My best friend got married last month to a wonderful guy named Jim. We all went to school together just south of Chicago and we celebrated our 20th class reunion this past summer. That’s where Char and Jim met . . . again . . . for the first time . . . if that makes any sense . . . and they now live in that magical happily-ever-after place reserved for truly special people. I couldn’t be more thrilled for my friend.
I first met Charlene during our junior year. The details are sketchy, just hit-and-miss recollections in my aging foggy mind. I think we had a mutual friend, a guy she once dated, or was perhaps dating at the time we met, the same guy I had become friends with in some class, perhaps drafting or maybe something as forgetful as gym. I must have sat with him a few times at lunch – pizza and fries, back in the day when school lunches didn’t need to be healthy – and Charlene and I became acquainted. At some point our mutual friend left the picture (and the table) but we stayed put and sat at the same lunch table, eating the same greasy food and drinking our half pints of cold milk, for our remaining time in high school.
I only recall a few mutual friends between us. She hung with a different crowd, the kids who were more affluent or brainy, because they were the kids she knew best, having lived in the area all her life. I was new to the area and the kind of guy who knew a bunch of people but associated regularly – truly considered as friends – a select few. I was quiet when I was being serious – when I was being truly “me” – and Charlene let me be that way. Around her I could contemplate things and just talk and she’d listen and offer her honest opinions. We hit it off nicely.
I eventually discovered that she lived nearby so we began spending time at her place. I met her mom and dad, two kind-hearted, friendly folks who always welcomed me into their home with a smile and an occasional warm cookie. Over the years since graduation, Charlene and I have gotten together many times at her place to catch up on our lives and being there always brings back some comfortable memories. We also hung out at the mall quite a bit. Charlene was good at the mall thing. She loved the walking and the people and the good food. I also remember the simple pleasure of just driving to the mall. She’d manipulate the radio and sing along, especially when Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam came on.
Being with Charlene was fun. Her smile was infectious, as was that mischievous smirk that sprung upon her face when she was about to share a particularly opinionated remark. Like at our senior prom when she sent her steak back because it wasn’t to her liking. Where I was the kind of guy who would just let that stuff slide, she would have none of that nonsense. She got what she wanted out of life.
I imagine some people probably considered us more than just friends. I don’t think that we ever did. It’s funny, but as I write this I can’t recall a single conversation where we hashed out just exactly what kind of relationship we had. We did things that couple did – hung out a lot, went out to dinner, went roller skating and miniature golfing, even prom – and yet it was all so platonic (as a philosophy major, I just love that word!). I only remember holding her hand once (while roller skating . . . more for balance methinks . . . she was a pro and I was decidedly not), and to the best of my knowledge we never shared a kiss. You’d remember something like that, wouldn’t you?!?! What we shared went beyond all that mushy stuff and came at a time when I needed that sort of transcendent bond. Sure I was excited when she accepted my invitation to prom, so excited that I got a ticket speeding away from her place after an evening spent hashing out the details. Even as the cop wrote me the ticket, I couldn’t stop smiling. (That’s us, in the picture in the upper left, at prom in 1987. Almost Paradise was the theme . . . ) But my excitement was of a nature quite foreign to many people. I considered myself an oddball in high school, not one of the cool kids or even a kid worthy of any sort of elevated social status, and to be accepted and cared for by such a kind person with no strings attached or unspoken expectations gave me a peace that comes rarely in life. I’ll always appreciate Char for that acceptance and unconditional love.
Upon graduation I moved away to the frozen north country of Minnesota and Charlene decided to attend a nearby school so she could stay at home. I met Garsy, my wife-to-be, that first semester away at college and the relationship Charlene and I shared entered a new era. It’s funny to think back about it, from this long-removed space in time, but I don’t think Charlene liked my new, official girlfriend when they first met. I recall that familiar smirk well and an uncomfortable air, a shifting of opinions if you will – not a jealousy, just a sort of shock at how rapidly I had settled for someone new. They were cut from very different cloth and I hadn’t exactly expected them to relate to one another immediately, if every at all. So it was a difficult time for me, for while I didn’t necessarily need Charlene to like Garsy, I did want her to be happy for me. I wanted my family to like Garsy, to also be happy for me, but they were always very fond of Charlene and to see me walk away from our relationship was hard for them to understand. But those crazy moments of juvenile discomfort have been washed away and, as adults, Charlene and I share a history that, though for a brief time – and from my obviously one-sided perspective was rocky and uncertain – has been polished by the passing of time.
Charlene has had several relationships in the time since graduation, but none of the stuck for her. Obviously I don’t know all the details. But I do know that her patience has finally paid off. Her and Jim hit it off immediately and began dating after the events and people surrounding our class reunion faded to memories. I was so thrilled when I got the email telling me that they were getting married. Of course they had to run off to Hawaii to tie the knot (that’s them in the corner down there on the right) and didn’t even invite me. How rude!
So tomorrow, Garsy and I will travel to Chicago to celebrate with Charlene and Jim, and a bunch of other folks from the class of ’87, their new life together. I remember Jim from high school, but only as a face. I can’t recall a single class we shared or a conversation we engaged in. I simply remember him as a nice guy. I’ve heard a bit of his story about life after high school and suffice it to say (especially when you hear him tell it) this new chapter in his life is a very welcome and exciting one.
And yet, even after all this time, and many happy years of faithful married life, I find it difficult to let her go. Isn’t that odd? It’s as though I’m realizing for the first time that what we shared all those years ago might just have meant more to me that I’ve ever admitted. To even type those words, much less acknowledge their presence in the nether regions of my mind, is startling. She was never mine to cling to or ever consider giving away. There is always just a memory, and a biased, incomplete one at that. And I find myself needing to push those feelings aside to make room for this new chapter in her life. It’s a process that has already begun, and it feels good to let her go. And in letting her go, I make room for all kinds of new memories and feelings. Feelings of happiness for her and Jim and their future together. Memories of sharing time together in a new season of love and growth and surrender. Memories and feelings which, however unexpected and strange, are most welcome and built together one precious moment at a time.
Here’s to you, Charlene and Jim. May you build a relationship that is solid and grounded in not one but two sets of footsteps walking side by side through the paths of life.