I eat my lunch in the park, because a televised doctor told me to. I should experience the outdoors for at least twenty minutes a day, so my eyes can take in a non-screen light source. He said this letting-in-of-the-right-light will help me sleep more soundly, make better choices at the vending machine, and defecate in shapes that seem to please Mother Nature herself, based on the recurrence of such shapes on land and underwater.
The park near my office has a lone picnic table near the playground and a pavilion housing six more picnic tables. I choose the uncovered table, so I get max sun and don’t have to worry about looking unlovable, as a single soul under a roof for forty tends to look.
I always bring the same food—a bag of tortilla chips, a cheese stick, and a banana that I slice as I eat, so it lasts more than three bites. I chew one chip at a time and peel the cheese into strings. I eat slowly, so it’s clear I’m here to eat which I prove true by spending the entire time eating. If I gobbled, here I’d sit, unlovable with my wrappers and my peel.
As I make my food last, I watch the playground children fall and cry and hide and seek, and I think about the nature of nature. A skinned knee gets you a patted back. A “tag you’re it” gets you some respect and personal space, which you give away as soon as possible. A kick in the head from the patent leather shoe of a swinging girl gets you a glossy lesson in who deserves what.
I squint at all of it, because sunglasses would only diminish the very light I’m seeking. If I gave in to sunglasses, I’d have to make up for the lost exposure by drinking my coffee on my front porch in that first-light sun. I prefer to spend my mornings cooking dinner, so when I come home from work I have more time to watch television in the dark. When I am tempted to shield my eyes with coated plastic during lunchtime, I think of my precious after-work hours—meal warmed, blinds drawn, bra thrown, feet tucked, laugh track, auto-play, no one. It’s perfect, those hours spent with people who cannot see me. Undoubtedly worth the time squint.
Today there were only two playground children: brothers who came to the park to find new, non-sibling playmates – ones whose breakfast bowls levels they didn’t have to eye to ensure equal filling, ones who didn’t make triumphant faces when they got a hug from mother. When no one else was at the park, the brothers went directly underneath the rope bridge and began slapping at the bare skin across from them. Their mother said, “Well, we can do this at home” and loaded them back into the car.
I squint at their car leaving and wonder which of the brothers she secretly sides with during their quarrels. Half of the slaps smart her own arms, while half the slaps sting her own palms.
I cut myself a big hunk of banana. Why make it last when there’s no one here? Plus, doing a lunch-based one-woman-show for no one would make me appear unlovable to the sunshine and the trees. I’m chewing the gummy hunk when I see a woman walking through the grass, past the pavilion, and toward the park’s monument. The monument is an old military cannon that must have some local historical significance. The cannon was shot by or shot at someone who once lived around here and now we must consider this past projectile while we picnic and kite-fly and monkey-bar.
The woman has a duffle bag. I slow down my chewing to accommodate her presence. She sets her duffle down on the monument’s wordy plaque, slides off her sandals, and puts them in the bag. The fabric she wears seems smooth and light. It looks like one long piece has been cut into a tank top and shorts, seamless. The woman looks like a chic monk. I squint at her haircut, blunt.
She touches the cannon right where the hurt comes out. I don’t know the term—its trunk. She keeps her hand over it, blocking any emissions. Or taking the brunt of them. Then she takes her hand away and starts walking. She’s circling the canon. I realize I’ve stopped eating.
The woman has done two laps and is still going around. Now she’s walking with her arms up. Is this tai chi? Now she’s pumping her raised arms. Is this a protest? She is keeping a steady pace. Is she counting? Is this a meltdown? I’ll keep watch.
She goes around so many times I stop feeling surprised. Instead, I feel increasingly upset. This is not how we behave. We walk with purpose, one-way, arms down, toward what we want. And if we must pace, we do it at home while talking on the phone about the steps we are taking to get out of the funks we’re in.
Her face is neutral, which makes sense because she has nothing to look forward to. She’s headed to a spot she has just been—doesn’t even have a tail to chase.
The wind blows her silky top and the two flags above the monument. She walks against the wind and then with the wind, over and over, and I feel all wound up. Is she condemning me somehow? Are her movements calling me a sit-stiller and a know-nothing? Can she tell that no one loves me? Is that why she circles the monument instead of circling me?
I break my focus, look away from her rotations and back at my rations. They were planned and she was not. I hold a tortilla chip and make it go around and around what’s left of my cheese stick. This is calming. I choose it. I say when.
I look back at the chic monk lady and I choose her as an experience to have. You. You don’t stop. That’s something to opt into. I try to instruct her, telepathically, to switch directions and walk counterclockwise. She doesn’t vary, but I am with her now in spirit. Watching her is not that different than watching my nightly TV. The chic monk, the sitcom characters—none of them turn to look at me while I watch them not stop.
The more circles I see her complete, the more I need to see her circling continue. I’m pulled in. I’ll defend her to anyone. If she were making money somehow this display of hers wouldn’t seem odd. If she were wearing a MATTRESS BLOWOUT sign no one would stare. I eat a fistful of chips. She raises her arms straight up and spreads her fingers, but she doesn’t look up to see the sky through the spaces she’s made. Her gaze is soft, front-facing. If I could look into her eyes, I feel like I could see the laps she’s done and the laps she’ll still do and see that they are all one lap.
I am lulled into considering that this woman is engaging time instead of fighting it. She’s inhabiting time. Look, she’s become part of the breeze. Her movements remind me of the squirrels who run across my roof, zipping for the sake of it—because there’s empty space and because they have the legs to fill it.
I wonder why we aren’t all pacing.
I look at my phone. I have about twelve minutes of my lunch break left. I bet you really know a minute when you spend it pacing, when you’re in lockstep with the seconds. Twelve minutes of trying not to look as unlovable as you feel goes by in a snap. This whole past decade of my life feels like two Mays, one three-day-weekend spent in the car, a month inside a bathroom stall, and six back-to-back Christmas dinners.
The TV doctor who talks about the right light also says, “How you do something is how you do everything.” I hadn’t understood what he meant. I thought he was talking about posture—if you stoop in the office, then you stoop often. But now I get his meaning: This is it, buddy. The present is at hand constantly and what are you going to do with it? How you wait in line at the post office is the whole shebang. The way you behave at the buffet counter is a full indictment of your entire being, so scoop your baked ziti accordingly. So how I spend my remaining twelve minutes is how I live my life. I let the word now make the rounds inside me. Maybe the word now even pumps its arms.
I stand and stuff the rest of my food back into my lunch box. I take one step and then another until I’ve gone completely around the picnic table. Yes. I keep going. It’s such a tight track, I’m always turning. The walking and the turning become a trance. To move without the burden of progress. Going nowhere while being here. My throat feels looser. The ground feels harder. I keep my focus hazy, but I can sense her movements while I complete my own. We feel like the same speed and the same animal, and I understand moments for the first time—now, now, now, this here. I choose it all and the moment swirls around me. I am the axis. She is the axis. We keep going. And the light I’m taking in no longer feels prescribed. The light is being received.
Janelle Bassett’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, Longleaf Review, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s on Instagram @jbknows.