I hadn’t thought of making the visit when I set out, but with my return bus a half hour from arriving, and the approach to the road only a half block in the other direction, I decided to walk home the long way, through the park, so I could spend a moment there.
It’s not a bridge bridge – just a place where the road crosses the creek, so there are low stone walls on the far sides of the sidewalks to remind people not to fall off. Not a place you would normally go to as a destination. In a car, you’d probably not notice it was a bridge. I don’t think I’d been back for decades when, a few years ago, my husband and I walked back from the former site of the old junior high school, and, crossing the bridge, I told him the story of a boy I knew long ago.
For all my extroverted self-confidence as an adult, I was a rather pathetic teenager. Smart, yes – definitely college-bound, good at math, the only girl in my physics class. But without social graces, good looks, or anything approaching “cool,” I was not one of the “in” girls, even among the crowd that was always on the honor roll. Nobody was mean to me, I just was awkward, didn’t know the secret to being confident and had no inner “me” yet that could give me a place to stand, a personality, a sense of self and being.
He, on the other hand, was gorgeous (“Isn’t he pretty!” said my astonished mother once, upon delivering me and friends to a class picnic and spotting him instantly amidst the group. Mom, he’s cute, I corrected her.) Also seriously smart, with social aplomb, confidence, everything you would want and not expect in a young teenage boy. All of us arrived from our previous elementary schools at the junior high along with a cohort of friends, and he was no different. I think even then I had the savvy to realize what a remarkable thing it was that this dashing young man – who not only had three names, each of which, by itself, was infinitely parody-able, but were even followed by the roman numeral III – was never teased about his name(s). It was a testimony to the respect with which his friends regarded him that he had no derogatory nicknames. He was Cool. He was in the In Crowd.
Of course, I had a heartbreaking crush on him. How could I not? I’m not sure I ever told anyone about it – whom would I tell, after all? Of course, he knew.
It was the day of the science fair. I’m guessing it was a Friday. It could even have been today – late in the final weeks of school, in the ninth grade, after which our addresses would dictate that we end up at different high schools. The prom was coming up. There was never a question that he (or anyone) would ask me to the prom, but on this day, it became certain. Many of us were hanging out looking at the science fair projects, and I overheard him say to his friends that he was taking Kathy to the prom. He smiled kind of shyly, and may even have blushed. He was obviously thrilled and honored that she had said “yes.” Rightly, he should be; Kathy was a Young Lady – gracious with her gentle southern accent, lovely, real face, pretty dresses. Brains. I will have to find out what became of her, but I’m sure something good. “I’m taking Kathy,” he said shyly to his friend, and a knife went through my heart.
As he walked out of the school on his way home, I followed him, perhaps 10 or 20 feet behind, the knife wound still stabbing. (I said I was an awkward teenager, didn’t I?) As we walked, separately, down the hill along the sidewalk, he finally turned, and said, kindly, “Come on,” and I sped up to walk with him, for the first and last time. When we got to the bridge over the creek, our paths would part, but he stayed, and we talked. I have no idea what we talked about, and it didn’t matter. We talked. I also have no idea how long it was. I do know that I was going to be late getting home. Finally, I said that I had better go. “My Mom will kill me.” He responded brightly, and with a smile “All beautiful things must die!” My heart raced as I ran up the hill towards home, rejoicing over those words. All beautiful things must die. Now, I knew I was not a Beautiful Thing, and so did he, but he gave me that. He gave me that gift of kindness. I have remembered those words for 52 years.
* * *
Several years ago, after Google became our access to everything in the world, I decided to look up old friends. As The Last American Not On Facebook, I do not have the advantage of finding people that way, so Google it is. He had no obvious personal presence on the web, but a professional site of some sort let me know that he had become a surgeon. Not a surprise. A very small photo of the doctor in scrubs was good enough to convince me it was he – and of course, with a name like his, there will not be false positives in Google. I wondered if I should write and say “Thank you” after all these years – to tell him what a difference his gallantry had made to a heartbroken, unbeautiful girl that spring day so many decades ago. There was no address, no email, no evidence of wanting to be contacted, so I let the idea pass.
About to return to the area to visit Mom this spring, I thought again about writing to him, and again Googled to see if there might be more information.
An obituary. He died a year and a half ago, only 65 years of age. This time, there was an excellent photo – the same intelligent eyes, handsome face, warm smile, with the added beauty of maturity. I probably would have recognized him on the street. I don’t know why he died so young, but it said he had retired three years ago, at 62, so I'm guessing he knew he didn’t have long, and wanted to spend the time with his family.
* * *
My brother and I have passed by the bridge several times in the car during my visit, and always I looked at that spot where we had stood, talking, those many years ago; in my mind I said thank you to the young man who took it upon himself to give the gift of time and attention to an awkward girl who adored him. Finding myself with the option to return there alone, I made my way through the park alongside the parkway to stand on the bridge again. As I approached on foot and got to take a longer look, I thought the stone fence looked different, and indeed, a plaque on the wall said that it had lasted from 1940 through 1995, and was rebuilt in 1996. I stood there for awhile, looked into the running water of the creek, and just thought about the kindness of a young teenage boy so long ago. Finally, I said out loud, “I’d better go, or Mom will kill me,” and took off, this time on a slow and peaceful walk home.