When I first met CeeCee Partulo she stuck her tongue out at me, which was the most gorgeous thing I ever saw. Then she hit me with a rock.
How it was that that first interaction rapidly led to us being boyfriend and girlfriend, with lots of necking, for most of sixth grade I’m not sure I remember. It was sixty years ago.
I’m telling you this because today on the news there was a story that a seventy-two-year-old woman named CeeCee Partulo is missing, having wandered away from a local “memory care center.” The age is right and the name is so uncommon it seems it just has to be my old girlfriend. Don’t you think?
The news said she was a retired state senator who had to resign her seat because of cognitive difficulties. I did not know what happened to CeeCee after sixth grade, but I’m not totally surprised to hear she might have been a politician because she was kind of opinionated and bossy, always telling me to kiss her. I liked it, though. Quite a lot.
Our grubby little neighborhood in the city was street after street of rowhouses with no yards or parks. We played stickball between parked cars on the avenue, we ran screaming and fighting in the alleys, we leapt from rooftop to rooftop. The only real greenery nearby was a narrow rock-strewn lot that led to steep weedy slopes running along either side of the tracks where the freight trains rolled by. I guess the property was owned by the railroad but nobody ever maintained it or even mowed it that I saw. Left unattended, the weeds grew into tightly-bunched groves of sappy volunteer trees.
There was a wide, flat rock at the edge of the slope on one side of the tracks, where kids (me, my brothers, and various hangers-on) would often stand and toss things down at passing trains. We used stones usually, but sometimes would throw some of the random things we trash-picked, with old lightbulbs being the best. An old fluorescent tube, to be heaved like a javelin, was especially prized. The freight trains moved through the neighborhood at extremely slow speeds, and sometimes men wearing smudged overalls alit from them and chased us.
After CeeCee informed me I was her boyfriend, she led me down the steep slope a bit through the weedy overgrowth to show me there was a sort of an obscured crevice you could crawl through to access a cramped little cave under the flat rock. I’d stood on the surface of the rock above that spot dozens of times but had never known the cave was there. Anyhow, I guess it was just a modest dent in the rockface really, but it became our secret place to come every day after school and neck.
The first time we kissed, CeeCee was wearing a pale green dress with a miniature lace ivory collar, folded-over white ankle socks, and black Mary Jane shoes. I’m sure we must have had some conversations there, under the rock, but in truth I only remember the necking.
I thought kissing was sex back then, not knowing any better. (My friends were ignorant, my parents unforthcoming, and it was before sex ed was allowed in schools.) While I was with CeeCee, I experienced a desperate yearning for something without knowing exactly what is was.
I suppose I thought that what I felt for CeeCee at that time was love.
* * *
Generally, I sleep well at night, but my prostate has insomnia. So—I have to get up often from bed to pee, but it’s no big deal, really. The place where I live is called a “retirement complex,” but in truth, it’s just some senior studio apartments with a shabby community center and a nursing annex attached for when you go senile. Those of us who live in the apartments refer to the dreaded nursing annex as the Bat Cave. I’m in pretty good shape compared to some people I’ve known over the years, though. Once a friend of mine awoke in the middle of the night to find the front door to his house wide open and his ninety-year-old mother out in the cold, pacing barefoot up and down the sidewalk, wearing only a nightgown. Men hanging out in front of the bar down the block were pointing at her and laughing. I remember my friend’s mother as a little birdlike lady who was always wringing her hands and repeatedly asking if dinner guests had just pressed the front buzzer. He had to install a lockbolt on the top of the front door, where she couldn’t reach it, in order to keep her in at night.
Yeah, this getting old shit sucks.
As I climbed back in bed, an idea struck me. People who lose their memories have most of their trouble with short-term recall and current events. Their earlier, long-established reminiscences tend to stay intact. I might forget today’s date because I either don’t give a flying crap or because my memory’s slipping, but under no circumstances will I ever forget CeeCee in that green dress.
I sat up in the dark and was suddenly one hundred percent certain that the senile, wandering CeeCee had reverted to her childhood self and made her way to the city, where she was waiting for me in our old secret place.
* * *
My first impulse was to hop back out of bed, get dressed, and drive down into the city to find her. I tried desperately to talk myself out of the idea, however, by stressing the hard-won knowledge I’d gained during my long life, which says ideas that seem brilliant in the middle of the night tend to lose their shine by morning.
Also, I’m not supposed to drive at night due to ripening cataracts.
I could call someone, I thought.
Yeah. That’s it. Tell the authorities I had a vision at about three a.m. that a missing girl I hadn’t seen in sixty years was to be located near an industrial railroad track in the city, hiding under a rock? They’d whip me into the Bat Cave tout suite.
* * *
I rose about dawn and switched on the news. Our local anchor team consists of an attractive young black woman and an older white guy with a mildly annoying speech impediment. They spent fifteen minutes hyping an impending snowstorm before getting around to mentioning CeeCee, who was still missing. Someone thought they saw her boarding a bus toward the city.
I got dressed and browned a couple of frozen waffles in the little toaster oven I have. I can get any kind of breakfast I want at the Life’s A Joy! Cafe in the senior center, but I usually don’t bother. Despite the name, it’s kind of depressing in Life’s A Joy! Entering, one is faced with a sea of bobbing white-haired heads. Like staring into a box of Q-Tips.
My car started up right away, which it doesn’t always do, since I don’t drive much and the battery tends to run down. The guy from AAA told me that newer cars have stuff like clocks and sensors and alarms that are always on. You have to run the car every few days so the alternator can charge the battery, whether you have anywhere to go or not.
It took longer than I thought to get into the city, and once I got there I was aggravated by the stupid amount of traffic. I distracted myself by imagining what would happen if I were right about where CeeCee was headed. It would be a good human-interest story. “Missing senator located by childhood sweetheart in their secret smooching place. Details at eleven.” Who would interview me—the lovely young woman or the guy with the lisp?
I tried to remember how it was that CeeCee and I parted ways. As far as I know, it was right after the end of the sixth-grade school year, when my father announced he’d gotten a better job and we were moving to the suburbs. I don’t think I ever actually said goodbye to CeeCee. I simply stopped showing up at our secret place.
Wow. I don’t feel good about that. The news said she never had children or married. I hope it wasn’t because she was still pining away for me.
“Well, I was a really good kisser,” I said, aloud. Ha.
* * *
When I reached my old neighborhood, I was glad to see it was not looking as blighted as I feared it might be. When you live in the suburbs, you often hear the city referred to as if it were a lawless apocalyptic hellscape of crime and decay. Yes, the stores on the main drag had security gates they didn’t used to have, and there was quite a bit of litter swirling around, but the houses all looked inhabited.
The street in front of my grade school had a bike lane now. Weird.
I pulled over for a moment in front of the three-story rowhouse I grew up in. The porch, which had been open, was now enclosed. And the building had two front doors. I guess the place had been broken up into apartments.
I drove slowly over the railroad bridge where my friends and I used to stand and drop miscellaneous items into the open coal cars on trains passing beneath. The best was a purple bowling ball I found, which created an atomic-like mushroom cloud of coal dust.
There was a little-used, glass-strewn side street that ran along the railroad property for a couple blocks before dead-ending. A wide uneven pavement there was clearly being used as a de facto parking lot for people nearby in the neighborhood, so I eased my car into an open spot.
When I stepped out of the car, my lower back was hurting; I wasn’t used to such long car rides. Though it was still early morning, the sky was growing dark. The air was dank with moisture from the rapidly approaching snow storm, and bitingly cold. Looking around, I saw a guy about a block away walking his dog, but absolutely no one else about.
I ventured into the narrow lot, full of tilted beige weeds killed by winter, and headed for the edge of the slope that led down to the tracks. I tried to imagine exactly where our secret place had been located.
The big flat rock that hid the cave where CeeCee and I had kissed was gone. Probably long gone.
While the upper part of the railroad lot was still mostly unchanged, I could see that the slopes themselves had been completely landscaped with an expansive scree of dark gray stone chips. Guess it keeps the weeds down.
* * *
When you survive to old age, it’s easy to spend all your days in mourning. First you mourn your obliterated childhood. All of your lost causes and the alternate lives you’ll never lead. And then, as you lose them, you mourn your family and friends. Of course. But surprisingly, you might mourn your outlived enemies as well. What’s the point of even having enemies, you might wonder. Since everyone dies and is forgotten and it all evens out?
Other things to mourn. Flat stomach. Sleeping through the night. Sex drive. The assumption that you matter. The feeling that there’s always more time.
Sorry, CeeCee. Sorry.
You wandered off and I looked for you. But you are forever lost.