Cruising the city one night in high school my friends and I stopped in at Pizza Hut. Against the wall, sitting alone, was a redheaded girl about my age. We made eye contact and I was drawn to her in the same way you may be drawn to stare at old photographs of relatives you never knew. You see something there, something familiar, though you can’t quite place it.
I went over to her and suddenly I knew her. Cheryl. My neighbor until I was eight years old. I played in her sandbox. We played Toss-Across and Operation in her living room. We rode the school bus together until I moved out of the school district. Kids were always mean to her when we were little because she was fat. Maybe they were still mean since she was still a big girl. Maybe that’s why she was alone.
We said a few things to each other. Hey, how you doing? Wow, can’t believe it’s you. What grade you in now? Nothing deeper than that, and then my friends were ready to leave. We drove around all night looking for connection but I spent the rest of the night thinking about Cheryl. I remembered her crying a lot. I remembered her dad. I remembered him being a real asshole. I remembered how he would chase Cheryl around in the street in front of our house with a wooden spoon in his hand. When he caught her he would yank down her shorts and beat her big bare behind with the spoon in front of all the kids who were watching and laughing. Usually he beat her just because she hadn’t come home on time, or because she hadn’t completed some chore or had completed it but had done it wrong. There was no winning with him. Kids were mean to her. Her dad was mean to her. She was surrounded by meanness. That’s what I remembered about her.
When we moved away I struggled with the very real sense that I was abandoning Cheryl. Our last night in our house, when everything was packed into the moving truck and our sleeping bags were spread on the bedroom carpets, after dark, I snuck out and over to Cheryl’s house. I crept through the bushes to her bedroom window and on the windowsill I placed three Brach’s butterscotch candies in their golden cellophane wrappers. I was eight; it was all I knew to do. I hoped Cheryl would find them in the morning and somehow know that they came from me and somehow know that I was protecting her, that I was thinking of her even though I was gone.
I did think about her. But not for long. I grew up and I forgot her.