How nice it was just to sit on a bench, watch the ocean, and think of nothing, thought Nicole. There had been altogether too much to think about in the last three months.
Just looking back was scary. She couldn't believe all that had happened, all that she had been through, even when most of it hadn't happened to her. What if...? she used to ask herself. What if she had done something differently? What if she had forced Robert to stay longer with her? Would everything have been different? Certainly he wouldn't have been in the exact place on that exact day...
And everything would have been different, she thought to herself. She would still be in school. She wouldn't have to work so hard at two jobs. She wouldn't be arguing so much with her parents. She would, at least, have a bit of money, and she would be able to buy a new dress once in a while.
"But you would also still be a girl. Now you are a woman. A twenty-year-old woman, but a woman just the same."
Nicole looked up. Sitting on the grass was a woman. She was old, Nicole guessed somewhere in her fifties, but she was beautiful. Her naturally blond hair had been colored with gray over the years, and she wore no makeup. She looked at Nicole and smiled. The creases around her laughing eyes and her upturned mouth bespoke many years of happiness.
Nicole could not help but stare at the woman. She looked familiar, a lot like her mother and her grandmother, but not quite the same. There was something elusive, something significant, that Nicole didn't quite grasp. What she could feel was comfort. She looked into the woman's quiet, brown eyes and she felt comfort. Comfort and wisdom.
"Did you say something?" said Nicole.
"Yes, Nicole, life could have been different, a lot different. In some ways it might have been better. Certainly, it would have been easier. But is that what you really want?"
Nicole was confused. How did this woman know what she was thinking? Had she been talking out loud to herself?
"I don't know what I really want," said Nicole. "What's the difference, anyway? It seems as if it doesn't matter what I want. I have no control. Things just seem to happen. I do the best I can, but it's hard, and it's confusing.
Nicole looked at the woman. "What do I really want? I want the clock to go back three months, so I can do everything differently. I want to go to sleep and wake up to find that it's not real, that none of it is real. But every day I wake up and I look at the ceiling, and I realize it is real. And I can't do anything about it."
"So you want your life to be simple again?"
"Yes!" said Nicole. "That's exactly what I want. I didn't ask for this. This isn't my life. I want my life back."
"Is that really what you want?" said the woman.
"Yes, that's what I want. At least, I think so... On the other hand, if things hadn't happened exactly the way they did"
"You would still be a girl."
Nicole paused. She looked hopefully at the woman. Then she sagged. All the days and nights were becoming too much for her. She felt like crying. Why couldn't anyone understand?
"What's wrong with being a girl?" she asked. "It's not like I didn't want to grow up. I do want to be an adult. But why couldn't I have had a few more years, like my friends? Why couldn't I be a girl for just a little while longer? I do want to grow up, I do. I want to be a mother some day. I want a family. It's just that... why do I have to grow up right now? I'm so young." She felt a tear crawl slowly down her cheek.
The woman got up, sat beside Nicole and stroked her hair. Nicole began to shake and cry, and the woman put her arms around her. Nicole felt the warmth of compassion, the compassion of someone who really understood how she felt.
But how could that be? Most of the time she didn't even understand her own feelings. How could this woman be so... comfortable? How could she understand so well about something that Nicole had tried so hard to bury deep within her?
"Tell me about it," said the woman. "I came to listen to you."
"To listen to me?" said Nicole.
"To listen to you, and to cry with you, and to look at you. I wanted to see you again."
Nicole looked up. There was a tear on the woman's cheek but somehow she didn't look sad. She looked content. Nicole began to feel better. She relaxed and began to breathe more evenly. Then she thought about what the woman had just said.
"You wanted to see me again? Have we met before?"
The woman with the gray hair and kind brown eyes laughed. "I came to listen to you, Nicole. Talk to me."
It was awful, began Nicole. I didn't expect it.
I was living in Florence. It was my dream, a whole semester in Italy. Everyday, I'd go to classes and learn Italian, study art, make friends and laugh. It was so foreign and yet so simple. It was me.
I'd walk around the town and absorb all the art. I couldn't believe that so much beauty could be so accessible, right out in the open for everyone to see and enjoy. I had never seen anything like it in my life; I never even dreamed that a place like this existed. I began to question my whole existence.
I met so many people who were different. Even the other Americans were not like the people back home. Everyone was so worldly, so open, so free, so real. I felt as if I had lived my life in black and white and, suddenly, I had woken up one day to find that the world was in color.
I felt so grown up. For the first time in my life people could see the real me. A me that had been buried for years. My family, my friends back home, my teachers none of them ever really understood me. How could they, I realized, because up to now, I never really understood myself.
Even today, I can close my eyes and remember. I hear the sounds of the street: the vendors, the tiny cars, the click of people's heels on the cobblestones. I can smell the food, the flowers and trees, and see the colors and the shapes.
How can I explain the feeling of freedom? For the first time in my life I could look into the mirror, at the short blond girl with the sparkle in her eye, the girl who was always a bit afraid, but who was now a world traveler. I could look at her and be so proud. How did I get here, I would ask myself? I am so lucky. I would remind myself of that every day.
Yes, I was lucky and I was proud. Proud of myself for getting myself there. Proud that people were treating me like an adult. I felt real.
I still remember the day, two weeks after I had arrived, when a group of German tourists came up to me on the street. I was wandering around Castello Street, eating a gelato I had just bought from a vendor. The tourists came up to me and asked me if I could direct them to the Querini Stampalia Museum. It was just down the block. I showed them and they thanked me and, all of a sudden, I felt like I belonged.
Time moved quickly, and yet so slow. It seemed as if I had been there forever, and yet, at the same time, the days were passing rapidly. I couldn't wait for Robert to arrive. I was so thrilled that he was coming all the way from California just to visit me. I wondered, would we still get along? Would I still love him? Would he still love me?
The best part was I had nothing to worry about. When I saw him at the airport, it was like we had just left each other five seconds earlier. Having him around was so comfortable, I would have liked him to stay a long, long time. But then he decided to go back early to get things ready for school. I wanted him to stay. I wanted to beg him to share more time with me. But I didn't. I don't know why. I let him go and then
Nicole began to cry. She felt great waves of confusion well up inside her and come tumbling out. She was crying softly, her body shaking uncontrollably. Up to now, it hadn't been real, not really. But now she was coming face to face with her feelings and her inability to control what happened to her, and her inadequacy, and she was crying.
She realized that the woman's arms were around her, and she felt warm and safe. "Don't let go," she said. "Don't let go."
"Don't worry," said the woman. "I haven't come all this way to let go of you when you need me most."
"It was horrible," said Nicole. "I was sleeping when I got the phone call. One minute I was dreaming, the next minute there was a voice on the phone, telling me that Robert had had an accident. He had"
Nicole broke down sobbing.
She couldn't stop crying.
"I kept thinking, it wasn't real, it couldn't be. But there I was, on the plane heading back home. I was in shock. I couldn't think. I couldn't eat. I had trouble just breathing. I had to keep telling myself, breathe in, breathe out...
"It wasn't real, I told myself, it wasn't. But it was. Finally, after many, many hours, I got there. I don't even remember how. And I went to the hospital, and it was so awful. He was... broken. All those bandages and tubes and things, and the doctors said he might never walk again"
For a long moment, no one said anything. The kind, gentle woman with the blond-gray hair and the motherly eyes stroked Nicole's hair and held her tight. Nicole slowly began to feel calm. Her breathing became more regular and her crying slowed and then stopped.
"He got better, didn't he?" said the woman. "A lot more quickly than anyone imagined."
"Yes," said Nicole, "he did. He can walk, and every day it gets a bit easier. Tell me, do you believe in God?"
"Sometimes," said the woman. "What about you?"
"I'm not sure. Sometimes I do, but then sometimes I'm not sure about anything. Why is life so hard? There are so many bills and I have to work all the time. I want to go back to school, I love school, but Robert needs me now, and I love him so much. My parents don't understand. I hate changing my schedule like this. It upsets my entire being, but I have no choice. Why can't they see that? I'm still so young. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. I'm only twenty. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen.
"Everyone asks me if I am going to marry Robert. I can't imagine ever loving anyone else. I know I am so young, but he needs me. How could I ever leave?"
The woman took a deep breath. "Nicole, honey, life has a funny way of working out. You are a dear, sweet precious thing. You have so much love inside you, and so many people love and depend on you, more than you realize.
"Sometimes you have to let go of things. You have to create emptiness in your life, so that something else can fill you up."
"Are you saying that I will have to"
"I'm saying that sometimes we all have to lose something to make room for something new. Left to ourselves, we will always take the easy way out. It's human nature. But life has a way of doing what it wants to us, no matter what we may think we need.
"Nicole, I know your pain. I know your confusion. I know your doubt and your strength. More than anything, I know your strength. You don't complain, and you don't feel sorry for yourself. I am more proud of you than you understand. Yes, your plans were changed, your schedule was upset. But you have a reason to get up in the morning. A reason that is more important than just you.
"Three months ago, Nicole, you were a girl, and now you are a woman. Look me in the eye, sweetheart. Doesn't it feel good?"
Nicole looked at the woman. "Yes," she said, "it does feel good. It feels very good... You seem to know so much. Tell me, will I ever get married? Will I have children? Will I be a good mother?"
The woman smiled and said nothing. She took Nicole's hand in hers, and for a long moment stared at the fingers, so young, so fragile, but so strong.
"Yes," she said at length. "You will get married, to a wonderful man. But there is a lot of time between here and there, and your life is only beginning. You will have children and, yes, Nicole, you will be a good mother, the best mother in the world. One day, you will wake up in bed, and you will realize that you are someone who has created and held together a family, and you will be so happy.
"You are going to have bad times, some of which will be worse that what you are going through right now. But you will have many more good times, and by the time you are my age, you will be strong and beautiful and happy.
"Life makes a lot of sense, Nicole, but only looking backwards. So don't stop struggling. Just wake up each day and do what you need to do. In the fullness of time, it will all work out. I promise you."
Nicole looked at the woman. "How do you know all this?" she asked. "Who are you?"
"Nicole, look at me," said the woman. "Look in my eyes. You know who I am. Look at me, you know who I am."
Nicole looked at the brown eyes, infinitely deep and understanding, and she realized who this woman was and how she could know so much about her.
"Yes, Nicole I am."
"What are you doing here?"
"I told you. I came to see you again. I think about you every day, and I just had to see you again. You did such a wonderful job, I owe you so much."
Nicole started to smile. "But how could you do it? How could you come back to"
"Don't worry about it, honey. Just hold me once more, tightly, before I leave."
Nicole held the woman tight. They breathed together, and for a long time no one said anything. Then Nicole looked up. "Will I remember you?" she said.
"No, honey, you won't," said the woman. "But I will remember you, always. You can trust me. I will never forget the young girl who turned into a woman, and did so much, so well. Nicole, I am proud of you."
Nicole lay in bed, gazing at the ceiling. She had just woken up. The morning sunlight was creeping into her room, and she felt at peace: with the world, with her home and with herself. At fifty-two years old, she was happy. Her blond hair had long since become streaked with gray, but she had refused to color it. She had earned those gray hairs, each one of them. There were lines in her face that weren't there a few years ago, and she loved them as well.
She say in bed thinking of the young woman she used to be, and she marvelled at how life had a way of working out. She was grateful. Grateful for her strength, for her resilience, and for the good luck that seemed to follow her wherever she went, no matter how bad things might look.
She thought of her husband, and her grown children, and how she had managed to keep her family together for so many years. She was happy, and she began to cry silently to herself.
She thought of that young woman, sitting all alone on the bench so many years ago. Thank you, she said, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for never giving up. Thank you for growing up at just the right time, in just the right way. Thank you for being you, so I could be me.
She threw off the covers, got out of bed, and started to dress. She had a lot to do that day.
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