Alice sat outside the Hungarian pastry cafe, sipping her black coffee and smoking her self-rolled cigarette. She liked neither the coffee nor the cigarette, but life was about suffering wasn’t it? And besides, she imagined a scruffy-headed, forgets-to-eat-thin type of man walking by, looking over at her, and thinking… “now there’s a cool chick who gets it.” She wanted to look like she got it, because she did. Life was absurd, so we should just drive ourselves into the ground sooner rather than later.
Through the dark lenses of her glasses, she watched people passing by on the sidewalk.
A man walked by staring at his phone. “Phoney…” she thought.
A trio of long-haired, short-skirted girls laughing in union. “Phoney…”
A couple holding hands and wearing matching denim jackets. “Phoney…”
She couldn’t stand how fake everyone seemed, going about their lives as though happiness meant something. For them, she thought, life was just one big distraction until death. She would never let herself forget the pain inherent in living, the torture that came from simply existing. To go about her life, pretending that it actually meant something would make her a phoney, like everyone else.
She took a deep inhale of smoke and held it in, then dropped the cigarette to the sidewalk and ground it beneath her black loafers. She drank the last bit of bitter coffee, smiling at the red lipstick stain left on the white cup, then grabbed her leather crossbody bag and left.
It was a longer route to get home walking through Morningside Park, but she detested society’s need to do everything as quickly and effectively as possible. Her little act of resistance against time was acting as though it didn’t matter as she meandered from location to location. The park was thick was trees, stone staircases and narrow paths weaving among them.
As she crested the top of one particularly long staircase, she heard a desperate cry from down below that stopped her in her tracks.
“Stop! Help!” the voice called from around a bend, its source obscured by the trees.
Without thinking, Alice ran down the steps, black loafers pounding against stone, as the voice shouted out again, “Stop, stop!”
Alice rounded the corner and saw an elderly woman holding a cane in front of her face, cowering as three teenage boys, probably around 14 or 15 years old, surrounded her.
“Give it to us,” one of the boys demanded, pointing to her purse. He had shoved one hand against the inside of his sweatshirt in the shape of a gun. At least, Alice hoped it was his hand.
Alice reached into her own bag. A moment later, she thanked the god she didn’t believe in that her hand immediately found her pepper spray. It’s illegal to buy in the city, but her brother had bought it in Ohio and gave it to her the summer before she moved here.
She pointed the bottle at the boys as she approached them. “Leave her alone,” she shouted, surprised at the authority in her own voice, and surprised at the fact that she was here at all, putting herself in danger’s way to help a stranger. Risking her life, maybe. But Alice wasn’t thinking of any of that, which was perhaps more surprising to her than anything else. She only acted, as though instinct took over, some innate desire to protect those who could not protect themselves. Or perhaps, to protect her, the woman who looked so helpless standing there, pleading.
The clear leader of the group hesitated for a moment, his eyes darting between the bottle and Alice’s face, then dropped his gun-hand out from under his sweatshirt and turned and ran farther into the park, out of sight. The other two flashed panicked looks at each other, then scurried off after him.
Alice ran to the woman, still holding the cane as a shield in front of her face. “Are you alright?” she asked, pulling her sunglasses atop her head. Worry and adrenaline tugged her voice in different pitches from one word to the next.
The woman slowly lowered her cane and smiled at Alice, a slight glint in her eyes. She didn’t look nearly as scared as Alice expected her to look, nor nearly as scared as Alice herself felt. “My dear, I’m just fine.” the woman said, holding out a slight hand to Alice, who clasped it between both of hers. Alice’s various rings, strewn across each finger, clinked against the woman’s solitary wedding band. “Thank you,” she said.
Alice, still shaking, squeezed the woman’s steady hand. “Can I help you get home?”
“That would be lovely,” the woman said. She secured the bag across her shoulder, smoothed her sweater, and linked her arm in Alice’s. With the other hand, she pressed her cane into the ground, a third leg to support her cautious steps.
“I’m Alice,” she said. She began walking slowly, following the woman’s lead down the narrow path opposite the direction the boys ran.
“Bernie,” the woman said. Then, as though preempting the question she had been asked a million times before, “short for Bernadette. But that’s always been much too stuffy for me.”
“I love that name. It’s spunky.” With her spare hand, Alice smoothed her short, brown bob and fringe. Her signature haircut had remained the same since she moved to the city for college. In her small hometown, she flaunted hair down to her waist. But when she moved, she felt the need to reinvent everything about herself. She had traded colorful, cable knit sweaters for black v-necks, Levi’s for black miniskirts, headbands for berets. Candy for cigarettes. Soda for coffee and alcohol. Jodi Picoult for Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Yes, she looked beatnik, but that’s because she was, but not in an unaware way—she saw her film-noir aesthetic as an embodied performance of irony.
Bernie, a good eight inches shorter than her companion, looked up at Alice and smiled. “You were marvelous out there,” she said, as though commending Alice for completing a stellar figure skating routine. From her higher vantage, Alice noticed Bernie’s tight white curls piled on top of her head, a cream-colored cardigan and long black skirt, a locket hanging around her neck, the slow shuffle at once cautious and spry.
“Bernie, can I ask you something?”
“Of course, my dear.”
A lone runner passed them on the path. Alice thought how absurd it was that this runner was so blissfully unaware of the violent crime that had almost happened just moments ago, just yards away.
“Once those boys left… you didn’t seem terribly shaken up about it. Yet, I was—I still am. How were you not more frightened?”
Bernie remained quiet for some time. Eventually, the duo rounded a corner and exited the thick forested section of park onto a wide lawn full of families picnicking and children playing games. Alice released her breath—she hadn’t realized she’d been holding it for quite some time—relieved to be in sight of other park goers. Anxiously, she scanned the park, looking for the boys. But they were nowhere to be seen. Bernie’s gazed remained straight ahead.
Finally, Bernie said, “Life is precious, dear Alice, it’s true. But I’ve lived a long time already. Nearly 91 years.” Bernie smiled at that, perhaps partially for Alice, but also perhaps for herself, or perhaps for the other parkgoers, or perhaps for the entire world. Alice couldn't quite tell. “When I was your age, I gripped life tight, as one should. I went to the most stylish parties, the newest restaurants, the most secret underground poetry readings… I dated men who had dreams of being the next Ernest Hemmingway’s and Pablo Picasso’s.” Alice didn’t mean to, but she laughed. She didn’t know whether it was because Bernie was describing the very type of phoney she detested, or whether it was because she saw her own self reflected in Bernie’s story. She covered her mouth with her hand and pretended to cough instead.
Bernie glanced at Alice, “It’s alright, dear. You can laugh! I’ve spent a long time laughing about my life back then. The snobbery, the phoniness—the depression when I wasn’t being entertained.
"Finally, one day I realized… my life was one big chase. I measured my days by the ‘next thing.’ Always looking for the next big thing to make me feel like life was worth living—like I was someone worth being. And I looked down on everyone I thought wasn’t worth being. That’s really how I viewed it.” Bernie shook her head.
They had reached a set of stone steps leading out of the park, finally. Alice gripped Bernie’s arm tighter, trying to support more of her weight, as she led the woman down the short staircase. How could Bernie ever manage these steps by herself? Alice wondered to herself. Does she always ask someone for help? Is she always alone?
“It’s just a bit further, dear, do you mind?” Bernie asked, pointed down a road lined with brownstones.
“Not at all,” Alice said, genuinely meaning it. They waited at the edge of the road for the pedestrian sign to flash. No cars were coming, but Alice couldn’t rely on Bernie’s speed crossing the street were one to fly around the corner.
“So,” Alice asked, “are you trying to say that you weren’t so frightened back there because you… didn’t care about your life?”
Bernie flashed a mischievous smile. “No, Alice. Exactly the contrary. Life is precious. It just took me awhile to realize it.”
The pedestrian light signaled it was safe to cross, and Alice and Bernie, arm-in-arm, ambled slowly to the other side of the street. Bernie pointed ahead, and the pair continued down the block.
A woman pushing a stroller passed them on the wide sidewalk, traveling the opposite direction. “Beautiful day!” Bernie said to the woman.
The woman smiled in return and gestured to the stroller. “I’m hoping a long walk will help put her to sleep.”
Bernie nodded knowingly and laughed.
It was a simple moment, but it struck Alice. She never talked to strangers—or at least, she never started a conversation with them, and she avoided anyone who looked as though they were about to make some kind of comment to her—asking for directions, asking for money, “nice days” and “hellos.” She normally found them so fake, so self-appeasing, so… phoney. But watching Bernie greet this stranger passing by, Alice noticed, perhaps for the first time, the deep humanity that could occur in such a simple moment. And right after a traumatic experience in the park, nonetheless! Alice squeezed Bernie’s hand. She knew they were getting close to Bernie’s apartment, but she didn’t want to let go quite yet.
“Bernie,” Alice said, “how did you come to see life as precious, then?”
Bernie stopped in front of a black-iron gate. Her apartment. She smiled at Alice, her gaze full of care and gratitude.
“Because I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone who taught me how.” Bernie hung her cane on the fence, and with both hands, fumbled with the locket around her neck for a moment. “Alice, will you get this for me?” Alice reached her hands gently to Bernie’s locket, found the small opening key, and pressed it. Inside, she saw a black-and-white portrait of a man and a woman, clasping each other as though mid dance. The man looked directly at the woman and smiled, while her face was pointing upwards, laughing toward the sky.
“Is this you?" Alice asked. Bernie nodded in reply.
"You’re beautiful,” Alice said. “You both are.”
Bernie smiled, then closed the locket. “August was the best dancer I knew. Not because he kept time better than anyone else—he didn’t. But because he was the most joyous person on any dance floor. He said he felt more alive dancing than almost anything else.”
Bernie reached out and grasped Alice’s hand once more. “With him, I finally saw that I was living each day waiting to see what life would give me, while he was living each day thinking of what he could give life. While I was constantly bored unless I was at the ‘next big thing,’ he found wonder in a flower blooming, or a foggy morning, or a simple interaction with a stranger. To August, the big things in life were good, of course. But life isn’t just made up of big things, Alice. Most of our lives are made of up the small, simple things we often don’t think about because we’re too busy focusing our attention on the next one thing.
"But the small things, Alice… the first bite of marzipan outside a café, the summer breeze fluttering your skirt against your legs, the phone calls with faraway friends… life is made of these.
" August taught me all of this.” Bernie patted Alice’s hand, then turned and unlocked the gate.
Alice paused. She didn’t know what to think of Bernie’s story, or the fact that as Bernie turned to leave, Alice felt a deep longing in her stomach, as though she already missed someone she had just met.
“But Bernie,” she said as the woman opened the gate. “That still doesn’t really explain why you weren’t frightened.”
Bernie looked at Alice and smiled. “I wasn’t frightened for my life, because I was lucky to enjoy decades of precious living alongside August. I was frightened because if they had stolen my bag, they would have stolen him too.”
“What do you mean?”
“August passed away two years ago,” Bernie looked down when she said this, and when she looked back at Alice, her eyes were brimming with tears. “But he loved the park so much. I try to walk there at least once a week, and whenever I do, I bring him with me.” She reached into her bag and pulled out, just enough for Alice to see, a small blue urn. “I was crying out,” she said, “because I couldn’t lose him again—especially not to some teenage boys who just would’ve thrown him out.” Bernie’s tears were replaced with consternation, then gratitude. She reached once more for Alice’s hand and gripped it tightly in her own.
"Thank you, Alice, for saving August.” Bernie motioned for Alice to lean down, then kissed her on her cheek.
As Bernie walked into her apartment, Alice called out, “Bernie, can I visit you sometime? Perhaps I could join you for your weekly walk in the park.”
Bernie unlocked her front door. “I would love that,” she said. Waving, she walked in her apartment and closed the door.
Alice watched the door close, then stood for a moment, unsure what to do. Bernie had seemed so calm throughout the whole ordeal, and the conversation to follow—but Alice felt as though her world had been turned upside down. She couldn’t quite tell whether it was because she had witnessed and then stopped a violent crime from occurring, or whether it was because Bernie had shared her story… but, weirdly, she found herself thinking only about the latter as she ambled back to the park.
She didn’t have a destination in mind, at least consciously, although she did decide to go around the park rather than through it, making sure she was in sight of other people at all times.
As she walked the wide sidewalks, as she passed the couples and families and groups of friends, she found herself imagining Bernie in her apartment, right now. She pictured Bernie removing the urn from her bag and placing it delicately on the mantle above an old fireplace. She imagined Bernie making dinner—a solitary meal for one—then sitting alone at her kitchen table to eat. She imagined Bernie watching TV in the evening. She pictured her kissing August’s urn before heading to sleep.
Suddenly, in the midst of this movie within across her mind, Alice found herself feeling unbearably sad. She couldn’t understand why, but suddenly, she was seated outside the Hungarian pastry cafe once more, in the same seat she had sat in earlier that day, tears streaming down her face. She tried to wipe them away with her hand, but more kept pouring out, silently, until her cheeks were one slick surface.
The woman at the table next to her handed her some napkins and gave her a small, encouraging smile beneath her large wire-rimmed glasses.
“Thank you,” Alice said, genuinely meaning it. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying, really.”
“No need to apologize,” the woman said kindly. “Can I… get you anything to help?”
Alice wiped the napkin against her face and shook her head. Then she looked at the woman—really looked at her—and paused. “Actually,” she said, “would you by any chance like to split some marzipan with me?”
The woman smiled. “I’d love to!” she said.
Alice wiped her face one more, sniffing back any lingering tears. She walked inside the shop, and a moment later presented with two marzipan cakes atop a chipped plate to the woman.
“I’m Alice,” she said.
“Phoebe,” the woman replied.
Alice grabbed one piece of the marzipan cake, and took a bite. As she chewed it, she closed her eyes and tilted her face slightly upward, feeling the warmth of the sun against her skin, tasting the sweet almond paste upon her tongue.
Alice smiled, then opened her eyes and turned to her new friend.
“Life is precious, isn’t it?”
***If you liked this story, please give it a heart! I still can't believe people are reading my writing and liking it, so each heart makes my own heart beam. :) Also, to read more of my stories on Vocal, check out Pinky Promise or Brilliant Boy.