I had a very "Stand By Me" moment last week. If you are not familiar with the movie, it came out in 1986, directed by Rob Reiner and based on a Stephen King novella. The film's narrator is a writer around the age of forty, taken back jarringly to a summer when he was twelve by reading a newspaper account of the death of an old friend from that time. In my case, I'm at least ten years older than the protagonist of Stand By Me and the age I was yanked back to was sixteen.
I received in the mail last week the Fall 2012 copy of The Root, the alumni magazine of my high school, University of Toronto Schools (UTS). I was absentmindedly leafing through it when I came to the "In Memoriam" section near the back of the periodical. It was there that I learned of the passing (by way of cancer) of a woman who had been in the level behind mine, someone I hadn't seen nor spoken to in well over thirty years but who holds a very special place in my heart nonetheless. She was my date to the UTS Formal in my graduating year and, in point of fact, my first date period. If you saw any pictures of me back then, you'd know why.
I knew I was going to have to create a post about her passing and I wrestled with whether to list her whole name in this piece. Because this won't really be about her life (a life I did not share so it would be presumptuous of me to think I had any right to speak to it here) but the brief part of it that we spent together, I decided to just use her first name, which was Leslie. If you know me (or her) well enough, you'll be able to fill in the rest; if not, I wish to respect the privacy of those who have survived her.
In 1973, UTS opened its doors to girls for the very first time. My class was the first co-ed group to graduate, in 1978, but Leslie's class came in at the same time, one level behind us. I came to know her very well in my last year, as she and I shared a music stand in the UTS Concert Band (as co-First Clarinet players) and a couple of the smaller derivative groups. A friend of Leslie's wrote of her, in The Root, that she was a "quiet soul with deep feelings....In music, she found her voice and her passion." The latter part of that description made us kindred spirits and a perfect partner with whom to share that important position in the Band. We grew to be friends that winter and, as the date for the Formal approached, I realized I was meant to invite her to go with me. All of our hours together still didn't make the question very easy, though; luckily for me Leslie said "yes" right away.
On the night of the Important Event, my friend Michael and I donned our rented tuxes, picked up our dates (my memory is very fuzzy as to transportation of choice; I think we took cabs that night but I may well be wrong) and headed to a very elegant restaurant in Rosedale (again, fuzzy memory, the name escapes me). From there we proceeded to the Granite Club for our equivalent of the "Senior Prom". We had a wonderful evening; my overriding memory of it is a feeling of relaxation and ease with Leslie which can only have been due to her influence because I sure don't remember feeling calm in the days leading up to it.
After the prom we went to a couple of events together but never really "went steady". As I wrote to Michael a couple of days ago:
I am remembering a particular oatmeal-coloured woolen v-neck sweater that [Leslie] was very fond of wearing as she performed with me in several variations of our school's bands; of how I sat next to her through an uncomfortable take on Dracula at a small playhouse [named the] Berkeley Street Theatre; of how I took her to see one or another of the permutations of the Pink Panther series once upon a time, and how she laid her head gently on my shoulder and slept through part of the movie because she had been working too hard at her schoolwork. "Leslie was a quiet soul with deep feelings...." I do seem to have set out a path for myself even back then, as I have long surrounded myself with "quiet souls with deep feelings" and only some of them women.I doubt if I could sum up my feelings any better no matter how many attempts I made. Leslie went on to have a very successful and, by all accounts I have read, fulfilling life but I knew of none of it. Leslie's special place in my life revolves around a few weeks thirty-five years ago and a close bond which never truly left my heart despite the years and distance that have passed and the briefness of our time together. We "went out" only a couple of times; however, in may ways it feels like we "dated" right through my final year in high school, as we spent so much time together in the various bands.
And I wonder: were we ever really sixteen years old? It seems impossible as I write this.
There is a street in Toronto that I pass (or drive along) on occasion that to this very day reminds me of Leslie each and every time I do so. She meant a great deal to me in a year filled with absolute chaos in most other aspects of my life; at a time when I needed a "quiet soul" around me as much as possible she was there to take up the challenge. I doubt that she ever knew how much she meant to me when I was sixteen, because I'm not sure that I have ever really understood it. I'm just very proud and eternally grateful that she shared my life for even that brief moment in time all those years ago.
R.I.P. Leslie. And thanks for everything.