Ponytail – Never Say, ‘Uncle’
© 2013, 2014
Her ponytail bounced and shimmered in the late afternoon summer sun, a soft, honey brown flag of independence. He paused to watch. Honing in on her target with crafted accuracy, she sprinted away from him. She ran with grace and ease; purpose and determination. An involuntary smile pulled at the corners of his lips. Suddenly, as if a bird returning to its nest, a softball descended from the powder blue sky and landed securely within the cracked leather folds of her well worn glove. In one natural, fluid motion she retrieved the bright yellow ball and tossed it effortlessly to the infield.
His smile grew.
“That’s no ordinary girl.”
The insight was obvious. But something told him the words now playing over in his mind spoke of more than just a talented ball player. “Nice catch,” he called, as she returned to her position in left field. “And very nice throw!”
She looked up, matching his smile. “Thanks.”
It had been years since he’d felt his body melt this way; his brain slowly turning to hot mush. He’d almost forgotten the sweet, tell tale sensations. “No, this is no ordinary girl,” he said softly. He moved towards her. “Hi, I haven’t seen you here before, have I?”
Her hand slipped into his, warm and comfortable. “No, this is my first time, I just moved here. I’m Carolyn.”
“Very nice to meet you, Carolyn, I’m Tommy.” A glint of sunlight twinkled in her sparkling hazel eyes. It brought to him bitter sweet memories of another time; another place.
“What’s the matter with you, girls can’t play baseball!”
“Ah… he’s gone all goofy for her!”
“Yeah… all mushy inside!”
The taunts from the other sixth graders continued. He didn’t hear them. It was the summer between fifth and sixth grade, and his friend Amy had kept her promise to come watch him play. Only she had showed up wearing shorts and a T shirt, and carrying an old worn glove. Her ponytail poked out from under the Phillies cap Tommy had given her at Christmas. It bounced and shimmered in the late afternoon summer sun, a soft, honey brown flag of independence. Darting out onto the field, she’d stolen a deep pop fly from the surprised left fielder. As he watched from the pitcher’s mound, an involuntary smile pulled at the corners of his lips.
“C’mon, get her off the field!” one of his friends called out.
“Yeah, we got a game to play!”
In one natural, fluid motion Amy retrieved the leather clad baseball from her glove and tossed it effortlessly to the infield.
“Nice catch,” Tommy called. “And very nice throw.”
She looked up, matching his smile, a twinkle in her sparkling hazel eyes. “Thanks.”
It took some fast and fancy talking to convince his friends, but they had spent the summer together playing baseball on the same team. Soon, Amy would become Tommy’s first girlfriend; and his first heartbreak.
“Hey, are we gonna play some softball or not?”
The comment shook him from his thoughts. “Yeah… ok… let’s chose up sides.”
Tommy and Carolyn spent the summer together playing softball on the same team. It was now late August and the season would soon be over. From the pitcher’s mound he watched with unspoken love and affection as she gracefully trotted out to left field. An involuntary smile pulled at the corners of his lips.
“That’s no ordinary girl,” he said softly.
Carolyn and Tommy came close to something resembling intimacy a couple of times. One sunny fall morning Tommy did manage a fumbling, stumbling confession of his feelings, admitting that he was crazy for her, an understatement at best. Carolyn had smiled sweetly, nodding her understanding. But he never followed through. Afraid and perhaps a bit uncertain of his growing feelings for this incredible girl, he hesitated. Confessing her own conflicted feelings, she had given him undeserved second and third chances, and he had blown them all. Since that Sunday in September their relationship, indeed their friendship, had deteriorated. A series of misdirected attempts at friendship on Tommy’s part had built a glass wall between them.
It was one of those nights. There was something in the air; something magical, mystical, and disconcerting. You could feel it; smell it; taste it, like static electricity before a thunder storm. It might have been the clear March evening, cool and crisp, gently nudging the still slumbering spring. It might have been the full lover’s moon, big and bright, casually balanced atop the Space Needle. It reminded Tommy of Curly Neal spinning a basketball on his index finger. He’d seen the Harlem Globetrotters with his dad at the old Philadelphia Civic Center. That was when Tommy’s dad was still trying to prove to himself that he was a good father. It was one of many ambivalent childhood memories he still carried.
Gazing out into the tranquil Seattle night Tommy decided it was just him. Many people viewed writers as dreamers; romantics. Most were just good story tellers with vivid imaginations, a large vocabulary and a need to be heard. Tommy fell somewhere in the middle. He was a hopeless romantic, sure, more so than most, a gift from his mother. But he also had his practical side, a trait passed down from his dad. The two seem to always be at war with each other. It made for some interesting internal conversations. But his dad did teach him one thing that had stuck: if something is worthwhile never give up, never say, ‘Uncle’. However, the fact of the matter was tonight it was just him. He hadn’t seen or heard from Carolyn since she turned down an invitation to join him at a breast cancer fundraiser. In their very brief texting session, she said she had read the note he E-mailed her the month before. Tommy had his doubts. No, that actually wasn’t fair. He believed her; he was just hurt she hadn’t replied. In his afflicted mind, Tommy believed the overly long and probably overly melodramatic letter should have turned the tables; sent Carolyn running into his arms. And before that, it had been long months since their last contact. And, as usual, Carolyn had been on his mind… a lot.
Tommy’s winter had been spent playing the same old songs on his guitar; writing, and taking long, meditative walks. At least that’s what he called them. Some of the guys Tommy hung with talked about hitting a few of the local casinos. But like most things with them nothing much developed. His books were selling just well enough to keep him from having to find a real job, and he had plenty of time on his hands. It was Saturday night and he wasn’t exactly bored, just not in the mood to be alone. Tommy couldn’t put a name to the sensation but something was pushing him out the door. One of his very own characters would probably say he was under the moon’s magical charms.
Surrendering to the feeling, Tommy packed up Emily his vintage Gretsch guitar and headed out the door. The Montlake Ale House near the University District held an informal open mike on Friday nights. Eight or nine guitarists and singers would gather in the small neighborhood tavern and take turns singing and playing and entertaining the locals and college kids. This week’s meet up had been pushed back to Saturday because of March Madness.
By 10:30 the performing had circled back around to Tommy for a third time. The generally accepted guidelines of the get together were to keep the songs simple so the others could follow along. Basic one, four, five chord structure with an occasional minor or seventh thrown in was the rule of thumb. He had already pushed the envelope a bit with a soulful rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”. Tommy made amends of sorts thirty minutes later with Buddy Holly’s three chord masterpiece “Oh, Boy!” It was dismaying how many in the group weren’t familiar with the classic tune.
As he sat there puzzling over what to play next, a blast of frosty air ushered in a half dozen or so young people. Tommy’s next song would have to be something simple but familiar to the mostly college age crowd. A somewhat regular at the weekly gathering, the patrons, as well as the other musicians were polite and attentive, but for the most part ignorant of the vintage tunes Tommy strummed and sung.
While the new comers mulled about, greeting each other and securing drinks and seats, a familiar light brown ponytail floated across the room. Spying him from across the bar, Carolyn sweetly smiled and once again Tommy’s brain went to hot mush. By now she was used to his involuntary stupid grin of greeting. But it always elicited a beautiful warm smile from her which melted away whatever might be left of his liquid being.
What the hell was she doing here?
He had sent out the usual E-mail notices to friends announcing where and when he would be performing. With the exception of his friend Phyllis dropping in a couple of times, the response was normally about what he expected: non-existent. Carolyn neared and Tommy realized for the first time she wasn’t part of the crowd; she had come alone.
His dopey grin grew.
“Hi, Tommy, how’s it going?”
“Hey, Carolyn, what… what are you doing here?”
Slipping out of her coat, Carolyn painted on a cute, innocent, hurt expression. “I was invited, wasn’t I?” Punctuating the flattery, she batted her sexy hazel eyes.
“Oh… ah, yeah, of course you were invited. I just meant that I…” Tommy’s sigh was palpable as he tried to collect himself and his thoughts. “I mean… it’s great to see you, Carolyn. It’s been a while. And I’ve missed your face.”
It was true. He’d missed her terribly. Despite every concerted effort to forget about her and move on; every attempt to loudly cry, “Uncle,” Tommy found Carolyn increasingly on his mind.
“Yes, it has been a while.” She was as beautiful as ever, even more so if that were possible. A rash of emotions flooded over him; the same strong, conflicted emotions that accompanied all of their meetings. Her ponytail bounced, landing demurely across her left shoulder as she settled into a booth next to the circle of musicians. Carolyn’s long silky brown ponytail was the first thing Tommy had noticed about her; just one of the many things he loved. “Actually, I’ve missed you, too. Remember, never say, Uncle?” she added softly.
“Oh…” The comment came as a surprise; she hadn’t forgotten the expression he seemed to use much too often. “So what brings you out on a chilly Saturday night, no hot date tonight?” He could have kicked himself for the stupid comment.
Her eyes rolled and she shook her head. “No, silly, I told you I came to hear you. And besides, this is our anniversary.”
Tommy’s mind raced as he puzzled over the statement. “Anniversary…?”
“Leave it to a guy not to remember. Nine months ago… the ball field, ring any bells?”
The little light bulb in Tommy’s head clicked on. “If you’re referring to our first meeting, it was actually on a Monday, the 24th.” His smile returned. “7:02 PM, and there was…”
“And there was a big beautiful full moon that night.” Carolyn’s pretty eyes glazed, recalling the moment. “Just like tonight.”
“I can’t believe you remembered.”
Even in the dim of the club lighting, he could see her blush. “Well, anyway, the 24th is Monday and I have to get up early for work the next morning. This is Saturday night and tomorrow is Sunday and I came to hear you sing and play for me.”
The last nine months flashed through Tommy’s mind, culminating with the warm summer night this incredible girl had entered his life.
“Hey, are you playing tonight or not?” It was Johnny, the event’s organizer.
“Huh… oh, yeah, yeah, I’m sorry,” Tommy replied.
“Well, you’re up. What’s it gonna be?”
He glanced down. Carolyn sat smiling her infectious smile, a Bud Light in hand, exactly as he remembered her. Unconsciously, Tommy strummed a simple F chord progression. His eyes found Carolyn’s and he began to sing:
Just one look and I fell so hard… hard… hard/
In love with you/
I found out how good it feels to have your love…
Music had always played an important role in Tommy’s life. Like his writing, he used it to express his thoughts, feelings and emotions; the things he couldn’t put into words. Tommy hadn’t thought about the old Doris Troy song in years, let alone performed it. But tonight it flowed smoothly and sweetly and straight from the heart.
Say you will… will be mine… mine… mine/
Without you I’m nothing…
The other musicians graciously relaxed, giving Tommy the floor. For three and a half minutes there was no one else in the room, in the world, but he and Carolyn.
“That was beautiful, Tommy. I never realized you played and sang so wonderfully.”
Slipping Emily into her case, he joined Carolyn in the booth. “Thanks.” He could feel the goofy smile return; his brain once again turning to hot mush. “That’s right you’ve never heard me play, have you?”
Carolyn’s hazel eyes clouded over. Tommy was certain he read sorrow in them. “I guess there are a lot of things I should have done.”
He placed a hand on hers. “There were a lot of things we both should have done… and said.”
They sat side by side, sipping Bud Lights and listening to the other musicians. Keeping to small talk about nothing in particular, the couple avoided the things weighing on both of their minds. By closing time Tommy and Carolyn had returned to the comfortable intimacy they shared and then abandoned so many months before.
The big full lover’s moon smiled brightly just outside the window. It cast a pale yellow shaft of light across the carpet as Ray Charles’ velvety voice filled Tommy’s apartment.
You give your hand to me, and then you say hello/
And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so/
And anyone can tell, you think you know me well/
But you don’t know me
The lyrics of the old song struck home for both of them.
“But… what about…”
“What,” Tommy asked calmly. “Your parents, your friends…”
All Carolyn could manage was a touching, plaintive nod.
Her response didn’t surprise him. Some of their differences were considerable. But so were their feelings for one another. He knew it and felt it, as did Carolyn. And after almost a year, she was finally admitting those feelings to him… and to herself. “I know. It can’t be easy,” Tommy replied. “I won’t pretend to fully understand. But there isn’t anything you and I can’t overcome… together. Remember, never say, Uncle!”
They sat close together on the bed facing one another. A million questions shadowed Carolyn’s pretty face as the music changed, declaring unspoken feelings.
Tonight you’re mine completely/
You give your love so sweetly/
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes/
But will you love me tomorrow?
Tommy could read her expressions of doubt. He was slowly learning to understand the subtle complexities of this beautiful, beguiling young woman. And he loved what he was discovering. “What…?”
“C’mon, what’s up?”
Carolyn closed her eyes, slowly shaking her head. Her long brown ponytail gently cascaded over one shoulder. “No, it’s nothing; it’s silly.”
Cupping her chin in his palm, Tommy gently raised her face to his. “There is nothing you can ever say that I would think silly.”
A single tear traced a path down Carolyn’s cheek. “I’m… I’m scared…”
“Scared of what, Sweetheart?”
“Tomorrow… the future…”
“Me, too,” Tommy replied, finally admitting aloud his own fears, “me, too. Talk to me.”
“Well, what if I were to… I don’t know… to change… you know. What if I were to get bigger maybe, or cut my hair or something? Would you still love me; still want me?”
Tommy couldn’t help but smile. He was wrong. She was silly. In that same moment, he realized that inside this strong, confident young woman beat the heart of a reticent little girl, still uncertain of the world around her. “Well, let me ask you this, Sweetheart.” Tenderly, he stroked her hair. “If you were to change… in any way…” He placed a finger to Carolyn’s forehead, and then to her chest, “would it change the person you are in here… or here?”
The question caught Carolyn by surprise. “Well, no, no, of course not. At least I don’t think so.”
“The Carolyn I love lives in here, and in here.” Again he touched her soft skin. “The fact that this incredible person comes in such a lovely package is just a wonderful bonus.”
A hint of doubt still remained. “Are you sure?”
Tommy found himself staring into the infinite depths of Carolyn’s haunting hazel eyes. In them he saw his future, his world, his life, his soul. It was the same as on the first day they met. And every time he looked into her eyes since. Carolyn gazed back, returning the love. Tommy’s smile grew and he brushed aside another tear. “Listen…”
You had me from hello/
I felt love start to grow/
The moment that I looked into your eyes you owned me
“Kenny Chesney,” now Carolyn smiled, too. “I remember. That song was playing the night we met.”
“You are like the greatest birthday present you ever receive, the one you never expected, but treasure all your life. You’re the Christmas wish you make year after year after year. And then, one grey, snowy Christmas morning you find your wish has finally come true. And it is better and more wonderful then you could ever have imagined. And making it even more extraordinary is its beautifully wrapped package. And you love and cherish the present. Over the years the package may become worn and tattered with age, but it’s the gift inside that remains special and desired. I love you, Ponytail. I always have and I always will. You can balloon up, or shrink down or turn green. I’ll never say, ‘Uncle’. I’ll always love the gift, that very special person that lives inside of you, here… and here.” This time his lips lovingly grazed Carolyn’s forehead; found the soft folds between her breasts.
This time her tears flowed freely. “I’m so sorry, Tommy. I’m so, so sorry.” She clutched him tightly to her body, “All of the time, all of the time I wasted, avoiding you; ignoring you and denying my feelings… God, I am so sorry.”
“We both have been pretty foolish.” Tommy could feel his own tears start to gather as his eyes once again found hers. “Doesn’t matter how you got here, Ponytail, only that you are here… now.”
Once again their lips met.
Once again their bodies came together.
Once again the music mirrored their feelings.
My love has come along/
My lonely days are over/
And my life is like a song
The Bud Light wasn’t very cold. Then again, Tommy had never been much of a beer drinker. But it was Carolyn’s favorite and he wanted everything to be perfect. In a few short months, he’d managed to blow the best thing to ever come his way… once again. Tommy and Carolyn cared deeply for one another. Sometimes, Tommy thought, as the old song goes, love just isn’t enough. They tried. But some of the voids between them seemed just too wide. It was their one year anniversary. This time Tommy had remembered. He invited Carolyn to join him at the field where they’d met. Earlier in the day, he had flowers delivered to her at work: six orange and red flamed tulips surrounding a single yellow rose. He wondered how the arrangement turned out – the man at Ballard Blossoms had failed to e mail him a picture as promised. And Tommy wondered about Carolyn’s reaction.
6 PM. Tommy boarded the #44 bus, transferring to the #16 in Wallingford. It was the first time he’d been back since they played their final pick-up game last September. The old deserted ball field held many ghost. The one that had haunted Tommy the past year lived over his shoulder in left field, always out of reach, but never out of his mind.
After a stroll around the infield, and a stop to scratch their initials in the dirt, Tommy settled into the third base bleachers. Gazing out onto the sun bleached field, he could see Carolyn’s ponytail as it bounced and shimmered in the late afternoon summer sun.
“Nice catch… and very nice throw…”
“Hi, I haven’t seen you here before, have I?”
Bittersweet memories flowed freely.
You’re the cutest thing I ever did see/
Really love your peaches wanna shake your tree…
The Steve Miller ring tone wasn’t announcing a call from Carolyn as Tommy wished. It was the alarm on his cell phone pulling him from his thoughts: 7:02 PM, exactly. Tommy opened the small lunch tote and retrieved two Bud Light cans. The ice pack had kept them somewhat chilled. But more importantly, the single orange and red flamed tulip was still fresh and perfect. It smelled like summer.
He had run this moment over in his mind’s eye a hundred times, covering every situation; every possible conversation; every conceivable scenario:
“Oh, my God, you came…”
“I can’t believe I’m here…”
“I’m glad you are…”
“I’m sorry it took so long…”
“It doesn’t matter how you got here, Ponytail just that you are here…”
“So, now what…?”
Good question, now what? 7:05 PM. Tommy looked around. Except for a couple walking their dog and some kids playing Frisbee he was all alone.
Popping the top, Tommy offered the beer to the empty seat next to him along with the tulip. The second can fizzed and foamed as he pulled back the tab. “It’s been one hell of a year,” he said aloud, toasting the air. “Here’s to you, Ponytail. Thanks for coming into my life.”
Tommy watched as the last 365 days of his life played before him: every day; every minute; every word; every smile; every movement; every touch; every sparkle of Carolyn’s dazzling, expressive eyes; every faltering and fumbling attempt to communicate his feelings. It was as fresh and as real and as beautiful and as painful as ever.
8:40 PM. A final rehearsed scene took center stage in Tommy’s mind:
“Why did you come here?”
“Isn’t this the sort of thing that hopeless romantics do? Besides, I needed an ending for “Ponytail” the story I wrote for you about how we met.”
A dark cloud rolled in from the south, obscuring the slowly setting sun. Tommy looked around the deserted field one last time. Even the kids had left; the couple moving on. As usual, he was all alone.
Cause I’ve done everything I know to make you mine/
And I think I’m gonna love you/
For a long, long time
The lyrics of the old Linda Ronstadt tune tore at Tommy’s heart. He knew for him the words were true.
“Uncle,” Tommy screamed aloud to the wind, “uncle!”