LOVE UNDER THE WILLOW TREE
by Ruth Z Deming
On the few occasions when she drove past the park, she remembered their time together, bedding down in the soft grass under what appeared to be a weeping willow. A nearly invisible lake had splashed the shore only a few feet away. They could barely see since a coat of darkness had covered them and no moon shone that night. It all happened so fast she could hardly catch her breath. It was everything a one-night stand should be, even the part that he never wanted to see her again.
She supposed by now he must be dead, or taking his last breaths in a nursing home, dying at a rapid pace from the brain tumor he was diagnosed with a year earlier when he was twenty-seven. Blindness, paralysis, aching melancholia, and aphasia were all possible end-things her former lover, a broad-shouldered former high school quarterback might face. The tumor had taken control.
“I’m not sure I want to have a relationship with a woman whose son is the same age as I am,” he told her under the willow tree.
“But it was good, wasn’t it?”
“It was great, sexy mama!” he said.
Earlier that night, she had locked the door at the therapy agency where she worked. She ran groups and did individual therapy. Her client Rich DiGrassio fired her. He came in with his girlfriend, a clingy, long-haired massage therapist, who delivered the words he was afraid to say.
He’d been imprisoned in Graterford, a maximum security prison outside Philadelphia, for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. He never made it out of the bank. The man was a born loser, but his therapist loved him just the same, as she did all her clients. Her voice quivered when they told her he was never coming back.
Instead of going directly home, she drove to the All-Nite Diner on Easton Road. She loved her life in the green suburbs of Pennsylvania, where her little blue house boasted a sparrow’s nest on her windowsill, a jar of feathers and fresh yellow daisies from her garden.
She was petite, even in her high-heeled boots, and had to tilt her head up toward the woman behind the deli counter.
“I’ll have the egg salad sandwich with lettuce and tomato, please. No extra mayo. And pickles on the side. Lots of ‘em if possible. I’m starving.”
In her high-heeled boots, Maggie strode over to the huge cooler in the back and took out a Coors Light.
A burly man stood studying the different pints of ice cream. He needed to be fumigated from cigarette smoke, she thought.
Walking quickly away, she grabbed a napkin and wiped off the top of the can, popped it open, and took a long sip. Delicious. She loved the feeling of beer scorching her throat. She hoped to get a quick buzz on her empty stomach to put Rich DiGrassio and his awful girlfriend out of her mind.
Half a dozen tables were on the left side of the shop. You could smell the cherry deodorizer from the restroom, a place she would never visit. She was debating whether or not to take the sandwich home, it was only twenty minutes away, but then she saw the man sitting there.
“For here or to go, ma’am?”
“I’ll eat it here,” she said, fumbling in her bag for the money. She felt her body shaking with nervousness as she moved toward the dining room. She sat at a table across from him and gave him a half-smile as she sat down.
God, she was tired. A full day at the agency with barely enough time to go for a refreshing walk that would keep her awake until six-thirty.
Sliding into her seat, she wiped the crumbs off the table with a napkin and picked up her sandwich.
“You look like you’re from New York,” he said.
He had spoken to her.
“My daughter’s from New York,” she said. “Not me. I live right around the corner. And you? What are you doing here at 7 in the evening?”
The story he told her was so uncanny it had to be true. She gazed at him with sympathetic eyes, and nervously patted her short curly white hair. She took care of herself, doing yoga and
jogging at the high school. Though nearly sixty years old, she looked young and vital. She liked when men gazed at her body and wondered how old she would be when they stopped.
“I just came back from visiting my son,” he said.
“Oh, a little guy. Tell me about him,” she said, taking a huge bite of the sandwich and watching half of it drop back onto the paper plate.
“His name’s Aiden,” he said, dipping a French fry into ketchup.
“Yeah, my ex-girlfriend named him. It’s a rock group.”
“Oh, I’m behind the times,” she said. “I’ll have to listen to them on YouTube.”
“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.
“Classical is my favorite. I used to be a concert pianist, of sorts,” she said, drumming her fingers on the table.
“Nice,” he said.
“Yeah, when I was a teenager. My piano teacher made me give recitals. I hated every minute of it, but when you’re a kid you have no say in your life.”
The sandwich was delicious. She practiced mindfulness meditation and made sure she savored every moment in life, especially good food, which, she thought, was the closest thing to
having great sex. Delicious food she could always get, but she couldn’t remember the last time she had made love.
Luckily, she thought, the young man downing his hamburger couldn’t read her mind.
“You’re right about having no say when you’re a kid,” he said. “And I haven’t seen my kid in a month. I decided not to see him again. I don’t want him to get used to me.”
“Sounds pretty dramatic,” she said.
“It’s like this. I’m dying. Of a brain tumor.”
Maggie looked at him and squinted.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I see one of the best oncologists in Philadelphia. I’ve got a glioblastoma multiforme,” he said, matter-of-factly, the term rolling off his tongue as if it were the Latin name of a flower.
“I was in remission for almost a year. But it’s come back.”
“My God,” she said, looking into his green eyes. His rather large head was covered with shiny waves of night-black hair that belied no trace of the monstrous disease suffocating him alive.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said. “I just met you.”
Maggie smiled. “It’s not unusual. I’m a psychologist. ‘Talk to me must be written on my forehead.’ Can you see it?” she laughed, leaning forward.
“All I see is a good-looking woman.”
When they finished eating, he asked, “Have any interest in getting together tonight? I don’t see a wedding band.”
“I divorced my husband ten years ago. He was an undercover narcotics cop in Philly. Had a thing for the ladies.”
“With a good-looking woman like you?”
“Doesn’t matter. He’d go to motels. I fianlly figured it out. But he gave me two great kids. In fact, my son Sean lives with me. He’s saving money to buy his own house.”
She stood up and cleared off her table and his, then threw their paper plates and utensils into the trash bin.
“Give me a second,” she said, heading into the smelly ladies’ room to wash up.
“Thank you God,” she said, looking in the mirror and plumping up her white curls.
Since they couldn’t go to her house, they got in his car. It was white and beautiful. And smelled of him. A new smell, indefinable. A lovely smell, a hint of aftershave or shampoo, the smell of the car seats and of him, her new lover.
She put her hand lightly on his thigh, then squeezed it softly.
“I’m really looking forward to, uh, fucking you,” she said. “What’s your name?”
He laughed. “I’m Bryan with a ‘y’,” he said. “Won’t be around much longer. Might as well enjoy myself while I’m here.”
Twilight was falling fast. There was little traffic as they drove to the park with a lake where he often took Aiden.
“You sure you wanna do this?” he asked.
“Positive! You’re a really nice person, Bryan. I saw you the moment I came in the deli. I really like you, Bryan.”
He got two blankets out of the trunk, took Maggie’s hand, and together they went down a small incline to the lake. Darkness had fallen. It was a clear night. The stars shone in the sky that seemed to come straight down to the earth as they made their love nest under the willow.
Sitting up, they began to kiss. He reached under her sweater to fondle her breasts which came alive in his soft, well-experienced hands. He was only a kid, after all, she thought. He lifted her sweater over her head and she let him. Then she slithered out of her boots and her slacks and they lay down under the tree.
“I don’t suppose you have any communicable diseases,” she said, lying on her side with her hand caressing his hair.
“How dyou know?”
He laughed. “All they do is test me. They know every part of my body including my dick.”
Together they lay on the blanket and made wonderful love until the dim light of dawn touched down on the park with the shimmering lake next to them. A pair of serious-looking swans with mean-looking black masks on their faces swam over to see who the interlopers were.
They talked throughout the night, falling asleep in each other’s arms, then awakening, making love, talking and falling asleep again. Bryan would cover his lady with the blanket.
“Warm enough, baby?”
“Perfect,” she answered.
The tumor, she learned, was mean. It was aggressive. It was like an unstoppable skyscraper, a World Trade Center, growing in his brain waiting to explode and destroy him. It didn’t care that he was a young man or a father, that he loved life, that he played the drums in a rock band, that he composed songs like “You rub me the wrong way, baby” and “Wherever you go, I will follow.”
He’d been a construction worker who worked for his father. That explained his muscles and calloused hands.
“They don’t know what causes it, but there might be a connection between the polyvinyl chloride we work with and the tumor,” he had told her.
“Bryan, you’ve made peace with it. I can tell.”
He smiled and looked at the morning sky.
A train whistle sang its lament in the distance.
“The 5:22 into Willow Grove,” she said. “That’s my train. Takes me downtown to the art museum. Wish we could go together. I’d show you Van Gogh. And Frank Stella.”
Holding hands, they walked back up to the parking lot.
“I love your car,” she said, buckling herself in. “I don’t recognize the logo.”
“Mazda, great little car.”
She saw little Aiden’s car seat in the back.
He drove back to the All-Nite Deli so she could drive herself home and get ready for work.
“Bryan, I’d like to see you again.”
He was quiet. She looked at his beautiful face, his full head of hair, those striking green eyes and waited for his answer.
“I’m not sure I wanna see a woman whose son is …”
“I know, I know.”
She reached over and stroked his cheek, then held his head tightly in her hands.
“This is my healing energy,” she whispered. “It’s all I can do.”
She reached in her pocketbook and gave him her business card. “Margaret A. Fitzpatrick, PhD.”
“Call me,” she said. “Please. And don’t abandon your son. You and Aiden need each another.”
She watched him drive out of the parking lot, watched until his white car vanished down busy Easton Road.
It took about six months before she stopped waiting for her office phone to ring. Between clients, she would remember their night of love. Over and over she remembered it, recalling every exquisite moment, the words he said, the sound of his sighs, the feel of his back and his muscled arms.
“Did this really happen?” she often wondered. “Or is it all my imagination? Is Bryan thinking of me?” She wondered what his thoughts were as the disease poisoned his beautiful body and mind.
She took to visiting the All-Nite Deli several times a week. Although his white Mazda was not in the parking lot, she’d step inside to look for him.
She also drove over to the park but the angry-looking swans never visited.
One day, she stood at the lake, heard the water lapping at the shore, and looked up at the blue sky. Holding her hands in namaste-position, she prayed out loud, “Wherever you are, my darling, I wish you a peaceful death. And think of me.”
LOVE UNDER THE WILLOW TREE