The sun radiated over the Hudson River, warming my face and creating shadows across the pages. I tried to look up to catch a glimpse of the sunset, it’s endless weaves of orange and yellow hues luring me in, but the light was too bright, my eyes too sensitive. This was surely the best time of the day to be at Riverside Park, a place I frequent if not for its quiet beauty but for its proximity to my apartment. The dog run is just a few blocks away and on evenings like last night, when I was too tired to run and to curious to just sit at home on Netflix, reading with a latte while Lucy plays is just about the perfect end to a hectic workday.
I didn’t put any effort into my appearance, instead, I just slipped off my work attire and melted myself into sweatpants I’ve had longer than I’ve been with any boyfriend. I pulled my hair into a crisp, loose bun and with a quick dab of Chapstick, I was out of the door and in the park by 7:30. While the sun played hide-and-seek in between the trees and stinging my eyes, I cursed myself for not bringing sunglasses, and worried that my lack of view would make it impossible to save Lucy from the occasional mean dog who mistakes her for a plush toy.
Scanning the dirt field to ensure her safety, my eyes watched a shadowy figure enter the park. I couldn’t make out any features, but I could see the width of his shoulders, the length of his legs. He threw a tennis ball and a black-and-white puppy chased after it, and through the rays of sunlight, I could make out a slight, yet gleaming, smile. I immediately look to his left hand, searching for a symbol of commitment, but hoping for a sign that he’s single. I watch the dog scatter around the park, clearly not much more than a few months old, and as if she could read my mind, Lucy wanders over to the dog, happy and eager to make a new friend.
As I usually do, I hold my breath while waiting to see if the dog of the handsome owner will be kind toward my girl, but I relax when I see them start to play and smile as I hear the stranger with a face I haven’t seen yet, come and sit down at the bench next to me. He brought a book too, though I can’t make out the cover. He glances over at me and grins. I return the gesture. With my legs curled up underneath me, I shuffle just enough to make my stretchy everyday pants look somewhat attractive, and I return my focus to the book I can no longer concentrate on since there is a possibility just a few feet away. He calls after his dog – Cecilia – and Lucy follows closely behind, most literally chasing her pal’s tail. Without hesitation, I see my white fur ball hop into this man’s lap, and though I apologize for her sudden breaking the rules of the dog run, I also make a mental note to give her some extra treats for being such a great wingdog.
“Oh I’m so sorry! She’s too friendly for her own good,” I say, quickly standing up and walking to retrieve her.
“It’s fine, really. This one is a trouble-maker too…,” he responds, looking at me for the first time. His eyes are blue. My heart clenches onto a fragile piece of hope it hasn’t felt in a long time. Don’t let your mind create romantic visions, Lindsay. Don’t do it. You’ve only just met a man, he means nothing. Not yet. Maybe not ever, I remind myself.
But it was too late, I could feel the fantasy starting to brew:
They met at the dog park on a beautiful August day in 2013. She wasn’t feeling her prettiest, but then again, her mother always told her that she’d meet someone when she least expected it and especially when she wasn’t trying at all. He saw her when he first walked in but she was devouring her book, barely looking up and he had thought she didn’t notice him at all. He loved the way she seemed so comfortable and confident, like she came to this park every single day, just to read, perhaps to play. The dogs must have known it first, before either of them could sense the chemistry that was so easily evident between them. Once she stood up, he knew he’d have to ask her out. When she looked into his eyes and finally saw his face from behind the sunlit cloud, she hoped he’d at least offer to buy her a drink. And he did. Five minutes later, they were sitting at the Riverside Park Café, looking out onto the river that wraps around the city they’re not from, but a place they both love more than anything. It had taken long enough to find one another, but here they were.
“… she’s still a puppy, actually. Trying to train her and it’s really tough,” he continued, breaking me out of my daydream and back to reality, where Lucy was kicking dirt on my leg while licking my feet.
“Oh, do you take her to PetCo? I really enjoyed the program when Lucy was her age,” I offered and he nodded along, squinting up with the sun in his eyes.
“I’ll have to look into that. You must be a regular here, huh?” He grins, placing his hand above his brow to look at me.
We talk about the area and raising dogs, and something tingles inside of me, even though I really do know better than to read too much into meet-cutes. He gets up and we walk around, chatting about our lives in the city, and throwing the ball that Cici chases and Lucy then chases after Cici. I can feel the tension grow, and though I try my very best to never be desperate, I desperately plead with the universe to make the sunset last longer so the darkness doesn’t come and swallow away this beautiful scenery, in this beautiful span of time, where for the first time, in a long time, I’m actually entertained talking to a man.
“Mark!” I hear as his attention changes quickly, and I realize we hadn’t exchanged our own names, just our pets’ names. I brace myself – and cross my fingers – that I’ll see a sister or a mother when I turn to face whoever is calling his name. She’s a beautiful brunette, wearing the same running shoes that I have. She looks pretty, even post-run, and Cici jumps up to greet her, and she tells her to sit in between giggles, just like I would if Lucy did the same. He goes up and embraces her, and then introduces me to his…
She shakes with her left hand – possibly because she might feel a bit threatened – and I admire her sparkly diamond. He tells her all of the helpful advice I gave him: where to get their dog groomed inexpensively, joints that allow dogs to sit at the bar stool next to you, where to get the best deal on training pads and waste bags. I nod through the conversation as his bride-to-be excitedly thanks me for all of the help, and just as quickly as it happened, they walk away, hand-in-hand with Cici… into the sunset.
Okay, not really – it was mostly dark by then, but it sure felt that way.
I knew I had two choices in that moment: I could get discouraged and disappointed that my almost-date turned out to be taken or I could remember that not everything is ever as it seems. Yes, they’re engaged, maybe they’ve even set a date. Perhaps he’s uncertain about their future and they don’t actual click in all areas of their relationship. They could argue every day and have mismatched sex drives, she could have laid down the law of the ultimatum, forcing him into engagement after several years of dating. They could be college or high school sweethearts that would rather get hitched than to figure out the dating life post-university, or he could be a terrible boyfriend that she’s settling by marrying. There could be a million things wrong with their relationship or nothing at all. But no matter of how it’s going or how it’ll end up or who those people are, I’ll never know.
And they’ll never know much more about me.
To Mark, maybe I was just an opportunity to talk to a pretty girl other than his girlfriend, or maybe as a new pet owner, he could relieve some anxiety from someone who has it – at least somewhat – figured out. I could be the symbol of freedom that he sometimes misses, no matter how satisfied he is with his relationship. He may see me as a younger version of the life he once had or wish he had, where he could just sit by himself in the park, passing time without being pulled away or distracted by anything than your own timeline, bedtime, deadline. He may envy the power of independence or long for one single day without wedding planning or trying to decide what to cook for dinner or being nagged to take out the trash. He may see some value in my current status that I’ll never see until I no longer have it.
Or it could have just been a simple, short and quite meaningless conversation on a Tuesday night.
But regardless of what it meant or didn’t mean, what it symbolized or not, the truth is that no matter what part of the pond you stand – the single or the taken side – the grass always looks a little greener. At least every once in a while, anyway.