I walk every day until I stop talking to myself. It takes grinding myself into exhaustion to stop the racket in my head. I live near a park with over two miles of trail. I walk the trail twice, sometimes more, and then head into the sprawl of surrounding suburbs, pacing through subdivisions and strip malls. I can’t say if I’m walking toward or away from something. I may be doing both.
Usually nothing happens on a walk that calls for a response, but one day in the park a young woman with two small children approached when I rounded a corner and neared the park’s playground and main pavilion.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
"Why do you ask?”
“Your face. You look so intense and your lips were moving. I could hear you saying something.”
“That’s just me mumbling.” I didn’t want to encourage her, but I struggled to add a few words. “My mind trying to understand its noise.”
“I think most of us do that,” she said.
I smiled and went on my way, but her question lingered.
As it happened I saw the woman again within a week in almost the same spot as before. She waved and walked toward me, her kids clamoring after her. I stopped and turned my head, some impatience coming through, or so her face suggested. As soon as she was still, her kids hid behind her.
“I’m sorry about last time. I thought it might help to know you’re seen. You leave a footprint.”
What was she talking about? Perhaps she didn’t know what she meant, but then why say anything?
"No problem. Thanks for your concern.”
“Wait,” she said as I started off. “I have no one to talk to and I want you to talk with me.”
I hesitated but pointed to a bench near the pavilion and we went to it. We sat on opposite sides, she flanked by her kids, who eyed me.
I didn’t want to ask her questions and hoped I’d only have to listen. But she sat there quietly, unsure where to begin, waiting for me.
“I’m sorry if I’m failing you,” I said. “I’m not the right person for this and I’m going to leave. I wish you well.”
“Reproduction is the root of all evil.”
Her words stopped me, but did I want to hear more?
“This is not my children’s fault, but they’ve connected me to their father. I’m getting away from him, but wherever we go I’ll be taking part of him with us and I can’t believe anything from him is a gift from God. I have a place to stay; this is not about that. But when I look at the world and my situation I can’t escape the idea that the world would be better off without people.”
“Stop reproducing, that’s all I can say. You can’t stop others.”
“I saw in your face that you’d know what I’m getting at.”
I didn’t want her reading my face. I wanted my boundaries back and was angered I’d have to change my route to avoid running into her again. I got up and walked away.
"Coward,” she said.
The word didn’t turn me around, but it and others she’d spoken seemed indelible and followed me as I walked, along with images of her and her children drifting through the park, their eyes attaching to passersby.
After speaking with her my regimen began to fail me. I couldn’t walk far enough to get ahead of myself and every person I saw suggested reproduction, a species bent on propagating itself. It didn’t sit well with me that I’d left her, but I stayed out of the park, having no idea what she expected of me or what I could say that would help.
Six weeks passed and my frame of mind improved, though I still avoided the park. I was walking in a subdivision a mile from my place when I saw her and her kids and a man getting into an SUV parked in the driveway of a two-story house. She saw me but looked away, and I resisted an urge to gaze at them. Had she gone back with him or had she ever left? Had she decided to share her darker thoughts with someone unconnected to her life?
I glanced at the SUV as it passed and saw no heads angling toward me. She could be worried I’d tracked her down. Why would I, but since I was a stranger how could she be sure? Could she doubt I’d seen the bump protruding from her belly?
I returned to the park the next day.