Left with Jack

A familiar face brings clarity

Mindi Boston
Pure Fiction


An elderly couple sits on a park bench.
Photo by dennis von westburg on Unsplash

The afternoon sun warms my aching bones. The river reflects the sunlight, casting everything in a golden glow. I amble down the sidewalk, lost in sepia-toned memories. In them, I am young again. The world is new and exciting, unspoiled by the plans of others. I am not old and alone. I do not need a cane to walk or buckets of pills to make me function. I’m not yet a widow nor anyone’s invalid mother or forgotten grandparent. I’m not yet bitter at a life outlived.

Ahead of me is the bench between the old maples. It was there, 50 years ago, that I kissed Jack Garrett, nodded my head, and decided my whole life with a single word. Today, a stranger occupies our bench.

The woman looks vaguely familiar, though I can’t place her face. She is engrossed in a book–Sylvia Plath if I recognize the cover–which gives me time to study her. Dark waves, bare feet, brow furrowed in concentration. Good taste in literature, at least, I think to myself. I have a worn copy of the same book upstairs on my nightstand that I re-read once a year. I strain against the beginnings of cataracts, trying to remember how we met.

A young couple strolls by with a baby, maybe six months old. The man smiles while the woman offers a quick hello. Most folks passing by don’t pay me any mind. Life has not been kind, and it shows in the hunched back and long lines etched upon my face. I smile in reply to the young mother and see her expression change when only one-half of my face moves. It’s an emotion I recognize all too well — pity.

“Ma, come to Connecticut with us,” my son, JJ, had offered with the same expression after his father died.

Jack’s death had been hard enough but then came the resulting depression punctuated by a series of small strokes. JJ had promised I wouldn’t be a burden on him, but I had wondered if he meant it.

“I’m sure we’ll find you something in L.A. instead… if you want, I mean,” my youngest added, the flat tone in her voice conveying her annoyance that I’d outlived my usefulness.

“Don’t worry, dears,” I’d assured them both. “I plan to die soon so no one has to cart your decrepit mother across the country or give up their Sundays to visit her in a home.”

The children rolled their eyes at each other like I was too old to know any better, as if getting old had somehow made me the child and them the parents. It was as if they were the victims. My husband was dead. My body had failed me. My world had ended after a lifetime of details put into them and their father had disappeared in an instant, leaving with me a void much more debilitating than any stroke.

My good hand tightens on the cane, trying to drown out the anger with the pain of arthritic knuckles. It isn’t loss or bitterness that gets me out of bed in the morning; the anger, burning white-hot, fuels my stubborn refusal to give up my home or independence. I had told the kids I would rather die than give up, and I meant it. I cannot let their version of me be how my story ends.

I return my attention to the young woman on the bench. Her limbs are lithe and tan, her neck long against the sparkling earrings brushing her shoulders. She is younger than my children but older than my grandchildren. Guessing her mid-twenties, I bet others find her pretty. My Jack would have found her pretty, I know.

If only she knew pretty girls got old, too.

The stranger wears an off-the-shoulder blouse and long skirt, a throwback to the fashions of my youth. Unlike the yuppie parents and lunching professionals, I can’t place her by her clothing or appearance. Still, something lost to time insists I know her. I squint against the light, raising a free hand above my eyes. Focusing hard on her features, she glances up and catches me gawking. The young woman offers a quick wave in return. I spy a small tattoo on her left outstretched bicep.

“Hello there,” I call out, self-consciously pulling my shirt sleeve down to cover the swinging purse of cellulite marked by a fuzzy green line. Jackie’s Girl, it reads on the banner over a misshapen heart that had once been red. “That’s my bench,” I manage by way of explanation.

She is probably kicking herself for making eye contact with the crazy old broad at the park. She’ll get hers one day. She’ll get old and tired and be pitied by pretty young folks, too.

I chastise myself for the bitterness. I swore to Jack I wouldn’t become like the widows in town, chasing a purpose for their leftover lives. I promised him I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life on woulda-coulda-shoulda when there was nothing I could do to change the past.

I made my bed with Jack decades ago and never looked back. Jack had proposed on that bench, where the stranger sits. I had chosen seconds later to hang all my dreams on his smile, becoming his wife and mother to his children. Then, in a blink, the kids left for college. Once out the door, they never came home, scattering to the farthest corners of the country. Jack and I grew old and infirmed, just the two of us having dinner at Hardee’s on Tuesdays and lunch in the park on Fridays, trying to hold on to who we had been once upon a time.

“I can move,” the young woman offers as I shake off the nostalgia and limp closer. I wave her notion away. She slides aside so that I may join her.

“You must think me rude,” I explain before pity fills her dark eyes. “This bench,” I rap a knuckle against the small gold plaque centered on the top rail, “was a donation to my late husband.” My eyes grow moist, reading only his name where his body should have been. “He died last year. It was our bench together. He even proposed here. Now, I guess, it’s mine… when it’s free, anyway.” I give her an apologetic smile and hope she doesn’t notice the way my eyelid droops or my bottom lip snags.

Her lips form a sympathetic smile, but she sits silently with her hands folded on her lap. Yep, there it is: The pity. With a sigh, I run my gnarled hand over the inscription. My one and only, dear Jack. From your bride, M.

“He insisted,” I mumble, more to myself than to the stranger.

Jack had been firm in his wish, even when I had argued the kids should get a chunk of his retirement. “Give that money to the park, Mary. Replace our bench with one to last another 50 years. Those kids of ours got more money than we ever had.”

I had fought Jack when he added the park donation to his will, drafted a week after his diagnosis. I screamed at him when he stopped chemo and told him that he wasn’t going anywhere. I belligerently reminded him that he had promised me forever that afternoon he proposed in the park. However, one look at my husband and I had known he was right. Jack was always right. I am utterly lost without him. My life has been his longer than it was my own.

I think about life before him often these days. In the dark of night, the silence taunts me with questions of who I might have been if I’d said no to Jack, no to kids, and yes to myself.

“Do you have a husband? Kids?” I blurt out before propriety can stop me.

The stranger packs up her book and stretches her bare feet toward the grass. She reminds me of a sunning cat. I am hit with a pang of nostalgia, touching my own crepey throat and remembering when it had been taut and lovely like hers.

“Not for me,” she answers. She tries to appear nonchalant, a frozen smile on her lips that does not reach her eyes. “I came close once, but I just couldn’t get past that ‘honor and obey’ stuff.” The smile falters briefly before she resets with a forced laugh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so judgmental.”

I nod, though I hear the bitterness in her voice. “I remember thinking that way myself. Then, my husband came along and I forgot all about my aspirations to be anything other than his. Raised a couple of kids, baked brownies, knitted afghans, and then…” I shrug, the words trailing off.

Had there been something before Jack? Yes, I had dreams back then. Dreams of being a war correspondent, of traveling the world with my books and music in the back of an old van while I penned the next On the Road. Dreams of being the me I was born–not his wife, not mother to his children, never his widow.

“I had a guy,” she pauses, gazing off in the distance at something only she can see. “But he didn’t view me the way I wanted to be seen. This guy wanted me to conform. He wanted me to give up everything for him, but I…” She fidgets with the hem of her skirt, eyes darting away before returning to me full of pain so raw I feel it in my marrow. “But I couldn’t do that, right? I chose me because I had to. And he chose someone else, had kids, made the life he wanted… and I,” her voice breaks softly, “I moved on.”

A lone tear finds the worn path between her nose and cheek and falls with a small splash to the bench beneath us.

My heart aches for her, and I reach over, taking her hand. “I know you don’t know me from Adam, but I believe we all end up exactly where we belong. If this man owns your heart, it’s never too late. Find him. Tell him how you feel. Even if he doesn’t feel the same, you will know you tried. I promise you when you’re my age, knocking on death’s door, it’s the regrets that haunt you.” I swallow hard, releasing her hand. “Life is about the choices you make and the folks you love. The rest is just background noise.”

I lean back. My fingers find Jack’s plaque again. I realize the truth of my words as they settle around us. I could never regret being his. Despite the pain and sacrifice, I became the woman I am because of our love.

Love is all you need, I turn to tell her. The Beatles had been right, and so was I. Choose love, I’ll implore her. Then, I will rush home and pack my things. I will move to be with my family, the legacy of my life with Jack.

The words die on my lips as I spot the small tattoo on the young woman’s arm again, this time close enough to read. It is a bright, red heart with a banner across its middle, the words still crisp and clear. Jackie’s Girl, it reads.

That tattoo. The one I got before Jack left for the Navy, just before I got pregnant with JJ.

“What did you say your name was?” I ask in a whisper, though I already know her answer.

The tattered copy of The Bell Jar peeking out of her bag. The dark waves that flow like mine before age painted them gray and kinked them into tangles.

“Oh, how rude of me,” the stranger stutters, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

The words of doubt I’d shared with my mother, questioning if Jackie, as he went by back then, was really my future when I’d had so much more planned.

“Maria,” she says, offering a familiar hand. “But my friends call me Mary.”



Mindi Boston
Pure Fiction

Mindi Boston is a novelist and freelance writer out of the Midwest. For more information, visit