Tom starts the last six months of his life sitting on a bench next to a woman in a white dress.
Staring at the sky, cloudless and cool, Tom notices a draft blowing in from the south, smelling faintly of pine. Tom smiles at this and glances at the woman in the white dress as she chastises a young boy. She does this sparingly, with much care, and ends the encounter with a pat on the back and a light shove towards the playground. Tom splits his attention between the woman and his own daughter, hanging from the jungle gym. Eventually, he turns to face the woman.
“Hi,” Tom says, and the woman glances up at him as he holds out his hand. “I’m Tom.”
The woman smiles and tells him her name. After a pause, she adds “That’s my son, Carl.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Tom says.
The woman, taken aback, says, “Do what?”
“Tell me that’s your child. I know he’s your child. It’s obvious he’s your child.”
The woman immediately scoffs, stands, says a curt goodbye and walks away.
Tom tries twice more that day–in between trips to the store, and a quick stop back home–with two more women with sons playing in the park near his daughter. And both of their reactions are the same: scoff, stand, walk away, repeat. And it is understandable, in a way. To Tom, at least. He knows what’s happening even as he’s trying to deny it, knows that the women see him as a simple, explainable man: rude, probably a pervert, potentially psychotic. Someone to get away from.
What these women don’t know about Tom is what he will never reveal to them anyways. That Tom is a father, one half the genetic code of the little blond girl with the pale skin and curly hair doing somersaults in the sand. Tom is the husband of a woman who is a mother and a wife and the most prestigious real estate broker in the area, a woman who has more than likely sold these other women the homes where they themselves are mothers and wives. Tom is son to a father who has drunk himself into an early grave, and a mother who has resorted to bingo and bridge groups for social contact in the aftermath. Tom is brother to a cokehead senator and a journalist sister who sees no problem in habitually sleeping with powerful men for the inside scoop on breaking news. Tom is a failed lawyer, a failed carpenter, a failed artist, and now a failed cancer recovery patient. Tom is all of these things on a day-to-day basis, every day except today.
Today, Tom just wants to be Tom.
Tom watches as the many kids on the playground dwindle to a dozen, then three, then two. His daughter walks up to the only other child—a little boy—and gives him a rock. The boy smiles and gives her a handful of sand. The boy’s mother sits a few benches down from Tom and he stands and approaches her slowly, smiling and holding up a hand as a greeting, a move that suggests the phrase, I come in peace. She smiles back and removes her earphones, placing her book in her lap.
“Afternoon,” Tom says. “I’m Tom.”
She glances at her son and Tom’s stomach drops.
“Sharon,” she says. “Nice to meet you, Tom.”
Tom waits, but that is all Sharon has to say.
“Mind if I take a seat?” he asks.
Sharon scoots to the side, giving him room to sit. Tom hesitates a moment then settles down onto the bench. They sit in silence, the awkwardness of the chance encounter growing until it seems to cover the entire area, blocking out everything, even their children.
“Beautiful day,” Sharon says, finally.
Tom glances at her and nods, smiling the warmest, friendliest, most genuine smile he can remember having in a long time. Because it is, indeed, a beautiful day. Because words can’t describe his agreement.