On a day just as windy as today, just as jarring and temperamental, I met Alamara Gostev. The sun had risen above the unabashed tall buildings, carpeting an exhausted Manhattan with a blinding glimmer. Wary, as I always am of new people and circumstances, I pushed the door for Magnolia Cafe on 59th Street for his feeble frame to trudge inside. I had had a long day walking in the park, trying to spot turtles and squirrels, slyly taking pictures of dogs without the consent of their owners, and replaying the past week in my head with deep sighs and mindless stares. I thought that was it, that was what most of my Saturdays will be — long walks, untamed thoughts, and dry chocolate pastries.
“Doesn’t freedom come at a price?” My neighbor had asked this morning complaining about her pet parrot, Lenny, who had escaped the cage earlier. I am never the one for small talks or socializing with people. But as strange as Mrs. Mallory was, she did raise a question to which I had one of many answers.
“Yes. The price is loneliness on most days.” I wrote in my diary sitting near the stone dock in the park. A flock of mallards swam to where I sat. Disappointed that all I had to offer was a camera pointed at them and fluttering pages of an old notebook, they swam away to find people who had better intentions with their time and effort. I trudged uphill after. Right where the soil starts to harden, grass grows weaker, and the water begins to recede, that is where I met Alamara Gostev, dressed in a shabby blue shirt that could fit three of him inside. He squinted his eyes, and pressed his greasy grey locks to his sunburnt scalp. His weathered hands pointed at my camera.
“Take my picture, Girl.” His voice, parched, was indicative he hadn’t had water or food in several days.
I am not the one to be scared of strange men in the park, at least not one at a time. Therefore, I obliged. I didn’t know what to do next. So I walked uphill, almost slipping on gravel that enveloped the sides of the walkway, and showed him his picture.
“You don’t quite catch the light right.” He winced.
Unable to form coherent sentences at the insult, I nodded my head, “Maybe.”
He locked his arms in front of his chest and regarded the gleaming lake. “My wife used to feed the mallards.”
“One is not supposed to. They can fend for themselves.” I said.
“Huh! You are a strange kid.” The disdain in his voice startled me.
I had had my insults for the day. I turned around and walked toward the exit.
“Where are you going? Give me my picture first.” He huffed behind me as I paced quicker. Instead of running, or shouting, both of which I could have managed, I stopped and said, “It’s a digital copy. I can email it if you want.”
“What?” His perplexed face aged ten years under the shade of the giant Oak tree where we stood. He did not understand a word I said.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Alamara Gostev.” He announced, then hopped a squat where he stood. He never asked mine, which was okay since I don’t like saying it out loud.
“Can I call somebody for you?” I am not the one to enjoy phone conversations with strangers on the other end, but I could do it just this once, I thought.
“Nobody home.” He said circling his finger in the dirt.
Out of ideas, and energy, I suggested he had pastries with me while we figure out how to send the picture. It would be nice to have company, a part of me mused. The receptionist at the billing counter was surprised that I knew other humans in the city. He glanced at Alamara, then at me. “You can take the table at the back.” He said.
As we settled, him devouring the chocolate cupcake, and me licking the icing, I thought of all times I have had company on a Saturday evening. None of them stayed longer than an hour, much less have a meal. A tiny part of me hoped that Alamara and I could be acquaintances, if not friends. It would be nice to set out of the house on a weekend, with plans in mind and people to meet. Alameda Gostev wouldn’t exactly be the first name on my list, but he would do just fine, I thought. He was old, weak, and terse. He could hear about all the people I almost spoke with or wanted to interact, and in return, I could take his photographs. The plan made sense as long as I knew where to send the pictures.
Alamara was panting roughly, so I got him water. He didn’t thank me and gulped the entire glass at once. Most friendships start out apprehensively, I had read. So I let his lack of manners slide. Eventually, he will come around to it. But first, I had to Google him, and see if we could find an address where I could send his pictures. Nothing came up. I asked him again if he wanted to call someone.
“Just give me my picture.” He said squarely.
Helpless, and to preserve our possible new friendship, I suggested we take a printout at a nearby printing shop. Alamara nodded licking the cupcake foil. We walked across the streets, him slower than me, but I didn’t mind. I told him about how Mrs Mallory’s parrot had fled, and how I suspected Mrs Yuvan’s younger son, Dan, had something to do with it. Alamara was indifferent to my chatter.
We reached the printing shop just as the sun was retiring near the horizon. The cars were now lit at the front, animated metal beings, speeding few fragile humans inside through the shadows of the dusk. Alamara stood outside the shop as I got a copy. The shopkeeper charged me two dollars extra for using his internet, which I think was totally uncalled for. Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I was only intent to get Alamara his picture.
Glee filled my bones when I handed it to him. He stared at it for a few minutes, then broke into a slight smile. I smiled broader. “Thank you, then.” He started walking away from where we stood.
Slightly taken aback, I jogged and stood in front of him asking if he wanted more pictures taken next Saturday at the park. He nodded faintly. “Okay, Girl.”
It was enough. Enough for me, anyway. People have unusual friends. I can have one too. It is always better than having no friends. I watched Alamara disappear near the curve of the road. “I made a friend today” I hurriedly scribbled in my diary and shoved it inside my bag sprinting toward the station.
Next morning, I woke up with a plan in my head for the upcoming Saturday. I could take Alamara for a boat ride. Perhaps, he will enjoy that. I could also take some pasta for him that I batch prepped every week. The weekend looked promising. I jolted out my door to buy two packets of pasta from the grocery store downstairs. To my surprise and annoyance, I found Mrs Mallory bawling her eyes out at the end of the stairs. She glanced up at me, her face swollen, nose runny, and shirt wet at the front.
“I found Lenny. He is dead!” She howled as she opened the folds of the newspaper, dead Lenny placed in the center. I stared at it alarmed, not at dead Lenny, but at the paper.
“Is this today’s paper Mrs Mallory?” I asked as my lungs kept trapping air inside.
“Yes, Dear, why?” Her howling changed rhythms.
“Nothing,” I stared at the headline printed beneath the picture I had taken of Alamara yesterday.
“Runaway asylum patient found dead in Central Park.” It read.
I took the last two steps of the stairs together and walked toward the main door.
“Where are you going?” Mrs Mallory bellowed in pain behind me.
“To get a packet of pasta,” I said.