What Might Have Been
The story that started it all . . .
My twenty-fifth high school reunion was just two weeks away. I should have been excited—but I wasn’t. With the deadline for my column looming at the end of the week, and the final round of editing for my next book staring me in the face, flying back to my hometown to reminisce with nearly-forgotten friends, locker buddies, and study hall partners was not high on my list of priorities. But I also knew there was a part of me—a volley-ball-whacking, Coke-and-fries-eating, rock-and-roll-lovin’ teen—that would be disappointed if I didn’t go. Hoping to sway my responsible reluctance with a dose of nostalgia, I pulled out my senior yearbook and read a few scribbled ramblings from my old classmates—platitudes and clichés that have personalized every high school annual since the marriage of ballpoint pen to glossy paper. “Best of luck in the future.” “See you in college. Hope you’ll let me copy your homework.” “Enjoyed our chats in math class.”
I was able to recall most of the names, but there was one entry from a boy I couldn’t place. “Wish we had spent more time together,” he wrote. A bit more heart-felt than most, but not enough to jog my memory.
I put the book away and went back to work. I didn’t think any more about the comment until two weeks later, when I came face-to-face with its author.
The reunion party was earmarked by all the usual characteristics: a rented banquet hall, hastily-prepared table decorations, and a few balloons taped over doorways. As I made my way to the reception table, it was impossible to ignore the unmistakable uncertainty in the air. The electric charge of youthful anticipation ever-so-present at seventeen had been replaced by awkward pauses and quick scans at nametags, making it clear how time had affected our memories—and expectations.
As I ate my wilted salad and pretended to enjoy the overdone roast beef, I reminisced with girlfriends about hairstyles, prom nights, the teachers we liked, and of course, some of the boys we dated. As we picked at the dessert—dry chocolate cake—prizes were awarded for the person who had traveled the farthest, had the most kids, and been married the longest. One of the gals at the table wondered out loud if the emcee was the same overly aggressive twerp who hadn’t been able to keep his hands off the typing instructor.
As we began to run out of small talk, it became obvious four years of high school was, in most cases, our only commonality, and a few adolescent memories could not compete with the twenty-five years of life that had passed since. As the conversation turned to career concerns, aging parents, and unappreciative offspring, I found myself drifting away from the group. Retreating to an outside patio, I sat at an empty table to collect my thoughts. I had been there less than a minute when I was approached by someone I didn’t recognize.
“Hi, Jaye, I was hoping you’d be here.”
I couldn’t place him. He was definitely familiar, but I couldn’t make the connection. I managed a few clumsy questions about mutual friends and teachers, yet I was still clueless. Then he asked if I had kept the old Chevy Nova I drove in my senior year. I felt terrible. He recognized me, even remembering the car I used to drive. I finally had to admit it—I didn’t remember him.
“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s my fault for not wearing my nametag. I’m Neil Graham. My locker was across the hall from yours. We were in senior English together.”
The memories came rushing back. In high school, he’d been an anomaly—good looking, athletic, smart—and painfully quiet. Seldom seen at school dances or other social functions, he didn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and yet he usually offered a smile to anyone passing by, as if silently inviting them to stop and chat.
As we became reacquainted, our conversation flowed relaxed and easy. He reminded me about the Spring Fever dance in the cafeteria, when Michael Sanders drenched my new pink taffeta dress with Coke. He confessed to sitting behind me in the theater on a rainy Saturday afternoon during our junior year—I didn’t know it—to watch “Poltergeist.”
I learned he’d been married for eight years, had a family, and loved to sail. He told me he majored in marine biology in college, and after graduation had moved to the west coast to work at one of the research institutes. Taking advantage of the first lull in the conversation, he pushed back his chair and stood.
“I’ll be right back,” he promised. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
He returned a few minutes later with his wife. She shook my hand, and the three of us exchanged small talk until she excused herself to go inside and retrieve her sweater.
And then he said it . . .
“You know, I had a huge crush on you all through high school. But I was just too shy to ask you out. Night after night, I picked up the phone and dialed all the numbers except the last one. I guess I was afraid to let it ring, knowing you might answer and then I wouldn’t know what to say.”
As he told me about those nights from so many years ago, he admitted he’d even written out a complete script with different responses based on how I might answer his questions. We laughed as he readily admitted how silly he’d been, allowing his lack of experience and risk of rejection to keep him from having a simple phone conversation.
“I kept hoping we’d bump into each other in the hallway,” he continued, “or we’d end up sitting together in one of those break-out sessions we used to have in English class. But it never happened. And even years later, I still tried to imagine what my life would have been like, if I’d only had a little more courage.”
I told him how flattered I was, and that indeed, I wished he’d been a bit more bold, assuring him I would have accepted his invitation.
An hour later we were saying our goodbyes. And in one of those brief yet never-to-be-forgotten moments, while his wife was busy exchanging business cards with a new acquaintance, Neil left me with a bittersweet tribute to all the secret loves that remain unspoken.
“I’ve always wondered how much different my life would have been with you in it,” he said. And without hesitating, he added, “And even today, I still do.”
Wanting to say more but knowing I couldn’t, I told him how nice it was to see him again, and how much I enjoyed meeting his wife. It was all I could think of.
True to tradition, we exchanged our yearbooks and updated our original comments. Finally, he thanked me for spending the time to reminisce with him and then mentioned something about his babysitting mom expecting them home by midnight. And with that, the night became another memory.
On the drive back to the hotel, I stopped for coffee and, on a whim, took my high school annual into the restaurant to look at the new comments I’d gathered at the reunion. I turned directly to Neil’s picture, curious about what he’d added to his original note.
“If I had only known what was waiting for me, I would have taken the chance,” he wrote. And then he signed it, “Silwy.”
The signature didn’t make any sense—at least not to me—until two months later, when my niece asked if she could look through the old annual. The unusual signature brought her running, with the translation: Still in love with you.
For days, it was all I could think about—how he must have felt, keeping his feelings a secret, especially from me, a girl who had spent more than her share of Saturday nights in front of the TV while others always seemed to have dates. And frankly, I felt a little cheated, wondering how many guys never understood I was simply waiting to be asked.
That night—that experience—had a huge impact on me. It inspired The Possibilities of Amy. It also made me realize how many opportunities life offers us—especially in our youth. But because we’re afraid of rejection or lack confidence, we decide to let possibility pass us by, not realizing how one simple action can often lead to a completely different outcome in life.
Finally, it left me with a nagging uncertainty that has surely haunted every adult who takes a moment to look back at life from the perspective of hindsight: What would I have done differently if I knew then what I know now?
Amy is the ultimate trophy girl—gorgeous face, killer body and a vivacious personality. But there’s something else about her, something that makes her even more special. Amy’s new. A transfer student from out of state, she’s starting her senior year without knowing a soul. And that means she’s up for grabs, available.
Infatuated from the moment he sees her, David is determined to meet Amy, and if the fates are willing, to spend the rest of his life with her. But his shyness prevents him from approaching her—until his friends devise a contest to determine who can be the first to prove their manhood by seducing her.
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