Wherever You Are
by Jeffrey Harrison
When I kissed you in the hall
of the youth hostel we fell
into the linen closet laughing
twenty years ago and I still
remember though not very often
the taste of cheap wine in your mouth
like raspberries the freckle
between your breasts and the next day
when we went to Versailles I hardly
saw anything because I was looking
at you the whole time your face I can't
quite remember then I kissed you
good-bye and you got on a train
and I never saw you again just
one day and one letter long gone
explaining never mind but sometimes
I wonder where you are probably
married with children like me happy
with a new last name a whole life
having nothing to do with that day
but everybody has something like it
a small thing they can't help
going back to and it's not even about
choices and where your life might
have gone but just that it's there
far enough away so it can be seen
as just something that happened almost
to someone else an episode from
a movie we walk out of blinded
back into our lives
"Wherever You Are" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Feeding the Fire. © Sarabande Books, 2001.
It's a poem about a "what-if" moment--a meeting between a young man and woman, a meeting with intimacy, of poignancy, a meeting that led, ultimately, to nothing but, years later, a sweet memory.
I posted that day on FB about this poem--thinking what a good idea it would be for a literary collection of some sort (stories, poems, essays?) about what-if? moments.
I have one.
I sucked at tennis--this I quickly discovered at the camp, where Michael Fishbach, the nine-year-old son of the camp's tennis pro, Joe Fishbach, could have easily beaten me. All the other tennis instructors were better than I, as well. Before the campers arrived, Joe played all of us, beating everyone 6-0 very quickly. Just to show us. But he didn't beat me 6-0. He beat me 6-1. I hit the four best shots of my life--before, afterwards, in my dreams and fantasies--and took that game to wild cheering from the other instructors. Joe was not cheering. I barely touched another ball he hit. It was over in minutes.
Anyway, I was still eighteen years old (would not be nineteen until November), and I did not have my own car. So my parents bought me a Greyhound ticket--Cleveland to S. Schroon--and off I went with too much stuff to a world I knew nothing about.
The ride was long, hot, boring (though I did have a book--wish I could remember what it was), and crowded. I changed buses in Albany for a post-midnight ride to S. Schroon. The bus was actually going to Montreal, and when I boarded late that night, there was only a single seat remaining. It was next to a young African American woman. I slumped into it gratefully (I'd feared being next to a screaming child, a talkative someone in sales), pulled out my book to read.
The young woman was reading, too, our overhead lights sending golden cones into our laps. Much of the rest of the bus was dark.
A moment of intimate background ...
I was romantically unattached at the time. My long-time high school girlfriend (who'd gone to a different college) had dismissed me over spring break a few months before my bus ride. I was fragile. Heartbroken. I was everything every Country singer ever sang about ...
A few minutes after we got underway, I thought the silence between the young woman and me was getting a little uncomfortable, so I lowered my book, asked her where she was headed.
"Montreal. To visit my sister and her family."
"I have two brothers." (See how well I listen? How well I can connect?)
But soon we were chatting amiably about families and books and friends. And the miles were unspooling from some colorful ribbon I hoped would not end.
She was about my age, attended a college whose name I can't recall. We were a lot alike.
And I started to have ... thoughts. What if I just stayed on the bus? Went to Montreal with her? What if I got a hotel room in the city? What if she took me to her sister's? What if ... ?
But, of course, none of that happened. I got off the bus at S. Schroon, early--early--in the morning. She wished me good luck. I, the same. I saw her face in the window as the bus groaned back out onto the highway. She was smiling. Waving. And I realized I didn't have her address. And so that was the end. I sat at the little country store there, waiting for it to open so I could call the camp to pick me up. I was sadder than I'd been in a long, long time. As I sit here, typing, I cannot remember her name and have only the vaguest memory of how she looked. (Glasses? I think so.)
Six more years would pass before I found myself in a Kent State summer school classroom, found myself noticing an attractive, very bright young woman. I listened hard when Professor Pringle called the roll. Heard her name. Joyce.
20 July 2008.
Joyce and I have driven up into the Adirondacks for her research on John Brown. His final home and his grave are near Lake Placid. I tell her I'd like to look at Camp Idylwold. It's right on the way.
But, of course, it's no longer there. The camp is gone. Some private homes now overlook Schroon Lake instead. I can barely see where things once were. The docks. Tennis courts. Cabins. Dining hall. Basketball court. Baseball diamond. (In a counselor pick-up game that long-ago summer I hit a triple. Someone said, "Dynamite comes in small packages!" A big guy next to him countered--very quickly: "It comes in big ones, too.")
In South Schroon, a stop sign. We wait for traffic to clear out on the main road. I look over at the old store. And remember the young man sitting there, forty-five years ago--the young man wondering What if? The young man whom I could comfort now. Whom I could tell: Just wait ... it won't be long ... a summer class at KSU ... and then, young man, you'll never again--never again--wonder. Or have to ask, "What if?"