"He Thought-She Thought"
By Tess Woodzell
"You look tired," he said.
"You look sad," she answered.
They spoke in the blunt manner of people who had shared a past and the privilege of a close bond. There was none of the awkwardness that comes with former lovers, for they surely were not.
They had nearly collided around the corner of the small town grocery store, each absorbed in the task at hand. The apologies died on their lips as they locked eyes. She studied him, deciding that the slightly graying hair at his temples made him look distinguished, and she liked it. He, in turn, noticed that the years had been good to her. She quickly rounded the shopping cart, smiling because she knew that she'd have to make the first move.
As she stepped in front of him, she thought, "God, I've missed you."
He was thinking,"Has it really been so long?"
She still had to stand on tip-toe to reach his cheek for a kiss. As his arms went around her for a friendly hug, both were transported to another time. Their life together flashed before their closed eyes during that brief contact.
They'd met in junior high school. She thought that he was the smartest boy she'd ever met. He thought she was a cute and sassy cheerleader. They were assigned as science lab partners, learning the intricacies of frog anatomy, dissection being the final test. On that day, the class was abuzz with excitement. Some imagined themselves in medical school, doing something of great importance. Others were just looking forward to a reprieve from mundane classwork. They stood at the waist-high tables, scapels at the ready, as the teacher removed the unfortunate frogs from the formaldehyde and placed them at each station. The smell was horrendous. She gagged and he laughed. He had wanted to tease her or say something witty about the smell being somewhat akin to the boys' locker room. When he glanced down, he noticed that the scalpel was shaking slightly in her hand, and there were tears running down her cheeks. Wordlessly, he shifted his body to block her from the teacher's line of vision. With one hand, he took the scalpel ; with the other, he handed her his handkerchief. He didn't care if the tears were from the smell, or sympathy for the frog. She was surprised that a teen-aged boy carried a clean, white handkerchief. She didn't say "thank you", hoping he understood her silent gratitude.
Class over, she was uncertain of what to do with the soggy scrap of material. Her lips quivered with the intent to smile, the urge to cry again. His eyes questioned, "you okay?" His hand squeezed her smaller one containing the balled up cotton. She understood the implied "keep it", and she did. It was now relegated to some dusty box in her attic, marked "keep forever".
Faster now, the memories flooded. Sitting back-to-back outside in the springtime breeze after school, they'd discussed poetry and music.
"I could do this forever", he thought.
She marveled that the warmth of the flannel shirt he'd loaned her was nothing compared to the warmth of leaning against his sturdy back.
Opposing sides of some long-forgotten debate topic, he'd watched her at the podium.
"What a spit-fire!", and he'd grinned and winked at her, as he took his place to argue the point. The applause was thunderous, as he won over the crowd and judges alike. She'd narrowed her eyes, pretending to be mad that he'd out-done her. Secretly, she was proud of him.
Friday night football in a small, Southern town seems like the center of the universe. Their town was no exception, with the crowd storming the field after every victory or defeat. She flounced onto the field, a blur of pom-poms, and ran straight for him, as he jerked off his helmet. She flew into his arms and he lifted her off the ground. Suspended in mid-air, she held tightly to his neck, praying,"Please ask me to the Homecoming dance, please ask me to the Homecoming dance...." His own silent plea was, "Don't let go, don't let go....", but they were soon separated by the cheering, back-slapping fans.
Across the room at Senior prom, they'd waved. He noticed that her date was ignoring her, seeming to prefer the conversation of the other guys at the table.
"What a jerk," he muttered to himself.
When his date made yet another trip to the ladies room with an entourage of giggly of girls, she was thinking, "She's not good enough for you." So, she asked him to dance. Even in heels, she barely reached his shoulder, and he still had to lean his head to catch her words.
"You having fun?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
They were both lying, and knew it. Both wished they'd come together. When the song ended, they stood on the dance floor, eyes conversing, then parted, each back to their respective bad dates.
They'd shared dreams and aspirations and, more often than not, a locker. They had laughed at the constant disarray that was hers and her inability to ever find a pencil. She'd teased him about his own space being "military-school neat and orderly". So, she'd kept her essentials with his, always meeting there and heading off to lunch together. She always returned the pencils, and he laughed, saying, "Most girls would just keep it."
She cast him a serious look. "I'm not most girls."
To himself, he said, "You certainly are not, darlin'."
They shared a bus seat on a field trip. Coming home late that night, she'd fallen asleep on his shoulder in the dark. It had felt so right, so comfortable. He thought, "I should just kiss her."
She stirred and looked up at him. She raised her hand to brush back a lock of his hair, her fingers lingering on his face. "I wish he'd kiss me," she thought. When neither of them moved, she snuggled back down against him, and sighed at the passed moment.
The memories came faster - the laughter, the teasing, the arguing, even tears over the death of a classmate - all blurred together. Then, the graduation ceremony over, they'd sought each other. He took her hand, and they stood in a quiet, dimly lit hallway. She didn't have the words to explain how she felt, how he'd changed her life. He was tongue-tied at the very thought of not having her to brighten his days, make him laugh. In the end, they'd just walked away without exchanging the words in their hearts. The morning after, she awoke, thinking that this wasn't the first day of any old summer vacation, but the start of her life without him. She cried, complained of cramps, and stayed in bed. He woke up to his radio alarm playing a song that had been on the lunchroom jukebox. He looked over at the pile of things he'd removed from his school locker, and he felt so alone. The pencils didn't make him smile. They just made him miss her.
After that, there was only the occasional glimpse across the street or a crowded room, whenever they both happened to be in town. Marriage and jobs took them far away. The memories gradually ceased. She wanted to cling to him for another moment, feel the comfort and strength she'd always gotten in his presence. He wanted to absorb her spirit, enjoy the freedom of optimism and fun that she had brought tumbling into his teenage world so long ago.
"Nanna! Can we get these sprinkles?!"
A little girl with dark, curly hair was running down the aisle toward them. They broke apart as she turned to the child, already feeling their cocoon of memories slip away. She laughed and tousled the unruly hair. The child was almost breathless from running and the urge to convince her grandmother.
"Cause they'd be better with sprinkles." she continued in a rush,"and these are the prettiest EVER!" She held up the colorful sugar bits in question, with a hopeful look on her tiny face.
"Well, we surely want them to be the best cookies, now don't we, sweetie?", she answered her granddaughter.
"Who's that, Nanna?" she asked, tucking bashfully behind the shopping cart.
"This is..... an old friend from school."
He raised his eyebrow at the "old", but he smiled.
"Looks like someone's making cookies," he directed at the girl.
"Uh huh, and Nanna's cookies are the best, and she said I can help, and then we're gonna eat cookies til we puke."
He burst into laughter. He could well imagine her saying that, conspiring with the granddaughter. She laughed, not denying it, nor being embarrassed by the remark. He glanced into her cart. Chaos. Just like her high school locker. Ingredients for said cookie-baking marathon filled it to overflowing, her purse buried somewhere in the bottom.
"So typical, " he thought with another smile.
She noticed his gaze, shook her head with a small smile of her own at his items neatly arranged - just the basics - BandAids, batteries, bread, milk. A stark contrast to her colorful mess.
Curls bouncing, the four year old tore off down the aisle for more treasures. They stood apart and smiled at each other again, shadows of their past all around them. He was thinking, " It might have worked. I wish we'd tried. Lord, how I wish...."
Her eyes were misty. She ducked her head so he wouldn't notice and thought, "I would have loved you best...."
"Be well, "he said to her kindly.
"Be happy," she whispered.