by Sandra Ketcham
The little lake is really a retention pond, half out of water, concrete sides around a muddy bottom. The ducks don’t mind; they have enough water to swim and the families from surrounding neighborhoods keep them well fed.
Two old women sit on a bench on the north side of the lake. The larger of the two pretends to read a book while the other stares at her feet. I stare at her while she stares at her feet and I think how nice it would be to have a book to read. I wonder if the larger woman would lend me her book, but then I realize how preposterous that idea is.
I get up, slowly walk to the edge of the water. Walking too quickly with nowhere to go feels awkward. Walking slowly without reason also feels awkward. I regret my decision to get up. I wonder if it will look odd if I turn around and head back to my seat.
Before I can make my decision, a fire truck turns on its siren. I jump. Maybe I gasp. The woman with the book looks up. She looks at me and half smiles. I half smile back. She looks at her friend, then at her friend’s feet, then back at her book. I watch her. I wonder if anyone is watching me watch her. I wonder if they think I’m weird for watching her. I wonder what all of this means. I suddenly feel lightheaded.
I sit down on the grass, on top of some leaves, too near to the ducks. I place my hand on top of my head. It feels hot. I imagine my face is glowing red. I think I’m overheated. Will it look strange if I take off my sweater? I look around; everyone else is dressed in short-sleeves. I feel very overdressed, out of place, and I worry that the book lady noticed my sweater.
Just then, as though she hears my thoughts, she looks in my direction. I clench my teeth, hold my breath, stare at the ground, pretend not to notice. Silently, I count my heart beating: one, two, three, four, five. When I reach 50, I covertly and quickly scan the scene, see her talking to her friend. I can almost hear her saying “Look at that strange girl sitting over there with that absurd sweater on!”
I try to relax, enjoy the breeze. I think about food, about avocados and how they’re allergically related to latex, about buying a bottle of pinot noir on my way home from work. I lean back on my hands, envision myself at the beach, sitting in the sand, the rhythmic waves coming in behind me. And then an ant bites my ankle.
I look down and see dozens of ants. Or maybe three or four. I wonder how long they’ve been crawling on my skin; my ankle appears red and swollen. They must be swarming inside my pants, climbing up my back and neck. I consider asking someone to check, but I know I’ll sound insane.
I reach my hand up, run my fingers through my long hair. Does anyone see me? Do I look stupid? Am I breathing too quickly? Am I breathing at all? I feel eyes on me, staring, judging. A dog begins barking in my left ear. I need to escape.
“Leave me alone!” I grumble and flee toward the adjacent parking lot. My legs are now moving faster than my body and I stumble when I reach the first row of cars.
I cannot remember where I parked and I panic, thinking my car’s been stolen or I’ve run in the wrong direction somehow. And then I see my car, its dark-tinted windows and peeling bumper stickers, and my breathing slows.
“Why are you staring at me?” I yell toward the lake. Everyone turns and looks. Everyone.
I knew they were watching me.