By Sara Felsenstein
Author’s Note: This is the first of a two-part fiction exercise to expand the phrase, “The first time I met…. The second time I met…. The last time I met…” into a story.
THE FIRST TIME WE MET was at the manmade lake up in the Catskills next to Martin’s General Store when we were both twelve. I was living for the summer at the Monticello Bungalow colony with my parents and older brother. You were staying somewhere across the dirt road with your grandparents. I knew that because everyone who lived across that dirt road was a grandparent or just really old, sitting all day in a large circle on weak, folding rainbow lawn chairs yapping yapping yapping yapping. You were the only kid over there and had too much life for that.
The first time we met though was at the manmade lake about two miles down where the sand was a strange medium-brown color and the grains were slightly too large and got caught between your toes, staying there for days. My friend Deborah said it was imported from Hawaii but my mom said it was syn-thetic. One afternoon we were both at the 10-foot cement dock at the center of the lake and you were doing these fancy dives. How do you do that? I asked but you were already in the water. I stood in the center of the dock and watched you, over and over, plunge into the water and then emerge, squinting your eyes and slicking back the dark hair off of your face. It was sixty degrees and too cold for swimming so every time I came out of the water my skin erupted in goosebumps, and my bathing suit, a size too large, hung from my shoulders like loose skin. You thought that was funny and pointed and laughed. You were not cold. I only did cannonballs. You only did dives and backflips. That was all I knew how to do, cannonballs, but my 100 pounds didn’t make much of a splash, although I tried, I really tried. Let’s dive, you said, it’s more fun. But I can’t, I said. Are you a scaredy cat na na na na you said. I hated being called a scaredy cat by my big brother so I hated it even more from you. You grabbed my hand and said come on let’s jump off together. Your hand was so warm and I got distracted thinking about it but you had already jumped and I didn’t jump in time so the edge of my leg scraped against the edge of the dock as I fell into the water. I fumbled around in the water and found the rickety metal ladder and yanked myself up and tried not to cry. A few tears escaped my eyes but it could have been lake water, for all you knew. On the cement dock I bled maroonish blood and the blood dripped into the green opaque water but didn’t change its color. You took my hand and said let’s go get you fixed up. My knee stung all the way back to shore. It was my fault. You felt bad, real bad though. By the time we got back to shore all the blood had washed away and the cut was hardly noticeable, except a grain of sand was caught beneath the flap of skin and stung, it really stung. Your grandmother wrapped a white towel around my leg and pressed it against my cut until my leg was numb with tenderness and you mouthed I’m sorry.
THE SECOND TIME WE MET was at an outdoor hoedown on the Delaware River near a whitewater rafting site. I was 19 and camping out with my girlfriends and we all expected to talk more about boys that night than actually be with them. Most of the boys we came across were young ones on Boy Scout trips, or older men with receding hairlines who sat around the campfire with a beer just talking about their glory days. There were a few young and attractive ones, though. We called the hot guys “chipmunks.” The ugly guys we called “squirrels.” It was our immature code and to this day I have no idea how we came up with it. The whitewater rafting site that was hosting the hoedown brought in this bad cover band that played on a makeshift wooden stage. My friends and I, we passed around the metal flask filled with whiskey that I found in my parents’ basement. The whiskey stung our throats but the river air was the best chaser. The band was playing Maroon 5 — I thought this was a hoedown — and I turned around and saw you and you were shirtless with dirt streaked across your chest. I was wearing faded jeans that were too tight at the thigh and an inch too short at the ankles. My T-shirt was tied in a knot above my belly button and I was much less drunk than I let on but I felt sexy. You were wearing jeans and your dark hair was matted down from the relentlessly humid August air. You were sweaty and tall and it was a turn on, I almost forgot I already knew you. You came up to me and said hi and reminded me of how we met the first time, seven years ago, out here in manmade nature. My girlfriends gave me looks go go go so I let you take my hand and spin me around to the rhythm of whatever song was playing at the time, there was nothing to lose. I loved the way bits of light caught in the branches of the forest trees and then slowly, like rain, dripped from them and got all tangled all in your brown hair. For a brief moment you pressed up against me; the sweat glued my jeans to my legs and the denim became my skin.
THE LAST TIME WE MET was many years later when you were bagging my groceries at Walmart. It was back in Monticello. Your grandparents were long dead and had given you the old gray bungalow, that’s what I heard from the people in town. Your hair was thinning and graying on the sides. The nametag said your name so I knew it was you. There could be a thousand yous but this one was you. My credit card said my name so I knew you knew. I felt self-conscious and tried to smile. The stubble hid your half-smile but the shame contorted your face in ways I wished I had never seen. I wanted to say hi, hello, how are you, but none of those words escaped my mouth. You probably didn’t know I was alone. The truth was, you didn’t know me. All I could muster was “thank you very much.” I didn’t even say your name. You didn’t even nod. I pushed my cart past you and almost to the sliding doors, then turned back to get one last glimpse. I half-expected you to turn and look at me, at the very same time, like the movies, to glance and wonder and think back to the past, but you never did, you just continued like you were, bagging endlessly, your silent voice swept away in the sound of beeps and printing receipts.