By Hans Shenk
The reception was held in the Valley Heritage Hotel, a building curiously located at the top of a hill. The ballroom for the reception was a cavernous affair of polished wooden floors, with polished marble arches all along the margins. A galaxy of chandeliers glimmered overhead, and beneath them dressed-up 20-somethings sipped punch out of tiny cups that never held quite enough, nibbled appetizers, and said nothing in as many witty ways as they could fathom. George Sines — a dressed-up 20-something, punch glass in hand — always felt slightly out of place at these events. He dragged his modest celebrity as a successful musician from conversation to conversation, chained reluctantly to fame and its obligations. Famous for his effervescent personality, he now felt either that exuberance was his duty to an audience of friends and acquaintances, or that effervescence would seem a sign of egomania. As a result, he spent a great deal of time vacillating unhappily between the two.
This reception in particular was giving him fits. Not only had he been thrust into a wilderness of people who had ‘known him back when’ and hadn’t caught on that they no longer did, but Penelope was here.
He’d guessed she would be, and since the thought struck him, had spent a good deal of time brooding on the matter, writing mental scripts for potential conversations, and subsiding into helpless anxiety.
Thirteen years previous, at age 15, George and Penelope had fallen for each other with all of the inescapable gravity of summer camp romances. So strong was the bond that the relationship had not only lasted in between weeks of camp, it had come to thrive. George was idealistic and enthusiastic, Penelope was pragmatic, and gentle. She kept him grounded, he kept her light.
For two years, it had grown into the stuff of apple-pie biographies, and it had never entered George’s mind that any ending was possible save the two of them, together.
And then, junior year, he flew a little farther, and between her basketball and his mini-tours playing guitar for his sister’s band, time became a question. And Penelope questioned while George drew concentric circles further and further out from his base.
When they came together in the summer, even he could see the distance. But he reassured himself that knew they could fix it, they would work it out.
At last, halfway through an awkward week, she pulled him aside, alone in an empty room on a rainy evening to tell him that she had finally realized that it wasn’t going to work out. That they were now moving in separate directions, and the only thing that could be done was to let it happen, and to let go.
It flattened George. In all the doubt and change and trauma of becoming an adult, there was one thing he’d never doubted; that his fate and that of Penelope Masterson were inextricably entwined. Hitherto, he’d never imagined that the bond was anything but iron, and now, too late, he saw that it was crystalline, fragile, and falling. Summoning all his optimism, all his eloquence, and what remained of his wits, and he attempted to explain. His explanations turned to begging, and his begging into babbling, and finally he petered out.
Penelope was crying, and George felt cold. In the end, she said nothing, only shook her head, and George — with no words left to say — felt the final collapse of the crystal and heard his foundation sweep away in the rainwater. Having no part left in her comfort, he walked outside again, and waited out the storm under a leaky overhang.
When George walked away that sodden summer night, aware for the first time of how far he was from who he believed himself to be, he promised himself that he would not let Penelope go. He would become the man she needed, and when he had, he would call her.
Looking back, he wasn’t positive why he never did; whether he’d never become the man he thought she needed, or if his resolve had faded. Whatever the case, he’d never really dated since, a phenomenon his mother (and secretly, George as well) attributed to a chronic fixation with what might’ve been.
Now, escaping from the clutches of yet another acquaintance from bygone years, trumpeting their friendship, borrowing his notoriety, George hurried toward the punch bowl, rubbing his five-day beard and feeling exhausted.
And suddenly, there she was, darting out of an arch, headed someplace. He sidestepped, and pirouetted to avoid a collision, noticing, as he did so, the baby balanced on her hip.
“Oh, sorry!” she said, “I was just — George!” She stiffened in surprise, and seemed suddenly unsure of herself, staring up at him.
George, all nerves and uncertainty himself, made a shaky attempt at a reassuring smile.
“Penelope!” he said, stepping back out of the arch and into the ballroom, “It’s been —” he searched for the word, and gave it up, “It’s been a long time.”
She nodded, and laughed a little laugh.
She’d been beautiful, at 17, a decade ago. Boyish, and jaunty, sharp angles and red cheeks. She was much, much more beautiful now. The weather of adulthood had softened the sparkle of her eyes and the redness of her cheeks. The angles had softened into curves. The girl was gone, but the woman was stunning.
“It has!” she said, “And now look at you! You’ve got a beard. And you’re famous!”
George waved it off, “Eh, I’m not that famous. Besides, fame’s a lucky accident. You’ve got kids!”
“Kid,” she corrected.
“More than I’ve got,” he said, bending down to regard the curly-headed infant. “What’s her name?”
“Caleb,” she said, stifling a giggle, “Caleb Anthony Thomas.”
“Ah!” he said, “Well. Shows what I know.”
Just then a short little man in a gleaming grey suit with dark eyes, and carefully styled hair came through the arch, and tossed his arm around Penelope.
“Hey, honey! I was wondering where you’d gotten to,” he said, then noticing George, “Oh, hey. Who’s this?”
“This is George, honey. From camp — I’ve talked about him before.”
“George, George …” said the man, searching his eyelids for any recollection. He gave up remembering with a shrug of his tailored shoulders and held out a hand. “I’m sure I’ve heard all about you. I’ve just got a terrible memory. I’m Edson Thomas.”
“George Sines. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” said the little man, still holding George’s hand, “I’m remembering. You’re …”
He looked closer, narrowing his eyes, and Penelope, gently bouncing the baby, said, “He’s in a band, honey.”
“YES!” said Edson, his eyes widening, “You wrote that song, that one song …” he let go of George’s hand, and turned to his wife, “That one song. We listened to it all the time when we were dating.” He hummed a line. The baby moaned.
George nodded. He knew the song. He remembered a string of hazy nights spent perched on the edge of a mattress, fueled by a hellbrew of coffee, insomnia and cigarettes, scratching the lyrics down in a tattered notebook. And somehow that had become the anthem of Penelope’s love for another man. As George processed the thought, he was surprised to discover that he was pleased to hear it.
“Long Summer,” he said. And the baby vomited. Both of the adult Thomases clustered around their child, messing about with napkins and rags and cooing at their discontented baby. Penelope disentangled herself from the huddle for a moment and met George’s bemused eye. She shook her head. “Kids are just so messy, sometimes,” she said.
George nodded, and smiled. He told Penelope that it was awfully nice to see her again, and it was a pleasure to meet you, Edson, and I’ll follow your future career with the closest interest, Caleb, you precocious child.
Penelope told him it was wonderful seeing him, Edson told him not to be a stranger, but they were distracted by the cleanup efforts. Meantime, Caleb began to howl.
George turned away, still smiling. He remembered he’d been looking for the punch bowl and sought it out. He filled his glass, and rolled the punch in his mouth, eyes fixed on the ceiling, past the chandeliers to the shadows beyond, lost in meditation. He was still standing in that posture when his best friend and bandmate, Anthony Windsor found him.
“Hey,” said Windsor, shaking George from his thoughts, “You ‘bout ready? I’ve had enough for one day.”
George blinked, looked once around the ballroom, drained his glass and nodded decisively.
“Yep. I’m good to go.”