The Benchwarmers

“Do you remember what we were like in school?” James asked, shifting around to find a more comfortable position on the bench.

The sun shone down for the first time in weeks and people were scattered all over the park, lying on blankets or picking at picnics as they soaked up the beginning of summer. Spring had been disappointing this year; late to come and miserably cold, as if the bitter winter had been particularly loathe to let go of it’s grip on the city. Jay looked out over the lake to their right, his brown hair curling in the light breeze that blew in fits and starts across the open grass behind James.

“I’m not sure that I do” he answered quietly, still looking at the lake and tracking the movement of a mother duck with five ducklings in tow. “It feels like so long ago. So much has happened since then.”

“Yeah, I guess so…” said James, not really committing to his answer.

Jay, bored with the passage of the ducks, looked at his friend. He raised the bottle of beer he was holding to his lips and took a measured sip. A comfortable silence settled over them, the sort that only life-long friends can sustain without shifting awkwardly and feeling the need to fill it with chatter.

“Do you miss it?” Jay asked after some time, taking another sip of beer.

James also raised his bottle to his lips as he considered the question. “Yeah, I think I do sometimes, you know? I mean, it was all a little simpler back then in a way. Everything had a place…”

His voice trailed off as a solitary cloud made a brief skirmish across the sun. A couple to James’ left who had been wrapped up in each other blinked in the changing light and then returned to their own world of personal jokes and secret smiles. Both friends watched on from the bench, letting their thoughts wander. Eventually, Jay cleared his throat.

“I mean, I remember putting prestik in my ears in Grade Three so that I didn’t have to listen to Mrs Schoon anymore, and I remember Mr Benson putting pins on all our chairs in the beginning of Grade Six and I remember getting into a fight with Sebastian Cohen about some stupid game we used to play against a wall…”

James chuckles at this memory of two young boys flailing at each other, neither really brave enough to land a blow. “I remember that too. Cheers to your incredible kung-fu skills.”

Jay looked at his friends smiling eyes. “Fuck you” he said, feigning insult, but still chinking his bottle against James’ proffered drink.

“I also remember the penalty you missed against St Dunstan’s in that final which we lost 3-2” Jay retorted, smiling teasingly at his friend.

James brow furrowed briefly, but he returned the smile. “Cheers to that too.”

They drank the beers in silence for a while, picking through their memories, holding a few up to the light of consciousness and then letting them recede again. The couple to their left closed their eyes, tracing invisible lines over each others arms and stomachs as they lay in the grass with the sun streaming down.

“Do you still talk to Ash?” James asked, turning once more to his friend.

Jay looked away into the distance beyond the lake, where some children were playing an impromptu game of cricket, using an old bin as wickets. He drained his bottle, put it on the ground and picked up another from the six-pack at their feet.

“Yeah, I guess so. From time to time. She’s in America now, trying to become an actress or something. How about Sam?”

“Not really” James answered with a sigh. “The way we ended, there was no coming back from that. You know?

“Sure. She was quite a bitch after all.” He smiled at his friend – it was an old joke between them. “It feels weird talking to Ash. It’s like I can remember all these events, I mean, the prestik and fights and sports games and funny comments because they’re just stories I’ve told myself again and again and now I can’t really tell which version actually happened.”

He paused and looked over at the couple to their left. He opened the bottle he’d selected with an practiced flick of his wrist and took another long sip.

“And I remember the things that happened between me and her, the holidays we went on together, the talks we had, the things we discovered, but I can’t get a grip on what it was really like… You know?”

He trailed off, unable to find the right words to describe what he was trying to say.

“I mean, it’s weird right? I see her on Facebook or whatever and there are these photos of someone I used to know so well and who still looks kinda the same, but she’s not, you know? And I’m not either. So much has happened…”

“So do you think you’ll ever get back together?” James asked, selecting himself another beer from the same six-pack at their feet.

“Shit, I don’t know.”

Jay looked out across the lake again, thinking about how far she was from this park bench glazed in summer sun and the couple lying in each other’s arms. A golden retriever chased a ball across the path in front of them, back-peddling fast once the ball was secure in her jaws to avoid the lake. It was too late though and she ended up with her whole chest in the muddy water. A man moaned from behind them, muttering as he walked past about having to deal with wet-dog smell for the next week. The retriever, for her part, just seemed happy to have secured the ball, which she obediently dropped at the man’s feet, wagging her tail expectantly. The wagging devolved into a full-body shake which sent water droplets scattering everywhere, catching the man in a sun-sprinkled spray.

James and Jay laughed at the comedy playing out in front of them, silently egging the dog on. The ducks, meanwhile, had not taken kindly to the canine invasion, scattering back into the reeds, the mother ushering her small charges with great concern. After a stern show of disapproval, the man patted his now-wet dog affectionately and threw the ball away from the lake. The retriever dashed off once more in a flash of gold and brown to live up to her name. The man touched his cap as he walked past the bench, grinning sheepishly.

“You know, it’s stories like that that I miss when I think about school” said James, sipping his second beer. “All the small things that used to happen everyday, at break or in class, which we never really hold onto. I mean, I remember our stories, the big things we did together, the times we got into serious trouble or when we lost that water polo match at nationals.” Here he grinned wryly,  “but I’m not sure I remember them as anything other than stories I’ve told and been told over and over again.”

“Yeah” answered Jay slowly, drawing out the sound. “It’s almost like I wasn’t there, it was just some young impostor who was me and lived the stories I now tell about growing up. I can’t really remember being him…”

“Do you remember that time we put you in a kiddies trolley to push you around at Athens International and then the police came and you got stuck?”

“And you guys all just ran away, leaving me to deal with two very angry greek cops shouting at me?  Sure, I remember that one. Great times…”

James laughed long and hard, avoiding a play punch directed at his arm by Jay. He stretched his long legs out away from the bench, allowing the sun to catch the pale shins which had been wrapped in long trousers for too long. Jay ran a hand through his hair and took another long swig of beer.

“It’s almost like life is just an accumulating series of moments, you know?” Jay said. “And it’s easier to handle that when you’re young because there are not so many moments to organise and memorise. But now…”

“But now there are lots of moments and memory doesn’t seem as secure as it once did?” James said, finishing his friend’s thought for him.

“Yes” said Jay, his eyes back on the lake where the mother duck had reappeared, carefully checking for more signs of danger before venturing out again with her brood. James followed his friend’s eyes to the lake and then past it to the cricket game taking place on the other side. He drained his beer, placed it next to the other empty bottle and leaned down to get another. Jay followed suit.

“And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter, you know, all that stuff from the past. And sometimes I think it’s the only stuff which really does – the stories that we tell ourselves about who we once were and who we will become.”

“I don’t know. I always turned the playstation on when you started talking like that” said James with a smile as he drained the neck of his next beer.

Jay laughed. “That’s only because you won every game we ever played, you son of a bitch.” He elbowed his friend who made an elaborate show of protecting his beer as he shifted down the bench in mock anger.

“Never nudge another man’s beer my friend” James said, feigning haughtiness. “That’s just not cricket.”

Jay chuckled at this turn of phrase and stretched his own legs out next to James’. He took another swig.

Silence settled over them again as both contemplated their beers and watched shadows stretch slowly across the grass in the pursuit of twilight as the sun went down. The cricket game halted briefly after one of the batsmen hit the ball into the lake, a sin for which he was unceremoniously declared ‘out’ by the group.

“Tell me again how you got so tall?” Jay asked, comparing the length of his legs to his friend’s.

James sighed theatrically. “I’ve told you a hundred times” he replied, adding an eye-roll for extra effect, “army intelligence tortured me as a kid. Thought I was a the leader of a sleeper cell made up of children from the burbs.”

Jay laughed again, this time loud enough to cause the couple to their left to look up at them briefly. He had not seen James in two years and their meetings always took this form. The slightly withheld reunion: a firm shake of the hands and a smile to acknowledge the countless years they had spent growing up together, followed by some brief talk about how they were and what they were doing and then this slow settling into a routine they had perfected so many years ago. Jay took another sip of beer as the sun dipped behind the tallest buildings in the city and evening began to settle in.

“Life is completely absurd isn’t it?” Jay asked, turning to face his friend earnestly. “I mean, did you ever imagine that we would be sat here, in this park, drinking beer and talking about how we once were and what we remember?”

James looked at him, crossing his legs over each other in the opposite way. “I guess not. We couldn’t have known we’d be here, that would have been weird. People would have probably thought we were mutants or something…”

Jay chuckled, but his face remained serious. “Yeah yeah, obviously we couldn’t have known we’d be exactly here, but I mean it in more in the sense of did you really think your life would end up like this when we were growing up?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I ever thought my life would end up like something specific, you know? I mean, I have an idea about what I want to do and where I want to go and what things I could imagine myself being, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about exactly what all that would be like. I’m not sure…”

James’ voice trailed off as he struggled to put words to the thought.

“Maybe I’m mad…” he added as an afterthought, “I dunno.”

Jay smiled, “That’s ok. As my good friend Jack once said: ‘The only people for me are the mad ones’” he quoted, waving his arms dramatically in front of him. “‘Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like yellow spiders across the sky.’”

James finished his beer as Jay was reciting these lines and burped loudly after he was finished.

“You know that it’s time to get to the pub when you start quoting all those English books of yours” he said good-naturedly, slapping his friend on the back.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” smiled Jay.

“C’mon! What are you waiting for?” he asked, standing up and stretching his back as the horizon rose toward the sun and dusk settled in.

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