I've spent so many words on the larger things lately--faith, sickness, healing--and from some inner curve of myself, I feel the need to balance it out with something smaller: the human interest piece after the stories of bombings and rescues, if you will. This memory has caught my attention a couple times in the past few weeks, like that particle in the water as it circles in the sink. Such a little thing, how does it keep snagging my attention and not just go down the drain?
I still can’t pinpoint what it was about him but, to borrow Josh Lyman's word*, he ensorcelled me; this half a lifetime later, it's the only word that holds up. I could say I loved him--"It might have grown to that," cries a younger me--but it didn’t, so it wasn’t. He spun me, but didn't toy with or trap me. We each meant the best in our different ways, and how much he knew--that what was friendly love was also something else--I couldn't say and certainly never told him. He was real and kind and present with me in a way I'd only guessed at from the stories, and I fastened myself to it, even as I felt his passage through and out of my life.
Here in the present tense, I hang up in the sky today, seatbelt fastened low and tight across my hips, and I let myself spin with the water as the moment snags me again. And as I'm snagged, I realize how little I actually remember: I can see him clearly, can sound out the feeling of being with him, but when it comes to actual memories, anything more than a snapshot, I only have the one. More fitting than strange, really--like most sorceries, the power fades with time.
Our collection of artsy-geeky friends are piled around the theater front doors and the sun is high and bright. It must have been the spring for how we are basking, eking out all the sun and green and warmth we can. In the instant just before, he has said something--not cruel, just gentle teasing--and I have turned away in feigned hurt. (This is a move I have seen in the stories, and it always plays out well for the girl.) There is a beat where I regret sliding away from him, chalking another tally for life falling short of the story--and then a hand has curved and tightened around my side and his head is on my shoulder and his voice floats just under my chin. "Aw, no," he says with my name. "You know I love you."
His hand holds and does not slide to curves north or south. The pose is held two, maybe three seconds before he pulls away to look in my face and see that no real hurt hides there, and the film roll flaps abruptly and I don't remember what follows.
It is such a tiny thing, but I held it so many times in my hands that I now, as I sit here in the clouds, it speaks to me in very simple truths:
That there are many loves in the world, and English faults at having only the one word for all of them.** I was cherished and loved and even held in that moment, and it was all meant fully, nothing withheld. Thorough friendship, solid and smooth. It isn't worth less because I wanted it in a different color.
That even for this woman who loves them, words are not enough. He followed the script to perfection, even to gesture and tone, but they didn’t serve. He was another's then, and has long since gone to be others' since, but never mine.
That memories can lie. It was in fact cold, gray November, or I had pizza sauce dropped on my shirt, or others in the circle rolled their eyes and murmured to each other--it's virtually certain. The photoshop of nostalgia, the softening and refocusing of self-preservation and pride, shines the memory the way fingertips polish a stone. I’ve just been reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: "By remembering it too often, I have blurred the memory itself."
But lastly, that in between the lies, memory holds purpose. There was truth and reliability in that moment that I didn’t see for a long time. Though we left each other's lives and are now different people--strangers, in fact--that afternoon ended up serving as a litmus test for me for years. Not a line of unattainable perfection like those other stories, but a way to see counterfeit more clearly and leave it more quickly, no matter the mood, the loneliness.
I guess I lied, too: I have one other memory of him. Two years later, I am visiting friends and without warning he is suddenly there, nearly as close as in that spring-November moment. And I see him and smile and hug and there is nothing remaining in me but the platonic, the love he had held me with once upon a time. I had been so far from him that I hadn't felt the release until it was long-done, without bitterness or ache.
No fairy tale, that. Not what I wished for as I waited at prom tables and backstage opening nights. But he gave more than he thought, and more than I knew at the time. Some lessons are fought and earned in tears and passion; others are slower and quieter in appearing, the stone turned over and over in the hand.
*English nerd and librarian to the core, I had to look up the episode for the real credit--and of course, that was written by Aaron Sorkin, the man himself. (The West Wing, Season 3, Episode 11.)
**without fail, this thought makes me think of Anthony Abbott’s "Carrot-Colored Words" (scroll to the second poem). Oddly, I found out this week that my father had similar feelings, choosing the made-up word "verg" instead of using one so unclear, worn out, and misused.