I turned 43 recently. Forty-three. That's a serious age. Jack Kennedy was my age when he became President of the United States. I'm at a point where I realize I'm probably cresting the hill at this point, if I haven't already, and all the bright future has really whittled away to keeping warm with the embers I've gathered to myself. I've always, always had a romantic, reflective bent, but it's increasingly appropriate as I get older.
It started with me thinking about religion, and the phrase "ideas for walls" springing to mind... which immediately took me back to that summer. Half my life ago. Slightly more than half, now, actually. But to start I have to go a little further back than that.
I met Shelly in high school. She was just starting, and, about three years older than her, I was more than half way through. She was intellectually mature and we were introduced by a mutual friend whom I'd impressed with my writing. It was spring, and by the time the school year wound down, we were dating. It wasn't anything that serious, though as a teenage boy I was doing my best to move it in that direction, of course. I’m a little unclear as to the hows and whys of the situation now, but at the time she was living it a city well over an hour’s drive away, and coming in with her dad every day to go to classes here. She continued coming in after the school year ended to spend her days with me. Much of the time I had the house to myself, and it was where we really got to know each other. At least preliminarily. She was wise beyond her years and had already determined what she was and wasn’t ready for, and she stuck to her guns. I’m not complaining too much... the things she was ready for were pleasant enough. Believe it or not, a lot of what we did was just write together. She had an ear for language that I secretly envied her, being that much younger, and frankly begrudged her. Nevertheless I admired it all the same and it was the basis for everything else.
That was a great summer. It was my first romance. But it came to an early end when we happened to meet up with that mutual friend who’d introduced us and I let him goad me into making some unsavory suggestions about what we’d been up to. She literally walked away from me, vanished, and that was the last I saw or heard from her that summer. The integrity of her self-possession at that moment left me thunderstruck, and it impresses me right up to this day. You don’t forget a moment like that, or how awful it leaves you feeling. Or how empty the rest of the summer, and maybe your life, is after that.
Incredibly, she returned to the same school, and the same long trip in, in the fall, and I managed to patch things up, though they weren’t the same. We were friends, but that romantic potential had evaporated. Eventually her family actually moved into the area and so she spent the rest of her high school years going there. She met other people, found other circles of friends, but somehow we managed to stay in touch. By the time I was in university and she was the one most of the way through high school, my role had become that of the unrequited lover who hung around in the lobby of her apartment building late into the night to listen to her moon over other guys and try to offer my sympathy. It sounds pathetic, I know, but it was a time of emotional growth for me. I learned a lot about her, myself, and life in general putting myself through that. One thing I learned was that part of my motivation was wanting her to notice me again, in that old way. And amazingly, eventually, she did.
We started dating seriously again the spring she was turning 18 and I was turning 21. And yes, now it was a lot more serious. She didn’t give herself to me all at once. She let me discover her over weeks. It was glorious. The potential, the anticipation, the uncertainty, the yearning. There was nothing like it before or since in my life, and there never will be. It’s funny the things you dwell on. Learning the things that pleased her or didn’t; what her breath smelled like, what her mouth tasted like. Responding instinctively to things and surprising myself that somewhere back there, there were things I already knew without having to learn them. It was the most magical time of my life.
Her brother had a copy of the Men Without Hats album The Rhythm of Youth that was most of a decade old by that time. We copied it on tape and those songs (along with, notably, Enya’s Orinoco Flow) were the score of our relationship that year, wherever we went. That’s what its various songs evoke for me to this day. Now she had this strange idea that if she didn’t actually go to sleep in someone’s bed, if she was at least on the road home by six in the morning, then she could claim she hadn’t “slept with” that person. It was a sort of game I think she enjoyed playing with her parents. I didn’t see the point; her folks always struck me as good, natural, down-to-earth pragmatic people who understood how the world worked, and why Shelly felt the need to essentially lie to them for lying’s sake always frustrated me. But anyway, I spent a lot of mornings driving around with her as the sun came up, prolonging my time with her, playing little games and enjoying her company. Lingering while saying “good night” while people were getting in their cars to go to work. And then driving home again to get some sleep myself. I had dreams that, in a year or two, we’d be married.
At some point she became disenchanted, and, unbeknownst to me, began to drift into a relationship with my best friend, who lived in another city. Mutual friends broke the news to me, and that was that. Or so I thought. She managed to break the ice with me again after a few months, and, I’m a little ashamed to admit, she made her way back into my life and eventually my bedroom, too, despite the fact she was officially romancing my buddy. The thing was, I wasn’t the one who gave up on her. I never stopped wanting her in my life. And she knew she had that power over me, and she was, I think, delighted to use it. Sometimes I think it wasn’t so much me as the influence she wielded over me that was the attraction for her.
Shelly wasn’t, isn’t, the kind of person who should be married. She finds other people far too interesting and isn’t inclined to limit the scope of interactions if she finds the person intriguing enough. I don’t mean to suggest she’s indiscriminate, because she isn’t, but she’s not the sort of person for whom conversation over tea and crumpets suffices when someone truly dazzles her. When she eventually did meet a man she thought to marry, I remember her discussing her misgivings with me. This fellow was not the sort inclined to allow her to have intimate friends... but then, most people aren’t (though I’ve since discovered from observation that such relationships are possible given the right mix of personalities). She did marry him, with the best of intentions, and for some time, managed the traditional role. But eventually she did find outside interests. She played the same sorts of ‘not really a lie if...’ word games with her husband that she’d practiced with her folks. Not wanting to rock the boat and hoping to weather the storm, I guess, he let himself be convinced until eventually he couldn’t anymore, and their marriage utterly disintegrated over about a year of trying to reconcile. Just like in the old days of standing around in the apartment lobby, I was recruited to be a sounding board during this time. That was harder, because it was a lot more real. But the marriage did end, and eventually she moved in with the fellow she’d been principally seeing on the side.
Why am I saying all this? It’s a long story to tell just to say that eventually she moved into my building. But it’s all prologue for what happened. After a year or so, I think she, or he, just decided they needed more personal space. She got in touch with me and inquired about moving into the building I live in, mainly because it’s essentially walking distance from where she works. For myself, I was delighted. Yes, I won’t lie to you and say that the possibility of picking up where things left off never crossed my mind; of course it did. Thoughts like that won’t stop occurring to me till I’m dead. But I’m old enough now to know they weren’t realistic, and I didn’t hang my hat on them. But what I did know was that I’d have was a good, old, dear friend, right here in the building, just an elevator ride away. Dinners, movies, just doing stuff on a whim, suddenly all became possible, and with someone I had the majority of my life in common with. I can hardly express how much the idea appealed to me.
It wasn’t how it worked out. We hung around a bit when she moved in, but it wasn’t much social. We had a few dinners and we took some walks for exercise, but the hoped-for just doing things didn’t really happen. I did get several calls to help her do stuff, get stuff, move stuff, change stuff, and so on. Yes, friends do that. But being that handy was turning out to be mostly that, and not much else. She had talked about accompanying me on hikes on the weekend to get exercise, but every time I tried to actually make concrete plans, she had one objection or another. Finally a couple of months after she moved in, we penciled in a Saturday morning. I won’t go into the details but when the time to get together rolled around, she called up and offered me an excuse so transparently false that I was actually insulted. I couldn’t help it; it was so disrespectful I was honestly hurt. I’m not 17 with something to prove anymore and I didn’t need my feelings shielded; I also knew her far, far too well for her to need to make stuff up. We mumbled our way through the rest of the brief conversation and hung up, but I think we both knew a line had been crossed. And yet another summer went by where not a peep was exchanged, despite her being just a few floors up from me.
As usual, it was she who broke the ice, and I have to give her full props for that. She took the chance. And, as usual with us, it was in the autumn. The problem wasn’t the gesture itself, though, but the approach. Basically it chided me for overreacting; there was no acknowledgement of wrong or anything remotely like contrition in sight. I could only shake my head. All I needed was something like ‘I’ll try not to let you down again’, and I would have been ready to move on. Trying to make me into the bad guy because I wouldn’t consent to be treated the way I was was not the way to go, and I said so. I gave her the last word in the exchange, which is not typical for me, and left it at that. That’s where it’s stood. I’ve seen her once since there, quite recently, in the elevator, and that’s it. I wanted to say something, but... what? What do you say on a 10-second trip to the 5th floor with three other people there when you’re not even sure you’ll be acknowledged? Still, it’s amazing how I saw more of her in all those years than I have with her literally living right on top of me.
I guess the reason I’m writing this now is the real regret I’m feeling because I’m about to move, and all that opportunity to easily hang around with one the brightest lights of my life was squandered. But I don’t see how it could have been any other way if Shelly will insist on the right to treat others however the expediencies of the moment move her, and if I, finally, will not agree to accept that. This is how it had to be, unfortunately. There’s a good chance I’ll never see her again, and that really is a sad thought. The other reason was the realization I had yesterday that we somehow reversed roles. Where she stood on that day, so long ago, when she turned and walked away from me rather than consent to have her friendship taken for granted, that’s where I found myself on that morning a couple of summers ago. It took me all those years to find the kind of spine that girl had always had, but I guess eventually I did. My need to be respected by the people I care for finally overcame my obsequious need for their approval no matter what, and oddly enough, I suppose I have her example, and the deep admiration I’ve always felt for it, to thank for finally getting there, at least in part. But am I better off for it?
Meanwhile, “the great ones remember”.