Memories of my first day of kindergarten rise like a bubble from oceanic depths toward sunlight. I’m approaching a giant white door ensconced in the towering brick building that is Middleton Elementary.
Mike Jamison stands there nervously alone as I shuffle up to him and say hi. I turn to see if my mother is watching, but she’s gone. I see only a chain-link fence and a backdrop of green-leaved oaks. Has she abandoned me? Later, as a parent myself, I realize she didn’t want me to see her crying.
A girl rounds the corner. She’s wearing a little blue dress. Not dark blue like the sky in December, but light blue, like July. Who is this girl, so confident that wherever her mother is, they’d said their goodbyes and she wasn’t timid or afraid? She’s all good.
Her name is Haley Peterson. Our last names both begin with P, so we sit side by side. Jolly Roger, she calls me, not mocking, but sweet. Later, when I see Peter Pan, I fall in love — with the nickname.
We exchange valentines on February 14th along with everyone else. We chase each other around the playground. I imagine myself married to her someday.
Haley’s family moves in November of fourth grade. Apparently we aren’t close enough for me to get a heads-up on such a momentous thing. Friday she’s in class. Monday she’s not.
The next time I see Haley is at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a freshman bumbling his way around the expansive campus. She approaches and asks if I need help. A precise and unique feeling of warmth washes over me. I’d looked for her in crowds, like when the family had gone to Disney World. Wouldn’t it be cool, I’d thought, if she were here?
Haley is a sophomore, having taken college classes in high school. She doesn’t recognize me, but I tell her that we went to elementary school together. She says that’s cool and points out the library.
Still, we live in the campus dorms, and converge on the same boosters or sporting events. Easy conversations and genuine smiles.
She dates, I date; not each other, but occasionally we remain until last at a party, or a diner for third cups of coffee. Our friendship is so strong it hurts.
We’re simultaneously single and I’m ready to ask her out, but she wants to see the world. A volunteer. I just want a solid job, money; a house… a wife.
When she graduates I’m a bundle of regret and missed opportunities, but if you secretly love something, you watch it go. She stands tall and accepts her diploma. No tears. She’s good.
I search for her on social media, but she isn’t to be found. I wonder if she married some long-haired doctor in a rainforest somewhere. Her last name could be anything. More likely she simply doesn’t need the validation pseudo-connections over the Internet provide.
I search for her in crowds, hoping to see her brownish hair, her smooth skin, her confident smile. I wait for her to approach, out of the blue, and again help me find my way.
I’m rewarded in my mid-thirties. It’s my weekend and I’m with my boys at the Bronx Zoo. They’re running around the cobblestone food court chasing pigeons and there she is, exceedingly pregnant, leaning against a post with a purple morning glory plant winding its way up and around the wood.
For once I approach her. Turns out I was right about marrying a doctor, but the ceremony had been in Vermont. I curse her parents for having moved, for having taken her away from me when I was nine.
I glance at her rotund belly. I should have asked her out in college but didn’t want to ruin what we had. What I had. Which was her in my life, barely, the way an actor is in your life if you own all their movies.
The exchange is brief. I tell her she looks great, and she really does. She introduces her husband who grips my hand and makes eye contact. He seems a decent man. I watch them for a moment, his arm draped around her shoulder like a cloak, then turn and round up my boys. My youngest asks what’s wrong. I tell him some pollen fell into my eyes.
I let Haley go after that, as much as I could let go someone whose spirit is intertwined with my own. I measure the distance between desire and obsession and find them perilously close. No sense dwelling on what could have been, but never was, and never will be. I take stock of my life. I’m good.
The Parker-Williams nursing home is adequate, but it’s in Florida, so I can only sit out on the patio when the calendar says winter. An old man bathed in his own sweat is not pretty.
Today is February 5th and I’m enjoying the seventy degree air. The sun shines, and a breeze carries the fragrant scent of the few flowers that actually bloom down here.
A chair wheels beside me and I feel a staring pair of eyes. I’m no owl with a swiveling neck, so I watch the last of the glistening dew evaporate into steam in the morning sunshine and I wait. All in due time.
“Found you at last, Jolly Roger,” says my new patio mate. A memory flickers then pops like so many others.
I rotate one wheel on my chair and see a white-haired old woman. Pretty, with smooth skin like ageless porcelain. She’s got a quiver. Parkinson’s, I imagine.
“You don’t remember me,” she says and no, I don’t, so I say nothing. Better not to offend.
“You will,” she says and pats my wrinkled old arm.
I peer into her shimmering eyes and suddenly remember my first day of kindergarten.
Dustin Adams writes short fiction and sci-fi. His alter ego, Thomas J. Adams writes crime fiction with a paranormal twist. Watch for his first two novels in 2017.