The Thrift Shop

“Una pausa?” Jane, face up on the grass, looks at the sky.
Daniel clicks his glasses and looks at her. “Sure.”
“I really like it,” she says. “Is Berenice a prostitute?”
He smiles. “Not saying!”
“What was his name?”
“Caicedo.” He hands her the old book.
She examines the cover, which has a drawing of a young woman, large breasts, taking off or putting on, you couldn’t tell which, a shirt.
Save for a few families, the park is empty, a refuge from the big city chaos. It’s Thursday afternoon; everybody’s working.
Daniel hasn’t read Caicedo in many years; the prose makes him feel alive. “I find it very refreshing.”
“How so?”
“He uses a lot of Colombian slang,” he explains, his back against a cherry tree.
Jane nods. She had to keep asking him about many words.
He turns and looks at her.
“The story is really intense!” she says. “I wonder where it’s going...”
The grass is loaded with yellowing cherry flowers, relics of the bygone season, clinging to their fading pink. Daniel picks one up and throws it at Jane, who closes her eyes instinctively.
“I like your shirt.”
“Oh?” She peeks at him. “Thank you! It was my grandmother’s! She left me a million things.”
“Really? It looks great on you.”
He wants to hold her hand, lick her lips. This is why they came to the park! Working up some courage he reaches out and grabs a little twig that was nestled in her red curls. Defeated, he throws it away.
“All I have from my grandmother are two small British mugs, shaped like faces.” He sighs. “I looked them up; they stopped making them fifty-five years ago. One is a character from Dickens. They were in Colombia for decades; now back in Europe. One of them broke; they glued it together. In a strange way I think it makes it special.”
“Who glued it together?”
“No idea. It was like that when I got it,” he says. “I wish I had more things from her.”
Two young kids and a chubby man half a block away kick a ball back and forth. The youngest kid kicks poorly, forcing the older to chase the ball all the time.
“Hey, what’s the saddest moment in your life?”
She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes out. Her lips close again. She thinks, briefly. “Boy, what a question!”
Daniel shrugs and laughs. “You’re right, it’s a stupid question!” Did he think this would bring them closer?
“I can tell you if you want to know,” she says. “Just... I don’t know if we should go there.”
Daniel nods. “No, of course. I’m sorry.”
Jane sits up and they observe the kids and their father, who are now sitting over a blanket, eating cake.
“Well, how about I tell you about my saddest moment?” asks Daniel.
She looks at him.
“Or, one of them, anyway,” he says to himself, to calm his mind, where several other ideas—infernal ideas borne of the bloody madness of Latin American violence—are sprouting and beginning to howl. He’d rather summon a purer kind of sadness.
“I was once in Arkansas, it...”
“Oh, boy, Arkansas?” She laughs. “Sad indeed!”
He laughs. “Arkansas is great if you’re into outdoors: beautiful parks, but... yeah, not my thing.”
Jane nods.
“Anyway, it was Mother’s Day. I was twenty-five. I was there for work. I could have flown back to Bogota but... I didn’t time it well: it was just Mother’s Day, no biggie, right?
“Back then Tita, my grandmother, still lived, though her mind was already beginning to nourish butterflies.” His left hand dances in the air, fingers wiggling randomly.
Their eyes lock for a second until Daniel looks back to the horizon. They both savor those timeless moments, when their eyes join—a little spark, a frail connection—before one looks away.
“She was sick?”
“Yep. It got a lot worse later. Some days she was okay, others she would forget what she was saying.”
“I see.”
“One time, a year before she died, she told us a story. It took a while: she would laugh and laugh between each sentence. ‘An elegant British man, very formal, ran down the 7th avenue. Suddenly, he slipped, falling hard on his back! It took him long to recover. A puddle started forming around him. A worried crowd gathered. Coming to his wits, he sat up and fished a hip-flask out of his vest. Don’t w’rry, it broke not! ‘Tis only blood thou seeth!’ ”
“Silly.” Jane smiles. “Hmm. Why was he British?”
“Couldn’t say.” He laughs. “But he was, as British as the Queen. The way she told it, it’s like she actually saw it happen.” Daniel could picture the man tumbling, under sepia skies of a Bogota of yore, his hat landing besides him on the cobblestones, Tita’s demented yet tender fits of laughter from the future rising in the background. The sound of her laughter was already starting to blur; how long would he be able to remember it for?
A young couple with a big black labrador walks by the father and kids. The boys run to the dog, who wags his tail vigorously. The father urges caution, following them lazily. The dog barks playfully and the youngest kid lets out an excited screech. They talk briefly to the dog owners before they start petting him.
“My saddest moment was ten years ago, a few before she told of the British man. My mother’s family would gather each year and celebrate Mother’s Day at Tita’s. I was stuck in Arkansas.”
Jane nods. He looks at her and then back at the kids.
“So I called them. I talked with a cousin, two aunts, my mother. ‘Happy Mother’s day; best wishes to everybody; yeah, I’m fine in fucking Arkansas.’ It was a bit sad, but okay.
“But when they put Tita on the phone... I just...” He sighs a slow sigh. “I broke down.”
Jane looks at him; she’s surprised by how green his hazel eyes look under the afternoon sun filtering through the trees.
“I found it hard to speak. She said it was a pity I wasn’t there: she had many croissants. You see, they teased me, since I was little, that I always ate all the croissants.” He smiles. “I guess I did.”
“She teased me, playfully, and I just couldn’t say much. I thanked her for all the croissants. She said they’d serve ravioli. I always loved Tita’s ravioli. ‘Were you here, Danny, you could eat all the ravioli you wanted!’ she said. I just couldn’t do it: I had to hang up. I did say goodbye, but it was pretty abrupt. She said she hoped to see me soon. Click, that was it.
“I fell on the carpet, a broken piece of furniture, and spent hours crying. I don’t know why I was so sad. I mean, it is nothing, really; I’d see her one or two weeks later. But I just...” He trails off.
“That’s very sweet,” offers Jane.
“I think that’s the saddest moment in my life.”
“Do you remember your dreams?”
They’re eating breakfast in the patio of a café. The patio is full of puddles but it no longer rains.
Jane is wearing a floral dress. Her hair is a mess. “Not really,” she says. “Only as I’m waking up.”
She smiles suddenly. “Actually... there’s a special place that I often dream of.” She takes a sip of coffee. “It’s so exciting whenever it turns up in my dreams! It’s very realistic, with a life of its own, and very consistent. I never told anyone about it.”
Daniel nods as he drinks orange juice through a straw.
“It’s a huge thrift shop freak house. They sell all sorts of unusual stuff, everything broken in some weird way but still awesome. It’s dirt cheap too. This morning I was there, buying a necklace and a stuffed crow.”
He laughs and reaches for his almond croissant. “Cool!”
“I wake up trying to remember where it is, making plans to visit, wondering, confused, whether it actually exists.” She smiles. “It doesn’t, unfortunately.”
“Bring me there one day!”
“Whose birthday is it tomorrow?”
Daniel smiles, blushing.
“I’ll make you ravioli,” she says, “if you want.”
He takes her hand. “That would be great.”
They start walking to the cinema.
“What I should really do is make you breakfast,” she says. “I really like raspberries. Do you like berries? I like them all. Strawberries, blueberries, cherries, you name it. My favorites are raspberries. Wait, are cherries berries?”
Daniel laughs. “I don’t know.”
“I had such a joyful childhood,” she says. “I really love my parents, both of them. They were great.”
“I’m glad, baby.” He squeezes her hand.
“One time my mom came from the supermarket with big brown bags. This was shortly after we moved to Boston,” she explains. “I was four years old, turning five.
“As she was putting things away, she looked at me and asked me: ‘Do you know what day it is tomorrow?’ I didn’t know. ‘Guess whose birthday it is tomorrow!’ I had no idea. ‘It’s yours!’ she said, excited.” She laughs. “I was so thrilled! It was my birthday!”
Daniel looks at her. It fills him with joy to see how happy she is talking about her childhood.
“In the morning she made this wonderful breakfast. I remember sitting in the table, waiting. She served me all this fruit with my special birthday breakfast. It was awesome! I was ecstatic! I remember thinking that the raspberries were the best part.”
They stop in an intersection. A small crowd starts forming around them, waiting for the light to change.
“We’ll stop in the supermarket,” she says. “I’ll make breakfast tomorrow, you’ll see. You can eat all the croissants.”
“Read me a bit more, would you?”
In a big park, Daniel and Jane sit on a bench under a sycamore tree in a big field. The day is windy but very hot. A trail across the field sees its share of occasional visitors.
An owl is stitched on Jane’s bag. She takes a small book out and reads a story about a guy collecting exotic birds in his attic, an exiled king losing his kingdom.
“Interesting.,” says Daniel pensively as Jane sets the book down. “I like it.”
She leans her head on his shoulder and they remain silent for a minute.
“See that woman?”
Daniel turns slightly. “The mother?”
Jane nods. “She’s so beautiful...”
Sitting over a blanket facing them, not far, a slender woman in a white dress cradles a very young baby—one or two months old. A black stroller is stationed next to her. She rocks the baby ever so gently. The baby sleeps.
“It’s lovely how she takes care of him. She only has eyes for him; he’s her whole world,” she says. “It’s so nice to see, don’t you think?”
“She seems very happy.”
Jane nods, rubbing against Daniel’s shoulder, as they watch in silence.
“You once asked me about my saddest moment,” says Jane eventually. “I’ve thought about it. I’d like to tell you, if you want.”
“Sure.” He takes her hand, anchoring her to the present.
“I’m not sure it’s the saddest moment but I want to tell you about it. It is one of my earliest memories, but I remember it very clearly.”
She thinks briefly.
“When I was six I had to stay at school after class every day; my parents worked late and I was too young to be on my own. I’d sit in the cafeteria with a few kids doing my homework. Most kids were a bit older. I didn’t really know them—I was relatively lonely, living my own private world.
“One day one kid started crying hard. Two adults went to talk to him, tried to console him, but he just kept crying.”
“No idea. I couldn’t hear them, they were a bit far. He wasn’t physically hurt or such, just very visibly distressed. He looked very sad...”
The mother in the park starts humming a tune. The wind, rustling the sycamore leaves, lets only the silhouette of the melody reach Jane and Daniel.
“As I watched him, a shadow crept over my skin. I didn’t know him but I sensed his sadness very intensely, like I could see it in the air, a heavy gloom, flowing out of him, surrounding me, conquering everything. I felt so desolate! I felt like I was inhaling it, drowning in it, somehow taking in the weight of his sadness, of the sadness of the universe. I felt crushed! I didn’t move at first, just felt despair rise gradually inside, but I finally I burst to tears.”
“I’m very sorry.” Daniel caresses her palm.
Jane smiles. “One adult came over and asked me what was wrong. It was difficult to speak, like I had something crammed in my throat. I was so embarrassed! Maybe I didn’t want to admit to staring at stuff that had nothing to do with me?
“Hmm. I think it’s really just that I had no idea why I felt like that. I said I couldn’t say why but I felt very sad. I was shaking! I thought she would scold me, like I needed to justify it. And I couldn’t. She wouldn’t understand; heck, I didn’t understand!
“But she nodded compassionately and said something reassuring, like ‘Yeah, it’s okay. Sometimes people just feel sad for no reason.’ ”
Daniel takes his hand away to wrap his arm around her shoulders. “That’s a very beautiful story, Jay.”
“I think that’s when I first realized how spontaneously sadness can materialize and how tangible it can be.”
The mother sets her baby in the little carriage carefully. After folding and stowing away the blanket, she peers into the stroller, to assure herself that all is good. In silence, Daniel and Jane watch them slowly drift away. The sycamores swallow them.
“I told you the story,” she says, “because I wonder what it says about me. People sometimes assume I’m cold, or overly protective of my emotions, almost selfish.
“But it’s rather that I love everyone, especially strangers, immensely—sometimes more than I love myself. When I feel my own sadness, I often feel just like that day, unable to understand why.”
“Oh, whoah, look at you!” says Jane as Daniel rushes to her, looking at his watch. “Who could recognize you!” She smiles.
“Oh, come on!” He laughs. He spreads his arms. “I am king of time and space!”
She laughs.
He winks and kisses her.
They start walking through a small park, the grass packed with dry leaves the trees have shed.
She laughs, shaking her head. “You know? I almost forgot the tickets! I realized as I was locking the door out of my apartment.”
“Phew.” Daniel smiles. “Hey, you look so handsome!”
Jane is wearing a black dress under a purple shall. “Thank you, baby.” She blushes slightly. “So do you! I love your coat!”
“Thanks!” Daniel has a dark green wool coat. “It was my grandfather’s.”
“Really?” She eyes it more closely.
“Yeah. I don’t know how old it is. It’s English; Scottish wool, I think.”
“Like your grandmother’s mugs?”
“Yeah!” Daniel smiles. “I never thought about it, but yes. Suppose they bought them in the same trip?”
“Well, it’s beautiful.”
“It’s missing a button, though.” He points at a spot where a few threads, deflated whiskers, hang out. “Here.”
“Oh. I wouldn’t have noticed, you can’t tell.”
They pass a water-breathing dragon and, having some time to kill before the opera, enter a café. They take black stools by the bar. The sun is beginning to set.
“Were you close to him?”
“To your grandfather.”
He laughs. “Never met him; cancer took him a year before I was born.”
“And yet I wear his coat proudly. Isn’t it weird? I wonder what it means.”
“Well, it looks great on you.”
He smiles.
“Gentleman, miss.” A waiter bows his head slightly.
“Two espressos, please.”
The waiter nods and glides to the grinder.
“What did he do?”
“My grandfather? Taught law in a university. He was somewhat celebrated, I think; I’m told he was reserved and distant at home yet very dear to his students.”
“I see.”
He points at the missing the button. “I should bring it to a tailor, have it mended,” he says.
“I’ll be happy to fix it for you, Danny. These buttons are very pretty. You have the missing button, yeah?”
“Eh, nope.”
“Oh. I don’t know if we’ll be able to buy it.” She frowns. “Wonder if they still make them.”
“Well, this is my coat now. Suppose we used a completely different button, maybe one from your grandmother’s red coat?”
“Hmm.” She smiles. “Yeah, I’d like that.”