A Short Story
Jake and I sat together on the bench almost every day in the park. He was reading a novel he had become deeply engrossed in, and I was his “couch” so-to-speak. He leaned against me as he read, and I peacefully soaked in his closeness while people-watching others as they strolled through the park.
This was a common activity for both of us during our trips to the park; Jake read, I watched. Sometimes I’d bring along my music, but on most days I left it at home, not wanting to take away from the experience of being outdoors on a nice day. I’m not a big reader, so outside of the occasional magazine, I rarely had reading material with me. It was enough to be with Jake while he read. It was easy enough for my mind to wander on its own as I daydreamed, and despite how wrapped up he always seemed to be in whatever it was he was reading at the time, I never felt as if he was ignoring me.
Jake and I met during our senior year of college. Both of us were education majors, and we ended up student teaching at the same middle school. Jake was teaching eighth-grade English, and I was teaching seventh-grade math. Prior to our student teaching semester, we’d run into each other on random occasions, but we’d never really had an opportunity to have lengthy conversations since our specialty areas were different. Nonetheless, we recognized each other at the school where we were teaching and began sitting with each other during lunch to talk about our experiences.
We clicked right away, and one day after school I mustered enough courage to ask him if he’d be interested in getting coffee after school the following night. He agreed, and we met at the local coffee shop after bus duty. One drink turned into two and then into three, and we ended up staying until closing time talking together. I found his company to be warm and was ecstatic when he asked me if I’d like to go catch a movie with him on Saturday night.
We started dating, and while we never hid anything from the general public, we made it a point to remain professional during school hours. There was some speculation by some of the other teachers, but no one made a big deal out of it. At the end of the semester, we graduated with honors, and by some stretch of fate, we ended up landing teaching positions at the same school in a small town in Missouri.
We decided to move in together after a year of dating. Before our second year at the school began, we found an apartment with nearly equal distance to both the school and the park that had become our go-to spot for relaxation. The school year started without incident, but after school one day, one of our students stumbled across us at the park. He went home that night and told his parents that he’d seen two of his male teachers holding hands at the park. That was followed promptly with the boy’s father in the principal’s office demanding our dismissal from our positions.
Our principal, who had never expressed his opinion on our relationship one way or the other, defended our right to retain our teaching positions to the boy’s father and told him that he would not be firing us anytime soon . “They’re excellent teachers.” He said. “And frankly, I don’t give a damn what they do with their personal lives.”
The rest of the semester flew by, and it seemed as if the boy’s father had dropped the matter after his discussion with the principal. It was winter break, and Jake and I were once again sitting at the park. It was chilly, but the winter had proven to be mild so far.
We were there for a few hours and daylight was just starting to run away from us when we decided we should head home and make some hot chocolate and cuddle up on the couch to a good movie. We were in disagreement on which movie to watch — a sure sign that we would end up watching both.
We were making our way back to the apartment, when a car drove by and a gun quickly pointed out the window, firing two shots before the owner retracted the pistol back into the vehicle and the car sped down a side street and out of sight. It all happened so fast that I never had a chance to get the license plate number from the car.
I started shaking as sweat started forming on my forehead and in the palms of my hands. When I turned around, my stomach wrenched as I saw Jake on the ground, clutching his chest. Already, a thick pool of blood had soaked through his hoodie. I dialed 911, fingers stumbling erratically across the buttons, as I tried to apply pressure to the gunshot wound with my other hand.
Jake never made it to the hospital, and I can still remember the dread that swept over me as his life left his eyes and took a piece of mine with him. They never convicted anyone for his shooting, and when I received the letter in the mail informing me that his case had gone cold, I lost another piece of my already shattered spirit.
In a world full of so much pain and sorrow, Jake was the one thing that made it all seem perfect. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of that day in the park when we sat together, him against me, while he read and I watched others as they went about their business in the park. How many times had we been to that park without a care in the world? In one moment, all of the great experiences that we had were taken away, leaving only distant memories of my time spent with him. All of that was replaced by new nightmares that would forever haunt me.
Life is short and fragile. I would give anything for one more day in the park with Jake. At first, I was filled with hatred for the gunman that had no identity. I almost lost my teaching position as I lost my desire to be around anything or anyone that reminded me of him; however, one day after school, the principal pulled me into his office to have a talk with me. He told me that he had considered firing us at the end of the school year following the incident with the boy’s father, thinking that it might prevent further issues from coming up with parents who knew that there was an openly gay couple teaching at the middle school. He then went on to tell me why he didn’t.
“I saw you and Jake sitting in the park one day after school. He was reading a book, and you were grading math papers. Seeing you sitting there, spending time together, even while you were each doing your own thing, was truly inspiring to me. Never have I seen two people radiate such love for each other without saying a single word. I took that into account as I also considered the professionalism you two had together. You were two of the best teachers I had, and I thought you needed to hear it. Jake is gone from this world, but he left behind a legacy. He impacted the lives of so many students, and together, the two of you impacted mine. Don’t let the gunman take that compassion away from you. Despite how hard it may be, strive to remember the great times that you and Jake shared together. Hold on to those memories no matter what.”
And so I do. Jake was my world, and I can’t spend time and energy hating the gunman for taking him away from me. Instead, I’m holding on to the memories of him that can never be taken away, because although he may be gone from my life, my life is still in this world. And while my life is still in this world, Jake’s will always be in my heart, and I’ll cling to him until I leave this world and finally reunite with him. And then, I believe we’ll return to the park.