Having just written a novel about two lovers who meet by chance after an absence of 40 years, I have become intrigued by the number of people who seem to harbor a fantasy of meeting up with someone long lost. Modern technology makes this more possible than ever. And so, the technology is new, but the impulse isn't. In my case, the fantasy of meeting up with an old love comes in four different flavors. But I never actually do look any of these men up, and my reasons for not doing so are late reflections of the old originals.
1. The one who got away: You know that the impulse to re-meet this person is a particularly bad idea.You don't want a new relationship in your life, you're happy with the way your life is, but a lingering memory pervades, like an old scent in a bureau drawer. In my case, it would be someone I knew in college. At that time, I seemed to specialize in falling in love with people who were already taken. This man, call him R, was engaged to someone else when I met him in my freshman year. We were both poets. We shared each other's work. He also shared his dissatisfactions about his girlfriend: She was studying to be a nurse; she didn't understand his poetry. I, of course, understood everything. But I knew it was hopeless. I got involved with someone else, vastly inferior to R. One day, coming home from a joyless tryst with this inferior fellow, I ran into R... I burst into tears, tears of regret, which I couldn't explain to him. I said that I was crying because I felt guilty. He said, "You're a poet, the only thing you need to feel guilty about is writing a bad couplet." It was 1968, the year of the Columbia riots. R and I marched and demonstrated side by side; I could tell we were getting closer. When we parted for the summer, he kissed me goodbye, a very chaste kiss, particularly for the summer of '68, a whole year after the summer of love.
A few weeks later, a mutual friend called to tell me R had gotten married at the last minute. Of course he had married the nurse/fiancée who didn't understand him. I never saw him again. I'd love to know what's become of him and... that's where I don't allow the picture to go. Do I hope that his wife grew to understand him? Do I hope that he thinks of me with regret? Do I hope he reads my books, and thinks of writing me, but is afraid of what doors it might open? Yes to all of them. I would never actually try to find him. Suppose he has terrible dentures and thinks Sarah Palin is a real babe? It's not worth the risk. It's not worth losing the image of the lovely boy, the memory of the words, "The only thing you have to be guilty about is writing a bad couplet." He might be sad that I write poetry only occasionally now, and almost never couplets.
2. The one I was too dumb to appreciate: I met this guy (of course he wasn't a guy then, really still almost a little boy) when I was in grammar school. I was the well-behaved one; he was the cutup. I was assigned to sit next to him to make sure he did his work. Instead, he made me laugh. He would buy pretzel sticks at recess and stick them up his nose, pretending to be a walrus. Or cross them in front of is chest, pretending to play the violin. For some reason, I found these both hilarious, and he knew it. One day I got in trouble for laughing with him when we were supposed to be diagramming sentences. I learned then that it was more fun hanging out with the bad boys (well, not really bad, but certainly not serious) than being a good, serious girl. In high school, we took the same bus and always sat together and laughed. my books.But I had ambitions to go to an Ivy League college and he was hoping to get a job as a lineman for the telephone company. Both our plans came to fruition. I always think of him when I hear the Glenn Campbell song "Wichita Lineman." I always wish that I hadn't been so serious, so trapped in the working-class anxiety of taking a foot off the ladder, even for a minute, so foolish as to believe that love came in only one flavor and only one strength. He's someone I actually am tempted to try to find. But supposing we don't think the same things are funny anymore? Suppose he's into whoopee cushions? Suppose he doesn't like Mel Brooks? And I can't imagine any way that he would like
3. The one I want to apologize to: Someone who adored me, whom I allowed to care for me and spoil me, but I wasn't attracted to, so I just allowed him to adore and serve me until someone infinitely inferior came along, to whom I was attracted. He believed in me, fervently, as a writer. He wanted nothing more than to do everything he could to speed my writing on its way. One night, I had a date with him, and I got a call from a real bad character to whom I was, alas, enormously attracted. He would call me once every couple of months; we would spend an intensely pleasurable night, and he wouldn't speak to me when he saw me. Until a couple of months had passed, and he would call me again. He asked if I was free that night. I said, "Of course." I told the sweet man, who only wanted to help me, that I was sick and I was going to bed and taking a very strong cough medicine that would put me right to sleep. When I came home from the exciting but humiliating night with the cad, I found a container of chicken soup and a bottle of orange juice on a tray in front of my door. I was so deeply ashamed of myself that I thought I had no recourse but to tell this sweet man that I never wanted to see him again. I think I said I needed space. I imagine getting in touch with him to tell him what a horrible person I was and that I didn't deserve his kindness. But I wouldn't get in touch with him, because I think he might be too quick to forgive me. He might want me to sign his copies of my books, which I am sure he owns in hard cover.
4. The cad: Of course, I fantasize about tracking down the cad, for whom I betrayed the nice guy.I hope that he has a humiliating job, that he sells shoelaces in the subway, that he has been multiply divorced, that he sports a pair of overly shiny ill-fitting dentures. I can imagine him combing his one lock of greasy hair over his shining bald dome and saying, "I can't believe you've published books. I never thought you were a very good writer." He might convince me that his failure had been noble, that he had taken a higher road than my obvious one. For a minute, I might believe him. Or suppose he'd been successful? Suppose he still looked great? Of course I won't try to find him.
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Mary Gordon is the author of seven novels, two memoirs, a short-story collection, and Reading Jesus, a work of nonfiction. She has received many honors, among them a Lila Wallace–Reader's Digest Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry Award, an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Story Prize. She is the State Writer of New York. Gordon teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.
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