It is an odd juxtaposition to see the long-lost girl of your dreams standing next to an untidy pile of fat-guy slacks. I’m stopped cold, and remain motionless for several seconds before ducking behind a rack of garish ties. It is assuredly her; day after day of desperate sidelong glances at my locker ensured her face—well, the right side of it anyway—would remain with me forever. She is no taller than she was 15 years ago, and the side of her mouth still tilts up in a perpetual ironic smirk, and her cheeks still look sunburnt. Plus, she has a much better haircut.
She is speaking to an unremarkable man in the preoccupied, cruel way people use to shoo away overzealous riffraff passing out flyers on busy city streets, or to answer automated questions posed by customer service drones on the phone, or to address the ones they love. Her left hand is behind her many-buckled purse, so I crane my neck to squint at her ass. It doesn’t appear to have the telltale east-west migration I associate with suburban motherhood. Maybe she’s barren.
She reaches for a plaid shirt whose pattern makes me slightly dizzy, and I notice no wedding ring. I also notice that her right side is her good side.
I’ve often daydreamed about bumping into her. It happens when I mistakenly give her boyfriend my valet ticket after I exit an expensive restaurant. Or it happens on my way to playoff box seats, which affords me the opportunity to slap her boyfriend a high-five on his giant foam hand before he trudges to the nosebleeds he’d been proud of before running into me. Or it happens after I execute her boyfriend for stealing gasoline in a post-apocalyptic hell-on-earth that I rule with an iron fist. But it never happens at the mall.
I steel myself to say hello. To endure the indignity of explaining who I am. To witness the look of mock recognition creeping across her face, the bulging eyes and the too-wide smile as she desperately attempts to fire long-dormant synapses that guard information she once deemed useless. The boyfriend will nod his head and mutter a greeting. Maybe he’ll put his hand on the small of her back, just as he protects his baloney sandwiches whenever the dog skulks by the couch on Sunday afternoons. I imagine she wouldn’t pull away from his clammy paw, but I’m also certain she wouldn’t respond. Much like his baloney sandwiches.
I’ll hear about the middling promotion she just received, or the book group she attends, or a loved one’s untimely death—the highlights of the last decade and a half. As she speaks her face will change expression, and small lines around her eyes and mouth will form and fade, form and fade, form and fade. At the end of the 45 seconds it takes to sum up her adult life, she’ll shrug and say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Then we’ll say goodbye.
I didn’t talk to the long-lost girl of my dreams years ago because I thought she was perfect. And, as she disappears in a stream of people headed in the general direction of a frozen yogurt stand, I decide I won’t talk to her today because I fear she no longer is.