I looked up from my cappuccino into sparkling green eyes.
The woman they belonged to seemed familiar. She sashayed towards me, dressed in layers that made me think of spring sunshine and daisies. Her look said she knew me, yet I couldn’t place her. Middle-aged like me, she wore her years with grace. Her walk was fluid and confident. When her pink-painted lips curved to a grin, I recognised her at last.
Harlee! That lopsided smile stripped away years to the last time i saw her, and I was once more beside her on the backseat of our school bus.
“Meet me back here at midnight,” Harlee said as she stood up to exit.
“Unless you’re chicken.” She smiled her lopsided grin and walked off down the aisle with an exaggerated sway in her hips.
At five before midnight, I rose quietly and snuck out through the dorm room, doing my best not to step on any of my fellow school-campers. They littered the floor in sleeping bags and blankets, snores rising from more than one open mouth. Now I stood back by the bus, rubbing my hands and watching small clouds escape my mouth in the fresh night air. After ten minutes of waiting I realised the truth—I’d been set up. I’d suspected it when Harlee had spoken on the bus, but had to try anyway. What else do you do when the prettiest girl in school dares you to sneak out with her? I walked a circuit of the bus, peering into bushes and expecting to hear laughter and catcalls at any minute. I knew the usual crowd would be gathered to make fun of me once more.
“Miles the stud! How did your midnight hookup with Harlee go, Romeo?” Why did I always put myself in the same situations?
Instead of the imagined teasing, I heard a soft, “Boo!” as I rounded the front of the bus. I turned quickly and, rather than the expected gang of leering jocks, I saw Harlee. She stood by the bus, wrapped in a blanket and moonlight.
“Harlee!” I said
“Ssh, not so loud. Miss Smythe will kill us if she finds us out of bed.”
“Sorry. Why are we out of bed, anyway?”
“You’ll see,” she said and offered me her trademark lopsided grin.
Harlee bent down and reached under the step of the bus. I caught a glimpse beneath her blanket as she bent and saw a hint of black lace as the long t-shirt she was wearing crept up. She must have flicked a switch or something and the bus door hissed open. Harlee skipped up into darkness. With a quick glance around, I followed.
I found her on the back seat. As I approached, she opened her blanket and beckoned me in. I paused, still half-expecting laughter and the joke to be revealed. Although she’d never picked on me like most of the other kids in our year, Harlee and I had never spoken more than a few words to each other since she’d arrived at school at the start of the year.
“Come on, Miles, don’t be shy.”
I sat down next to her, dumbfounded. She wrapped us both in her blanket.
“Wha-“ I began, and stopped as Harlee pressed her lips against mine.
After what seemed an hour, she moved back slightly and gave a small laugh. “Have you kissed a girl before?”
“No. Does it show?”
“A little.” Another laugh. “Go slower, softer. Like this.”
The windows near us fogged over, adding to the night’s otherworldly feeling. Rain pelted the bus as a storm broke outside. I imagined the back of the school bus was a cave, warm and far away from the cold world outside. In the darkness I discovered I could kiss for two hours straight — surely some kind of record. My hands explored Harlee’s hair and her face. I found a place where neck became shoulder that caused her to shiver each time I brushed it. Her breath quickened to gasps as my hand stroked her thigh, yet she deftly parried when I wandered too high. But she followed up with a smile and a laugh. I hated the dawn when it came.
“We have to go now,” she said.
“Five more minutes?”
“No, they’ll be up soon.”
I knew she was right but I didn’t care. Let them find us here, wrapped together. Let the whole world see. But Harlee stood up and the spell was broken.
“Come on,” she said.
“Harlee. I. I lo—“
“Ssh.” She reached out and took my hand, pulling me up.
We stepped off the bus and Harlee closed the door. She turned and placed her hands on each side of my face. The most beautiful girl I knew stared into my eyes. “You’re special, Miles. Never doubt it. Never forget it.” Harlee brushed my lips with hers, then turned and ran off into the dawn.
That was the last time we spoke. No matter how I tried to get time alone with Harlee on the last day of camp, she was always surrounded and wouldn’t meet my eyes. Camp ended and holidays began. When I returned to school, Harlee was gone. They were a military family and never settled anywhere long.
And now here she was, walking towards me as I sat in the mall with my wife beside me. I opened my mouth to say something, but Harlee lifted her finger to her lips and mimed, “Ssh.” She continued past and I half turned to watch.
“Perv,” said my wife, following my gaze.
“I know her.”
“Sure you do.” A laugh. “Come on, we need to pick the kids up from school.”
As I picked up my wallet and phone from the table, I glanced back the way Harlee had walked. Once again, she was gone. I turned back to my wife and took her hand.