I was once in love with a girl.
It’s odd we even met.
We were from different parts of Richland, which should have guaranteed mutual ignorance. We each did well on a test and ended up at Lewis & Clark, in a group with other “gifted” kids. Due to this unique predicament, we had years in the same class with the same friends, always being told we were special. In her case, I believed it.
I think of her almost every day.
Of all the girls in class, she was the nicest to me. She didn’t mind picking me for soccer. When her name was called for show & tell, we would all hiss because her initials were three “S”s. She liked it when I complimented her long pretty hair. When she wrote an essay about what vegetables her friends would be, she called me “zuccini”. I remember trying to tell her, upon the momentous occasion of graduating the fifth grade, that she was my favorite girl in the class. I couldn’t muster the words.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
Despite the fact that we departed for different schools and didn’t see each other for years, I started spotting her at band events once we reached 9th grade. As a trumpet player at Hanford High, there was always some confluence of schools where I would see her play for Richland High. She was a wonderful saxophonist and her hair was still very pretty. I knew middle school had made me a different man of me – one even more scared of girls! I never even said “Hi” despite the opportunities. I felt guilty until the day I finally saw her hanging onto some guy in a romantic fashion. I realized then that she had obviously moved on.
It seems like yesterday.
The distance between our parallel lives grew until she passed below the horizon behind me. I went off to Pullman with some of my lifelong friends – one of which I married in a love story with a happy ending – but otherwise I almost actively tried to forget anything preceding the liberating independence of college. My father, the very sudden gossip, was my only contact for any goings-on for acquaintances in the older epochs of my life. On trips back home I heard name after name with great achievements attached: early graduations, exotic travel, and much-coveted jobs and titles.
One day her name came up.
It was prefaced with a cornucopia of laurels: remarks of her early graduation from college with honors, acceptance into the peace corps with the promise of soon traveling the world, then something unexpected. Something terrible…
Samantha Semmern had been killed by a drunk driver.
On a warm Tri-Cities summer day, in her mom’s car, on her way to see her boyfriend at the Uptown, rolling through a green light on the highway. She took her last breath at Kadlec Hospital at age 22.
You’ve passed the sign for her, on the intersection of the bypass highway and Van Giesen…
It marks the place where her story was tragically cut short. Maybe when you first saw it you disapprovingly shook your head at the obvious but abstract implication. Perhaps it blends in with the other banal metal wafers, but I bet you’ll see it next time.
It’s hard to enumerate the lessons that sign echoes in my brain: life isn’t fair, remember where you came from, time is short, life is for living, wait for nothing, always tell those you love how you feel, not every story has a happy ending, one day my story will end. It’s impossible to articulate how it feels or the slow, subtle change of feeling it so often. I don’t even want to contemplate how it must be for those who truly had her in their hearts; not as a vivid memory, but a vital reality. My heart is ground to dust trying.
I don’t want to feel the bitter frailty of mortality; that one day someone I love might suddenly be gone or that I might suddenly leave behind those I love. Yet, I feel it every time I leave my little slice of Richland. Every time I want to see a movie at the mall, every time I take my daughters to grandma’s house, every time you see me smile and say goodbye at a meetup on Gage – I’m getting in the car to go see my friend Sami and her pretty hair.
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