Fresh Starts 

Reading Time: 10 minutes

FRESH START — Mark stared at the text message as though it was in a foreign language.


Then he forced himself to count backward from ten, to slow his breathing. What else was going to go wrong today? He gave a thumb’s up, letting Veronica know that it was fine. He was fine. Even though he didn’t feel it. 

He’d spent hours preparing this picnic. Everything needed to be perfect. A perfect, memorable day that would live in the history of their relationship long after the last sips of champagne were sipped from the beautiful, engraved flutes. Mark frowned, thinking about the glasses. The engraver had thought Mark had said “B” rather than “V”, so now Veronica’s glass had the wrong initial. But it would be okay. Veronica had a great sense of humor. 

He got up and paced, careful to avoid the flowered tablecloth on the ground. The picnic was spread out under a large oak tree in the prettiest section of the park. The sun played tag with some thick white clouds. Cotton ball clouds, Beatrix used to call them. Birds chirped in the branches of the trees, chatting about their days, maybe making plans for the evening. 

Mark looked over the picnic area one more time. There was the large basket he’d borrowed with the proverbial loaf of French bread sticking out of the top. Grapes, crackers, caviar, and cheese were laid out on a green vintage plate his mother had loaned him. Chocolate-covered strawberries graced another plate and a flask of hot coffee was nestled in the basket along with two insulated cups from his camping supplies. A large arrangement of pink tea roses and Veronica’s favorite flowers–Queen Anne’s lace–sat in the center of the picnic cloth. Perfect

A plane passed overhead and Mark glanced up. He wondered if Beatrix was on it. She was scheduled to come home today. What would it be like to come back to the States after eighteen months in the South Pacific? Jarring, probably. Disconcerting. Good thing he hadn’t gone with her after all. 

Mark continued to pace around the picnic cloth, then ventured further out, onto the wide sidewalk that crisscrossed the park. He didn’t want to go too far, didn’t want squirrels running in and gobbling up their lunch. But he needed to get everything worked out in his mind. Walking helped. 

They’d eat first. Enjoy some of the champagne. And then…Mark patted his pocket. The hard, square reassured him. The ring was still there. Safe. 

He glanced at his watch again. Twenty minutes late. A hard kernel of irritation formed in his gut but he pushed it down. There had to be a good reason. She’d probably gotten caught in traffic. Or had to stay late at work. Veronica’s boss was a jerk who didn’t appreciate her. Mark pictured him waltzing in with a file at the last minute, giving Veronica some urgent project. He imagined her looking longingly at the door, shoulders slumping as she realized she’d be late. Poor Veronica

He walked back to the picnic spot. A flash of movement–something skittering from the cloth and toward the big oak–caught his eye. He broke into a run just in time to see the striped bodies of two chipmunks race up the tree. Glancing at the picnic, Mark groaned. They’d gotten into the bread, nibbled off the end of the crusty loaf. And was that…pawprints in the soft cheese? Hurriedly, he scraped the tainted cheese away and replaced it with a fresh supply. Veronica didn’t really like cheese much anyway. Or bread. But he’d wanted to make the picnic traditional, wanted it to be just right. It looked like things he’d seen in movies. 

Another glance at his watch. Twenty-eight minutes.

“I’m here, I’m here!” Veronica’s voice cut through the birdsong and the muted sound of traffic passing on the busy street above the park. “I’m so sorry, Mark.” 

He turned and watched Veronica, breathless, approach. She looked…disheveled. Her normally perfect blonde hair tumbled from its clip and her face was flushed. Her pencil skirt was askew, the zipper which he was pretty sure was supposed to be in the back, was over her left hip. 

“So sorry,” she said again. He hugged her, a cloud of her expensive perfume engulfing him.

“It’s all right,” he murmured, running his hands over her back and nuzzling her neck. “Did you have to stay late at work?” 

“Oh, um, yeah.” She pulled away, her brows pulled together. “Fritzi needed me to dictate a recorded call for his meeting tomorrow morning. I don’t know why he couldn’t have told me before four o’clock, but,” she gave a little shrug. “You know how he is.” She laughed but it sounded forced. 

“Well, now it’s time to relax and enjoy yourself.” Mark flourished his arms, as though the picnic was a bull and he, a matador. “This is for you.” 

Veronica bit her lip. She looked from the picnic to Mark and back again. “Oh, wow. I’m…wow. Mark, I didn’t expect–” 

“Please, sit,” Mark took Veronica’s arm and walked her to the picnic. She hesitated, glanced at him, and then slipped her shoes off. Tucking her feet underneath her, she sat at the tablecloth’s edge. Mark sat across from her, extracted the bottle of champagne, and pointed it at her with a grin. 

“To my beautiful Veronica and our future.” 

“Oh, wow,” she said again. Her eyes filled. “Mark, I really didn’t expect this. When I said I needed to talk to you–” 

“I know, I know. You weren’t expecting a spread like this. I wanted to surprise you.” 

“But–” 

“Shh. We’ll talk, I promise. But right now, let me get you something to drink. And eat. You must be starving.” 

Veronica stared at him like he had two heads as he handed her the nearly-full flute of champagne. 

“Sorry about the initial–that was supposed to be a ‘V’.” 

“What?” She looked dazed. Fritzi and his stupid last-minute projects. Mark would make this afternoon special though, in spite of the obvious stress she’d carried with her from work. 

“To us,” he lifted his champagne glass at her. 

“Th–thank you, Mark, this is,” she motioned with her glass at the picnic. “So unexpected.” 

He sipped his champagne, the bubbles pinging uncomfortably in his empty stomach. 

“What would you like?” He grabbed a china plate and filled it with strawberries and a glob of caviar as requested. They ate in silence for a few moments. The sunshine on his shoulders was warm, the scent of the flowers on the cloth fragrant, and Veronica prettily nibbled her food. Just like he’d imagined. Except for that whining sound. Mark looked at the bouquet. 

“Oh no,” He swatted his napkin over the flowers. 

“What?” 

“Hornets, I think. Or wasps.” 

He swatted again. Three of them flew away but seconds later, five more replaced them. 

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Mark’s napkin attacked again but when he brought it back toward him a sharp stab of pain exploded on his forehead, directly between his eyes. Yelping, he jumped up, clutching his forehead. 

“Did you get stung?” 

Hopping backward, Mark didn’t see the short railing that protected the nearby flower bed. He crashed over it and onto the ground before Veronica even had a chance to stand up. Laying among the pansies and petunias, Mark heard laughter. 

“Bro, did you see that? What a klutz!” 

Mark rolled onto his side, shook his head, and tried to get to his feet. Two boys about ten years old had pulled up on their bikes to see the show. One of them had a camera pointed at Mark. 

“Hey,” Veronica waved her hands as though shooing a dog. “Get out of here!” 

The boys continued laughing but climbed back on their bikes. Mark heard one ask the other, “Did you get it all?” but couldn’t hear the second delinquent’s response. 

Great. 

“Are you okay?” 

Struggling to his feet, Mark nodded. He felt a little dizzy and the bite throbbed. “I need some dirt,” he mumbled. Scooping a little from the flower bed, he spit in it, making a thick paste.

“What are you doing?” Veronica asked. 

He spread the mud paste over the bite. Within seconds the burning pain had subsided. 

“Why did you do that?” She asked again. 

“It’s to get rid of the stinger. Something in the dirt helps get it out. My Nonna showed me when I was little. I used to help her in the garden a lot and…” his voice drifted along with his train of thought, as he saw the picnic. Two dogs chased a neon green tennis ball that bounced directly toward the basket. 

“Oh no.” Mark ran back toward the picnic, but it was too late. The first dog, a medium-sized black one with a mohawk of grayish hair leaped into the air to catch the ball. The second dog, a large white one, ran straight, right underneath its companion. It didn’t seem to notice the food or tablecloth or basket until it tripped on the plate of cheese and landed with a soft “woof” in the bowl of caviar. Lazily, it licked this until its friend got to his feet and the two started wrestling over the bread. 

“Hey!” Mark yelled and ran toward the dogs. Their owner was nowhere to be seen–or had gone in the opposite direction to avoid a confrontation, Mark thought–but he managed to scare the dogs off. Not before one grabbed the ball and the other the rest of the bread though. Broken crackers and smushed strawberries littered the tablecloth. The champagne bottle was tipped on its side, the cloth underneath it soaked. 

Mark wanted to yell, to chase the dogs, to shake his fist. Instead, he looked at Veronica. 

“I’m sorry.” The mud on his forehead cracked as he spoke, little flakes of dry dirt cascaded down in front of his eyes. “This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.” 

Veronica had a hand over her mouth. At first, Mark thought she was crying–her eyes were damp. But then he realized she was laughing. 

“I’m sorry, Mark. This was such a beautiful….gesture.” A laughing wheeze came from her chest. She valiantly tried to turn it into a cough. “Can I help you clean…” Another burst of choked laughter. Then a snort. 

Mark wanted to see the humor in it. He wanted to laugh along with her–ha ha ha, what a story this will make–but all he could think of was how perfect this was supposed to be, how much time he’d spent to make it just right. What was he going to do? Re-plan the entire event? Come up with a whole new way to make this the perfect engagement? 

No. He’d do it anyway. Ask her. The picnic didn’t matter. They’d look back on this years later and laugh about it. Well, sure, Veronica already was but…

Mark took a deep breath and dropped to one knee. He pulled the small black box from his pocket and cleared his throat. 

“Veronica, I didn’t mean for the picnic to turn out like this. But life is unexpected right? Things happen that we can’t predict. And I know that you’re the woman I want to share all of those things with–the good ones and the bad. The predictable and unpredictable.” 

Veronica had stopped laughing but still had her hand up to her mouth. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. 

“Veronica, will you marry me?” 

A whining buzz came from behind Mark. Further away a kid cried about ice cream and a dog barked. Time stopped.

“Oh, Mark. I’m so sorry. I–I can’t marry you.” 

He remained frozen in place. He couldn’t move. The buzzing grew louder and then Mark felt a sharp, burning pain on his right shoulder and another on his neck. 

Yelping, he swatted at the wasps. Veronica hurried to his side and waved her hands around him, trying to shoo them away. Arms flailing, Mark accidentally smacked Veronica in the head at the same time her fist connected with his chin. 

“Oh ow! I’m sorry–” 

“Sorry, I–” 

Mark ran from the ruined picnic and toward the fountain in the middle of the park. He heard Veronica’s footsteps behind him, her voice telling him to stop, to wait. A toddler splashed in the fountain’s basin and beyond him, a gull washed its feathers. Ignoring the sign that said, “Stay out of the water,” Mark jumped in. It was icy. He let the water wash over him, barely submerged, and closed his eyes. Veronica yelled something but under the water, everything was muted, hard to make out. Maybe he could just stay here, he thought. Forever. 

***

“Hey, your mom said I might find you here.” 

Mark looked up from the park bench where he’d been sitting for the last–what? Two hours? Three? He’d lost track of the time. But the sky was turning that pearly blue-gray it does at dusk. So, a while then. He’d been here a while. 

“She told me…well. That you might need a friend,” Beatrix said, settling herself beside him on the bench. 

“Hey, B.” Mark’s voice sounded reedy, thin. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the airport today. I had…plans.” 

Beatrix shook her head. “It’s fine. My parents were both there and Matthew and Jake. They’ve gotten so big since I’ve been gone, it’s hard to believe…” her voice faded away. “I’m so sorry, Mark. About what happened. Veronica…I know you really loved her.” 

Mark shrugged. True. Now though, he just felt hollowed out. Like Veronica had taken his mother’s melon baller and scooped out his heart and everything else. He hadn’t cried. Hadn’t gotten so angry he’d broken anything. Not when Veronica had told him she couldn’t marry him. Not even when she’d said that the reason she’d wanted to meet him this afternoon was to break up with him. It wasn’t him, it was her, blah, blah, blah. She never meant to hurt him but she’d met someone else. 

“Yeah. It sucks,” he said.  

Beatrix rested her head on his shoulder. She smelled exactly as he remembered, a mix of patchouli and vanilla. He glanced at her. She was tan, her hair longer and worn loose not in the braid she usually had. Her glasses were gone, he realized. It made the sprinkle of freckles on her nose stand out more. And her eyes…He glanced away and then back. Beatrix smiled. Her eyes were the same warm brown he remembered. Only, had her lashes always looked like that? They were long and thick, practically touching her cheeks when she glanced down, tugged at her shorts. 

“Want to walk?” She asked and pulled him to his feet without waiting for his answer. “Come on, you’ll feel better.” 

He fell into step beside her. 

“You know, there is a possible silver lining to the Veronica situation.” 

Mark doubted it. He walked woodenly beside Beatrix. 

“What?” He finally asked, more to keep the conversation going than anything else. 

“You could join the Peace Corps now. Remember all the plans we’d made to go together?” Beatrix squeezed his arm. “They’re looking for people where I’m stationed.” 

Mark mumbled “hmm”. 

“Just think about it. I know it’s too soon now, but I’m home for another four weeks. I’ll keep working on you,” Beatrix laughed. She stopped walking and pulled Mark to a stop too. 

“You’re too good for her, you know. I always thought that.” 

Had Beatrix’s eyes always had those gold flecks in them? He cleared his throat. “But you liked Veronica.” 

Beatrix made a face. “For your sake. I always thought she was a little flighty. And stuck on herself.” 

They walked again. “Anyway. I know you don’t want to hear it now but I’ll give you the standard parent advice. You’re young. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, yada, yada, yada. Better to find this out now than after you’d married her and had kids together.” 

“She didn’t want kids.” 

“See? One more reason not to like her. But I guess you could’ve gotten a dog or two. That’s kind of the same thing.”  

Mark chuckled. “She didn’t like those either.” 

Beatrix rolled her eyes. “Are you serious? What exactly did you like about her?” Then before he replied, “Don’t answer that.”

They walked in silence for several long minutes. 

“I’ve missed you,” Beatrix said.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Mark said. And he realized suddenly just how much he had. 

“Can we stop talking about Veronica now? Because I can’t wait to tell you all about the village I’m working in. You’d love it. There are these mountains, Mark, they’re gigantic. And the beaches near the coast are completely unreal…” 

As Beatrix tried to distract him Mark realized he’d put everything on hold–his interests, his friends, his life, really–to accommodate Veronica. They always hung out with her friends, met with her colleagues, visited the museums and art galleries and posh clubs she wanted to go to. Maybe Beatrix was right. Maybe it was time to remember what he wanted. Who he was. 

“…and then there are the people themselves. They’re the most generous…Hey,” Beatrix grinned up at him. “What are you smiling about?” 

“Nothing. Just…possibilities, I guess.” 

Beatrix laced her arm through his. “I like the sound of that.” 

1,015 thoughts on “Fresh Starts 

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