If memory serves, it was a Friday afternoon in mid August, right about the time the local high schools were starting for the fall. There was still a full two weeks before the start of my freshman year at Texas A&M, which was fortunate given that the extraction of my wisdom teeth the day before didn’t leave me in my usual happy festive state.
As luck would have it, this particular friday was my 18th birthday, and what better way to spend your birthday than sucking diligently on a tea bag stuffed in the back of each side of your mouth and popping pain killers like red hots. To be fair, I celebrated my birthday the previous weekend when three of my friends accompanied me to the opening of “The Abyss”, a movie with an opening scene so dark I lost my way and spilled a large Dr. Pepper, a box of Hot Tamales, and myself all over the laps of a couple who likely started out the evening with hopes of having a more wonderful, or at least less sticky, date. But that is a different story altogether.
This story starts with a phone call.
When you’re home by yourself nursing a mouth that won’t stop bleeding from a standard garden variety oral surgery, it’s a little difficult to answer the phone. I happened, right before this particular phone call, to decide to change the gauze and tea bags, suck down a few saltines and pop a couple more pills on my way back to dreaming of finally making it to college and out of my parent’s house.
It hurt to say hello as I finished removing the rest of the gauze. As was customary back in the high school days, the voice on the other end didn’t identify herself, but simply launched into conversation. “Are you mad at me?”
Now back in my late teenage years I didn’t much care about anything. At the time, only two people in my life had ever made me mad, and neither of them were women, nor where they of the age this woman seemed to be. Her voice was sincere, and though it was soft and melodic, there was an unmistakable sense of shame and loss. This was no prank my friends were playing for my birthday. This was someone who was under the impression they had hurt me deeply. So in the most reassuring voice my codine innundated brain could muster, “Why would I be mad at you?”
“So you are mad at me…” she said with the quiet resignation of someone who has just lost something they had hoped to keep.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not mad at you,” though I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t particularly sure who this “you” was. In fact, I didn’t really have any clue who this person was at all. I couldn’t place the voice, though that certainly had more to do with the drugs than my acquaintance with her.
But as we went back and forth through her asking if I was mad and me assuring her that I was in fact, almost certain that I couldn’t be mad, we both came to the realization that we didn’t know the other voice on the line. So here I am on the phone with the voice of an angel, high on prescription narcotics, thoroughly enjoying the way my birthday was turning out.
I gleaned a few things from the conversation. She was babysitting her younger brother. She went to the high school down the street from my house. But other than that, I had no clue who she was. Any questions I asked went unanswered. Finally, in frustration I called her on it. “Why don’t you answer my questions?”
“Ask me any question and I’ll answer it.” she offered in response.
“What is your name?” It was a long shot at best. I went to high school 20 minutes away, and I only knew a handful of people in the neighborhood, none of whom were close enough to call a friend. Even with her name, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to find her if she wanted to continue dodging my questions. I really just wanted to know who I was talking to, just to have a name for the voice.
An unusual name… no wait… that couldn’t be her name, “haha, so you’re not going to answer that question?”
“No, ask another one”
I came back with “Why won’t you tell me your name?” secretly hoping that both it and the previous question didn’t count as the replacement.
“Because you’ll laugh”
“I won’t laugh,” which was probably quite true. I went to high school near the projects; I had lots of friends with unusual names.
“Ask another question”
“Fine, when is your birthday?” I asked more out of frustration than interest.
“Why do you want to know my birthday?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can find out about you from your birthday.” Now in hindsight just about any response would have been more appropriate. That pretty much sounds like a promise to stalk her.
“September 20th,” thankfully she didn’t take it as the stupid comment it could have been.
We continued the conversation for a while, talking for about 30 minutes. To be honest, I didn’t rememeber much of what we talked about. I didn’t ask who was mad at her, and to be honest, I didn’t particularly care. I was happy to listen to her voice. She probably could have read from the phone book and it would have been enough for me.
But then, when she was in mid sentence, the line went dead. I don’t know if it was something with my phone or what. I don’t know how or why, but the conversation was over.
I don’t think there was anyone in my life at the time who didn’t hear that story in the following week. Some of my friends were convinced that I was going to stay home to look for her. But I went off to Fish Camp like a good little incoming Aggie.
For those of you who don’t know, Fish Camp is part new student orientation, part cult brainwashing. I did not enjoy Fish Camp at all. It served only to convince me that contrary to all the other evidence, I had picked the wrong college.
One night while standing near the corner of the building that served as the dance hall for the evening, I did what all bored people do at such events. I talked to the nearest person who looked as bored as I did.
“Howdy” I said to a guy with glasses as I introduced myself. After the traditional exchange of names and majors, we were surprised to find that we were from adjacent neighborhoods. Turns out our parent’s houses were about 1000 feet from each other. Which means he went to the same high school as the mystery woman.
“Look, I’m sure this sounds pretty retarded, and there’s no reason you should know this, but do you know anyone from your high school born on September 20?”
The look on his face was something like shock mixed with fear. “What did you say?”
“Do you know anyone from your high school born on Septemeber 20?” I repeated.
Not exactly the response I was fishing for, but you have to admit, it was quite the coincidence. “haha, I’m pretty sure you’re not the person I’m looking for. Do you know anyone else born then?”
“Sure they announced the names in home room. Two girls. One of them was a good friend of mine, Kathy.”
I asked him about Kathy, but she didn’t quite fit the profile. Kathy isn’t a particularly funny name, and the voice didn’t fit his description of Kathy’s. “What about the other girl?”
“Yeah, she was pretty cool too. Her name is Zoe. She transferred from California. Plays tennis. Student government, that sort of thing.”
Zoe. Gotta be the girl. “Do you by any chance have her number?”
“Oh sure, I’ll bring it to the reunion.” The Fish Camp reunion is a big party two weeks into the semester. So I would be talking to Zoe by the end of the month.
But, I never saw him again.
When I went home for summers, I would ride my bike through the adjacent neighborhoods hoping against hope that I’d be psychic at exactly the right time to see a jogger and know it was her. Ok, just kidding, I rode my bike to not sit in my parents’ house all the time. Actually, I’m just looking for a transition to the next part of the story.
My senior year I took a theory of interest class. A little junior sorority girl sat next to me in class, and took up studying before exams in the student lounge where I held tutoring and review sessions. One day I overheard her say she went to a high school near my parents’ old house.
When I asked her if she knew many people at Zoe’s high school, she said she knew more people there than at her school. I asked her if she knew Zoe and she launched into a monologue delivered so fast I could barely keep up. She went to another school in Texas, they were both in the same sorority, that kind of stuff. After she finally took a breath, she asked how I knew Zoe.
I told her the whole story, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sorority girl more visibly offended. Clearly since I remembered so many details and had talked to so many people, I was stalking Zoe. She was going to see to it that Zoe knew everything about me and that I would never speak to her.
I asked her if she would answer one last question. The previous summer, every night when I finished my bike ride, I’d ride to the top of the hill in the middle of my neighborhood and watch the lights come on downtown. One day the batteries in my walkman died in the middle of the ride. Instead of going home, I just went early to the bench.
“What does that have to do with Zoe?”
“Is she about this tall?” as I put my hand up, “and does she have curly hair?”
“Yes, oh my God, you are stalking her!”
While I was sitting there, a pair of girls came jogging by. The one with curly hair said “Stopping early tonight?” I could have recognized that voice at a nascar race. I vaguely remember babbling something about my batteries being dead as I watched her run down the hill.
That conversation was 9 years ago.
If you know me at all you have to be wondering why I would tell this story. Am I trying to find some connection back to Zoe after all this time? Maybe rekindle an old fantasy of a relationship that never existed?
A friend of mine recently told me that our friendship feels awkward to her because she doesn’t know what I want. Let me make it perfectly clear what it is that I “want”.
For starters, I don’t want the movie ending. I don’t want to find Zoe. Maybe she is the single most perfect woman ever to step foot on the planet. I don’t want the movie ending.
I don’t want the movie ending because I don’t want the drama. This recent conversation with my friend made me realize two things. First, she is absolutely amazing; her smile, her laugh, the way she moves, her touch, her company, these are things to be cherished and protected. Second, there’s a boatload of drama and we’re not even dating. I don’t want the drama.
I want a friend.