They held a funeral for Mike Sledge yesterday.
It doesn’t matter how many funerals you go to; you never get used to it. You never know what to say and no matter what you say, someone has already said it. I’ve resigned myself to just being present, another body to count, so that when someone says “Look at what a great turnout there is,” that there will be at least one more to add to the tally.
Mike and I crossed paths often when we were in high school, even though we were not much alike. He was a hard worker with his own lawn business; I got extra cash from my mother. He was a glandular case with a throw-rug of chest hair who shaved every day; I weighed 110 pounds and had as much hair on my chin as I did in my jock. I was bookish, with braces; Mike was an athlete with straight white teeth and a man’s voice. Even his name was macho.
And yet Mike actually picked me to play on his flag football team in gym class, once. It was between me and Scooter Troup, the kid that collected ants. He didn’t have to choose me, but he did. He even encouraged me: “Don’t screw up,” he said. I was too wiry to block anyone, and so they made me a receiver.
“What do you want me to do, Mike?”
“You go long.”
It was his way of keeping me out of his hair; I think he was just glad to know I wouldn’t be looking in the dirt for ants. No one covered me because it was obvious that there was no chance Mike would throw me that ball, and even if he did, I couldn’t possibly catch it.
Mike called a play that required all of the receivers to go left. I’m not sure how, but I ended up on the right side of the field, all alone. Wondering where everyone went, I turned around to look, and just as I did the ball hit me in the chest. I threw my hands up in a reflex action, and the ball stuck in my arms, a miracle reception. “Run you damn fool!,” Mike encouraged me, and I did. I didn’t go far, but the other kids had a new-found respect for me. They made sure to put coverage on me from then on. “Nice job,” Mike said, and I think he meant it.
Years later, with a marriage on the rocks and enough personal problems to keep me busy, I wasn’t really sure why I decided to come; I hadn’t seen Mike since the 11th grade, and afterward, we didn’t even try to keep in touch. We had never been close. At the church, people were milling around and looking at the floor, whispering, the way they do at a funeral. His widow was haggard, and his pretty little girl was at her side. I gave his parents and his sister my condolences in that awkward way you do, and they said they appreciated it through their grief.
In high school, all of the girls liked Mike. I liked all of the girls. That never worked out in my favor. One particular girl, however, was something special. They had dated for a while and it ended, but she never completely got over him. She was vivacious and fun. Her smile was intoxicating, and her laugh hooked me. I was smitten. I hung around her as much as I could, and listened to her as she talked about Mike occasionally. I hated to hear about how she thought about him, but I was too busy thinking about kissing her to let it bother me. Despite her pining and my day dreaming, we gradually became friends, the way the way the pretty girls are always friends with the guys who have no hope of dating them.
I never had a shot, I knew. She was beautiful and popular, and I was the skinny bookworm that no one considered a threat. We’d go places and do things as friends, and while that wasn’t entirely satisfying for me, it was at least a way to stay near her. She’d talk to me about Mike and the other boys that had her fancy, and I’d talk about girls that I liked, to keep up the conversation. I never mentioned that the girls I liked were all her. For me, it beame normal. We’d go out to eat together, just the two of us, and tell stupid jokes and laugh loudly, but it never seemed odd to me. Girls like her didn’t date guys like me I knew. We’d talk late into the night some nights, not wanting our conversations to end, and I never considered why that was. I didn’t have time to think about it; I was just trying to figure out how to get her to love me, the way I loved her. I never did. Eventually, she went off to college and we drifted off our separate ways.
But I thought about her from time to time. I heard she’d married, and had a couple of kids. I did the same. Still, I’d wonder where she was sometimes, and if she was happy, and if the man who’d finally gotten her attention was good to her. I’d see her warm, golden smile in my memory, and couldn’t resist smiling back like a grinning fool at the thought of her.
As time passed, I began to think back to those dinners and those movies and those jokes we shared, and for the first time, something didn’t add up right. All those years she had longed for Mike — or so I thought — but she spent her time with me. It started making little sense. Could I have missed something? The thought took hold and nagged me. Was there something more to our friendship that I didn’t see? Did she have feelings for me, too?
And so there I was at Mike’s funeral after a four hour drive, not quite sure why I’d come. Who am I kidding? I was secretly hoping for the long shot, that she’d show up there also.
I was not disappointed.
I caught sight of someone that looked like her from behind, seated in the pews, and my pulse quickened. Could it really be her? I made my way over through the crowd, as quickly yet with as much decorum as possible.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” I stepped on an old woman’s open-toed shoe and got her pained grunt in response.
As I got closer, there was no doubt. In the quiet of the church, my heart seemed a drumbeat. I approached as calmly as possible and greeted her companions before turning my attention to her, further down the aisle.
The years had been kind to her. No more an awkward teenager, she had filled out in all of the right ways, more mature, more beautiful. It was hard to take my eyes off of her, this woman I’d never met. There was an air of sophistication about her, and she held herself with a quiet confidence that the girl I once knew had lacked. Yet there was no doubt that this was the same girl, now woman, familiar, now strange. I was overjoyed to see her, and yet unsure of who she was, all at the same time. It was uncomfortable.
And then she smiled.
She smiled a golden smile that instantly had the same power over me that it had so many years before. It grabbed me and drew me in and wouldn’t let go, leaving me a grinning idiot and glad for it. It was really her! I wanted to shout and hug her hard, but this was not the time nor place.
I self-consciously invited myself to sit next to her, and we made small talk, sharing pictures of our children until the service started. (I noted she did not show a picture of her husband.) The necklace she wore — goodness — the necklace she wore lay so as to accent the contours of her feminine neckline, and somehow it made the room a bit warmer. I found myself forced to concentrate on her eyes, lest my gaze wander. The service was interminably long, but I found I really didn’t mind; I was just glad to once again be near her, to smell her perfume, to be close. I spent the entire time scheming, dreaming up reasons that we should stay together for a while afterwards.
We had lunch. From the moment we sat down, we were as wrapped up in our own raucous laughter, as oblivious to everyone else as we’d been all those years ago. We talked about some old times, teased with one another a little bit, and shared a little bit more about our lives than small talk would ordinarily permit. We had been together just the week before, 20 years ago.
It was over too quickly.
I tried to drink in every moment, remember every joke, every lilt of her voice, to take it with me, preserve it, and replay it into my old age. I knew even then, that this moment couldn’t possibly come again in a lifetime, and I reveled in it, in her, in us, as long as possible.
On the long drive home, through the eyes of a man, I was able to see what boyish eyes could never fully discern: there really was something there. I had missed it. I never knew. Our conversation was too comfortable, our laughter too loud, our smiles too big. She had loved me. She had always loved me, just like I’d loved her. It was a wonderful realization, and a sudden, shocking confrontation with the truth.
I smiled all the way home, the mystery solved. An incredible sense of calm came over me. I knew what I’d never thought I could know, what I never thought possible. She had loved me. Who could have imagined it?
I arrived home. My children were asleep, and I kissed them gently. My wife woke long enough to chide me for being so late and to remind me of a litany of things I had to do the following day, but soon she was back asleep and I was again alone.
I took off my suit, hung my things, placed them in the closet, pulled the door closed behind me, and sat on the floor, in the dark.
(Written February, 2013)