Saturday, January 9, 2010

Forks in the Road

This morning, I sat in the cafeteria of a small private high school my daughter might attend next year and stared--discreetly, I hope--at a man. It's happened to all of us, hasn't it? In some unexpected place, you suddenly spot someone you're 95% sure is someone from your past--someone who was once so significant that you wouldn't have believed you'd ever be unsure--but you are unsure. Unsure enough that you're afraid to speak, not because you're afraid that you're wrong, but because the question mark you'd have to attach to his name would be unforgivable if you were right.

We were both early. I had plenty of time to study him (discreetly, I hope) before the meeting commenced. I thought about walking in the snow with him, about eating rhubarb straight from the garden and blackberries plucked from a bush. I summoned up the one time I'd seen him with his wife and children, years earlier, and tried to remember exactly how he'd looked then, but it was futile. I could only see him refusing to dance with me under the first disco ball I'd ever seen, jumping to defend me during a basketball game in his friend's driveway, appearing at my side with a delicate, powdered-sugar laced Christmas cookie after some silly spat.

I come from a large family. I have cousins I've never met and cousins I've seen only once or twice in my life. I probably have cousins I don't even know exist. But this cousin, I loved. We played with Play-Dough and crayons together, imagined arctic expeditions in his back yard and went to movie matinees together every Wednesday in summer. It was to his house that I took my brand new Pong game and my handheld electronic football game; we made tattoos with marker and applied them to one another and to our younger siblings. I remember what I bought him for his ninth birthday, the day he brought his new puppy to my house, the first time I walked to his house alone. I even remember waiting impatiently for him to get up from his nap when he was still in his crib but I had achieved the lofty age of three.

And now I don't know what he looks like.

I sat in a room for two hours this morning and didn't know whether or not he was sitting thirty feet from me. And somehow, not knowing whether or not I was seeing him made me sad in a way that knowing I wasn't never did.

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