No one experiences high school in exactly the same way as anyone else, but all of my schoolmates agreed on a solitary data point: there was one kid who surpassed all others in popularity. It was just one of those things everybody understood. And for good reason, because this boy was the full package: magnetically sociable, smart, exceptionally good-looking, and far and away the most superior athlete our school had maybe even seen. For all four years, he was hallway royalty, revered by the boys and admired by every girl, whether they would admit it or not. Everyone wanted to be like him and be liked by him. He was emulated and imitated by his coterie of adoring friends, and I’d be shocked if anyone outside of his circle would have rejected his attention. He was in a league of his own, a golden boy atop a pedestal only wide enough for one set of swift feet, a star almost too bright for bare eyes.
Many kids with this kind of power might have used it for ill, and he certainly could have done a lot of damage had he wielded his prestige as a weapon rather than a beacon, but he didn’t: he had impeccable manners and went through the motions of his days with a blithe deftness, a fluidity of purpose, a natural ease. He was so secure in himself that he felt no inclination to be mean to anyone, and this in and of itself rarefied his reputation to an even greater extent. He wore his popularity like a comfortable rucksack, not a pistol in a hip holster. By all accounts, this boy was beyond reproach. The teachers loved him, too, and I suspect his coaches even envied him a bit. His success just seemed so effortless, his talents so innate, that it was hard to believe that he wasn’t a fictional hero boy magically animated and placed amongst us as a reminder that perfection can, in fact, exist. Even his name felt famous.
Years later, I read in an alumni magazine that he’d gotten married and had a baby girl named Sally, a darling child whose photo in the glossy publication bore a resemblance to her dad. I remember wondering about this baby’s mom, the woman who had caught the heart of that boy-turned-man. Because he could have had his pick among basically any of the girls in school, I assumed this situation had followed him to college and beyond, so the woman he’d married must be something special. Her very existence felt intimidating.
A couple of years after that, I was at a toddler gymnastics class with my daughter and there was a beautiful woman with lustrous, chin-length hair and a kind countenance accompanying a little girl named Sally. I just knew this Sally was HIS Sally–the age and face tracked–and I deduced that the woman with her was her grandmother, her mother’s mother. I kept my curious eye on Sally and her grandmother during the class, thinking that between these two generations was another female married to the high school legend, and I noted the woman’s gentle attentiveness and obvious adoration of this bonny little girl, who seemed as sweet as her name and for whom obvious effort had gone into everything from her hairstyle to her adorable outfit to her personalized backpack.
A year or so passed, and at preschool pickup one winter day, I saw him–the grownup version–with someone who had to be his wife, ostensibly touring the school as a prospective family. I only got a glimpse of her, but it was hard not to notice that her hair was cut so straight across, her coat was tied just right, her shoes were up-to-the-minute on trend, and her beauty was, well, conspicuous. Wow, I thought.
The summer after that, I went to a park for a preschool gathering to welcome new families, and guess who was there? This unicorn of a woman with her unicorn of a daughter, and as we were introduced, I tried to act calm even though my tongue was experiencing a strange paralysis. She asked me for ideas about packing lunches for Sally since her current go-to was a peanut butter sandwich, but our school is a nut-free facility. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that I picked up some Sun Butter the next time I went to the grocery store so I could give it to her and have an excuse to start another conversation. It was our first gift.
Six years after that, I’m delighted that this woman no longer scares me silly. Our daughters became best friends in preschool (I swear I had nothing to do with this), which brought us together, and as soon as my tongue had recovered its regular range of motion, it was obvious that I was correct about one thing: the wife of that boy from high school IS a unicorn of a woman, and now she’s my unicorn of a friend. We’ve been in daily contact for years, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without her. She’s an incredible mother and an incredible person. She’s whip-smart with a razor wit. She’s a benchmark and a benison. And, maybe luckiest of all, she knows everything about me and loves me anyway.
I’m writing this on February 25th, which is her 38th birthday. I know that right now she’s wearing a pink tennis skirt with a new white shirt and tennis shoes she joked about this morning because they’re touted as having orthopedic qualities. I know what time the FedEx truck arrived at her house yesterday. I know how her favorite shampoo/conditioner combination and that she likes flannel sheets in the winter (but not flannel pillowcases). I know what she put in her breakfast smoothie and what she had for dinner last night and what she found on sale last time she went to Costco. I’m so grateful.
And you know what’s funny? If I could go back in time and tell my high-school self that one day I’d be fast friends with the wife of the man who was in that moment the “it” boy paragon, I’d have laughed in my forty year-old face. Because back then, I didn’t believe in unicorns.