The very first thing was Hunter saying, “Here’s my house—yeah, this one. Thanks for the ride, Coach.” Then he jumped out of my silver Corvette and started walking up the driveway, bouncing his basketball. I watched him go: long seventeen-year-old legs, neck burned brown on summer courts, his confidence unpretentious. Reminds me of me.
Hunter had played basketball for me two years already, starting as a freshman. Now he was a junior and I had him in AP English, too.
I had just turned forty-one. In my years of teaching and coaching I’d met thousands of kids, many of them exceptional, but Hunter was more than just a good kid—he was a missing piece, a missing person, he was history that had long ago slipped through my fingers but was now, somehow, restored.
“Hey, I should meet your mom and dad finally—gotta start talking about college! Tell them we should set something up,” I called from the car, top down for the warm afternoon.
“Okay,” Hunter called back, and disappeared behind the house.
It was late September and sunny. It was Indian summer and a few leaves were falling, some withered brown, some crimson and orange, falling around my car as I drove away, dreams that had fallen from grace, catching the hope of an updraft briefly, then falling back to earth, drifting, sailing, falling back to earth.
The suburban rush-hour roads were humming with traffic. At some point I glanced over my shoulder to change lanes and saw that Hunter had forgotten his book bag behind the seat. Kid’s got basketball on his mind. Nothing wrong with that. I slowed down, turned around on a side street. Hope I can find his house again. I was in no hurry to get home to dinner for one, quiet hanging in the air, English compositions to grade, phone calls and basketball game tapes to fill the empty spaces.
I parked in Hunter’s driveway and reached around for the book bag. Whoa, tonnage here. The bag was half unzipped and I looked inside. Trigonometry, physics, history, the latest Sports Illustrated, a smashed bag of potato chips.
Reminds me of me.
I zipped the book bag shut and carried it up the stone path to Hunter’s front door. Big brick house, lots of flowers in the garden. Heard muffled rock and roll coming from inside.
I rang the doorbell but nobody came. Looking through the window in the front door, I saw flowers in a vase on a table, pictures in frames dotting a tall bookshelf, and a big brown mutt asleep on a rug—not much of a watchdog. So I backtracked along the stone path and headed up the driveway, book bag slung on my shoulder.
Around back, muffled music, louder, was drifting out from a window upstairs. First I thought about knocking on the screen door. Then I took a few steps backward in the driveway and looked up toward the window.
“Hey, Hunter!” I shouted. “Hey, Hunter, it’s Coach Leighton! You left your book bag in my car—here it is!”
I remembered the first time I heard her voice, voice like rain and sunlight: “I don’t think he can hear you,” I heard this voice say. I turned around and saw a tree house in a big old oak. The branches waved and rustled, and the tree house swayed.
“Hello?” I said.
Then the voice of rain and sunlight swung down from the tree.
She was dark blonde hair, dark eyes, ponytail, swimsuit top, tiny cutoffs colored like a piece of sky. She said, “I’m Julia. Hunter’s mom.” That was when I understood everything that had ever happened to me and when almost none of it mattered anymore. Forget bad karma, unanswered prayers, a silent waiting room in a stainless steel clinic. Forget solitude, cold winters, empty promises, empty soul. Forget summa cum laude, teacher of the year, state championship trophies, glory.
“I’m Evan Leighton,” I said, somehow.
“Evan,” Julia said. She lifted one hand to fiddle with her earring, and a ray of sun lit up her wedding band, bounced off the ring and hit my heart like lightning—but even then I knew that wouldn’t stop me.
I hadn’t stayed long that afternoon—just long enough for Hunter to run downstairs and get his book bag, for me to paint the swirls and sways of Julia’s body onto my memory, for the three of us to stand together in the same ray of September sun. Julia’s hands fluttered as she spoke: she had been reading Margaret Atwood in the tree house; she loved Indian summer; she was making fettuccine Alfredo for dinner—would I like to stay? Hunter stood at Julia’s side with an ease that verged on tenderness, book bag slung on his shoulder now, biting a fingernail, looking at something in the sky.
I lingered a little longer (why did it feel like we were father, mother, and son, like I had just stepped back into my own true life), listening more than talking although my mind was working (working on what—wasn’t this hopeless?), until Hunter went back in the house, and Julia touched my arm, saying, “Good-bye, Evan,” and left traces of fog and light on my skin.
I couldn’t tell anyone about her. I couldn’t even tell my best buddy Stravinsky. If I spoke the story of Julia aloud, she would shatter into a million flecks of crystalline air and never be seen again. That would be my punishment for trying to capture her with words, for thinking I could capture fog and light and beauty in the jar of my words, for believing Julia could happen to me.