I knew her immediately. “Pam?” She looked great.
“Hi, John. What’s it been, twelve… fifteen years?”
I had been hitchhiking. Pam could have driven by and I never would have known. But instead, she pulled over to give me a ride.
In middle school, infatuation was my M.O. My love for Pam became desperate. We could have been the next Romeo and Juliet – good luck with that scenario.
A grade behind me in middle school, I saw Pam as my ‘raven-haired beauty’. But I didn’t know that phrase then.
Unself-conscious, unaffected and real, her musical laugh reminded me of ‘America’s Sweetheart,’ Mary Tyler-Moore. And she had that look, beautiful, natural and untouched by life.
I wanted to hug and kiss her. What else would you do with the girl you loved? I thought she must share those feelings.
In ninth grade, when I wrote my declaration of undying love for her and put it in her room, everything changed. Did her mother intercept it? Did she even read it?
All I knew, after that, she basically never spoke to me again. Had she changed toward me?
Or did I finally see the ‘no there, there’ reality? Had I been in love with the fantastic projection of my own mind? Would I finally find out Pam’s side of the story?
All these questions and memories roared through my mind in an instant.
Pam’s voice brought me back. “I’m running up to Mama’s. You want to come along? Or do you need to be someplace?”
“I’d love to see your Mom.”
I’d been hitching on Golden Valley Road which winds through that suburb north of Minneapolis. I hadn’t returned to my old neighborhood in years. All I had were memories.
When we met, my family had just moved to the area. We’d all meet mornings at the bus stop down by the culvert. Tim and Pam, Mike, and I were the main event. The stand-bys were the Hanratty girl, and Babby from up the street, who never spoke with anyone. And no one spoke to her.
Pam’s Mom, brother Tim, and her step-father were from ‘down-home,’ Texas. Why would anyone move to Minnesota? All I knew of the south came from movies, ‘Streetcar…,’ ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – the movie.
And I knew Pam’s delicious accent.
Pam drove a couple of blocks and pulled into a driveway. We arrived so fast, we had no time to talk. They had moved to a different house from before. I could have walked there.
Maxine met us at the door with shrieks of happy recognition. She embraced me and pulled me into the kitchen. A classic Southern Belle in manner, Maxine had a wry sense of humor and an easy laugh.
I had no agenda. This unexpected meeting put me in suspense. So much had happened in a decade. I detected no tension from them. They only had an interest in my recent history. But no opportunity to ask about my infamous letter presented itself. Did either of them even remember it?
Maxine always drank Rum and Coke, exotic in whiskey country, and to my mind, a waste of good Coca-Cola. It being early, we stuck with plain Coke. Pam served us and we sat at the kitchen table. The ever-present dachshunds skittered about on the linoleum.
“John! You haven’t changed a bit. Tell us, what have you been up to? How are your folks?”
“My parents retired to Florida. They’re good. Mainly playing golf.” I told them about my fledgling career in Hollywood. About working on commercials, and features for Altman, Corman, and Carpenter. I recounted adventures of traveling to locations about the country.
Pam’s step-father had passed. I never got a read on the man. He never said three words to me the whole time I knew him. Pam’s father and Maxine divorced long ago. I knew no details.
Pam and I were also each divorced. She told me she left an abusive relationship with a military man. Did she fall for the uniform? Looks exchanged between Pam and Maxine told me the topic was off-limits.
As for me, do five months constitute a marriage? Maybe in Hollywood. Marriage or not, I stood emancipated, unencumbered and untethered.
I asked about Pam’s brother.
“He’s down in Stillwater.”
“What’s he up to?”
“Doing time in prison.”
“Oh… I hope he’s okay.”
Tim and I spent days exploring the creek which ran through our neighborhood. We once attempted to pole a flat-bottomed boat down to Lake Sweeny. But we found the creek too clogged with over-growth and fallen trees. Wading and dragging the boat back upstream became more a re-creation of the ‘African Queen’ than of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’
Pam got restless and busied herself about the kitchen. Maxine and she communicated with glances. Time was running out.
“You ever see Mike? He’s out in Hollywood, isn’t he?”
A year ahead of me in school, Mike had been my closest friend from the neighborhood. In high school, he became prominent in the theatre clique at school and performed in all the musicals.
I never broke into that too affected social circle.
Mike made a living as a writer in Hollywood now. We shared that ambition but he actually did it. Or so I thought.
Being from Missouri, another southerner in Minnesota, he shared subtle cultural cues with Pam’s family. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they were still in touch. Mike’s parents socialized with Maxine. I presumed she knew as much about Mike’s life in Hollywood than I. Why not say so?
Back in school, when I told him about the letter, he responded, “You didn’t.” I should have gotten his help with it. He could have ‘punched it up’. Or convinced me not to deliver it at all.
I answered Maxine’s question directly. “We saw each other a few times. But we don’t run in the same circles.” That satisfied their curiosity about Mike and me.
Whatever friendship Mike and I shared in school, the pressures of Hollywood weaken such alliances. One is loath to frivolously share hard-won contacts. They say Hollywood is a ‘small town.’ But it is actually many small towns with shifting borders. The barriers from one sub-culture to another are invisible and high. I never grasped the elusive, sophisticated quality required to bridge that gap.
Time to go. Regardless of the letter, they needed nothing from me. They didn’t invite me to dinner or ask me back.
No ride offered, I walked back down to the road and continued my journey.
When I returned to L.A., I wrote to Pam and told her how much I enjoyed reconnecting with her and Maxine. But I never heard back.
I never knew her at all. I had traveled. They had moved.
That whole afternoon, I never had a moment alone with Pam to ask her about my love note. Our lives had diverged. The issue was moot.
I didn’t have to ask. I knew the answer.