Sunday, October 30, 2011


“No, Henry, you live every day like yesterday was your last.”

It was meant more as an amused observation than a criticism, yet still it wounded me.

I often replay conversations in my head, always far too late realizing what I should have said, instead of whatever useless vapor actually escaped my lips in the moment. Yet, even almost a year later in this case, I can't come up with any better response than “No, you're wrong!” or “So?!” My actual response—a weak smile and silent nod—probably served as well as anything else I might muster. Perhaps I might have reminded her that she had only known me but fewer than ten scarcely overlapping days in our lives, and the most recent had been more than five years ago, so she was in no position to be drawing conclusions concerning my person. But, truth is, she was right, partly so, and I think I recognized it even at the time, though maybe I couldn't quite comprehend it.

Never Let Me Go

About a year ago, I met up with an old classmate I had not contacted since college, that business having been concluded some five years prior. I could not call this person a close friend, neither back then nor now. We had had only one class together freshman year, which she rarely attended, and during which we barely spoke to one another. But, during the course of the next three years after that, we would sometimes run into each other at the library or the literature department, and, for whatever reason, she would always remember me and strike up a conversation. These conversations were not altogether profound nor altogether regular—I can count on one hand the number of times we spoke—but they were pleasant and they were easy, unusually so for me.

So, as I was saying, I met up with this person for the first time in many years. A lot had happened in that time for her, though perhaps not enough, even less so for me. We did some catching up, had some good talk, mostly about those intervening years when we weren't following each other's lives. She told me where she was with life now; I had much less to report on the topic. She also talked about the future, about where each of us was or should have been headed. My life, if anywhere, was pointed backward, however, as I seemed to be stuck in dwelling on the past, whereas she was living through today and trying hard to glimpse tomorrow.

She seemed far less interested in reminiscing, which was odd to me, because, our lives having grown so far apart—hers having been much fuller than mine—what else had we in common to discuss except those few experiences we had shared in college? My mind was fixated on that before, back when we were not such strangers. A part of me was stuck there in that past, and an especially foolish part of me thought I could take her back there with me.

Midway into the conversation, I tried to subtly reference an inside joke that we had once shared. It was a reference so particular to the context of our acquaintance, so “inside,” as it were, that I can't even repeat it here, because it wouldn't be funny, it wouldn't make any sense, it wouldn't mean anything to anyone else in the world but the two people who were there in that exact moment those several years ago. As it turned out, it didn't mean anything even to the other person who had been there.

She didn't seem to catch it. She didn't respond in any way. Even if she didn't remember it, she should at least have asked what I had meant by such a bizarre rejoinder, since it was again something that should have made no sense to anyone who didn't already know what I was talking about. Not only did she not seem to know what I was talking about, but she didn't seem to care. She did pause for an instant, reflectively I might dare hope, but there had been plenty enough such brief pauses on both sides throughout our conversation that it would not do to read too deeply into this barely perceptible, perhaps wholly imagined one. It came to nothing. Her eyes rather seemed fixed on something far beyond the moment, far beyond me, and there was no verbal recognition, no acknowledgment even that she had heard me, before she moved right along. And, in that instant, I realized that my life had shrunk to virtually nothing.

I couldn't blame her. She had been busy living all this time, and, for all my self-pity, her weary eyes and voice told that the years had been harder on her than they had been on me. Amid all that experience that she had absorbed and accumulated, such a small and insignificant moment as ours could understandably have become lost. It was not, after all, anything especially clever that I had said all those years ago, although she had laughed at the time. It was nothing to be proud of, nothing memorable, although for some reason I did remember it, and I was proud of it. All the same, once upon a time there was this moment—rather, this small piece of irrelevant information—shared between only two people in the entire world. Now the other person no longer remembered, and suddenly I felt like the loneliest person in the world.

What did I have riding on this, on her remembering, I wondered. Why was I so disappointed now by her non-reaction? It was as though I had invested everything in that memory. As though getting that chuckle out of this one girl years ago had been the best thing—the only good thing—I had ever done, would ever do in my life. Now the one witness to that moment could not attest to it. It was as though it had never happened in the first place. And with the loss of that memory along went any meaning to my tiny existence. She was to have been my proof. How else was I supposed to know that my life wasn't all a dream?

And then I wonder, why did I go through that? Why was I made to hang on so long to this small moment, if it never really mattered? What is the point of all these fleeting dreams and forgotten ideas, all these vanishing thoughts and unexpressed emotions? No one will know them. They do not change the world.

And yet they matter to me. Indeed, I realize now that they are me. Waking up in the morning, brushing my teeth, going to work, pumping gas, buying deodorant, melting into the couch exhausted—such has become my day, and perhaps you could say that is my life, but it is not who I am. Who I am is that inside joke, that laugh shared with this girl who was not quite a friend, but who, for the duration of that laugh, was my entire world. Who cares where it led or didn't? That was more than seven years ago, but it is also today, it is tomorrow, it is all the rest of my days for as long as I live. As I live and as I feel, I myself am the proof that it happened and that it matters. No one can take it from me, no more than they could remove dough from bread. So what more could I possibly require?

We parted ways again after our chat, and, a year later, I haven't spoken to her since. Perhaps in another four years, another moment of weakness will strike me, and I will again be driven to try. But I wouldn't count on that; I don't intend to make the same mistake twice. But someday, very far off I hope, perhaps we will run into one another. In another world perhaps. Yes, a better world.

And what will we say then to one another, in this better world? Perhaps I'll say, “I have so many things I want to tell you”? And then you'll say, “I want to hear all about it”? No, that will never do.