Sofia pulled into the parking lot, parked, and pulled out her phone to post a status update: “My mood can’t be any worse so I may as well go to Walmart.” But then she decided it would only serve to make friends worried, so she told herself to put her phone away and just get out of the car and go in.

She felt jittery all over as she walked towards the building and just told herself to get in and get out asap. Pick up a few things, then head home where she could crawl back into bed for two days in hopes she’d eventually sleep it off. She avoided the greeter’s eyes as she muttered a terse “hey” on her way to the carts and wheeled one out, angrily jerking it away from the cart behind it not noticing the woman she dodged in front of in her hurry. Entering the store, she began her usual meandering path and then abruptly checked herself, nearly saying aloud “NO! You have to get in and get out, remember?”

The urgency of her mission dawned on her a few minutes later in the meat and cheese aisle, when she suddenly had a frantic vision of herself having a full-blown panic attack near the mozzarella. “What the hell is wrong with me?” she thought, her eyes searching the faces of other people to see if they could see it too. She didn’t remember ever having a panic attack in a store, but her anxiety was pretty bad, so she pushed her cart as fast as it could go to the bakery, the front of the store in sight.

But she wasn’t prepared for the flower bouquets. “They aren’t even that nice,” she thought, “but flowers. I would have to see flowers. Today. Because who gets flowers? Not me. No one gives ME flowers,” she thought hotly, blinking back a tear.

She walked up and down aisles and noticed they had bouquets in 4 different places. “Oh just give up and buy one for yourself,” she thought, but then she talked herself out of it. “No that will only make it even more pitiful.”

So with great willpower and mounting fears, she found a nearly empty checkout line and paid. On her way out she tried to make eye contact with the greeter when he said “good bye and thank you” but she still failed. “Only a few more minutes and I’ll be home free and then I can panic all that I want,” she thought. And that’s when the doors opened and she saw the girl with the blue plastic pitcher.

A young girl about 12 or 13 held out a pitcher filled with dollar bills and change and said, “Hello! Would you like to donate money to a student exchange program?”

Sofia’s purse had fallen open and her change was stuffed messily in her wallet. Without hesitation, she said, “Yes” and reached in and grabbed a $5 bill. The young girl looked ecstatic and said “Thank you for your generosity!” as Sofia walked away. When the girl’s father yelled the same after her departing figure, Sofia burst into tears.

She thought about trying to stop herself, but she realized that it made no difference to anyone in this parking lot if they saw her crying. So she let the tears flow as she emptied the car and started the drive home.

A few minutes later, still terribly upset, she rounded a bend in the road that went past a pond. Since it was a pleasant sunny night, the parking lot was nearly full of trucks belonging to those who had launched small boats. She pulled in, wanting a chance to look at the water and get herself together before she drove any further.

She got out of her car and walked over to the water’s edge and leaned against a wooden fence. The tears didn’t stop, though. They just kept coming. And she couldn’t even understand why the encounter with the girl collecting money set them off. She wiped them away and sighed deeply and then he spoke.

“Whatsamatter witchu, honey?”

She turned to her left and saw a man she hadn’t noticed before sitting in a foldout beach chair with a crocheted blanket on his lap. He was puffing on a large old pipe and he wore sunglasses and a jaunty hat. He looked to be about 65 or 70 years old. In his lap poked a fishing rod and the line was set in the water.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “are you talking to me?”

“You betcha I am, I said, whatsamatter witchu, honey?”

“Oh,” she said. She sniffled. “It’s nothing. Just a bad day I suppose. I’m fine.”

“Naw you ain’t, missy, you ain’t, cause if you WAS fine, you wouldna been cryin’ them waterfalls,” the kindly man said.

“I don’t know I guess it’s just that I’m very sad. I lost something really important.”

“Some THING?” he said, smiling, “or some ONE?”

“Some ONE,” she said, nodding as she walked over towards the man. “It was someone.”

“Well see now we’re gettin’ somewheres then,” he said. “And how long you been lovin’ this someone?” he said.

“I don’t know. Awhile. But besides, he was never mine anyway. He always belonged to someone else. So I’m not just upset about him. There were others. I lost all the ones I loved.”

“All the ones? Or all the HIM ones?” he said, peering over the tops of his sunglasses at her.

“Yeah, you’re right again, all the HIM ones,” Sofia said, smiling a little at his expression as she sniffled and let out a big sigh.

“Well now, so lemme get this straight. You is standin’ here, today, crying up more water than done fits in this here pond, because you lost all the HIM ones. Right?”

“Yep. That’s about the size of it. I’m crying because it hurts. Because I’m lonely. Because I’m sad. Because the him ones never love me back.”

“Oh they don’t now? Well. You know that if they don’t love you back it ain’t got nuthin’ to do witchu. It got everything to do wit the HIMS, though. It’s on them, ya see? It’s circumstances they got, ya see?”

“I guess.”

“But it ain’t a guess, now, it’s true. Now I bet you been goin’ around all your life looking for these hims to love ya back, and they wasn’t ever gonna do it. Meanwhile, there’s other people who loves ya without ya even knowin’ it, ya see?”

“Well I guess, I mean, I know that, you know, my family loves me and my friends love me. I mean I’m not saying I’m not grateful for that. I just wish I could have the love of one of the hims. True love. I know it’s silly.”

“Well it ain’t silly, true love, but I’m telling ya girl, ya done lookin’ for it in the wrong place. I bet you been puttin’ a ton of your love into the ones who weren’t ever gonna love you back; meanwhile, there’s all kinds of people right under your nose who would  be happy as I’m gonna be when I catch this fish for my dinner if you would just love them instead of the hims.”

“Well like who?”

“I’m just sayin’. Did you see anybody today who needed some love?”

“Well, there was a girl with a blue plastic pitcher who needed donations for her program. I gave her some money. More than I ever gave anyone on the spot, I think. I usually give a dollar or nothing. But I gave her more. I even thought about going back and giving her all that I had but I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do that next time. But anyway that wasn’t love, that was just a donation.”

“But ya see it is love! I betcha she took one look at you with that sadness on your face and she thought you’d just walk on by her, but she looked at you and she said a big hello to you and she smiled and she was tellin’ you, ma’am, I love you, would you help?”

Sofia stood there starting to cry again.

“And you gave her the money and you helped. That was you telling her you loved her back, see?”

“But why would that make me so upset?”

“Look. I bet you was crying over the hims a little bit in your mind before that, weren’t ya? But the real tears started to flow when a stranger told ya she loved ya and you told her ya loved her back. See that’s true love.”

“But how is that true love, when there is no relationship? No highs and no lows. No shared lives. No beginning, middle, or end? No…nothing?”

“It’s true love because it don’t need any of that stuff to just be. Don’ t ya know by now that them books has got it all wrong? True love is all about one person lookin’ at another and sayin’ in this moment I’m gonna give all that I am and all that I have to you, not looking for nothin’ in return. True love is a girl with a blue plastic pitcher, and it’s also the woman with the tears running down her face who just wants the gift she has to be accepted.”

“Ain’t none of those hims was ever gonna accept what you had to give. So you gotta give what ya got to the ones who will welcome you with open arms.”

Sofia was crying fresh tears, but every one that fell was cathartic. In a way she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She couldn’t see clearly yet, but the fog was lifting.

“How’d you get to be so wise, anyway,” she asked the old man.

“Me? Oh I’m not wise. Just a man fishing for my supper. That’s all.”

She reached out her hand and placed it on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I hope he’s the biggest, tastiest fish you will ever catch,” she said.

He reached up her hand and patted it and gave it a squeeze back. “You run along now. There’s other people out there with blue plastic pitchers, waitin’ for ya.”

Sofia took a few steps towards her car and fumbled with the keys. She needed to get the man’s name, to thank him for what he did for her.

She turned around towards the pond, though, and she saw that he was gone.

Confused, she got back into her car and turned on the gas, but as she looked in her rearview mirror, the largest, most beautiful fish she’d ever seen shot up from the surface into a glorious arc and hit the water with an affirmative smack.

The End

NOTE: This story was inspired by the lowest I’ve felt in a long time, triggered by a situation that reminded me a little of one I went through a long time ago, the Coldplay song “Paradise”, a real girl with a real blue plastic pitcher, and an old man sitting by a pond, smoking a pipe, fishing rod in hand. I didn’t stop to talk to him, but I think that if I had, this is what might have happened.

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