The first time we met, I thought you were a daisy. A blond flower, a pretty one, but also common and certainly harmless. It was at a football game, us against Colgate, maybe, or U Penn. It was early in the season, warm enough that you and your sorority sisters were wearing shorts, your long legs still showing off a summer tan. Someone introduced us, but we didn’t have much to talk about. Who has anything important to say at that age?
The second time we met, you’d become a cactus. We’d both ended up in Chicago, and were at one of those alumni happy hour things you go to the first few years after graduation. I introduced myself and got your name wrong, but even worse, I got your sorority wrong. Your eyes flashed when you said you were not a Tri-Delt, but as the evening wore on, I saw your night-blossoming nature, and realized that the tough skin and prickly spines protected an inner resilience. I wanted to ask you out, but when I found the scrap of paper with your number the next day, I was intimidated. You were in grad school studying the economic lives of Third World women and children. I was working the kind of generic management job that our alma mater likes to snag for its graduates. What could I possibly offer you?
The third time we met, you were a porcupine making your way in the world. It was our fifteenth reunion, the first one I’d been back for, because I secretly hoped you’d be there. I was recently divorced, with weekend visitation rights to a son I didn’t deserve to have. You’d never been married, but you’d founded a nonprofit micro-lending organization and had been written up in The New York Times. When I babbled about the expensive singles trips I’d started taking, you looked at me with pity, and maybe that’s why you came back to my hotel room that night. I told myself it didn’t matter why, because surely a night that perfect would lead to something more. But then I ruined it the next morning with a thoughtless, disparaging remark about the locals I’d met on an African safari. You left with a look of disgust, flinging one last cutting retort over your shoulder, and I felt as though you’d slapped me in the face with a barbed tail. For months afterwards I felt out of step with the world, and I realized your quills were still embedded in my skin.
The last time we met, you were a ghost. The alumni news magazine said you’d been kidnapped while scouting for your nonprofit down in Venezuela, and that you were killed during a botched ransom exchange. It quoted you from that New York Times piece, when you said that every person on the planet is worth saving. I drank myself into a stupor the night I read about your death, and the night after that. After years of my neglect, my teenaged son wasn’t speaking to me, and I’d just been fired for being under the influence on the job. I was about to down my stockpiled pills and one last bottle of scotch when I felt your hand on my arm and looked up to see your face. You looked like that daisy again, but now I could see underneath your casual beauty, to everything you were then and everything you would later become. You didn’t say anything, but your smile told me that you still saw something in me worth redeeming, and I decided that this time I would finally listen.
—Amy Sisson is a writer, reviewer, and librarian currently living in Houston, Texas, with her NASA spouse and a large collection of ex-stray cats. Previously, her short fiction has appeared in Podcastle, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and a number of licensed Star Trek anthologies from Pocket Books.