Over 30 years ago, a chance encounter with a childhood friend inspired one teen to write a letter about the experience and submit it to The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. The piece won top honors and was published; and the young writer grew up, married and pursued a successful career in law. Decades later, she was contacted by a stranger who had read the Award-winning letter in an old classroom magazine and had spent several years trying to find her to ask her a question. “Why,” he wanted to know, “didn’t you ever become a novelist?”
The question remains unanswered, but here’s the work that inspired that decades-long search.
To An Old Friend
I saw you on the street on Tuesday. At first you didn’t know me. The sultriness of the day had wilted my clothes and the feeble breeze had straggled my hair. I suppose I didn’t much resemble the seven-year-old you used to play “house” with in huge, flimsy cardboard boxes in the backyard. You called my name hesitantly, slurping over the syllables the way you used to when we were younger. No one ever pronounced it that way after you left. You smiled and said, “How are you?” and took my hands in yours and held them in your steady clasp. I wanted to talk to you; to say something silly like our password—the word that opened the doors to the Club, composed of the select few who used to meet on Georgie’s tree-shaded patio. Remember?
I looked at your face. You’d gotten so good-looking; your eyes were that same crisp, translucent green that I loved because they reminded me of the ocean. I used to be taller than you, too. Now, you towered above me, your skin tanned to a toasty gold and flushed with sunburn; your fresh, plaid shirt collar opened at the throat. I felt so rumpled standing next to you. You asked me to go for coffee with you. I couldn’t help thinking how you once swore to me, in the thin light of a Saturday afternoon, that you would never drink coffee, or smoke cigarettes, or carry an attaché case to work; never grow up, but always stay a little boy. We strolled into town together, past the boutiques with their fancy display windows, past the Five and Ten, and suddenly I was seized with the urge to race you to the corner. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask you, but I swallowed my words. I had known you once. I did not know you now.
We walked into a café with a lemon-yellow awning and sat down. We ordered coffee and began to talk generally, skimming across the years. You wanted to know what I was doing with my life. I told you. Then I asked if you had ever become the “astronaut of your dreams.” You shook your head and grinned, saying that you were a lawyer. But you had been an astronaut then. Both of us had been astronauts. And we had gone to the moon together and farther, and come back.
You glanced swiftly at your watch and then said that you had to meet your fiancé at a ballet in the city. You paid the check, tipped the waitress generously; and taking my arm, walked with me out onto the sidewalk. Then you turned to me and smiled, and briefly, almost coolly, you kissed my cheek. I thought about the trips to the beach where you taught me to swim, and the chocolate popsicles we used to share. I thought about the pungent, emerald-green grass, wet with dew, and how we would roll over and over on that smooth carpet until we were dizzy. I thought about the tangy piles of dried autumn leaves and Halloween. I watched you hail a bright yellow taxi and slide in. As you pulled away from the curb, I knew I would never see you again.