Henry scrunched carefully to the left side of the little bench, making ample room for someone to sit beside him. Not that he expected anyone to join him; it was just a possibility he entertained.
It was comfortable enough – a stout back, arms, even a thin rainproof cushion – and had a spectacular view over the wide pasture and out to the thin forest beyond. He and Becky used to sit out here for an hour at a time. Just absorbing nature, she’d liked to say. They’d bought an audio device and learned to recognize a dozen birds by their songs. There were deer, sometimes, tiptoeing into this inviting tableau. Rabbits often, and occasionally bobcats and even coyote-dogs.
That was before the Alzheimer’s. No, actually, in the early stages, too. He’d been able to keep her in their apartment for more than a year, with lots of help; one of the blessings of having moved to a lifetime care community. When they had to move her to the memory unit, this bench turned out to be even closer, a five-minute walk. In good weather he unfailingly brought her here during his daily visits, until the damned disease stole her ability to focus on, let alone appreciate, even a sunny landscape.
There was a red-tailed hawk over the meadow now, screeching. Henry thought the harsh, rasping call of the redtail the absolutely perfect voice for so fierce a predator. If someone came along just now to sit with him, he might observe aloud that the hawk must be voicing frustration. Why do you say that? the someone might ask. Because any raptor that saw game on the ground, he would reply, would surely give it no warning but rather swoop down to strike silently.
Becky, toward the end, could no longer recognize any of the birds that had been lifelong friends. People, either, for that matter. She had been gone two years now, and Henry did not know how to fill that void.
He had friends, of course, both men and women, welcome companions for lunch or dinner or casual conversation, or even committee discussions. Henry had in the last two years served on most of the standing committees that enhanced life at Harmony Acres. He had been surveying the field, he admitted to himself, but felt drawn to no one; polite interest had not quickened.
He did not seek a second marriage. There were a few those here, but even after two years alone that remote possibility seemed somehow disloyal. He had no desire, in the sense of the hot-blooded thirst of earlier years. He was too old for that, his body beyond chemical stimulation and his mind no longer commandeered by lustful imaginings and carnal cravings.
Someone with whom to share intimate thoughts, on the other hand, would be welcome; someone who came close to his heart. Unshared doubts, fears, pleasures or triumphs were like ill-digested meals, it occurred to him: hard lumps, heartburn rather than sustenance.
And touch. Sometimes, awake at night, he wished for a philosopher’s insight into his inchoate yearning. He was surely heterosexual, as they called it today: He could not fathom a man’s thrilling at the touch of another man, although he did not resent or wish to deny others such desire.
The whisper of a woman’s hand on his arm, though, or a thigh beside a thigh, might be a prelude to deeper sharing of minds. He had not given up hope of finding someone who reminded him of Becky in shape and demeanor and speech, who might understand quiet companionship.
A deer had ventured out of the forest, a doe with two fawns at her heels. He focused, making his eyes binoculars, as the pair edged closer to their mother for solace and protection. Unexpectedly, the tableau morphed into Becky and their young children; he savored it for a moment. Then something spooked them, and they were just deer bolting back into the woods.
A twinge of guilt: Was he faithless in wishing someone would come sit beside him?
No, he reassured himself; he was drawn to echoes of Becky. But he was an old man who had forgotten – perhaps had never known – how to say to a woman that he would enjoy having her sit beside him watching for hawks or deer, saying little, enjoying, as much as age might allow, the comforting warmth of nearby flesh.
He recalled a newcomer here at Harmony Acres. At a reception for recent arrivals she had seemed slim, like Becky, with a quick smile; had a voice that resonated in a familiar way; was left-handed, like Becky. He had introduced himself awkwardly. He’d told her she might enjoy the sylvan surroundings, mentioning that there were benches where one might sit and half-meditate. I’m Priscilla, she’d introduced herself; I might explore that, she’d said.
He looked to left and right. There was no one on the path from either direction.
Never mind; the sun was still a pleasant glow on his shoulders; it would be good to sit here longer. The deer might come back. He would keep an eye on the hawk. If he sat still enough, the rabbits might venture closer to nibble at the flowers. She might yet come by.
“Hello,” she might say. “I wondered if I might find you out here. It’s as beautiful as you said.”
He would nod, and smile.
“Would you mind,” she might say, “if I sat with you for a few minutes?”
“Please do,” he would say. “I’ve been saving you a place.”
First published in Halcyon Days in October 2023