Memories on a Painted Rock_S.E. Shepherd-Short story.
It was a perfect Sunday afternoon, an unusually warm weekend at the end of September. Along the rocky lakeshore, college students, alumni, and townsfolk gathered to pay their last respects to summer. Ted Nelson came for a different reason; he came to relive the past.
Even if he weren’t well over six feet tall, Ted still would have stuck out. A solitary figure amongst couples and groups of studying undergrads, Ted walked alone, his thinning red hair being tossed by the wind. Ted was in his mid-thirties, a graduate for over a decade. Yet, part of him still belonged to the campus, and that part of him was hidden among the rocks. Like a slightly mad pirate looking for his buried treasure, Ted fretted as he passed along hundreds of messages left on the boulders. “We want more! Class of ‘94”, “Adam + Lisa, long after these rocks are gone...”, “Carpe Diem!”, “Thanks, Terri. I owe U one!”
Through endless slogans, declarations of love, and various artwork, Ted came to the rock he visited countless times before:
“The Significant Seven - We will change the world!”
Surrounding these words were seven names, including his own, and the date, Nov. 14th. The color had faded and the paint had flecked from wear and erosion, but Ted could still read it. He let out a soft sigh and began to reflect, as he always did whenever he came here. Almost eighteen years ago, they had painted the rock. Seventeen years ago, they made the vow to return every year. Twelve years ago was the last time he saw Sarah. And now no one in the group came but Ted.
He remembered the day they painted the rock. It was the first quarter of freshman year. Ted was tall, lanky and just a little bit reserved. He knew few of his classmates, and felt close to none. Sometimes lonely, Ted considered leaving the college. But then, one night Brian stuck his head in Ted’s dorm room doorway.
“Hey dude! We’re going to the city! Wanna go?”
Brian’s head was a mop of brown hair. He had the laid back mannerisms of a surfer, but he was from Minnesota. He and Ted had several classes together, and Brian had a way of becoming instant friends with anybody.
“Where are going?” Ted asked.
“I dunno. Downtown maybe. We got some girls going!”
Ted thought for a moment.
“Are they cute?”
“Hope so,” Brian grinned.
They got lost several times. There was an argument over which direction West was. And one of the places they wanted to go closed before they got there. But that night, they bonded. And during the next few weeks Ted, Brian, Neil, and Dan, and Sarah, Julie, and Laura were inseparable. Sometime before Thanksgiving, Brian insisted they go paint a rock.
“Everybody does it! Every class leaves their mark! C’mon, we’ll be immortal!”
And one by one, as they all thought about it, everyone decided it was a good idea.
“This way we’ll always have something to remember us by!” Sarah said.
Neil even made a speech when they had finished.
“We seven have gathered here today to paint this rock, to commemorate our friendship; that many years from today people will see this rock, see what we have written, and wonder who the hell we were! But we will remember, no matter how many years pass, because we will see this rock and remember the great fun and friendship we forged this day!”
Dan was the first to leave the group. Shortly after painting the rock, he decided he had enough of Northern College. Always a little too arrogant and cynical, Dan never really fit in the group. He didn’t tell anybody he was leaving; one day his parents showed up to help him move out of the dorm. After that, no one ever heard from him.
Around the same time, Ted fell in love with Sarah. With her soft brown hair and warm brown eyes, Sarah was one of the most beautiful girls Ted ever met. She laughed at his jokes, faked displeasure at his gentle ribbings, and often ribbed him back. Ted felt very sure that this would be the girl he married.
But at the end of the year, a tearful Sarah told her five closest friends that she was not returning to Northern next year. Her parents decided Northern was too expensive for them, and Sarah conceded she had no idea what her Major was going to be. Rather than waste more money, Sarah was to return home until she figured things out.
It was the worst thing that could happen, as far as Ted was concerned. While drawing close to Sarah throughout the year, Ted was never brave enough to ask her out. They had spent evenings together studying, talking, laughing, but they had never really gone on a date; always flirting with the idea.
And now it was too late; Sarah was leaving.
“Write to me,” she told everyone, “I want to keep in touch with all of you. Maybe I can come back during Homecoming or something.”
Despite the dwindling mass, the rock continued to be their hangout. They would come down during finals, class breaks, anytime they wanted to sit to reflect and reminisce. Sometimes they would sneak beer down and drink. Sarah did come back and visit from time to time, but Ted knew they would never be more than friends. He continued to write her and she usually wrote back. Sometimes when she visited, she would reveal she had a new boyfriend; sometimes she had just broken up. Then Sarah got married.
After graduation, Brian, Neil, Ted and Julie still hung out, still visited the rock, mainly at Ted’s insistence. Neil and Julie had started dating in college, and got married shortly after. Brian moved away and moved back. Laura moved away and never came back. Ted remained near campus and drifted throughout the years.
* * *
Several years later, Brian, Neil, and Ted climbed Northern College’s rocky coast on a quest.
“Here it is!” beamed Ted.
The three friends gathered around the sacred stone, the paint showing its age.
“Man, I can’t believe how young we were,” Brian reflected. His hair was now neat and business-like. Brian was working in a bank out West and had recently got married. He had stopped in town during a business trip.
“How’s married life treating you?” Neil asked
“Good. Me and Kelly couldn’t be happier. How are you and Jules?”
“Okay, I guess. We’ve kind of hit a rough spot. That’s why she didn’t come with us. Nothing serious, just something all couples go through after a few years of marriage, I guess. Besides, she said it wasn’t the same with just the guys.”
An awkward pause developed before Brian spoke again.
“You guys ever hear from Laura?”
“I heard she’s an Occupational Therapist in Ohio.”
“Anyone ever hear from Dan?”
They all laughed and shook their heads.
“What about Sarah?”
Ted cleared his throat uneasily. “Sarah got divorced about a year and a half after she married. I wrote to her a few times, but she never wrote back. I hear she’s working a receptionist in Detroit.”
Another pause. Then the memories of college and the laughter started to flow. It was good to have Brian back, even for a few days. The gang was still the gang; the bonds were still there.
* * *
At first he couldn’t believe it was her. Three years after Ted had last heard from her, Sarah looked at him from across the bar and smiled. She looked older than he remembered her. They talked about the old times, laughed and caught up. Sarah was just blowing through town, and it was a random chance that they ran into each other. She promised to keep in touch. Then they took a trip down to the rock. Sarah looked down at the names and sighed.
“What happened, Ted? We used to be so close, such good friends…”
“You’re the one that stopped writing,”
“I know, and I’m sorry. My life has taken such crazy turns. Sometimes I wish I had never left Northern. Who knows how my life would have turned out.”
“I had such a crush on you,” Ted confessed.
“I know. I’m sorry, Ted.”
And she kissed him.
* * *
An agitated Neil came looking for his friend among the rocks. When Neil found him, Ted had paint on his brow and a smile on his face.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I repainted it.”
“I repainted it. You know, the last few times we were out here, it was flaking pretty bad. So I repainted it.”
“ARE YOU INSANE?? Why on earth would you repaint it?”
Ted looked hurt, but Neil ranted on.
“You don’t repaint the rocks! You paint them once, then let them go!”
“I just wanted it to look nice for next time we get together.”
“WE? What we? Who’s ‘we?’ The only one that comes out here anymore is you and the occasional time you drag me out here!” Neil fumed.
“They’re all gone, Ted! Dan’s gone, Brian’s gone, Sarah’s gone, and Laura’s gone. The only ones left are you, me, and Julie! And Julie and I aren’t doing so hot!”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re separating. If you ever paid attention to the rest of the world, you’d realize what’s going on.”
Neil paused for a moment.
“I know why you’re doing this. You’re trying to hold on to Sarah!
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are. It’s so obvious. You’re trying to keep this…thing…going, but there is no thing! We were freshmen in college when we did that! We’re thirty-four years old now! God, Ted, will you stop living in the past?”
“I am NOT living in the past!”
“All these years, all these years, and you still carry a torch for her! No wonder you haven’t gotten married yet. You hardly even date!”
A slow fury rose inside Ted.
“I am trying to preserve a part of my life that was very important to me!” Ted spat back, “It was important to you, it was important to Julie, it was important to all of us!”
“Was, Ted! Was. The group is gone. Hell, even Julie and I aren’t together any more. Things change, Ted! We’ve all moved on with our lives; everybody except you! It’s time to graduate and leave college behind!”
The two of them stared at each other, then Neil walked away.
Neil later tried to apologize to Ted, saying the separation was becoming hard on him. But their friendship was never the same. Neil never came out to the rock with Ted anymore. Things got worse between Neil and Julie, and they eventually got divorced. Ted lost touch with Brian, saw Neil once in a while, and ran into Julie a couple of times. He never heard from Sarah again.
* * *
And now he was at their rock among the rocks. Ted had been coming to the spot alone for several years, to reflect on the past and think about the future. He looked around at the students that reminded him of his friends so long ago.
Then he looked at the rock again; the repaint was starting to wear, too. He thought about just letting it go. The twenty-year reunion of his class was coming up soon, though. Maybe, he thought, he should go to the hardware store and get a can of paint.