This is a story. A story of years past. A story I wish were true because it was. Sort of. It begins with a mirror, and the awkward question everyone has asked at one point or another. Who is the stranger who's reflection I see?
      It all began, far too many years ago, when as a younger man, one seeks to answer that singular question. Who am I? What am I worth? When, ironically enough, self-worth is determined by others. By those who look away. Who never notice. Who never care.
      My daily routine was a shelter from that recurring inquisition called high school. I followed the required lectures, walked the planned hallway routes (where's my cheese reward, anyway?), slept when I could, laughed when I could, kept such friends as kept me, glanced over a crowd of faces as I stood unseen. That sort of thing. I fixated on this beautiful girl for a day, for a week, then a different one. I saw more comfort in the distant fantasy of their faces than in my own. But always alone. No matter how many there were, I was alone.No matter how sincere I believed my feelings to be, they always, without fail, looked away.
      Day flowed into day. Time passed. Patterns emerged. Positions became accepted. Until I saw her. A face of such honest mirth and sadness, of gentle beauty and hidden regret. What impressed me the most about her was that with all that, she still laughed at herself. Easily. She seemed to know, to understand. Seemed to have all the answers I needed. She knew what she saw in her mirror. Her smile hinted it to the world. Long hair, red and alive, glowed like a beacon to me. A touch of freckles sparkled over her skin like the firmament in reverse, where day ruled over night instead of the other way around. Such deep green eyes, oceans seem shallow by comparison, spiked with touches of orange like a burst of insight. A soft soul that emanated from every pore. A smile I wished to earn, a heart to fill, and a dream to live. Redempiton at last.
      Was she really all those things? How the hell should I know. Maybe I saw too much. Maybe too little. But regardless, I saw enough to forget to breathe when she passed, to prism everything else on whether she was kind or not to me that day. How does that line go? "I saw no shadow of another parted from her." Something like that.
      Perhaps it should have ended as yet another unfufilled fixation. No reason for it to be otherwise. It had happened often enough before. But something unexpected happened. Something amazing. She spoke to me. Of course it was because I somehow, insanely, found the courage to approach her with some trifle comment, totally unimportant. But she spoke to me. And then she...continued. A simple set of kind words. My day had prismed better than I had expected.
      And then that was that. Surely her own comment had been as unimportant as mine. Yet another bit of awkward minutiae between strangers to fill a day. But if it was, I didn't notice. Suddenly, smiling to myself seemed worth it again. I was buoyed forth, the small well-worn tracks of accepted strata shattered around me. Possibilities seemed to unfold, like a crisp dawn, all shining from her. I guess you could say I was hooked.
      No step seemed heavy. No word anemic. Life and purpose merged and melded, filling my chest like air. If my dreams came to fruition, I would make friends of two strangers to me, her and myself.
      So, it was inevitable that such a small, insignifigant victory encouraged me to try again. The next day. Or perhaps it was the day after that. I can't remember. The days of large nothing were vastly overshadowed by the days of small something. Somewhere, along the line I spoke to her again, possibly two sentences this time. Maybe followed by, dare I say, a "see you later". What silent joy. The tantalizing promise of renewed conversation. Of seeing her again, even if only for a moment, to reinforce her absolute reality apart from myself. Hopefully, a daily reminder that life was no idiot. It knew what it was doing after all. And, looking at her, it was doing it very well.
      I'm sure eventually, without even realizing it, she told me her name. And I told her mine. Such a simple reward. Was it in any way as important to her as it was to me? Oh, of course not. I'm sure we saw two different worlds. She probrably saw some bland, interchangeable, "guy" with a name attatched. Some strange fellow who tried to talk to her, for reasons unknown. A minor player at best. I, on the other hand, saw perfection. School had never been such a joy.
      She had friends. Several of them. And several of them annoying little smudges on my polished fantasy. I watched her smiling, laughing, talking with her female friends. Hoping they were talking about me. Hoping I was that important to her. Secretly knowing I was not. Talking with her male friends, her hands that meant the world to me touching his shoulder, or his arm at some funny point in the conversation. It confused me. It hurt, quietly. Why? What had I done wrong? Couldn't they see? Was I invisible all over again?
      It's strange to feel jealousy at images of mirth and laughter. To feel such deep and instant hatred for a stranger talking to a pretty girl, when all he was doing was what I myself had tried before. Only, obviously doing it better. That crisp dawn I had seen earlier... had crested far to early.
      I pressed on, however. Every morning before school she sat with a cluster of her friends. And somehow, god if I know how, I managed to worm my way in on occassion. Only on occassion. By anyone else's standards, rarely, actually. I had some friends of my own, believe it or not, and we sat together as well at a seperate table. Sometimes, when her friends weren't there of course, she would sit with us. Ocassionally... Rarely. We would talk, laugh. I would try to say the most clever thing. She would invariably laugh at something one of my friends said instead. That's what I get for having smart friends. But it was okay. Any flash of jealousy would be swallowed by the fact that I liked these people. Why shouldn't she?
      Strange things, those mornings. I kept looking forward to them, and they kept pushing back my fantasy inch by inch. Usually as I watched her a couple of tables over. But I came back for more. After that the day's classes seemed anti-climatic. Especially that first class. I usually slept through that. A teacher slamming a book on your desk is a loud wake-up call. But I didn't care. For me, the important part of the day had happened already.
      Except, of course, the end of the day. I shared band class with her. There may have been others there, but I didn't notice. So I was at least gauranteed of seeing her again. We were usually pretty busy, so we didn't speak much, or at least that's what I convinced myself. After class was done, she always seemed to be in such a damned hurry to get home, when she wasn't with friends or talking to some "guy" band member (Insert jealousy here). All those improbable excuses I made up in my head to walk the hallways after school, trying to subtly look for her. I mean, you never know. She might actually say "Hello".
      I remember I caught her once as she was leaving and walking home. She lived two or so blocks from school. We talked and walked across the school parking lot in the afternoon sun. A warm, beautiful day. There was this one tree, near the school baseball diamond, where we stood for a while {probably no more than ten seconds, tops).I remember she looked straight at me, with those gorgeous eyes of hers. Her face covered in the afternoom light. I had seen her numerous times, day after day. I'd seen her quiet. Seen her happy. I'd even seen her a little sad. But of all those times, the eyes that I remembered the most, that I still remember, were there, under that tree. In that second, all those other things that had hurt, seemed suddenly worth it. Just to look at those eyes.
      I think that was where she told me she usually walked home every day. We probably said a word or two more, then she went her way, and I went mine. But it was enough. I'd learned she had to walk home. A simple plan came to mind. Time to play the "Hey, I got a car. Need a lift?" card.
      I don't think it worked the first time or two. My timing was always off. I, of course, would gather up whoever I needed to take home(it varied) and I would always try to pass that tree at such and such a time, hoping she would be walking home, so I could pull over. Sure enough, one time it worked.
      The boundries of my world changed again. There was something about having her in the car with me that was liberating. Sometimes in the back seat when it was crowded, sometimes in the front (which was better). I guess in my mind I figured I couldn't be a complete stranger to her, we were aquainted enough for me to give her a ride. My favorite times were when it was just me, and her up front with me. That same dull interior looked the same every day, but it never looked as good as when she was there. It was like a small pocket universe, where all other things were pushed aside. But it never lasted. The trips were too short. I wished she lived farther away.
      Sometimes it amazes me how songs can be given meaning, even years later, on a very personal level just by having heard them the first time in a particular situation. On one of the first rides I ever gave her, in a crowded car with a warm sun shining, ZZ Top's "STAGES" came on the radio. From that day on, I associated that song with her. It's music just seemed to fit her personality, full of youth and life, and hinted changes into another stage that never came.
      How often did all this happen? If I had to guess I's say twice a week. But, then again, time might have exaggeratted the frequency of occurance. I'd do it all again to find out.
      However, not everyone was thrilled I gave her a ride home. My sister, who sometimes rode home with me, wasn't too fond of her. Perhaps she saw what a fool I was. Perhaps my sister felt my feelings were being taken advantage of. Perhaps both. I think she, or perhaps one of my friends, mentioned this to me. It stuck with me for once. Well, a little anyway. It made me consider what I was doing and why I was doing it.
      And maybe,for once, I did see myself as a fool, and recognized the hold she had over me. One way or the other. SO one time, when I was driving past her as she walked home, I honked my car horn at her and pulled over as usual. I opened the passenger door and as she moved to get in I sped off. I may have waved good-bye or something. Anyway, that was not the important part. Suffices to say it was a ride tease, and I could see her staring at me in my rear view mirror, perhaps genuinely suprised and shocked that I wouldn't offer her a ride. And somehow, the feeling that gave me had a satisfaction all its own.
      Maybe it was cruel. Maybe it was petty. Maybe it was vindictive because she didn't share my feelings. But it was honest, if nothing else.
      She didn't take it well. She wasn't seething mad or anything, I was no where near that important to her. And she did take it for the most part in good humor, her first words to me something along the lines of "I'm not speaking to you" behind a small smile as she tried to put on an offended air. But offering her a ride home was never a sure thing after that. So in that sense, it backfired. Who would have thought she would turn my simple prank against me? Several times after that I would honk my car horn and pull up to her, and just as often as not she would refuse. Forcing me to match her speed as I drove beside her with an open door she refused to get into, until I would give up and drive away. I suppose I deserved it. I had driven off on her several times. Oh, well. You can't win them all. But I'd like to win at least one.
      But it wasn't all bad. As I said, we were both in band and sometimes the band would go on trips out of town to football games, which were never as intresting as who talked to who in the stands. To me, at least. If we were lucky we would go in big greyhound buses instead of the cramped yellow buses we usually used. Before one trip up north, I forget which, I was standing in front of the band hall, helping pack equipment in the underneath bins, when SHE came up to me. She needed to ask a favor. One of her female friends with whom she wasn't fond of at the moment, had asked to sit with her during the trip. The buses were a center isle with two seats to each side, and she didn't want to hear her friend whine the entire time. So she had lied and said she'd already agreed to sit with someone else, so she asked me to sit with her.
      I don't know what I thought. Something along the line of "DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN , THANK YOU FOREVER!". What came out was a calm, "yeah, sure." And then she went to get her things as I stood there, incredibly happy and scared out of my wits. WOW. This, I had not expected.
      I remember placing my things in the seat next to hers, and I could have sworn some of the others on the bus were giving me strange looks. You know, the look you get when something unexpected happens and the world suddenly makes even less sense. Believe me, I understood the feeling.
      Then she sat next to me and the buses pulled away from the school. It was like I was living another life. Oh, I'm sure we talked on the way up there, but I'm equally sure she talked more with the others around her. But just having her so close, after so many times of her being so far, close enough to smell her skin next to me, was a joy. I would have been perfectly content to just sit and watch and be near her. For me proximity was paradise. That was the most perfect bus ride I had ever been on. Still is.

      She was probably bored to death.

      And on some level that I wasn't willing to listen to, I knew it.

to be continued...