Mitchel Montagna is a corporate communications writer for a large professional services firm. He has also worked as a radio reporter and a special education teacher. His poetry has appeared in Across the Long Bridge, Poetry Life and Times, and Peeks and Valleys. His fiction has been cited in contests by Writer's Digest and ByLine magazine. He lives in New Jersey.
I was never comfortable in the digital age, probably because I had already been around for a long time before it began. But while stuff like wireless networks and Twitter confused me, I was all over Google. For Google, all you needed to know was how to type, and that I could do.
Due to curiosity, or nostalgia, or some subterranean reason I couldn’t identify, I frequently used Google to try and locate certain people I used to know. I was no creep—I never tried to contact anyone, but I had this itch. Was it a compulsion? Maybe. But it never went further than finding an individual online—or not. Of course, I didn’t tell my wife, as she was unlikely to understand. Hell, I didn’t understand. A clue might be found in those whom I chose: they had not necessarily all been friends, but each had made a deep enough impression on me that I couldn’t let them go.
Many of these individuals were women. Some were even girls when I knew them. No mystery there—who was going to make a deeper impression on me than a pretty girl? Especially the ones I missed my chance with, which frankly was most of them. Anyway, women are difficult to track down online, what with marriages and name changes and such. But with one individual, a kid named Heather Carr, I was especially persistent. Heather had not only made an impression, she blew clear through me. I eventually found her, but I wished to hell I hadn’t.
I met her 35 years ago, when I was 20. We were counselors at a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains for mentally challenged kids, in those days called “special” or “exceptional” or “retarded,” depending on who was talking. Whatever you called them, I arrived at the camp nervous and all keyed up, never having done that kind of work before.
Along with the other staff members, I came for an orientation period one week before the campers arrived. We learned about things like Down’s syndrome, grand mal seizures, Autism, the Heimlich maneuver, etc. During this period, we were also meeting for the first time and looking to fit in socially. It was like arriving as a freshman at college, but with our senses tuned to an even higher pitch. The potent sunshine, exposed physiques, and knowledge that our time together would be relatively brief made the experience feel intense and unreal.
My hometown was a place just south called Middletown, and on the first or second day I shared that detail with a Puerto Rican counselor named Frank, and he said something like, “Yeah? Heather’s from Middletown.” And Frank pointed to a girl with long brown hair and a summer dress. I saw her for a couple of seconds, and then she slipped into another room.
I continued to stare, my interest aroused. I exclaimed, “Really!” Then I asked Frank if he knew where I could score some weed, or whether he had seen Alien—I can’t remember.
I first encountered Heather for real maybe a day later near the swimming pool. We were walking toward each other on a plot of crabgrass. I can’t remember what time of day it was, but it was sunny, and I think I can still summon up the musky fragrance of hot flora and chlorine. I do remember that Heather wore a blue bikini embroidered with white dots. She carried a towel, and her wet, tangled hair, looking soft, fell to her shoulders. I thought: “Heather. Middletown.”
My heart raced joyfully, but in those days insecurity obliged me to try to hide my feelings. As I approached the girl, I offered the briefest of nods. Still, a foolish grin may have slipped out. “How’s the water?” I said. “It must’ve been freezing.”
She looked to be 16 or 17. What that meant to me, I wasn’t sure. Heather slowed her pace, at least, and said, “It’s enough to shock the shit out of you.”
For the most part, I think, a memory endures when its impact far exceeds what one would expect from the sum of its parts. In this case, most of those parts were Heather’s, and they were plenty enough. For instance, her voice, with its drowsy, cutting tone, more resonant than her years. Silky curves that bucked against her swimsuit. Flushed, fair skin, shining with water. Eyes set apart, giving her an astute look, and lips curved slyly downward.
Alluring enough, but there was more. Heather had something else that stirred those features, made her luminous. In retrospect I couldn’t quite get that quality into focus, though I spent many happy moments trying. Sometimes I came close, like you almost grasp a revelation in a dream just before it fades.
Whatever it was, I surely recognized it that morning. I tried to respond to Heather with a clever observation about Middletown, but the force of the occasion had gummed up my mind. Heather walked on, and I don’t remember even turning to watch, which would’ve been a sight. She had already ignited a memory that would last me a lifetime, though we weren’t quite through with each other yet.
# # #
One evening shortly before the campers arrived, the staff members gave a talent show. I was dutifully sitting among the crowd—I guess there were about 100 of us, when you counted all of the counselors, administrators, custodians, and kitchen help. I remember nothing about the show until the part when the emcee came to the microphone and said: “Up next, to sing for us—Heather Carr!”
I awoke from my stupor and joined the polite applause. I was a little surprised, as she didn’t seem to be the talent show type. Heather walked up front, her hair frizzed out, her face buried in coats of makeup and lipstick. Her powder-blue dress got my attention, as I had never seen her wearing anything so modest. The garment came down to her knees, covered half of her arms, and was primly buttoned to her throat. Like something a kid might wear to church.
I was so infatuated with the girl that my respect for her was enormous. But I knew by then that not everyone shared my enthusiasm. A day or so earlier, I’d overheard another counselor, a lean black guy named Rich, say, “Heather ain’t nothing but a two-bit whore.” I had no idea what the context was; maybe she had told him to fuck off. Anyway, I didn’t say anything. What could I say? At that point, my only interaction with Heather had been our exchange by the pool. But I was convinced that she was special, and I expected her performance that evening to make me proud.
The emcee sat at a piano and struck introductory notes. Heather stood behind the microphone, posture straight, her hand tapping her side and her head nodding. Then she emitted what sounded like a cross between a screech and her last dying breath. I don’t remember what the song was, or even if I recognized it. She seemed to lose heart after a few bars, and for the rest of the number you could barely hear her.
The performance ended to indifferent applause. I watched Heather walk off stage but I don’t remember the expression on her face or whether her manner revealed anything. An embarrassment to be sure, but I had been touched by her effort. There was even something poignant about her sensible blue dress. I had discovered another side of the girl, and I wanted to hold her gently and tell her that everything was going to be all right.
# # #
The campers arrived, and that circumstance generated its own drama. There passed about 48 hours of chaos before things calmed down just a hair, and we began to feel that we almost knew what we were doing. The fast pace and the campers’ erratic behavior were especially overwhelming to those like me who were beginners. I remember one boy who had a serious case of Down’s syndrome dropping to the floor in front of me then proceeding to howl and bite the heel of his hand. I stared in alarm and confusion until Rich, who’d done this kind of work before, intervened. Rich wrenched the kid’s arm behind his back, and snarled “Look, you little bastard, if you don’t shape up I’ll throw you the fuck out.” The kid immediately relaxed, stood, and lumbered off as if nothing had happened. He may have had an IQ of 25 but he knew enough to test a greenhorn like me.
Heather’s job was to be a floating counselor assigned to a different cabin each day, usually when it needed extra help. As my team seemed to have the cabin from hell, with a number of very difficult campers, Heather worked with us several times during the next couple of weeks.
When someone you have a crush on calls your name, it can be exhilarating—especially if you’re as inexperienced as I was. The acknowledgement suggests that maybe you’re not so insignificant after all. On the third or fourth day after the campers’ arrival, we had a rest period after lunch, so we were in our cabin trying to convince the boys to lie down for a while. Heather was with us, wearing her usual blue-jean shorts that hugged her upper thighs and dug into the crack of her ass. At one point, she brushed some hair from her face (I know this because I was gaping at her) and said, “Hey Mike, can I use your bed?”
It was the first time I remember her addressing me, though she might have done so once or twice before. Of course, I’d decided to behave toward her like I was just another friendly co-worker. It seemed my only course. She was too young for me, right? She was too pretty for me, right? She was too hip for me, right? I maintained a neutral expression but exulted in the sound of my name. “Sure,” I said. “Be my guest.”
Heather lay on my cot, taking her time, adjusting her top and stretching her arms. Her legs, burnished a golden brown by the sun, were displayed as if to a ravenous bear. I like to think that her hand might have tapped a spot on the blanket, inviting me to join her. But I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. Instead, she closed her eyes, hands resting on her belly. I stepped outside onto the porch and took in the sun-drenched vista of cabins, picnic tables, basketball court, dining hall, and, past a grassy field, the swimming pool. Farther out, a hazy line of tree-covered hills turned the horizon into a shape-shifting mirage.
It was a rare quiet moment. But as I lighted a cigarette, my hand trembled like the pool water shimmering in the sunlight.
# # #
Some days later, I was on the lawn in front of our cabin, throwing a softball with a friendly kid who shared my name. He was stocky, wore glasses, and, by the standards of the place, was very high-functioning. Before throwing me the ball, Mike would mimic a baseball pitcher working from the stretch. What I loved was that as he lowered ball and glove to his waist, he cocked his head to his left, as if checking a runner on first base. Then he nodded to acknowledge my sign. I crouched in a catcher’s position, suggesting to the invisible batter that he “swing, batter, swing.”
After a while, with both of us perspiring, we walked back to the cabin. Mike went inside while I sat near Heather on the steps.
“Cute,” was her dry comment on my game with the boy.
I can’t remember everything we talked about, but we did reminisce about the big doings of the previous night, when a number of counselors snuck into a nearby park. Under a starry sky there was beer drinking, pot smoking, loud music, nude swimming in the lake—pretty much what you’d expect. It was kind of cool when a police car swung by, flashing its searchlight and we all beat it through the woods as if we were real outlaws. Well, most of us did. Not Heather.
She recalled to me that she was near the lake snuggled into a sleeping bag. And not alone. “The cop didn’t come near us, so we stayed all night,” Heather said. “I had to sneak in here at 5 a.m.”
I nodded in utter sympathy, hoping to convey that I too was familiar with this type of adventure. Why abandon a night of passion if you didn’t have to? I tried not to convey my jealousy. I’d seen Heather engaged in a number of lively flirtations with male staff and it hadn’t bothered me much. But now that she’d apparently engaged in a sexual act, I felt diminished and left out. Turned out that despite my misgivings and excessive shyness, I still hoped that she and I might connect. Or if that was unlikely, I resented anybody else horning in.
Pretty lame, I know. And I wasn’t about to morph into the guy I wished to be just then. So instead of saying, “Maybe you and I can get into that sleeping bag sometime,” I mumbled, “You have to do what you have to do. Any trouble getting in?”
“Fuck no. All they have is that gimpy guard and her dumb dog.”
Even so, Heather had to have climbed undetected over the tall chain link fence that surrounded the place. Feeling a grin emerge, I could only hope that my goofy admiration wasn’t too obvious.
Presently, another camper approached us, a tall chubby black kid of about 16. The camper had an unusual twitch: he would remove his glasses, rock side to side at his waist, and jab out his elbows. He seemed to do this every few minutes. I think it was some kind of seizure. Now the kid looked at Heather and he said, “Hey hot mamma, whass up?” Then he removed his glasses and did his thing.
When he was finished and his glasses were back on, Heather responded. “I’ll tell you what’s up,” she said. “You’re making a goddamn fool of yourself, that’s what.”
The kid’s expression didn’t change and he continued on his way. I searched Heather’s face for a hint of irony or humor but she just yawned and stared in the direction of the dining hall. I thought that maybe I had just received an education on how to handle campers, or people in general: tell it like it is. It may hurt, but they’ll thank you for it later.
I figured if I suggested to Heather that I join her in a sleeping bag or that we share any kind of personal arrangement, she’d likely respond just as she had to the kid. While we sat less than 20 feet apart, she was really on the other side of the cosmos. But at some point isn’t that how we view all people we’re attracted to, like entities we can only admire from afar? At that stage in life, I had no conception of how to bridge the gap. Heather was one of the first to cause me to agonize over that troubling mystery. And she gave it the greatest sense of urgency of anyone I ever knew.
# # #
One morning, after the campers had been there for about three weeks, I was walking across the basketball court when Heather approached me. She wore her blue dress, the same one she had on for the talent show. In the glare of the sun, her face revealed a layer of makeup that had been carefully and smoothly applied. She had purple eye shadow and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail. She looked beautiful, but in a more delicate way than I was used to.
“Mike,” Heather said, holding up a small book and a pencil. “Can you write your name and address for me?”
“Sure. What’s going on?”
Her face had a tense, wide-eyed earnestness. “I’m out of here.”
“Out? What for?”
“They called me to the office after dinner yesterday. Rick and Irene were there, and they asked me to leave. Well, they told me to.”
Some kids bounced a ball nearby. I noticed someone pushing a wheelchair some yards behind Heather. I took the book and pencil, and I stared at a blank page. “Why?”
Heather shrugged. “I did some dumb things.”
“We all did dumb things.” I said.
“I guess,” she said, her solemnity a cover for embarrassment, her orderly appearance an attempt at dignity. I came close to showing my distress, but I managed to carefully write my name and address. There was space for a phone number, so I wrote that too.
“I’m real sorry,” I said. She had no goddamn idea how sorry.
I handed back the book and pencil, which set up yet another memory I wish I had—that she had leaned closer and kissed me, if only to acknowledge that our lives had crossed paths and there was something of value in that. Decades later, my cheek still feels the warm imprint of her lips. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen. I am sure that a basketball rolled near my feet and, like any red-blooded man would do, I picked it up.
“Thanks, Mike,” she said, and then she did give me a gift, an uncertain smile that seemed to catch all of the sunlight and gather it in the soft mist of her eyes. Briefly, her cheeks revealed a splatter of adolescent freckles, and she looked fragile, as if her pale skin might crack. The impression of intimacy hit me hard: I’d never recognized such a thing before. It was unsettling, but I also felt like I finally came through an obstacle that had always held me back. Did the asshole in the sleeping bag ever see that smile?
I turned and flung the basketball in a high arc toward the rim. It had a long way to go—it was nearly a half-court shot. The ball may have banked off the backboard and swished through. I’m about 50-50 on that memory and whether Heather witnessed the effort. But she may already have walked off, no doubt with her chin up, driven by fumes of pride.
# # #
Well, the summer proceeded. The work with the campers remained absorbing, and the staff was full of interesting people. The stimulation and excitement helped me to come out of my shell, and while I missed Heather, I was much too busy to dwell on her absence for very long.
The following fall, while I was away at college, I received a letter from my mother that mentioned someone named Heather had called, and that my mother had provided her my school address. I welcomed the news, and I wondered whether I’d hear from her. I never did, and I made no attempt to contact Heather myself for reasons that weren’t all necessarily wrong.
But my memories of Heather stayed vivid, and I rarely went long without thinking of her. In those thoughts, across the decades, I remained 20 and she stayed a teen, an intoxicating mixture. Sometimes in real life I saw sleek young women who reminded me of her. Other times, Heather would appear unprompted in my head as if filling a lonely vacuum.
So later on, when I began Googling people from my past, Heather was near the top of the list.
My searches at first came up empty. Facebook and LinkedIn each had multiple versions of “Heather Carr,” but neither had the right one. I came upon other web pages that also led nowhere. But I kept trying, even after I had decided that the pursuit was futile. I suppose that going through the motions provided some satisfaction, as if I were maintaining a real, if tenuous, connection with the girl I remembered. And then one day, I discovered a high school yearbook site for Minisink Valley, a district near Middletown. There, among the class of 1982, was a name: “Heather Carr (Roberts).”
If she was 16 in 1979, that would have been her graduating year, I figured. So she had married a lucky bastard named Roberts, I told myself. There was no picture or information, just the name. I went back to Google, typed in “Heather Carr Roberts,” and watched the listings pop up.
The very top item was a website called “Open Pasts.” The descriptor was: Heather Ann Murray's record and arrest details in Pinellas, FL. Aliases, CARR, HEATHER ANN ROBERTS, HEATHER ANN. I assumed that it was another dead end, but I went ahead and clicked on it.
The screen filled with a mug shot labeled “Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.” A blowsy middle-aged woman in an orange prison jump suit gazed out, looking both tired and irritated. It was the slight downward curve of her mouth and her wide-set eyes that drew me in. Even the dull brown hair, twisted into a tight braid, had a touch of familiarity. The longer I stared, the more I feared that this was the woman I had been looking for. Heather, the kid who had staggered me in her bikini, came alive inside the puffy face, emerging like stars through a dark cloud. Essentially, I was staring at the girl. I felt the summertime fragrance of flora and chlorine, and hairs lifted from the back of my neck.
According to the website, the charge against Heather was “Violation of Park Hours.” I noted that she had also had recent arrests for “Open Container of Alcohol” and “Retail Theft.” I stared again at the face and acknowledged the haggard, skid row type that one crosses the street to avoid. Shock and dismay racked through me as I scanned the particulars. Date of Birth: 1963. Place of Birth: New York. It all fit. As did the next designation. Eyes: HAZ.
The precise color of Heather’s eyes had been a feature that I hadn’t quite retained. Now I recalled how vividly those hazel eyes had made her sparkle, bringing a jaw-dropping dimension to her beauty. Heather’s face came alive for me with more clarity than it had in 35 years. Those eyes were almost golden, like the sun pouring gloriously into water, and they had given the girl a bewitching, mysterious quality.
I left my computer and walked around in a daze. Was this the end of us? I guess time would tell. In truth, none of that had anything to do with the real girl or woman. It was all about me and the regretful yearnings that stirred my view of the past.
But I had to wonder about the officer who had recorded Heather’s data. When he saw those hazel eyes, did he consider that they might once have adorned a beauty, a force, a girl who was loved?
Probably not. No doubt the cop has dealt with hundreds of drunks, husks with dead eyes. Too jaded to notice signs of the wonder that had lived inside.