She walked on, losing herself to her surroundings, as well as track of time. She found a little bench surrounded by colossal oak trees and decided to sit for a minute, her feet finally giving out on her. She dusted dirt off the bench before taking a seat. She looked up at the sky, which had now turned into an array of pinks, oranges, and yellows, the sun just about ready to set. The leaves were starting to fall, and she watched as they fell around her, some landing just at her feet. She yanked her coat tighter around her and closed her eyes for a minute, letting the wind play with her hair.
"Well," she whispered to herself, or rather, Mitchell, inside her head. "I'm here."
She opened her eyes to children playing in the distance, their laughter a faint sound. She then looked down at the empty space on the bench, wishing he was sitting right next to her. She sighed and shook the thought out of her head. Looking up, she realized that the trees surrounding her were carved with names, sentences, and dates, perhaps soldiers and their partners came here and carved their anniversaries or their everlasting promises of forever to each other. She slowly stood up, walking to the biggest tree of all and running her fingers over the carvings. Without much thought, she searched the ground for a stone, or anything sharp she could use to mark the tree. She settled for a tiny rock in the form of a little arrowhead peeking out from underneath the leaves. She picked it up and searched for an open canvas somewhere amidst all the writings. Her mind was blank, not exactly knowing what it was she was about to carve, despite her hands pushing the rock against the bark, forming the first letter. She stopped for a moment, contemplating whether she still had the authority to carve out the name of someone who no longer belonged to her.
Just then, a carving to her far right caught her eye, causing her to drop the rock in her hand as she felt hot tears building up in her eyes while walking to where it was. She traced the outlines of the names etched on the tree with her fingers, not believing what she had just discovered. She found her name along with Mitchell's, the date in which it was written also included. Summer 1946. The summer Mitchell came to New York, the summer he stood in front of the very same tree, carving his name along with the girl he had loved. The leaves beneath her feet rustled as it moved with the wind, the cold air numbing not only her face, but also her heart. The tears couldn't help themselves, so they fell, and they fell generously, rolling down her face until her shoulders shook. She quickly wiped them, the familiar disappointment she felt in herself whenever she gave in to her feelings creeping in. She placed a hand over the carving once more as she covered her mouth with her other hand. She struggled to catch her breath, the thought that Mitchell used to feel a love so deep for her now beaten to a pulp killing her inside. And she wondered how a love that can grow between two people, young or not, could just vanish one day. And it killed her to know that if it weren't for the circumstances, they would have probably still been together. She thought that with each passing day, she would grow tired of missing him, that her heartbreak would grow older with time, being forgotten altogether. But she chose to come to New York, and the fact that it still affected her made her frustrated. She didn't know whether she was thankful or regretful for coming along and stumbling across what she had found. She didn't know whether it provided her closure or opened up a fresh wound.
But just then, she heard someone behind her.
She turned around, her eyes growing big at the familiarity of that voice. She quickly pulled herself together, wiping away any traces of sadness and tears from her face.
"James, what are you doing here?" She looked at him, startled. "How did you find me?"
"It's getting late and you weren't in your room so I described you and asked the receptionist at the front desk if she had any idea where you ran off to. She said she wasn't sure, but that you were asking questions about central park. Figured maybe I'd find you here."
He tore his gaze away from her, noticing her wet eyelashes and red eyes. He looked over her shoulder, seeing the carvings on the trees before finally seeing Anastasia and Mitchell's names. She saw him looking at it before turning around to look at it once more herself. James slowly sat down on the bench, still looking at the carving.
"Have you been here with him before?" He asked her.
"No, no, I..." She looked back at him. "I never came here with him. I never got to. He had promised in the past, but..."
She trailed off, turning around again to look at it. He didn't say anything and watched as she touched the carving.
"I found this here. Coincidentally."
They were silent or awhile as they both stared at the tree. The sky was getting dark now, the lamp post next to the bench giving light above their heads.
"Say..." She started, her eyes never leaving the carving, his name burning into her eyes. "Do you think that one day... it's possible to fall out of love with someone? That a distant memory... could really be forgotten?"
"I don't know," he responded. "But I suppose the world goes on. Some others heal, some don't. It all just becomes scars. But, the world goes on. Only if you let it, of course."
"Is that what you do?" She asked. "Run away from the past?"
"No," he said to her. "I just let it stay there. In the past."
They both walked out of the park in silence, Anastasia's mind still transfixed on the sight of the carvings, trying to picture Mitchell carving it on the tree. What was on his mind while he did it? Did he plan on showing it to her once he got the chance to take her? Her head was swimming with questions that she didn't even notice James hailing for a cab once they got out of central park. Once they got inside the cab and James told the driver which hotel they were staying in, they rode in silence. Lights from buildings and signs shone vibrantly, cars honking could be heard and huge groups of people crossed streets, and vendors selling roasted peanuts could be seen as they came to a red light. James looked at Anastasia, who looked forlorn as she sat with her arms crossed, not uttering a word as she looked out the window.
"There's a nice restaurant just a few blocks from our hotel." James said. "I always come there when I'm here for business. We haven't eaten since morning, and I'm starving. I know you've got a habit of locking yourself up in your room away from the rest of the world, but you've got to eat something."
"I don't care." She murmured, not in the mood for banter.
He expected her to come up with a witty jar at him, and when she just sat there uninterested, he didn't say another word except to tell the driver to take them to the restaurant instead. When they got there, Anastasia could see that it was an upscale place as she saw men in suits and women in evening gowns making their way inside. She looked down at her casual attire just as she was about to exit the cab.
"Oh, James." She called out, he then turned to her open door as she hesitated to climb out. "I'm not dressed properly for a place like this."
"You could dress like Rosie The Riveter and you'd still wear it well." He said to her. "Now come on, no one will notice."
She stepped out, a doorman at the entrance holding the door open for them as they walked inside. People at the front desk took their coats before leading them to a table in the far corner.
"I didn't know you took such a fancy in dancing." Anastasia eyed the band playing onstage in the corner of the room, a woman dressed in a silver gown singing to her heart's content next to the piano. Couples swayed together to the music on the dance floor. They sat down, James following her gaze at the people dancing.
"I only come here for the steak." He opened a menu. "I never dance."
"Oh now, don't baffle me." She did the same, searching for pasta. "I'm pretty sure you've taken that pretty blonde here. Either that or I'm sure you've attracted at least a few women in your life."
He looked at her, ignoring her bluntness. The waiter took their order then came back with a basket of bread, a Moscow mule for James and white wine for Anastasia. James watched as she gulped it a little too quickly, wiping her mouth in the process as she stayed quiet, not saying anything. She was itching for a cigarette. The band had started to play a soft tune, and she could swear it gave off a sadness in the air that enhanced the ache she was feeling inside. James watched the band playing before turning to Anastasia, who was looking down, her face wracked with a kind of melancholy that he was not used to seeing. The two sat for a while in silence as James also found himself watching people dance.
"We were together all throughout high school." James broke the silence, causing Anastasia to look at him as he never took his eyes off the dace floor. The air was getting hazy from all the smoke as customers puffed away on cigarette holders.
She did not say anything, for his first time speaking of her caught her attention. He looked at her before taking a sip of his mule.
"We both got into Yale." He loosened his tie. "During the beginning of my freshman year, I got called into service. I promised her marriage if I made it out safely."
Anastasia listened, never taking her eyes off him, even if she couldn't read a single emotion off his face. Nothing broke his demeanor easily, in fact, a few things only seemed to ignite something inside of him that people often wondered how he would react when provoked.
"We were together for a while after I returned... but nothing was the same, especially with my Mother's death. I had different plans in mind for my future." He went on. "I couldn't imagine marriage at a time of turmoil in my life. My Father needed me. The business needed me."
James ran a hand through his forehead, now looking perplexed. People clapped as a song ended. The band then started playing a new number.
"Charlotte?" Anastasia asked. "The woman in the picture?"
"Yes." James looked at her.
"Well, why couldn't you be with her at the same time?"
"Because she wanted something I could not give her at the time."
They didn't say a word for a moment as Anastasia took it all in, while in James' head, flashbacks played on.
"She was willing to wait at first...but she had a certain plan, a schedule, about her life. I had also changed my major to business from medical, I suppose she had grown used to the idea of marrying a doctor." He chuckled and shook his head a little. "I couldn't blame her for leaving as I believe I sort of pushed her to it."
"But did you still love her?" Anastasia asked.
"Yeah." He looked off in the distance. "I suppose I did."
She could not fathom how someone could survive such a thing. To be without the one you love, especially if there was still a way, still a fight to be fought, struck Anastasia in a way that she viewed it in a tragic manner. She almost had to commend James for holding up the way he did. Had she not found the picture of Charlotte, she might not have ever heard of her, much less know that James was capable of ever loving someone.
"Do you ever speak to her now?"
"Sometimes...the last time was months ago." He remembered. "She had kept telling me that she had made a mistake, that she had finally been willing to wait. But the way I see it, she had made her choice."
"How were you so strong?" She was still transfixed in her thoughts before realizing what she had whispered.
"Well, the world still goes on, doesn't it?" He answered, taking the final gulp of the drink in his hand. "The leaves still fall, rain still hits the ground, as does the snow in the winter...and the sun still rises in the morning."
"Life goes on, yes." She traced a finger along the rim of her wine glass. "But whether life still goes on inside of you, that's a different story."
"Sometimes there's more to life than love, Anastasia." He looked at her seriously.
"Mm, like the economy, I suppose?" She smirked.
"Yes." He raised his eyebrows. "Exactly."
She didn't utter another word as their food came. And when they ate, they ate in silence, as they were all too familiar with at their own house. She tried imagining James as a doctor, stealing a glance at him.
"Have you ever taken her here?" She asked, looking around at all the couples, as the place seemed to be full of them dressed to the whole nine.
She stared at the couples swaying together.
"Did you dance together?" She asked, a small toothless smile escaping her lips.
"Why, you've got a lot of questions tonight."
She ignored his remark and looked at him, waiting for an answer.
"Yes." He answered. "She insisted."
"Well, only a man dances for a woman he truly loves." She raised her wine glass to her lips and took a sip. She smirked at him. "Especially...if he claims he doesn't dance."
"Well, you seem to quite know everything, don't you?" He shook his head. "How about you? How about your guy? What's the story on that?"
Anastasia fell silent as a pang hit her in the chest. She swallowed the lump in her throat before washing her emotions down with wine. She didn't answer as her thoughts drifted back to the day she ran into Mitch outside Milton's. The sight of seriousness in his eyes, was a difference compared to the look he had always given her, the look that always assured her that nothing could break them, that his love always belonged to her. She cleared her throat, her eyes glassy.
"Well..." She shrugged, trying to fight her feelings and be the brave and heartless girl she was always known as. "Our families just... they didn't approve of us. But who knows what could have happened, you know? I mean, I was always willing and ready to fight. But I guess... he wasn't."
James listened, never taking his eyes away from her as he watched her bright green eyes sparkle and glisten.
"But, last I heard, he was getting married to Sofia Novack." She sighed. "And I suppose I haven't a right to be upset as I've married someone else myself."
He could have asked more questions to know more about it, but he found himself not being able to say anything else. He had already said too much about his story and was beside himself at the fact that he had done so as he did not find it easy to open up to anyone. And he certainly did not like people knowing his business. He had gotten carried away.
As much as he found Anastasia immature and hotheaded, he discovered that she loved like a child, and he did not know whether that was good or bad. There was a certain beauty in loving as though you had never been hurt before, as if ignorance and naivety was bliss. But James always knew that without the wisdom that came from learning all the lessons and mistakes life offered, one wouldn't get by and manage successfully in the real world. So he preferred not to look at things through rose-colored glasses, it was always how he had liked it. But he envied her just a little bit, for having the capacity to love in such a way. And to be loved with such limitless liberation, he almost envied the man that occupied Anastasia's heart and thoughts. Almost.