Jeff Hayden noticed the alert eyes of a young blond girl watching him from the park bench. They were especially intent for the eyes of a girl of about 5 to 6 years old. Perhaps she knew him? He couldn’t recall, but stopped to say hi.
He was a thirty-five year old journalist, with short dark hair and dark intense eyes. This was the year he finally decided to start running again, since the occasional partaking of beer was starting to show on his waist line. Being a single guy without a serious girlfriend, he definitely had the time. So here he was on this warm October day in Jacksonville, enjoying the slight breeze that motivated his run. He needed to stop and gather his breath.
“Hi,” he said to the little girl on the bench wearing a red jumper and white tights. She had a blonde bob, and deep green eyes. She looked so familiar.
“Hi, there,” she replied, with a smile.
“I had to catch my breath.” He didn’t know how to broach his question without seeming creepy. “Do I know your parents?” He asked.
“Don’t know. But I know you. You’re a journalist, and your name is Jeff Hayden. I’m Renee.”
His jaw dropped. She knows my name, he thought. Whose child is she?
“How do you know me?”
“Aren’t those butterflies so pretty?” She asked. “And my shoes are brand new! My mommy bought them for me yesterday. Excuse me if I get distracted easily.”
These were big words for a girl her age. Why was she out here alone? Where was her mommy now?
“Oh, but your question. Umm,” she hesitated, swinging her legs on the park bench, since they didn’t quite reach the ground. “I have to tell you a story about a teacher I knew. It might explain this.”
“Okay,” he said, perplexed.
“It’s Ms. Finney.”
Jeff recalled Ms. Finney, a teacher he had actually been seeing for a while before he went after a “dream job” in New York, only to return jaded to the arms of a 21 year old college student, a consolation prize. Never did he call Renee upon his return. His memories of her, however, were fond. A good gal, fun sense of humor. She was a romantic conquest that never bloomed into a full-fledged relationship. They had simply fallen out of touch when he moved, and never re-connected when he got back. Something he at times regretted, but only when the fun with 21 year old Cindy faded away. A long-distance relationship was not something he wanted with Renee, and Cindy was a welcome distraction, full of energy, a clubbing gal with non -stop sex appeal pursuing a marketing degree, very bold and confident. He suddenly thought this little girl might be related to Renee. There was an uncanny resemblance.
“Yes, I know her. So, tell me your story.” He stepped over from the water fountain, then returned to the bench, ready for a short break from running. He found himself in awe of the vocabulary this girl possessed, as she looked up and began her story.
“Ms. Finney was a little bored with her life. You see, she had been divorced 8 years, she was 38, and she didn’t know if she ever wanted to be married again. She knew she didn’t want to be alone. She somehow still wished to meet her “true” love. She enjoyed fun times with her son, and she also had her dancing lessons she took on her own time. She just knew she wanted more. She was pretty open-minded, though not crazy, but very accepting of people different from her. She enjoyed her job of teaching, but always strove to have a life of her own outside of the job also. It was a long weekend in late September when she decided to take a short trip.
Her son was with her ex-husband for a five day weekend. So Ms. Finney got in her car to drive up to the hills in New York. Her dad lived up there. She thought she might surprise him. On the way there, she stopped in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to stay for the night. She called her father about her visit. Upon finding out he was yet again traveling with work, she hung up the phone, disappointed.
There was a little carnival going on there. She walked through, enjoying the sights and smells of carnival food. She found a gypsy’s tent. The sign said, ‘Proven to be able to reverse the aging process.’ Ms. Finney was a fairly curious sort, and she didn’t like the thought of approaching 40. She stepped into the tent.
‘Forty dollars,’ said the gypsy, in heavily accented English.
Thinking that must scare a lot of the customers away, Ms. Finney said ‘What the heck,’ and placed two twenties in the gypsy’s palm.
‘You vant the age reversal,’ the gypsy stated, not asking, but declaring.
‘Um, yeah sure,’ answered Ms. Finney. Is my age that obvious?
“Here, for you,’ the gypsy said as she dipped a long scarf into several different bowls of dye. The result was a very colorful scarf.
“Is perfect for wrap, a shawl, scarf, head wrap. See mine?’ She pointed.
There is no way she could be a living advertisement for the age reversal, thought Ms. Finney, stifling a giggle.
‘The dye is special,’ the gypsy continued. ‘Gives you youth, reverse your aging. Anytime you wear, it takes several years off your age.’
Ms. Finney smiled and accepted the wrap, noting how it strangely was all dry, no wet dye. She shuddered.
“No, is good,’ swore the gypsy. ‘I’m 50 year, you wouldn’t know it.’
Ignoring that claim, Ms. Finney took the scarf and wore it, admiring the colors. It matched, of course, since it contained almost every color imaginable, and it gave her a bit of a bohemian look. She did a little spin. ‘And it’s pretty, too.’ She smiled, thanked the woman, and left.
Back at home, Ms. Finney didn’t think much about the scarf, until she wore it on a date with her friend Scott. Jan and Myra were also there, at the karaoke bar.
‘Sorry, I have check your id,’ the waitress said, when Ms Finney ordered a glass of wine. Smiling broadly, she took out her id with a flourish, thanking the waitress. She also realized no one else had been carded, although two of her friends were slightly younger than she.
When she got home, she took off the scarf, and thought about being carded. Age is all a state of mind, she thought. When I wear the scarf, I’m going to feel younger. She always took great care to not look her age, to dress slightly more ‘hip’ than a woman of 38 years. At this point, she felt the scarf was well worth the forty dollars she had spent.
She wore the scarf to school one day. A new student asked her, ‘Where’s the teacher?’ Ms. Finney beamed, and pointed to herself, taking a bow.
‘Man, I thought you were a student!’ the new girl said, red-faced.
Ms Finney, and everyone else, started really noticing a change when she lost her curves. Yes, she had been getting the comments that she was looking radiant and young, but when her jeans starting really bagging in the rear, and she couldn’t fill out her shirts anymore, she remembered the gypsy’s words: ‘Everytime you wear this scarf, you take several years off your age.’ In fact, she felt like she was about twelve. She had been getting positive comments about her weight, and had claimed it was due to kick-boxing classes (purely a fabrication). She had put on the scarf that morning, and quickly tore it off, thinking of the meaning behind the gypsy’s words.”
The little girl paused, and crossed her arms on her now raised knees. She continued with a far away look in her eyes.
“By now, she was fully a believer in the gypsy’s magic. ‘Every time you wear, it takes several years off of your age.’ How many times had she worn it? Did it take off five years each time? If she wore it six times, would that add up to thirty years taken away? And her mind was affected. She had a hard time paying the bills, helping her son with homework, remembering things she needed to do for work. She just couldn’t concentrate. She couldn’t enjoy the Anne Rice novels she used to love reading. The whole point seemed to be way above her head.
She felt she was shrinking by the minute. How could she stop this? Her son started to request staying with his grandmother more often. He was obviously freaked out by the changes in his mother. At this point, she looked no older than him, and he needed, a mother, not another child.
One morning she threw on the scarf without thinking, then quickly tore it off. Would that take her back another five years? So many details she didn’t ask the gypsy in her doubt. Sitting in the car, she discovered she could no longer reach the gas pedal or the brakes with her legs. She whipped out the cell phone and called in sick to work. Co-workers were already worried about her. She’d overheard someone talking about anorexia. But that didn’t explain her shrinking height. She got out and walked to her mother’s house. Her mom was getting her son ready for school.
‘Hi, mom,’ Pete said. He looked at her with sadness. He thought she was sick, too.
‘Hi, honey.’ She hugged him, and realized she was now shorter than he was.
‘Mom,’ she implored. ‘When you drop him off, I need you to take me to South Carolina.’
‘Why, is there some special doctor there?’ Her mom said, looking her up and down. She had been nagging her to see a doctor for days.
‘There’s someone in South Carolina who knows what’s happening to me, and why. Maybe she can stop it. After that, I’ll go to a doctor, if you want. But you have to wait outside. I go in, alone.’ Her mom looked wary, but agreed.
So they dropped her son off at school and headed for South Carolina. But the carnival wasn’t there, neither was the gypsy. They couldn’t get any information from locals. They got home that night, and Ms Finney was even shorter. It seemed like the whole thing was happening freakishly fast. The doctor was not available for a few weeks. ER? They would do nothing. She did not appear sick at all.”
At this point, the girl, Renee, paused, and looked up at Jeff. He was amazed with how much she reminded him of Renee Finney. They were obviously related; maybe this was a joke of Renee’s. He had heard that his friend Bruce ran into Renee one day and she had asked about Jeff. She always seemed interested in him, but he never really let her in.
‘Jeff, do you remember when you and Ms Finney danced at that place by the beach? How you held her face in your hands….told her about your dream of living in Alaska and writing that great novel. Do you remember? Because I remember. I’m sorry we lost touch. I got busy too, but I knew we’d see each other again. I just didn’t know I’d no longer be your equal. This time I’m not too old for you, am I?”
Jeff felt a lump in his throat. He always hated good byes and had avoided that with Renee. He also avoided serious relationships for that reason. He had never seen this coming.
“I really got myself into deep doo-doo, this time,” Renee declared. “I have no choice but to let this run its course.
She took her shoe off and studied it. She stared at a dog being led on a leash, and laughed when it started dragging its owner. “I get really distracted.” She giggled.
“Who brought you here?” He asked, avoiding putting the pieces together a little longer.
“My mom brought me because I can no longer drive,” Renee answered in slow, clipped cadences between clenched teeth. “I have lost my life because of vanity.” She declared as a tear slipped down her cheek.
“You’re…..Renee…Finney?” Jeff asked. He was incredulous, yet it all fit in with the story. It would explain those familiar eyes, that chin, the uncanny resemblance, and how she know of his dream of Alaska. He didn’t share that too often. Cindy wouldn’t have listened.
“You’re the last man I kissed, Jeff. The last one I danced with, hoped for. I’ll never love a man again. I’m a child now, but have no future to look forward to. Tomorrow I may be an embryo.” She chuckled. How many five year olds knew that word? He envisioned her becoming a microscopic egg, and then, a mere gleam in her father’s eye, and before that, what?
He was amused at seeing how she looked as a child, and ashamed to think this was once a woman, once his lover. The whole concept was incomprehensible.
“I know it’s strange; would you just let me kiss you one more time?” She asked, falteringly. “Tonight I have one last dinner with my son. I will try to cook.” She stared away at the man and dog again, perhaps distracted?
“I , uh….” He sat on the bench next to her, feeling wrong, awkward, unsure. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder, wanting to reason with her. This simply could not be real.
“Where’s Renee Finney?” Jeff asked.
“It’s me, Jeff.” She stood on the bench, leaned in, closed her eyes and pressed her lips softly to his cheek. Then she leaned back, teardrops rolling down to her chin. He was relieved it was over, yet saddened. A car pulled up and someone sat watching them. Jeff noticed it was not Renee Finney, but a woman in her sixties, who waved at the little girl as if there was nothing wrong with her talking to this grown man in the park.
“I’m glad for what we had,” she expressed.
“Yeah, me too,” he replied, still incredulous but unable to explain it all. Renee stood up, shook Jeff’s hand, and sauntered off, sadly at first, then she started running like mad, perhaps wanting to make the most of her time left. It had started to get dark. He presumed the woman in the car to be Renee Finney’s mother, and there was a child in the backseat. Evidently Renee came here, knowing the places he frequented. It must have been her intention to say goodbye, to her last link womanhood, now gone.
No, Jeff, this can’t be real, he thought. There is some other explanation. He shook his head as if to shake off the whole afternoon as he walked away. But it would haunt his dreams for months. If it were true, then he had just conversed with a dying woman. It didn’t matter that she had found the fountain of youth. She was a woman who was dying in reverse, but still dying just the same.