Smooth afternoon

When the future's almost done, an old, lonely man's thoughts turn to the past, and this morning I'm remembering a girl I knew very briefly — for perhaps ten minutes. It's hard to be certain about the years, so many have passed between then and now, but I was about 14. Almost me.

It was my first year, first week at Auburn High, a huge brick hellhole a lot like a jail. All my bullies from middle school were there, but luckily as lost in the maze of classrooms and hallways and lockers as me, so they hadn't found time yet to pummel me.

I'd missed my bus home. Every day, on purpose. Surrounded by a mob of kids, most of them strangers, a few of them terrorists, when it's over why would I get on a school bus with any of them? I walked both ways, every day. It was only a mile and a half or so. When it rained maybe I'd take the bus, but so far the weather had been walkable.

Almost free of the prison, I waited in solitary — the boys room, behind a latched metal door, in a lightly graffitied stall. I wasn't pooping. My pants weren't even down. Just passing time until the crowd wandered away. When it finally felt semi-safe, I stepped into the mostly-empty hallway, and then outside, under the mid-afternoon sun. Alone, on parole.

If you know me now, you'd know me then — a kid who never fit in. The other kids hated me, and big people said they worried about me. My parents had scolded me all summer for spending most of it in my bedroom.

"What do you do in there all day?" I read. It's nice.

"Why don't you go outside and do something with your friends?" How clueless can parents be? 

There were no friends to play with. The neighbor kids I'd liked had moved away, and one of the school bullies lived just a block from my house, so when I was dumb enough to go outside, I sure stayed away from K Street. What friends I had were at church — once a week friends — but at school I never said more than "Hi" to anyone, and even "Hi" was a rarity.

I loved the walk home, though. Alone. It gave me time with my imagination, time with myself. I was a good friend to myself — we could talk about anything, and we talked a lot. On the first day of school, earlier that same week, I'd seen a boy, a classmate from middle school, while I was waiting for a walk signal. He wasn't one of the monsters, just a face, but he'd said to me, "You're talking to yourself, Holland."

Guilty. I'd been talking to myself, out loud, or at least moving my lips. After that, I tried to always monologue only inside my head, so I probably wasn't visibly talking to myself when the girl and I saw each other, at the corner of Auburn Way and Auburn Avenue, a few blocks from Auburn High in Auburn, WA (our town was real clever about naming things).

She was auburn, too — a redhead on the other side of the street I was about to cross. She was leaning on a telephone pole and rooting through her backpack, which was school colors, so she was from Auburn High, too.

Just a fraction of a moment after I noticed her, she turned and noticed me. From across the street she smiled, and I silently gasped. It was too late to change my route, go a block to the west, but if she hadn't seen me I might have. Girls were less dangerous than boys — it was unlikely she'd deck me — but I was terrified and tried not to show it. 

When traffic allowed it, I crossed the street. Approaching her, I decided she was cute, and older than me, because she'd taken a pack of cigarettes from her backpack. That's the very definition of grown up, you know.

Still walking toward her, much closer now, almost there. Absolutely no talking to yourself, I said to myself. She briefly eyed me again, and smiled again. It was a teenage noir moment.

I thought about saying hello, which would've been the extent of my 'game' at that age, but decided it was too risky. Instead I smiled slightly, trying not to look too dweebish.

With a few more steps we were close enough to touch, and she said, "Got a light?" I wished I did but I didn't smoke, so I shrugged and shook my head.

"Well, hell," she said. I was too mute to say anything to a girl I didn't know, but I still had that smile stuck on my face, and I returned and held her eye contact. A pretty girl had spoken to me, and I hadn't melted, yippee, but it was over, and I continued walking right past her.

From behind me, she said, "Do you go to AHS?"

I slowed and turned, letting her catch up to me, and said, "It's required by law." She laughed, and I was damned proud of myself. In my life there have been perhaps a dozen times when somehow I found the right line at the right moment, and that was the first. One of the best.

"Oh, I know what you mean," she said. "It's Thursday, first week, and I haven't even skipped a class yet, but I'm ready. Maybe tomorrow."

One good line was all I had, though. I was awkward with girls, same as with kids in general only more so, but I scrambled all over inside my head trying to find something to say. Anything. Nothing.

"I haven't seen you before," she said. "You a freshman, or just a new kid?"

"Freshman," I said brilliantly.

"I'm a junior," she said. "Welcome to AHS. It mostly sucks."

"Yeah, I've noticed."

She laughed again, and we walked together, neither of us saying anything for half a block. 

"Going home?" she said. "Or someplace interesting?"

"No place interesting," I said. "Home." I remember thinking, I should ask this girl her name. That's what you're supposed to do. I should come up with a joke, but I had no sense of humor that day, and she was already talking about some friends of hers.

As she continued about the friends, I recognized that, oh, this was a story. She was telling me a story from her life. Something about her friends. I should be paying attention, but I was too nervous and already I'd lost her first few sentences, so I smiled again, and tried harder to listen.

"I'm tired of walking," she said, interrupting herself. "Wanna hitch with me?"

I did not even know the word, but I said, "Sure." She turned to face traffic and stuck her thumb out, an aha moment. Hitch = hitchhike, of course. I'd never hitchhiked. Mom and Dad said hitchhiking was dangerous. Some pervert would pick you up and hack you to pieces, but I stuck my thumb out, like hers. For that girl, I was willing to be hacked to pieces. 

She finished her story about her friends, and I laughed because that seemed a more likely response than crying. I had simply no idea what story she'd told, but she laughed when I laughed and I liked it when she laughed.

Thumbs out, we watched as cars rolled by. Maybe the drivers were as afraid of picking up a couple of high school kids as I would've been afraid of accepting a ride. The girl glanced back at me as another car rolled past, ignoring us, and she said, shocked, "Did you give that guy the bird?" 

Same as I didn't know 'hitch', I also didn't know 'bird', but she seemed close to laughing again. I knew flipping the finger, and guessed that's what she meant, so I laughed and said, "Yeah." But no, I definitely had not flipped the finger at a passing car. Are you kidding me? Flip the finger or 'the bird' at someone, you could get your ass kicked.

She laughed and said to me, "You're something," but her thumb was still sticking out and surprise, the next car pulled over. Wheels on gravel, I remember the sound, and then the wheels stopped.

Me and this girl hurried toward the car, or more accurately she hurried, and I followed. It was a dusty red Plymouth Fury, with a balding man driving, and a woman in the passenger seat, so the girl opened the back door and held it open for me. I got in and scooted over, she got in after. Here comes the part where we're hacked to pieces.

Nah, nothing happened. The driver was all smiles, asked how far we were going, and the girl said, "Just past the airport would be fine." The girl and the driver's wife talked most of the way, and at one point the lady said, "You two are a cute couple," and the girl looked at me and raised her eyebrows, but we didn't correct her. 

"This would be good," said the redheaded girl, as we approached an intersection near Brannan Park. The man stopped the car at the side of the road, and we said thanks, climbed out of the Fury and onto the sidewalk. The car rolled away, and I heard wheels on gravel again. That sound has been part of the memory, ever since.

The girl said to me, "I live that way," looking east down 28th Street. "I gotta get home and babysit my sister and brother. See you at school?"

"Sure," I said, and she waved, and I watched as she walked down 28th. My house was on 31st, in mostly the other direction, so I walked thataway, but looked over my shoulder at her a couple of times until she was gone.

The next day I stopped at 7-Eleven and bought a cheap Bic disposable lighter. Not for smoking. I've never smoked. Nasty habit. It bought it in case any girl ever again asked me if I had a light.

I knew nothing about whoever she was, of course, not even her name. She was an older woman who laughed a lot, smoked cigarettes, had friends and all, but she'd talked to me like I wasn't just a pimple wearing a backpack. I'd even said a few words to her. We'd ridden almost home together. Without moving my lips I said to myself, Smooth afternoon, Doug.

Despite looking for her for years, I saw that girl only a few times at Auburn High, and always from a distance. Last words she said to me were "See you at school," but it was a big place, couple of thousand kids, and it was easy to never be seen again. 



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  1. It would be nice if someobody somewhere remembers me the way you remember her.

    1. You make it sound sweet, but what's to remember? Never even knew who she was...


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