Posthumous

I see your bedroom. First, the slanted ceiling angled over the twin beds, Sam’s on one side, yours on the other. Sassy, your beagle, dozing on a blanket on the floor. One small window, a view of the snowy yard below: the burn barrel with a few blackened aerosol cans around it; a listing swing set; Elizabeth trundling about in her blue snowsuit; Rick leaning against the fence, smoking.

“Get out,” you’d say to Sam; being the younger, he would leave without protest. (This impressed me, the straightforward way brothers interacted. I came from a family of girls; all requests were negotiated.) We’d kiss for a few minutes—you loved to kiss—then take off our clothes and fall into your unmade bed, where we would leave the world behind and thrill each another with endless, steamy foreplay. You were the best sex I never had. At last we’d notice the time and pull on our clothes before your mother, if we were lucky, pulled into the driveway. Afterwards, you would escort me home along the half mile of abandoned railroad tracks that separated our houses. You did this unfailingly, whatever the weather. On the days it snowed, I would pause at the edge of my yard and watch you fade into the white distance, waving at me just before you disappeared. Although I could not see your face, I knew you were smiling.

No two people recall the same things, and I wonder what images you were left with. Remember your navy-blue blanket with the roping cowboys on it? The cracked “Little Ben” clock ticking away our time? Maybe those details, those afternoons, didn’t linger in your mind. I can accept that possibility, reluctantly.

In any case, you are gone, leaving me with sole ownership of the year we were together. It feels like a responsibility, holding onto this copy of you. We fell in love at 15, built ourselves into each other. Your wife is grieving the man she was married to for forty-seven years; I am mourning a phantom. 

Though I had moved across the country after college, we eventually managed to reconnect. I can’t recall who found who, only that we began writing letters, real letters, typed and tucked into envelopes. You were married and working at IBM; I was cooking in restaurants, living in Berkeley, in love with the woman I would one day marry (as soon as the law allowed it). Your letters were earnest, your focus familial. You wrote about your three children, the ways they made you proud, the fear you had when your youngest daughter left for Europe. Your wife, Margie, was in daily pain and needed a hip replacement. You wished she wanted to spend more time with you; she lived, you said, for the kids. You enjoyed hunting and skiing, didn’t much like your job.

We finally arranged to meet for lunch during one of my trips to Vermont. I was nervous, distracted, ecstatic, and there you were, standing at the bar, grinning at me in that boyish way, your light blue eyes squeezed into crescents. There was a settled look about you, a solid heft to your frame. You were still handsome, still Sam, but in a grown-up version that excluded me. I was struck by the rights I had lost, the knowledge turned useless.

We ordered lunch, though I don’t recall eating, and shared our middle-aged almanacs. We worked over some common ground—news of our parents and siblings—before offering up the people who had become our spouses. I had only a faint recollection of your wife (she was not in our class at school), and hearing you speak of her sent a gust of something that felt like jealousy through me, as if my teenage ghost had risen up and shaken her fist. You did not seem the least surprised that I was with a woman, and I silently credited you with that. I mentioned that I had dated several men in college but probably shouldn’t have bothered. “None of them held my interest.” I laughed. “You must have ruined me for other guys,” I added, realizing just then that it might be true.

I asked if you were happy, and you said, “Pretty much,” and shrugged. “Nothing’s perfect, right?” You said you were planning to surprise your wife with a vacation in the Bahamas, hoping that a trip to paradise would help. There was a co-worker, you added, who liked you, a lot. “It was a few months ago. I liked her too, but I couldn’t do that to Margie, you know?” I winced inwardly, thinking of my own heedless affair several years back, from which my spouse and I had eventually, but barely, recovered. Honestly, I was annoyed with Margie—couldn’t she see that you were a god?

We talked on. Every so often, I looked at your hands or lips, marveling that they once traveled over my skin. Did you think about this too? At one point while you were talking about your children, I saw us lying behind a glossy privet hedge not far from my house; it was our hide-out. When our mothers were home (our fathers were gone: mine by way of divorce; yours, desertion), when sofas or bedrooms were not possible, nature turned to clemency, a place to disappear, and you and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain. I remember the spent white flowers that drifted down around us, the bits of fall leaves that clung to our coats. How odd it was now to see you now, to regard you without need or urgency.

At last it was clear we’d exhausted every topic, and there was nothing to do but give up on each other again and say goodbye, promising to write more often. We did and then we didn’t.

They say you died in your sleep, a heart attack, which sounds peaceful, lucky, though not for your wife, who tried to wake you. I keep starting to send her a card, but I’m not sure there’s any point in a sympathy card from a stranger. I do feel sorry for her, and the kids, and their kids, and everyone else who knew you far better than I did.

But I knew you then, when you lived in a rundown house with a broken swing set and had a dog named Sassy and a weary, overworked mother who was always pleasant to me. There you are in the yellow kitchen, making a bologna sandwich for your little sister, dropping a slice into Sassy’s mouth, grinning at me. Ask me anything about that year and I’ll pour my heart out.

Inner Critics

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It was the 70s.
No one had cell phones,
and cameras were for
travel, holidays,
bigger things.
“Selfie” wasn’t even a word.

So when you came across
that ancient photo
tucked in a book,
your stomach jumped.

There you were,
sitting on your dorm bed
hunched over a small typewriter,
looking up, surprised.
Younger, prettier—
that’s to be expected.
It’s the details that fascinate.
The blue eye shadow—too blue,
and eyeliner—too much.
You’re wearing jeans and one of those silly
peasant blouses—all the rage for half a minute.
Long straight hair parted down the middle,
same as the rest of the herd.
A poster on the wall of naked lovers,
red satin sheets. Good god.
A really ugly desk lamp.

STOP!
You can do that now,
tell your censor
to shut up,
leave this innocent alone.

She dogged you then too,
that old nag;
nothing you did
pleased her.
She was with you
from the start,
braiding you with doubt,
cloaking you with dread.
Not anymore.

Age has carried off
what you no longer need,
left you something
to fight with instead.

Now you have your critic
pinned against the ropes.
Let her rail all she wants,
you don’t need to listen,
you slow walking,
white-haired champion.

Love and Lilacs

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When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.

Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.

We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.

Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.

This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.

Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY

Our Younger Versions

Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.

I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.

Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.

Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.

Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.

When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.

I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.

Joan Didion wrote:  “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.

As if I could have managed without her.