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Romance

I had to tend to some legal matters regarding my parents’ property, so had gone back to my home town for several days. It had been an awful legal process because there were other people who thought they had a claim to things. Greed is disgusting. Nobody ever got anything good by being greedy. Such a useless thing to be. A greenish, gray space. Gauzy and unpopulated.


For part of the paperwork, I had to go to an office in the next town over, and drove along Route 31, which I knew better than the palm of my hand. None of the buildings registered with me, though. Nothing has ever had enough personality to stick in the memory. Not around here. This area has its historical aspects, but nobody cared much about them. It’s therefore a cultural wasteland. T.S. Eliot would not have been able to write a book of poetry about this place. The Burned Over District, they called it, yet nobody remembers the fire.


Walking down the saddest street in this big state - that’s when the impossible happened. I ran into Len De Vroot, who had been my boyfriend decades ago. The town was as dilapidated as ever, the dullish storefronts looked like they hadn’t sold anything for half a century, and only the pizza shops had any sort of traffic. Why had I ever liked shopping here? (Just because it meant going out of town for a new blouse or sneakers, probably.) Nothing you would want to buy was available. Even blouse and sneaker options were long gone now. 


I considered shrieking at the top of my lungs that this ugliness could not have been here when I used to come with my mother because this town was just a wee bit bigger than mine. Monument to the demise of American downtowns. host town. I wish I could tell you its name, but I can’t bring myself to do it.


Still, Len was here, stuck, or living, in my (too-distant?) past. That changed everything. Years flew out windows and wrinkles sailed away in the Erie Canal that had been a landmark of our youth. I had returned, from a place centuries away, but he had stayed. What did he know about this place that I didn’t?


Len was actually my first boyfriend, because a crush on a boy is just that: a one-sided desire. The crushes before him were the only other boys I had known. Most of them were snippy commentators who observed and broadcast what clothing we girls wore. It was pretty abusive, because walking down the halls in school was a nightmare. I hope boys don’t do that nowadays. A crush can happen maybe around age twelve? I don’t really know anymore, because one-sided is not my style.


I recognized Len first, even though I had been looking at the rough concrete sidewalks that might have been new thirty years ago.. It was natural that I knew who the approaching figure was because I kind of knew where he lived and I was in his town. That lilting walk had always been special. Those narrow hips had been perfect if your choice was not the over-muscled macho boy. Len had been close to perfect, I’m thinking.


If you’re wondering how I ‘kind of knew’, it was my first boyfriend who was walking towards me, it’s because I was curious, and the night before had scanned the internet looking for him. Didn’t wonder for a second why I was trying to locate him. Well, locate, no. It was just to see if he happened to be around…


I was pretty sure Len knew I’d gone to college after high school and had been gone for many years. We all kind of knew back then who passed to the next year of high school, who’d graduated, who’d gone to college. We never heard what people had studied or stuff like that. It had all just ended, broken into bits, when we stepped off the stage at our graduation. Why would I be walking down a street in Len’s town, then? I think I almost gave him a heart attack.


“Len, is that you? Is it really you?”


I called out, enthusiastic but also embarrassed. His reaction made me freeze. Blank expression, but with an attempt to be friendly. Len always had been sweet like that, I seemed to recall. I decided not to recoil from the stare and take it for what it was: pure confusion.


“I’m Cassandra!” 


When I blurted this out, I had forgotten that back in high school I used to be Sandi, but when I turned forty, I had reclaimed my whole name. No diminutives. That announcement of my complete, grown-up name, could have been a major mistake. After all, Len and I, unawares, were negotiating a new encounter and were also on shaky ground as far as memory was concerned. Both of us knew that dementia can appear in people years younger than us. Was he who I thought he was, really? Was I somebody he had known?


Len had remembered after all, perhaps because he had loved Greek mythology even then, and consequently had loved my name. It was unique. He had wanted me to use it, but I hadn’t been able to cope with the teasing. Now he seemed to be rolling my name, my current name, around on his tongue. Some familiar flavor must have appeared.


“Sandi!” he said.


 But it was a teary whisper rather than a cry of surprise. He had seen me, then had repeated my name in its diminutive form, out of habit. After that I heard him say, almost inaudibly, “Cassandra.” It was as if he had been given permission to call me what he had wanted to call me all along, decades ago. It was almost reverent, the tone he used. I was not prepared for how that made me feel.


When Len told me people usually call him Leonard now, I smiled knowingly. Neither of us was the diminutive sort any more.


Quickly, we both established that we had about two hours to spend reminiscing, and so we headed for nearby Lincoln Park. We found a bench and for two hours I swear the rest of the world went blank. We had the dark green boards we sat on, a sky with nubes rolando (rolling clouds) as they say in Mexico, and a whole rain forest full of things to connect or trash as far as our ‘young love’ was concerned. Oh, we definitely had been young, too young.


I say the world went blank because we both knew that day, those hours, represented the one and only chance we would have for the rest of our lives. It was all we’d been given so we could ‘catch up on old times’, as they say. Still, we were benchmarks in each other’s lives and something unspoken ordered both of us to face that. 


It is a really incredible feeling. You’re seventy-plus, going on fifteen. What are we supposed to do with emotions like the ones Len and I felt surging around us, sparking into bonfires and s’mores? 


Better yet, where the devil do we put all the memories that ooze out of every niche of our lives? Wait until you’re my age. You won’t get it until then. There are too many to stuff in a purse or a back pocket. Too many to fit in anywhere.


Our ‘old times’ hadn’t really lasted that long, in the grander scheme of things, but they represented what people like to term ‘a profound experience’. That’s because adolescence is already a profound state. When we’re that age, we are too close to the world to really know what to do with it. We have blood and flesh and goosebumps and a sense of touch that fears and craves. Add some other elements to the mix and you know what I’m saying. Adolescents are deep people, but they don’t get enough credit for that.


Profound as I’ve just used it to refer to the age between twelve and, say, seventeen, means being in a situation that feels something like sky-jumping or driving in a demolition derby or crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope like Evel (or Evil) Knievel did. If you make it out of adolescence alive and sane, not alcoholic or on drugs, you are perhaps in the minority these days. Back then, the stakes might have seemed tamer, but that’s not the case. We still lived our lives the only way we knew how: intensely.


Len and I were the same age (he was a couple of months older), so when the night before I had been curious and did an internet search for him, it had brought up his age: 72. I might add that another link gave names for a person who seemed to be his spouse and for two individuals who might have been children, a son and daughter. I think I located the son on Facebook and told myself that at forty he was the spitting image of his father when his father was fifteen.


Do you get how crazy this is? Years melt away yet throw up heavy curtains at every step. I want to forget but am afraid to. I need the black, straight mop and dark eyes behind those dark-rimmed glasses. 


He was that old? 72? My Len used to be only fifteen. How time flies… Why is his hair gray now? No, not gray, white. It’s wrong.


It also flies for you. You are the same age as Len is. 72. 


I refuse to acknowledge this.


That was last night, in my room with the computer. Now I am in the next town over and I want to try to preserve some portion of the precious two hours, so am going to rush to get as much on paper as I can. There must be a reason for that.


Now I am recalling some of the letters you wrote me. The image of your handwriting is clearlr - boyish loops on the capital letters, uncertain curves on the ones in between. You sent them to my home, of course, using my small name, not Cassandra. My parents never gave me knowing smiles when those letters arrived. They knew when to say nothin.


I don’t plan to send anything to Len, of course. It’s kind of late for that, right?



First, once we were sitting on the bench with nobody within fifty feet, I wanted to tell him what I had liked about him. 


That straight black hair, parted and tossed over one side of his face. I always loved hair like that. First, because it was long. Second, because it was black as a bat’s win, a color which was so exotic in my world where there were few Italians, no dark skins, no eyes that weren’t Caucasian. He was the best I could do as far as diversity back then. Black was truly beautiful.


The freckles, which were an anomaly with that Italian forest of hair. Looked like his Italian mother, but his Dutch surname confused everybody. Dutch wasn’t ‘ethnic’. (I was part Dutch too, but my family never knew how much nor from where in Netherlands that came, until I found through the internet that it had been Haarlem for some of them.)


Len’s father had seemed gruff, but I found out later he had emphysema, so he had a lot of trouble breathing and speaking, so communicating wasn’t his strong point. Later, after we had broken up, I discovered that my father, who had begun to have breathing issues too (his was for cardiac reasons), used to drive to Len’s father’s house. That way the two men who could not breathe well at all and knew they were slowly dying, could keep each other company as they inched closer to death.


Your father and my father, Len. I never knew of their midnight rendezvous. Did you? My mother must have told me, eons later, when nobody would mind knowing.


It seems centuries ago that we saw each other only when our families could drive us to meet. Or when the bus brought students from nearby towns to the Saturday sock hops.


We managed, nevertheless. We met at a sock hop, didn’t we?


I’m not sure. I do know wrestling might have been the first meeting, probably an afternoon when my school had a meet with yours.


You were a wrestler, in a lighter weight class, but you were in good shape. Except for your knees, which had been torn so badly that you had to stop the sport.


I recall you seemed fine with it, not angry or sad, just accepting. Maybe it was your mother’s pliant influence, or maybe it was your lower class background (very similar to my own) that made you so generous and forgiving.


I wore glasses. I think you did, too, but am not sure. It was far too early for anybody to wear contacts or have lasik surgery. We both felt awkward about it. When you took your glasses off, you looked painfully near-sighted (the same as I did), but your eyes were painfully beautiful. Pity I can’t recall the color.


Did I ever tell you I loved you? Did you ever tell me? 


When we went places, you paid despite not having two cents to rub together. I went along with that because it was what girls did back then, but I am ashamed of it now. When I began to tire of our long-distance relationship (our towns were around 6 miles apart), I think I looked for ways to justify breaking up with you. That was a horrible thing to do. It is one of the things I really regret. Wanting a guy to walk through the halls between classes, to be seen with downtown, to show spectators he really cared about me.


What’s worse is I seem to recall starting to belittle you with my facial expression. A hard look, unblinking, no definable expression. You looked sad when you saw my stony stare, but you forgave my temper. You thought the world of me. Guess it gave a feeling of power. Garbage. That was me.


That’s simple proof of the generous and forgiving nature I remember you had. Not trying to flatter you. It’s just who you are. Were. Are?


You had swivel hips when you danced - a result of wrestling holds, probably. You flipped your too-long jet black hair over to one side and moved to slow or fast tempos, happy to be together. I used that happiness to further justify pushing you away. You weren’t hard to get, you liked me a lot, had fallen quickly. You didn’t play typical teen-ager games. You didn’t want tug-of-war, you just wanted me. That was hard to handle for a girl who had self-esteem issues. You couldn’t be for real.


What the hell was wrong with me?


You were so much better than the piece of you-know-what who came into my life immediately after you. He was a year older, a BMOC who could drive and had a car to boot. Even if you had your license, you had no car to drive. Plus, you lived in the next town over.


Nevertheless, you were responsible for my great awakening. My God we were so young, Len! Sleeping bags, two couples, in the woods just out of town. I hadn’t been part of the plan, because my best friend had engineered it all. Those pine trees were tall and are eternal. If it were necessary, I could locate them, using a geolocation system only developed over years of remembering. I had not asked for that night, for the pines, for anything. I certainly didn’t understand what it was.


Days later, you said you’d marry me if it turned out to be necessary. It wasn’t, but your offer was good, and kind. Too much so. The jerk who came next was deceptive and later shunned me. He had never been kind or gentle, and didn’t know a lot. He was as selfish as the day is long. He went blank on me in a parking lot when I tried to tell him how much I cared. He looked right through me and I felt uglier than sin.


I wanted you back, but heard you had a girlfriend and didn’t even consider getting mixed up in that. It was good that I didn’t try, because I certainly didn’t deserve you. We had separate things to do and I had ended it all. Selfish bitch. That’s what I ultimately called myself. You were the only guy I ever actually ditched and the only one who didn’t deserve it.


We both graduated the same year, from different high schools. I went away to school, but nobody saw fit to tell me what your plans were. I had no clue what you might choose as a major. Now that both of us are retired, it somehow doesn’t matter if we went off to college, had a career, a marriage or two, had children, etc. etc. We are back to where we started.


What are we supposed to do with that? And in two hours?


Your turn, Len, your turn.


August 14, 2020 00:38

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7 comments

Kristin Neubauer
16:39 Aug 16, 2020

Fantastic story, fantastic ending. I love how you give us such a deep look into the narrator's thought and how you reveal her age partway through. I feel like I want to mix this story with "Twofer" and give this narrator a second chance with Len - your ending is perfect though. I particularly liked these two lines: "It is a really incredible feeling. You’re seventy-plus, going on fifteen. What are we supposed to do with emotions like the ones Len and I felt surging around us, sparking into bonfires and s’mores? Better yet, where the ...

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Aditya Pillai
09:21 Aug 14, 2020

Yes, another great one! Loved this. Your writing style is really engaging. This was awesome. Keep writing :) PS: is there a mistake in this sentence: "Nobody every go anything good by being greedy"

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Kathleen March
12:44 Aug 14, 2020

Thank you so much. Kind comments. Also, I fixed the two errors in the sentence. Very clumsy of me. Glad you pointed it out.

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Deepti Kumari
02:36 Aug 14, 2020

Lovely story. Keep it up.

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Kathleen March
12:45 Aug 14, 2020

Thank you very much.

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נιмму 🤎
02:11 Aug 14, 2020

🥰🤯🤯🥳🙀💖💖💖🔥✨🙌🙌🙌🙌👏👏👏👏👏 ahh soo good + a great ending keep it up!!

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Kathleen March
12:46 Aug 14, 2020

Thank you. The ending is a kind of subtle, but it hopefully conveys what was intended.

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