(originally published by Thematic Literary Magazine)
a short story by James David Patrick (cover photo by andrew and hobbes)
“I’ll hide. You find me,” she said. Eyes veiled by Snow White bangs. Others had readied for the game and gathered around, but “you” had meant me. Her eyes had paused on me.
Courtney’s annual Halloween party. The night I’d ask her to go with me – to go steady perhaps, depending on your choice of juvenile idioms. Until then we’d done nothing more than pass notes during class, folded notebook paper containing checkboxes under the guise of platonic boy/girl friendship. Meet me at the kickball backstop during recess. Box for yes. Box for no. Katie would come too. So would Josh and probably Delmar, the kid with the buggy eyes, because he always went to the kickball backstop just in case a game ever broke out. And sometimes it did. If I’d ever have attempted a rendezvous for two, we’d have been teased about sitting in trees and pushing baby carriages, a tease so worn-over it’d lost its teeth even before the third grade. Still, I just couldn’t handle the drama. I still can’t.
The party had begun to wind down. Cookies had been served. Apples had been bobbed. Costumes unraveled. Many had been discarded altogether. An empty Ewok head flanked the orange punch. Unscripted games had begun to crop up organically here and there. Hide and seek, for example.
She ran off to hide. “One. Two. Five. Ten,” I counted, peeking through parted fingers to be the first to find her. She cut left around the outside of the house, her vinyl cape, a red flutter, frozen in time by the porch floodlight. A frame on a Viewfinder wheel. I accelerated my cadence and followed but found no one but Delmar, who’d stopped to grab rations before arriving at his final hiding spot. I pardoned him and let him continue on. I searched the tree house, behind the tool shed. I peeked inside the kitchen door.
I searched until my mom came to pick me up in that white Buick Riviera with the maroon interior. I begged her to let me stay. I suggested she grab a plastic cup and have some orange punch. Take a seat. Relax. I’ll be back in a just few. I detached the cardboard trailer from my homemade Optimus Prime costume to suggest how serious I’d been about finding Courtney before I left. She replied with her familiar brand of inarguable logic: You’ll see her on Monday. Outwitted, outmatched, I settled on explaining my departure to Courtney’s mom. She’d been a fixture on the front porch throughout the party, staring down the gravel driveway at the arriving cars, the fireflies, one of the town’s two traffic lights, blinking yellow just through a blind of trees.
“Tell Courtney I said goodbye,” I said.
She nodded, arms crossed at her chest. She wasn’t in costume like the rest of us. Not in the spirit. She frowned a little, not saying what was really on her mind. Maybe she’d seen through to my designs on her only daughter. Without a father around, I can see why she’d gone a little rough, a little Gulag over Courtney’s freedoms. In bed no later than 8:30. No TV after dinner. No phone calls after 5pm. We would have made it work had we ever gotten the chance. Even now, Courtney’s mom haunts that memory like Macbeth’s weird sisters.
Twenty years later, having just survived another breakup – divergent futures, existential crises, incompatible opinions on the oeuvre of Huey Lewis and the News – I entered a coffee shop on the South Side where I’d just rented a studio apartment over a tattoo parlor. When I first saw the girl standing, arms crossed, back arched like a cornered tabby, behind the glass counter of croissants and vegan granola bars, I immediately thought of Courtney’s mom at that Halloween party. Silently plotting, gears turning. My momentary pause gave way to hesitation and doubt, then a request for an Americano. The girl nodded, but she hadn’t looked up from the register, even after punching the button. Her hair, finely chopped bangs, espresso brown, black but not, shielded her eyes. Bangs were back in, just as they had been. When I traded three dollars for thirty seven cents, her fingertips brushed my palm. She looked up, a trained smile, thanks for coming, enjoy your day. But no recognition.
She paused, hand hovering just above mine. We studied each other. I’d studied those eyes during math lessons. I had no patience for numbers. It could have been no one else. Two seats to the left, one seat behind. Even now I could have identified her anywhere, anytime. Plaster skin, flushed cheeks and the pointed nose of a rogue softened by the filter of Teen Beat. Her expression remained unchanged. I’d lingered too long without speaking. The upturned corner of her mouth meant what? Embarrassment. Fear?
I interrupted the castrating silence. “Courtney?” I sounded wanting, maybe needy. I wanted to take it back. I wanted to say something clever like “Tag. You’re it,” but Courtney might have found my attachment to a single moment to be overwrought, if not a little childish, like a Best Picture of the 1960s. Another long moment passed. I dropped the change into the tip jar. I wished for nothing more than to hear her voice; I leapt into a series of unspoken prods and provocations. You taught me how to tightroll my jeans. I remember exactly. We were in the cafeteria. You were on my left. Katie on my right. I’m pretty sure that was my first erection when your fingers brushed my leg. Okay, my first except for that sleepover scene in the movie Big, but other than that scene with Elizabeth Perkins, my first one.
Still she said nothing. Someone else had entered the coffee shop. I paid them no attention though I certainly wouldn’t continue almost talking about erections among mixed company.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I need to help this customer.”
Worrisome was the blankness of her eyes. I shifted right, to make way for a balding man in a suit that fit a little snug in thighs. He ordered a large drip coffee and left without leaving a tip. Courtney and I were again alone.
“Of course I remember you,” she said. I exhaled. “I recognized you before you stepped through the door.” She focused on the espresso syrup falling from the machine like motor oil. With the espresso pulled, she topped off the paper cup with hot water from a spigot and placed it on the counter. Instead of a girl that disappeared from my life overnight, swept off to a new town, a new state forever, the one that got away, she played this like we’d just bumped into each other, friends of a friend on Facebook, aware of each other only by a 90-pixel avatar. Mine still the celebrity I most resemble – Neil Patrick Harris. Hers certainly would have been a casual photograph with friends overlooking Machu Picchu because that’s the girl I’d imagined she’d become.
“I wrote to you,” I said.
For the first time her eyes set upon my face rather than shifting from one task to the next. “Mom didn’t like you much. I guess because she thought you were the cutest one.” A confounding mixture of derision and flattery.
“So you never got them?”
She shook her head.
My first impulse was to question why she hadn’t contacted me. I hadn’t left. I’d remained right where she’d left me. How many letters had I written? I couldn’t even count. When Katie had come back with stories about Courtney’s new life or her new school friends, I’d written her off. I decided she’d never liked me, that I’d made it all up. I’d just been there and I’d been replaced by someone else that had been there, wherever there had been.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“What am I thinking?”
“Consider this.” A draining breath followed. “We were twelve years old when I left. Say you’re my first kiss. How does that change this moment? I’d still have left. At least now there’s no regrettable history. And next you’re going to ask why. Everyone always asks why. And in this instance, that ‘why’ would have hurt a lot more than it does right now. Now, we’re a clean slate. You’re just a guy that looks like someone I used to know and I’m just a girl that looks like someone you fancied.”
She looked down, eyes again hidden by a shell of black hair.
I felt compelled to read a laundry list of personal effects. “I have notes you wrote me in class. A few even have letters dotted with hearts, and not just the I’s. The jean jacket you gave me. Your brother’s old one with the Clash patch on the left shoulder. We won the three-legged race at one of my birthday parties. There’s an 8” x 10” at my parents’ house to prove it.”
“These things,” she said, “they don’t matter anymore. They never really did. Denim and thread and fond memories. That’s all. And not that memories aren’t important, but…” Her voice trailed away into the hum of ambient electricity.
The stress on “these” forced me to pause. Clean slate, she’d said. I glanced at the coffee cup and considered pushing for more information. What were the things that mattered to her? Was she married? Divorced? Kids? Where had she hoped to be by this point in her life? How did she end up here, a dumpy coffee shop 500 miles away from anywhere we’d ever been together? But I said nothing further. The steam from the coffee rising through the vent on the lid brought me back to the moment in front of each of us. I felt the scar on my right cheek. A tic. A pond hockey game with a cousin in Toronto. I still couldn’t skate. I took medication for migraines and anti-depressants, but during the winter months. She wore a charm bracelet without pendants on her left wrist. She looked skinny, not quite unhealthy. Shadows pooled in shallow wells beneath her eyes. Twenty years ago we were brand new. Now? We weren’t strangers as she’d suggested; we were something else. Painful reminders of our own dissolved youth, the twenty years that had vanished, overnight, through the compression of time.
Did I want to know her disappointments? I couldn’t decide. Or did I want to find her exactly as she’d left me. I wanted to finally find Snow White. I understood that she wanted me to be anything but the boy in the Transformer costume. But right then, at that moment, I didn’t have the stomach to meet her half way. So I thanked her for the coffee. She said it had been nice to see me again. We were going through the motions now, reading the script. She said that we should get together sometime, in that way that someone does when they don’t want anyone’s feelings to get hurt if nobody ever gets together. A starter scene from one of my playwrighting workshops on subtext. To punctuate my exit I kicked over a chair. No one was sitting in it.
I stood outside, staring back at the front of the coffee shop. I watched Courtney pick up the chair just as I’d watched her house recede from my view just beyond the railroad tracks. At the time I’d been thinking about what I’d say to her on Monday. I liked your party. Sorry I had to leave. You should come over and play ping pong in my basement. It wasn’t until years later that the Halloween party turned into the missing piece of a more complicated puzzle. A thing that mattered, a trinket at the bottom of my childhood chest of drawers that ultimately amounted to less than the cup of coffee I held in my hand. Now even that memory failed me. It had been the last night I’d ever seen Courtney. Now that I’d found her the night meant nothing. I was just eleven. It was just a party where I got a little sick on some kind of orange punch. Now that I’d found her it was my turn to hide; but would she bother to peek through her fingers to cheat, to find out where I’d gone.