack a few things into my bag, slap a little sunscreen on and go.
Not feeling up to a long walk I trek southwest for a block over to the little
park across the way from my building. I’ve got my choice of benches and I take the one with the least amount of pigeon poop. Over the past weeks I’ve been revising my novel, trying to get it to something decent and my mind is overtaxed with plot sorting, doubt, character depth, worry, offensive language, artistic insecurities, and words, always words.
I take out my notebook and start to refine the book’s logline and begin the rough outline for a synopsis. But I have this restless angst. And the noise of Lima is getting to me. So much noise. This place is never still. Never quiet. I need to listen for the peace, see if I can sort it out from this omnipresent cacophony. I close my pen, tuck my book back into my bag and shut my eyes.I tune out my thoughts and the surrounding noise. I sit there and breathe.
Happy shrieks play through the air. Children playing in the last days of their summer vacation. Passing people inadvertently share their one-sided phone conversations with me. A flock of parrots pass overhead, gossiping with squawking loudness. The breeze plays with the trees and the leaves sing.
A young girl runs across the grass, looking backwards with a grin, and turns sideways behind a tree. A startled cry, a laugh. Her little brother follows her path and they play a circular hide-and-seek around the tree. Both with a joy so contagious I catch it.An old man--dressed like a pretty dandy in a straw hat, ironed shirt and tie, and spit-shined shoes so new they squeak with each step--steps past.
The young girl and her brother finish their game and plop down next to each other on the bench across from me. “Ven acá (come here),” she tells him. She pulls out a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of water from her flower print purse. He comes and she roughly dabs the dirt and grime from his skinned up knee.
“Cuidado (be careful)!” he chides her at her touch.
Then they share the snacks she’s carrying deep in the recesses of her bag. A Mary Poppins bag filled with magical things. She reminds me of a Little Geraldine. Tough. No nonsense. And just the littlest bit wicked. I love her there, in that park, with all my heart.A woman and her two daughters walk past.
“What time is it?” the little boy asks the woman.“I don’t know,” the woman says, with a shrug.
They leave our lives and the girl turns to her brother. “What do you need to know the time for?” she demands.He’s got no good answer so he runs off to inspect the trees, to see what other children are doing, to run after the dogs, to wonder at this thing called life, called play.
The sister sits on the bench alone, the weight of it all on her, while he goes to dance around the flowers.
The Parks and Gardens employee, decked out in full uniform, waters every last blade of grass, soaks the roots of the trees, quenches the greedy thirst of the flowers, makes puddles of mud all through the park. A policeman stops, pulls his hat off and uses the hose water to rinse the sweat from his face, to cool the heat of his head, to wash the stickiness from his hair. His partner waits on the sidewalk for him.
“Raul!” the sister calls. She’s bored by herself. “Raul! Ven acá!”He obeys, bringing back with him a red flower he’s plucked just for her. When she smiles the sun shines here through the clouds and the stars burst into brilliance somewhere where it’s dark. She forces him to sit next to her and to behave. He can only handle that so long before he’s off again.
A woman takes the spot on the bench next to the sister. The sister looks at her with suspicious eyes and scoots over.The woman’s girls giggle over with a leashed dog in tow.
Raul scoots up next to his sister and leans down to pet the dog. To coo at it.While I’m busy watching all this activity a man passes, pauses and then with a “May I?” takes the place on the end of my bench.
I move over a little to give my permission.He’s older, dressed in a suit and carrying a folder of official looking paperwork. I stick my nose down in my notebook and he reads his business.
The woman, girls and dogs leave after the girls have all gone over to soak their feet in the water from the Parks and Gardens employee’s water hose.“My shoes have water in them,” one girl complains as she sloshes back by.
Raul makes friends with a little boy. The new boy is wild. He throws his toys across the sidewalk, makes wild yells and then runs after them to pick them up and throw them again. Raul watches this with a modicum of alarm. He leaves the wild boy to his own devices and gets some more flowers.
“Raul! Raul! Ven acá!” Raul’s sister calls. And he does. She buys them a frozen treat from a passing vendor. The siblings share it bite by bite. She puts one of the flowers behind her ear, tucks it between her ear and her dark hair. Then she teases Raul, makes him put a flower under his cap and behind his ear. They both laugh.
“Niño! Niño (little boy)! Come over here and play with me,” the new wild boy yells.They play until the wild boy taps Raul on the head with one of his toys.
“No me pegas (don’t hit me)!” Raul cries with indignation. He jumps up off the bench and runs after the wild boy.“Raul!”
But Raul doesn’t hit the boy, he sticks his face up close, reaches out as if he’ll push. “Don’t ever hit me again!” Raul yells at him. He turns his back and goes to the comfort of his sister.The wild boy makes amends with a truck. Moments of friendliness expire. Then the wild boy kicks Raul. Raul doesn’t know what to think of this wild boy and slides back over, puts his hand on his sister’s leg.
The wild boy’s dad sweeps in, phone still at his ear, and takes the wild boy away. “Why did you do that? What did you kick him for? You shouldn’t do that.”
A sort of peace descends over us all.“Señorita,” the sister asks me, “what time is it?”
I tell her and pretend I haven’t been spying on them so hard this whole time.
Raul darts away to pick more flowers and the sister gives me a smile. After all, we’re practically bench friends. Best bench friends.
When she gets tired of being abandoned, being benched alone, she yells to Raul that she’s leaving. He doesn’t respond right away and she starts to go, looking over her shoulder to see that he notices. He does.
“Amiga!” he yells. “Don’t leave without me!” and he runs to catch up with her. Hand in hand they go off together. I already miss them.“It’s very peaceful here,” the man next to me says.
“Yes, it’s nice,” I reply.“I’m supposed to be at a meeting at two o’clock,” he says. “And I got here early and saw this park. It’s very nice. I’m going to a meeting at a place right next to here.” He shows me the business card for the business and then his real estate credentials.
He asks me where I’m from and then tells me about the housing market and current purchase rates for apartments in Miraflores and San Isidro.“Are you from Lima?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says. “But I lived for seven years in Bolivia.”“Did you like it there?”
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Bolivia es hermosa (Bolivia is beautiful). But it’s the worst place for us Peruvians to put up with.”
“Because it’s dangerous?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says. “It’s just so machista (male chauvinist).”Good lord, I think, that’s how I feel about things here. How in the heck much worse is Bolivia if a Peruvian man tells me this? But to be fair, this man doesn’t seem like the whistlers or the “que rica” commentators, or the honkers I’ve encountered. He’s just another human in the park sharing a bench with a stranger under the cloudy sky.
“Statistically,” he starts. “Statistically. Statistically speaking seventy-five percent of marriages don’t last longer than five years in Bolivia.”“Seventy-five percent?” At first I’m shocked. But don’t U.S. marriage statistics say that something like fifty percent of marriages end after three years there? I don’t bring that into the conversation. It’s nice just to have him talk.
“Yes. It’s because it’s so machista. Those men see woman as instruments. They don’t treat them well at all. There’s a lack of respect.”I’m starting to really like this man.
“But the women there are accustomed to it. That’s why they put up with it.”“Because they don’t know any different,” I interject. “That’s just how their lives are.”
“That’s just how their lives are,” he agrees. “The girls become sexually--” he stops. “Let me ask, how old are you?”“I’m thirty-three.”
Relieved he goes on, “The girls there become sexually active at thirteen or fourteen. They just have no respect and then get in to all kinds of trouble. My daughter was there with me and she used to come tell me where she was going and who she was going out with and when she’d be home. She told me later that her friends said, ‘Why do you tell him that? It’s not his business what you do.’”“Wow,” I say.
“Carlita, that’s my daughter’s name, Carla. Carlita always had respect for us and consideration.”We iron out all the details and then he gets a phone call.
“I’m over at the park,” he says. “Waiting for you. Where are you?”He stands, gets his file together.
“It was really nice talking to you,” I say. “Have a great day and a good meeting.”“It was a pleasure talking to you,” he says. He shakes my hand and goes off.
I sit alone for a while longer. Watching. Observing. Being. Here I am sitting on this bench, spying on life. Participating uninvited in these clips of adventure, in these moments that might or might not turn into memories. Occasionally joining in to turn from observer to interacter.Then I get up and go on home.