It was spring and even the more remote parts of the park were frothy with bloom from flowering trees, fruit trees actually, but not really meant for eating. On the only park bench a single older woman sat reading. When the man with the dog felt he had reached a point where it was safe to unsnap the leash from his Jack Russell to let him run, he approached the bench — a little cautiously — to ask whether she minded if he sat on the same bench. She didn’t mind.
Actually, she didn’t really pay attention until she realized that the dog was sending up clouds of pigeons and even some ducks from the little stream. Then, laughing, she put down her book in order to watch. “So much energy!” She had a nice smile.
That night at bedtime he would remember her clearly though he hadn’t wanted to really study her. He was an artist, often figurative and sometimes did female nudes. He thought she was Northern European of some sort. Square shoulders but a soft neck and face, evenly proportioned, rather pale skin but with some kind of tint — maybe she colored up if she were emotional, but she was calm now. Her dress draped nicely at her knees and elbows. No jewelry. Not even rings.
She had seen and recognized the artist’s evaluation she was getting: she had been married to an artist. But this man was more scholarly, not a person of passionate emotions. Both of them watched the dog go pell-mell in huge winding circles, barking his jubilance at being loose on the grass. The pleasure joined them and made sitting with a stranger seem natural.
He had decided that asking her what she had been reading was too invasive but glanced at the cover when she put down the book beside her. Anais Nin. He was a little startled. Her eyebrows went up with amusement. “I’m flying out tonight,” she said. “I was just doing some research at the Smithsonian.” Just in case he had ideas.
“Ah,” he acknowledged. “On Anais Nin?”
“Oh, no. My ancestors. I’m partly Native American.”
“Umatilla. Do you know them?”
“Not at all.” They were quiet for a while. He was flummoxed that this woman should have a heritage he associated with being dark and even squat. And he was embarrassed. Clearly he was doing her some kind of injustice based on ignorance.
She seemed burnished, somehow. But he was urban, knew nothing about the West or any tribes.
That night on the airplane, wedged into her seat with the little reading light shining in her lap but not quite ready to read, she smiled at how easy it was to block a conversation with a subject like an unknown Indian tribe, but then not hesitate to inquire casually about so controversial and sexual a figure as Anais Nin, even with a strange woman in a public place. Political uneasiness about what might be correct; the vast ignorance that an educated white man wouldn’t know one tribe from another. A kind of racism. Maybe it was that sex — a subject that had become banal in this culture/time among people who considered themselves sophisticated — was so patterned, even conventional, that propriety on a park bench was easily enacted. But what does one say to a woman who is Native American? Ask her where her beads and feathers are? She chose not to be hurt by it, but to consider it amusing.
That night the man, now in pajamas, sat at the long worktable in his bedroom so, if he had visitors in the front room, he could shut the door on his projects. They were too curious. He sat at the end alongside the window. A small breeze entered and made the roller blind plop gently. He didn’t care for curtains, considered them dust-catchers. He leaned back far enough to reach a bookcase and took out a book of quotes. He looked up Nin. There were three quotes:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
He looked over at his little terrier who had arranged his side of the bed to suit himself by pulling the covers and pillows into a round nest, nicely supportive and protective. The dog was snoring with satisfaction, with a few intervals of running in place — also remembering the afternoon and the birds flying up. Nin was Cuban — that meant partly genetically indigenous to the Americas, didn’t it? Also Spanish, of course. Would that account for the burnished quality?
He looked at his reference books some more but there was nothing useful. Now that he reflected, the woman had dark eyes. Her skin had a shadowed sort of dusty quality over the pale skin. Layered. Tonalist.
He thought, “I should carry a card with my contacts on it. I could have given her one.”
In the airplane the woman’s book had fallen onto her lap. It would be a long flight to Oregon. “I should have thought to give that man my card. I don’t even know his last name. What a Victorian idea, exchanging cards, but how practical.” Then, as usual, she was amused. What an idea, to give a calling card to a man she met on a park bench! She’d been at the Smithsonian and hadn’t given out cards there, either, though it would have made much more sense. They would have been scholars of Native American peoples, maybe even people she would meet at conferences or visiting Oregon. Networking, contacts. But she had felt secretive about her research — it was personal.
She considered herself too old to have fantasies about romance, but she wondered what this man thought, what he would see if he were on the high plateau of the Umatilla country. What if he came for a conference at the big casino convention center? Would he see that dry aromatic country for what it was, or try to make it into something else? Then her thoughts flipped over, as they often did, and she wondered what there was about this man she was not seeing. She hadn’t even asked him where he was from. She couldn’t remember any clues from clothing or accent. Then she slipped into sleep.
When they landed in Portland, she woke a bit fuzzy, but easily collected her few things and and went up the aisle patiently. Walking back to the long-term parking in the dark green night along the Columbia River, she finally realized what she was hearing: spring frogs, the sound version of the blooming fruit trees. A wild rhythmic frenzy of throats. “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”