"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Lost-And-Found–Never Rummage Through The Past For Old Girlfriends

Leonard Barnum had led what seemed an ordinary life.  Married in his early thirties, successful career, two children, a home in one of the best neighborhoods of the city.  All in all it was a life to be respected if not envied.  He and his wife were invited to dinner parties not because they had something unusual to offer, but because they did not; because they sat well, mixed well, and spoke well. 

Dinner parties were as light and uncomplicated as around town where marriages were off limits and personal private lives left alone, as gated and shuttered as the homes of the Vances, Lincolns, and Pomeroys. Everyone knew about or suspected particular infidelities, but this was not the venue to conclude who, with whom, and where.   Saturday evenings were once-a-week respites from  boredom, fidelity, and ordinariness.  Sex was off limits, potentially disruptive and slightly antisocial;  but Barnum couldn’t resist Helen Bailey’s eyes – dark like a Turk’s, outlined and shadowed, young, and soft.

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Like many men of late middle age who realize that the deal they had struck with their partner was unfavorable; that the price of marital stability and good sense was far higher than they ever expected; and that picking, sorting through and rearranging the pieces of a long marriage to try to assemble something more remarkable than ever was, often turn to the past for satisfaction.  The present is too risky at best, and a sad affair for any man in his mid-sixties among young women whose attention is to attracting a mate, not maturity.  The future depends only on personality and perspective, not fact.  

The optimist hopes that one’s life might still be reordered; that one’s routines might be reversible; and that physical intimacy might still be in the cards.  The pessimist assumes that one’s lackluster,
predictable, and unexceptional life will continue ad infinitum.  The cynic cares for neither, knows that he has been billiard-balled on smooth felt since he was born, and romance has and will never exist.

It is the past that rules such men’s lives.  No man has reached his thirties without falling for someone, his forties without refreshing his marriage with other women,  his fifties a more insistent search for that combination of beauty, allure, intelligence, and wit that never could even have existed, and his sixties endless reminiscing about his twenties.  The past is the only validating period of our lives, said Nabokov, a self-described memorist who trained himself to remember the smallest detail of particularly happy experiences of childhood and beyond.  The present is fractional and meaningless; the future speculative and subjective; and only the past has substance and reality even though itself might be composed of half-memories, fill-ins, and suggestions.

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So it was that Leonard Barnum began the search for Lucia Stafford.  He knew that even if he could find her, she would have certainly changed.  No one can live forty years without insult and some injury; and at best one’s bits of might have come through unchanged; but who is to say which bits?  He had always assumed that personality and character do not change regardless of circumstances.  We are how we react, and Lucia had always reacted – and acted – well.  There was no reason that the good bits would have been lost or damaged beyond repair.

Leonard was never sure why he had so quickly been taken by her.  It was not her looks, a bit of the library and the upper stacks about her; nor her allure. She had not the slightest notion of come-hither; gave off no bee-to-flower scent; and was absorbed, serious, and  very, very singular.  It was just one of those things – unexpected, unplanned, and arising out of some weird combination of family genes, his mother’s own quietly seductive ways, the lighting, his disaffection with the first days at university.

Lucia was at first uninterested and diffident.  If she was to look up from her Kant, it would be for confidence and pursuit, not queer hesitancy and uncertainty.  Barnum was nice enough, respectful, and interested; but frankly not male enough, never a mate, possibly a friend, but never a lover.   They had coffees and drinks over a few months but then she disappeared back to her books or someone more suitable; but the damage has been done.  The friendship had not lasted long enough to make an impression on anyone even slightly more sexually or socially aware for that matter.  It would have been passed off as a cheap losing ticket, nothing to think twice about, easy to forget, and in a few months lost without a trace.

For Barnum, however, the impression lasted for decades – a first love complicated by sexual bumbling and immaturity – and it was therefore both because he had something to prove and because the image of the girl would simply not disappear, that he had decided to find her.

It took him a year to find her.  She was happily divorced, no children, near retirement and living not far from him in a close-in, wealthy suburb of the same city.  She had left no easy trail – no social media, no publications, no awards or no record – but when he did finally connect, it took her over a month to answer.  She was too polite to tell him in their first meeting that she had no idea at first who he was and only after a few weeks did she remember their brief friendship only recalled because of a random mnemonic connection between him, her chemistry assignment, and a cold lunch in Harvard Yard. 

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They spent an hour over drinks, pleasant enough for her with shared recollections of school and Cambridge; difficult and awkward for Barnum for whom not only had no bits survived the years; but the composite was totally unrecognizable – a puzzle whose pieces fit but made no sense together.  He never let on that he had been in love with her let alone admit his obsession. That one recognizable and unpleasant bit – her diffidence – had unfortunately survived and now as then, he bumbled and stumbled when he tried to speak of his feelings.

As importantly her face had changed. There should be at least one recognizably retained feature – like Helen Bailey’s eyes – even after decades.  Some feature, expression, gesture that at least would remind him of her.  He would have been happy enough with just a suggestion; but there was nothing in that old, jowly, implacable face that he recognized.  What was he thinking?

After Lucia had left him the first time, he claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line – ‘There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice’ – as his own.  Of course Fitzgerald was a hopeless romantic whose short stories appealed only to adolescent boys of an earlier era and never read now; but the line was still his.  Even after lunching with the fleshy, patient, but uninterested Lucia Stafford, it made sense.  He had been in love with her young version, one that had nothing to do with what she had become.  They were two separate women; but the irony was that he still felt himself as young as he was then. It would be a matter of pure luck for personality to remain intact over forty years.  Most men who have been married for years no longer recognize their wives; and why should they?

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So Barnum finally put aside his obsession and went back to business.  It doesn’t pay to rummage around the lost-and-found.  Memories are rarely one’s own but composites of the reflections and add-ons of others.  What we were as young adults bears little resemblance to what we are now.  The past is a jumble and at best should be taken only for the random combinations of genes and events that cause the present.  It is unlikely that we can find anything whole there, anything of integral value.  If only emotional lost-and-founds had antiques or old paintings in them – items of unquestionable desirability and worth.  No such luck.  Better to try a grab-bag.  At least that offers some promise.

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