He was greeted by Deb, who had been the president of their class as well as the head cheerleader. He was amazed to find she’d barely aged. He wasn’t sure if it was amazing genes or remarkable plastic surgery. Probably both. He wandered toward the bar to get a drink, stopping to say hello to a couple of guys he’d known from choir.
He turned, drink in hand and looked at the crowd. Many faces looked vaguely familiar, like people he knew who’d been put in makeup to look older. He wondered at how quickly 25 years had passed. And at how little those 25 years had meant. As he said hello to former classmates, he wondered if everyone in this room had led such safe, empty lives. He’d lived a good life. He’d made lots of money. He didn’t love his wife, but they were friends. Well, sort of. He treated her well and she reciprocated. He gave to charity. He went to church.
Before he could ask himself the question he wanted to avoid, his mind was brought to a halt. There she was, seemingly having been frozen in time. Her eyes still sparkled. Her smile still took his breath away. Even her signature ponytail was still there. The only addition was the ruggedly handsome man at her side, his hand on the small of her back. He was taller than she and they were clearly a couple. She nuzzled back against his chest and they shared a smiling whisper followed by a gentle kiss. But then, to his great surprise, she locked eyes with him. She smiled even more broadly and waved. He shyly waved back. She leaned in and whispered something to her husband. He smiled and nodded. They made their way across the ever-more-crowded dance floor to the bar.
“Evan,” she said, hugging him warmly. “I’m so glad you came. I was excited when Deb told me your reply card came in.”
“Me too. Thanks. And who’s this handsome guy?”
“Evan, this is my husband Derek. Derek, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Evan Wilson.”
“Glad to finally meet you, Evan,” said her husband. “Renee talks about you all the time.”
“Wow, really? Even after all these years? What’s to talk about?”
“Oh, it’s always some funny comment you made in class or some goofy thing you did on senior day or how you were always such a good friend.”
Evan was genuinely gob smacked. He had no idea he’d had such an impact on anyone’s life, much less hers. He was, as he’d seemingly been when around her all through school, rendered speechless. Finally, he managed something feeble about being the class clown.
“Well, we’re going to have a dance,” said Renee. “Save one for me, Evan?”
And with that, they were on the dance floor. It was a disco song that had been big when they graduated, but they deftly did some ballroom dance, the name of which escaped him. She was light on her feet and they moved effortlessly together. They were synchronized. They were happy. He was hollow.
Not really a drinker, he uncharacteristically ordered a second martini and found a table in a quiet corner, away from the crowd. The first had tasted like gasoline, but he was getting used to it. He found if he sipped and swallowed quickly, it wasn’t so bad. As he managed to put away the last few drops and put his glass on the table, he looked around. He wasn’t drunk, but the room was taking on a shimmer.
A slow song started. “Well,” said Renee, who had somehow magically appeared by his side. “How about that dance?” She held out her hand. He automatically took it, following her to the dance floor. She put her hands around his neck. As he placed his hands on her waist, he wondered how long a human being could survive without oxygen.
“So,” she said, “how’ve you been?”
“Okay. You look happy.”
“Yes. Derek’s great. My kids are great.”
She had kids. He’d always wanted kids, but he and his wife just never seemed to get around to it. “How old?”
“Derek Junior is twelve, Camille is nine.”
“Boy and a girl. Matched set.”
“They fight like cats and dogs, but they love each other.”
They danced a little in silence. He had nothing to tell her about his life. “Where’d you meet Derek?” he finally asked.
“Can I make a confession?”
“I’ve just always felt like I need to tell you this for some reason. I’m not sure why.”
He wondered what she could possibly need to confess, but he nodded to let her know it was okay to go on.
“I had the biggest crush on you all through junior high and high school. I always hoped you’d ask me out. I had a feeling you liked me too, but I was too shy to say anything.”
His brain swirled; his stomach lurched. She—she, had liked him?! Between the alcohol and the sheer shock, he was pretty sure he was going to pass out.
“Evan? Evan? Are you okay?”
Her face grew fuzzy and disappeared, only to be replaced by that of Mr. Beck. What was Mr. Beck doing here? And where was here? It looked familiar, like a place he’d been a million times, but long, long ago.
“You really need to give her that present.”
He looked around. It was eighth grade. Fourth period had just ended. He could still hear the echo of her lilting laughter fading down the corridor.
“Renee!” he shouted, bolting out the door, gift in hand. She turned when she heard him call out, her face puzzled, but congenial. A smile danced across her lips as she saw the gift he held out in front of him.
“Wait! I have something for you. And—and I need to ask you a question.”