The thing about the park is that there are all sorts of corners where you can hide away. Secluded benches in the space under the boughs of a tall fir tree. Leafy rooms with walls made of hedgerows and stacked stone. A vine-covered gazebo tucked beside a stone building.
I stumbled into one of those hidden corners, walking my dogs at the end of the day.
I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going. I was just following a familiar path and to be honest, my head was in the clouds gathering in advance of the sunset.
Just as I came around the curve of the path, ducking under the low-hung branch of a tree, I heard the sound of a woman crying before I saw her. She was sitting on a bench, in the corner of a little gazebo, elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She was crying harsh, broken, wracking sobs.
“You don’t have to do this,” she cried into her cell phone. “You know you don’t have to do this.”
Horrified, embarrassed to have intruded on the woman’s privacy at such an obviously terrible time, I immediately turned around to escape. The trouble was that my dogs got all tangled up, catching their leads on a rock at the edge of the path and then knotting as they moved back and forth, wrapping around my legs when I tried to flee.
We were a ridiculous sight: two panting and wagging mutts and me dancing a jig around the animals.
The dog and clown show got her attention and she looked up at me.
I gave a series of gestures meant to show my embarrassment and continued yanking at the dogs.
I finally managed to tug them free and turned to leave.
“It’s OK,” she said. “He hung up on me.”
I said I was sorry again. I kept saying it as I turned to go. I was kicking myself for wandering down this particular path.
But then I stopped. The woman was a mess. She looked so sad. And it crossed my mind that she might be sad enough to do something terrible.
“I’m so sorry,’ I said again. Sounding like a broken record. “Can I do anything?”
“No, just an ugly divorce,” she said, standing up and dusting off the seat of her jeans. She smiled a weak, watery, smile. “I’ll survive.”
The woman stood up and walked over to where I was standing. She reached down and patted one of my dogs. Then she looked back up at me and smiled again.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew if I opened my mouth I would tell her I was sorry again. So I fell into a kind of sign language. I looked in her eyes, shook my head and lifted my shoulders and hands, palms open and up.
She did the same thing. We stood there silent, facing one another in the late evening light.
Sometimes words aren’t necessary.
She went in one direction and I went in the other. I’d never seen her before but I hope I’ll see her again on a happier day. This isn’t a big city. Chances are our paths will cross again.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org