That January Sunday promised to the most charmless, cheerless day in years. The weather seemed hesitant, and the time passed by slowly and clinically as though the world was flat and on lithium.
I had set an afternoon appointment with a classmate from high school — a huge crush of mine back in the day — who, for some reason or other, deemed me geeky yet accessible enough consult for her thesis.
She gave me a call late in the week, quickly explaining the requirements for her Bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts.
How could I have said no? Or do you see why I couldn’t say no? Full to the brim though my calendar appeared, if this was the same hazel-haired, hazel-eyed young woman who, if my recollection serves, had the habit of biting her lower lip whenever she talked….
Then, perhaps to clarify her situation at the university, she mentioning in passing about her life as a mother. A mother!
Sunday came. I arrived at Jollibee half an hour early, read Mrs. Dalloway, and wondered why men carrying sandwich babies looked disturbingly funny in their dyed hairdos and pink-popped collars. I was painfully aware of myself, waiting for a memory to show up with her problem statements and theoretical frameworks.
Then the memory came in through the glass door.
She wore orange cashmere, and looked every bit the girl on whom my romantic adolescent fantasies dwelt. She did not at all look like a mother, not with such a slim figure and the same pair of wide, innocent eyes. She still smiled a high school smile.
But now what? A peck on the cheek? I was embarrassed, unable to keep eye contact. Gallantly I asked if I should take her order, but too quickly relented when she said she would buy it herself. There was an academic paper to discuss and I did not want to waste the afternoon carrying on with awkward pleasantries.
While she waited in line, I brought out the notes and outlines I had made. In my head, though, Neil Diamond was making a momentous comeback, singing: “Stay for just awhile; stay and let me look at you — it’s been so long I hardly know you. We’ve traveled halfway ‘round the world to find ourselves again.”
While she was looking at the backlit menu, was she, too, wondering where I had been all this time? I would have liked to know. But perhaps I was only trying to flatter myself.
As we debated for three quarters of an hour on which theory to use, I kept thinking how I would explain myself in case she suddenly asked why I was taking the trouble. Or if I still sang in front of an audience. To which I fabricated believable answers: “It’s no trouble” and “Yes, but only to a drunk audience,” respectively.
Just as quickly we were done. “If all goes well,” my classmate said, finally, “we’ll have this approved Tuesday by the thesis professor.” Sachets of ketchup remained unopened.
“Where’s your child?” I finally blurted out.
“She’s in the province, with my husband.”
“How old is she?”
“Two years old.”
“What’s her name?”
And then she wrote Fiona’s name, ever so delicately, on a tissue napkin. Fiona Maria. So this is what it’s like, I thought to myself, to be jotting down a child’s name instead of a song request. One wrote with a cursive hand and one never gave it to the waiter. My naïve, noncommittal self would probably never have known that until I became forty or desperate.
Impertinently assuming the air of someone scholarly, I promised to review whatever she would come up with and to write up what I thought would be appropriate additions to the paper. “And if you have a sounder theory,” I suggested, “consider it by all means. But always read your sources very carefully.”
I wanted to end, just as I should, on an impersonal note. Only after we parted did I gather my heart to smile, finally, a high school smile.