“Nostalgic” is a short story I wrote as background when brainstorming ideas for a music video collaboration for the song The Wind Kept by Brave Julius, which we produced in 2012-2013 and premiered at the Whiteside Theatre on March 16, 2013. Santiago Uceda directed the video and more artfully and imaginatively executed the concept in a way that only he can.
HE SAW HER ONLY ONCE in church when he was nine, and he never forgot her summer dress, her freckled, peeling shoulders, the scent of lavender and sunburned skin. She glanced at him once, over her shoulder, from where she sat in the pew with the McIntyres, and he felt his back straighten and the hairs rise on his neck. She smiled and he stared, frozen, the only time in his life he’d ever mustered the courage to look at someone so directly for so long.
For several months he wondered who she was, but then eventually created his own narrative: the daughter of a relative from some rusting eastern city visiting the McIntyres on a driving vacation. She stayed longer and they became friends in this version, and he showed her the hidden places he loved in the high desert: a clearing in a tangled thicket of sage like a small room, the abandoned placer mine, the burble of a waterfall in the shade of a cliff face, the crumbling porch behind the old grange hall where the Millers’ dog slept on hot afternoons.
They grew older together, and he conjured her whenever he needed to, which was often for someone a bit sullen and whose penchant for solitude left him socially awkward and often alone.
Still he finished school, had some success and then married another writer and everyone found his work expressive and mistook his shyness for serenity. But they immersed themselves mostly in their work, which led them down different paths. When their marriage ended a few years later, with neither children nor animosity, he found himself thinking of the girl again.
He returned to the high desert and brought flowers to Emily McIntyre’s room in the assisted living facility and she was so very grateful, and why, yes, indeed some relatives had visited that summer long ago, and don’t you know they were from back east, and hadn’t they had fun at the reservoir one afternoon in the old johnboat, grilling on the beach the trout wrapped aluminum foil with slices of lemon, and then the children lit sparklers after sunset and before the stars began to flicker behind the black wings of the bats that twisted after gnats and mosquitoes above the bonfire.
He thanked her and left with these new images, his heart soaring, an address scrawled on the back of an envelope. The girl now lived in suburban California with her two children and was starting to put together a new, happier life after a lengthy divorce and various smaller disappointments.
He took the train without writing or calling because that’s how they did it in his books, and when he found the matching address of her modest ranch house he stood across the street and watched.
She was in the yard hanging laundry, her back to him. She was lovely, and he admired her as he waited for her to glance back at him again over that same freckled shoulder. He swallowed and smiled and felt happy and remembered the better parts of his own marriage and how he’d felt happy much of the time then but isn’t it funny how things sometimes don’t measure up to what we hope they might become. He felt a new story scratching at the back of his mind.
A bus lumbered past and he suddenly missed the desert, the smell of sage, the murmur and magic of water rushing through a dry and windblown landscape.
He made a decision then, recognizing something in himself for maybe the first time, and he turned and walked up the street back toward the station. He left the envelope rumpled in a trash bin, though he never forgot the address and thought about stopping by a number of years later when he was in the city for other reasons, but he became distracted and forgot all about it until after he’d already gone through security at the airport.
He never forgot the girl, and he remembered her often, even after he was married again, only now she was still a girl of nine no longer aging along with him, which is a kind of beauty and immortality that you can accomplish when you decide to allow memories to remain what they are meant to be and nothing more.