Sunday, September 28, 2008

persistence of memory

Today I was standing in the supermarket looking over the different coffees. I was in my sweatpants and clogs, and my hair was in my face. At times I think that I have taken my return to the land of sloppy from the land of matching accessories and designer labels to an extreme. But somehow here it just works. Everyone here looks like me, I think.

So I was looking through the coffees and there it was, a feeling creeping up my back, over the top of my head and into my face. I could feel the presence of someone from my past. Someone who I can't quite seem to forget, even though it has literally been twenty years since our brief encounter in time, someone who I can still just think about and feel my knees wobble a bit, my breath sucking in between my teeth. This person doesn't live anywhere near me as far as I know. This person is married as am I, probably happily, as am I. This person is probably nothing like what I remember him to be; he is a specter from the past, from my subconscious. Oh how those we only remember become grand. How they take on mythic proportions, the subtleties falling away, leaving only sweeping gusts of emotion. That gut sinking feeling I had when I was twenty, when a person who loved me rejected me for reasons I still do not understand.
There I was smelling the coffee, and as I willed myself to turn around, I knew before my focus peered down the aisle that he wasn't really there. Maybe it was the smell of the coffee, my hair in my face, my feeling of youthfulness. Maybe it was the dark hair of someone I saw from the back in the parking lot as he walked to his car. Someone taller than my husband and so much haughtier, so much more complicated and withholding.

I can't help but wonder if I am the only one who runs into a ghost without warning. I imagine he even now hears my name, which is so common, and feels his neck prickle. I imagine the picture of me at twenty, a bit disheveled and flowery, distracted and feeling intense, creeping up behind him in the supermarket. He turns and realizes that it is not me at all; it is someone else's blond hair and laugh, some other Jennifer. He feel his heart sink and then feels relieved, and turns back to his wife's grocery list. He feels a bit of a fool, standing there at 40, happily married, a father, to be opening that door to a past that has taken on impossibly romantic proportions, with all the angst of youth that seems so silly now.

Will we meet again? I crept down the aisle of the grocery store, here in my small mountain town with oh so many out of town visitors. Will I be skiing down the ski slope, riding up the chairlift, waiting in the airport, sitting on a plane? Will I be alone or with my beloved family? Will I be older than I am now, elderly even? Will it never happen?

I think not. About five or six years ago I was in New York City. I was walking down 23rd Street to an art gallery, and as I passed by the 23rd St. subway station there he was, climbing the steps. He was gray and had a beard. He was taller than I remembered. He was walking fast and alone, and still a bit haughty. He was heading straight for me but hadn't seen me yet. And I turned away. I saw him pass me by and stop for a moment. Stop in his tracks. Then he walked on.

I'm sure he would have done the same.


anno said...

You caught this one just right: an unexpected encounter with that single gesture, the one detail that somehow unearths a person and feelings you thought you had long ago shed. It would stop me in my tracks, too.

jen said...

oh sister, this was amazing.

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