"Park Bench Love Song"
In this story by Jane L. Rosen, a masked celebrity falls in love during the pandemic — but can he find the courage to reveal who he really is?
If you were single at any point in the pandemic, I know you’ll understand this: Dating got harder than ever before. First dates became even more awkward thanks to FaceTime. But for Kit Baltimore, the famous singer-songwriter in this story, donning a mask turned out to be a relief. Now anonymous, he strikes up a pure friendship with a woman he meets in the dog park. Soon, they both yearn for more. But that would mean opening up about who he really is — and owning up to his white lies that spiraled out of control.
This pandemic-era story was dreamed up by Jane L. Rosen, author of this summer’s hit novel A Shoe Story (described as “Beach Read meets The Notebook” by writer Jo Piazza). It hits one of my favorite tropes (a famous person falling for a normal person) and will sweeten up your Friday morning. Enjoy!
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“Park Bench Love Story”
Kit Baltimore sat across from his new wife at the dining room table in their light-filled Central Park West apartment. The Times was splayed out between them, ripe for the taking. Even so, she occupied herself on her phone.
“I have nothing to post,” she whined.
“I’m sorry—I told you, this is real life. Life on tour wasn’t real.”
“We can be in Paris by dinner,” she said, smiling hopefully.
“A Marriage Story is playing at the Paris Theater,” he suggested with equal enthusiasm.
“We can sneak in flasks, sit in the balcony, share a large popcorn.”
He was met with a dissatisfied pout, unaware just how much foreshadowing his suggestion contained. Kit understood what his bride had been going for—Paris was where they met (the city, not the theater). After one romantic night together there, he’d been smitten. He invited her to join him on the rest of the tour.
She loved the screaming crowds, the private planes, the fast outs when they escaped through venues’ back doors ahead of the madness, and the lobster tails his manager had added to his green room rider as a joke. She loved waving the laminated back stage pass that hung from her neck at every opportunity. “I’m with the band,” she’d announce. And though it had all ceased thrilling him years earlier, watching her experience it for the first time was a thrill in itself.
By Barcelona, they became engaged, by Oslo, married. His drummer was his best man, his bass player, the witness. They both took him aside and questioned him.
“Is she pregnant?” the drummer asked.
“Have you lost your mind again?” the bassist inquired.
Kit had been engaged twice before and married once. Still, he looked crestfallen at their lack of understanding.
Couldn’t they recognize that this was different?
She left him a month shy of their first wedding anniversary.
The breakup rocked Kit more than he cared to admit. He swore off women, even walked the Grammys red carpet alone. He cried to his brother, a high school science teacher with two kids and a mortgage he wouldn’t allow Kit to pay off.
“Who will ever love me for just me? They see Kit Baltimore, not Keith Baker from Baltimore,” he bemoaned.
“Write a song about it,” his brother joked.
Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t give his ex the satisfaction of a broken-hearted ballad in her honor. Besides, he felt creatively blocked, numb. He collected the spiral notebooks that normally littered his apartment for moments when inspiration struck and shoved them in the kitchen junk drawer under the takeout menus.
Alone and love-starved, he went out and adopted a dog. He named him Bruce, in honor of his idol, Bruce Springsteen.
And then COVID hit, and he was alone. Really alone. Except for Bruce. Thank God for Bruce.
Soon, the city shut down around him. His brother invited him to quarantine with his family in the suburbs. His bass player encouraged him to come out east to the Hamptons and ride it all out in his pool house. He declined all offers.
On April 3rd, the first day the CDC recommended that the regular population wear masks, Kit donned his happily. It gave him an anonymity that he hadn’t felt since his breakout album in 2008. No one pointed, no one asked for selfies or sang the lyrics to his biggest hit, “Has the Train Left the Station.” It was nice.
He was content with his simple routine. Every morning, he picked up a latte with oat milk and honey from the coffee shop on the corner and headed for the dog park adjacent to the Museum of Natural History. A creature of habit, he sat on the same bench each day.
One day, with Bruce off sniffing butts and rolling in the wood chips, Kit closed his eyes and breathed in the warm spring air through his new N-95. In and out and in and out until—boom—an unruly combo of Labrador and Poodle jumped up next to him and dropped a dirty, saliva-soaked tennis ball in his lap. Kit startled and stared down at the nasty object. He knew it was a simple tennis ball, a yellow Penn Two that he had seen a zillion times before, but he pictured the grey sphere covered in ominous red spikes that flashed constantly on TV and the internet, the visual of the new plague. What he may have once considered a funny dog park interaction rose to the launching of a missile of death. Kit looked down at the slimy ball and recoiled while the dog’s owner made a beeline for him.
“I’m so sorry. Oh my! So sorry.”
A curly brown-haired woman who looked wildly similar to her curly brown-haired dog came to a halting stop a few feet in front of Kit. She put her outstretched hand over her masked mouth at the sight of the ball sitting precariously in the crotch area of Kit’s pants.
“I got it,” he said, reaching into his backpack and pulling out a pair of surgical gloves.
She apologized again, this time with a hint of laughter. Just as Kit was about to retrieve it, her dog Daisy did a nosedive into his crotch, grabbed the ball in her mouth, and ran off. Kit breathed in and out deeply, visibly rattled by the incident. The woman waved a brown paper bag at a safe distance from his face like a white flag.
“Scone?” she asked, pleading for forgiveness.
“No, thanks. I can’t take your scone.”
“I got two because I couldn’t decide between blueberry or apricot. You would be doing me a favor, actually.”
Kit loved an apricot scone. He would add them to his rider whenever he played a concert anywhere in Great Britain.
“Apricot,” he conceded with an unseen smile. She sat down on the next bench, took out her scone and carefully passed him the bag.
“I’m Shelby,” she said with a wave.
“Hi, I’m Keith,” he replied tentatively. He hadn’t been Keith in so long. Boy, it felt good. He added, “They need to invent a cootie shot for this thing already.”
She laughed a little too hard and reined it in.
“Sorry, it feels weirdly good to laugh. I was up half the night counting ambulance sirens.”
“Me too. The whole thing is so sad and surreal.”
“It is. Did you hear the dry cleaner on the corner of 83rd and Amsterdam is on a ventilator?”
“Yes, his wife told me this morning.”
They both took a minute to pray for Tony.
“It’s weirdly isolating too, don’t you think?” she asked.
“It is. Do you live alone?”
He hadn’t said it as a pickup of sorts, but blushed when he realized it could come across that way.
“Yes,” she answered. “You?”
Bruce came running back to the bench, as if to remind Keith of his existence. He scratched him behind the ears, adding, “Me and Bruce. I’m recently divorced.”
“Me too. Just six weeks ago. I was married to a big fat liar, you?”
They both laughed, though neither was certain of what was funny.
Kit was usually intensely private. It felt good to have just spilled the truth like that, without any worry about it ending up on Page Six. Being Keith was better than he had remembered. He loved his new N-95 mask and the anonymity it provided. He thought he may never take it off. He broke off a piece of scone and slipped it underneath into his mouth.
The two fell into conversation about benign things, less personal, more COVID. They both admitted to hoarding a bit more than their fair share of toilet paper, masks and Clorox wipes and discussed the best takeout in the neighborhood. They chatted about the books they were reading, the shows they were bingeing, and the unique release of flinging open their windows every night at seven o’clock to yell and scream and sing “New York, New York” along with the rest of the urban prisoners.
The exchange marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and before either of them knew it, the morning hour spent at the dog park became the highlight of both their days, their reason to get out of the house every morning.
“Look what I made!” Shelby arrived a few weeks later with one of those fancy Tupperwares in the shape of a cake plate. She unleashed Daisy before opening it up at presenting it like she had just completed a six-month stint at Le Cordon Bleu. “Voila! Sourdough!”
“Wow, you are really leaning into the COVID trends aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you watching Tiger King?”
“Maybe.” she said, feigning defensiveness. “Are you?”
“Hey, cool cats and kittens—maybe.”
Shelby laughed and passed Keith a napkin and slice of bread. Two hours later, they had eaten the whole loaf, and not out of hunger—well not in the usual sense of the word, that is. They could not stop chatting, mostly about nonsense and inane things. Keith was always quick to steer them away from anything more significant.
The next morning, Keith arrived earlier than usual and used the time to complete the weekly New York magazine crossword.
On that day, when Shelby showed up, he traded his standard greeting for, “I’m stuck on 22 down.”
“Twenty-two down—Liberace?” she boasted.
“Wow, you’re good. I didn’t even say the clue?”
“Give me another,” she challenged.
“Dog and rapper—Pit bull. Us crossword puzzle writers call it the ‘play on words’ move—or the double entendre. Like Direction and Kanye?” She waited for him to answer.
“Very good. How about songwriter and Maryland city?”
She again waited for him to answer. He had recently begun to worry that avoiding revealing personal information was egregious on his part, that he was lying by omission. On the few occasions that she had brought up her ex, it was obvious that being lied to was the most painful part for her. It was the reason for her marriage ending. He was afraid that she would be mad when she found out who he was, especially since lately, he went to sleep wondering about more than what was under her mask.
Then he had another thought, one more in line with his own personal sense of betrayal. Had she been pretending not to recognize him this whole time? It wasn’t unheard of. Sometimes, people approached him online at the store or waiting for the light to change on the corner, and chatted him up like they didn’t make him, leaving him open for normal conversation. They said things like, “I should never shop for food while hungry,” or, “Hot one today, huh?” And when he fell for it, when he responded like just Keith, actually enjoying the moment, they’d ask for a selfie, leaving him a fool. This felt like that, but on steroids.
The possibility sent a fire burning in his belly that ran up his spine. He stretched his neck left to right and then in a complete circle to try and dispel it.
“Baltimore,” she answered, clearly tired of waiting. “You know, Kit Baltimore?”
She rolled her piercing brown eyes at him. He blushed, ever thankful for the mask.
“Not into music, I take it?” she noted, a pang of disappointment in her tone.
He laughed. “I’m actually a musician.”
“And you’ve been buying me lattes? All my musician friends are so broke right now—and without unemployment! Did you get unemployment?”
It wasn’t the reaction he’d expected.
“I didn’t,” he answered, upset that he was so close to outright lying. He could save it now with, ‘Funny enough, I am Kit Baltimore?’ He could even take down his mask and smile his signature smile that Rolling Stone once called melancholic. He had honed in on the word the minute he’d read the glowing piece, skimming the pomp and praise and obsessing over the fact that the reporter had recognized the innate sadness under his smile.
“You know one of my friends is making a killing busking in the park. I can ask him the best spots?” she offered sweetly.
He had to say it. Just say it, Kit!
She did this thing she did where she swung her legs over each other, criss-cross, and then tucked her hair behind both ears simultaneously. He found it adorable. He wanted so badly to keep things the way they were between them. Her name in the puzzle’s byline jumped out at him.
“Wow, I’m impressed. I can’t believe you made this puzzle.”
She flipped it right back to him.
“So am I. I can’t believe you’re a musician. What instrument do you play?” she asked.
“Guitar and piano. I’m a singer-songwriter.”
In a case of perfect timing, Daisy and Bruce came running over, each with a ball in their mouths. Keith stood and wrestled them out with each hand. As usual, Daisy gave hers right up while Bruce held on for dear life. Keith lectured him while throwing Daisy’s ball as far away as he could.
“Why do you bring me the ball if you don’t want me to throw it?”
Bruce watched the projection of Daisy’s ball and dropped his own at his master’s feet. Kit joked, “Comparison is indeed the thief of joy, even for dogs,” and gave Bruce’s ball a hearty toss. Shelby laughed and Bruce took off after it.
When Keith sat down again, he steered the conversation away from himself with a zillion questions about writing crossword puzzles, letting the window lapse on his opportunity to admit the truth. When they said goodbye that day, he paused, contemplating what felt like the last chance to right his wrong. But for whatever reason, he balked.
In the time that followed, Keith fell into the old “oh what a tangled web we weave…” adage by spewing out a series of white lies like, “I sold a few songs years back to some famous musicians and get by on the royalties.” He wished he could go back in time and be straight with her, but also, he didn’t truly believe he could trust anyone to love him for him. How would they even find him with all the bells and whistles and guitar strings distracting them from his persona?
By the end of May, when a Black man named George Floyd was senselessly murdered, further crushing spirits and dividing the country, the two attended rallies and protests together, bonding even more over their shared humanity. Their conversations grew deeper, though more political than personal, and continued that way as one morning blended into the next. Even with everything going on in the world, Kit felt content—deeply content. Coming from someone who went through most of his life in a state of existential dread, content was a big deal. He could tell that Shelby felt similarly. He had never felt so connected to a woman before. The two of them had so much in common. They both read the Times from cover to cover every day, adored Manhattan, and didn’t feel the need to flee. She was equally happy enjoying simple things like sitting in the balcony of an art house theater or sipping a latte with oat milk and honey on a park bench.
On a warm summer day, Keith handed her one. Iced!
“Aaaah. I may love you,” she said, reaching for it.
She blushed. He did, too, though neither saw.
Keith’s mind had been doing somersaults lately when it came to Shelby. Seeing her was his first thought upon waking and often his last when going to sleep, which rendered lying to her the thing that kept him up in between. He tried to put it out of his head in the light of day, but worried about the hard stop the removal of his mask may spark.
Time went on in that weird way it did at the height of COVID. One minute, you were excited to be joining a Zoom reunion with friends from middle school, brushing your unruly hair, making sure you looked your best, and the next, you were making excuses about why you couldn’t meet online at five to sing “Happy Birthday” to the guy in the dorm room next to yours back in college, until finally, you didn’t even turn on your camera anymore. Through it all, Kit and Shelby met every morning, weather permitting. Shelby was a bit of a camp counselor type and came up with a host of fun pandemic-safe activities.
They virtually toured Graceland, the Sistine Chapel, and Anne Frank’s house. They each picked a classic for their mini book club—he chose Slaughterhouse Five, her, Pride and Prejudice. Neither had read the other before, and both were surprised by their mutual enjoyment. They exchanged numbers and synced their Netflix accounts, watching movies together yet apart. As the leaves turned, they extended their park time to include long walks around the outer path of the reservoir, where Bruce and Daisy led them along like reindeer. He constantly pushed his deception from his mind, but with every day, the burden of his lie grew. He hoped she was sporting a cleft lip under her mask, or a hairy mole the size of Toledo, just so he wasn’t the only one hiding something.
Then, one snowy day, sometime after the Bernie Sanders mitten meme became all the rage, Shelby boldly texted Keith, no doubt tired of waiting for him to make the first move.
“I heard that ramen joint on Columbus put up those heated huts. Want to meet me there for dinner tonight?”
She had hinted at things like this before, but had never asked directly. He imagined she was feeling pretty insecure about it by now, even waiting for him to step up. He typed and erased and typed and erased, probably freaking her out even more, until he finally settled on another lie. It was the only thing he could think of that would keep his anonymity safe without hurting her.
“I have COVID.”
“Oh no! How do you feel? What can I do? I can’t believe it—you never take that mask off!”
“I’m okay. Just need to sleep. Will text when better.”
The next day, he fled to his brother’s place in Jersey. His brother had to deal with teaching class remotely, and his wife’s job rendered her equally unavailable to their two kids. After a week, it became obvious that Keith was really needed there, which felt good. He texted Shelby, told her he was staying to help his brother’s family, and that he would reach out when he returned. As the weeks went by, he found himself truly enjoying the foreign world of suburban parenting, and while he thought of Shelby often, he knew he was hurting her less by putting some time and space between them. If he was being honest with himself, he made a conscious choice to save his own heart.
He returned to the city just as the cherry blossom began to bloom and the CDC announced masks were no longer needed outside, liberating the entire city and further enslaving him to his lie. He didn’t go back to their bench, and wondered every day if she was sitting there waiting for him. He swore every night that he would return the next day to reveal himself, but in the morning light, the fear of rejection always won. He was sure she would have no interest in dating a liar.
The next morning, he left the house mask-free. In some ways it felt good, the air hitting his face, the absence of the tiny beads of sweat that gathered on his upper lip—but a familiar sense of exposure quickly outweighed the benefits. Bruce pulled him left on the corner of 79th Street and he contemplated walking right up to Shelby, basically in the nude, declaring his identity. By the time the light turned red, he chickened out and turned right, heading further west. He’d heard that Riverside Park had an excellent dog run as well.
Once inside the double gates at Riverside, Kit let Bruce off the leash and found a seat on an empty bench. A few people looked at him and smiled. He smiled back in a keep-your-distance way. And they did. New Yorkers were mostly cool that way.
Just as he was about to leave, Daisy came barreling towards him with a tennis ball in her mouth. She dropped it at his feet and jumped onto the bench, covering his naked face in wet kisses. The pure act of love momentarily distracted him until Shelby appeared, giving off a very different vibe than Daisy’s. He took in her entire face for the first time—the soft line of her chin, her long Grecian nose. Her eyes, which had always been so warm, bore into his. Her thin pink lips quivered and not in a good way.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she managed.
“Neither do I,” he replied.
“When did you get back and why are you coming here instead of the other park?”
He couldn’t give her real answers. “Why are you?”
“Because I was tired of the heartbreaking ritual of waiting for you to show up every day.”
She wiped away the moisture that had filled her eyes and took a deeper look at him.
“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kit Baltimore?”
She wasn’t being cute. There was still anger in her tone. He considered using his usual answer to that common refrain—I get that all the time—but thought better of it.
“I am Kit Baltimore.”
Her eyes widened, and he could see her taking it in, taking him in. Her hands flew to her stomach as if he had kicked her in it. She grabbed Daisy by the collar and snapped on her leash.
“Did you even have COVID?” she questioned.
He just shook his head.
“Go back to the other park!” she yelled. “This one is ours now!”
She turned and stormed off.
Kit’s heart dropped as he watched her walk away.
Over the next few weeks, Kit texted Shelby both long and short explanations for his actions, sincere apologies, and outright declarations of his feelings for her. She finally responded.
“I am not interested in a relationship with a liar. Please don’t text me again.”
He respected her wishes and gave up, but was shocked by just how hurt he felt. He woke up every morning with a pit in his stomach and a longing in his heart that he had never experienced before. Then, one summer day, when searching for his vaccine card, one of his old notebooks caught his eye. He had yet to write a lyric in more than a year that had anything to do with love. The few things he had been working on were all about the state of the world.
He sat down and wrote a love song inspired by the famous line from his favorite rom-com, Notting Hill: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
He called it “Shelby from the Dog Park” and though it was arguably the best thing he had written in years, and clearly the most private. He felt funny about sharing it. He made the mistake of playing it for his manager, who argued that it was indeed the best thing he had written in years and convinced him to release it quietly on the streaming platforms with barely so much as an announcement. Before long, it went viral and its chorus, “Come sit on our bench, where we met that day, come sit on our bench ’til we’re old and grey,” was in everyone’s ears, including Shelby’s.
She listened to a podcast on which Kit spilled the entire story behind the song. In it he said that he missed her terribly and still went to the park every day, hoping she would appear. She cried. She missed him, too. Then, as if to torture herself further, she watched Notting Hill. She fell asleep that night with its happily ever-after ending taunting her dreams.
The next morning, Shelby tentatively turned her own steps left instead of right and walked towards the dog park—their dog park—,bag of scones in hand. Her heart stopped when she saw him in the distance. She unleashed Daisy and headed for the bench. Their bench. He was reading the newspaper.
“Hi. I’m Shelby,” she announced awkwardly.
He looked up from his paper. Tears immediately filled his eyes. He blinked them away.
“Hi. I’m Kit,” he paused, adding, “Some people call me Keith, though.”
“Which people?” she asked.
“Just the people who really love me.”
“Well then, nice to meet you, Keith,” she said, holding out her hand.
He took it and pulled her in for an embrace—their first embrace, and quietly sang the chorus to “Shelby from the Dog Park” in her ear.
“Come sit on our bench where we met that day, come sit on our bench ’til we’re old and grey.”
Two happy, albeit jealous dogs came barreling towards them, jumping and nudging and doing their best to come between them.
But from that day forward, nothing ever would.
Next week on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from Courtney Kae, author of In the Event of Love.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Courtney’s story!
Three quick things from Hannah:
For Elite Daily, writer Christina Huynh rounded up ten stories from people who hooked up with hot strangers on vacation, and it is a truly wild read. 👀
I adore summer, but I’m starting to crave fall: A fresh haircut. A chilled glass of gamay. Over-the-knee suede boots. The ten-minute version of “All Too Well” on repeat. What are you looking forward to this fall? Comment below.