I wrote this story for a class, but the assignment was to submit it in a writing competition. I did just that and never heard back. Coming across it in my files earlier this week, I decided it's time to share it. After all, it was written to be read. Besides, the photograph it addresses always seems to be a hit with viewers. And, not to be smug, but even I never get sick of looking at it.
My latest love affair is of the unconventional sort — like a couple kissing in a public square, it makes some people entirely uneasy. But I’ve got a thing for adventure. I like change. I like it extreme, often, and preferably with an exotic accent.
So it was that two years ago, while studying for a semester in Oxford, England, I was romanced by a new land. Personified, my England experience was my dream man. He first caught my attention with the words, “Cheers, Love.” (This was before I figured out that he spoke such words to countless other women.) But I was still hopelessly smitten walking through Port Meadow’s quiet sloping pasture and along the River Thames. The fact that from there dear Mr. Union Jack introduced me to fair trade chocolate at an Oxfam charity shop only worsened my condition. Not to mention the drizzly days spent at cafés with my hands wrapped around a cappuccino, trying to etch his features into my mind as the many faces of England passed me by.
Too dreamy? Perhaps. But I like to get carried away with filling in the gaps in other people’s stories, and Mr. Union Jack just made that easy to do. He also laid the ground for a photo opportunity I will probably never get again.
One evening a friend and I were eating our dinner while sitting on the ledge of a fountain in Trafalgar Square. We had taken a day trip to London and were enjoying the warm September sun when I looked beyond Katie’s shoulder to the tall stone wall encircling the square. A young couple caught my attention. As they leaned close and touching each other's face, his all-black attire blended into hers, making their entangled body parts indistinguishable.
It was hardly an unexpected sight in such a large, metropolitan city, but what made my gaze linger was another couple sitting an uncomfortably close two feet away.
Likely in their seventies, husband and wife sat next to each other wearing shades of white and khaki except for her red vest. The old woman appeared silent and thoughtful next to her bearded, potbellied companion who seemed absorbed in the paper he was reading. She must have grown bored because she began to take note of her surroundings, namely those sharing her bench.
As Katie and I continued to eat our dinner, I noticed the old woman begin to glance sideways at the affectionate youths. Her husband’s head remained bent forward, but the wife’s curiosity only seemed to grow as her gaze lingered longer and longer.
Perhaps at this point she was thinking of her own grandchildren and worrying about the indecencies they might be performing in another square or park at this moment. Or, I like to think, she was taken back to her own young love. To the times when her and her husband would sit in a similar position, with her legs crossed over his, made oblivious to the world by their love. When they were so attracted to each other that the whole world knowing about it was a desirable exciting concept that led conventions and etiquette to be thrown out the window.
Then, just as the old woman’s wizened face turned toward the younger couple again, I leaned around my friend with camera in hand, zoomed in a bit, and clicked. Perfect.
Back in Oxford with the picture uploaded on my computer, I saw that it had turned out as well as I hoped. Except for a lack of crispness because of the necessary zoom, it became my favorite picture from my travels. The red on the woman’s vest popped out as the only color in a stark palette of black and white and grey. Her husband sat hunched forward beside her, focused on the paper in his hand. And then there’s the couple on her right. Entirely black except for a pair of white skater shoes with green laces and two profiles bent toward one another, they tell a story all their own.
At this point, though, it is the old woman’s story that becomes clearer. The look of unease on her face is hard to miss, and the likelihood that this experience is causing her to fondly reminisce is slight.
Still, I like to dream. I like to see the unexpected adventuresome side of people come out. And since I have no love story of my own at present, I channel my adventure and my passion into life experiences, preferably in different geographic locations.
I had my fling with Oxford, which I’m still hoping will one day rekindle itself as something more. Then I flew home to my Bellingham, in the far northwest corner of Washington State. The city of my adolescence, I have fallen more in love with him in my time away. I see Mr. B. Ham as the young man who faithfully waits on my front porch. He loves the rain and good coffee and thrift store cardigans. Every time I leave him it’s so hard to explain the “it’s not you; it’s me” line. I just don’t know for sure what’s good for me, and I want to keep a lookout.
Life’s short. And yet there’s so much of it to be lived, and I’m just not ready to settle down with any particular person or place yet. Maybe it’s the old woman’s face that haunts me. Her loss of enthusiasm for carefree daring and passion…is that the look I’ll be giving as I sit next to my oblivious husband when my hair has turned white and my "flings" have faded away? No, I determine here and now that it is not. As much as I desire to be continually romanced by land and sea, there is a unique passion that weathering joy and difficulty with another person brings which I want to hang onto until the day I die.