Her name was Maria. She didn’t think she was pretty. But if you saw the light in her eyes, that flash of brilliance and wit and pain, you would know she was beautiful, inside and out.
I was 21, a college dropout, new to California, and recently married. My husband taught high school physics. My dream job was easier, or so I imagined: I wanted to have babies and watch them grow up.
No one had informed me that child-rearing is the least easy job God ever created. But even if I knew that, I’d have still wanted it. The things we do for love.
While waiting for babies, I worked as an aide in a retail merchandising program for high school students. The class met in downtown Salinas, then the kids went to various businesses to train at “job stations.” My job was to get employers to provide the stations. Then I’d check back to see how the kids were doing.
It was fun. I especially liked getting to know the kids. Many of them came from big families with parents who worked hard to put food on the table. They were bright kids who could’ve done, I thought, most anything. Some would go to college. But most just wanted to finish high school, find a decent-paying job and get on with their lives.
That was Maria’s plan. I’m not sure how we became friends. She studied me the way a stray cat decides if you’re friend or foe. Then she started coming to class early and leaving late, finding excuses to talk to me.
I lived in Pacific Grove, 25 miles away. One Saturday, Maria showed up at my home.
“How did you find me?” I said.
She laughed and pointed to my car out front. “I came over to go to the beach, drove around town and saw your ugly old VW.”
She stayed for dinner. Smiled at my husband’s jokes. Played a few notes on the piano.
“I should go,” she said. “Can I, like, drop by again sometime?”
“Sure,” I said. “Call first to see if we’re home. It’s a long drive.”
“I’ll need your number.”
I laughed and gave it to her.
She came over a few times, but mostly just phoned to talk. After graduation, she called to say she was moving away to live with a friend. So I told her my news.
“I’m pregnant,” I said.
At first, I thought she didn’t hear me. Then she sighed into the phone and said, “I’m happy for you. You’ll be a great mom.”
Two years passed without a word from Maria. One day I was changing my toddler’s diaper when I heard a knock at the door. I opened it and there was Maria, holding a little girl about the same age as my son.
“When you told me you were pregnant,” she said, “I wanted to tell you I was, too. But I thought you’d be disappointed in me.”
She was a single mother with no help from the child’s father.
“My job’s not bad,” she said, “but I want better for me and my daughter. I might take some classes at the college.”
We talked and laughed and watched our little ones play. I told her I wasn’t disappointed in her, that I still thought she was beautiful, inside and out, and so was her little girl. Before she left, I asked for a phone number. She said she didn’t have one, but promised to call soon.
I never heard from her again. That was decades ago. For a while, I prayed for her and her daughter. But as time went by, I had other things, other people to pray for. I hadn’t thought of her in ages, until last night.
I was watching “Prime Suspect,” a British police drama starring Helen Mirren as a detective. The episode centered on a troubled teenager. At one point, Mirren’s character said of the girl: “She stole my heart.”
And I thought of Maria.
People come and go through our lives like neon colored clouds at sunset. They show up and leave for reasons that often have nothing to do with us.
But we are better for having known them; richer for sharing their friendship; and happier for being reminded of how much they once meant to us.
Someday, if we are lucky, in this world or the next, maybe we will see them again.