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Waiting Room

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It was the summer of 1973, and I had just been fired from my first real job. I wouldn’t work for another year, but I would learn not to mind it, because it was a summer made for activists. This was the summer after Roe vs Wade, the year the protest movement stopped thinking globally and started thinking locally, all about America and the mess we were making of our private world. It was the year that led up to Watergate, the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs and the first time the word ‘feminism’ would become part of the popular consciousness. Somewhere in America, Monica Lewinsky was a two-day-old baby; somewhere in London, Tolkien was dying. In early September I’d walk home crying after learning what happened to Jim Croce’s helicopter, and by December Bobby Darin too would be dead, putting another nail in the coffin of my parents’ suburban youth. But I didn’t know anything about that during that hectic July. By the time it was over It would be the year I learned that you can never predict the future. It was the year I had to ask my business colleagues to call me Frances instead of Francie or Fran or Fannie. It was the summer I moved back into my parent’s house to rethink the past ten years of my life. And it was the summer I saw Johnny Castle again.

We were sitting at the same lunch counter during the same noon rush, both of us reaching blindly for a syrup dispenser, our fingers brushing and locking the same way they would in hold. For me, it was like being struck by lightning again – all of the same extreme emotions came rushing back to me in an ugly, unexplainable knot. It must have been like seeing a ghost to him, but his expression didn’t falter, the impenetrable mask staying adhered to his face. I thought I knew what longing was when I was eighteen years old and leaving Kellerman’s for the first time as a woman. I learned then that you can make promises but walls can always spring up suddenly and force you to change course when you’re least prepared to make that shift. He had just watched me pay and leave, shrunken deeper and harder into myself; it would be months before I saw him again.

I also learned ten years ago that you can give a man your phone number and you can hand him your address, but that won’t make him call or write you. You can wear his favorite perfume behind your ears and he can get a tattoo on his shoulder, burning your name into his skin, haunting you every time you dare to look down, but that won’t keep you from looking at other people when they walk by. We had absorbed our lessons the hard way, through a lot of missteps and misbeliefs. I found myself many times throughout the sixties – and I lost myself just as often. I picked the wrong side as often as I chose the right side. The girl I was back at Kellermans got left behind to grow in the dirt, rooted there in her peplum pants and her little cardigans. No matter what I said, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as Johnny’s arm candy, and he respected me enough to realize that if I didn’t go out into the world and live for myself I’d never be able to live with the life I’d end up with.

So at the end of the summer he helped me pack, and at the end of the summer I went away. We called each other all the time at first; every single day during my freshman year. But I got busier, and he ended up gaining teaching assignments that took him far afield of New York. It was easier to lose contact. The phone calls dried up, and the letters stopped flowing in their stead. Forget meeting; we were both far too busy to consider it. It was easy enough to forget that kind of passion, that kind of friendship. Soon Johnny disappeared from my radar, and from everything but my memory.

Until I walked through the front door of that employment agency and found myself face to face with him.

He was older, with a tiny fleck of gray at the temple; he looked thinner, too, as if some of his muscularity had been worn away by the worries of time. He smiled at me and I automatically straightened the hem of my dress; I still needed to look good for him, even though we apparently meant nothing to each other.

“Long time, no see, Baby,” he said, casual as you please. He gestured to the spot beside him and I carefully lighted there, crossing my legs, trying to project elegance in my thrice-hemmed suit clothes. “You’re too smart to be out of work,” he said.

“Nobody calls me Baby anymore,” I blurted out, and his features screwed up in confusion. One sentence and my back was up against the wall; how typically Johnny.

“Fine. Frances,” he said with weight, “what are you doing here?”

“I just got back to the States after a hitch with the Peace Corps,” I lied. “I have references but nowhere to go.”

“Me too,” he said, his expression flattening into an impenetrable mask.

My heart gave a twist; I was old enough to know why men in our generation would be traveling – I knew that it wasn’t likely he’d gotten a dispensation from the draft. I didn’t tell him I felt sorry – I understood that the pain he’d been in was far harsher than anything I’d been exposed to. Then I saw his left hand as he raised it to smooth back his hair – his ring and index finger were missing, the thumb hopelessly scarred. I saw a crutch propped against his chair and turned my eyes toward the floor.

That answered all of my questions, and I had tact enough to look away. But he’d noticed. “Mortar in ‘Nam. Got a purple heart to go with my competition trophies,” he said, as if daring me to make a bigger deal out of it.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” I said. My heart was doing somersaults in my throat – I was beyond glad he was all right. But Johnny just gave me a little snort.

“So how’re you doing, Frances? Did you save the world?”

“That’s still in the cards,” I said, not backing down or giving him the slightest inch.

“Though you’d’ve settled down by now,” he admitted. “I kept waiting for Penny to throw me a call saying ‘Baby’s getting married, you wanna go crash the reception’?”

I felt the slightest twinge of mortification at the very idea. “You would have been at the top of my list,” I said. “I’d hang out with you right now.”

“Don’t think a classy girl like you wants to be seen with an old bum like me, especially in a town like this.”

But that would never be true, no matter how many promises we’d failed to keep. “Why don’t we get a cup of coffee after we finish our meetings and find out?”

I saw the old spark of a challenge in his eyes at my suggestion, but half of me expected him to be gone when I returned.

He was waiting at the door with his crutch and his coat, silently watching, expecting me to run away again too.

But it’s been twenty more years since that gray New York day. I haven’t left his sight since.