Her name was Jamie Heckman, and she was the prettiest girl at Flat Rock Junior High. But, where "pretty" often opens doors to teenage popularity, Jamie was scarcely a blip on our school's social radar screen. She had few friends, and I wasn't among them.
The year was 1976, and I was a lanky eighth-grader looking to clamber up the precarious junior-high social ladder. I aimed to take my place at the popular table where I knew seating was limited, and my hopes for junior-high immortality rested on my ability to walk the walk, talk the talk, and choose my friends wisely.
Jamie was not on the approved list, though the reasons for her absence were murky. Apparently, she had shown something less than adoration for one of the girls in the upper echelon. And if I was to break into their coveted circle, then I had to learn to share their enemies as well as their friends.
While it didn't take a concerted effort to avoid conversation with Jamie, learning to dislike her was problematic. She simply had no strings with which to attach my enmity.
We spent a fair amount of time together that year, Jamie and I. We both rode bus No. 63 to and from school every day. She was a year older - a ninth-grader - and I'd sometimes steal a glance at her from my perch in the back of the bus as she sat gazing out the window at the rolling meadows of the North Carolina countryside. When we'd pass in the hall I'd say hello, but she'd look away or stare straight ahead as if I weren't there.
'ROBBIE, will you sign my annual?" I looked up from my school-bus daydream, and there stood Jamie. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching, but it was the last day of school and the bus was almost empty as it neared the end of the line. I had never heard her speak before and, even though it was a small school in a small town, I was surprised she knew my name.
"I guess so," I muttered nonchalantly, and she sat down beside me and handed me her yearbook. So as not to be impolite, I reached into my satchel, fetched mine, and offered it to her as well. She looked at me for a moment as if waiting for a starter pistol, and then she clicked her pen and got down to business.
As I flipped through the blank white pages of Jamie's annual, I suddenly felt sorry for the friends she never made and wondered if she felt the same. I scribbled my standard, "Have a nice summer and stay out of trouble," and was done in 30 seconds. Jamie was just getting started.
She took her time leafing through my book, reading what others had written and smiling and chuckling at their junior-high attempts at humor. I couldn't help wondering what she must think of me.
When she'd finished her cursory glimpse into my 13-year-old life, she located her picture, signed over her face with a broad-stroked John Hancock, and then found a white space all her own to pen her message.
When I tried to spy what she was writing, she thwarted my efforts by shielding the page with her arm. I looked out the window as if the passing fence posts held far greater interest, but all I could think about was getting my book back so I could read what it was she was so closely guarding.
As the bus rolled up to her stop, Jamie closed my book, dropped it on the seat beside me, and headed for the door without a word. Just before she descended the stairs, she looked back at me and smiled. It was the first time a girl had ever smiled at me that way, and as the bus lurched away from her stop, I wanted desperately for her to turn and smile at me that way again.
But she kept walking without a glance back in my direction. The last thing I saw was her blond hair tossing lightly in her wake. I would never see her again.
IT was on a summer evening some 20 years later that I stumbled upon her memory. I was rummaging through the storage room in my basement. There I discovered a long-forgotten box splitting at the seams from the weight of my tattered yearbooks. I plucked one out of the box, blew off the dust, and turned to her face.
She was looking up at me from another lifetime, and at that moment I suddenly knew why Jamie Heckman was so reviled by the girls from the popular crowd: She was stunning. Her long, flowing blonde hair, beautiful face, and luminous gentle eyes seemed to be keeping some enticing secret that she had no intention of sharing.
"It was jealousy," I said aloud to an empty room. What was mysterious to a 13-year-old boy seemed so clear in the dim storage-room light of adulthood. I turned to another page, and there it was:
"To Robbie, a nice guy and nice-looking, too. If only you were one year older. Hmmmm.... I'm moving to California this summer. Write me sometime. Love, Your Future Friend, Jamie."
I read the words again and again. I strained to decipher a faded address she'd scribbled below her message as if she hadn't had time to finish it as the bus pulled up to her stop for the last time.
I put away the books to gather another decade's layer of dust and thought about Jamie. Where had life taken her in the years since? Had she grown up and married? Did she have a daughter of her own with those same soulful eyes?
Just before drifting off to sleep that night, I tried to remember the names of those I had so long ago sought to impress. While they had long faded from my memory, Jamie's smile was with me still.