When An Old Flame Won’t Burn Out


When I first met him, what I looked like didn’t matter much to me. I wasn’t a tomboy so much as a wallflower. I wore my hair in a ponytail continually for four years because my hair (long hair, overly long hair) was too conspicuous, too alive. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself in those interim years between childhood and adolescence. As time wore on, he, and I suppose my maturing brain, helped pull me out of my shell. I began to use my looks, which I thought resembled, at best, an insect combined with a comic book character, to a new advantage: humor. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even cute. But it could be funny.

There were plenty of other boys during this time, and some of them even liked me. It was all very tumultuous, of course. Some random boy and I would break up dramatically after a five-day relationship during an ice-skating party, or kiss awkwardly, voraciously, on the tire swing of the school playground during lunch. We would get in trouble in class for holding hands across the wide distance between our seats. Did our bodies matter at this point? Not at all. I had nothing to show for there, but I had no problem brandishing my tween skin at various pool dates and coveted end-of-term beach trips. Brandishing my skin, my body, as the necessary physical extension of my personality, that is. We were all happy this way, until the more experienced girls showed up and ruined the good thing we’d all had. The good thing being childhood.

It took me longer than those girls, but eventually my body became important as a mode of emotional communication. As a teenager, after having known a boy for a few years, I fell in love with him. I had loved him from the beginning, but it wasn’t real, burning love at age 11. How could it have been? It was an infatuation, a child’s ridiculous, dizzy concept of love. I loved love, even as a small child. I was always “in love” with a boy, even in kindergarten. But as we continued to get older together, reuniting each summer, my love for this person grew, alongside all the changes happening to us: moves, new schools, changing bodies, shifting allegiances within our families and groups of friends, new hobbies, growing passions. Eventually it was almost too much for me to bear. The gangly class clown, a role I had also cultivated with him, became a person with other interests, deeper interests, more risky interests. Suddenly there was a gravity to a relationship that was founded upon fun. I remember feeling guilty about that, as if I was doing something wrong, as if I was going behind his back, trying to bend the rules without him noticing.

As the ingredients of adulthood start to pulse through us, we start to think that our bodies are a new way, an easier way, to reach each other. We can’t help it; our bodies are pretty much controlling our minds. If I could not reach him through words, I suddenly had this other option. But he was not there yet. His body was becoming a man’s body, certainly, but he carried it around awkwardly, like heavy armor. His words, increasingly, could also sound as cold and hard as armor. But due to that manic teenage tendency to swing from one extreme mood to another, he could be so kind, too.

He became my good-luck charm. When bad things happened, or when I was feeling down, he seemed always to appear. We lived in a place where nature was a great focus, a cinematic spectacle in front of us. When the weather suddenly took a dramatic turn, he would always notice the subtle changes within the turmoil of the elements. I realized how much he loved the earth, that it would figure largely in the way he would choose to live his life.

We had a routine, as much as two teenagers can have a routine in summer. But in each other’s presence there were always boundaries to be maintained. We paid for our own things, for instance, and we did not plan anything. We did not go anywhere far away together, though we were allowed to talk about doing so. We did not try to arrange the future. We’d play games, like cards or Scrabble or video games, and these would give us neutral arenas in which to enjoy each other’s company. As the years passed, the structure loosened a little. Aspects of the mature people we would eventually become would creep into otherwise guarded behavior.

Still, I always wondered if he was using me. There weren’t many people our age around, so perhaps we came together by default. Instead of enjoying our fate, however it had been fashioned, and appreciating it while it was happening, I worried over it. I questioned it. I needed to organize what we were doing, to define it, with the end goal of making it bigger, of turning it into love. I could not be the good-natured, resilient girl I had recently become with my school friends back at home. Everything he did and said affected me, and I found I could not quickly adapt to his moods. A turn for the better in our dynamic would bewitch me, and a turn for the worse would paralyze me. I wanted to be the reason for all the changes in his mind, even the bad ones. I could not see that there were other things going on in his life, because with him in the picture, the only thing I allowed to go on in my life was him. Even then, I remember thinking: in the real world, outside of this summer sanctum, this would never work. He is made of the earth, sturdy and self-sufficient, and I am made of water, changeable and ultimately only interested in enveloping someone whole. I don’t think he would ever have let me envelop him whole, even if he had loved me.

More than a decade later, I get hints from people in our circle that I’m right about this. I’ve learned that he is slow to introduce women to his family, and gives them no explanation when suddenly a girlfriend everybody knew and liked isn’t in his life anymore. I wonder how a 29-year-old man can still be so protective of himself. I wonder what it’s like to be like this. I wonder if his way is easier than the way I live my life, or harder. I have this classic romantic need to not to just possess a beloved, but to inhabit them, to become them. I think of us, diving down one afternoon to fetch something from the bottom of a pool, racing to reach the bottom first, and I wonder how far he has really traveled from that happy-go-lucky person I knew. Is love as simple to him as holding your breath, kicking your legs up, and pulling yourself to the bottom of the deep end, or is it just that love is too dark, too complex to discuss — even though we all know it to be so, and long to relate to each other over this fact?

My secret, selfish hope is that there is a third possibility: that he has still not experienced true love. But before he became a teenager, he was always so easygoing, so light on his feet. And he’s easygoing now, now that he’s long since come out the other side of adolescence. I don’t think he expects love to be a bolt from the sky, the way I do. I see a future hurtling quickly toward us: spouses and babies, new purpose, a new order, and the two of us drifting farther from each other than we ever seemed on the worst of those perplexing, hot days. I think, and fear, that he will find love quickly and suddenly, and that once he does, he’ll be content for the rest of his life. I fear I will never achieve that kind of calm.

There is so much mystery surrounding the teenage friendship because we are not yet capable of expressing ourselves properly. We fill in the blanks with passionate aspirations and negative assumptions, and the two sides battle it out for the prize. His teenage behavior imprinted itself onto my mind, becoming an indelible part of my understanding of men. Because of him, or rather, because of my lack of insight into what was actually going on in his head during those years, I determined that men were always to be distant, preoccupied with their own arcane desires and unquenchable sense of adventure. I longed to be this way, and I still do. I longed not to care. I longed to set off on my own and be the kind of person he was, unimpressionable and unemotional, curious and determined to find out what was going on outside the confines of his beautiful but stifling hometown. But I knew, even at 16, that I would never be that kind of person. I had curiosity, but my curiosity seemed to only move in one direction: inward.

He filled my dreams for years, and he still does. He is the star of my dreams, the guide to my unconscious. Anyone could see why: we were never really together. In the wide expanse of my early and mid-twenties, after experiencing something close to true love back home, and experiencing it a second time in college, I stopped going back to see him. Perhaps this could have been our time. Instead, years went by when this enormously important person and place did not figure in my life at all. Other love intercepted my love for him, and I was quick to put him aside. Distance did not make my heart grow fonder; it made it grow hardier. I had come to know love — requited, consummated love, that is. It was so intriguing as to completely blot him out, for a time.

And I suppose I just didn’t want to wait anymore. There were so many other people in the world to know. If something was supposed to happen between us, it already would have. I often thought of an evening a long time ago, when the light had turned gold, but not yet pink, and he’d sat on my bed, close to me, speaking softly, inches from my face, consoling me about something. His face had been in shadow, the sun behind his head, and for the first time, that face seemed unintimidating, conquerable. He should have kissed me. But he didn’t, so he must not have wanted to. And another day, a particularly hot day: instead of floating on his back in the water a hundred yards from me, the sun gently burning his pale skin, he should have swam over to me and found some way to amuse me. But then I think: he was only 16. Despite the fact that I had not been an adult yet, and certainly wasn’t acting like one, floating passively as I had been in my own patch of the ocean, I had expected him to be one. I always wanted more from him, but never asked more of myself. I gathered up every memory, pulled them close to me, clutched them tightly, but continued to search greedily for more. And when he actually became an adult, I was nowhere to be found. The many questions I’d had would remain unanswered. I don’t think I will ever get the answers. I have too much pride. I always have, when it comes to him.

A few years ago, I came back into the fold. It was not a smooth reunion. It’s awkward to be separated from someone for six years and expect to be welcomed back into their world with open arms. We walked across a long stretch of grass toward each other and I hugged him for a beat longer than he hugged me, or so it seemed. I felt like a guest in our place, a place more familiar to me than anywhere else. I paced about, worrying, just as I had as a teenager. For a week or so, I looked, pained, at beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, at this deeply familiar view we shared, and felt as if I was watching something that was no longer happening, a memorial to a sunset. It was because I couldn’t stand the present. I couldn’t stomach it. I was still trying to patch up the past, to make sense of it in my head. The harder thing would have been to ask the questions I needed to ask, or at the very least, to be a part of his life, his apparently happy, stable, unmysterious adult life. But that was too much to ask of myself.

I was still in love. One night, he passed a jar to me across the dinner table and I felt something electric go from the tips of his fingers to the tips of my fingers. I cursed him for this innocent thing, for the mere act of touching me in this small, no doubt unintentional way. In his presence, my mind would stall. I was endlessly curious about his life, but it would suddenly become impossible for me to remember what I’d wanted to ask, what I’d wanted so badly to know. It was a case of l’esprit de l’escalier. Once we parted, I would remember it all: the important questions, the jokes I could have made, the things I had wanted to tell him about myself to endear him to me, to solidify my importance in his life once again. I wanted to ask: What do you want to be, dear, old friend? Where do you want to go, and where do you want to live? Are you happy? And of course: Remind me, what was that we had? Was I your accidental friend, or did I give you a reason to keep slogging through the muck of adolescence toward adulthood?

In my dreams, he flies past my face on a bike, laughing. The enduring image from this is a blur of white teeth, amber eyes, and a wavy lock of black hair coasting along the wind. Or he runs alongside me, as he used to, but instead of falling behind, as he was prone to doing, he catches up, surges past me, and leaves me in the dust. Suddenly, in this dream, running starts to feel like treading water, and pretty soon he’s a little dot of white on the horizon, but I can still hear his heavy breath as if he’s right next to me, and he tries to talk to me to prove how easy my pace is for him. His personality is so clearly limned in my dreams. It is so unmistakably him, so original, like a scent, that it’s almost as good as the real thing. My unconscious remembers him even better than my conscious mind. In the dreams, the keys always fit the locks. But as in real life, nothing is ever resolved. I am left hanging, his laughter arcing from one of my ears to the other and then fading out somewhere behind me as I emerge unwillingly out of sleep.

I worry about him. He rides a motorcycle — of course he rides a motorcycle, my adolescent self tells my adult self — and I wish he didn’t. I think it gives the universe more opportunities to take him away from me. But he is not mine to hold, nor mine to be taken away. And that’s partly why I worry. I am hanging on to a small seedling, willing it to grow. I feel the futility of this more acutely now. We’ve been two ships in the night lately, missing each other by days or hours due to haphazard planning. Each time, I am prepared to drop everything for him, as my adolescent self so often did, to change my plans, to conspire for us to knock against each other again, if only for a few hours.

But something is different now: my mind drops everything, but my body doesn’t. I keep moving in the direction I’d been moving in, going wherever it is I’m going in my life, without him, far away from him, in apparent disregard of him. I am trying, in some passive way, to prove to him — and to myself — that I can be as focused, as unwaveringly driven and mature as he appears to be. I know I should be. But it’s just not the case. My mind is back there with him, rolling recklessly about in a limbo between sleep and waking, where his hands reach for my hands instead of touching them accidentally and his laughter doesn’t fade.

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