I Need Someone to Comfort Me

JoAnn Baca

 



"Damn it!"

Catherine struggled with the crutches, hopelessly clumsy with them. She had slipped and fallen on her ankle on the rain-slick steps of her family's brownstone. Dr. Alcott had gotten her in to see a top-flight orthopedist right away, but it seemed several other New Yorkers who had been tripped up by the rain were already in his waiting room. When she had finally left his office, her right ankle was in a cast and she had his assurance that the break had been clean and she'd be just fine...in a few months. Dr. Simons had prescribed pain killers and rest, and had handed her a shiny new pair of crutches. Because it was a Saturday, he’d instructed her to practice walking with the crutches at home all weekend before venturing onto the streets of the city.

All of it was excellent advice...most of which she was determined to ignore.

This was the 19th of September, 1981, the day of the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park, and she wasn't going to let a little thing like a broken ankle prevent her from being there. Everyone she knew would be there. In fact, she had left the house that morning in a hurry to meet up with her friends, which was why she had been barreling down the steps and hadn't paid close attention to the slippery leaves which caused her to lose her footing.

None of her friends had offered to come with her to the doctor's office...which she really hadn't expected, but that meant that nobody was around to help her get to the Park. Her pals had all gone ahead without her, anxious to claim a prime location and set out their picnic blankets to protect their spot. She knew generally where they planned to be...so she just needed to get to the Park and find them.

Her Dad had come with her to the doctor's, of course...postponing a client meeting to do so. He had been anxious to return to the office and hadn't wanted her to leave the house, but he had finally relented, as she knew he would, and he had even called a car service to transport her to the Park. He had suggested that Norma, their housekeeper, should go along to assist her, but Catherine had turned down the offer, fearful of looking like a child to her friends as she was led to their picnic spread by her former nanny.

Navigating the brownstone steps, even with Norma’s help, had proved very difficult, which should have been a portent about the folly of ignoring Dr. Simon's instructions, but she had been mulish about not changing her plans. She was an adult, free to make her own choices, and she was determined to go by herself to meet her friends.

Well, now she was at the Park, stumbling along with crutches that seemed to have minds of their own, and it was increasingly clear that being stubborn alone wasn't a blueprint for success. She couldn’t deny that she really could have used someone to help her, if only to protect her from jostling by the masses of people streaming into the Park. Freedom to make choices, she realized ruefully, included being responsible for the results of making bad ones.

Grimly she pushed ahead, trying to make the best of the bad situation she’d placed herself in, tottering along as well as she could amid the rush of people. The sky was overcast and rain fell fitfully, making the walkways perilous, the grass slick, and the dirt muddy. It would have been tricky walking; with crutches it was treacherous.

"Hey, watch where you're going, lady!" A teenager roughly shoved her sideways after she inadvertently tripped him with a crutch. She was only prevented from falling by the surging crowd, which held her up merely because they were pressed so close around her. A few people looked at her with sympathy, but nobody was inclined to stop to help her when they were all hurrying to find a clear patch of lawn for the concert's imminent start. She was growing more and more frustrated as she realized just how far away her friends were, and how impossible it would be for her to get to them. She was hot and uncomfortable amid the surrounding crowd, her cast felt heavier with every passing second, and her armpits ached from the unaccustomed pressure of the crutches. All in all, she was feeling decidedly sorry for herself.

Pressing forward, moving slowly, yards seemed like blocks, and the far end of the Great Lawn still was a distant goal. Finally she had to admit it: she was lost in this sea of humanity, she wouldn't be able to find her friends, and her best bet was to find someplace where she could take a rest and decide what to do next.

By pushing steadily, she finally moved toward the outer edge of the stream of people. She found a bench to lean against and tried to ignore the water dripping from the trees and soaking into her car coat. She pulled her pain pills from her pocket and dry-swallowed two of them, hoping to ease the throbbing ache which she felt now not just in her ankle, but everywhere, the fall down the stairs having bruised her and strained her muscles from her neck to her toes.

Everyone flowing by her was intent on entering the Great Lawn area and in a short while, just by standing still, she found herself in a much-thinned crowd. But this was no place to stay. The people occupying the benches seemed to have settled in for the long haul, and she couldn't stand for the duration of the concert. She was wobbly enough right now.

With a heavy sigh, Catherine took in her surroundings. The crowd, although no longer a massive throng, was still moving in one direction, and she would have to move against that tide to leave the Park. She was so angry at herself now that she got stubborn all over again; she had gotten herself here, and she was going to hear this concert even if she couldn't see it.

The key was to find a place to sit without fighting the crowds. It was a tall order. Perhaps she could skirt the paths…or bypass them and create her own shortcut. The latter seemed like a better idea.

She moved into the trees at the path's edge, pushing further into them and away from the path. Normally she'd never do something this dangerous - who knew what lurked within? - but with tens of thousands of others in the vicinity, her courage surfaced and she grew a boldness to match her desperation.

There was a light buzzing building in Catherine’s head which was a little disorienting. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly to banish the feeling, then realized its probable cause. She could attribute it to the pain pills she’d swallowed, and she wondered if she should have taken two or just one; she hadn’t read the label first.

She was making slow headway when suddenly she stumbled forward, thrown off balance by a branch that snapped back on her as she passed. With chagrin she realized she was about to fall flat on her face and would not be able to break her fall because her hands were all tangled up in her crutches. Wondering what else she might break today, she closed her eyes tightly and braced for the impact...

...which never came.

Instead of the expected headlong fall into rocks or tree roots, she found herself awkwardly cradled in someone's grasp. Surprised, she opened her eyes, but her face was buried in some dark material, perhaps a blanket. Then a voice came out of the darkness. "I've got you. You're safe." An aroma surrounded her, surprising in its intensity, and also surprising because it was so out of the ordinary for the middle of Central Park: candlesmoke.

"What...?"

The tall stranger who had caught her was very strong. She squirmed in the man's arms. One of her crutches had fallen and the other was akimbo, leaving her defenseless and feeling incredibly stupid.

"I'm going to help you sit. Please, don't struggle." There was that voice again... like a wave breaking over the shore. As she was still halfway to falling, she was in no position to protest; she needed the help. She considered her limited options then did as he suggested and held herself still.

"OK," she said, surprised to hear how meek her voice sounded. Yet despite her precarious position, her racing heart was slowing, and she was shedding her fear of this stranger. Why? She couldn’t understand her reaction. It seemed to be based solely on the sound of his voice.

She was suddenly off her feet. The stranger lifted her by cradling her behind her back and under her thighs then gently lowered her to a mat on the ground.

Catherine could hear the stranger shuffling among the branches, and soon the crutches slid toward her, close to her left hand. She squinted in the dimness under the trees, trying to get a good look at her companion. What she thought was a blanket initially she saw now was a long cape of some kind. It had a hood which he had lifted; it covered much of his face.

“Do you have a flashlight?” she asked. It was too dim to see clearly and only going to get darker, the night already settling in as the music started.

“No, I’m sorry. But I have a thermos of tea. Would you like some?”

Caution warred with the need for something warm in her stomach to ward off the chill of her damp clothing. She considered her circumstances and said, “No, thank you.” Who knew if this guy had put something in the tea he was offering. But then she reconsidered. She had stumbled upon him, he hadn’t tried to lure her into the trees. “On second thought…yes, I’d really like some tea.”

She made herself comfortable against a tree trunk while he uncapped the wide-mouthed thermos and poured tea into the cap. The hand which offered her the cup was gloved.

“Thank you.” She sipped the hot tea gratefully, tears beginning to form in her eyes as she considered her circumstances, beginning to feel sorry for herself all over again.

“You’re in pain.”

“I’m in pain, yes…and I’m stupid,” she admitted, surprised at herself for being so honest and familiar with this stranger. “I broke my ankle today and I was too stubborn to stay home and rest. I wanted to come to the concert and meet my friends. Well, I got in over my head, and now here I am, sitting under a tree somewhere in the Park, drinking someone else’s tea, practically crippled and in pain. And I have no clue how I’m going to make it home.” Suddenly she burst into tears, embarrassed but unable to stop herself.

“S-sorry,” she blubbered. “I guess I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” She sniffed and dug into a pocket for a tissue.

“Perhaps you should consider your situation in another way.”

The voice spilled over her, causing small shivers along her spine. The buzzing behind the eyes she had been experiencing had progressed to a feeling of lightheadedness and briefly she wondered if it was solely because of the pain pills…or something else.

She also wondered in what way her circumstances could be viewed other than as the result of a foolish misadventure.

“You were determined to attend the concert and you found a way to do that despite the obstacles. That speaks of your perseverance. You were tenacious about achieving your goal. I admire that.”

Catherine’s eyebrows rose in surprise and she was just about to voice a contradiction when his words sank in and she realized that while a part of her had been foolhardy…a part of her had been tenacious, and now here she was. She was not exactly where she’d planned to be, but she had a place to sit and she would hear the concert…and she even had company, someone who had been nicer to her than her friends had been today.

Pulling herself together with an effort, she remembered her manners and said, “Thank you very much for rescuing me from myself.”

She felt more than heard a quiet chuckle emanate from behind the veil of his hood. “You’re quite welcome. And I must thank you…for rescuing me from sitting here alone during the concert.”

Unaccountably, his admission made her feel much better. The demeanor of this unusually clad man spoke of a good upbringing and a kind soul, and she felt at ease with him in a way she never did upon meeting a stranger – which was even more unusual considering the circumstances.

Trying to redeem herself from the poor first impression she had undoubtedly made with her whining and self-pity, she offered more polite conversation. “It seems we have these…” she waved one hand to take in the area beneath the trees where they were sitting, “…seats all to ourselves.” A smile broke over her face – the first in many hours, she knew. It felt good to smile, despite the discomfort of her journey, despite the disappointment of not being able to see the concert with her friends…friends who hadn’t wanted to be inconvenienced by her injury, who hadn’t offered to lend her a hand as this man beside her had - so gallantly - when she had literally stumbled into his cozy hiding place.

The crowd’s cheering interrupted whatever the man beside her was going to say. The swelling notes of the concert washed over them in their hidden nook, and despite everything, Catherine felt drawn into the moment. She wiped the tears from her face, finished her tea and handed the thermos cap back to her savior.

The man pulled a blanket from a satchel and tucked it around her. It felt wonderfully warm and smelled of candlesmoke too. “This might help,” he murmured.

“It does, thank you. You’re…very kind.” In fact, she was almost overcome by his kindness. This sort of thing just didn’t happen in this city.

The man didn’t reply, just inclined his head slightly and settled back against the trunk of the tree.

They listened to the concert, their silence together oddly comfortable. The man beside her was still hooded, but it no longer bothered her. Considering the circumstances, she knew it should…but there was something about him that made her feel safe.

Catherine’s eyelids began to droop and it was an increasing effort to force them open. Soon the combination of the pain pills and the stress and exertions of the day took their toll. Before the concert entered its second half hour, she was leaning against the stranger, her head on his shoulder, sound asleep.

***

When Catherine woke up, she was sitting on a bench in Central Park. The concert was long over and few people were about. The deep night would have been frightening if not for the two young women sitting on either side of her. They were dressed like hippies…if hippies were still in style. One of them introduced herself in a sweet and friendly voice.

“I’m Rebecca. This is Olivia. Vincent asked us to help you get home.”

Still a bit disoriented, Catherine mumbled, “Who’s Vincent?”

Olivia smiled. “He’s the one who sat with you under the trees during the concert.”

“Oh.” Catherine shook her head, trying to dislodge the cobwebs. Her ankle was beginning to throb again, and the pain made her come to full awareness quickly. She gazed in turn at both of the girls. “I don’t think I ever even introduced myself to him. That was rude.”

Rebecca laughed gently. “Don’t worry. I think he was happy to have company. None of us wanted to miss seeing as well as hearing the concert, so he was alone.”

“Why did he have to be alone?” She dimly recalled his gloved hands and the hood pulled down low over his face. She hadn’t gotten a good look at him…or any look at all, come to think of it. There was just…that voice in the darkness.

Neither girl seemed inclined to enlighten her, so Catherine finally shrugged. It was a mystery destined to remain unsolved.

“If you feel up to it, we have your crutches.” Rebecca rose and held them out to Catherine. “We can help you get home.”

“I just need to get out to the street and find a cab.” Catherine awkwardly rose and put the crutches under her arms. “It’s so nice of you to help me.”

“We’re happy to have a chance to help,” Olivia said, adding, “Lots of good people have helped us over the years.”

An enigmatic comment, Catherine thought. But before she could ask Olivia to explain, the women were assisting her onto the path that led to the street, and between maneuvering her crutches and navigating her way, Catherine lost the thread of that conversation.

Rebecca stepped out into the street and waved at a cab which seemed to be parked and waiting for her signal. Catherine could spare only a moment to wonder at such an odd coincidence before the cab was in front of her.

As Olivia helped Catherine into the back seat, Rebecca leaned into the open passenger side window. “Art, could you please take this young lady to her home and help her into her house?”

“Sure thing, hon!” He turned to Catherine, now comfortably ensconced in the back seat. “Where to, ma’am?”

Stunned, Catherine stammered her address and he pulled away from the curb so quickly that Catherine barely got out a shouted “Thank you!” to the two women who were waving from the sidewalk.

As she sat back in the cab, Catherine mused over the strange evening. A kind man hiding deep in the trees of the Park had saved her from a certain face-first fall and offered her tea and a warm blanket. She had apparently fallen asleep next to him but somehow woke up transplanted to a park bench beside two strangely dressed girls about her age who had put her into a cab that was waiting just for her.

Dimly she recalled the start of the concert. One song which floated up into her memory was “Homeward Bound.” She began to hum the tune, then murmured the words to herself, words which told a story about being in a faraway place and wishing for home.

…like emptiness in harmony I need someone to comfort me….

Now here she was…homeward bound, having been comforted by strangers…with a mysterious and wonderful story of her own to tell…if she would remember it in the morning.

 

 ~

 

 


 

 

 


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