I’ve never been the sort who closes doors on the past. Or, no, that’s not true. I close doors all the time–I just don’t keep them locked. My lifeworn family, ancient friends, antediluvian lovers–even the most distant and/or catastrophic of these relationships is like a bank account I still keep a little money in. (The minimum balance, sometimes: barely enough to warrant the paperwork.) And now and then—to my own surprise, usually—I’ll make a small deposit, or even, rarely, a withdrawal. I’ll look up a friend I haven’t talked to in many years and renew the correspondence for a little while before eventually, inevitably, I let it lapse again.
Late last summer I drove my daughter Becky to her freshman year at Eden College (as they might as well call it): a liberal-arts utopia blooming with marigolds, nasturtiums, and a left-wing agenda so unabashedly radical that it left me nostalgic for a world I’d thought had been eroded away–by time, by parody–years ago. To me the campus seemed a bubble, an oasis. At the very least, it was a clever and durable mirage, thriving, as it seemed, in the midst of a ramshackle, foreclosure-mottled Illinois town that had dried up when the Maytag plant closed–moved operations to Mexico–in 2004. Living as I did (and do) in a similarly dried-up Montana town (copper mine, Chile, 1983), I’d developed a bedouin’s gratitude for oases, not to mention a knack for finding them everywhere, whether they existed or not.
I was driving home from Eden now. For the first hour I cried and cried, because Becky is my beloved, my only child, and this would be my first year living far from her. Then for the ten or twelve hours of driving that followed the first, I listened to an audiobook of Lolita, as read–as insinuated–by Jeremy Irons, which slowly, inexorably, made me feel better.
I-90 took me through the heart of South Dakota, and, feeling so suddenly on the brim of a new life (it was too soon to tell, but already I felt myself tingling with my own genesis), I acted on an idea that had been simmering in my mind for a while—ever since I’d realized the college trip would take me through that part of the country. From my hotel in Rapid City I called up a boyfriend—a fiancé, to be more precise than need be, and my first real love—from thirty years ago.
We’d ended badly. No need to go into the how and why. I’m not even sure I need acknowledge that our break-up was entirely my fault–though it was, it was. Still, even without having seen him in all this time, that old bank account (to renew that yawnful metaphor) still felt open to me. I’d discovered his whereabouts and phone number via the internet, of course, though they’d been tougher than usual to find because his first and last name are both very common. But I’d always figured he’d eventually moved back to South Dakota, where his roots were. And so, it turned out, he had. I found him–the man I knew for sure was him–via a record of his $650 contribution to a (doomed) South Dakota senatorial campaign back in 2010.
So I called him–why not–and we ended up meeting for lunch the next day at the hotel/casino where he works as some sort of business manager. And it went fine—a bit lackluster, of course, since it’s almost always true that people I haven’t seen since we were younger turn out to have mellowed so much more than I have. Or maybe they’ve simply learned that useful skill of emotional caution that I’ve never been able—or, I guess, willing—to develop in myself. They see the past as having happened long ago, I think, whereas I seem, especially in contrast, to still be living it. It’s surely very easy for people to get the idea that I’ve never stopped thinking of them, even maybe that I’m obsessed, I don’t know. They must sense my yearning to re-engage them in moments we once shared—inside jokes, surprises, conflicts, turning points, endings.
I’m always on the threshold of asking—and sometimes I actually do ask: Remember that time when you said that thing? What did you mean when you said that? And how did you feel when I didn’t answer you right away, or later when I made a joke of it? Or how about that Thanksgiving at my house—remember how when you met my dad you were wearing your “Fuck Authority” (or something facsimilar) t-shirt? What was your impression of how that meeting went? And then, that night maybe a year later when–in the argument that ended us–I told you that I’d been sleeping with your best friend [trite but true], and you told me later that if you’d had a gun you would have killed yourself, did you mean that? Oh, honey, did you mean it literally, I mean, and does that distinction even matter, really? And how did you finally get past it all—by repression, forgetting, surrender? Or is there some other way I haven’t managed to learn yet?
Moreover (I want to ask but don’t, quite, which is why I’m asking now, I suppose), did you know that I spent a whole year mourning the end of us? That I would do my work, endure my social obligations, and then any time I had even a half-hour just to myself, I’d take that time to cry and cry? A whole year of that, almost to the day. You, in fact, were the impetus for my learning how to cry without making any noise. I was living with those people then, you may remember, and so I came to learn that skill, because of you. And it’s come in very handy in all the time that’s come and gone since, and I’m sincere when I say “thank you” for it.
I was twenty-one at the time. You were the first real loss I’d ever known, and you taught me how to be overwhelmed by grief and yet not—not what? Not die, for sure—but more important, not fold, not dry up: you taught me the art of going through life’s motions even when they feel completely meaningless. It was my first lesson—and there’ve been so many others along the way since, and surely many more on the road ahead—you taught me my first lesson in giving up while still going on, in surrendering without dying. You also taught me how time works—the ways it heals you, the scars it leaves. These were teachings that would come in so very handy in the thirty years that followed you, even to the point where I no longer need to tell you, or anyone, exactly when and how.
And here you are, sitting across from me now in your suit and tie, but your hair—which was graying even back then, I think—is still as bushy, as on the very brink of revolt, as ever. No beard, though. I miss the beard—you look a little empty without it. But of course you’re not empty. I saw your photographs on-line. I’d totally forgotten– or did I ever know?– how you loved photography, and also how in tune you were with nature, with all things wild, rustic, weathered, overgrown. (How did we end up together, honey, when I’m so obviously an “indoor” girl?) It turns out you’re in love with the way the mountains look at sunrise—and I suppose if I were to allow myself one resentment, it would be of the way you always let me sleep so late in the mornings. I wish you’d led the way more often. I wish I’d let you lead the way. But I know that whenever you tried to lead, I dragged my feet. So, no, that’s not your fault either, now that I think it through. And your political views are still so radical (this part of you remains as untamable as your hair)—that much is obvious just from your Facebook links. Still, for all that, my dad seemed to really like you—and I’m not sure whether that suggests something I never knew about him, or will never know about you, or, most likely, both never-knowings at once.
So here I am with you—with this guy, really, this middle-aged man whom I’d had to struggle to recognize through the bars of the cashier’s cage in the casino lobby, and who’d probably had to contain a certain visceral shock when he glanced out to find me there, the frowzy old me I’ve become, I mean. And it turns out, during the brief moments in our lunch-talk that aren’t, more or less, awkward, or, worse, pedestrian, that you’ve spent your life-since-me learning your own, completely separate lessons.
You talk, too briefly, about your own father, how it took you years to realize how rotten he’d been. And of course my first thought is to feel bad that I hadn’t seen this myself in those old days, that I couldn’t have studied the situation, then told you how things really were–not to brag, but I’m actually quite good at disillusioning people about their parents, just ask my husband—so you could get on sooner with the hard-labor process of letting him go. I never met your father, of course, and I don’t remember that you talked about him much back then. But still I must somehow have glimpsed him. I know this because when I think of him, and even when I think his name, “Emmett,” he appears (as if by lightning flash) as a tall slab of gray-black stone jutting upright out of dull mountain fog. He and Faulkner’s Abner Snopes are stored in the very same English-major memory cell; they share the same trope, form the same unyielding monolith in my mind, every time I remember them.
So he was why you finally got your law degree, and he was why you didn’t, even more finally, remain a lawyer. He was the reason you took all that time off from school to work for the railroad and the highway crew, two jobs that get mixed up in my mind, as if they were one single job, and all I really know about them is that you came home every night coated with tar. I’m sorry about that too—about not knowing more than that, I mean. I should have been paying attention, should have asked you why you took those jobs, and not only that, why they seemed to center you, make you feel worthy, make you feel at home, in ways that neither law school nor I myself ever could.
While I’m on a roll: I shouldn’t have felt so perpetually shamed by your general lack of shame, or by the way you never had money or a working car. I should have honored the way you kept trying to define yourself as yourself, and not merely as the opposite of someone else, which was the only way I myself knew how to do that sort of thing at the time. That frankness of yours—that grin you flashed as you watched me undress. The thin lines of asphalt that came to seem permanent, like tiny, curved tattoos beneath your fingernails. Instead I was embarrassed by your earthiness, embarrassed by you. How often I must have reddened, sighed, nagged, clenched my teeth, blurted it all out. I found you vulgar at a time when I was working hard–via the taintless, scentless breeze of “art”—to transcend my own inborn vulgarity. Still, however much I pretended otherwise, I’d come from the same hard world you did, which is probably why, from our very first conversation (on the landing between the second and third floors of our dormitory, and me very drunk on my twentieth birthday) you seemed so utterly familiar to me, so like home—and which, come to think of it, may be one among several remarkable reasons that my dad (who hardly ever liked anyone, by the way) liked you so very much.
And all this is occurring to me for the first time right now, honey, as I’m telling it to you.