Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed


A Short Story by David Thomas Peacock

Alex couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been alone. It wasn’t what she wanted, but she had long ago learned to accept it as her lot in life. She did, in fact, enjoy her own company, but that’s not the same thing – it wasn’t like she didn’t want to be in a relationship, to be loved by someone else. It’s just that it never seemed to happen, no matter how hard she tried.

No, there was only one relationship that had any real meaning in her life, and it broke her heart that she had to keep it a secret from everyone else, but that’s the way it had to be. No one could ever understand it, and there was no way she could ever explain it, so she just reminded herself that she was lucky to have found him. Of course it wasn’t exactly what she had imagined when she thought of falling in love, but isn’t that how life always seems to work? Things never work out the way you think they will.

It was early May in New York City, and her 50th birthday was coming up in October, but she had actually thought very little about that, mainly because there were other more exciting things on her mind. Besides, no one looks forward to turning 50. It’s like a grim reminder that your time is slowly running out, that your youth is long gone, and that your options are narrowing, if for no other reason than the slow state of entropy has clearly already begun.

No, she was instead already getting that excited, warm feeling in her stomach. The most important day of the year was approaching and it was all she could think about. You know that feeling you used to get as a teenager when you were about to be with someone you had fantasized about? All flushed and nervous, your heart racing, every cell in your body seeming to be quivering and ready to explode in anticipation?

Well, that was how Alex felt every year around this time, because August 28th was their anniversary and she could barely contain herself. She felt like she was 49 going on 14 and it was the best feeling ever. She was lonely but not exactly alone, and life felt good. It was springtime in NYC, the birds in Central Park were singing, and even the rats in the subway seemed playful and joyous.

It was about to be their 14th anniversary and she couldn’t wait.

There’s a difference between being alone and lonely. Alone implies a temporary state; “Oh, I’m going to the movies alone,” or “I was alone when I found out so and so died.” Lonely, on the other hand, takes a while to really get going. You don’t get lonely overnight, no, first you are alone quite a bit, then one day you wake up and suddenly realize you are lonely. It’s not a good day.

Alex couldn’t really pinpoint exactly when she first felt this way, but if pressed it was probably in Junior High School. Of course, lots of kids feel lonely at that age (don’t they?), so nothing seemed that unusual. But then in High School she just never seemed to be able to connect with other kids. It sure wasn’t because she didn’t try, god knows there were more painfully awkward moments of trying to “fit in” than she could remember. It’s just that she could never really seem to connect, and as a result she not only never had a real boyfriend, she didn’t have any close friends at all. The thing was, she wasn’t unattractive, nor was she stupid. She had the kind of looks that seemed to attract no attention whatsoever, almost as if she was invisible. There just seemed to be this impenetrable wall between her and everyone else.

She was an only child, but really, she didn’t think that could explain it. Her parents were remote and not exactly demonstrably warm – definitely not affectionate – but they didn’t abuse her in any way. In fact, she thought they were pretty good parents. She had lots of good memories from pre-school, although when she really thought about it (which she hadn’t done in years), most of those good memories were when she was playing by herself.

She sure never had any difficulty amusing herself and had in fact thought this was a good quality for the longest time. She still felt that other people who couldn’t stand being alone were somehow weak, always latching desperately onto someone else, as if peering into their own soul for even a moment might be too much for them to handle.

But then, sometime in college, it really hit her. This might be it, she thought. There came  a point where she realized that she was making herself desperately unhappy by constantly wondering what was wrong with her, by thinking that life would somehow be incomplete if she were to go through it alone. She found a therapist who helped her through this period – helped her to understand that there was nothing wrong with her, and that she needed to live more “in the moment,” and stop driving herself crazy with feelings of inadequacy.

This was the turning point she needed, and from that moment on, she began to accept herself for who she was. Of course, she was still lonely – but it was no longer crippling. Now, instead of perseverating on why she didn’t have a life partner, she threw herself into her passion and set about trying to get a job at the place she had dreamed of working since she was a child – New York’s glorious Museum of Natural History.

She actually started to feel good about herself and the future seemed to be wide open with possibilities. Life was good.

At the age of seven Alex’s school organized a day trip to the Museum of Natural History at 79th Street and Central Park West, and she had one of those epiphany’s afforded to only a few lucky children. It happened in the Leonard C. Sanford “Hall of North American Birds” exhibit. There, she saw the dioramas depicting habitats of the different species of birds and was positively transported. It was as if suddenly there was this whole other world, one that she had no idea was there, right under her nose. The dioramas struck her as both hyper-real and dream-like at the same time, and she immediately got lost in the tiny details of each exhibit, imagining that she was living in each one, alone with the beautiful birds who somehow seemed both frozen in place yet achingly alive.

It was a peaceful existence, she imagined. Every morning she would wake up and the sun and sky would look exactly as they did in the diorama, and the temperature would always be pleasant. The colorful birds would always be there, silent and unmoving, keeping her company. They would never be unpleasant, and she never had to say anything if she didn’t want to. No awkward small talk, no judging, just the birds and the warm light of the surreal landscape depicted by the artists who created this little world. The motionless birds were always there for her, the last thing she would see before she fell asleep.

Lost in her thoughts, Mrs. Butrece, the school chaperone, broke her reverie and gathered Alex along with the rest of children and ushered them to the Hall of Primates. She found this exhibit also alluring, and was again struck by the dioramas, but there was no way she thought she could possibly be in the same space as these imposing and scary creatures.

No, she thought, the bird exhibit was where she wanted to be – and right there and then, she vowed to herself that one day that’s where she would work. Everything about the place seemed magical, even its very existence. And it was right here, in the same city she lived in! She didn’t know how, but with the faith of a child she was absolutely certain that one day, as an adult, this was where she belonged, and this was where she would work.

Alone, perhaps – but never lonely. How could she be? How could she ever be unhappy in this beautiful place?

The first time she met him, it was dusk on a hot and muggy late summer day, steam still rising from the pavement after a recent shower. It was around 7:30 in the evening and she had walked to Central Park from her apartment. She lived on Amsterdam Avenue at 82nd Street, which was about as convenient as you could get if you worked at the Museum. Like many native New Yorkers, Alex didn’t have a driver’s license, in fact, she had never even driven a car. She had grown up on the upper west side and had never left the neighborhood. Why would she? Everything you could ever need or want was right there, within walking distance. And if you ever needed to go farther than you could walk, the subways ran 24/7. Living like this is a foreign concept unless you have grown up in a large metropolis, but if you have, it’s the most natural thing in the world.

It was a Saturday, and at 36, Alex, like most of us, had become a creature of habit. Saturday and Sunday were her days off and she had long ago fallen into what was for her a comfortable schedule. The museum required her to work from 2:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night, Monday through Friday, the reason being that she needed to be there both when it was open to the public and then after closing. This was a great fit for her since she had always been a night owl, affording her the comfort of going to bed at 3 AM and waking up at 11.

On Saturdays, she would usually sleep until noon, eat a light breakfast of fruit with either yogurt or fat free cottage cheese followed by coffee from Zabars (the strongest and freshest she could find), sweetened with stevia and fat free half and half. While eating  she would read the New York Times, then get a shower and spend the afternoon reading ornithology journals and magazines. She particularly liked “The Wilson Journal of Ornithology” and “Living Bird”, although she was not above reading “Birder’s World” or “Birdwatcher’s Digest.”

After a relaxing afternoon, she would eat dinner alone in her apartment promptly at 6 PM, and then watch the national news on TV for a half hour. At 7:00 she would brush her teeth, change into her running clothes, then head out for her evening run around the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park.

She could never have imagined that this particular night would be the single most important night of her life, one that would change everything. It would do so in the most profoundly transformative and earth-shattering way possible, changing forever who she had been up to that moment. Life’s funny that way, we never see what’s coming until it hits us in the face.

The confusing thing about these events is this: it’s not the trauma itself that changes us – it’s how we respond to it that determines how it shapes our lives. Alex was about to face the unimaginable, but as dramatic as the event itself was, her response was even more shocking and unpredictable.

Truth truly is stranger than fiction.

Alex had started running while in college – at first she did it because she didn’t want to get fat, but after a while she realized it just made her feel good. The endorphin rush surely played a part in this, but there was something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on, at least in the beginning. It wasn’t until she got her apartment on Amsterdam and began running in Central Park that it really hit her – it was so obvious that even her realization made her feel good. This may seem perplexing if you didn’t grow up or at least feel comfortable in the city, but if you are a certain type of person, sometimes just being in close proximity to a lot of people is enough to make you feel connected to humanity.

Because she had always felt profoundly lonely, the simple act of running in the park, with people everywhere you looked, was enough to make her feel like she belonged, that she was somehow connected to other people in a meaningful way. She felt at home, even though no words were ever spoken and she knew no one’s name. People who never knew loneliness may have thought “how sad,” but to her it was really enough, or at least enough to keep the loneliness from becoming a malignant and toxic disease, one that would disfigure and warp her sense of reality.

So she ran – pretty much every day, through the beautiful park, in all seasons. It helped feed her soul and kept her grounded.

By the time she had rounded the curve on the southern end of the reservoir she had worked up a good sweat in the warm and humid evening air. It was twilight, that beautiful and eerie time of day that is neither daytime or night, and she hadn’t seen anyone else for a while. Central Park is never deserted, but after dark the crowds thin out and people go home. She actually liked this time of day and was fully in the moment of her run when she heard what sounded like someone behind her. It all happened so fast, before she knew it she was on the ground and he was on top of her.

He didn’t speak a word, and he never hit her – there were just the purposeful actions needed to get the job done. First he pushed her off the trail and then down onto her stomach, his right hand clamped tightly over her mouth in case she tried to scream. She didn’t. His hand smelled dirty but not inordinately so – sweaty with the scent of some of some kind of sandwich (with onions, she thought), that he must have eaten earlier in the day. Later she marveled at what went thought her mind, the alarmingly rational thoughts and sensations as her brain tried to process what was happening.

He used his left hand to manipulate her clothes – pushing up her running shirt and sports bra to expose her breasts, then roughly pulling down her shorts and underwear. What the fuck? She remembered thinking, knowing full well what was happening yet not quite sure how to respond. She wasn’t exactly petrified with fear, no, it was more like confusion and complete and utter disbelief at what was happening – happening so quickly there was no time to really process it. He must have already had his penis out when he grabbed her, because the next thing she knew he was penetrating her, silently but not violently. He didn’t seem to want harm her, exactly. No, his business was very specific and to the point. A bit rough maybe, but since Alex had never had intercourse with anyone before, she wasn’t quite sure how it was supposed to feel anyway.

It seemed like there was one frenzied burst of activity, and then he was gone. Afterwards, she didn’t exactly feel pain, just a warm stickiness mixed with their sweat. Their transaction had taken place silently and quickly with no violence except for his forceful and rapid penetration of her. She was panting and stunned, laying there in the weeds, trying to catch her breath. She reached her hand down to see if she was bleeding and was relieved to find she wasn’t. She slowly staggered to her feet, pulling her shirt and bra back down, and her shorts and panties up, like some weird pantomime of how she might get dressed in the morning.

And then there she was, standing on the trail, fully clothed and completely confused in the rapidly descending darkness. The whole time she neither saw nor heard anyone else, and her brain was reeling from the flood of hormones and neurotransmitters released in its attempt to do something in response to the danger. Instead she had done nothing.

The weird thing was, she had always learned that all humans had a hardwired fight or flight response to perceived danger. She had neither fought nor tried to escape.

Now she didn’t know what to do, so her reflexive habits took over and she began to walk home. As she passed other people on the way, even though she was dirty and disheveled, no one seemed to notice anything unusual at all. She was just another person walking, leaving Central Park on what looked like a beautiful summer evening.

The city was alive with activity, but then the city was always alive. That never changed.

When she got home, she once again fell back on familiar routines, her mind sputtering and then stopping, as if trying to make sense out of something that was far outside it’s domain of understanding. She took off her dirty clothes and got in the shower – at least that act was familiar and vaguely comforting.

She didn’t know what to do – instead of the shower giving her clarity, her mind just seemed to shut off. She didn’t feel anything except tired, so she laid down on her bed and fell asleep. When she woke up it was noon the next day.

Now clean and well rested, Alex slowly got up and immediately thought about what had happened. Reflexively glancing at the clock, she breathed a sigh of relief realizing it was Sunday. Hoping a cup of coffee would clear her head, she made one and sat down by the window, looking out on the street with people busy doing whatever it was they did on a Sunday afternoon. The sun was shining and the air had that crisp clarity that you rarely get in late summer.

“I’m not calling the police,” she thought. “They’ll just ask why I didn’t call 911 last night, and besides, I didn’t really get a good look at him – and on top of that, I washed all the evidence away.” She was quite certain about this course of action, but her reasoning struck her as a little incomplete, like there was more to it than she was letting on.

“No, I’m not telling anyone about it – he didn’t really hurt me, and he sure could have.” Already she was creating a narrative in her own mind, one that would explain what had happened – and most importantly, one that would give her some control over the events, if only in her interpretation of them. She didn’t consciously think about any of this, but it was there nonetheless.

By dinnertime, she began wondering if he was as lonely as her – maybe that’s what made him do what he did. She kept playing the whole scene over and over again in her mind, trying to make sense of it. At 36 years of age, she had never had sexual relations with anyone, never felt anyone’s bare skin touching hers, their hot breath so close to her skin. While it was happening, her only response was dumbfounded incredulity. She didn’t exactly feel fear, no, she thought, his intent was not to harm her. He simply wanted to physically connect with her. She had been used in the most intimate way possible to fulfill the needs of another human being. But why did he pick her? No one had ever picked her, not for anything. While it was happening, she had no emotional or sexual response at all, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. But now, 24 hours later, she was trying to sort through her feelings and they were complicated.

“Maybe he singled me out because he liked me,” she thought, immediately feeling both ashamed and yet pleased at this idea. “Maybe he had been watching me for a long time, and just didn’t know how to approach me – it’s possible he had never been with anyone before either.” This thought kind of pleased her, and she started to frame the whole scenario around this idea.

Before she went to bed, she masturbated while thinking about it. Afterwards, she felt confused and ashamed but quickly fell asleep.

She went to work the next day like nothing had ever happened. Since she wasn’t really close to anyone, and always seemed to be a loner to her colleagues, no one noticed anything unusual. In fact, there wasn’t anything to notice – Alex’s world had been turned upside down, but she gave no outward indication of this. During the day, she pretty much lost herself in her work at the museum (although at lunch it was all she could think about). After work, however, was a different story.

For three weeks or so, she didn’t run after work at all, it was more comforting to stay in her apartment, where she played out the whole scenario over and over again in her mind. It was all so puzzling; at first she couldn’t make any sense out of what happened. There were endless questions running through her mind, demanding to be answered, yet she had no answers. Who was he? Why did he pick her? Why didn’t she scream and resist? Why didn’t he hurt her? Why didn’t he say anything? Why didn’t she go to the police? Why wasn’t she more traumatized? Or was she traumatized and just didn’t know it? Why was the whole thing becoming more and more the focus of her masturbatory fantasies? What the fuck was happening?

The fourth week, towards the end of September, she began running again. Not only that – she began running after work in the Park. Mind you, at first she stayed away from the reservoir, but over time she even began running there again, on her old course, at the same time of day. All the while, keeping a lookout for him, or anyone she thought might be him. But nothing ever happened, so she settled back into old familiar routines. The thing was – she wasn’t the same person as before. No, she had fundamentally changed, although she didn’t yet realize exactly how.

She had become a little bit less lonely.

It took about six months, but at the end of it she smiled and thought to herself “Kübler-Ross was right all along.” When she began to struggle emotionally with what had happened, she started to research the literature for how to cope with traumatic events – it was there that she came across the “five stages of grief theory.” At first she didn’t realize it, but over time she had indeed worked her way through all five stages of grief – only this wasn’t the grief of losing a loved one, it was the grief of losing who she was before the whole thing happened. True to form, she went through this process alone. There was more than one point where she almost went to a therapist, but even at her lowest state her feelings were so conflicted and complicated she wasn’t sure what she would say. Everything just seemed so wrong. Inexplicably, she somehow innately felt an overwhelming need to work through this thing on her own, so that’s what she did. It probably wasn’t the best approach, but in fits and starts, she struggled through the process of understanding, figuring out some way of integrating the whole thing into her life’s narrative.

Almost immediately after it happened, she didn’t exactly deny it, but she certainly framed it in such a way that prevented her from acknowledging its true nature. From there she went straight to anger at herself for allowing such a thing to happen, anger at him for doing it, and anger at the world in general because nothing made any sense. She was in so much psychic pain she would sometimes start crying for no reason at all. It was embarrassing and mystifying, but life goes on whether you are in pain or not. It’s up to you to find a way to deal with it.

Sometime after her initial state of confusion and anger came the bargaining: she would sometimes ask “Please let me get through this and feel good again,” although she had no idea who she was asking. Since she was old enough to think about such things, Alex had always been an atheist, long before she even knew what that word meant. When she was a child, her parents took her to church until the age of ten, at which point they let her decide whether she wanted to continue to go. She didn’t. The whole experience made absolutely no sense to her, but she played along because that seemed to be what everyone else was doing, and of course she wanted to fit in.

And then, like some toxic neurochemical cocktail designed to suck all of the joy out of life, came the depression, the seemingly interminable stretch of time where she just felt numb. There was never any thought of taking her own life, although she did go through a period where she began to drink quite a bit more than her usual nightly glass of wine. This was really the worst part, if only because she could derive no pleasure from anything, not even her birds. The thing about being really depressed that’s hard for people who have never experienced it to understand is this: to the afflicted, the anhedonia and all of the distorted thoughts that go with it begin to seem more real than reality. It starts to become more and more difficult to imagine that life will ever be good again. You actually get to a point where you can’t even remember what good felt like as you sink deeper into the abyss, unable to see what is happening to you even while you’re falling further and further into the darkness. You begin to feel like nothing will ever change, that this psychic pain has become your new reality and will remain that way forever. You just don’t feel anything at all.

This is the point where some people decide to end their life while others will deliberately inflict pain on themselves just to feel something. Most just desperately self-medicate in a last ditch effort to feel good – of course we all know where that road ends. It’s not a good place.

In the middle of this torpor, gently, one day she woke up and it dawned on her that she was starting to feel better. Maybe this was the beginning of acceptance, she thought, or at least some facsimile thereof. It looked like perhaps Kübler-Ross was indeed right, but none of these stages happened neatly, something the doctor herself recognized when forming her theory. No, it was all so messy, each stage overlapping the other, sometimes with multiple stages happening at the same time, as Alex’s brain tried to sort through the events that had happened. Eventually though, she arrived at an understanding that seemed very clear, one she was at peace with. She realized that she didn’t have to justify how she felt to anyone, she never had before and she sure wasn’t going to start now.

Besides, she thought – no one would understand how she felt, indeed, no one could understand how she felt, because her life wasn’t theirs. And that was OK, it wasn’t about them anyway. It was about her, and him, and no one else, and she planned to keep it that way.

After so much confusion, she had achieved some degree of clarity and peace at last. He hadn’t taken something away from her, she thought, instead he had given her something. Now she knew what she was going to do, and although Alex couldn’t predict the outcome, she knew what she hoped for.

Life was starting to feel good again, she thought. Everything’s going to be alright.

Alex had formed a plan, and although she knew it was highly unlikely it would work out the way she hoped, it still gave her something to think about when her loneliness became too oppressive. It was somewhere around April of the following year that things started to take shape in her mind.

Her joy at work had returned, and she once again felt a constant sense of gratitude for her job at the museum. She had stopped drinking so much in a futile attempt make herself feel good because she no longer needed it, and had returned to her regular running schedule. She had gained some weight during the last seven months or so and now she wanted to lose it. In her mind, an important part of her plan required that she look as good as possible. In fact, she wanted to look as close as she could to her appearance last year, before this whole thing happened. She didn’t exactly want to return to that point in her life because she knew it was over – that person no longer existed.

Alex had experienced a couple of epiphanies in the last few months. She had come to believe that traumatic events don’t change you, it’s life that changes you, you’re just not aware of it. A trauma is just amplifying what is happening anyway, as if a decade or more of living (with all of it’s inherent pain) were condensed down to a few moments that then take root deep in your mind, to be played over and over endlessly until they are so firmly embedded that they literally become part of the fabric of who you are.

But her other realization, the one that was really instrumental in in allowing her to regain her footing and take control of the whole experience was this: she had come to realize that although we have no control over what happens to us in life, we have complete control over how we interpret it. It was this single thought that changed everything for her, because it changed her role from being a passive victim to its diametric opposite.

Now she was the one in control.

Spring had been particularly beautiful in NYC that year, the gentle rains of April and May seemed to leave the city, and especially Central Park, particularly green and lush. There had been a bit of strange excitement that Alex followed closely – a Mandarin Duck had inexplicably shown up in the park, first being spotted by the boat basin at West 79th Street, then later near Belvedere Castle in Turtle Pond. She wondered where this little interloper had come from, and marveled at his ability to survive for months in such a foreign and harsh environment. He was alone too, she thought, and she wondered if he desperately wanted to be accepted by the Mallards or if he was simply content to be in their company, alone but not lonely.

Now it was August 27th, and after her usual run in the Park, Alex turned in early. Tomorrow was the big day – it would be one year ago when the whole thing happened. She had thought about this day for months, and although she didn’t want to get her hopes up, she had gone over her plan a hundred times. It was definitely crazy and she knew it was highly unlikely to work out the way she hoped, but it was still within the realm of possibility. She set out the clothes she was going to wear the next day, including her running outfit. It was the same one she had worn last year. Before she went to bed, she checked the weather – it was going to be sunny, hot and humid, with a chance of afternoon thundershowers.

Alex smiled and turned out the lights. She slept like a baby.

She woke after a good nights sleep with that feeling where you bound out of bed fully awake, with no grogginess at all, your mind immediately firing on all cylinders. She got up promptly at noon and opened the window shade to reveal a beautiful late summer day. It was Sunday and the sidewalks of Amsterdam Avenue were alive with the steady flow of people busy on their way to do whatever seemed important to them at the time. Just like they could never know what incredibly strange and exciting plans Alex had for the day, she knew their thoughts and dreams would always remain a mystery to her as well. There was something comforting about that, she thought – we are all such a mystery to each other, aren’t we?

She tried to follow her usual weekend routine, but it was so hard to concentrate on anything, The anticipation was almost unbearable but at the same time she never felt more alive. It was like being a little kid again, so excited about life and it’s possibilities, as if something so remote as to be impossible could be made to happen by sheer will and desire.

As the day wore on she actually became calmer, maintaining her usual schedule of dinner at 6 followed by the evening news. At 7 she brushed her teeth and changed into her running clothes, the exact same ones she had worn last year. Looking in the mirror, she was proud that she had gotten her weight back down to almost exactly what she weighed one year ago. She headed out to the Park, her heart beating fast.

She started her run as usual by entering the Park at 81st and Central Park West, following the 79th Street Transverse to the Bridal Path, which she took north to the east bound Shuman Running Track. From there she would encircle the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir by running north up the east side, crossing over to the west side at the northernmost tip and then running south on the western side of the reservoir along the running track. There had been a quick rain shower around 6 and it was still quite muggy, but sunset was fast approaching and the temperature had dropped back into the mid-80’s.

By the time she had rounded the curve on the southern end of the reservoir she had worked up a good sweat in the warm and humid evening air, her heart racing faster than usual. Just like last year, it was now twilight, and everything was eerily calm. She hadn’t seen anyone for at least ten minutes, although you could still clearly hear people laughing and relaxing in the distance. It was just at that moment that it happened, and although this time she was ready, once again everything happened so quickly she was momentarily caught off guard.

Her ears heard him first, but before she could process that it was really happening he caught up and quickly overpowered her, forcing her off the trail at almost the same exact spot as last year. Afterwards, she remembered briefly thinking at this point “Is this really him, or could it be someone else?” But she immediately knew who it was – his actions and movements were exactly what had happened last year. The right hand over her mouth even smelled similar to what she remembered, the left hand pushing up her shirt and bra and then pulling down her shorts.

But there was something else different too – everything seemed a little bit gentler than she remembered. Instead of pushing her down roughly onto her stomach, he almost seemed to help her into position, and this time, instead of roughly and awkwardly penetrating her, he seemed to be a little more careful with how he handled her, almost as if they knew each other.

Once again no words were exchanged, and just like last time, it was over almost as soon as it started. It was like one minute he was there and the next minute he was gone. And then there she was – lying on her stomach in the grass, trying to catch her breath. Only this time, there was no confusion and no disbelief. After a moment, she slowly got up, once again pulling down her bra and shirt and pulling up her shorts. She was still a little out of breath, so she bent over with her hands on her knees, like runners do when they are winded.

In retrospect, this moment was like a dream. She knew exactly what had happened, but she couldn’t believe it had actually transpired – what were the odds of that? What did this all mean?

As Alex stood up, she had a smile on her face as she started walking home. She knew what it meant, and for the first time in a year, she actually felt happy. Life is so strange, she thought.

This time Alex didn’t feel ashamed, although she knew she could never tell anyone what happened. She almost felt sorry for other people for being so narrowminded and disapproving – who were they to judge her, or him, for what they did?

That something so unlikely could happen again, on the same day, at the same time, at the same place exactly one year later – involving the same two people no less – could only mean one thing to Alex. It was confirmation that finally, after a lifetime of loneliness, someone else did seek her out as an object of desire, that they picked her as somehow being special in a sea of humanity. After that first year, Alex wasn’t sure if she would call it love, but it was something, an intimate relationship that involved touch and physical connection with another human being born out of desire. She had never really been touched by anyone, and after their second time together she accepted his touch as if it were nourishment for her withering soul that was slowly dying of loneliness.

And so they met each year on August 28th, each time it was similar although not exactly the same. They never exchanged words, but the act itself slowly evolved to become gentler, almost like two lovers who were growing old together. The initial rough actions became, over time, more like caresses. Instead of seizing her from behind, his initial touch grew to what became a warm embrace. Instead of immediately running off and disappearing, their moments of intimacy became more prolonged, until finally they would lay together in the grass in each other’s arms before he would go. Over time, after years together, he would gently kiss her before leaving, and Alex would lay in the same spot for a long time, sometimes crying, not wanting the moment to end.

So life doesn’t always give us what we want, but often it gives us what we need. Alex would sometimes smile and marvel at how strange it all was, quietly laughing and thinking to herself maybe it’s better not to question what makes you happy in life. She didn’t know what to call their relationship, and ultimately it wasn’t important. All she knew was that it filled the black hole of loneliness that had been an existential  source of pain her whole life.

It was enough.