"You're taller than I remembered."
After 40 years it may seem like a strange greeting, but after four decades memory becomes, at best, a series of snapshots. I, on the other hand, knew her at once. A 60ish version of the girl from the 1960s. My lost love.
We met in our early 20s. She was tall, slim, smart, funny with this great laugh. She also wanted someone who was not me.
She had a wicked way of talking about the men in her life, defining them by the cars they drove. "I'm going out with the Trans-Am tonight." The next night it was "the Cadillac." If someone asked for her phone number in a bar, she'd hand over a deposit slip to her bank account. It had her number and, if a random deposit happened to end up in her account, so much the better.
Back then, I'd visit her at her mother's house in Pasadena, included like a member of the clan. Joan and I would hike, eat out, walk and talk. But even with all my feelings for her, I knew I was tangential to her life. She wanted out of the city. Out of having to work. Out of responsibility.
If, however, something went wrong, I was the one she'd call. Once she bought an Austin-Healey 3000. British Racing Green and perfect. Her ideal car. On a sunny day she skipped work to take a drive. Her platform shoes and another car's left turn crushed the front end of the Healey. She hadn't even made the first payment. I got her home. I got a friend at a body shop to pull it back together. Then she was off again.
In the end, she found the mountains of Big Bear and a laid-back, itinerate carpenter. I went to her wedding, held in a meadow on a sunny June day 40 summers ago. I'd lost her.
I moved on. Found a wife. Found a career. Found myself. But I never forgot her.
Over the years she was often in my thoughts. "Whatever happened to Joan?" would float up from my subconscious from time to time. I came to wonder if I had invented her.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was Googling something or other when, as I have in the past, I tried various combinations of her name on the search line. With quotation marks and without. After a few minutes there she was. A little more searching delivered a phone number.
When she answered I told her my name.
A short pause brought, "Oh, my God. I can't believe it!"
From this restart, and several emails later, I drove to Sedona, Ariz., her home for the last 30 years. I phoned when I got into town, and we met in front of her small shop in a strip mall.
She came up to me saying, "You're taller than I remembered."
We talked and hiked and ate out — the eating part being somewhat restricted by her now alcohol-free, gluten-free, vegetarian diet. We told each other our life stories, stories told like flipping through an old photo album. Turning pages, stopping to talk of marriages (and, in her case, a daughter) and other successes along with a few failures. It was both familiar and new.
As we strolled up one of the beautiful canyons that surround Sedona, our memories slowly came together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Mine fit in with hers and hers with mine. To be sure, some pieces were missing. Stories that seemed so important to me she did not remember at all. Some of her recollections were mixed with gaps in my memory.
We were, back then, like two pendulums slightly out of sync. From time to time we'd move in formation only to slip into our separate rhythms. The timing was never quite right.
It turns out I am taller because of those platform shoes she used to wear. I gained my 3 or 4 inches when she switched to flats.
After a couple of days, I drove home through the desert that separates Sedona from Pasadena.
Is there a future after 40 years? Probably not. Her life is comfortable and fulfilling among the Red Rocks along Oak Creek. My life is here with the woman who's been with me for more than two decades. She encouraged me to go and reconnect with Joan. I like to think it was because she knew I'd come back to her, or maybe she secretly hoped I wouldn't. She won't say.
Warren Dennis is an industrial designer living in Pasadena.