The box seemed to weigh a ton in his pocket. He reached in to finger the bow, long battered into submission by being carried around in his coat since the first day after Thanksgiving break. He opened his pocket just enough to peek in. Her name was still legible, but only barely. By this time, he not only had the struggle of working up courage to give a gift to the girl of his dreams, but of explaining why it looked like he’d kicked it all the way to school before he gave it to her. Even if it were pristine, he was taking the gut-wrenching chance that she would reject him or, worse, accept it out of pity. He didn’t want to think about the absolute worst case scenario, in which she publicly humiliated him by laughing, along with all her friends, at the idea that she, a beauty with guys lining up to date her, would accept a gift from, let alone go steady with, a troll like him.
On his good days, which were (at least in his 8th grade mind) much rarer than average, he felt like he might not actually be a troll. He was a smart kid. He could act; he could sing; he made people laugh. And he was nice to everyone. But then, he always came back to the thought that those things didn’t exactly scream hunk. Chunk maybe, he thought, rubbing his round belly.
He looked at the clock. Two minutes until the end of class and the beginning of lunch. He realized he’d heard not a word of Mr. Beck’s lecture on erosion. It was their only class together that year, so he needed to give her the gift by the next day or suffer the sting of taking home her gift, ungiven and still wrapped. He couldn’t face the idea of it joining the present he’d gotten her the year before, but never managed to work up the courage to give her, under his bed, mingling with the dirty socks, old board games, and sports equipment.
“Hey Renee,” he said as she walked by after class, giggling with a couple of other girls. Well, the other girls were giggling. When she laughed, it was more like the flutter of angel wings. Her dark ponytail swung as she turned toward him.
“Hey Evan.” She smiled. He froze. Even in braces, her smile bewitched him. He had the box, which contained earrings with a tiny chip of her birthstone in each—his mother had helped him pick them out of the Avon catalog—in his sweaty hand, but his arm was immobilized, unresponsive. As was his mouth. No sounds came out, but at least it did open and close repeatedly, kind of like a goldfish.
“Going to lunch?” she asked as she and her friends swept by. She didn’t seem to have noticed his buffoonery.
“Yeah.” Well, at least that was a word. Sort of.
“Yeah.” No. Give it to her, you moron, he thought. But still his hand remained clenched, his arm unmoving.
“Well, maybe see you in the cafeteria?” She hesitated at the door.
She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher. Sympathy? Puzzlement? Nausea? He was betting on the last. “Okay. Well, bye.”
“You really need to give her that present.”
“Oh, Mr. Beck. Didn’t know you were here.”
“I noticed.” He straightened papers on his desk. “I hope you’ll give her the present you have in your left pocket before it’s ruined and you fail science. You’re okay and all, but I’m not interested in having you again next year.” Sitting at his desk, he opened the bottom left drawer, retrieving a brown paper grocery bag, from which he pulled two sandwiches, an apple, and a foil-wrapped can of Tab.
“I don’t—I mean—how did you know?”
“Be a fool not to. I’ve seen you start to give it to her every day since December first. The only mystery is how she doesn’t know. If she doesn’t.”
Not sure his legs would keep him upright, Evan flopped back in his chair. “You think she knows?”
“She’s a girl. Who knows what they know?”
“What if she won’t take it?”
“The sun will rise tomorrow.”
But at that moment, he knew he would never give her the gift. He was just too big a coward. His eyes burned and he wished he wasn’t a boy so he could cry, but he was so he couldn’t. That night, he took the present from his coat and tossed it under his bed to join its compatriot.
The next year, she was dating a new kid, so he didn’t have to bother buying a gift to not give her. He didn’t want to hate the guy as he walked around the halls with his fingers entwined in hers, long and slender. It wasn’t this guy’s fault. But he hated him anyway. He wanted to punch him in his smug little mouth.
High school was not much better, for him at least. Renee remained his friend throughout, though she dated other guys. He pined over her to his best friend regularly, complaining every time she started seeing a new guy.
“I know,” said his best friend Joey as they walked into theater class one day. “How can she do this to you, when she has no idea how you feel?”
“Let me talk to her.”
“I can’t do that.”
“That’s no better than giving her a note asking if she likes me, check yes or no.”
“Well, at least you’d know if you did that. You’ve been sulking over her since seventh grade.”
“What if she says no?”
“Like Mr. Beck always said, the sun will rise tomorrow. Life goes on. You find some other girl to whine to me about.”
But that was just it. Maybe life wouldn’t go on. As long as he never asked, she could never turn him down. And if she never turned him down, the chance was still there. His brain told him this made no sense at all, but his pathetic, romantic heart always won the argument.
The summer after his freshman year in college, he met a girl. She wasn’t Renee, but she was pretty and talented and, best of all, she was forward enough to ask him out. So they started dating. The Christmas of their senior year, he popped the question. It was kind of just a formality. They’d shopped for rings together. She didn’t trust him to pick out one she would like. She was probably right. The one she liked was nothing like he would have picked out for her. This made him wonder if he really knew her.
He was pretty sure he didn’t really love her, but they made sense. He liked her. They got along and liked a lot of the same things. Frankly, they’d been together in every sense of the word almost since their first date, so they were essentially married anyway. Why not make it legal? Especially since they’d had a few pregnancy scares.
So they married the summer after they graduated college and they moved to the next town, where she took a job in a bank and he went to graduate school. They stayed there after school when he was offered a lucrative job with a prominent advertising firm. She took a better position with another bank just a block away from his office. They commuted together every morning and every evening. It was comfortable. It was nice. It was boring, but where, outside of romance novels, is it said that marriage is supposed to be all fireworks? A firecracker or two would be nice, though.
They had their work, which paid well, so they had a nice big house in the suburbs with plenty of room for her to have a music studio. She’d dreamed of going to Nashville, but banking paid better. He also had an office, where, when he wasn’t working on an ad campaign, he wrote plays. No one ever saw them, but he must have written dozens.
And, after a few years, it just got easier to have separate rooms. He was a morning person and was always up hours before she was and it always irritated him when she came to bed and woke him up at night, so a room for each just made sense didn’t it? If they wanted to make love, one of them could go to the other’s room and then go back for sleeping. In theory, at least. It seemed neither was very interested anymore.
One day in his 42nd year, he stopped at the mailbox before going into the house after work. Among the bills and junk mail was a letter from his hometown. The name on the return address sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it. He opened it to find an invitation to his 25th class reunion. He hadn’t been to one since he graduated. His wife had gone to a different school and they didn’t live there anymore, so there seemed no need. He’d essentially left that life behind. Especially after his parents died, there just seemed no reason to go back home.
But something made him check the yes box on the response card. He wasn’t sure he would really go, but maybe he would. For reasons he couldn’t explain, even to himself, he kept the card a secret from his wife. The next morning he told her he was going to look for something in the car before they left for work. He wasn’t even sure she heard, but he took his keys out as if to get in the car in case she had. But instead, he walked to the end of the drive and put the card in the mailbox, lifting the flag so the mailman would know to pick it up.
Weeks passed. He couldn’t put the reunion out of his head. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t because of Renee, but down deep he knew the truth. Finally, he decided that, if for no other reason than that he could quit worrying himself over it, he would go. But how to go without having to take his wife? He didn’t want to lie to her. He didn’t love her, but she didn’t deserve dishonesty. He finally decided there was nothing for it but to tell her.
“I’m thinking of going to my 25th high school reunion,” he said one day over breakfast.
“Do I have to go?” she asked over the Wall Street News.
“No, I don’t suppose.”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Yes, it’s okay.”
So the problem was solved for him. Finally, the time for the reunion came. He was more excited than he thought was probably appropriate, so he did his best to keep it from her as he packed for the trip. He kissed her on the cheek and climbed in the car for the two-hour drive to his old hometown.
He’d made reservations in a nice historic hotel in downtown, one he’d never even been able to afford even to eat in while he lived there, let alone spend the weekend. It was as nice as he’d always imagined. He unpacked, showered, and got dressed for the first event of the reunion, a mixer and dance at a local country club. As he shaved and combed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror, he wondered if she would even be there. Was she married? Was she thinking about him? It dawned on him that this was a dramatic event only in his mind. She never loved him. She never even knew he loved her. To her, they were just pals. He almost talked himself out of going, but decided he’d come this far, so he just needed to see it through.
He was greeted by Deb, who had been the president of their class as well as the head cheerleader. He was amazed to find she’d barely aged. He wasn’t sure if it was amazing genes or remarkable plastic surgery. Probably both. He wandered toward the bar to get a drink, stopping to say hello to a couple of guys he’d known from choir.
He turned, drink in hand and looked at the crowd. Many faces looked vaguely familiar, like people he knew who’d been put in makeup to look older. He wondered at how quickly 25 years had passed. And at how little those 25 years had meant. As he said hello to former classmates, he wondered if everyone in this room had led such safe, empty lives. He’d lived a good life. He’d made lots of money. He didn’t love his wife, but they were friends. Well, sort of. He treated her well and she reciprocated. He gave to charity. He went to church.
Before he could ask himself the question he wanted to avoid, his mind was brought to a halt. There she was, seemingly having been frozen in time. Her eyes still sparkled. Her smile still took his breath away. Even her signature ponytail was still there. The only addition was the ruggedly handsome man at her side, his hand on the small of her back. He was taller than she and they were clearly a couple. She nuzzled back against his chest and they shared a smiling whisper followed by a gentle kiss. But then, to his great surprise, she locked eyes with him. She smiled even more broadly and waved. He shyly waved back. She leaned in and whispered something to her husband. He smiled and nodded. They made their way across the ever-more-crowded dance floor to the bar.
“Evan,” she said, hugging him warmly. “I’m so glad you came. I was excited when Deb told me your reply card came in.”
“Me too. Thanks. And who’s this handsome guy?”
“Evan, this is my husband Derek. Derek, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Evan Wilson.”
“Glad to finally meet you, Evan,” said her husband. “Renee talks about you all the time.”
“Wow, really? Even after all these years? What’s to talk about?”
“Oh, it’s always some funny comment you made in class or some goofy thing you did on senior day or how you were always such a good friend.”
Evan was genuinely gob smacked. He had no idea he’d had such an impact on anyone’s life, much less hers. He was, as he’d seemingly been when around her all through school, rendered speechless. Finally, he managed something feeble about being the class clown.
“Well, we’re going to have a dance,” said Renee. “Save one for me, Evan?”
And with that, they were on the dance floor. It was a disco song that had been big when they graduated, but they deftly did some ballroom dance, the name of which escaped him. She was light on her feet and they moved effortlessly together. They were synchronized. They were happy. He was hollow.
Not really a drinker, he uncharacteristically ordered a second martini and found a table in a quiet corner, away from the crowd. The first had tasted like gasoline, but he was getting used to it. He found if he sipped and swallowed quickly, it wasn’t so bad. As he managed to put away the last few drops and put his glass on the table, he looked around. He wasn’t drunk, but the room was taking on a shimmer.
A slow song started. “Well,” said Renee, who had somehow magically appeared by his side. “How about that dance?” She held out her hand. He automatically took it, following her to the dance floor. She put her hands around his neck. As he placed his hands on her waist, he wondered how long a human being could survive without oxygen.
“So,” she said, “how’ve you been?”
“Okay. You look happy.”
“Yes. Derek’s great. My kids are great.”
She had kids. He’d always wanted kids, but he and his wife just never seemed to get around to it. “How old?”
“Derek Junior is twelve, Camille is nine.”
“Boy and a girl. Matched set.”
“They fight like cats and dogs, but they love each other.”
They danced a little in silence. He had nothing to tell her about his life. “Where’d you meet Derek?” he finally asked.
“Can I make a confession?”
“I’ve just always felt like I need to tell you this for some reason. I’m not sure why.”
He wondered what she could possibly need to confess, but he nodded to let her know it was okay to go on.
“I had the biggest crush on you all through junior high and high school. I always hoped you’d ask me out. I had a feeling you liked me too, but I was too shy to say anything.”
His brain swirled; his stomach lurched. She—she, had liked him?! Between the alcohol and the sheer shock, he was pretty sure he was going to pass out.
“Evan? Evan? Are you okay?”
Her face grew fuzzy and disappeared, only to be replaced by that of Mr. Beck. What was Mr. Beck doing here? And where was here? It looked familiar, like a place he’d been a million times, but long, long ago.
“You really need to give her that present.”
He looked around. It was eighth grade. Fourth period had just ended. He could still hear the echo of her lilting laughter fading down the corridor.
“Renee!” he shouted, bolting out the door, gift in hand. She turned when she heard him call out, her face puzzled, but congenial. A smile danced across her lips as she saw the gift he held out in front of him.
“Wait! I have something for you. And—and I need to ask you a question.”
Joe Stephens is a National Board Certified Teacher at Parkersburg High School. He was a 2005 recipient of the Milken National Educator Award. He has a bachelor’s degree from Glenville State College and a master’s from Walden University. His third novel, In the Shadow, is now available on Amazon.