by Jack Stone
A vignette on the stories that live in us and make us who we are.
I felt stupid. What was I doing here? I didn't know what to expect. What was I really trying to accomplish anyway? No matter. Too late. I was already at the Dairy Queen, and she was inside.
I got out of my car and walked in trying to hide my nervousness, trying to ignore my throat closing up.
She was sitting in a back booth, the same dull red ones I remembered 40 years ago, when she looked my way. She smiled.
"Hi, Angela. How are you doing?" I asked. "I'm good. How are you?" she replied. She started to get up, but I told her, "No, please sit down." I slid into the booth across from her. I couldn't help but want to stare into her brown eyes.
I told her, "I know this must feel awkward. I don't want to come off looking like a nut, but I appreciate you meeting me here. I told you that I had something I wanted to give you, but it's really not much."
She didn't flinch.
"What is it?" she asked.
I said, "It's really only a story, maybe a story in a story, but still just a story." I could feel my chest tighten.
"I know this may sound crazy, but it is important to me," I said, "At least you might find it interesting, but I'm not sure what you'll think. Please bear with me."
I started, "You remember Dianne Lake. She and I were once part of the Baptist church's drama team, and one night we were asked to perform an improv skit, something about me accusing her of cheating in one of our high school classes. In real life, she and I were competitive over grades. Anyway, I could tell she was getting emotional. She flushed, and the next thing I knew, she'd hauled off and slapped the crap out of me. No one has ever slapped me like that. The room went silent, and everyone was standing there looking at us. We knew we'd done it! It was great, but we were both stunned. She was apologizing, and I was laughing. Everything was ok.
I know that story doesn't sound like much, but it makes me feel good every time I remember it.
Anyway, it must have been about 15 years ago when I'd taken my family to Fernandina Beach. I saw Dianne on Facebook, and I realized from the pictures she posted that she was in Fernandina, too. So, I sent her a message to say hi. We posted back and forth a few times about getting together, but I backed out. I knew she had her family with her, and she hadn't planned time for me. Besides, what would her family think? If I'm honest with myself, I was afraid. I probably was worried about not knowing what I was going to say. We'd not spoken to each other for 20, 25 years.
Would you believe that I saw her on Facebook a year or so later, again in Fernandina when we were down there? I didn't send a message that time. I just let it go.
Now, roll the clock forward. I think it was about 6 or 7 years ago that I see on Facebook that she'd died from falling off a horse. She was on a family outing at one of those horse riding places. My heart sank. I think that's the first time that's happened. She wasn't supposed to go like that. She was so full of life. Something in me, a part of me, died. I still feel bad when I remember her and think of the horror that her family must have felt that day.
I wrote out the story about our play and how she'd slapped me. I wanted to send it to one of her kids, to someone who might use it one day when they had gotten over their grief and were telling stories about their mom. They might laugh about how she'd slapped some guy in a play. Someone would have said, 'Yep, that sounds like Mom.' I, too, would have lived with her in that story. But, enough of that."
Angela kept looking my way. I guessed it was ok to go on.
"So, our sons, Alyssa and I have two, they're both doing well. Both are married. One's in Atlanta. The other is in San Diego. When they were growing up and got interested in girls, it was fun to talk about dating again, how to treat a girl with respect. They would want to know about what it was like when I was dating. They would ask about who I thought was pretty and all. That was when I told them a story.
I told them that once upon a time I really was 8 years old. I told them I remembered being in the second grade and how all the kids would go out for recess, that there were two trees in the field next to the school where we would run around and play tag, and that there was this one girl no one could catch. She was rumored to be the fastest. I want to believe I tagged her at least once. That girl was also the prettiest girl I've ever seen."
I realized I was staring down Angela's water cup when what looked like a tear fell on her napkin. I came out of my trance and looked up. She stymied a sniffle.
"You know, kids at that age are innocent. We think the world is wonderful unless something bad has happened to us. For us, there was just tag, and I knew I could chase that girl forever," I said.
I looked back down toward her cup. I couldn't keep looking in her eyes. I had to keep going.
"Time moved on, and things changed. She and I went different ways. She went to a different middle and high school. I would see her at church every now and then, but that didn't afford a lot of time together. We were in different circles. However, there were a few times when her parents would host a youth group meeting at her house, and that was heaven. I may have seen her once or twice at church after that when I'd come home from college to visit my folks. Eventually, my folks moved to Dublin, about 40 miles away, and that was the end of our chance encounters.
I remember there was a day when I heard she was engaged, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a tiny pin prick in my heart. I knew better."
I paused. I couldn't help but wonder if I'd said too much. I closed my eyes a moment and went on.
"Anyway, it must have been last year when I saw a picture of the girl on the Facebook page for our old church. She was still absolutely beautiful. Yeah, there were a few lines on her face, a few wrinkles here and there, but she was the same girl.
I did feel different, though. I felt no pin prick. I was proud of her. Her smiles in those pictures had to be about the life she'd lived with the family around her. She'd stayed in my hometown, the town I'd chosen to leave. She'd thrived.
I only wanted to tell her. I wanted to look into the eyes of the most beautiful girl I've ever known one more time and tell her that she was the fasted girl who ever played tag. I didn't want something to happen to her with me knowing that I was too shy to tell her this story."
I looked up to her eyes, and though filled with tears she stared. I felt a tear on my cheek. I dared to reach across the table with both my hands to hold hers. We squeezed them for a moment. I released her and got up.
She had a faint smile. I said, "Thank you. I am so proud of you. Good-bye, Love."
I turned and left.