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The Last Chance

Published on May 30, 2014, by in Short Story.

I’ve re-written this over the years quite a few times.  They say many of a writers first stories are semi or mostly auto-biographical.  With a few liberties for my athletic accomplishments this is amazingly true here as well.  The beauty of any story like this is that, at least in some little way, you would hope someday it might come true.

The Last Chance

“What the hell was I thinking?” I said to myself as I stood there in the corner, almost stuck to the wall, being held there by some universal force only I could feel.  Looking across the room I could see her.  I’d watched that smile for too many years to count.  The gentle toss of her light brown hair; I still remembered the first time I had watched the sprinkles of early morning sunlight dance across those gentle brown locks.  Looking down I could see the sweat seeping out and onto my palms.  I can’t ask her to dance in this obviously, pre-pubescent state of mind.  How can you have sweaty palms and your hands still feel bloodless and cold?

My heart skipped a beat every time someone approached her, yet none seemed interested in a dance.  Was I the only one in the room with this preoccupation, or worse, was I the only one who felt sixteen again?  How was this even possible?  Surely, everyone saw what I saw; didn’t they?  Maybe that powerful red mist of lust, passion and teenage angst had clouded my vision, my judgment, and chased from my mind what little bit of common sense I had left.

All those years in high school, a glance in the hallway or a nod in a stairwell, what was the strange impenetrable mystique that held me at bay?  I could never explain it.  Untold hours I’d spent tormented with half-baked schemes to merely strike up a conversation.  There were so many missed opportunities, chances to break through this invisible barrier I had placed between the two of us.  Now this was the time, I was certain and it might be the only time.

Finally, my confidence began to build, fortified by I have no idea what.  My feet began to move, slowly, deliberately across the room pulling me along as a moderately willing passenger.  The music seemed to soften just enough that I could hear every footstep I took.   As I drew closer the hairs on the back of my neck bristled.  Not this time I said to myself.  This time we do it.  This time we use the confidence that has grown steadily over the years for this comically noble purpose.  Twenty feet to go:  I realized I had no idea what I was going to say, to break the ice, no pre-planned conversational strategy, did there need to be one?  Be yourself I tried to whisper in my head.  Ten feet, my pace was steady, not too fast, not too slow, but she had yet to even look my way.

In that moment, the very instant we were so close together again after so many years, a thousand images flew through my mind, as if a slideshow of those years was playing fast forward to either strengthen my reserve or scare me to turn away and never, ever, have this opportunity again.

Still there were clear, full-color images of early fall mornings, standing outside in that cool, mountain air.  It was crisp, but not quite cold enough for a heavy jacket.  There she stood.  A light sweater, crisp white shirt and that plaid standard issue high school uniform.  I was greeted almost every morning with the same vision.  It seems very true that high school crushes are perhaps the most psychologically confusing processes for any teenage boy.  The feelings and images cloud your mind with confusing thoughts and mental sensations you never knew you were capable of.  I had blushed, of course, the first few times we had spoken.  No, not that light, pink cheeked, “oh my” blush….no. I was convinced my entire face had turned the shade of summer beets, my hair had caught fire, and the only sound to pass through my lips, which should have simply been, “hi”, was more like a dying mans last gurgling gasp for air.  I had no doubt; those first few encounters had made a tremendously bad impression.

Fortunately, all my attempts at machismo had not been as lackluster.  I had managed to excel at a few high school sports and believe it or not, that had helped raise my level of self-confidence.  In the ensuing years I was able to overcome a lot of my initial fears and personal trauma with the help of other female friends, and yes, fortunately some had been cheerleaders.

However, very early in my adolescent years I also discovered that a laugh opened doors as easily sometimes as an overloaded ring of janitor’s keys.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t slap-stick comedy or joke telling that worked so well for me.  Someone in those early years told me my humor was situational.  Not that I couldn’t tell a good joke, it was just much easier for me to take whatever was happening at that moment and make it funny.

What a great skill for high school parties!  What a great way to stay out of fights when you happen to hook up with a linebacker’s girlfriend, and get caught, by him.  Everyone loves to laugh, and the more I learned about people and life, the easier it became.  Suddenly, well maybe not so suddenly, I had found this fantastic way to break the ice, start a conversation, or diffuse an unpleasant situation.

Unlike the lampshade wearer at every party who ends up falling over and breaking the coffee table, I could stand in the kitchen, backed up against the stove and hold court.  It was a quiet talent.  I didn’t flaunt it back then or even now for that matter.  I never used it as a pickup or a line.  I had discovered what I believed was the inner beauty of humor.  People could either see it in your eyes, or if they were perceptive enough perhaps they could hear your soul laughing, inviting them to join in.

Oddly enough, neither of my parents were hysterically funny people.  They both had very dry senses of humor.  I was told the grandfather I never knew was a funny, funny man.  So perhaps it was my legacy, a reincarnate ability to carry on with that family trait that was destined to save me from myself.

Yet, if the truth be told there were far too many times where I had seen her eyes in someone else’s face.  It made me a bit uncomfortable, but I also realized neither of us were looking for life partners at that point.  Perhaps for them, they saw someone else through my eyes, it seemed only fair.

Back then right after half-time of the game, as all the players flooded back onto the field and the fans returned to their seats with their hot dogs and pretzels,  I’d find myself scanning the crowd, looking for her, trying to see her face.  Standing there with thirty other gridiron warriors it seemed we were all searching for something, I often wondered how many of them, along with me, were searching for the same face.

There were some truly memorable sport moments in those years.  As a lineman there wasn’t as big a spotlight for us as the one that shone for the quarterbacks and the running backs.  But every once in awhile, we’d have our moment of glory.

One cold, sunny fall Saturday afternoon I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.  A fumble had squirted loose from a pile-up and hit me in the hands so hard it had stung. Luck and maybe a little skill had let me grab hold of that cold inflamed pigskin before the moment slipped away…  Of course we had to be also almost sixty yards from the other end zone.

In retrospect, I am certain I have never run that fast in my entire life.  With every step I expected a hand to grab my leg or foot; or to feel that oncoming tackle from my blindside, but it never came.  The fog lifted just as I crossed under the goal posts so I didn’t run completely through the end zone and out of the stadium.  It actually took a minute to register what had happened.  Over the years I’d jumped onto a lot of end zone dog piles to congratulate the scorer, but this was something new…this time, I was on the bottom of that pile.

I held onto that ball for the rest of the game, which at that point was only about three minutes and it was my touchdown that gave us the victory.  What a sensation! It is impossible to put into words what you feel at that moment.  As I felt the slaps on my back and thumps on the top of my helmet I caught myself, doing it again, scanning the stands.  I sat for a moment trying to savor my accolades and as importantly, to try and catch my breath.  Pulling the sweaty helmet from my head, it sat there on the bench as I reached for water and a towel.  It was eerie; it was just cold enough for the steam to rise from inside the helmet as it sat there on that old wooden bench, as if something was still brewing in there.  As I watched the wisps of steam rise, through that mist, I saw her.  Standing there, maybe four rows up, cheering, clapping, and screaming…screaming something, I just couldn’t make-out.  With all the noise in the stadium, sounds get so muddled it’s amazing players ever hear anything on the field.  I sat transfixed, staring at her face, watching, and desperately trying to decipher what it was she was saying.

It only took a moment when I realized, as she stood cheering, screaming and clapping…it was my name she was shouting!  As I think back now to that moment, I honestly believed I had died and gone to heaven.  Here was this vision, my vision; cheering and screaming my name.  It was too good to be true.  The image now, held for so long is still as fresh as if it had only been yesterday. Sure enough, the end of the game came with the pop of a cheap referee’s pistol and I was jolted back to reality with what seemed the weight of a marble, church pillar.  Transfixed as I was, our eyes had still met, we had a conversation, one I had been trying so hard to start…and she smiled.  It was all downhill from there, so I thought.

Now all these years later I stood inches away, her conversation with her friends almost complete.  Strangely and pleasantly, calm had come over me in those last ten feet.  Perhaps it was the images, or the big game, no, I knew exactly what it was, it was that smile.  Here we were again, not so unlike another moment in time.  Inches apart, separated only by those who we thought were friends.  To my dismay her friends turned out to be much more loyal than mine.  Some of my “friends” then felt I’d gotten a little too big for my britches.  There in front of everyone at the homecoming dance they had presented me with a true victory trophy.  I’ll never forget the instant when I realized what had happened.  The cold as it saturated every inch of my tuxedo, the pieces of fruit that collected on my lapels.  That autumn night my evening ended rinsing fruit punch from every pore on my body, vowing revenge and vengeance that would be more dreadful that any biblical story we had ever been told.

Through school I never completely recovered from that moment; I guess their desire to knock me down a notch had worked just like they had planned. Unfortunately for some I was still able and more than willing to methodically seek and take my revenge.  Our hero, the school quarterback turned out to be the instigator, so his retribution needed to be swift, subtle and deliberate.  The opportunity didn’t take long to present itself.  I had thought of a thousand things but most involved knives, guns, ropes and tall buildings.  I knew that was just a bit too extreme with consequences I was not prepared to accept.

His prize possession; a candy apple red 1969 Chevelle.  It had been his older brothers and transferred to him for his sixteenth birthday.  That would be the perfect “vehicle” for my revenge.

I wasn’t the greatest chemistry student, but the class always fascinated me, especially when someone screwed up and we were all forced to leave the building in order to even draw a breath.  On a particular Thursday we were working with some kind of nasty potassium concoction and as I watched closely, our instructor squeezed some out of a plastic bottle onto a painted steel panel.  Nothing happened.  Then he took the panel to the shower booth and rinsed it off. There, etched in the paint down to the bare metal was his name and the date; Oh, that was perfect.  My only problem was what would I write?  Two weeks before the final game I sat straight up in bed late one night and knew exactly what to do.  I was certain; now, divinely inspired my plan had been spiritually approved…!

The week before the biggest game of year the weather was hot and dry.  Peculiar for that time in early November, but I knew, I just knew the rain would come.  Late on a Tuesday night there in front of his parent’s house as the moon settled slowly behind the tree line I had quietly painted my invisible masterpiece, and snuck back home.  No one, anywhere knew or had seen anything.

Friday morning was overcast and cloudy; I knew this would be the day.  Right after lunch the dark clouds opened and the rain came down in buckets, I was almost beside myself with twisted anticipation.  Through the afternoon classes, nothing, I began to wonder if I had messed something up.  I was pretty certain I had mixed everything correctly, but I hadn’t taken the time to test it before its final application, it never surprised me again why my chemistry grades were never more than C’s. .  As I stood at my locker collecting my books at the end of the day, a commotion rolled down the corridor like a hysterical tidal wave, and then off in the distance could be heard a faint, shrill, almost pixie-girl-like scream.  People were running over themselves to get to the front doors.  There it sat.  The rain had stopped and the sun was peeking in and out of the clouds as if to tease me just a little longer.  To this day I’m certain it wasn’t so much what I had written but the fact that the paint had washed away perfectly from all over the car.   Left, etched in the bright red paint were painfully graphic descriptions of his heritage, lackluster manliness and of course countless game predictions.  He was inconsolable.  I was redeemed.  But down inside, I did feel bad for the car.  I knew there would be a new coat of paint, but I took great solace in seeing both the school photographer and the local newspaper photographer there to get lots of pictures.  That this was being blamed on our upcoming opponents made it even more perfect.

I think even now, I had subconsciously glanced to see where the punch bowl was in this room, just in case.  As I turned my head, I could still feel the sticky collar of my shirt rubbing against me all those years ago.  I watched as her hand reached for her wine glass, it was almost empty.  Without hesitating or even thinking, I reached for the bottle, and in one movement reached to steady her glass as I filled it.  It wasn’t the fact that I had clasped my hand over hers as I held the glass; it was the fact that she looked up and smiled as I did.

I finished pouring and returned the bottle to the table.  Idiot!  I realized I’m standing there holding her hand on her wine glass.  I gently took my hand away, making doubly certain not to ruin the magnitude of this moment by pouring wine over her beautiful blue dress.  It seemed everything moved in slow motion.  Whatever parts of my brain that were supposed to be working seemed to have misfired and my fear rose as I thought I had been standing there for minutes, just staring.  I absorbed the details again of every inch of her face.  I had looked at her so many times, if I could draw, I would have painted portraits for days on end just from memory.  There was something about the closeness of her.  The spark, every time we had ever been close to each other, I felt it again now, and the conversation began painlessly and flowed just as the wine had.

Wonderfully, thankfully, it wasn’t awkward.  It wasn’t the same old, how have you been? What have you been doing?  Perfectly enough, it went back to the first day we had met.  I was surprised and intrigued; she seemed to remember as much about me as I did about her.  The first few classes we had together, the inevitable discussions about those teachers and how some of them were great and some of them were terrible.  The first school dances back then, the great music, the great parties, memories, names and places flooded back so quickly we seemed to be bantering each other with pieces of information just to keep up.

For the longest time we sat and talked.  No interruptions, no nosey friends, just the two of us.  Of course things were so different now.  With her job and her three children there wasn’t much time for music or parties or even very many friends.  We laughed, although painfully, at how much we took so much for granted all those years ago.

They were in a small town now in the Southeast.  There weren’t as many mountains but the winter’s weren’t as cold.  At this time in our lives our kids weren’t kids anymore.  Two of hers had already graduated college and one was getting ready to enter graduate school.  We were surprised that both our youngest had decided to pursue degrees in music.  How peculiar was that?

I told her she was lucky with just one spouse.  I was working through the end of wife number three and I had sworn to all that was sacred that I would never marry again.  I discovered much too late that I was like that German novelty sign you see that says, “We grow too soon old and too late schmart.”

Having been able to ride the crest of the first tech boom gave me the chance to travel the world and do a lot of the things I hadn’t done while I’d been working 16 hour day’s right out of school.  Sadly, former wife number one wanted to move back to Canada and be a farmer, go figure.  Wife number two was a bit older and at first appeared mature enough to understand my life’s direction and what I hoped to do with the rest of my time on this planet.  She became a former wife when she figured out she could get out for six figures and live in the South of France…without me.

Wife number three had been a ski instructor.  Fortunately, with wives two and three no children were involved and actually wife three almost fell into that category anyway.  She meant well, and thought she understood the intricacies of adulthood…she just hadn’t arrived there yet.  She was happy with a plane ticket back from Aruba to Aspen and, of course, the keys to my condo there.

We both laughed at how shallow I had been when trying to plan my partners.  We talked a little about dating through college and after but soon realized at this point in our lives that was really just boring.

As we were talking I noticed the whole room seemed to be much quieter, must be the band taking a break I thought to myself.  Not much after that, the lights came up and I suddenly realized, apart from the service crew we were the last ones in the room.  Well so much for the dance that had moved me to cross the room in the first place.  This revelation was so funny we laughed all the way to the front door.  I retrieved her coat and asked to walk her to her car.  About halfway across the parking lot she pointed to the silver Porsche 911 and with a wink said my car was much nicer than her Camry.  Just for a moment I was back at school, trying to remember how this worked, what did you say? How do you not seem presumptuous?  But before I had the chance to rattle all the scenarios around she was already at the passenger door ready to get in.

Neither one of us was finished talking and we both knew it.  I wondered, should we have a destination or just go for a ride?  It was only a little past eleven and since neither of us had family or anyone else expecting us while we were in town our schedules were our own.

I opened the door and couldn’t help but watch as she gracefully slid across the tan leather interior, tucking her legs inside the door and then looking up to let me know she was ready.  I walked slowly around the front of the car, not wanting to let the inner child out that wanted to scream, shout and slide across the hood.  Especially not the slide on the hood part.  That was ok on my 66’ Lemans, but not so much now on my six month old Porsche.  The engine came to life quickly and with that fine Bavarian hum known to weaken even the strongest of men.  She laughed out loud as the CD began to play automatically.  It was a mix I had made some time ago and was now playing “I’m Easy” by the Commodores.   I reached up to hit the forward button, but her hand settled on top of mine and slowly lowered it.  She didn’t have to say a word, the look in her eyes said it all, just let it play, what’s the worst that can happen?   I was fascinated while I watched as she strapped herself into the seat and snuggled down into the leather, as if expecting a space shuttle launch or at worst the start of a gran prix.

The roads were deserted and leaving the country club was a three-quarter mile stretch that just begged me to let the Pirelli’s grab at the highway as quickly as they could.  The Porsche accelerated as hard as it could and I ran through gears as quickly as I had in any racecar.  I could see her knuckles wrapped around the door handle, a little white, but the smile on her face belied the fact that she enjoyed it.  The twelve mile ride back to the center to town was full of conversation, more conversation, about everything.  She’d always wanted a performance car, but had been relegated to mini-van status with her kids and with the little travel she had to do with her job they had leased her a Camry.  She confessed to running it about 120mph on long stretches of highway when she had been in the Dakota’s, while that had been a neat experience she preferred zipping along the mountain roads through the Appalachia’s.

Talk turned to racing.  I’ve always had to be careful because it is one of the subjects I can talk about until anyone within earshot is exhausted.  After talking for a few minutes she said she had a confession to make.  Several years ago her company had sponsored a corporate pavilion at one of those Indy-car type races in Ohio, and she had attended both days.  I was trying to figure out why this was something she felt she had to confess when it dawned on me.  I knew the company she worked for, I also remembered their corporate sponsorship of a race in the early 90’s.  She had been to one of my races!  I didn’t want to burst her surprise bubble; I could feel my face flush as I thought of the last time we had been at a sporting event together.

She had come down to the pits on both days; Saturday and Sunday and watched my pit from a distance.  Since it had been quite a few years, at first she had trouble picking me out, then she heard laughter.  There towards the back of the pit space was a group of people standing around, laughing.  She said all she had to do was find out who was holding court and she knew that had to be me.  Sure enough, the group dispersed and there I stood signing autographs along the banner line.  For a minute she thought of going up and saying something, but then changed her mind.  The same thing happened again on Sunday.  For a month after that she beat herself up over the fact that she had not at least come by to say hello.

A lump grew in my throat.  Suddenly all the possible scenarios for this evening were playing out in my mind like an “R” rated video game.  Both of us were in town alone, staying in separate hotel rooms, alone.  We had an entire day tomorrow to kill, alone.  Oh, this was starting to get complicated or interesting, depending on your point of view.

We shot off the exit ramp into downtown and off to the corner at the end of the main street was a restaurant with a crowd outside; as we got closer we could hear music playing.  Ironically, we looked at each other at the same time.  I found a parking spot around the side, made her wait until I opened the door and we headed inside.  Much to my relief the crowd wasn’t too young, although I guess for some that term would be relative.  We found a small booth in one corner and had a nice bottle of wine and some baked Brie in short order.  I sat there mesmerized, how long could we possibly talk like this?  The conversation flowed as easily as the wine, not always a good thing.  I hesitated at a second bottle but her nod of approval was the only signal I needed.  Worst case, the hotel was less than a block away; we could walk if we had too.

We talked more about careers and working and dreams and the steps along life’s path we might have skipped over to get to where we were on this day.  I had refilled her wine glass, her hand again wrapped gently beneath mine as I set the glass back to the table.  This time, the hands stayed intertwined, hers slowly moving across the surface of mine as if searching for an answer or maybe just waiting for the question.

The music in the background was pleasant, very old school as they say these days.  I had really not paid much attention to it, but then I heard it.  At first my ears strained to make certain I wasn’t hallucinating or perhaps the victim of third glass of wine syndrome.  But there it was, the same song now playing as it had been when we first sat in the car.  One lesson I’ve learned over the years is to listen when the universe hits you in the side of the head with a two-by-four sized hint.  I looked up from my wine glass to see the same smile and grin on her face that I was certain was on mine.

This time, this moment, how many years had it taken? Finally,   I stood as deliberately and confidently as I could, moved to her chair and reached out my hand.  Maybe it was static, the wine, maybe it wasn’t, but we both felt the spark as it trickled across our fingertips.  We headed towards the small dance floor, her hand in mine, leading the way.  I turned to move my left hand to her hip and she moved so wonderfully close to me as we melted into the music.  Over the years I’d done the tango, the waltz and danced as often as time and the party circumstances would permit, but I’d never had the sensation that was consuming my body and mind at this very moment.  We moved to the music as if just another instrument in the band.  I was harmony, she was melody and my strongest desire was for this moment to never, ever end.  We moved slowly back and forth across the smooth tile floor, our hearts seemed to be beating time with the music.  Slowly, purposefully her head rested against my chest.  In any movie I’ve ever seen or book I’ve ever read there is never an accurate description of the sensation of this moment.   It was almost thirty-five years now since the first time I had seen her face.  Deep down inside, I carved this moment in my heart.  Perhaps it was one of those things that keeps you going.  Knowing there can be a moment of sheer joy when the universe finally brings things full circle.

Our dance lasted through three songs.  There was no more conversation, there didn’t need to be.  It was as perfect a moment as any two souls could share.  When the music ended we continued, still in our own world for a few moments more, it seemed neither of us wanting to let this pass, to try and savor this, just a little longer.  Eventually the pain of existing in this real world creeps back in and tries to shatter the dreams you carry with you.  It was trying, but we both knew, it wasn’t quite that time yet.

We walked, hand in hand out the front door.  The cool, crisp air helped remind us both of the wonderful wine we had enjoyed.  We slowly walked the downtown streets.  Little snippets of conversation here and there.  Totally enamored with this moment, our moment.  Near the end of the street we turned to head back, crossed the street and arm in arm, her head on my shoulder we walked slowly passed empty shops and parked cars towards the hotel.  About a half a block away was a park with a little fountain and some small benches.  The sound of the failing water in the small pond mixed together in a romantic symphony with the canned music being pumped softly from some imitation rock speakers nearby.  We both knew we were headed to the hotel.  There in front of the fountain I slowly turned her and took her hands in mine.  We talked again for a few more moments.  It seemed we were reliving moments in our life that we had never known.  Chasing the what-if’s there in the cool night air.  Her face was as perfect that night as it had been all those years ago, but this time there was something different.  A few small tears gently rolled down her cheek, both eyes welled up as if a lifetime of regrets were boiling to the surface and getting out the best way they knew how.  Then I felt her fingertips brush my cheek, I realized she was not the only one who felt that way.  We hugged so hard we had to stop when we realized that breathing had become difficult for both of us.  We needed that moment, a chuckle and a pause.

I looked past her to the front of the hotel and knew at that moment, we would not cross that threshold together tonight.  I stepped back and looked into her eyes, she knew it too, and that seemed to just make her cry more. It was not the path we were meant to travel, at least not tonight, perhaps not even in this lifetime. In some way, it might have spoiled this evening; it might have even spoiled a lifetime of memories and of anticipation.

I reached up, took her face in my hands and kissed her gently.  It was the end to a nearly perfect evening.  I’ve thought back to that moment many times wishing I could copy and paste it back into my sometimes mundane life, but those are fleeting, glimpses of a universal plan none of us is yet capable of understanding.

As we stepped apart I felt I should apologize for being so forward, but I could see that wouldn’t be necessary.  I did know, this moment, wasn’t over, not yet.  As I held her close again and our thoughts were buried somewhere in each other’s souls, I knew I could ask, knew I had to ask to kiss her again.  Her lips teased at mine and we held each other close like we had both imagined a thousand times. She looked deep in my eyes, it seemed as if trying to touch my heart. The words she spoke next I’d waited a lifetime to hear, she smiled and said, “You better kiss me again, this may be your last chance”.