Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Loser Sees Diana

It had been 40 years. They were childhood playmates, next door neighbors in the suburbs. She is less than a year younger than the Complete and Total Loser, he thinks.
She was the youngest of three, as was the Loser. Italian. When the Loser visited their house different aromas filled the air. The house had more wood and smelled of ironing. A grandmother who spoke no English eyed him warily.
Diana's father was a carpenter, bald, muscular. He wore undershirts and work pants when working around the house or outside while the Loser's dad wore short-sleeved shirts and Bermuda shorts. Her mother hung clothes out to dry. Other mothers had dryers and used them exclusively.
These superficial differences in style may have reflected slight class differences, but the Loser's family and Diana's got along well. Never once did one neighbor complain about the other.
Diana and the Loser learned to ride tricycles together. When the older children tired of their skateboards—then lethal, small toys with steel wheels that slipped out from underneath their riders on turns—they would lie on them and ride down the slope of their street, dragging the toes of their PF Flyers to keep their speed low.
The two were friends. "Wanna play a game?" one would ask. "Yeah!" the other would say. "Let's ride tricycles!" The youngest of the neighborhood kids, they couldn't run fast enough or throw far enough or do anything well enough to play kickball, kick the can, tag or have snowball fights with everyone else.
They played in what they called the woods—a never tamed half acre of the Loser's back yard. At the time kids could still find turtles and garden snakes in back yards. Once, after catching a turtle, the Loser, then seven, teased Diana by holding his hand in front of it, blocking her view. The turtle extended his head and bit the Loser's palm. He shrieked, letting go, yet the turtle held on firmly until shaken off. An early lesson about teasing others.
They never played doctor. Do all kids? The Loser had no interest in girls' bodies at the time. Having any would have had little practical use. He does remember one day in the woods, when Diana had to urinate. She pulled down her pants and squatted. This was a new and different thing to the Loser.
As happens with children the Loser made friends with Stevie, whose house was within walking distance. He saw less of Diana.
A summer day, the Loser straddles his bicycle, which he has recently learned to ride. He is eight now. He's on the street. Diana is standing near him. "Wanna play a game?" he says. "Yeah!" she answers. "Run away from Diana!"
A blank, wounded look. She reaches out and pushes him. He falls, tangled with the two wheeler. He's unhurt but now, when he thinks of this, he wishes he had been and had visible scars to match those etched by guilt.
When he was ten the family moved to a larger house. They didn't need one and the one they moved to was only a mile and a half away. That was too far, however, to walk or even bike, and they never saw each other again until today.
She wrote the Loser a letter when he was home from college for summer asking to get together to "see how we turned out." The Loser, bad with women, bad with the past, considered it until too much time had gone by to respond.
Now she manages a convenience store. A large one, constantly busy. She has a teenage son. They live in a nice house half a mile from that of her birth. She is doing better than the Loser. He saw her today behind the cash wrap, putting cigarettes up while the cashier rang him up. He'd known of her employment there for years. She wore a name tag. He liked that. The boss, but egalitarian enough to do manual labor and follow rules she enforces on others.
The Loser also works in retail, but at a lower level than Diana. Lower level, but a classier place, which is defined in this case as selling things no one needs.
Diana looks good for 50. Shortish hair, a good weight. The same Mediterranean complexion she had as a child. Black eyes. She edges nearer the cashier, a high school girl, who's asking the Loser if he'd like to contribute a dollar to charity with his purchase of half-and-half.
"Not today, thanks," he tells her, looking at Diana.
Their eyes meet. Time has not been kind to the Loser and there's no spark of recognition from her. He doubts that even if she'd seen his deformity, which is below the waist, she'd place him. It has been too long.

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