I dismissed the episode, but, unfortunately, it didn’t end there. While going through security before boarding a plane from a Cayman Island vacation, an extremely attractive Island security guard was patting down a sexy blonde young lady in front of me. He took his time, checking under her arms and around her thighs. After she moved on, I stepped up to take her place, smiling, arms akimbo and eyebrows raised. He winked and smiled and waved me on.
At the end of this month, I will be turning an age that I can only associate with my grandmother. I loved my grandmother, but we are nothing alike. She had grey hair and spent a large portion of her life making matzo ball soup and going to Bingo. I have bright red hair (ahem) and am a pretty good cook. I have three terrific children and a close and loving marriage. However, there is apparently something in me that wants to be remembered as the young, attractive girl I used to be.
This is why, on a hazy, hot, and humid summer day, I decided to Google my high school boyfriend—the one I had been crazy in love with when I was sixteen, the one whose school ring I wore on a chain around my neck. The one I cried over in my darkened bedroom when we broke up, while Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely” played on the phonograph. That one. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about him in fifty years. It was the Internet that put the idea into my head. Some old school friends had contacted me on Facebook. So I typed his name in the upper-right-hand, oblong space that said “Google.” There he was! He had a website! He was still a musician. There was an area on the website where one could “contact the teacher” for those seeking private piano lessons. I placed the cursor in that section and wrote a note. Then I quickly erased it, got up from the computer, and busied myself making dinner.
The next day, I came back to the site. I chewed the corner of my bottom lip for a moment and finally wrote, “It is nice to read about your many accomplishments.” I didn’t sign it, although my first name and my married name would appear in the email address. I hesitated for a long moment and then pressed, “send” as though I were launching a nuclear device. Would he know who I was?
He had no idea who I was. “Thanks for the note,” he wrote the next day, “but I don’t quite get what you are saying. Please clarify.” No! I won’t go any further. I forced myself to put him out of my mind.
But at night, there he was, walking around in my dreams. We were back in high school. This was in the late 1950s and global warming had not yet been heard of. Winters were frigid, and you had to negotiate mounds of snow at the street corners. Cars were buried for weeks at a time. Eisenhower was the president, and the biggest global threat was Sputnik.
On hot summer days, the schoolrooms were saunas. With no air-conditioning, sweat trickled down the sides of your face, and your blouse stuck to your skin as you cranked open the leaded casement windows in the turret rooms, hoping for a breeze. We pored over Julius Caesar, and memorized the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The following day I approached my computer with some trepidation. There, in the same space, the one that says “contact the teacher,” I wrote a slightly more comprehensible note.
“I remember that your mom always had enough food to spread around and set an extra plate at the kitchen table for me–-although how she ‘spread around’ a pork chop was always beyond me.” And then I signed it. With my first name only.
That night I could not fall asleep. I was knee-deep in memories. He had blond hair and green eyes. Green eyes. Those Saturday nights when he used to work, playing piano at some dance while I sat on the sidelines holding the fake book. The jazz clubs we went to, listening to a piano player ‘till all hours of the morning. The long-playing records we loved… Brubeck’s Take Five.
The next morning I got up, dressed—and consciously avoided turning on my computer. I made coffee. I poured my juice and took my pills. I reminded my husband to take his. Then with studied nonchalance I sat down at my laptop, turned it on and went to “get mail.” There it was! A response from him! My heart filled like a deployed airbag.
“Wow I’m speechless. I have thought about you over the years. . . bringing back memories of mom and her kosher pork chops stirred my heart. She passed away about 9 years ago. . .”
My heart was knocking in my chest!
“Somewhere in my father’s vault” he continued, “are movies of us getting ready for the prom.” I had forgotten, but, reading that, the memories flooded back to me. His senior prom. I was only a junior. I remember the dress I wore. It was a blue and green satin strapless brocade that would have been gorgeous on Ava Gardner but was much too sophisticated for a sixteen-year-old girl.
I quickly wrote back and I told him that I am happily married. He responded that he is too. He sent me a photo of himself with his children and his grandchildren. I hesitated. “I don’t think I will send you a current photograph,” I wrote, “since the last time you saw me I was practically still in braces.”
Carried on a swell of nostalgia we corresponded for a few highly charged days. I can’t remember if I made up the bed in the morning, but I remembered that his birthday is April 12th.
“It has been very nice catching up with you, Ellie,” he wrote, using a nickname I discarded along with my poodle skirt, “Please keep in touch … and I never remember you having braces.”
I searched for a particularly flattering photo of myself, taken not too long before, with my husband and two granddaughters, and I sent it to him.
His response: “Boy do you look like your mom!”
Yes. I know.
That night I thought, we only live on in the memories of those who knew us. One day, we will be gone. It is nice to be remembered. I may have morphed into my mother and maybe I need glasses to read anything, and my most frequent response to a question is, “What?” and maybe I can’t open a seltzer bottle without a wrench, but somewhere, someone remembers me when I was sixteen and radiant and nubile. There are only a few people left who can do that.
And getting fewer every year. I listen to my husband’s steady breathing beside me and I know for certain that I love him more than anything in this world.
So now what? Do I see him? I’m not sure. Life has taken us in very different directions. We are nowhere near the two people who sat on that park bench, so close that we couldn’t bear to be parted. We were, of course, very young. But it is jolting to me to realize how powerful those emotions are, even when you are only sixteen. As a professional actress, I make my habitual mental note to keep this in mind if I ever play Juliet. And then I realize that the chances of that happening are slim.
”If you see the headlights coming, get out of the way!” psychologist Gail Saltz wrote about how to avoid an affair. I think this is brilliant advice and will follow it if ever those headlights come my way. I have no desire to throw away my happy life. Believe me. But these are not headlights. These are taillights. And they warm my heart as I watch them receding down the road, just barely visible… on this hazy, hot, and humid summer’s day.
BiosEllen Leary was born in Manhattan and spent 20 years as a professional actress, on and off Broadway. She self-published Mother, Once Removed, a memoir of her growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Her first novel, The Understudy, was published in 2020. A lifelong New Yorker, Ellen now lives in Los Angeles with her husband. To find out more about Ellen and her work, go to https://www.ellentovattleary.com/. To buy Mother, Once Removed or The Understudy, go to ArtsMart.
Clare Olivares is a Bay Area painter and poet. Her work is contemplative, highlighting the romance of memory and the beauty of the ordinary. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, and has been awarded art residencies in Nepal, Cambodia, New Mexico and California.