How do you talk to the past about the present?
I talked to an old friend from high school recently. High school, for me, was three lifetimes ago. Maybe more. And it’s hard enough to talk to someone you just saw last week, last month, last year but this friend and I were were close for a short time in high school and we last spoke three years ago. I would call this “keeping in touch” because we’ve talked and seen each other in and out over the years but not in the the right way. It’s not a relationship but more like a pen pal. Even though we text, even though we used AOL, used Messenger, used Telegram, used Google Hangout there is a long lag of years and years between the messages as if they were sent from foreign lands. He’s not a social media guy and even though I avidly use social media I doubt you can glean anything more from it than where I live and that I sometimes eat food and listen to music you don’t like. But there’s a question that hangs delicately between us, between any two people who don’t really know what to say to each other when they talk:
How have you been?
But really, how have I been? How do I condense 2 or 3 years and the imperceptible and unknowable amount of life I experienced during them into a feeling or even a sentence. Do I tell him about my traveling? My food? My classes? My lackluster writing? My empty yearning? My constant retread of childhood traumas? How I miss him sometimes like a weird toothache and how I don’t even know how to miss him because I’m sure he and I wouldn’t recognize each other in a crowd. Even though once I could have recognized him by heart.
And the thing is we were close. We were car seats reclined while the waves crashed against the shore close. We were holding hands and whispering feelings in the dark close. We were it’s complicated because I love you and I hate you close. We were so close that I can’t remember a time when we met and don’t remember when we stopped talking either. Somewhere between when I left and when I decided that the past was too painful a thing to have to conjure every time I saw him standing there, existing as some temporal anomaly.
So what do I tell him about how I’ve been. What do I tell anyone how I’ve been.
Because the last time I was honest with him I was drunk, crawling into his bed, causing trauma even with all my clothes on. He was mad, yelling at me, and I was crying in his car without my shoes on. We were quiet, sitting side by side and I thought ‘oh, he’s already gone’ when I was the one leaving. It’s not that anyone ever really knows you anyway but it just occurs to me when I’m starring at the white box of the chat window that this is more like going to a wedding as a friends plus one, wedged between strangers, sucking down free shrimp and spinning the tale of the most perfect version of myself instead of how it should be. How I want it to be. Hanging out with a friend. Catching up.
He doesn’t know me. I can be any version of myself I want. Because he’s going to leave again. He’s going to leave and come back in 3 weeks, in 6 months, in 3 years when he’s on vacation and bored, waiting for his wife to wake up. Just like he’s bored now waiting for his girlfriend to wake up and he messages that friend he hasn’t seen in three years and he wants to know: who are you now? Are you still a piece of me?
So I tell him about the trip I took last month. I tell him about my husband’s job. About the country I live in now even though I’ve lived here long enough for it to not be new to anyone I actually know. I tell him about my local friends as if he wants gossip from 4000 miles away. I tell him about my future plans like he’ll just pop in next week to see if they’re accomplished or not. I joke about all the places I’ve been that he’s missed and he tells me that it all sounds exciting.
It’s just life. It’s just three years of my life, condensed down for consumption. It’s three years pressed into a tiny 60 minute cube of conversation. To be swallowed and digested later. And I cut out all the bad parts, a self inflicted exoticism. There’s no crying on the kitchen floor in this story, there’s no aimlessness, no useless false starts, no mistakes or betrayals, and there are definitely no mornings when I wake up and miss him even though he is no more than a nebulous idea. A dream long gone before I woke up in this life.
I ask him how he is and he tells me his life isn’t glamorous like my life. As if my life is somehow suffused uniquely with meaning (it isn’t). He runs me through a regular day. Tells me he’s happy. There is no detail. No side trips to a silly story and no candy coat. Instead he gives me a clinical list. He went to slot A, he works on his project slot B, and he functions like slot C. He is the IKEA of humans. Some assembly of his life required. Maybe when I finish making sense of him I’ll have some pieces missing or maybe I’ll have some extra pieces.
But I still won’t have him. So at least some things haven’t changed.
And I know that the past is past and maybe even the past isn’t the past. The past is our memory of it, never quite the way it was. All those edges shaved off and all those fights and festivities narrowed down to blips and dots instead of blow outs and cliffhangers. The bright gets brighter and the dim fades into nothingness. We keep reaching for each other because we remember something, a spark. A sameness. We remember it’s complicated and I miss you and I will always be here. But I think maybe we remember them wrong.
Because the question doesn’t seem to be “how have you been” because I don’t care how he’s been, I want to know who he is now. I want to rip into him the way I used to. A merciless carrion who could rend just the right strips of flesh from his body and taste down to the marrow of him. Except that isn’t who we are any more. He is an ocean away, a dream, a memory of an echo of a memory. I do not know how he is because I didn’t live through it with him. I lived and he lived, it’s true, and we have both been. Been somewhere. Been separate. Been distant. Been other.
And yet, I hope he writes to me again. Even if it is three, five, ten years from now. I hope he is on vacation and his wife is asleep and he grows bored enough to write to me “how have you been” so I can tell him that I have been without. That despite it all I have missed him. Even though I have missed everything, it is true that I have been.