`You haven't changed a bit'

I have made up dozens of new address books over the years. There are always some new names to add; and inevitably some must be deleted, leaving a void that can never be filled. Some names are so familiar that I enter the addresses and telephone numbers from memory. And from time to time I leave out names because I can no longer recall the faces that go with them. But I have always transferred Arla Mae's name from the old books to the new. Even though my picture album with the glossy black and white snapshots has been buried in the closet for years, her face has remained as familiar to me as the one I see in the mirror every morning.

We were two small-town girls, sharing a heady awareness that, as pioneering Women Marines in San Francisco, we were ``taking part in what was going on in the world.'' We were billeted in what had been the drawing room in a once-stylish town house. We cooked full meals on a forbidden hot plate, ironed our shirts on a rickety board, and traded uniform skirts to suit our opposite figure types. We worked hard, had boundless energy, and made the most of every spare minute.

And we took dozens of pictures with my Kodak box camera. There was no tinkering with settings . . . you just looked through a finder, said ``cheese,'' and clicked the shutter. The results were unimpeachable. Everyone looked exactly the way they looked in ``real life,'' sometimes a little better. We ordered two prints from every negative, one for each of us. When we closed the albums on that chapter of our lives, we promised that we would always keep in touch, no matter where our new adventures took us.

And we did, for a time. At first there were long, newsy letters, pictures of her wedding, then mine, followed by baby pictures and snapshots of our homes and growing families. From time to time the addresses in both of our books changed. Then the letters grew shorter and more infrequent. Eventually they became hasty notes scribbled on Christmas cards. And, sometime in the late 1960s, even the cards ceased to arrive.

But each time I entered Arla Mae's name in a new book I promised myself that I would write again, soon, or at least send a Christmas card this year. Then, last summer, when Jim and I were planning a trip, I noticed her town on the map. It was less than an inch out of our way. Why not stop by and see her?

Before the impulse had time to evaporate I dialed the number, half-way expecting a report of ``There's no one here by that name.'' And, for one split second, as I heard the first ring, I wondered what I would say to her. Then I heard the familiar voice.

Arla Mae and Bob were waiting outside the door when we drove up. The moment we were out of the car, she and I sang out in unison, ``You haven't changed a bit!'' We picked up immediately where we had left off almost 40 years ago. There were no awkward pauses, no silences filled with polite amenities; we still finished each other's sentences, laughed at the same things, and understood our own private conversational shorthand.

Bob and Jim established an easy rapport and enjoyed our reunion almost as much as we did. ``But how could they miss?'' we reasoned. ``We were bound to marry men who like the same things.''

We brought each other up to date on vital statistics, shared pictures of children and grandchildren, and eventually got into the ``I wonder whatever happened to Jane?'' phase of the meeting. My album was in the car, but I didn't need to retrieve it. Arla Mae had resurrected hers. With some effort we were able to put names with several of the faces, and personality traits with others. Some of the faces were total mysteries. But we had no difficulty recalling our grand adventures, repeating at regular intervals, ``You haven't changed a bit!''

Our reunion was another grand adventure. Of course, we recorded it on film. Only this time our husbands did the honors with their state-of-the-art cameras, complete with light meters and the properly selected color film. When we returned from our trip, I rushed the film to the one-hour processing store and waited for the results. ``Are you certain these are my pictures?'' I asked the clerk, as I thumbed through them.

``The claim check and envelope numbers match,'' she said.

I looked at them again and had to admit there had been no mistake. ``That one is definitely Jim and Bob,'' I mused. I recognized myself, if grudgingly, and reaffirmed my resolve to go on a diet. ``But that can't be Arla Mae,'' I protested to myself. ``She doesn't look at all like that. She doesn't wear glasses, and her hair is auburn, not gray. They just don't make cameras the way they used to.''

But I added the pictures to my album anyway, alongside the old Kodak snapshots. Now, that was a good camera. The pictures showed the way a person really looks. I know Arla Mae would agree with me.

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