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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

It began with an e-mail and the subject line “1991.” The message preview struck me as hesitant, spam-like and potentially translated, but for some reason, I kept reading.

“Hello, maybe I’m wrong, but today I found a note a girl gave me in 1991. I met her in Victoria, Canada. Maybe it’s not you, but I would be happy if it were like that after 30 years.”

I set my coffee cup down. I knew who this was, even if the details were murky. I scanned to the signature line – a name shared with a Latin pop star – but I wasn’t sure I’d ever known it. We hadn’t done much talking back then, in part because I couldn’t speak Spanish and his grasp of English had been, well, tenuous. I wondered what I might have written to a visiting Spanish cadet I spent no more than a few hours with when I was 17.

On LinkedIn, I studied his profile picture, trying to square the handsome man in a blazer with my staccato memories of the teenager he must have been then. I waited a day before typing a reply, one I hoped didn’t make it seem I’d been hanging around for three decades just waiting for his message.

I asked to see the note he’d saved for 30 years. Within minutes, an image downloaded in a halting, striptease sort of way, reminiscent of 1990s dial-up internet. Pixel by mortifying pixel, there it was – the undeniable fact of my parents’ mailing address, scrawled on torn card stock, in pencil, no less. Still, I was relieved there wasn’t evidence of a more cringe-worthy teenager to contend with. Who knows what I might have said given more space?

There’s a line in Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” in which she wonders of her 20-something self, “Was anyone ever so young?” and that’s how I felt seeing my street address there. Why had I handed over my address at all? Perhaps it was simply an awkward way out of an awkward visit.

In April, 1991, the Spanish navy training vessel Juan Sebastian de Elcano arrived in Victoria, months into an around-the-world journey. It seemed the whole city turned out, curious about 300 Spaniards dropping anchor in our backyard.

My friend Niki and I met a pair of Elcano cadets among those who had flooded into the streets of downtown. I’d never felt any particular affinity for people in uniform, but Niki was taken with the sandy-haired sailor of our duo. The other cadet had simply been along for the ride, like me.

That night, Niki had cajoled, whined and flattered me until I relented and agreed to drive with her the next day, two hours up Vancouver Island in her parents’ borrowed Taurus to help her reunite with the Spanish sailor we’d only just met in Victoria. The port town of Nanaimo would be the final Island stop for the Elcano.

Only a few details of that day remain. We arrived to a deserted port parking lot where both sailors from the previous afternoon were waiting. Niki tossed me the keys and crawled into the back seat with her day-old crush. The other cadet slid into the passenger seat beside me, his eyes hardly meeting mine. In the rear-view mirror, I could see Niki and the Swedish-looking Spaniard were already groping one another. It was clear there was going to be time to kill.

“What did we do?” I ask him now, relying on his memory to return aspects of the day to me. Apparently, we’d had a picnic in a field. I tried to picture an open meadow or a field of sunflowers, even if the time of year was wrong. Had we supplied a blanket? A picnic basket? God, what did we feed them?

At some point in our exchange, he says the truest thing: “There are already many memories that have been erased.” Whether he intends to or not, he’s getting at something more than a distant day in April. If you’ve reached the point in life we are now, it’s a reality you’ve begun to understand: The stories you reach for can’t always be retrieved; the ones you hang on to matter more.

He fills me in on his life since then – school, career, marriage, kids, divorce – each item in the list standing for years, rather than moments. He has a knack for poetic detail, even if his command of the language is not perfect. His love of the ocean means he owns a sailboat and spends his weekends exploring the Mediterranean Sea. He tells me signing up for the navy was the best thing he ever did. His favourite port of call was San Francisco, but after that, Victoria. He hopes to return. The idea is oddly comforting in the midst of a pandemic. The implausibility of travel relegates it to a quaint notion at a safe distance.

In my remaining glimpse of that day, we’re alone in a marine outbuilding. No one else was around, I can’t remember why. I do remember I opted for French kissing, though I had zero experience with the technique, concluding this was a Spanish sailor who would be underwhelmed by a chaste North American smooch. He might think the girl who had agreed to meet him at an abandoned building in a gritty port city was somehow uncultured.

Toward the end of our conversation, he writes that he remembers kissing me goodbye and I wonder if it’s his turn to downplay an act of memory. That his reply is accompanied by an emoji – the one with a bead of perspiration at the temple – suggests he remembers more than he’s letting on. Even if we shared something beyond a peck on the cheek, our fumble in an unremarkable outpost was mostly a way to fill some empty hours, tossed together by circumstance.

I wonder what it would be like to face one another again. Nostalgia may imbue our connection with a richness it never possessed. Even writing this, I may be making too much of a story that is little more than a message in a bottle, once returned.

For the moment, my mind loops on new information he has shared that pulses with the warmth of the Spanish sun. It’s not the 19-year-old naval cadet I picture, but the more mature man from the LinkedIn photo. He is barefoot on his sailboat in the dazzling Mediterranean where he is free to drop anchor on a whim. I reserve a smile for this man whose story remains tangentially linked to mine, his eyes closed behind his aviators, his face turned into the sun.

Sarah Pollard lives in Victoria.

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