Her friends are posing for a picture, eyes on the camera, on a day on the beach.
She's looking at me.
Gerri had a habit of that, of always looking in another direction, at something else. It jerked on my heart the first time I saw it, and every time after. I still have that photo, tucked into the dash of my '62 Ford. I remember the day, bright and warm, the last real day of summer, and the beach at Cape Henlopen, the water so cold it blued your lips in five minutes, but the sun deliciously warm to burn us back to pink.
Bodysurfing three-foot waves. Crabs on the beach. And Geri, knobs and hard edges around a sly, sidelong smile. I was eighteen.
We met at church. Geri played the piano, and I sang in the choir. She was a year younger than I was and a hundred years older, untouched by awkwardness even at that age, as if a fifty-year-old had been dropped in a sweet young form and perched on a bench in front of the Dickerson upright. The wise in her eyes chased off most of the boys, but it drew me like the scent of peach pie. With something sharp added, like nutmeg. Just so you knew you weren't entirely safe.
"I'm Ivan," I said, from the other side of the piano.
She didn't stop playing, "Nearer My God to Thee", I think. "I know," she said. "Took you long enough to introduce yourself."
"You only walked in ten minutes ago," I said, blinking.
Now she stopped, and looked up with huge green eyes. "And that ten minutes is not going to come back, is it?"
We were inseparable. That is, I was inseparable from her, because when I wasn't with her, I kept looking about like Peter Pan for his shadow. She seemed able to separate from me whenever she liked, ripping off part of me and taking it with her.
Six years of that filled and drained me. Our families knit, her parents, my parents, once I caught my little brother and her just-younger sister kissing behind the house after swim practice. I left them to themselves, though I was jealous. Gerri was not so easily caught.
The last chance came the summer I graduated. Our families went to the beach, our favorite, not a popular spot for tourists but one full of rocky dunes, frigid Atlantic water, the thrum of life from the sea. My father and I fished. I asked if she could come along, in a two-seat boat on a small brackish inlet. We dipped our lines, but success was small, when without warning the sea below us began to boil and flash.
My father dipped his net and brought it up wriggling. "Spot," he said in wonder. "The little fish are running up the river."
Little they were, but in the millions they took on the aspect of leviathan, roiling mightily in the deep. Our tiny boat floated on an ocean of fish, a magic carpet of sea life that seemed to move us up the river against the current. Whether it moved the boat or not, it moved Gerri. It would have moved me, but I was already there, where her hand slid into mine, where the shock of her arrival threatened to pitch me into the river.
Soon enough the school passed, and my father turned around, and our hands left one another. We rowed back to the beach house and pulled up on the dunes, and my father took the fishing gear into the house and left us under the stars, with the surf at our backs. I didn't dare speak, just stared into the dark patch that made up her slim form and willed the stolen moment to mean something more.
Eventually, she whispered so slightly it might have been the sea, "Are you going to kiss me?"
"I don't know," I said. "Am I?"
She stepped forward until the heat of her body scorched me through my clothes. "I really think you are," she said.
And I did. More than half a decade of longing went into that kiss, and it seemed to last that long and longer. Her mother's voice sounded from the house and we walked back together, hand in hand, the way I'd always imagined it. The way it had to be. And the way it could never be again.
The next day we went for a walk on the beach, and ran into a group of her friends before we had a chance to get far enough that I could pick up where I left off the night before. Two girls and a boy, friends from school, and we ran the boardwalk and took a picture, Gerri in between Anna and Zina. They looked at the camera, but Gerri looked at me.
That night I wanted to take a walk under the stars again, along the beach in the dark. But she said, "I need to ask you something," and pulled me out onto the porch. When she had shut the door, she said, "Are you going off to college?"
"Of course I am," I said. "I'm leaving the end of the summer."
"You have to choose," she said.
"Me or school."
I scoffed, ran a hand through my hair. "That's nuts. I don't have to do that. I'll be back on breaks, it's not that far, and you'll be here, and in a year you'll be following me anyway."
She shook her head, solemn as a magistrate. "No. You won't come back, and if you do I won't be here."
"Where are you going to be?" I said, voice rising a bit toward panic. "I have to go to college. How can I do anything important unless I get a degree?"
Gerri took a step back. I didn't know it, but the feeling was there that she would never step close again. "This is important," she said. "I thought I was important."
A long pause stretched out, and my brother's laughter floated through the window, harsh and manic. "You can't ask me to choose," I said.
"Then I won't," she said, and smiled just like always, and hopped through the door and back inside. The walk on the beach never happened. We left town the next day. I called her, went to her house, but she was never around. September came, and I left.
And Gerri was right. I didn't come back. Electrical Engineering became my love and my life and breaks came and went without my leaving State. I meant to go home. I meant to find Gerri again. One day a letter came with the picture from that perfect day, that one perfect day, and all it said on the back was "Told you so." I stuck it to my mirror, and then to the dash of my car, until time ate away at it and it dropped on the floor.
By then there was another picture, a large group in front of the engineering building. I'm in the third row, four in from the left, but you can't see me in a class of 43, one of a larger class of 277, and a much larger one of 21,990. That picture arrived from my mother, who framed it and wanted me to hang it on the wall. I always meant to. I got a good job. I made good money. Surely the history of the south side of Dekas Street in suburban Pittsburgh would have been a lot different without my contribution to the interior wiring design of the street lamps.
I was cleaning out my car one day after work when the photo fell out onto the street. Her photo. It was smudged and my footprint had obscured the writing, but Gerri's face stood out clear as a falling star. I dusted it off and stuck it back in place, and for just a moment I heard the crash of the surf and the sigh of the sand, and had an insane desire to jump in and hit the gas and go, finally, home, or to wherever she was. I felt sure I could find her, talk to her, and a part of me long asleep groaned and rolled over, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. I remembered the tilt of her head. The one impossible touch of her lips. It could be. She didn't have to be right.
But no. I had a design due the next day. She wouldn't be there anyway. Would the aging car even make it? I took the gum from my mouth and used it to stick the photo back to its spot on the dash. That would have to do.
Above me, a gull cried out and wheeled away.