This is what never happened.
Kelly and Veronica and I are standing in front of the church waiting for rides home. The boys are chasing each other with their jackets open, even though their faces are red and roughened by the cold. Then childhood’s most exuberant exclamation: “You’re going to die!” One boy to another, completely true and completely not.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kelly says, with a mittened shooing motion, feigning magnificent indifference to hide the awful excitement of girls turning thirteen.
“I think he likes you,” I say to Veronica. (Notice, please, my generous compliment. What is more kind than a recognition of someone else’s love?)
“Who? Brent?” she says, acting surprised, but I see she’s already thought it.
The mothers’ car tires slurp through wet snow.
Kelly says, “You’ll make a cute couple.” Coming from Kelly, this means something. Coming from Kelly, it means you’re in.
Veronica’s smile always made her look stupid, so when I invent this scene, I can’t let her mess it up by smiling. I allow her a contented nod. I want everything to be perfect. When Veronica climbs in her mother’s car, cold but happy, I know that it is.
It would have happened thirty-three years ago. It would have helped if it—or something like it—had. If only. I see it all the time in my work, how small events can change history. I study names, nomenclature: place names, given names, family names, ethnic names, nicknames. A time or two I’ve been an expert witness. Once I was interviewed on network news. I turn up forgotten information about why baby girls were named Artemisia; why some place was called Maybe. I know the name Wendy first appeared in Peter Pan, and the most common name in the world is Mohammed. I’ve learned the flukiness of names and name-giving. I’ve seen how a name’s viability can be lost because of a bad-apple Judas or Benedict.