The windows of the student union looked out through the overhanging branches of stately elms. Through a gap in the trees, Lake Mendota appeared, sparkling in the sunshine. The breeze had kicked up some whitecaps on the blue-green water and a sprinkling of sailboats coasted with the wind.
At first, I thought it was just my imagination, but a familiar tune floated above the hubbub of the crowd. This song, the poetry of chance and loss, sung to the chords of an acoustic guitar, had been one of our favorites in the dorm a few years back. Catching the lyrics of the last verse, I smiled and said to myself, “Yep, back in Madison.”
The dark wood paneling of the room absorbed the light coming in, so faces were vague until my eyes adjusted. When I scanned the room again, I noticed her sitting alone, apparently engrossed in a book. She was wearing jeans split to create bell-bottoms and a black blouse, open with a v-neck, a choice I had always appreciated, as it set off her violet-blue eyes. She wore her dark brown hair longer than I remembered, not loose but tucked beneath a silk lavender scarf. On the wooden table, a coffee cup sat off to one side, next to an open notebook. A leather purse, decorated with jade jewelry, apparently of some American Indian design, hung from her chair.
A long minute’s hesitation, then I found myself walking in the direction of her table, turning over in my mind whether to say hello—pretending to myself that I had a choice. After closing the book, she put down her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She untied the scarf and then ran her fingers through her hair. Slipping the scarf inside the purse, she started to get up.
I blurted out, “Hi, Natalie.” The beer on my tray chose that moment to slide and I had to manage a neat balancing act to avoid dousing a girl at the next table.
Natalie Mariposa looked in my direction. After a moment, she smiled as if she had been expecting me. “Well?” She gestured to the empty spot next to her and eased back into her chair.
Natalie had made up my mind for me, as it seemed she always had. As at our first meeting, she still reminded me of a young Elizabeth Taylor. Since nothing profound or even the least bit cool came to mind, I said, “This is quite a coincidence.”
“Howdy, stranger. I saved a seat for you.” Again the smile. “For three years.”