White petals falling from trees, showering knees grassed green in the playground. Nicholas, reflecting on his childhood, his knees, never recalling a time where they were made wet or stained by fresh grass. He remembers his feet though, tightly tied in hard shoes that clattered against hard cement, books in hand, uniform tucked in and buttoned tight.
He came here for Rebecca, Matthew's Mother.
He looks at the children, and can hardly relate to young Matthew. It's Matthew's birthday today, his fourth, and Nicholas showed up with a present, a toy truck. He wrapped it carefully at the toy store after he made the purchase. A man in a suit waited behind him as he taped the red wrapping paper around the box. Nicholas speculated that this man was a father buying a gift for his son after a days work. Maybe it was his son's birthday.
Strange, disembarking from the metro onto the gray concrete of the suburb outside of Helsinki, where he used to live with his Mother. Bad memories of gray days made ominous by their repetitiveness, not a clear sun for months on end. His Mother was a beautiful woman made ugly by her own addictions. Birds don't sing on this street. Nicholas sees the balcony of his Mother's apartment, the open door. He tucks his head down and embraces the shadow made by the lid of his black cap. Birds don't sing on this street, only alcoholics.
One of Matthew's friends has a tantrum. The mother slaps the child on the hand, an echo in the courtyard. Nicholas doesn't flinch.
Nicholas sits with Rebecca, both in foldout chairs. She waits for Matthew's Father to arrive. Nicholas can relate to Matthew on this point alone. A father appearing and disappearing, as if in a recurring dream. Sometimes a nightmare, other times just a dream.
Matthew has already unwrapped the presents and has made everyone aware of his favorites by holding the boxes of the gifts liked best the longest. Nicholas' toy truck was one of those gifts. The educational toys were collected in one location against a rock. These toys faced the rock, as if the toys themselves felt underappreciated and decided to shun the crowd.
Matthew's Father arrives at the end of the party, when most have already gone. Nicholas watches Matthew's Father lift up Matthew. He showed up in workout gear; a gray hooded sweatshirt and gray jogging pants. He looks strong and forceful but has a calm disposition that reminds Nicholas of his own Father, and the truth behind the mask of calmness.
Matthew's Father towers over Rebecca. Her blank face and her attempt at unfeeling eyes are also a mask. She stills loves him. Nicholas wonders if he had ever hoped for his own Mother and Father to be together again when he was younger.
Fallen white petals fill the chip bowls, the soup bowls, the red cups with drinks unfinished. Nicholas helps Rebecca carrying all the containers back to her apartment kitchen, up three flights of stairs. During each trip up to the apartment, he has to turn the hallway light back on. The light is on a timer. He says goodbye to her in the hallway. They look at each other, and the light goes off again. In the dark, she tells Nicholas to wait for a minute. She's going to tuck Matthew in for bed.
Nicholas waits outside among the white petals and the growing dusk. He waits but she never shows. She might be asleep with her son, he decides. He remembers how she fell asleep so easily that one night after they made love. The only time they made love. He couldn't fall asleep that night. He listened for cars in the desolate streets outside his apartment. He listened for rain and wind. He heard nothing.
He walks back to the metro and on his way to the station, he looks up one last time at his Mother's balcony. Her balcony door is still open, the drapes flowing inwards by a soft breeze. He doesn't want to see her tonight.
He waits for a couple minutes at the metro station and boards a train back to Helsinki. He feels a sense of relief as his seat begins to jitter and the train lunges forward.