The Path Back
Large puffy snowflakes fell lazily to the ground, signaling the beginning of a storm. I pulled my coat tighter around my body. Just to be on the safe side, I came half an hour early, but I should not have worried. It was now about fifteen minutes past the time indicated on the schedule and the bus still was not there. I am not a big fan of cold weather so the idea of sitting on the metal bench as a snowstorm gathered its strength around me was not particularly appealing.
A middle-aged guy wearing thick-rimmed glasses and an old checkered coat staggered along the sidewalk. He stopped in a few feet from me and, muttering something to himself, sat down on my bench. The man’s thin face looked agitated as he gazed down at his shoes. The reek of his sweaty coat reached me, and I unwillingly wrinkled by nose as he continued muttering what at first seemed like illegible sounds, but then slowly turned into words. “Can’t go. The taxi doesn’t give change. Can’t go anywhere now.” He reached down and took of his shoe. “Stuck. The change. Now where did I put it? Must be stuck in there. Stuck,” he continued, putting the shoe back on and reaching for the other one.
He was not looking at me, and his muttering was so quiet that it hardly could have been directed at some particular audience. I edged away uncomfortably and reached into my coat pocket to distract myself. My fingers felt the edges of two cards. My body heat was not enough to warm them in this weather, and they felt smooth and cold. I pulled them out. The one on top was a formal-looking piece of thick white paper with fancy golden letters printed with a beautiful font. The text was meager, though, and it took only one glance to read the entire card:
Dear, Alyssa Burrows,
On behalf of the organizers of the Little Gap School Alumni Day, we would like to invite you to the Five Year Reunion of the graduating class of 2000. The meeting will begin in the school gym on Monday, December 19th, at 10:30 am. We look forward to seeing you there.
Your former classmates
The other card had a picture of a beach on one side. Clear azure water seemed like a reflection of the bright sunny sky, and a huge white-crested wave rushed to engulf the gray stones of the California coast. On the other side, there was a short note written in Diane’s clear, rounded handwriting:
It’s been a very good first semester (though, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have a break now *_-). I love San Francisco, and teaching high school students is fun even though they drive me crazy sometimes (plus, grading fifty sets of the very same midterm problems does get a tad boring at times). I hope you are doing just as great up in Chicago. By the way, I am visiting Mom and Dad for Christmas, and I’d love to see you at the class reunion. Even if you can’t come, though, have a merry-merry Christmas! Ho-ho-ho.
I reread the last four words, mentally tracing the large pink heart she drew next to “Love”. A snowflake drifted down, landing on top of the heart, and the intricate design of the tiny ice crystal seemed to light up from within.
The bus came. I carefully put the cards back in my pocket. Slinging my bag over the shoulder, I caught a glimpse of the crazy guy as he staggered up to my bus, wearing both of his shoes.
It was dark in the room Mr. and Mrs. Cramer allowed me to stay in. It used to be my sister’s, but the new owners of the house used it for storing their old belongings. Near the window, Mrs. Cramer set up a cot for me to sleep on for the couple of nights I was going to spend in Little Gap. I brought a book with me – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – but the dim light emitted by the dusty antique nightstand that stood by my cot barely illuminated the pages. Surrendering to the pervasive darkness, I got up and crept out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind myself.
I carefully avoided the boards I remembered were creaky and, gathering the long skirts of my white nightgown, nearly floated towards the room that used to be mine. The door still opened at my gentlest touch, and I was greeted with silence. Mr. and Mrs. Cramer turned my room into a nursery for their little daughter and painted the walls bright orange. The girl was currently at her grandparents’, though, so for a while I stood at the threshold and simply looked in, the dim light from the hallway allowing me to see the dark orangeness of the room, the bookshelves peppered with brightly-colored books, a pink bed cover, and a gigantic teddy bear enthroned upon the pillow. I did not dare to come in.
Returning to my sister’s room and making sure to leave the door open so the dim light from the nightstand would be supplemented by the dim light from the hallway, I looked around once again. At least the walls remained their original pastel blue. In the corner opposite from my cot, I noticed a stack of old newspapers and magazines. The top magazine had a cover picture of a famous male movie star in what was supposed to be a sexy pose. I wondered if it was the same picture that I tried to kiss back when I was trying to prove to myself that I am not gay – an exercise in futility because, in the end, it had no bearing on my sexuality. It could not be the same photo, though. Mom must have thrown out all our old magazines before moving to Florida. In any case, did not I burn that picture back when I was in high school?
I returned the magazine to its place on top of the stack and walked towards my cot. A loose board creaked under my feet. I did not remember it being there.
I walked up the wooden porch steps of the little yellow house surrounded by evergreens on both sides and hesitated slightly before knocking on the door. Diane and I have not seen each other once these past five years though she continued to send me her cheerful letters and I thought about her constantly, fantasizing about our next meeting. It was silent inside the house so I knocked again. Then there was a sound of footsteps approaching and Diane’s mother opened the door.
“Oh, Ali, how good to see you!” she exclaimed. “What happened to you? You’re so thin. Oh, come on in, come on in. You must be freezing.” Mrs. Stream pulled me inside the house, and I was enveloped in the soft smell of vanilla that always seemed to emanate from her kitchen. “Diane is in the shower. She’ll be right out. Don’t worry.”
“It’s alright, Mrs. Stream. Really. I’ll just wait,” I replied.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. I just ate.”
We stood for a while in silence, and then Mrs. Stream said, “Well, how is Illinois, Ali? Do you have a boyfriend yet?”
I started a little and looked at her with wonder. I felt certain she knew. Then, composing myself, I replied as politely as possible, “Northwestern is great; thanks for asking. The graduate program is rather challenging so far, but nothing I couldn’t handle, and it’s only the first year. So, how are you?”
“Oh, the same as always. Little Gap isn’t Chicago, of course, but we get by little by little. It seems like Northwestern is agreeing with you,” she noted.
There was another pause while I tried to figure out a way to reply. Then the sound of a door opening and closing came from upstairs, and Diane’s voice broke our silence as she shouted, “Mom, is Ali there? Tell her, I’ll be right out. I just need to put something on.” Then there was the sound of footsteps hurrying towards Diane’s bedroom.
Mrs. Stream turned to me and smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.”
“Well, how are your parents? We haven’t heard much from them since they moved to Florida.”
“They’re doing well. Thanks for asking. They say they’re enjoying the sunshine, but they do sometimes miss the snow, and Little Gap, and their friends here.”
“And how is your sister?”
“She graduated from high school and went to Florida State. She’s a philosophy major.”
I brushed a loose strand of hair behind my ear, and we fell silent again. In a minute, Diane appeared at the top of the staircase, greeting me as she flew down, skipping half the steps on the way, “Ali, it’s been so long!”
I stood still, waiting for her to descend and watching her face lit with a smile. She was beautiful. Her slightly rounded face, her bright soft gray eyes unblemished by makeup, her dark blonde hair neatly gathered in a single braid, and a magenta sweater casually emphasizing her curves: it all seemed natural, innate to her. Diane was not glamorous or gorgeous; she was beautiful, and the simplicity of her beauty served to make her all the more dear.
She hugged me firmly, abruptly, and I started from the sudden deepness of the contact. “I’m so glad you came,” she whispered as I gingerly put my arms around her, too.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mrs. Stream turning to go to the kitchen. Softly pulling away from Diane, I said, “Bye, Mrs. Stream. It was nice seeing you again. Sorry I couldn’t have tea with you.”
She turned for a second, looked at me, and replied, “Goodbye, Ali,” before disappearing into the kitchen.
The snow lay on the ground as a thick, soft, white carpet when Diane and I set off towards our old high school. Yesterday’s storm was over so the weather was cold and steady, with the crispiness in the air that’s so characteristic of frosty winter days. The absolute whiteness of the snow reflected in the whiteness of the sky, permeating the atmosphere with its chill. But then a ray of sunshine would pierce, for a second, the thick blanket of the clouds and light up the ground with the brilliance of a diamond, making the frost-covered branches of the shrubbery seem like they were cast out of silver to form intricately interwoven strands.
Diane was dressed in a furry powder blue coat she had worn years ago and probably did not have much use for in California. Her body snuggled in the soft suede irradiated warmness as she continued to chatter, “The most difficult part is to get them interested. I know that math is not exactly the most exciting subject, but I guess I was hoping to do for them the same thing that Mr. Cioznak had done for us. You know, sort of infect them with a pure passion for the logic of it, for the way the numbers seem to come together and create something that has a meaning of its own. I don’t think I’m that good yet, though. I have a long way to go to even consider myself on the same pedagogical level as Mr. Cioznak.”
“I’m sure you are much better than you let on. As for Mr. Cioznak, he is the kind of person who could never be just a teacher or just a mathematician. Teaching math seemed like a calling for him.”
“I know. It’s amazing. He is retired now, but he still teaches night classes for adult students. I guess he gave me something to aspire to be, the image of a perfect teacher… even though I know no one is really perfect.”
“I don’t know. Somehow, this, walking with you in Little Gap, on the way to school we’ve taken thousands of times in the past, seems perfect to me.”
“You’re such a romantic!” she exclaimed, slapping me lightly on the shoulder.
“Maybe,” I laughed. “But this is our home town we’re talking about. And there’s our Alma Mater,” I added, pointing to the red brick building we were approaching.
It was Saturday, and the old school was empty, silent, and dark, its door locked until a hundred or so sleepy or cheerful or gloomy students would come here on Monday to learn. In the yard, there was an old wooden swing. As children, Diane and I used to come here from the neighboring elementary school after classes and spend hours at a time together, playing, and telling each other stories about ghosts, detectives, and musketeers. The swing was now broken. We walked slowly towards the old running track, the red walls heavily covered with indecent graffiti towering over us. I remembered the games our phys. ed. teacher organized here and how I preferred being a goalkeeper to actually playing soccer. This way, I could stand away from the main events and spend my time watching Diane aptly maneuvering the ball towards the other side of the field. She would hit a goal and our teammates would hug her and pet her on the back while I would still stand on guard of my goal, undeserving and jealous.
Passing the track overgrown with weeds, the dry remnants of which stuck out from under the snow, we walked to the spring sprouting from the ground right behind our old school.
“Remember,” I said as we stepped onto the wooden bridge that led across the frozen water, “how, in May of our senior year, we baked some chicken and had a picnic here? It was green and warm everywhere, and we just sat here, our legs hanging off the bridge. And we laughed; we laughed a lot.”
“Really?” she said with wonder in her voice. “I don’t remember.”
I looked at the ice beneath us. That spring day five years ago was the best day of my life.
A girl of about three wearing very white fluffy mittens ran by us, followed closely by her mother, who apologized as she passed us on the bridge. The girl suddenly stopped, pointing at the tree ahead of her. We looked up and saw a gray squirrel seated on a low-hanging branch. “Mommy, look,” the girl cried out. The squirrel quickly looked down and rushed up the tree. “Oops!” the girl said.
The mother took the girl’s hand. “The squirrel said bye-bye,” she noted, and they continued walking.
Diane smiled at the girl and said, “Isn’t she so cute?”
“Yep,” I replied absentmindedly, looking at the footprints the girl left in the snow.
We followed the path that ran along the spring to the river. Climbing a hill, Diane would run down on the other side, the inertia and the wind lifting her braid so it seemed to fly after her.
“Come on, Ali,” she would cry from the bottom. “Don’t be so lazy.”
I had to laugh. It was hard to believe how little she changed. Five years ago, we went sleighing down these very hills. I was always reluctant to play in the snow, dreading the cold wetness that was to come later. But Diane could be very persuasive, and the warmth of her company negated the chilliness of the air.
When Diane reached the river encased in the thick armor of ice and yelled up for me to join her, I ran down straight into her arms. We fell into the snow together, and she put her head on my shoulder and laughed hysterically. I also laughed hard until I felt tears coming out of my eyes. The rare rays of the sun illuminated the bright snow that covered the frozen river, and the warmth of Diane’s breath on my neck made me want to lie here, embracing her in the snow, forever. “Ecstasy!” I wished to shout. “Ecstasy!”
“Diane, I need to tell you something I wanted you to know for a very long time,” I whispered softly.
“Oh, Ali! I wanted to tell you something, too.”
“No, you first.”
I was struck by the silliness of us trying to figure out our turns and was about to speak first when Diane said, “I’m getting married. His name is Nick. He is also a new teacher in my school. He teaches art, and he’s great. You’ll like him, I’m sure. I wanted to ask you to be my maid of honor.”
I felt the smile freeze on my face and tears well up in my eyes as I slowly pulled myself out of her embrace. Diane looked up at me with concern and asked, “What’s the matter?” in a quiet, heartbroken voice like she was looking for my approval.
“Nothing,” I managed to reply in a fairly steady tone. “Nothing. I’m very happy for you. Just send me the invitation, and I promise I’ll be there. Sorry, but I just remembered that I have to get back soon. Mrs. Cramer will be waiting for me for lunch.”
I started to get up, but she caught my arm and looked into my face. For a moment, it seemed like she wanted to say something, but then she widened her eyes a bit and let go of me. “I’m sorry,” she whispered and, after a moment’s hesitation, leaned in to give me a quick peck on the lips. I could not answer. I got up and hurried up the path, tears streaming down my face.
The bus was late again, and I sat on a bench, doing my best not to think. It was not working and every time my thoughts reached Diane, tears welled up in my eyes again. I reached into my pocket to take out a handkerchief and pulled out the cards. Drying my tears, I set the cards aside. It was sunny, and the snow under my feet was beginning to melt. A beautiful black woman smiled and sat on the bench next to me. I smiled back.
The bus came. I took a seat next to the window and smiled as I saw a gust of wind carrying two pieces of paper away.