The song When You Say Nothing At All sticks in my head, and it is a frequent companion on my travels between the Tidewater of Virginia and the Georgia Low Country. In fact, I have more than one version of it. One that gets played on the southern journey and one that plays on the torture playlist for the trip north. I am revealing details of which I am not sure She is aware.
I met her on the first day of 8th grade. I had been transplanted from Brooklyn, New York, to the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. I was not a happy camper.
As in all first days of school, the new kid is put through the humiliation of stammering through an introduction. Just the facts, please. Name, last home of record, current home of record, siblings (I have 5, so it was like a new infestation in the school) and finally, something interesting about me. It was a personal hell. I stood and looked at the unfamiliar collection of faces and, at that moment, began to wish that Skylab would pick that moment to fall out of orbit and onto my head.
My Brooklyn accent betrayed me immediately. She turned her head deliberately in my direction as if tuning in a radio frequency. She was 13, I was 12. She had also made the Brooklyn to the Poconos transition, albeit a few years earlier. I think she may have been the only one in the room to understand me as I mumbled through the self-interrogation.
She took some pity on me. She became my translator and guide to this new universe into which I had been forced. She gave me the inside scoop on our classmates, and she laughed at my jokes. She became my friend when I was awkward and seemingly invisible. It was a friendship that I cherished. Her opinion mattered to me. So much so that at a point where I had to make a desperate decision, it was the fear of disappointing her that kept me from making a life-altering mistake.
We went on to the same college after high school. She was Pre-Med, I was not. We saw each other on the campus every now and then. I wish I could tell you that I was smart enough to date her and find the “happily ever after” path with her as my translator and guide. But that did not happen. We went on to different lives and, as often happens, we lost track of each other.
Fast forward about 30 years, and we had reconnected. An acquaintance from the high school reunion committee passed her email address to me and I contacted her. We corresponded. We spoke on the phone. We talked about everything. I have to admit here that I have failed at every relationship I have been in. I know that the blame is not all mine, but I own that which is. We talked each other through the aftermath of my divorce and the loss of her husband. There was no room for secrets, but plenty for acceptance. We still had not laid eyes on each other since college.
We agreed to meet for dinner while she was on a trip to a city that I was passing through to attend a family event. In a bustling little bistro, we found ourselves across the table from each other. Telling stories about the adventures and tragedies of our lives. I could not look away from her. Something was drawing me into her laugh, her voice, her eyes, her smile. Her voice had been softened by a slight southern drawl acquired in Savannah over the years. Time stood still and evaporated around her. It was the first of many paradoxes I experience in her presence. After dinner and a single malt tasting lesson (she is an excellent teacher), we strolled back to her hotel, her arm in mine as we walked through the February night. The chill that ran through me had nothing to do with the weather.
As we were about to part company, I leaned in to kiss her, “good night.” It was soft and devastating. It was comfortable and out of control. It caught my breath and stole my heart. It was as if the universe was smacking me in the back of the head and telling me that I should have paid attention in my youth. As the kiss slowly released, she turned her head in my direction as if she was finding that frequency, again.
A few weeks later, at the Savannah airport, the kiss repeated itself, drowning out the crowd passing by us at the top of the ramp in the terminal.
This song captures the rain-soaked explorations of old forts, laughing in the grocery store, dancing to Big Band music in antique shops and watching her doze off in the front seat as we head out of Hilton Head. I see her dancing to 80’s music in the kitchen of a friend’s home, and I see the face of joy. I feel like I am in a state of grace when I am near her.
You say it best…