Long ago, I was cleaning out the rain gutter crowning my old home back in New Mexico. Because I was a teenager, I was really fucking stupid. Rather than employing a ladder or a solid surface of any kind, I chose to stand on one of those green, wide-lidded mini-dumpster things we called a herbie because beats the hell out of me. Naturally, every part of it that could collapse or roll waited just long enough for me to get comfortable before pitching me backward onto the dirt of my backyard.
I wish I could say that I was lucky I didn’t land on concrete, but I can’t. This was desert clay, which, when dry, resembles dust-covered iron. This is the kind of firm that young concrete dreams of growing up to be. Because that didn’t suck enough, random chunks of sandstone jutted out of the surface here and there. You know, for garnish.
And so, one moment, I was performing one of those tedious chores that are a consequence of living under your parents’ house, your parents’ rules; and the next, every single molecule of oxygen that wasn’t already tied up in hemoglobin fled my body. Blunt pain rattled my spine, and my heart stopped doing what it was it did out of confusion, as my lungs had evidently forgotten to breathe properly. I couldn’t move—less because of said pain and more because of the very tangible fear that I wouldn’t be able to.
And that, dear readers, is exactly how I felt when I saw her picture last week.
Her eyes were still mocha and enormous, with thick, dark lashes. Her hair was still an impossible blend of gold and platinum. And the way she smiled still inspired me to do the same. It reminded me how inhumanly gorgeous she was, making even overalls look sexy. And how she was confident enough to be visibly bored every time some boy came over to feign interest in her conversation, a fist clenched around a beer and a thumb hooked on a belt loop—yet only those who were really paying attention could make out the mournfulness hiding there.
I remembered my reaction upon seeing her for the first time on the other side of a spirited party. (“That girl is way out of my league.”) I remembered my reaction when she waded through that crowd for the sole purpose of finding out who I was. (“Wait. Me?”) I remembered my reaction when she and her sister sought me out at a different, equally spirited party the next night. (“Seriously. Me?”) And I remembered my reaction to the fact that I had started to flirt with her. (“Okay. Clearly not me.”)
But that’s not what knocked the wind out of me when I saw that picture last week. What did was the fact that I’d forgotten how deeply we were in love with each other.
It’s been nearly fourteen years since I learned her name, and about thirteen since we last communicated. Over that time, I’ve convinced myself that I made all of these feelings up. We were simply two people with nothing in common, whose hunger for any kind of attention led us to comfort each other during the intense transitions we were subjecting ourselves to. Hell, we’d never even kissed; we were afraid to, because we couldn’t possibly be falling for someone we’d known for a handful of days.
Except we were fooling ourselves. And for too long, I’ve been fooling myself. The intimacy of our letters and phone calls was real, and it was exquisite. It really was love. Eventually, I found my footing in New York City, she found her footing where she was, and we didn’t need each other anymore.
And time passed.
I don’t know how she remembers me. Was I a fling? An overreaction? A friend? A mistake? A pen-pal? An ex-boyfriend, even? I doubt I’ll ever know. That doesn’t matter, though, because somewhere, she is smiling.