The Man Who Wouldn’t Leave the Park

by Stephen Thomas

Stephen Thomas is the author of The Jokes, a book of short stories published by BookThug in 2016. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Fanzine, Canadian Art, and others. His nonfiction has appeared in Hazlitt, Real Life, VICE, and others. His poetry has appeared in Mesmer.

He left it, the park. Felt interesting—nervous. Felt good, high.

“So I’ll see you at 8:30?” said the woman he met at the other end of the city, at a brunch in someone’s garden.

“Oh—yes. I want to.”

He arrived early and sat at a table in the corner. He had been to this bar before.

“You look nice,” he said when she sat down.

“I am a wonderful person,” she said.

Things were going well.

She brought up the park: “Bellwoods, right?”

So she knew.

“Oh. That. It wasn’t as different as you’d think. Life in the park is a lot like life in a committed relationship. There are hardly any differences. More free time, maybe. A bit wilder. But who wants to be bolted together at the hip all the time, right? There can be a happy medium.”

She reached across the table and covered one of his hands with both of hers. “You don’t have to explain,” she said, and he thought he saw something in those animated features he had been looking for his whole life. “I live very near the park myself,” she said.

They went to it, the park. They locked their bikes to a bench, waited for a cab to pass, crossed the street and started down the path at the foot of Montrose Avenue. They walked together along the path between the baseball diamond and the pit where during the day dogs run free. But now the pit was empty, moonlit, blue, and so was the rest of the park. They told each other about their parents, and how much or how little their grandparents had had, in terms of money.

“It seems to me now that the real through-lines of my life have been music and the church,” the man, whose name was Jacob, said, in the woman’s kitchen, and realized he was quoting a movie, or a fantasy, or something—he’d never been inside a church.

“I’ve read about this,” said the woman, whose name was Jamie. “Men like you. A lot of people who’ve been through what you’ve been through feel the same way. They feel like they’re searching for something. It’s a type, I guess. ‘The Survivor’.”

Jacob hadn’t finished university; he’d hardly watched TV. He felt overwhelmed.

“Um,” he said. “Do you want to kiss?”

“Let’s just fuck,” said Jamie. “Okay?”

They had sex in the morning, too. It was true what Jamie had said at the bar: she lived, with a plaid-clad roommate, in a house directly across the street from the park. When Jacob stood up from her bed—naked, butt out—he could see the park’s corner from her window.

He ran his fingers through his bangs.

How easy it is to love someone who loves you.

“Do you want to make plans now?” Jacob said, in the kitchen, his shirt buttoned up and tucked into his pants, all ready for work. Relationships are about making plans together for the future. Jamie, in her white cotton pajamas (polka-dotted with little lemons and limes), didn’t have to work till three. She pulled a metal cage out from under her breakfast table and unclasped a hinge and took out a dirty white bunny, and lifted the animal to her face and furrowed her nose into the fur on its back. The kitchen suddenly smelled like rabbit.

Jacob ate a pear.

They made plans for Sunday.

And so it began. They both fell into it easily and hard; they both were lonely and looking for it. How easy it is to love someone who loves you. That first Sunday morning on the couch on her porch—coffee, sunlight toasting the periwinkle floorboards, Jamie in her citrus pajamas, using her phone as a paperweight on top of the book she was reading; Jacob typing on his laptop—it seemed like that yawning, rambling park across the street could be no threat to anyone, ever—it was just public greenspace, a wholesome break for an hour or two from the stresses of the city for those who needed it—defensible, load-bearing citizens like Jacob or Jamie—except not Jacob or Jamie, who sat together, with Jamie’s painted big toe touching the outside seam of Jacob’s jeans.

“Citizen!” they shouted at the citizens who perambulated through the park.

“Hail, citizen!”

It was a triumph and an honour to be a citizen of this near-great and essentially perfect city. The park, huge and motionless, rippled over the land like a frozen ocean, safely across the street.

No heartache, no games. Breakfast. Sex. No depression in the mornings. One of the first things that had brought them together, emotionally, was a talk early on about depression. She studied it, it was part of her career. He had felt it, it was part of his life. But they both agreed, over the phone—he at his house brushing yams with olive oil, she in her house, in a perfumed bath, after a long day at work—that they were out of the woods.

“Are you a pro?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” said Jacob, with a bit of olive oil running down his thumb toward his palm.

“I think some people are spectators of their lives and don’t really understand how their own selves work,” said Jamie. “Whereas pros can have bad times, but at the end of the day, underneath it all, they’re masters of themselves.”

“I’m a pro,” said Jacob. “Definitely a pro.”

The park became a memory. They hit the gym together, itemized things, defined things, invented concepts, pretended to sell a baby to another baby, commented on each other’s social media posts, high-fived (once), made dinner together (about twice a week), talked about clothes—their own and their friends’. They biked out to a party in a dark, abandoned factory, and witnessed, from behind a pillar, a tall man singing opera to himself at the top of his lungs. They went out dancing and when it was time to fuck they went and fucked.

One weekend, Jamie got sick. It started normal but then got worse. She got scared, and they went to the hospital together. In the emergency room, feeling distinctly un-pro, Jamie lay her head on Jacob’s shoulder. Jacob touched her hair, which she always liked. The doctor said an infection had started in her bladder and gotten into her kidney, but it would be okay. The doctor gave her a prescription for antibiotics. They went home, and in the morning went together to the health food store to get pure cranberry extract. That next night, in the sweaty sheets, Jamie said, “Will it be okay?”

“It will be okay,” said Jacob.

“I love you,” said Jamie.

“I love you, too,” said Jacob, and touched Jamie’s hair.

Was it true? Did he love Jamie? He had so little experience with this kind of thing—introspection—that he wasn’t sure what to look for. He felt something, he knew—like a tornado, or some kind of donkey.

“What’s a donkey?” he said, out loud.

“What do you mean?” said Jamie, who was curled against him.

“I mean, is it the one that’s a hybrid, a cross between a horse and something? Can’t have kids? Impure?”

“No, that’s a mule. A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse. A donkey is pure. Or whatever. I mean, mules are pure, too, they just can’t have children. Infertility doesn’t equal impurity. That’s kind of a fucked up thing to say.”

“Oh,” said Jacob. He felt stupid and stung. But in the morning, he felt refreshed and strong and in love. He liked this weird tornado, and it was fun to be a donkey.

Half an hour later, or it might have been after three months—how hard it can be to know yourself!—a depression began to grow in Jacob. It felt like his heart was being squeezed by a muscle man from morning till the last minutes of his day, when he tossed and turned on the period-stained sheets, trying to find the good way of sleeping he’d had the night before. Coffee didn’t help. Talking to people didn’t help. Watching TV made it worse.

‘I think some people are spectators of their lives and don’t really understand how their own selves work,’ said Jamie.

When he was at Jamie’s house, he would wake up before her and go down to the kitchen and look out the window. At the park. Just to look. Once, after work, he biked all the way around the park, glancing at it, but did not turn in. One thing about the park, he thought, as he rode alongside, was that it was frozen, and thus understandable. If you tried, you could understand its contours, and so understand your relation to it, and in that way come to understand yourself. Contrariwise, it was difficult to understand anything about anything when you were a donkey being battered about inside a tornado. Biking home, off-handedly, and without really understanding why, Jacob forgave his parents for a lot of things.

Jacob started to postpone dates with Jamie, to arrange to meet her after things instead of for things. They met most often in a Chinese restaurant near his apartment called Swatow. One night at about 1 a.m. they were sitting in a booth in Swatow. Jacob asked Jamie about her day, about the party she’d just come from. She talked instead about a man she worked with she’d never mentioned before, how he’d told her about his life and how he was always flirting with her and “bothering her.” A teenager at a nearby table said “Hey, wanna join us?” and all the teens laughed. When it felt safe to talk again, Jacob said, quietly, “I would like to be a pro with you for a second. I have been feeling bad.”

“Because of me?” said Jamie, neutrally, with blue eyes that danced literally like diamonds.

Jacob thought about this a long time before speaking. The server came and refilled their tea.

“I’m not sure,” said Jacob.

They talked it out, and they both cried a little, and by the time Jamie paid the bill they were more open with each other than ever, and more in love. That night, at home, Jacob performed oral sex on Jamie, and the word “ALWAYS” appeared in his mind on the side of a blimp. When he looked more closely, he saw the blimp was being driven by a little donkey.

Jacob and Jamie moved in together. Relationships are about making plans together for the future. They found a place on Argyle Street—there was a park nearby, but it was just a little one, where only little dogs, mostly, were walked. Things were good. Choosing how to decorate the apartment made them feel like the pros they wanted to be. It made them butt heads, because they both had strong opinions, it turned out, about the space they lived in, and neither liked to back down, but things generally were good: there was a gym nearby, and they both hit it, usually separately.

Living together was good for the relationship; they invented more concepts together, and they went to shows and parties arm in arm. They didn’t really comment on each other’s social media posts so much anymore, but that was fine; it turned out they largely had different interests (Jacob saw an intriguing picture of a wooden table in a subway ad, and took up table-making)—and they didn’t high-five each other anymore, but that, really, was totally fine—it had really been more of a one-time thing, a joke. Jamie was happy to be able to explore her kinks and be free forever, she thought, from vanilla sex with randos, and Jacob was pulled along merrily by the force and creativity of Jamie’s libido.

And then, things became—what was it? Nothing, really; just bad times, multiple fights. Jacob was selfish, hard to live with, had a lot of “little rules,” didn’t treat her with affection when they were in public, and it was awkward that he never had any money, although, as she said before, and she meant it, she was fine with that; puzzlingly, he also seemed to hardly ever go to church. Meanwhile, Jamie drank too much, and got angry and cruel. She had really high standards for just about everything and a complicated relationship with her mother and sometimes her frustration burst into a rage that was, to Jacob, genuinely scary.

‘I didn’t think you’d come,’ she said. ‘I thought it was over.’

They stopped going out together at night, but they still ate breakfast every morning on their balcony, overlooking the neighbourhood, with their miniature white espresso cups. Jacob, in his own words, felt like he was “reaping the benefits of being in a committed relationship. People respect[ed] [him], and opportunities c[a]me [his] way.” Jacob and Jamie drifted into their individual pursuits. Jacob talked with friends about his wood tables, and Jamie thought and wrote about the ways she might come to terms with the fact of her own death, and fought with and loved her mother. Jacob and Jamie didn’t talk about their feelings very much, or their problems, but they both liked talking about hypocritical things politicians had done, and if a musician they liked had a new video out, they watched it, and talked about it.

The question of children came up. Jamie said she wanted to have two children by the time she was thirty-five (although her mother said she should relax with the timeline). Jacob was okay with this in theory, but when he thought about the changes this would actually mean for his life, he got really freaked out. Sometimes, though, when he passed the brick house at the end of his block, he saw a little blond boy with middle-parted hair looking out from behind a window on the second floor, and, if he was in the right mood, he imagined that that boy was his.

One day, Jamie didn’t like something Jacob said at a brunch on someone’s back deck—he had joylessly claimed authorship of one of her quips—and she left. “You should go after her,” said a friend of the host. Jacob had literally just met this person and didn’t really understand who she was, but he took her advice. He put his shoes on and went out into the street. Jamie wasn’t outside and didn’t answer texts or a call. Jacob walked down to College Street and looked in each window he passed. Through the window of a coffee shop he’d never noticed before he saw Jamie, crying, with her jacket folded up in her lap.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said. “I thought it was over.”

“Our relationship?” said Jacob. This was so much more extreme than Jacob had been expecting. Why would she say that? What winds had been gathering on her side of the fence? Didn’t she know how much he loved her? He was so sorry; he was really sorry. Jacob sat down and they talked for ten minutes. Then he got up and ordered a coffee and sat down again and reached out and took hold of her hand, and she allowed this, and they talked for another hour. Jamie laid out a lot of his faults—a lot of them. Jacob apologized for them all.

Jamie forgave Jacob but Jacob’s faith in their relationship—the feeling that they understood each other at all—had been shaken to the core, and he did not recover well. He felt like he didn’t know whether she’d ever liked him at all, and Jamie, for her part, had honestly done enough coddling. They decided to take a break. Jacob said he wanted to camp out in the park for a bit, get his bearings. They agreed to separate on a trial basis; two weeks.

Jacob made a little home from some branches laid up against a log, and a crown for himself out of leaves with long stems.

One day, Jamie visited Jacob in the park after work. Jacob watched her walking toward him, in her work skirt and tattoos. He went in for the hug, but she pulled him to her by the buckle on his belt. Jacob reached for her hair and she intercepted his hand and pressed it to her cunt.

On the last night of the two weeks, a Sunday, Jacob went to a bar by himself, which he never did. The bartender was friendly and, from his body language, reminded Jacob of himself. His smile—the bartender’s—was sort of guileless. One time Jacob had been on a first date here and this bartender had given him a sneaky thumbs-up and later, when Jacob’s date was in the bathroom, he told Jacob about his first date with his now-wife, the way a father would a son.

Jamie worked well with the world; he worked against it.

Now, Jacob sat in the corner alone and wondered exactly how much older than himself this bartender was.

When the bar closed, Jacob walked home. Inside, he took off his shoes and set them on the mat beside Jamie’s boots. He walked down the hall to the bedroom. He opened the door. There was Jamie, asleep on her stomach in a t-shirt, fan on, the sheet covering most of her body, but revealing one bare knee. On the credenza was a new bag from Anthropologie. Whereas normally, especially lately, Jacob would have felt resentment at her financial freedom, now he saw everything as if from a great height. That bedroom represented all the sides of Jamie. The clutter, the overflowing, the money. It was all very different from Jacob’s life, and that was okay. Jamie hadn’t been born to money; she had earned it through risk and hard work. She had made decisions. Jacob, he knew, and now allowed himself to acknowledge, was essentially scared of the world and needed to maintain a small area over which he could exercise complete control. Jamie worked well with the world; he worked against it. They would never understand each other and did not belong together.

Jacob went into the kitchen. Moonlight came into the kitchen through the balcony doors and made the white squares in the checkerboard floor glow. Jacob sat in the chair on his side of the breakfast table.

On Jamie’s side of the table were her green and pink Post-It pads, and her notebooks neatly tucked behind the bottle of Sriracha. Jacob’s side was empty. He thought about his parents, and Jamie’s parents, and who they had been. He felt calm. He looked around the kitchen, at this space they had made together. Broad knives on the magnetic strip on the wall. Freshly laundered tea towels folded over the stove’s handle. A section of a burnt crust on the floor, below the toaster. This room would be here forever, he thought, but neither of them would be in it.

Stephen Thomas is the author of The Jokes, a book of short stories published by BookThug in 2016. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Fanzine, Canadian Art, and others. His nonfiction has appeared in Hazlitt, Real Life, VICE, and others. His poetry has appeared in Mesmer.