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The Left Side of the Bench (Short Story)

The Left Side of the Bench

Part 1

Chapter One

I feel like I know all the houses here in Lincoln City, my beach town on the Oregon Coast. As I walk the streets, they call out to me – “Good morning! I’m getting renovated next month!” or “meet my new AirBNB residents, here for July 4th, real shits they are, don’t clean up after themselves or their pets!” I have my favorite houses, they are round, like grain silos, and pepper the Gleneden Beachfront. They feel comfortable to me, like old friends, as I walk by them.

There’s this pretty blue round house that smiles at me when I walk by. But last week, I heard it crying “They’re painting me yellow!” Sure enough, the owners (investors from California) covered every inch of my poor friend in a lurid yellow paint. They say it will draw in more guests and they will make more money. The old town is changing, yet I remain the same.

Anyway, that’s how my old city feels alive to me, like all the buildings are companions on my long walks, even confidants. But lately, something has felt a little off. An unease follows me, the streets too empty and quiet. It is getting colder and the allure of the ocean is fading.

The busy streets summer streets feel deserted, and I walk alone. Every van and SUV carries another family out of the city. The few faces I spot in windows seem to say “We’re just packing up the last few things before heading out too!” Lincoln City turns into a ghost town… and I have nowhere to go.

It seems as though I’ve become a bit of a forgotten figure in Lincoln, a solitary wanderer from a once lively summer community. It’s not about complaining, really. Even when people were around, I found myself alone. When around people, though, I didn’t feel lonely. I can’t fault anyone; there must be a greater purpose beyond the stranded sand dollars that wash up to the shore every morning and the rhythm of the Lincoln ocean waves. I can’t deny that I haven’t actively sought out new connections. Sometimes, I wonder if I should.

I’m an average 25-year-old in many respects, at least I try persuading myself that I am. I’d prefer to fit in so tightly that no one ever noticed me, which is weird to say because I was just complaining about being forgotten. The reality is I led a thoroughly conventional adolescence – graduating from Lincoln City High in 2016, without honors but lettering in basketball, the peak of which was a 10-point game. This one game actually has changed my life. It gives me confidence when I am down.

I only have one eye; the other is blind, and my eyelid is mostly closed. Sometimes, I wish it were fully closed, and I’ve contemplated having an operation to achieve that. I’ve been told my bum eye resembles Fetty Wap’s, a rapper I’m vaguely familiar with, though I couldn’t tell you any of his songs.

My parents, former hippie musician teachers in the arts department, our family with musical creativity. However, that gene skipped my generation, as my singing and guitar skills are non-existent.

I’m the only child. I have great parents. They live here in Lincoln, but are now retired and usually gone, traveling. They have always supported me, been curious about the directions I’m talking, but I’ve rarely felt smothered by the weight of their opinions.

From High School, I earned my degree in horticulture engineering from the University of Iowa, then returned to Lincoln and purchased a modest home near the beach. I began my professional career as a lead engineer with a biotech firm, attracted by their pioneering work in crop engineering.

Although from the outside, it might seem that my job lacks the excitement of other professions, it is something that thoroughly fascinates and motivates me.

Though young, I have emerged as one of the few experts in horticulture engineering in the Pacific Northwest, granted there weren’t many of us to begin with. I serve as a consultant for the University of Oregon’s agricultural development program, and often drive to Eugene on the weekends to keep up on those demands.

I am friendly, but mostly friendless. My social interactions involve weekend visits to my parents and engaging in conversations with co-workers. And that’s about it. I’ll sometimes strike a conversation with the checkout clerk at McKay’s market downtown. And that’s about the extent of it.

I am a nerd, but not unabashedly so. I’m hardly religious but pray to God in a pinch. Usually just to say thanks, when I’m feeling like I need someone to say thanks too. Often, I’ll thank the coastal line, the large white oaks and the beach and waves.

I take long walks, it is my hobby, succeeding usually in forgetting about yesterday’s failures, today’s boredom and tomorrow’s monotony.

Most days, my walks are the same. I like the same, it’s dependable.

But yesterday’s walk was different.

Chapter Two

I harbor a secret obsession, it’s a psychological complex – it’s my left eye, wandering and malformed since birth. Its faint milky hue angles in a way that gives the impression that I’m looking into the sea. Or that my eye is the sea. I glimpse the reactions from strangers – and even friends – trying not to notice the other’s notice. I pretend not to see, even as onlookers glance away, trying not to be caught staring. There’s very little break from the attention, especially the mental attention that I give to it. The older I get the more confident I appear about it and can actually make jokes now and then when I’m up to it.

It is why I try to walk in the evening, when my eyes aren’t visible to the world. I can see without being seen.

I really enjoy looking at things with my one good eye. There is something that I can’t express well, but that is so touching about nature around Lincoln city, when winter approaches, all the powers of heaven combine to bloom the coastal flowers and with them the wonderful colors and smells. The yellows and purples of the petals, the intricate designs that I see but don’t need to fully understand. It’s enough for me, even as an engineer, just to observe and enjoy nature transforming from one season to the next. There’s something so complex and durable about the Lincoln’s landscape.

As the seasons change, so too does my daily routine. Upon returning home from work, my schedule unfolds predictably. I change into my workout sweats and sweatshirt, have dinner, and then set out on a three-quarters-of-a-mile walk northwest along South East High School Drive—from my apartment to the Sandstone Point and beach access. There, I pause, sinking into the embrace of the rustic bench at the entrance. With closed eyes, I immerse myself in the rhythmic melody of the waves, inhaling 30 deep breaths and exhaling even deeper. When finished, I make my way back home, concluding the evening.

Tonight, my walk began later than usual due to a delayed return from work. It was darker than usual and a little colder. As I started to walk, I noticed a girl that would be entering my same path coming from the opposite direction and we were destined to arrive at the entrance at the same time.

“Do I slow down or speed up?” I pondered. Meeting at the same time wasn’t ideal. The thought of walking together down to the beach for a mile and a half seemed awkward, extremely awkward.

Opting to accelerate, I observed that she, too, quickened her pace. I thought about slowing down, but hesitated. Was it courteous to walk behind a woman in the dark? The dilemma nagged at me. “Is that sexist?” I wondered, concluding it was more about common courtesy. Determined to avoid discomfort, I increased my speed, finding myself half-jogging down the trail to the path.

I crossed into the path several strides ahead of her. She seemed to deliberately keep pace, maintaining only about ten steps behind despite my varying speed. For half a mile she shadowed my footsteps, keeping a close distance no matter how fast or slow I went.

Now, the bench, my bench, was in sight. I had to make a decision. Was I going to sit on it, pass by it as if I didn’t know it, or turn around at it and head back home? My mind changed multiple times until the bench was finally at my footstep.

Chapter Three

Opting for the bench, I settled on the left side, entertaining the idea that she might sit down on the same bench. By taking the left side, she would likely choose the right side, minimizing the chance of her noticing my left eye if we happened to engage in conversation—although the likelihood of conversation was slim.

And if we did talk, then I’d have to look straight ahead, without turning even the slightest to the right to glance at her.

I would just look straight ahead, that’s not too weird.

As I took my seat, she remained ten steps behind, and I counted each step until she reached the bench: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Damn. A mix of tension and relief washed over me simultaneously. Her pace quickened as she passed the bench area, heading toward Pacific Crest Cove, a trendy yet elegant burger restaurant near Lighthouse Bay.

Observing from a distance, I noticed her seamlessly blending into a group of friends. It became evident she was running late to the gathering, which explained her pacing. Well, that’s a relief. I didn’t have to confront any potential awkwardness or face my own insecurities today. While she appeared attractive and refined, and there was a flicker of recognition, I could now return to my daily routine. Meditate…..breathe……chase thoughts.

Before closing my eye, I glanced again in her direction just to put it to rest. She was looking at me and held her gaze in my attention for a moment. It wasn’t an intense stare, but she was indeed looking, at me. Hmm, interesting. A sense of recognition sent a chill through my body. Excitement and a rush of adrenaline followed. “I’ve got to stop looking at her; that’s creepy,” I scolded myself, refocusing on my thoughts.

“How do I know her?”

I haven’t dated much in my life, especially during high school and only sporadically in college. To clarify, I’m attracted to women, but my confidence in these situations is lacking. I tend to keep emotions hidden and suppressed, hoping instead to build friendships, a much safer route.

I take a deep breath, recalling the wellness course from college that introduced me to meditation and the art of the exhale. Remembering that it’s not oxygen we’re starved of but the release of carbon dioxide, I practice controlled breathing—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, inhale, then a deep exhale—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…

“Hello,” a female voice interrupted, right in front of me.

Startled, I quickly opened my eyes and stopped breathing.

“Oh hey, how are you?” I responded.

It was the girl. She was beautiful. I adjusted my head slightly to make eye contact with my good eye.

“I think I know you,” she said.

The analytical mind of an engineer quickly deduced that this girl, whom I slightly recognized, but possibly never met, had left her group of friends and returned to me. There had to be a motivation.

“Stop overthinking,” I scolded myself. “Say something, you damned idiot. She asked you a question, and you’re sitting here speechless.”

“You know, you seem awfully familiar too. We must have known each other at some point in our lives. When do you think it was?” I replied with a question.

I ease into a sense of relief. This girl is way out of my league, both in looks and style. The truth is, I don’t stand a chance. Thank you, God. Now, I can just relax, be her friend for just a moment, and not worry about the complexities of romance. There’s something about our human nature always pushing for romantic relationships, which ironically can work against them, especially when pushed too early.

Lately, I’ve found a certain contentment with the idea of being a single man—not a bachelor or a party animal, just a human living solo. There’s a wonderfully relaxing aspect to it that I’ve come to appreciate.

“Quit overthinking, you fool. You’ve only exchanged one sentence with this girl, and you’re already reconsidering your entire future.” I thought to myself, still waiting on her response.

“Do you mind if I sit here with you?” she asks. “I just can’t with my friends tonight; I don’t want to hang out with them.”

Chapter Four

Opting for the bench, I settled on the left side, entertaining the idea that she might sit down on the same bench. By taking the left side, she would likely choose the right side, minimizing the chance of her noticing my left eye if we happened to engage in conversation—although the likelihood of conversation was slim.

“Of course, have a seat.” I shift to the far end of the left side of the bench, leaving ample space to avoid any imposition on her part, inadvertently hugging the metal armrest. She settles on the right side, leaving enough room for two normal-sized humans or one exceptionally large one between us.

“What are you doing here alone on the bench?” she inquires.

I respond promptly, “Ever heard of Diaphragmatic Breathing? I’ll give you a quick rundown, sorry if it gets too educational. It’s fascinating stuff. There’s an epidemic of diabetes in America. My theory—mind you, I’m not a scientist or doctor—is that our shallow mouth breathing is the main problem, not diet. You see, when we exhale, we release carbon dioxide or waste that accumulates in our bloodstream. If we don’t exhale deeply enough or consistently, the waste lingers and causes problems.”

“Interesting. In my yoga class, they teach us to exhale deeply at the end of sessions, and it does feel good. I didn’t know it was about releasing toxins. So, are you one of those super healthy guys who only eats green things?”

“Ha. You’re funny. Nope, just a normal guy. I eat everything everyone else does. Love the burgers at the Pacific Crest Cove. The only thing missing is fry sauce. If it had fry sauce, I’d say it’s the best burger in Lincoln City.”

“Fry sauce?” she asks. “You must be from Utah. I think that’s a Utah thing.”

“Ha. Nope. Grew up in Lincoln City, never lived in Utah.”

She settles back on the bench as if she plans to stay a while. I’m torn—I’d love to continue chatting with her, but I don’t want to overstay and make her uncomfortable.

“Have you eaten dinner yet?” she asks.

“Not yet, I’m heading home soon to eat.”

“What are you planning on eating?” she continues.

“Chicken sandwiches from a leftover rotisserie and roasted asparagus.”

“Want some?” I add, a bit flirty but without any expectation. It’s almost like I say it to test the waters, not expecting her to be interested. After all, she’s not into me. But she’s fun to talk to, and undeniably cute. Her eyes are big and open, if that makes sense—pretty eyes.

“Ha. You flirter,” she responds. “I’ll let you go eat.”

“Sounds good. Nice to chat with you; thanks for stopping by to sit with me,” I conclude.

I get up from the bench to leave.

Trying to keep the right side of my face prominently displayed, a thought crosses my mind, “Ah, screw it. Why the hell am I hiding myself?” Nodding my head to the opposite side, I deliberately and somewhat blatantly show her the left side of my face. A streetlight above us illuminates my eye to her view.

In this moment, I brace for a new reaction from her—a withdrawal, a shift from cheery and seemingly flirty to reserved and brief. I expect it to happen, and strangely, I’m almost waiting in anticipation for it. I’ve revealed the side of me that I usually work hard to hide from the world. Yet, for some reason, I’m not afraid to let her see it. I want her to see it. I welcome the rejection, the simplicity of loneliness.

Now, turning back in the direction of home, I say with sincerity:

“Thank you again; I had a great time chatting with you.”

I begin to move in the direction of home, expecting the familiar recoil, but see that she moves with me. I look back to her, to my surprise, her expression remains warm, her gaze steady. She takes a step towards me.

“I had a nice time too,” she says. “Same time, same bench tomorrow?”

Epilogue to Part One

“Yes, I’d enjoy that.”

Exhaling deeply, I head for home…….

The End.

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