by: John Haymaker ((Header art by Mihai Adrian.))
The sting of a first lost love lingers in the heart of the romantic, and time and distance forever push that momentary connection further away, until an internet search brings it all crashing back home….
Just before high school graduation, a former girlfriend of mine named Sara and I panicked. How would we stay in touch, we wondered. Sara and I had met years earlier in junior high in the fall of 1968, and even though our coming of age romance ended a year later, we remained constant companions and confidants as our lives progressed. How we met, remarkably, was due to the footloose nature of our parents, who both thought little of upending our lives every couple of years in order to upgrade their careers. As my parents escorted me through multiple teaching posts throughout the midwest, hers ushered her through a series of U.S. Army bases throughout the world. Sara and I, on the cusp of junior high, ultimately landed two houses down from each other in suburban Chicago. That is where our budding romance began.
The only new kids at junior high that year, we felt somewhat outcast and being neighbors, we naturally fell in together. Sara’s parents tolerated her new, longhaired boyfriend, and were simply glad that she’d made a friend. She told me later, though, they worried we spent too much time at my house unsupervised, doubting her story that we were merely watching old movies when we hung out.
Like normal adolescents, we experimented with each other’s bodies. But mostly we just talked, discovering soon after meeting that we’d left sixth grade with the exact same GPA, yet curiously our new school had placed me in the accelerated group and Sara in the intermediate. This slight stunned her and once in the know she marched home to enlist her parents’ help in addressing the sexism blatantly at play. The school officials agreed to promote her to the accelerated path I was on, providing she proved herself by the end of the grading period. She did, allowing us to spend the majority of the school day together, and providing us plenty to talk about after school.
Altruistic at heart, we found time to attend charity events, clearing a park of litter on Earth Day and often signing up pledges for walkathons. One thirty-mile march for hunger took twelve hours to finish, and the organizers treated all who completed the trek to a rock concert that evening featuring local bands. Close to midnight, among the hundreds of participants in the park still enjoying the music, Sara’s worried father found us entwined together on the grass beneath the band shell nearly asleep. He startled us by violently shaking her shoulder, and despite her repeated protests, took her home.
Concerned our relationship was growing too serious, Sara’s parents moved yet again the summer after eighth grade to a school district twenty miles away. The distance, however, proved no great barrier, and we cajoled our parents to ferry us back and forth on weekends until we secured driver’s licenses.
However, after we graduated high school, the distance between Sara and I wouldn’t be just twenty miles. We had our whole lives ahead of us, and our dreams raced ahead even faster. Ahead of us was college, our careers, and the requisite foreign travel. This was eons before email, texting and social media kept friends abreast of daily minutia. Back then phone numbers changed with every move and letters often crossed in the mail or were lost altogether. We doubted we could keep up.
One day we recalled watching Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember. After a series of chance meetings aboard a ship, they arranged to meet in six months at the Empire State Building, presuming their feelings for each other hadn’t changed. Sara and I assumed we would always feel the same way about each other, but if ever we lost touch, we set a date to meet in twenty years on her birthday in 1995 on the ninety-fifth floor of the John Hancock Center. We pinky swore to be there, pulling our hooked fingers hard, looking each other in the eye, and evaluating our shared determination.
But life wasn’t so fast paced as we anticipated, and after our first year away at university, we spent the summer at home, once again navigating those twenty miles to be together. Near summer’s end, Sara decided to take a year off and travel Europe, where she’d spent her childhood. The day before her departure, my father loaned us his Mustang convertible for a day trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We put the top down and took turns driving, letting the sun and wind have their way with us. Dockside, we lunched on pizza and sipped Cokes before renting a wooden skiff. I rowed us across the lake in the midday sun, my back to the far shore while she stretched out before me, generously applying lotion to her body and sunning herself.
Sara asked about my love life, “Are you serious with any girls at college?”
“C’mon, you know I’m gay,” I said. “That won’t change.” Since eighth grade, I’d always been honest with her about my sexual identity, never hiding it, yet she discounted it as nothing more than me being trendy. We’d been intimate once, so perhaps she couldn’t believe I was really “that way.” Few people could at the time, as homosexuality was still regarded as an illness. Coming out during this ignorant period in American history required patience, and a great deal of repetition.
“It’s not a phase?” Sara asked, tears welling up in her eyes. I let the boat drift. I knew she wasn’t crying because I was unavailable, but it seemed the confirmation was too much for her to bear.
“My struggle will be finding a lasting relationship,” I said. “I’m tired of hookups and trysts.”
“True love? Good luck with that,” she laughed, spirited again.
I shrugged and dipped an oar in the waters, rowing out to the middle of the lake. We reminisced about the time she came to the door and told me she was late.
“Sorry,” I had said, as we looked into each others eyes in silence before casting our gaze past each other, both of us considering how to confess our recklessness to our parents. We spent hours huddled together wondering what to do. A week later, Sara knocked at my door with better news — “her friend” had arrived. Fortunately, neither of us told anyone in the meantime, and her parents’ decision to move came a full year after our near miss.
“I wish you had done more than just keep saying, ‘sorry,’” she told me on the boat.
“How exactly is a thirteen year old supposed to react, especially a gay one?” I asked, laughing.
Sara shook her head and ignored me momentarily, until a motorboat cut in too close and set our skiff rocking. We’d forgotten we weren’t the only ones on the lake, forgotten the time and gone over our two-hour rental.
Back at the marina, I helped steady Sara onto the landing dock and then stood in the bobbing boat, reaching for her hand to help me up, but instead she shoved my hand away, just hard enough to tip me overboard into the lake.
“It wasn’t funny,” she said and stormed down the wooden planks as I struggled in the cold water to reach the dock. In hindsight, as we drove back from the lake, we laughed about the incident and my unexpected dip in the lake the entire way home.
A month later back at college, I received a letter from Sara, postmarked Heidelberg, Germany. Her words commenced, “You are the only one I can say this to back in the States, but I’ve fallen in love with a woman.” It turned out that Sara had met an army sergeant stationed overseas, and had presumably fallen in love. Intrigued, and jealous of how easily she had settled into a new relationship, I visited them during my next break from classes. When I arrived I had one question on the tip of my tongue: “Why did you tear up in the boat on our last day?”
“Because you were so blunt about being gay,” she said. “You came off as almost arrogant in that you didn’t need anyone to forgive or accept you. I did. I still do.”
Six years later Sara’s relationship came to an abrupt end, and when it did she sought me out, needy for acceptance. We spent a month together carousing gay clubs and falling into bed together a few nights (platonically, content that we would remain close). The need to hold fast to our rendezvous date seemed remote. Yet if we lost contact, we still swore to meet on the ninety-fifth floor of the John Hancock Building.
Time passed and eventually I took a job teaching English in China for a few years, and a year passed before I heard anything again from Sara. She sent apologies for having lost all track of time, revealing — as I suspected all along — that she had found a new lover.
When I returned to the States I visited Sara and her lover on Long Island, and found her ecstatic about everything—especially and uniquely her new computer. Sara was adamant I needed to junk my word processor and get online as well. I did, still iffy about what I might do with a computer, but I soon found myself learning DOS and tinkering with code non-stop.
The last letter I received from Sara claimed her only excuse for not writing was feeling unloved. I had already relocated to Houston for a job in the burgeoning tech industry, and between work and a new boyfriend — I had found the love of my life — I lost all track of time. I phoned immediately, only to find her landline disconnected. I wrote her a letter since email wasn’t yet ubiquitous, and just like that, on the cusp of a information superhighway poised to keep us inter-connected, we lost contact. I worried there was something more she hadn’t confided. But if nothing else, we had our fall back plan.
A year before our date at the John Hancock Center, I reached out to Sara again, posting a card to her parent’s last known address and then sending a note to her most recent address, hoping postal forwarding might still connect. To my dismay, I received nothing in response.
Our rendezvous date came and passed. Unfortunately, I didn’t measure up to Cary Grant’s onscreen gallantry, and I didn’t go. As much as I wanted to see her, flying cross-country on a whim to keep a date not knowing if were still on seemed impractical.
From time to time, I searched for Sara online, Googling her name and browsing social media. Except for discovering her name isn’t uncommon, I didn’t have much luck. I finally hit upon a link for a sedentary soul with the same name and age as Sara residing in Los Angeles — this individual having resided ten years at the same address. This lead was too unlike my footloose friend to pursue further and so I kept looking.
One evening not long ago, skimming through third, fourth and fifth pages of search results, I linked to a death notice for a Sara in Los Angeles, noting they shared a birthday. If they were one and the same and the obituary was indeed hers, Sara died two days following her thirty-fifth birthday, just months after I lost contact with her and two years before I sent a card to her parents, and nearly three years prior to our future date.
Seen through our young eyes, Deborah Kerr’s traffic accident on the way to meet Cary Grant seemed coincidental, a plot twist that made for a good movie. But the tragedy unfolding before me was real. An ancestry site confirmed my dear friend Sara’s passing and pointed me to where she was buried. Further proof wasn’t necessary. Her last physical address remains dormant online, and she lies buried just up the road from the lake where we spent an afternoon adrift, navigating love and relationships.
John Haymaker is a writer and web programmer. Originally from Chicago, John now lives in Denver and his recent stories have appeared online at Bull & Crossand Rosette Maleficarum, and his short fiction and poems have appeared in Suddenly (Houston) and The Houston Poetry Fest Anthology.