I was maybe 15 when I asked this gorgeous 17-year-old girl out on a date. I had no business doing that, but back then I had an abundance of courage and not much sense.
I don’t remember how I got her phone number, it wasn’t from her, but I do remember pacing back and forth for five or six hours before I finally picked up the receiver of our standard beige rotary phone and dialing it.
She was at least two years older, six inches taller and a year ahead of me. We had no classes together but we were friendly, which of course made me think we would be more than friendly if only I could somehow say the right things to unlock all those mysteries I longed to discover.
She was so considerate on the phone it took me some time to realize she had declined my invitation.
I did at last get the message after she said no a few more times. What is strange to me now is that when I finally understood it, all of my anxiety and desire went away; only stupidity and regret survived. We remained friendly but I kept my distance because I didn’t know whether I had embarrassed her or myself or both of us, and I didn’t want to find out.
To her lasting credit, no one at our high school ever showed any sign of knowledge about that conversation. For my part, I would have taken it to the grave if not for what happened later.
I saw her for the first time in more than three decades at my high school reunion a few years ago. It was a small affair, only 100 people or so encircling a dance floor and stage where a jazz combo played standards far removed from our era growing up. She was not in my class but chose to attend because it was local for her and she had friends there. I confess she looked to me just like that 17-year-old knockout I remembered, flowing gray hair and all.
I politely greeted her, speaking a little louder than I wanted to over the music, reminded her who I was, and said something really interesting about the weather. She asked me if I had lost my mind.
“How could I ever forget you?” she said.
We went down the list. Career, check. Marriage, check. Parents living, dead or somewhere in between, check, check, check.
She became an eye surgeon of some kind and was happily married and teaching at a big university. I told her about my life as a freelance writer laboring in obscurity.
When I was done talking about myself, finally, she said, “I want to tell you something. You made me feel like I belonged.”
She went on to describe her younger self and all of the unwanted attention she endured, which even in that moment made me burn with shame.
I asked how it was possible that the most desirable and intelligent of people could feel excluded, especially when those around her wanted so much for her to be included.
As a teen, she said, she had already experienced much. She later became a model and was on her way to becoming an actor. But the more she experienced, the more she felt alone, and she began to resist forces pulling on her the way a black hole pulls a planet away from its destined course.
“You were part of what was good about my life back then,” she said. “That’s where I really wanted to be.”
It was like she had opened the door of that secret warehouse where they stashed the lost ark of the covenant. Where you store all those indispensable parts of the past that are too painful to name: the broken toys, the lost storybooks, the words you wish you had never heard or wish you had never said — or wish you had said. We were together in that room and she handed me this lost piece of a puzzle I never dreamt I was missing.
I didn’t know, I said.
She looked at me silently long enough to make me think I should say something more. Then she wrapped her arms around me in the way I had longed for so long ago, and we danced.
Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.
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