Suddenly there she was, Sarah, the girl with the big brown eyes that I first loved when we were children. I’d forgotten her. It was so many years ago and I was so far from home that I’d forgotten almost everyone, but there she was standing in the doorway of the restaurant where I’d gone for breakfast.
I looked up from my coffee and my eyes met hers where she stood in the light of the doorway, but only for a fraction of a second. In that moment I felt a hot arrow, invisible and quick as lighting, pass right through my chest. It almost jolted me out of seat. I felt my heart thumping.
She was smiling and waving at a woman sitting by the table next to me. It had been almost thirty years since I last saw her. She is an adult, but her voice is much like the child I once knew. A torrent of memories came rushing over me, I felt beads of sweat on my forehead, a familiar knot in my stomach.
I wondered whether she recognized me, but I knew in that very brief moment that our eyes met, she must have seen that it is me. She sat by her friend at the table to the right of me. I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to eat with my heart in my throat. ‘But you’re grown up now’, a voice inside me said, ‘relax’.
I turned to steal a glance at her. As a boy I dreamed at night of her and the dark silky hair that falls in curls down her shoulders.
With one glance I took a snapshot of her, that I held in my mind, of her profile, the shape of her nose, the colour and texture of her hair, her eyes, the imperceptible weight of her lashes, and turned back to sip my coffee while I studied the picture.
Her hair was lighter, slightly reddish like someone who used henna, perhaps to wash out the streaks of grey. Her eyes were, like mine, a little sad, older, like someone who had seen much that cannot be mentioned in a restaurant.
She was laughing with her friend though, while I pretended to look down at something interesting on my phone, trying not to be noticed. But I was trembling inside. My heart was beating desperately against the side of my rib-cage, like it wanted me to get up and say something.
I felt her eyes on me for a moment. Did she recognize me yet? The question hung in the space between us. A rush of unresolved childhood emotions surged up.
Time seemed to slow down, millions of tiny little events were happening inside me every second, and I could hear my own heart beating loudly, like a drum in the night, so that I thought people around me might hear it and notice that I had turned into a distraught twelve-year-old boy.
I feared I might have a clumsy schoolboy episode and fall off my chair at any moment. Suddenly my mask of adult male confidence and the shield of studied indifference dropped, and here I was with sweaty hands like a schoolboy alone in a room for the first time with the girl he loves.
Perhaps it was the strong coffee, or the rapid flood of childhood memories making me feel dizzy and disorientated, but I knew that I was at a sudden crossroad on the great timeline where different destinies and alternate realities intersect. And everything I do here — even a look, or a word — is consequential.
I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but going on past record if I weren’t very careful, it could be life-altering. I couldn’t rationalise my feelings in that moment, but intuitively I felt that if I turned and reached across the space between us I would cross and entangle the sacred timelines that had kept us apart for so long; that if I looked too deeply into her eyes, we would alter the course of events, and insodoing affect the future.
I steadied my resolve to stay on course for my goal of perfect solitude. I waved to the waitress, careful not to attract attention to myself, and leaned over suavely to ask if there was a table outside, as if I were a very famous patron. Throughout this I didn’t look at Sarah and her enchanting eyes.
I didn’t turn right, I didn’t look back. I calmly stood up and walked towards the light. I had chosen my path a long time ago. There was no way to go back, to undo the things we did and said. So I slung my bag over my shoulder and picked up the cup of coffee as I strolled into the sunshine, keenly aware that Sarah’s eyes were following me with questions as I left the room.
I saw another old schoolmate in the restaurant, whose beard is now silver, with his wife and baby as I walked out, but I didn’t greet them. I pretended not to know anyone, that I am the perpetual tourist who knows nobody and nothing but the password of my VISA card.
I had a hearty breakfast outside in the sunshine, and though it was by a table on the pavement with people walking by, it was not too uncomfortable where I sat beneath the shade of an old palm tree, munching on bacon, eggs and sausage, while enjoying the caressing eyes of the women walking by.
But my thoughts were with Sarah inside. I feared that if I looked into her eyes even for a few seconds it would open up a path to a secret place in the forest of my soul that had not been walked by anyone for many years.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone, acknowledge or smile at anyone. So, like an aging writer I ate in self-absorbed silence, sipped the last of the coffee, and savoured the moment in the sun, turning over in my mind the delicious thought that Sarah is just a few steps away from me.
I went back inside to pay, but I was sure to linger a second longer than necessary outside the door so the sun would drench me in light before I stepped into the room. I didn’t look at her directly as I entered, but I was there only for her.
The lady behind the counter spoke to me and I replied politely, but I was smiling and talking only for the benefit of Sarah, whose eyes I now desperately longed to look into.
By the time the VISA card in the teller machine spat out a printed sheet that said it approved the payment of my meal, my eyes had adjusted sufficiently to the low light in the room, so that I could clearly see the people seated. I could no longer resist the cravings of my own eyes and turned to look at her.
She looked pale where she sat, her face like painted porcelain, with her eyes still so large and beautiful like the child I once knew, and her mouth a little open, as if she’d seen something… something that she was trying to remember.
I looked at her for only that one single moment, I looked at her with the same fake smile that I had practiced on the waitress a moment before when I gave her a tip, but Sarah didn’t look directly at me.
She turned her gaze slightly as I looked towards her and stared just over my shoulder to the light that streamed in by the door. She looked as if she were deep in thought, like someone having a vivid daydream.
I pretended to be nonchalant and walked away without turning back. Then it all became a blur, I found myself walking in the wrong direction, my heart was still throbbing hard and making me dizzy. Suddenly tears fell.
I tried to take a side-street to avoid people, then I heard that sorrowful whimpering and sobbing cry like someone who’d lost a loved one, but it was coming from inside me.
I had to stop and listen, there was a twelve-year-old boy trying to tell me something, a boy whose pain I’d forgotten about, whose memories I had locked away in a place not to be seen. A boy who still remembered his first love, whom I’d forgotten.
Seeing Sarah and hearing her voice opened up a window to the past that reminded me of how we once were. Like a man who only at the end of his life remembers who he is and what he was supposed to do, I couldn’t stop myself from crying suddenly; for my forgotten childhood, for the brown-eyed girl with olive skin, who once inspired me to write poems in the hope of evincing a sign of love, of friendship.
It all played out in my mind as I walked through the crowd. It was not a happy love story. The brown boy with the broken shoes from a poor and broken family. The rich girl from the nice part of town, who is chauffeured to school. I never really had a chance.
But childhood love can be as intense and life-defining as any.
As I walked away from her, I recalled that decisive day at school. We were on the playground during the lunch break. A group of girls were standing around near the stairs by the hall, talking animatedly and laughing, then one came over.
She had some papers in her hand. She asked if I wrote these poems to Sarah. I said yes, hopeful that something good might come from my literary efforts after all. But upon my saying so, she promptly ripped the sheets in half and stomped them into the ground, before saying very loudly that Sarah is not interested in someone like me.
Oh, my spirit shriveled and a tender part of me died that day. Could I have been so wrong? All the things her innocent brown eyes, which sometimes turned shades of green, said to me while we sat beside each other in class.
I was mesmerized since I first looked at her, but I was a poor boy from a poor part of town and brown and unlovable.
I looked on with my heart in my throat as the big girl who stomped on my letters walked back to the group. They signaled their collective disgust at my poems and laughed off the very idea. Sarah didn’t ever show anything but approval for what happened, yet her eyes told me a different story.
I was but a heady young poet, rejected and unloved by his muse. But then I was a scrawny little boy with a funny haircut who was always lugging around a bunch of books, while my peers were well-fed, strong sporty fellows from rich colonial families. I didn’t have a chance...
But today, as I stood there paying the breakfast bill, with decades of defiance behind me, with a well-developed disregard and disdain for the opinions of the bigots about me, with Sarah’s eyes on me, I felt my own power.
I could sense the lustful eyes of the women seated, studying my brown skin, tracing the muscles on my neck, arms and legs, beckoning me with their long eyelashes and the smiles curling on the corners of their lips, which they hide from the prying eyes of their dutiful husbands. But I turned away with indifference.
Among them there was Sarah with a key to my childhood memories of unrequited love and loss, with her mouth slightly open, a strange puzzle on her face. It was as if we’d stepped into an anomaly of time where the great spaces between us were suddenly compressed so as to bring us close together in time, though we are worlds apart.
In this alternate reality, instead of pimply teens at the mercy of the cruel and uncaring world, we were suddenly powerful beings who can affect the course of events with a mere word, with a glance, or the slightest gesture.
Sarah must have known better than to disturb the sacred timeline that keeps our worlds apart. She didn’t look into my eyes again after that first glance, but seemed to look right through me where I stood by the door, and into the light.