Monday, January 2, 2006

In Lukewarm Blood

Queen Lizzie's posting last week set me off down a halloweenish path of reminiscence (as seems so often to happen; I'm not really able to generate original ideas, certainly not from whole cloth). At discussion was how we deal with unexpectedly running across someone from our past with whom we are not close. Do we pretend not to have seen them? Do we duck out of sight before they see us and are faced with the same dilemma? Are we at risk of being "shown up" when they, recognizing us, treat us warmly while we seek to shirk?

I suppose there is a threshold for all of us: above this line, let's make the effort, and below it, let's slink away; and that threshold is a reflection of our social tendencies and our mood of the day and many things. What if they liked us but not vice-versa? Or what if the reverse is true (and perhaps we didn't know it)?

I have become much more private over the years, I think as a reaction to a kind of nagging dislike of my public persona. As a young person I was inclined to theatrics and hogging the spotlight (something to which my Porky Pig-like physique makes me well suited!), but after so many years of reflection I have largely put that monster in a cage and he rarely sees the light of day nowadays. He's still in there, of course, but he controls much less of me than he used to. (And yet... I do have a blog.) And so I think people from my past, if we go back far enough, find me a changed person; how distant acquaintances react to me partly reflects how many of the monster's limbs were incarcerated during the period of our acquaintance. This--running across such people from our pasts--can reacquaint us with our prior mental state or other sundry circumstances of our pasts . Our lives may have moved on, but to these people we are who we were back when.

Anyway. A number of years back I was in a restaurant up in central Minnesota having dinner with my family, and after dinner as I was getting up to leave I was told by my sister-in-law that a former girlfriend of mine--we'll call her Sara, since that would be a lie--was sitting across the room with her new husband and looked to be trying quietly to get my attention. And, for reasons I cannot now adequately put a finger on, I just chose to pretend I neither knew of her existence nor heard my sister-in-law's comment. Fingers in ears, eyes closed, la la la la la, I made my way with studied oblivion out the door and into the car to speed off.

I had had no contact with Sara for nearly 25 years, and the end of our acquaintance was complicated and a bit messy. I understood that her life after we lost track of each other had been messier yet, and somehow in that split second it just seemed better not to dredge up any of that. My own feelings were further complicated by her being the woman by whom, shall we say, the applicability of several words of the language was negated as concerns my modest person.

Fast forward a couple years. Somehow, out of the blue, I received an email from Sara, and we ended up exchanging a few short missives before things faded away again. But in that brief exchange of information I gleaned a few things (thankfully, our "near miss" that I contrived at the restaurant did not come up). I learned that she had seemingly not gotten over the way in which our relationship, such as it was, had come to an end over two decades before. I learned that she had gone on to marry four different guys, in quick succession, and had (as I now recall) four boys upon whom she appeared to dote (three from husband #1 and one from husband #2 or #3, I think--not that it matters much to my story). Her latest husband sounded quite unlike who I would have expected her to join up with: conservative and dominant, he insisted she play a clearly subservient role. We discussed this only in passing, in a way appropriate to people who didn't really know each other any more, or didn't know the people we had become in the ensuing years. But it was odd, and hard not to make an expanded inquiry, as I listened to her question things I felt sure she believed in, and spout what was clearly her husband's philosophy. What all had happened over these years?

I remembered some of the complicated things from the time during and previous to our brief relationship. She had dated my best friend very briefly in high school, and he was rather overwhelmed by her intensity. The relationship went nowhere very quickly, and I remember her being visibly perplexed that her attraction to him came to naught. This had the effect of intensifying the attraction, as rejection can do. I would learn that she had not quite gotten over this rejection either. My time with her came two or three years later, but I became aware that I was rather standing in my friend's stead, that I was acting as a surrogate. Still, our relationship, haunted as it was by this specter, had a brief life of its own before it sank, like la cathedrale engloutie, back into the depths from whence it came.

Fast forward another couple years, to a couple summers back. I got an email from Best Friend that Sara was dead, suddenly and in most unexpected circumstances, on an old farm in the remote Minnesota wilderness. Much speculation flew between us while we waited for the details to come out. It seems she had been killed in a murder-suicide by her 80-year-old father-in-law, shot at close range with a shotgun, as she was about to be given sole possession of her husband's family farm by the judge presiding over what was to be her fourth divorce. The farm had been in the family for three generations, and this rather extreme solution was deemed, by the old man anyway, as the only way to avert the looming injustice.

The mind whirls now at all sorts of things. How does one suss out the cause and effect that brought things to this? Can we start at the end and accurately trace the antecedents back? But the human mind is never so neat and orderly, and several of them together become inscrutable. Is this just the tattered end of a crotchety old man's life, a random happening? Or is the fourth divorce officially a pattern? My sister-in-law is a hair stylist and knew of Sara because stylists learn stuff. She had some dirt. Details of Sara's and my own past, long lost in the dregs and sediment of the past, pushed forward with uneasy insistence--snippets of conversations, little electric details. Some of these now appeared suddenly sinister, laden with portent. But the mind is the great pattern-recognizer, the great gestalt machine. This is where ghosts come from.

I wonder at a brilliant and beautiful young girl--she was both of these absolutely--from a completely broken home (she was living with a grandmother when I knew her) having to face the rejections in love that are part of growing up. Did my treatment of her play a role in this tragic end? And what of that of my friend? There are many more details to this story, naturally, enough to raise the questions I have neither the natural savvy nor any training to attempt to answer.

The death of a butterfly. What if I had gone over and talked to her at the restaurant? What chain of events might that have set in motion? I'm not honestly inclined to blame myself much, there are so many pieces missing in the whole puzzle. But you have to wonder.


Lizzie said...

I've wondered these same things - not in relation to such a dramatic story, but in a "what if" way. What consequence might my seemingly insignificant action have had on someone else's life? Sometimes I think it's the ultimate exercise in narcissism and egoism, as if I think the universe hinges on me, but sometimes I think it's a perfectly valid question. Everything is connected and I think all of our actions have a ripple effect beyond that of which we are immediately aware. That's obviously not to say that your going over to her at the restaurant would have made any difference (you know I of all people would never pass judgment on avoiding someone from your past!) but I do think that we shape the futures of those people who are in our lives. I guess the question is to what extent though?

I don't know if any of that made sense, but I really enjoyed this post!

wunelle said...

I could not absolve myself from charges of egoism and self-centeredness (I know you were not making those charges at me)--there's plenty of that floating about in my character.

But of course her life moved on in leaps and bounds without me, and I just showed up again to ask questions at the cleanup. And yet, and yet. You just never know the role you play for others. I'm always amazed to run into people from my flying past and to learn that I had some unexpected big impact on some facet of their careers, something I TOTALLY had no clue or expectation about. And work, somehow, is not life.

But we all remember what messes we were in our teens, and how halting and clumsy that period of discovery was. Sara's story is just such a fertile field for idle inquiry (something at which I excel!).

BrianAlt said...

Wow! What an unexpected climax! Interesting story though.

I have a similar story, with a less dramatic ending.

I had a very serious high school girlfriend who I broke up with my Senior year in college for a girl I was dating since my Sophmore year in college. Yes, quite a bit of overlap. There was a bit of back and forth during that time. Well, I ended up marrying the college girlfriend.

Her family (she included) needed a lot of therapy, especially her dad. He was probably manic depressive. She had a good amount of her personality. One reason I couldn't be with her anymore, she was too much all over the place. Even though the sex was great, still the best ever.

Anyway, after my (now) wife and I got engaged, we visited my parents. I went to the men's room. When I returned, she and her family was sitting at the table next to us. I didn't see them. I came to the table and started excitedly talking about our engagement. In the middle of that, they nudged me to look at the other table. I looked, said, "oh," and just continued excitedly talking. I ignored them the whole time. They just sat there like they wanted to be anywhere else but there. Sad.

Anyway, years later I did end up emailing her and chatting over IM with her for a long time. I even saw her a couple of times. When that all threatened to end my marriage, I stopped.

Thankfully, no death involved yet.

wunelle said...

I never felt any draw toward Sara after our affair ended (probably because it was me that ended it). But I think there is something in looming past relationships that is always threatening to our life now. Especially when, as you say, the sex was good.

I have always striven to avoid even finding myself in a compromising place vis-a-vis these old flames. Nothing accomplishes this like death, tho (not to start any ugly rumors about anything).