The whole park smells wonderful. I love the scent of lilacs. The timing is perfect this year; there are thousands of them in bloom.
I walk along the path to the greenhouse. I always like to see what’s growing in there. Lost in the pleasure of the warm spring air and the beauty of life bursting before me, I almost run into the people coming the other way.
“Oh, excuse me,” I say.
But as I go to pass them, I get a good look at one of the men. He sees me too, and his face morphs into a puzzled expression. “I’m sorry,” he says, hesitation tugging at his voice, “but you look familiar.”
I study him for a moment, and then it registers. “Oh my god. Jay Weingart? It’s me, Shel Harrison.”
He smiles. “How long has it been? More than ten years.”
Thirteen, I want to say. Nearly thirteen years since you left.
“You look really…different,” Jay comments.
I’m sure that I do. My hair is much longer, for one thing, and I wear makeup now. I’ve given up hiding my body under overly large t-shirts with rock band logos. I do a lot of things I never would have done back then, including having uncomfortable run-ins with old boyfriends.
There are three other people with him. The girl with honey brown hair and eyes the color of the ocean in winter can’t be anyone else but his daughter. Her face is sweet and honest. She smiles shyly. The other man looks familiar, but I can’t place him. Actually, he resembles no one so much as Mr. Clean. He is entirely bald, although it looks more like he shaves his head that way to hide his receding hairline. He’s compact and muscular. I can see a tattoo peeking out of his shirt sleeve, but I can’t tell what it is. There’s also a slender black-haired girl who stands to the side as though she would prefer not to be noticed.
“I don’t think you’ve ever met my daughter, Alison,” Jay’s saying. He puts his hand on the brown-haired girl’s shoulder, pressing down slightly in affection. “This is Bill.” He gestures to the other man without giving any further context for This-Is-Bill. He doesn’t tell me the black-haired girl’s name.
I feel the lump pressing on my throat. Forcing a smile, I nod politely. I swallow, hard. “Nice to meet you,” I say.
“Likewise,” he says, extending a hand. He arches an eyebrow, and I can tell he knows—or thinks he knows—something about me.
“Bill graduated a couple years ahead of us. I don’t know if you remember him.”
Ah, now the familiarity made sense. But he’d had hair back then. I think I make a non-committal sort of noise.
“How’s Julie?” I ask.
Jay shrugs casually. “Fine, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” I glance at Jay’s wedding band.
He notices. “We’ve been divorced for a long time. Julie lives in California. I haven’t seen her in years.”
Ah, remarried, then. I desperately want to get out of this awkward conversation. I make some excuse about needing to be on my way. Jay cheerfully waves over his shoulder as the three of them continue on the path.
I no longer feel much like looking in the greenhouse. My insides feel stretched. I wander through the park, trying not to think, without much success.
He acted as if nothing had ever happened. As if we were never more than old classmates. As if he didn’t remember all those days spent fooling around in his bedroom after school when his parents were still at work. As if it was insignificant making each other feel good and pretending, just for a little while, that we were free.
Thirteen years since he’d told me Julie was pregnant. He said he planned to “do the right thing” and marry her. Back then, I thought he was cheating on me with her. It turned out I was his dirty little secret. And now where is she? He’s married to someone else. Someone who should have been me but never could have been.
I was so sure I was over him before today. But as I walk, my hands deep in my pockets, I think maybe I’m not. Except that I’m not in love with him; I’m only in love with the memory of us. But why, oh why, can’t I get those eyes out of my mind?
I stop along the path to listen to a group of musicians. They’re playing a familiar folk song, one I like. Only one other person is listening—an old man sitting on the bench across the path from them.
There are two women and two men. One of the women is playing the violin. She has the longest hair I’ve ever seen; it’s down past her hips, hanging in dark waves that ripple as she fiddles. The other woman plays hand drums and the two men are playing guitar and some kind of pipes.
I hum the tune softly, closing my eyes. My parents used to bring me to some music festival when I was a kid. There would be all these people, playing and singing, making music together. We would camp there for most of a week. The park musicians are playing one of my mother’s favorites.
The song ends. I open my eyes to find the musicians smiling at me. The guitar player catches my eye and winks. I feel my face heating up.
“You sing?” he asks.
“I used to,” I admit. I wasn’t bad. I don’t know why I gave it up. Real life, I suppose.
He mentions a song. “You know that one?”
“Yeah, my parents used to sing that one all the time,” I say.
“Well, come on then, we could use a voice,” Guitar Guy says.
Feeling self-conscious, I join them. Guitar Guy is still watching me, his face unreadable. I can feel my heart rate increasing.
He tilts his head to the side and gives me a smirk. “What’s your name?”
“Shel. Shel Harrison.”
“Well, Shel Shel Harrison, you ready?”
And suddenly, I think maybe I am.