He was really old, and he moved as if in slow motion to the park bench next to mine, close enough to nod a greeting to me when he planted his tired body down. Our respective benches faced one of the more popular walking trails on the edge of Central Park. The street noise was loud and full of the energy of the City.
It was a bright and warm day in early May in 1978. The sky was crystalline and the air smelled new and sweet. The trees were bursting with the growth of new leaves and everything looked green and fresh, a contrast to the dark and decaying neighborhood where I rented an apartment.
I was a student at University, and I had just purchased on a whim a book of poetry titled, “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills”, by an author I’d never heard of named Bukowski. He’d go on to be a cult hero among disaffected college students and wanna be poets. I was hungry for experience in those days, and filled with the burning desire to learn the ways of love.
My aged companion had brought a bag of bread crumbs for the pigeons that he distributed to the cooing horde with admonitions to share with each other, which the greedy birds ignored. As the morning progressed, he emptied out his bag and the nasty grey beggars lost interest in him, while I would read a poem and watch the lady joggers bounce by. I was shy and young then and not so bold with my gazing at the girls, yet nevertheless I drew not only smirks, but some half-smiles too.
She came down the path like the advancing edge of a storm, dressed in a loud, mismatched checkered skirt and jacket, topped by a multi-colored scarf that held her graying hair in place. She was wearing dirty tennis shoes. I immediately identified her as a bona fide character that one found in the City a lot in those days. As she approached, he rose to meet her, a gentleman’s gesture, and it was apparent they were each one half of an ancient union, with the easy familiarity that decades of living together instills.
My book of Bukowski rants was reduced to being a simple prop, behind which I hid as I observed this slice of marital life unfold before me. She started talking before she was even seated, with a theatrical boom and swell to her voice that seemed To echo off the trees and sidewalks of Central Park. She had a truly thick New Yorker accent, her lineage was possibly middle European, I guessed, but there was no doubt English was her second language.
He took her hand and assisted her in sitting next to him, while she intoned uninterrupted on the dirtiness of the subway, the perverts who inhabited their neighborhood, the gossiping neighbors, the gossiping relatives, the intransigence of their rabbi, the injustices of the modern world and the frustrations of old age.
A particularly striking redhead jounced past me, and I only caught a side view out of the corner of my eye, but her rear view was breathtaking as she bounced away from me. I had been so intent on the rat a tat tat of the discourse my friend’s wife was unleashing that my girl watching had suffered, but the old lady mesmerized me. She was holding forth as if somehow a cork had been removed from a bottle of her opinions, and she felt an urgency to pour it all forth at once. She was drenching the old man with it.
Minutes went by and she had not yet taken a breath that I could tell. She must have been theatrically trained, her stamina of breath and the way her voice projected through the park reminded me of someone giving a performance. I caught his eyes looking at me. He had noticed that I was watching her with more than a little fascination. The expression on my face made his craggy aspect bright with glee. He winked at me, and suddenly we were co-conspirators as well as members of an audience to her.
He had been silent, with the exception of a grunt or two, staring at the space recently occupied by pigeons, now empty, crumbling the brown paper sack over and over again in his hands. She intoned ever onward, not seeming to mind his body language, which screamed of indifference or perhaps it was merely his way of surviving her deluge of words. So this is marriage, I thought, you go to the park to escape and she tracks you down and you endure her endless verbal assault in silence.
Suddenly both his hands moved toward her head, with such purpose that I thought at first he was going to choke her to death to silence her, but he gently cradled her face in his hands and leaned forward and opened his mouth slightly and tenderly kissed her. He kissed her slowly at first and then I heard her exhale and sigh. He held the kiss longer and I could see the world slip away from them both as they became engaged in the kiss. I think he must have slipped her some tongue then, as her hands went around his neck and massaged the muscles at the base of his skull. She made a whimpering sound so soft I barely heard it. .
One of his hands disappeared, but the other remained on the back of her head, holding her in place while he dined on her mouth and she reciprocated, and then it was clear their tongues were dancing while he felt up her front. Another stunning jogger passed by, and she took note of them kissing and smiled to see their display of affection. I was dumbstruck by her beautiful smile and the way here eyes sparkled at the old folks. I remember that look still, decades later.
He finally broke away and looked in her eyes, and he murmured something so low to her that I couldn’t make it out. She made a warm sound and rested her head on his shoulder, her hand rubbing his back. They must have stayed that way for ten minutes, and not another sound came from their bench, just the two of them touching each other with familiar affection. Perhaps they were thinking of themselves years ago and what they would have done after a kiss such as the one I had witnessed. Perhaps they were content to just enjoy the moment and the day.
She kissed him on the cheek and whispered something too soft for me to hear, and then she got up and silently left him there. He sat for a minute more watching her walk away and then rose unsteadily to his feet and walked my way.
As he approached me I lowered my book, all pretense of reading now put aside, and I smiled back at him when his broad smile lit his face up as he approached me. He had a great smile, even though his teeth were discolored with age and use of tobacco. His smile contrasted nicely with his eyes, which held weariness and not a little evidence of pain. He stopped in front of me and looked at the title of the book and asked if it was any good. I told him I had just bought it but the author seemed to be terribly mad at the world. He nodded at that.
He stayed silent for a few seconds and looked as if he were trying to figure out what he wanted to say next.
“It doesn’t always work” he said to me.
I let out a single, explosive laugh at that and he laughed because he saw that I knew what he meant, and I made a mental note to remember the lesson that a wise old man had taught me.
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<a href="http://www.lushstories.com/stories/love-stories/the-kiss.aspx">The Kiss</a>