In 1985, my first girlfriend Cara died down at Bascombe Park in the old gazebo. Then, almost thirty years later, I walked down there again. And there Cara was, smiling at me as if nothing had happened.
We were sixteen when we first met at a dance that they threw at the community center downtown. It was like something clicked inside my head when I first saw her. That was it. It was love. And everyone knew it, too. We were one of those couples. Near the end of high school we were still together, still in love in a way that only people that young can be.
It was the night before our school formal, with graduation looming, Cara had been accepted into Harvard, I got into MIT and we were both going to move to Boston. There’d been a party, and we slipped out. We fled to Bascombe Park and to our favourite place, the old gazebo. That’s where it all ended. And where it all began again years later.
I have an image of her that night. For years, I could close my eyes and conjure it up. It was Cara turned away from me, and looking out over the park and down a gentle grassy hill to the bank of the river, with a halo of moonlight around her head. I took a step forward, to embrace her from behind, and she turned before I could. She smiled, and was about to say something to me. I knew that it was something important. But, then the light went out of her eyes. She fell forward into my arms.
And she was gone.
Later, it turned out that Cara had had a heart defect. It was undetectable. She could have died at any time. I was lucky to have met her, to have loved her, and for her to have loved me.
But, I missed her. I missed her so much. When I lost her, I lost myself too.
After she died, I left town and just drifted. I blew off MIT completely. I had a knack for code, so I did alright jobwise, moving from place to place and picking up contracts and one-bedroom apartments here and there. But, when it came to women, I ran the gamut between manipulative, scared, and cruel, and back to manipulative again. I could see myself doing it, being cruel and distant and passive aggressive and selfish and shit-scared as if I were watching the whole thing like a TV show. But, then I realized that I had to own up to it all. It wasn’t behaviour I was watching unfold. I was responsible for it.
After figuring that out, I came back home a few years ago, so that I could take stock. The whole town seemed haunted to me. And, for a long time, I avoided the gazebo. I knew that I had to go back there, to get a new image in my mind of that place, and maybe a different image of Cara in my mind, too. Everything led back to her.
One Halloween night, I found myself making my way to Bascombe Park, as if I were being called by some ghostly voice.
I had rented an apartment on Peterson Street, in the Old Downtown district. The park was a short walk away. I passed by the trick or treaters dressed as god knows what. It’s on Halloween that you realize just how grown up, and grown-old you are. You don’t recognize the costumes. And you wander through a crowd of kids unnoticed, as if you’re a ghost yourself.
When I arrived at the gazebo, it was dark and the moon was out. It was the perfect Halloween night. A part from the nip in the air, and the smell of fallen leaves, it was a night just like the one when I’d seen her last. My feet hit the wooden steps, and I paused. I took a breath. I could see the rolling grass just beyond the railing of the gazebo, and beyond that, I saw the river. I tried not to notice the Cara-shaped hole in that picture. It didn’t match the one in my mind, the one I carried around with me in my head.
But, then suddenly it did match.
And there she was, as I said, as if nothing had ever happened, as if no time had passed, and no pain had been felt.
“Just like you left me, Gray.”
I just smiled. “Just like I left you. But, I’m not as you left me.”
“Well, you’ve got an advantage, there. You’re not dead.”
“This isn’t what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“Well, for you not to be here. That was the whole point, Cara.”
“I see what you mean. But, I’ve never left here, Gray. I’ve been here ever since.”
“So, I’m standing in the middle of a haunted gazebo?”
Cara laughed the way she laughed. I never thought to hear that laugh again.
“I still love you, Cara.”
Her smile faded, and her eyes turned sad.
“I know,” she said.
“That’s it? ‘I know’? Do you still love me?”
“I would, Gray. I would if I were alive. I’m sure of that. But, I’m dead.”
“But, you’re standing here in the moonlight. You’re standing here, as you said, “just as I left you”.
“Yes. Just as you left me. I’m suspended in time. Here in this haunted gazebo, it’s the night of our party, the day before the formal, and before graduation. I’m wearing my Wham! T-shirt. And I’m just about to tell you something important. But, you’ll never know what it was.”
“But, you can tell me now, Cara. Can’t you?”
“I’m suspended in time, Gray. The thing I never got a chance to tell you is outside of my time. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Something caught in my throat, and I swallowed it. It fought hard inside me, and then it was quiet again.
“So, what now?”
“I think you know.”
“No. I don’t.”
She smiled, and I felt the full glory of her memory, and what she meant to me. It made me think of all the times I wondered what would have happened if we’d been able to go to Boston together, to find an apartment, to graduate and get jobs, get married, have kids of our own. It made me think of how those thoughts so often got in the way when others were trying to reach me, and to tell me important things that I never got to hear. How many had I missed?
“Yes. How many, Gray?”
“I have to let you go, don’t I?”
“I guess that’s why I’m here. ”
“Yes. It is.”
“So, how does this work?”
“Well, you come here and give me a hug. Let’s start with that.”
When I hugged her, it was like a dream. I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense, like it was some idealized experience. I mean that it was unreal. It was insubstantial. It wasn’t like hugging a real person.
She pulled away from me and smiled again.
“You will always remember me.”
“How could I forget you?”
“And the best way to honour my memory is to stop missing the moments given to you that I’ll never have. When life and love comes calling, say “yes”. Will you do that, Gray?”
I promised that I would. Then, she was gone. The grass beyond the gazebo railing glistened in the moonlight, and the river was like a ribbon studded with diamonds in the black velvet of night.
I stood in the middle of the haunted gazebo that was no longer haunted. And I thought about moments, and what they mean. I thought about how human beings move from one to another without a second thought. Or we find ourselves in ones that can change the course of our lives, and we dance on the edge until we make our final choices, live with the choices of others, or maybe submit to the grand absurdity of fate.
“Goodbye, Cara. I loved you.”
I heard some of the kids from Peterson Street making their way across the lawn, wearing their ghoulish costumes, and carrying their bags of Halloween candy, and chattering all at the same time. By the time they reached the gazebo, I was gone as if I were never there.