I remember she told me over a glass of whiskey water and a self rolled cigarette that when she grew up she wanted to be a Virginia Slims model. At the time she was wearing her familiar wardrobe of a black T-shirt with a pocket above her left breast, jeans, and high-top black canvass Converse sneakers. Years later I had to admit that I probably couldn't have picked her out of a crowd but I probably would have picked her out of a police lineup. After telling me what she wanted to be I told her my own secret. I wanted to be singer/songwriter Smoky Robinson because after all he had been through he seemed like he was happy. We were sitting in a tiny cube built for children when I told Stephanie Jane that I was haunted. And with great care she told me what we needed to do was make new memories to replace the old.
Growing up I've had two recurring dreams. One involves me wearing a hard earned gray felt hat and getting innocently shot in the head, accidentally stumbling into the line of gunfire and ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though it always scares me (and in many ways scars me) I somehow manage to comfort myself by thinking the dream is a byproduct of watching too much TV. In the other dream I'm lying on a foreign beach where everyone else talks with an Australian accent while I am playing with the impossibly white and warm and comforting hourglass tumbling sand between my toes. Out of nowhere a woman with a limp emerges from the shadows. Without a word she slips her hand into mine, fingers intertwining as we walk without a word together along the edge of the ocean.
I met Stephanie Jane after a long hard fall. My inner voice was shot and suddenly for the first time in my life disconnected and distant. I had been called back to a job I had quit to try and write something, anything, and we were scheduled to work a shift together. The first thing I noticed about her was that she had a distinct hobble. She told me she had a skiing accident the past winter leaving two screws in her knee and a scar on her leg that she wasn't afraid to show me, a complete stranger. A month later she invited me to the airport to see her off to Australia and I couldn't decide whether I could take the step forward and somehow go. At the last minute I drove like crazy to wish her well but she was already gone.
During her last hours all the way around the world on a beach, Stephanie Jane searched for the perfect rock to bring back to me. That perfectly palm sized, pink and red heart shaped rock is still perhaps my fondest possession in this world. Through the years whenever I feel I've lost my way I hold on to that rock for a moment and it reminds me of how far I've come, how many steps I've since been able to take.
When she got back from all the way around the world, from that place that appeared in a once upon a time dream of mine, Stephanie Jane drew a cross country map of a trip we were going to take together. She asked me if I was serious about leaving it all behind, if I was willing to leave all I had, all that was bouncing around painfully inside, behind. We were walking around the road by her parents house in Inver Grove Heights underneath the moonlit sky and I was wearing a light blue sweatshirt she loaned to me to keep me warm in the new spring air. We ultimately took the trip, following exactly the path she had mapped. When we got back I ended up fulfilling my lifelong dream of writing a novel while losing her friendship. I happened to run into her the night I finished writing the novel and was bringing it to Kinkos to make a copy. We looked at each other in the twilight and both fell a long long way. I landed far beyond a self-inflicted numbness. She told me her knees shook all the way home. We ended that phone call with what I thought were her last words to me, "I still feel the same as always."
I never said out loud to her I loved her but I assumed my writing unfortunately said what I couldn't say to her. She was the kindest, most nurturing soul I've ever encountered.
In the days after the terrorist attack of 9/11 I somehow stumbled across Stephanie Jane's name and phone number in a database. A dozen years and one day short of five months to the date we returned from our trip I called her. "Oh my God," she said upon hearing who was calling. I said I still remembered and still cared and was so sorry for how in the end I fractured and sent chards of glass undeservedly in her direction. I foo fooey told Stephanie Jane that since the end during every Sandra Bullock movie I've since seen how I was somehow reminded of her. Something about their eyebrows, or their mouths, or their eyes, or the soothing and perceptive senses of humor that won't let go. A bit of anger crept into the conversation when I told her I was sorry for how it ended. The now married Duluth seamstress sounded the same as she had all those years ago. I asked her if anyone had ever told her that she reminded them of Sandra Bullock. "Only about fifty times a day," she said. "Just yesterday the guy at the liquor store told me that and then he carded me." We shared a laugh one last time.