This story was written to and inspired by the following piece of music. Please feel free to listen before, after, or while you read. It may take a moment to load.
“The Wait” — Ólafur Arnalds
Dusk settled softly on the horizon. Her heels clicked on the cold brick pathway as she eased through the rustling trees. She always came around this time: coffee in one hand, her bags in the other, as she made her way to the bench. The invisible woman under the tree turned to watch her come.
The clicks slowed as a beautiful Lady placed her bag at the usual spot. The Lady settled back onto the bench, careful to cross her pencil skirted legs. She sipped her coffee and sighed, surveying the park slowly before she set the drink down. With a deft hand, she unclasped the pocket of her pristine leather briefcase. Her painted fingernails withdrew a book, unbookmarked and untouched. She retrieved a worn paper rectangle from her bag, slid it behind the cover, smiled, and turned to the first page.
The invisible woman, only feet away, watched the Lady in her silence. She adjusted on her ragged blanket and leaned away from the tree trunk, anxious to catch a glimpse of the Lady’s newest novel. After straining too far, the woman winced and receded, her stiffened body in need of support once more.
The woman brushed her matted bangs from her face as she leaned against the trunk. Her hand drifted to rest on the dirty tote bag she kept under her blanket. She felt the pages of the tattered books that had served as pillows the night before. She turned to the side and watched the Lady read. The invisible woman’s near-invisible hair floated lightly in the breeze. It looked beautiful in the light.
The woman and the Lady sat still in the quiet dusk, the same way they did on most nights nowadays. Aside from the rustle of leaves or the flip of a page, the only motion was that of the sun as it disappeared behind the buildings.
As the sky slowly leaked into a deep blue, distant lights began to speckle the park. The woman’s gaze shifted to the lights as they ignited, one by one, illuminating the silhouettes of swift bodies in the distance. They all seemed to resemble the Lady, with briefcases swinging like steady pendulums at their sides as they walked. Even from far away, the woman felt she knew their faces: so similarly chiseled, set in pursuit of a thing she couldn’t see.
It wasn’t long before a gentle flick set the nearby lamp aglow, yellowing the wood of the bench and tree. The woman’s tired eyes returned to the Lady, who glanced up at the light. After a small sigh and furrow of her brow, the Lady marked her page and began to pack up her things. The woman watched intently as the Lady expertly tucked each fold of her shirt back into her waistband. With a final latch of her briefcase, the Lady picked up the bag and began to walk away.
As the rhythmic click of the Lady’s heels receded into the distance, the woman’s eyes fell to rest on the empty bench. Her time with the Lady always seemed to pass so quickly. But alas, she was alone again. Her eyelids began to flutter as the sky grew darker. Loose strands of hair tangled in the tree bark as her heavy head drifted slowly down the trunk.
Seconds later, a scraping sound startled the invisible woman out of her daze. She lifted her head to see a suited Man standing at the bench, holding the Lady’s coffee. He examined the cup and turned to look down the brick pathway, towards the disappearing sound of the Lady’s heels. A booming yell cut the silence as the Man slung his laptop bag across his chest. Careful not to spill the drink, he bumbled down the pathway, the padded sound of his shiny black shoes disappearing as he chased after the Lady.
With a final glance at the familiar sky, the woman curled her knees up into her chest and sighed. She turned away from the bright luminescent lights into the tree roots at her back. As she pulled her thin blanket up past her shoulders, her weary eyes blinked slowly, heavily, until finally, they stayed closed.
It was nearing sunset of the next day. The woman grimaced, ignoring the empty pit that ate away at her stomach. Her eyes glazed as she stared at the coins neatly stacked in the grass beside her. Her fingers twitched as her mind did the math. She finished her calculations and grimaced, unsatisfied with the answer. She pushed the small stacks over, the clinking muffled as the coins hit the moistened earth. After a brief pause, the woman sighed, wiping sleepy tears from her eyes. She lifted a reluctant hand and scooped the coins back into her old foam coffee cup, placing it at her feet beside the brick park pathway.
As the last dime clinked in, her eyes caught on a piece of plastic mixed with the coins. It was a glittery pink ring, the size of a child’s finger, with a large, plastic gem in the center of it. The woman’s eyes crinkled into a smile as she removed the ring from the cup, turning it over in her palm. She paused for a moment as she entertained the idea, then she slid it onto her left finger. Instinctively, her thumb moved up to twirl it around, as she used to do.
The memory lasted only a moment before she jolted backwards. She ripped the ring from her finger and threw it on the ground beside her. After a moment of consideration and a long sigh, she picked it up again and placed it into her tote bag.
The familiar sound of heels began to click in the distance. She glanced up at the orange sky — finally, the time had come. But something felt different. There were other sounds today.
She glanced upwards and saw that the Lady was not alone. Walking beside her was the Man from the day before. Their steps were slow as they sauntered along the bricks, their hands occupied with their heavy bags and steaming cups of coffee. As they grew closer, the sounds of bubbling laughter concealed their footsteps, rippling outwards and echoing among the trees. The woman began to readjust, concealing herself further behind her tree. Her heart pounded as they slowed at the bench, terrified of discovery. But the woman remained unnoticed.
The Man placed his bags beside the Lady’s before they sat, still chuckling from an earlier joke. The woman watched as their conversation eased onward in a natural flow, interrupted only by sips of coffee and small waves of laughter. For the first time, the Lady’s book remained safely in her bag as the sun quietly sank on the horizon. Even after the sky grew black, the night air resonated with their voices.
All the while, the invisible woman sat behind the tree, wistfully watching their eyes dance in the glow of the rising moon. Occasionally, she’d find herself smiling alongside them, or even itching to add a thought of her own. But she remained silent, tucked into the shadows, absorbing their every word.
It wasn’t until the night was sprinkled with dull city stars that the two began to pack up. The Man gathered his bags along with the Lady’s and politely offered to walk her home. The invisible woman nodded in approval as the Lady agreed. Her reddened face was decorated with a bashful smile as she followed behind the Man. The woman shared the smile as the two began to wander away. As their footsteps receded, the woman sat back, bewildered. She glanced up at the moon through the leaves. For the first time in ages, she’d lost track of the time. She adjusted herself into the nook of the tree root and pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. Her mind drifted to old, familiar memories as her heavy eyes fell shut.
For a while, the Lady and the Man continued this routine. Every day, just as the sun began to set, the two would come along down the brick path. They’d walk slowly together before settling in synchrony on the bench beside the tree. Each day, they would carry on talking into the night, speaking of everything under the sun, while the woman delighted in their every word. The woman learned of the people they’d known, the places they’d been, and the dazzling experiences they’d had. She catalogued their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, their passions and thoughts about the world around them. She saw how they listened and how they reacted. She watched their bond grow as they bared their lives to one another. And carefully, intently, she witnessed them fall in love.
For as surely as the couple had, the woman had fallen in love, too. Every moment that crossed intimately between them, they unknowingly shared with the invisible woman, who was present for it all. They were her world now. And yet, she remained unnoticed.
Unfortunately, as the leaves began drifting from their branches, so too did the Lady and the Man begin to drift from the woman. It started slowly at first. Sometimes, when they traveled down the brick pathway, they passed right on by the usual bench. Those days left the woman with nothing but their passing conversation, and those were sad days. Other times, they would forego their park route altogether, and those days were much worse.
At times, the woman felt silly in her sadness. She realized full well that their absence was to be expected — after all, they had real lives to tend to. And yet, nonetheless, the woman began to grow anxious. During the many sunsets she spent alone, her mind couldn’t help but wander to the Lady and the Man. How were they today? Were they having fun? How were their families, and their friends? Did they learn anything new?
When would she see them again?
As the visits grew more infrequent, the woman’s anxiety developed into despair. Each day gone by triggered louder thoughts, more awful and insistent than before: Were they healthy together? Happy together? Were they even still… Together?
She couldn’t bear the thought. Not after all they had been through. She couldn’t stomach those two being separated — they were too perfect for each other. After all she had seen, she knew they were meant to last.
When the footsteps would come, every week or two now, the woman’s aching heart would awaken with excitement. She would watch them with glowing anticipation, clinging to the tiniest details she could gather as they passed: the Lady’s mother was in town. He’d bought a new suit. She’d cut her hair. Most importantly, they were still hand in hand. She would drink them in with her eyes, absorbing their silhouettes in the orange evening light, memorizing their every breath as their feet clicked on by… And in moments, they would be gone once more.
But as the weather grew colder, the visits grew more infrequent still. By the beginning of winter, the woman hadn’t seen them in weeks. Instead of begging in the city or going to shelters, the woman remained at her tree by the bench, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Lady and the Man. From dawn to dusk the woman would sit against the trunk, gazing down the brick pathway, her eyes glazed and distant.
As she twiddled the plastic ring in her cold, thinning fingers, her mind would dream up scenarios. Perhaps they would stay at his home for Christmas this year. Maybe they would travel together over the holidays. She would delight in the stories she desperately forged to occupy her mind.
But in truth, she knew it was in vain. There was nothing else she could think to do to mend her breaking heart. And as the chill settled in, the woman curled into the tree roots at her back, longing for their laughter, their stories, or even just those footsteps once more…
They never came.
Months later, the invisible woman awoke to the sound of a crying child. It was morning. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the bright summer sunlight that streamed into the alleyway. She winced as she began wriggling upwards, sliding her bony spine up the unforgiving concrete wall. As she flexed her bare, dirty toes, her ears were swarmed by the busy city sounds that echoed all around her. Each day, she would awake to this uninvited assault of the senses. And each day, she loathed it more and more. Occasionally, she would dream of those times spent in that park, surrounded by green, bathing in the shade of that beautiful tree… But that was a life lived long ago.
The woman’s sore eyes fell to the pavement. She could barely fathom how hopeless she used to be, investing herself so entirely in the lives of strangers. She had been so fragile then, so blind to believe that her feelings had a place in this world. How innocent she’d been.
The woman sighed. The heat was suffocating here, filling her lungs with a gathering, moist steam. She swallowed past a dry tongue as she looked out onto the sidewalk. The maze of people walking and chatting was almost as suffocating as the air. She’d had faith in those kinds of people once — steady and strong, with their briefcases firmly in hand. Now, all she noticed was their unwavering ignorance as they passed her by. She remained unnoticed.
As the woman grabbed her old foam cup to begin her daily routine, a faint voice emerged from the din. The woman paused for a moment, her brow furrowing together, as she focused her hearing into the crowd. After a moment, amidst the unbearable noise, she was certain of what she was hearing. She could recognize that voice anywhere.
The woman scrambled along the wall, change spilling from her dropped cup. She grasped at the corner of the building with sweaty hands until she could pull herself forward to see out of the alleyway. The sidewalk was crowded, but not so much that she couldn’t see a ways down the pathway. After a moment of searching, her eyes quickly fell upon the face of the Man. He was adorned in a suit and shiny black shoes, smiling as he sauntered down the sidewalk.
The woman’s heart leapt into her throat. Her jaw dropped as she noticed all of the differences in him: his hair was parted differently. He’d gotten new glasses. He’d even grown a bit of a beard. The woman grinned to herself as a thin tear fell over her smiling cheek. The Lady had scorned facial hair before; what could she possibly think of this new appearance? She chuckled at the thought.
As the Man grew closer, the woman’s smile fell. Her eyes followed his arm down to his hand, which lovingly intertwined with feminine fingers. But as her eyes followed the other arm back up… it couldn’t be right. This person was not the Lady. The woman’s throat closed up. She ducked back into the alley again, breathing heavily as she clutched the wall for support. She heard the voices grow closer, then closer still, until finally, their bodies passed in front of the entryway. In the swift glimpse the woman caught of the couple, she noticed only two things.
First, she saw the Man, smiling wider than she’d ever seen before. There was a look in his eyes of the utmost wonder as he gazed into the strange lady’s eyes.
And second, on the strange lady’s dainty finger, the brilliant glint of a diamond ring.
As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.
The woman sank back, staring blankly across at the opposite wall. Her heart felt hollow as it sat in her chest, sending empty pulses through her body. The cacophonous world seemed to fall silent.
After all of this time, in spite of everything, some small part of her still believed in the Man and the Lady. Sometimes, the only thing that kept her going was her silly imaginings of the couple’s life together. Even if she couldn’t watch over them, she knew in her heart that they would live a long, happy life — the life she’d always dreamed of.
Through stinging tears, a thought struck the woman’s mind like lightning. With frantic hands, she began to overturn and tear open her bags, their contents flying as she searched with wild eyes. Passerby looked in with cautious glances as they walked, mumbling to each other as the woman pored through the contents. When the last bag was torn open, it finally clattered to the ground — a small, pink, plastic ring.
The woman’s eyes darted out of the alley at the faint green of leaves peaking out in the distance. Without a second thought, she crawled to the alley entrance and stood, grunting through the pain, using the wall to support her wobbling legs. With only a moment to catch her breath, the woman took her first shaky step out into the world. She winced as the hot cement seared her bare feet, but she looked forward, and she began to walk.
The journey was painstakingly long. Though the distance was short, the trip was no easy feat. Sometimes, she had to stop and simply catch her breath. Others, she had to find a place to sit and give her rattling knees a rest.
But the most painful part of her journey was not physical at all — it was in their eyes. Every tattered piece of the invisible woman was in plain view for the world to judge. Whether it was curiosity, pity, disgust, or hatred that made the people stare, their eyes pierced like daggers through her translucent skin. None looked her in the eyes. A few people attempted to speak with her, or ask her what was wrong, but they couldn’t be trusted. They didn’t matter. Only one person in the world mattered anymore.
By the time she reached the trees, she feared she was too late. The sky had already begun to fade into light blue, and the first park lights had just begun to flicker. The woman dragged her weak feet along the brick path as she approached the last familiar bend in the road. Her heart beat faster as the turn was only 20 feet, 15 feet, 10 feet away. Every ounce of her hoped for the impossible as she rounded the corner.
And for once in her life, the impossible came true.
There she was. There, down the path, alone on a lonely bench below the street lamp, sat the Lady reading a book.
The woman choked back a sob, barely taking in the sight before moving forward towards the Lady. With newfound strength, she approached the bench.
“E… Excuse me?” The woman’s raspy voice was barely louder than a whisper.
The Lady, lost in her book, blinked for a moment before looking up at the woman. She seemed surprised, but pleasantly so. She looked right into the invisible woman’s eyes.
“Yes?” the Lady said. Her voice was clear and strong.
The woman exhaled a shaky breath. She hadn’t thought of what to say — of all the fantasies she’d dreamed, she’d never even thought to imagine this.
Desperate, her eyes fell to the book. “What are you reading?” the woman said.
The Lady glanced down, closing the book to reveal the cover. “Oh, this? It’s nothing, really. Just some sappy romance novel.” She looked up at the woman and smiled. “I’m a sucker for love.”
“Is that so?” The woman chuckled. It was rough like a cough, but warm.
The Lady leaned forward from the bench. “Are… you okay, ma’am?”
The woman jolted for a moment, hastily wiping tears from her cheeks. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Yes, I’m alright.” The woman smiled as best as she could. “You… remind me of someone, that’s all.” She gestured to the bench. “Me and my husband used to come here. We loved to sit and read in the park together. On this bench, actually.”
The Lady paused, looking at the woman for a long moment. “That’s… an amazing coincidence, actually.” She cleared her throat, smoothing her skirt before looking back up at the woman. “It’s my favorite spot to read after work. The park is beautiful this time of year, isn’t it?”
“It is,” the woman nodded, looking away. The tears wouldn’t stop coming. She couldn’t face her like this, not after all this time.
Something large touched the woman’s right arm. She recoiled with a yelp, stepping back and pulling away. She turned to see the Lady’s mouth agape, her hand retracted in front of her. They shared in their fear before the Lady’s eyes softened.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” the Lady said, standing from the bench. “I just…”
The Lady looked down at her hands, then back up to the woman.
“I don’t want to assume anything, but I… I don’t know. Would you want to walk with me?”
The woman continued to stare.
“I walk home just this way,” the Lady pointed down the path. “Maybe I could get you a coffee? Or I could get us some food?”
The woman winced. “I… well, that is just so kind of you. But I’m quite alright, really.” The woman wiped her cheeks, suddenly too aware of the pain in her whole body. “I should be heading home now.”
The Lady smiled, her stare gentle and unwavering. “It’s really fine. Here.” The Lady took a few steps forward, offering her hands. “Do you mind?”
The woman nodded as the Lady took her by the elbow, carefully leading her to the bench. “Take a seat right here — I’m going to go run and get us a couple of sandwiches.” The Lady flipped open her briefcase and took out her wallet. “I’ll only be a minute, okay? Do you mind if I leave my things here with you?”
The woman held her hands tightly on her lap. She shook her head as normally as she could.
The Lady smiled, then turned to jog briskly down the path. The woman listened to the receding sound of those high heels clacking on the bricks, and closed her eyes.
For so many reasons, she was overwhelmed here, swimming in memories. She remembered the Lady and the Man sitting here in this spot together, all those months ago. She remembered the very first time the Lady sat here years ago, so young and innocent then.
She even thought back to the real memories — those dusty, stinging ones long barricaded by grief. They were the memories of her beside her very own Man, when she herself was so young and so happy. She remembered the scent of his cologne, and how it changed just a little depending on the smells of the season. She remembered his booming, deep laugh at jokes she could barely recall. She remembered his big bear paw hand covering her own as they sat and existed there together. It hurt to imagine those things, but the feeling of that bench beneath her made it impossible to keep the memories at bay. It hurt… but it was happy. And in a way, it was necessary.
The woman opened her eyes. The Lady stood in front of her, holding a white plastic bag and two bottles of water. She moved her belongings aside and plopped down beside the woman, their thighs almost touching.
“Here — I got you quite a few to pick from, hopefully there is something you like. I really hope it’s okay,” the Lady said.
“Yes. Umm,” the woman stammered. “Thank… Thank you very much.”
“Please, don’t mention it,” the Lady said. “It’s the least I could do. I mean… the very least I could do, for all those times you kept me company.”
The woman furrowed her brow for a moment before her eyes widened in recognition. The Lady’s eyes were already filled with tears.
“I umm… I am so sorry. I didn’t…” The Lady shook her head and looked away. “I never said anything. I didn’t know how to. I think I was scared, I didn’t know what to do… I wanted to help you, and to give to you, truly. I don’t have very much, but what an insult to even say that? But that’s absolutely no excuse…”
The Lady’s words faded into the background as the woman looked on. For the first time, the woman truly saw the Lady as she sat in front of her. She looked down at her briefcase, with its tattered corners that were invisible from a distance. She saw the library tag on the spine of her book, a spot always covered by the Lady’s hand. She saw her chipped burgundy nails and deeply-bitten cuticles. And she saw the Lady’s heels — the same worn heels she’d worn every day since the first time she came here, many years ago.
“I’m so sorry,” the Lady whispered, looking down at her hands. “I don’t know why I didn’t do more.”
The woman reached over to rest her hand lightly on the Lady’s fingers. Their gazes met. The woman smiled.
“We do what we can,” the woman said. “We all do what we can. I was just happy to read with you.”
The Lady turned her palm upwards and held the woman’s shaking hand. She shook her head in disbelief. “Well, it looks like we’re both a little nervous, huh? What a long time coming this has been!” The Lady chuckled a little. It was a sound the woman had missed very much.
“If it’s alright to ask…” the Lady stammered. “What is your name?”
The woman squeezed the Lady’s hand, and smiled up at her. It was a question she hadn’t been asked in a very long time.