November 18, 1999
"Hi Marlene, this is a voice from your past!" said the message on my voice mail. The past, indeed. I dated Carl throughout high school. He was my first love, the guy who broke my heart and left lasting stretch marks from the weight I gained in the aftermath. He was calling now, after more than 30 years. Wow!
His wife, it turns out, had seen a notice that I was coming to speak at their local bookstore in Boca Raton, Florida. After looking me up on the Internet, they -- I mean, he -- called.
My friend Olivia says that calling me was cruel. He's married, what's the point? But I was intrigued by the overture. Life is messy. The past is a hedge around the soul. What we do with our memories and experiences shapes us like Edward Scissorhands' topiary. Mine were, at best, unkempt. I had not thought about Carl in so many years, the brambles and thorns between us were thick like Briar Rose's vines. Three days later, after I got a manicure and a new moisturizer, I called him back. I had some cleaning up to do.
In high school, Carl was something else. He was tall, a bear, with a football player's shoulders, the model for all the men I've known since.
We met at a Jewish youth conclave in Westchester, the weekend after John F. Kennedy was killed. We dated for months before he really kissed me; on the night of our junior prom in the back seat of a friend's old black Thunderbird.
Blonde hair and bright blue eyes. His own car was a flashy metallic blue Chevy Impala convertible. He had a great laugh.
Right away we were like some old couple. We dated every weekend; bowling and movies, football games, Broadway shows and restaurants in an old-fogy routine with other couples. I knit him three sweaters, one for every winter of our love.
He went away to college and, had we really been as mature as we felt, that would have been that. Still, we held on. He became jealous and I discovered feminism. "You don't own me!" I said. And then came the letter, that he was seeing Helene. I put on 25 pounds. And I never wanted to love again.
My mother once told me a story. She was 15 when she started dating my father. But apparently my dad was already late. She'd been seeing someone else, and my father didn't like competition. When they went to their high school reunion, nearly 60 years later, the man was still interested in my mother. My father nearly had a fit.
I thought about that now, waiting in the Florida humidity for Carl and Helene to arrive. Feelings don't die. Some lie dormant, like a virus, waiting for warmth. It was very, very weird. I was staying with my parents, and for a moment, time scaled backward and I was a teenager again, waiting for the blue Impala to appear down our block.
They drove a late-model Acura, bronze. His hair was still light brown, only slightly receded. He had jowls I couldn't remember, and a mustache that I could live without. I could see, by the way he held the door open, allowing her hip to brush against him, that they still had it for each other.
I'm good at these things, so don't worry about me. On the way to lunch, I sat in the back of the Acura and, as we talked about their son and my daughter -- now the age that we were when Carl and I dated -- I didn't think at all about the way I had once gently taken the measurement of his neck so my sweaters could fit over his large head. And I didn't consider the way the nape of his neck felt against my hand, or the soft flesh beneath his ears. On the morning after the prom, we lay on the sand at Jones Beach, making waves.
Because all the time we were gabbing about our children and our work and our lives' varying paths, I was focused on the occupant of the front passenger seat.
Helene is shorter, darker and calmer, but since it was her curiosity that sparked the meeting, quite a bit like me. Like the me I might have been if I'd married my first love and had stayed home in a secure marriage to raise our child. She's active in school and the Jewish community. We share the same values, natch.
But change places? Never. This was the day's big relief. I had been there when his mother died, but five years later, at his father's funeral, I was gone. A lifetime has passed and I've become, well, myself. Meanwhile, Helene had grown, too, making that life -- for which we might once have seemed interchangeable parts -- completely her own.
They took me to see their home, and lovely as it was, I thought happily of mine. I showed them photos of my own husband, who had been about the same age as Carl when my daughter was born. All the outcomes now seemed good.
Carl had been part of my life, as close to my heart as anyone had yet come, and I as close to his. We were each other's preparation for all that was to be. We'd been young, but not, as Nat King Cole once sang, too young to know.
Next time we meet, we'll double date.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, this Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center at 11 a.m. for a conversation "The Anxiety of Assimilation" with historian Riv-Ellen Prell. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
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