The Picnic

The petal, heavy with fragrance, drifted over the couple, deciding whether or not to interrupt. Giving up to the heavy-handed wind, it softly landed on the woman’s light mahogany hair. He saw that she was somewhere else now; her face had softened from the stiffness it had worn just minutes ago. She was beautiful, that was true, but he had not seen her in the Month since the Event. He felt something heavy in the air between them, as if an elephant stood there. Yes, he could see its head, made of thoughts of that Event and its body unclear, something only she would be able to describe to him, if she wanted to. If she could.

Words rose, words that would bridge the gap that was widening between them.

{“How have you been?”}

His voice cracked on the “you”, he could not take it back. He wished he could try again but that was it, it was out there. If only people were as easy to deal with as animals were. There was no talking needed between one and an animal. The elephant he had tended earlier this week had some trouble in her history. She had a tendency to spray water at any caretaker that dared go near her, and if that didn’t work, stomp her feet wildly in the sand. He, unlike the other caretakers, had stood his ground. When the elephant sprayed water, he stood there and bore the blast. When the elephant stomped, he stomped too. His demonstration of power gained her respect. He approached her as she began to tire of stomping, and she acknowledged him with the closing of her large, wise eye. The problem had been solved.

If only this was as simple as that. But no, the incurable ache from inside his rib cage prevented rational thought. Years of laughter and happiness. Yes, punctuated with fights and tears, but those were temporary. Fleeting. Mere stomping. Did all of that mean nothing to her? This Event had changed everything, but he was incredibly disappointed in her. It hurt. Everything hurt. Not seeing her during the Month, being ignored during the Month, everything. And yesterday, the Call. Would she muster up the strength to confess her deeds? She certainly didn’t look like it. Her posture reminded him of new, wary animals that had been treated with violence and indifference. Why? He was the one who had been betrayed, he was the one that should be consoled, he was the one who needed reassurance of her love… if it still existed within her ability to love him. The worst is that even if she had stopped caring, stopped loving, he couldn’t. Everything… so unfair. What would he do without her? Despair, blackening his view, a sick urge to hurt himself, to somehow wake up from this nightmare—but he snapped out of it. The problem needed to be addressed. How could he make her open up to him? She had always been so stubborn. He needed her to start responding. He opened the picnic basket and began to unload it onto the red and white checkered blanket.

{“Darling?”}

She felt his words. They reached across to her from across the picnic space. But his eyes burned like the sun they both orbited, the one they were momentarily shaded from by the cherry blossom Tree they were sitting under.

{“I’m fine.”}

She arranged herself so as to escape the eyes, rotating herself ever so slightly so that he disappeared from her peripheral view, and leaned on the Tree. It all felt so wrong, everything felt wrong after the Event. The world was so beautiful and her feelings marred everything, her vision bleak and distorted, her head dizzy and spinning. A light breeze ruffled her hair, as if to caress her. Yes, the flowers swayed ever so gently but stood back up again as the wind took its leave. Ah, to be a flower again, she wished ever so fervently. Perhaps a gardenia, a petite lady with skin pale as snow, a fresh bloom to please the world with its openness. But as a florist she knew the hanakotoba, the Japanese language of flowers, and why she had chosen the gardenia. Not because it was a flower she loved to use in her creations, but rather… Secret Love.

Was it possible? To walk on the road of love and yet walk two paths? She was hurting two people at the same time, and for what? This was truly a thick forest she had entered, full of the menacing, bloodthirsty snarls of unconfronted problems and briars murmuring sweet and poisonous forgetfulness—because if she tried to ignore it now, the problem would worsen. The sanctuary was to her left, the Tree that patiently bore her weight. How did this problem come from a brief meeting of… lips?

{“I’ve always liked this tree, it’s a good place for a picnic.”}

{“I know you do, that’s why I picked this spot, darling.”}

She breathed deeply, and picked up a sandwich he had put down. He was now removing the eggs.

The Tree was gigantic: it would take 5 grown men to hug him. Would he lend her his years of patience and wisdom? This Tree was the only haven in her dark forest now, the one she was still blindly stumbling through. The other trees in her forest were gnarly and mean, viciously muttering to each other and shaking their branches at her. They knew. All of them knew why she was in the Forest. She had been too blinded by a fog of self-absorption when she had begun wandering among them. They were the trees that had sprouted from the seeds of trouble and doubt she had tried to eject from herself earlier, to make them disappear. They had merely sprouted into forbidding giants. She knew the Path, the way out. But the other end was blinding. It meant she would be out in the open, leave herself open to scrutiny. She wanted to run away, even if the cruel ivy briars entangled her mind as she ran the wrong way, whispering dark premonitions that wheedled themselves into her head. She wanted to hide, forever, if she was able to. She wanted everything to pass without any incident. She unpeeled the plastic on the sandwich and stared at the whiteness of the bread.
But he loved her and only her, a love unconditionally hers, uncontaminated with doubt, white like this bread. She dropped the sandwich. He would not let her go, was convinced that there was a way to make it better, but he did not know what she had done during Month. Maybe even he would give up on her once he found out, once she told him the depth of her betrayal. She could not see any consequence but breaking up, even if she didn’t reveal her doings—they were practically strangers now anyway. But she didn’t really want to let go of those years she had spent with him, oh, how selfish she was! She wanted everything. Of course it was her, she was the problem. If only she hadn’t done wrong…oh, this circle of thought again – it was her fault, all her fault, the world would be better off—no, why this again? What was this wretchedness? Her hand clenched her arm, white crescents waxing at the ends of her self-imposed manacles as the nails dug themselves—

{“Stop, stop, stop it!”}

Her hand jumped away from her arms and hid under her legs. The eggs that were in his hands rolled out of his fingers and spread around the blanket, finding new homes in the creases and folds. A sense of… guilt, shame, unhappiness, resentment, all mixed into her dismal miasma. He was mad at her, she knew, yet she still couldn’t help the whine that insinuated itself through her voice.

{“Whaaat?”}

It was the unwanted answer.

Frustration. She was doing it again, he thought, as he collected the eggs into a pile.

{“Don’t do that.”}

The self-hate, self-pity, the call for any help nearby. He had seen it all before, but before he had always been there to help her. In Month, they had been separate and now she was blaming everything on him. That was the problem with humans, he supposed. They thought too much, questioned their existence, lashed out at themselves and everyone around them. Picked and pecked and pricked at their own souls until every little bit of darkness they could find had been extracted and magnified to unbearable levels.

Animals never questioned why. They simply accepted their niches; that they were born to eat and sleep and reproduce. Nothing more. Some of them needed to get along well with others of their kind; fight and socialize. But if that was so, the hierarchy was obvious. Not like the convoluted human world. And mates were supposed to be loyal…

He was the one who thought of her the most! He would make her happy, as happy as her presence made him. Not as right now, but things would get better. They always did. She was the only person who made him that happy. But what was the point of continuing this farce, of fooling everyone around them into thinking their relationship was healthy and strong when it had deteriorated to this point? If others had known what she had done during Month, they would tell him to end it. That she wasn’t worth it, that he was just pushing her and himself to pursue a failed relationship. But he wanted to try. Why did he still want to be with her? He was sure of it, that she would be the only one he would love like this, this wonderful, raw feeling that drove him crazy at times but brought the moments of true happiness. Did he ever make her as happy as she made him? Would he be able to get her love again? But most importantly, he wanted her to smile again.

That was it, then. He should tranquilize this elephant. Maybe it would take more stomping, but it should work. If he didn’t, both of them would continue to be in pain. He was sorry that the Event was premature, but her actions were uncalled for, and unfair, to say the least. This had to be addressed, the body of the elephant uncovered using the words from her mouth.

{“Darling, tell me what happened.”}

She froze and looked at him. What did that mean?

{“Nothing happened.”}

He was going to pressure her until she told him. This was for both of them.

She panicked. He was dragging her out of her forest, into the blinding light. Could she go?

{“Is that really your response?”}

No. It wasn’t. She was going to stand tall, as the Tree did. Her mind cleared and her resolve was established. She stopped leaning on the Tree and straightened her back.

{“No. Last Month, I did something bad.”}

Her heart felt heavy with guilt, but it would be better to say this now than later.

{“I’m glad that I’m saying this now. But it was a one-time thing, only a single kiss.”}

Only? Who was she kidding? He felt furious. When they had started their relationship, it had taken him four months to tease out a kiss from her. Did he mean nothing at all to her now? How dare she say that?

{“…how dare you say that? Only a single kiss? Are you kidding me?”}

His anger startled and scared her. He visibly put effort into calming himself down, smoothing the blanket in swift, methodical motions.

{“Do you know why I am asking you?”}

{“Because we haven’t seen each other in a Month?”}

{“Why would I ever suspect you of doing something wrong? Do you think that I am naturally inclined to think badly of you? Just think for a second.”}

She didn’t under—oh. Everything drained away. Her limbs became heavy, and wilted. He had known? Who did he find out fr—oh.

{“Did… he tell you?”}

{“Yes.”}

Now that was interesting. That he would tell him. She was no longer herself, but rather an outside observer watching the couple. This wasn’t happening to her, this laughably sad situation. She hadn’t just found out that the last person she thought she could trust had ratted her out, damn it all, this wasn’t happening to her.

{“I want to ask you… why?”}

She looked shocked. The Call had shocked him, but it let him deal with everything better. But it hurt to know that he had to tell him first, and she couldn’t, even though it was only a single kiss to her. That obviously implied that it was more than just a kiss to her, the fact that she couldn’t tell, and the Body became clear in his eyes. He collapsed onto the blanket, under the weight of the growing elephant, and looked up at her. Now, he was simply tired. His eyes slowly filled with tears, he was broken. He reached out for her hand, and gently held it.

Tears began to fill her eyes too, until she began to sob. The words gushed out; phrases that she never even realized were true now became painfully obvious.

{“I didn’t know what to do, after you did that. After you proposed to me. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you an answer, but I was so afraid. We live so far away from each other, and we’ve been drifting apart. I didn’t want to tell you how unsure I was, and he happened to be there. He listened to me and comforted me, and I ended up being with him more and more often. He had answers to my uncertainties, answers that don’t make sense to me now but made me feel so much better, and we ended up kissing.”}

{“Well, he called me yesterday. He told me everything and said sorry, because he never realized that his comforting you would lead to the kiss. Don’t you know that he was and still is one of my closest friends? This hurts so much… you and him. And the fact that you don’t realize that he only helped you because you’re a friend, not someone he loves. But I love you.”}

Now that she had stopped deluding herself, that he really wasn’t the perfect guy she was thinking of him as, but merely as someone who got caught in the process of her running away…she realized that she still loved him. She gripped his hand and put it against her cheek, tears making it wet. She returned to her body from her observer view.

{“I’m sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”}

She looked into his eyes pleadingly, and she remembered why she had been with him. How much she loved him and not him, how their dreams were interwoven and why she loved him.

He still felt pain, but the elephant had gone. He slowly sat up and took her left hand. She was the only one for him. He slipped off the ring she was wearing, the one he had given her a month ago, the Event at the root of all of this.

{“I’ll do it again. Are you ready?”}

She had been scared of the commitment. That she would bind herself to someone—what if she changed her mind later on? But now she knew, that it would not happen, that she was a white rose of devotion, trimmed by understanding and honesty, rather than a gardenia. She nodded.

{“I’ve cared for many animals, and they call me the zookeeper with the magic touch. But until I met you I never knew how to deal with fellow human beings. We’ve had hard times but we’ve had so many more days of laughter and sunshine. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”}

The same words as last time…but this time, he would take care to dispel any Elephants that dared come near, to pull her out of her forest and into his arms, to convince her that he would love her forever.

{“Yes.”}

Jennifer Zhao
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School
Silver Key

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