But for Chance

by Bob Strother

I don’t typically give much thought to my high school days now that they’re several decades removed and interactions with former classmates all but vanished. A not-so-subtle reminder, though, arrived in this morning’s mail: my graduating class’s fifty-fifth reunion notice. I hold the unfolded papers in my hands—one sheet purple, the other gold—colors we cherished for pom-poms and yearbooks, letter sweaters and jackets. The color of royalty, we used to say, back when things like that mattered.

I view with a mixture of amusement and resignation the planned activities for the gathering. Previously, the festivities covered at least two days: informal get together Friday night, coat and tie dinner on Saturday, once even a boat ride down the Tennessee River on the paddle-wheeler, Delta Queen. This year, it’s a Friday night dinner at the Quality Courts. Bring your yearbooks and other mementoes, the notice suggests. In case we happen to forget who we are?

On the backside of the last sheet are those classmates who disappeared after graduating. No forwarding address. Same list as every time before. I wonder what it was that took these folks so completely and forever out of our realm. Were those years so inconsequential to them as to be shrugged off like an old skin? There’s another list, too—the ones who’ve shuffled off their mortal coil. The first list will likely remain fixed. The second can only go one way.

As I scan the names, complex emotions tug at me: some good, some bad, but all slathered in the sugary balm of nostalgia. Then, like dominoes falling, one after another, the memories tumble over each other and finally, when the last one topples, I find myself in another place and time.

*               *               *

Libby introduced me to Jan—her way of atoning for dumping me in favor of the Baylor Prep School football player Libby’s mother preferred. The two of us would never have lasted anyway. And, giving credit where credit is due, Libby did me a favor. Jan and I did work, very well, at least for a couple of years.

Our relationship constituted the high school equivalent of a May-December romance. We began going steady at the beginning of my senior year, her freshman year. She looked older, though, and had matured beyond her years in both mind and body. I thought she looked just like Natalie Wood in the 1961 movie, Splendor in the Grass.

Our parents voiced tentative concerns about our age difference, but not enough to squash the blooming courtship of two kids in love. Had they been privy to the full extent of our relationship, though, they might’ve had second thoughts.

I had started my freshman year at the University of Chattanooga when Jan told me she was two weeks late with her period. Many of our peer group routinely flirted with this possibility and its potential consequences. But like youth everywhere, we all believed it would never happen to us.

Jan and I gnawed our fingernails for another week—to no avail. Approaching the one-month mark, a co-worker at the insurance company where I worked part time agreed to accompany Jan and me the following Saturday to Ringgold, Georgia, home of the state’s most well-known marriage mill: blood tests while you wait, license if you pass, and just pop by the Justice of the Peace’s office to complete the union.

Even so, fifteen-year-olds needed an adult—a parent, preferably, although on a good day an aunt or uncle might suffice. That’s where my co-worker Mildred became part of the conspiracy, playing the understanding aunt, blessing the marriage.

It had begun to rain when we left the clinic. The sky hung low and gray, wind scattering leaves and sheets of newsprint as we pulled up to the JP’s office. No lights glowed from inside. I squinted at a note taped to the front door, finally bolted from the car, and scurried through the rain to the front porch. Closed, the note said. Will return Tuesday, am.

Defeated and deflated, the three of us drove back to Chattanooga. Jan and I had both gone through that process where, once you get over the initial shock of your misfortune, you cling to, and eventually embrace your new set of circumstances. Scarcely considered were the questions of where we’d live, how we’d support ourselves, and what our parents’ reactions would be. Instead, we’d become resigned to our fate, but hopeful of living somehow satisfying lives in romantic poverty. Not that waiting a few days to complete our plan would make anything different.

But it did.

Jan called me Sunday evening. She’d started her period after all. I took the cheap gold rings I’d purchased for our ceremony, along with a copy of the license, and placed them in a box in the top of my closet.

Older and a little bit wiser, Jan and I continued dating for most of another year. But she didn’t fit in with the older college crowd I ran with, and eventually we broke up—for a while, anyway. I pinned an Alpha Delta Pi co-ed, a dalliance lasting less than six months, and when it bombed, Jan welcomed me back home. I transferred to the University of Georgia my junior year, and though we saw each other on my rare trips home, she soon found other suitors more her age and I found other co-eds. In the end, our romance faded to little more than a fond recollection.

The last time I saw Jan she sat with an infant in her arms at a shopping mall art show. Ten years had passed, and the little girl was her youngest of three children. I joined her on the bench where we talked for a few minutes. We held each other’s gaze and smiled a lot, and hers was the kind that seemed to suggest regret as much as happiness. I couldn’t see my own but I imagine it was much the same.

*               *               *

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if that JP hadn’t taken a few days off all those years ago. I know now, of course, that romantic poverty is a myth. Would the marriage have lasted? Imaginative writers sometimes seek to convince us of a parallel universe where those what-ifs and near-misses exist; where, if we were able, we might travel that road not taken. I can’t buy the concept, though, and in fact, believe it might be the worst possible of all hells-on-earth. Chance derailed my intended marriage on a rainy, windy Saturday morning in 1962. So I’m stuck with what is—and happy about it.

I refold the sheets of purple and gold and tuck them back into their envelope. I don’t know if I’ll attend the reunion. After the last time, I sank into depression for a week. Furrowed faces, gnarled fingers, motorized scooters, canes and walkers—these aren’t the kids I remember. In earlier years, we rented Cadillacs and Jaguars for the weekend, borrowed expensive jewelry and talked of our waterfront vacation homes whether they existed or not. Now no one makes the effort to impress. Good enough to still be breathing, I suppose.

But maybe I will go. Might not be another. Who knows?

Time is a cunning thief, stretching out of sight only to reappear when we least expect it, looming large over our shoulders. Too late we realize the privileges of youth are never surrendered; they’re simply taken from us.

Sometimes memories—like the time I spent with Jan—are all we have left. If we’re lucky, those memories never end.

Even memories of endings.

A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, award-winning author Bob Strother‘s work has been published internationally and adapted for film. Previous publications include a collection, Scattered, Smothered, and Covered, and the novels Shug’s Place, Burning Time, and A Fire To Be Kindled. He is also a contributing writer for Southern Writers Magazine.

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