Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One
Title: I Paced Along The Wall
I paced, as I always have, in an endless loop along the wall. The sun was setting on a day I felt would never end. Her party. Her gathering of friends. “We’re celebrating the end of summer.”
Normally, I’d have ignored the event. I knew what I was like at such things. Pacing in an endless loop, along a wall somewhere, asking God to get me to the end of things alive. But when she stopped me in the hall at church Sunday, told me of her party, and asked me to please come, I found I had no way to say no.
I went through the week imagining a thousand encounters. Watching people breaking into groups of various sizes. Watching the groups change, as people moved between groups. Listening to the guys talk about sports, or cars, or some video game they were all hooked on, and wondering if they’d say anything that mattered. Watching the girls talk about whatever they talked about. I rehearsed all the things I knew I’d have to say. The “I’m fine, how are you?”, “How are the kids?” and “How’d your week go?”
I rehearsed the answers I’d have to make, “It was a good week. I got a lot done.” All the things people say when they talk to each other. All the things I don’t understand. I even practiced, in my head, moving from group to group, and saying hi to everyone.
She’d told me to show up at 10:00 AM. That turned out to be two hours before anyone else arrived. “Take a walk by the lake. Watch the birds. Take pictures of everything. There’s Rose of Sharon along the shore.” She had this smile. It just felt right to watch. Hell, I could close my eyes, and think of her smile, and I felt better. As if that made any sense. “Relax. Have fun.”
I almost answered her, but I knew not to. I didn’t want to upset her, and I knew honest answers never went well when I gave them. Honest answers always wound up getting people around me upset. A lot of times, I’d answered, and people kind of went away after that. So, I didn’t answer her. But my answer echoed in my head for hours. “I can’t relax. I don’t know how.”
I did what she said. I took a walk by the lake. I felt like an invader. Her neighbors standing on their decks by the lake, watching me. That “You’re a new person here” look. One guy waved, “Beautiful day, ain’t it?”
My programming kicked in, and I waved back, “Yep. Sure is.”
“Yep. Pretty lake. Pretty flowers.”
“Enjoy your walk,” he waved, and I waved back.
It took me a minute to remember to breathe. I’m not good at talking with strangers. I don’t know them. I don’t know how to behave around them. Everything becomes real-time processing. Almost ad-lib. An endless rush of “what are they saying, how do I interpret it, race through the book of appropriate responses to pick out the right one, you’re taking too long to answer, so this answer will have to do.”
I found the Rose of Sharon. I had to take a dozen pictures just to get my hands steady enough to take clear ones. I don’t care how fast the camera is, when your hands shake bad enough, you can’t hold the camera still long enough to take a picture. I heard that old saying, “It’s only digital bits.” Yeah, maybe. But it’s frustrating as hell when you snap the shutter a dozen times trying to take one picture of a flower that’s motionless. Hell, there wasn’t even any breeze to blow it around it. It was like taking a picture of a painting. Except I couldn’t.
I walked a bit more. I thought about taking a long walk. That’s how I escaped everything. Long walks. I knew I could walk a couple miles to the main road, and then walk back. That would kill off a couple of hours. But I wasn’t supposed to. I was supposed to relax. What ever the hell that meant. I kept seeing her, hands on hips, “I told you to relax, not walk until you can’t stand up.” Yeah. I knew that would go over well.
I watched the lake, looking for birds. Any birds. Of any kind. Ducks. Geese. Seagulls. Chickens. I didn’t care. Birds. “Take pictures of birds, because birds of around.” I wound up taking pictures of mailboxes. I kicked a rock down the road for a while. I watched the clouds. I took pictures of boats on the lake, and people skiing. I saw five boats in one hour.
I tried to take pictures of the moths and butterflies flitting around the wildflowers by the lake. I stayed away from her house for well over an hour. Then, I tried taking pictures of the wood grain in her deck. Anything to kill the time. And try to look like I was having fun.
I made sure I was the last person to eat when the burgers and dogs were served. And I didn’t feel like eating, so I didn’t eat much. One burger. One dog. Ketchup and mustard only. I tried a beer. Yep. Drinking beer still reminded me of drinking the water left in the kitchen sink after you wash the dishes. I managed to force it down anyway, without making too many of those, “And he doesn’t like that” faces.
She asked me to go out on the boat with everyone, and take pictures. I said I didn’t really want to. But she asked. And I wound up on that damn boat anyway. Taking pictures. At least I can block a lot of things out when I’m taking pictures. Trying to get the camera set up right. Trying to catch people on skis. Trying to get pictures she’d asked me to get. Although she hadn’t asked for any specific pictures.
About 04:00 that afternoon, everyone there was on their third or fourth beer. I figured it was time for me to try a second one.
I watched the games. Corn hole, or whatever it’s called. Volleyball. They even tried fishing from the deck. As the sun started to set, one of the guys hauled out a deck of cards, and a group started playing poker. Someone pulled out this card game, “Cards Against Humanity.” Lots of the girls played that, going, “I love this game!”
They looked like they were having fun, laughing, and talking with each other.
I watched. I paced. I felt lost. Completely lost. I knew I didn’t belong there. I knew I didn’t fit in. I didn’t have any stories to tell. I didn’t have anything to talk about. I didn’t play any of the video games, or watch any of the TV shows, or movies they talked about.
I wondered when it would end.
She asked me to please stay. “A little bit longer. Please.”
Sometimes I hate that word. Please. I’d told her once, “Do you have any idea how dangerous you are to me.”
“I’m not dangerous at all.”
And then she asked, “Please.” Damn. That was something I couldn’t ignore. If my brother had asked, or one of the guys, I’d have had no problem ignoring them. If Judy or Laurie had asked, I’d have been able to say no, and explain away some reason for me to leave.
There was nothing I could do.
Except stay there.
As the sun set over the lake, the others started into the house. The deck got quiet. The deck got dark. It was the first calm I’d felt in hours. The first time I’d been able to breathe in hours. I stayed along the wall, in the dark. I closed my eyes, wondering why she’d asked me to stay. She had to know I felt out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong. Like everything would have been better if I hadn’t been there.
I reached the end of the wall, and turned. I stopped. She was standing there. Looking at me.
“No.” I shook my head. “No.”
“I wanted you to have fun.”
“And you didn’t.”
“I’m not good at these things.”
She stood next to me, placed her hand over mine, and put her fingers between mine. She didn’t move, and didn’t let go. She waited until my fingers moved, and I held her hand. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do anything but feel my hand holding hers. Our fingers interlaced. I forgot to breathe for a while.
She gently pulled me to the edge of the deck, where she sat down, and pulled me down. “I brought you here for this.” She still held my hand, and I couldn’t look away from her eyes. “I wanted you to get away from everything.” She leaned against me. “I wanted you to relax. To rest.” She let go of my hand, moving her arm around my waist.
My brain cells weren’t working. OK, maybe they were, but they weren’t working well. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything.
“I watched you all day. You’ve been miserable.”
Somehow, I managed an answer, “I’m OK.”
Her smile told me she didn’t believe me. “I asked you here because I wanted you here.” Her fingers touched my cheek. All I could do was feel. “With me.”
She leaned forward, and her lips touched mine. “With me.” She kissed me again. Longer. Her lips lingered.
I put my arm around her shoulders, “It’s quiet here.”
We sat on the deck, beside the lake. And I stayed with her.
Because nothing else mattered.
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Mark woke up in 2010, and has been exploring life since then. All his doctors agree. He needs to write.