One constant among people of a certain age is their oft reiterated statement that they don’t feel as old as they are. Those who don’t say it aloud at least think it, and I believe the only exceptions to this are people who are so worn by illness or addiction or work they loathe and who can no longer escape the fact that they feel as much dead as they do old. The very first day that the thought enters one’s head that one doesn’t feel as old as he or she is, is the day that person stops being young.
One pretends one is merely trying to look good, or that it is just that grey hair doesn’t frame the face properly or has any one of a million reasons why one dives obsessively into the gym or the hair-color section of the pharmacy or into those sections of the more expensive clothing shops that offer high necks or reinforced tight waists or flattering (i. e., concealing) hemlines, waistlines, sleeves. One writes in personal ads, “I look younger than that” as he or she discloses an age from which they have subtracted a year or two in the first place. “Age is just a number!” one cries, forgetting that rich is just a number also, but some numbers matter; they make a difference. Such numbers may not change how nice one is, or how charming or how wise or how worthy of friendship, but they change people’s perception, they change one’s own perception. You do not excuse what you do not consider.
But before this day of denial come the passionate years – so few in number – that these people deceive themselves into believing are just around that last corner, just beyond that last rise, sure to be revisited shortly. So it is with goodbyes, most of which, in most of our lives, go unsaid. “I never had a chance,” says the grieving spouse or child or parent or friend on the six o’clock in-depth look at the latest tragedy, “to tell him/her/them how much I loved…” But those are the dramatic farewells, ones which are sudden and newsworthy and noted as they happen. So much more common, and so insidiously debilitating to the heart are those unrealized goodbyes, the moves, graduations, retirements, job changes, marriages, births of children, new interests which separate us as regularly as cells die and are replaced in our skin. “I’ll never forget you guys!” we cry with hearts full as we separate from them, clutching the humorous card signed by the whole gang, and the gifts and mementos and scrawled phone numbers. We assumed we’d write or call or drop by; we meant to do so – we may have sworn to do so, but time passes, and people whom we would have visited or called without a second’s hesitation any time of the day or night become people who might be busy, might not wish to be interrupted, might not feel quite the same as us about a call at this hour or on this day. And, anyway, can’t they call us? And they become like pictures on our wall, captured in a flash or painted in a single afternoon, and now unchanging, taken for granted; we imagine our friends to look as they did when we last saw them or first met them: young, fresh, funny, interesting, even when we know this is impossible. They are changed as we are changed, and even should we write one day, or call in a fit of nostalgia or with a longing to have it all back again just one more time, the promises to meet taper off, and if we do meet, there comes a point after twenty minutes or an hour of ‘remember when’ – that moment comes when the only thing to say is, “And what are you doing now?” or a similar version of the query, “Who are you, anyway?” We see, perhaps only dimly, that this was not a hello again but a goodbye. If we do not see it, then the other person will, and no matter how sincere is the effort to be whom we once were together, the effort fails and we begin to think of how we can leave this time – how soon can we draw this meeting to a close; we feel the pull of our current life, even if that life is alone in a room with only a television.
Everyone we have left behind - everyone that mattered, at least - is like an old film or book we loved, and which we may re-watch or re-read a thousand times, even seeing certain scenes in a new light, or noticing details that we missed previously, but ones which are finished, written, preserved up to, and including, that final phrase, “The End” which is splashed across a final rolling shot of the lovely scenery where the action unfolded; we see the cast of characters down to the minor parts where we find ourselves thinking, “Oh, I had forgotten she appeared in this.”
When we put down a perfect book or leave a perfect movie, we long so much to spend more time with the characters that so moved us. In this time of easy gratification, these wishes seem more and more often to be pandered to with sequels, but the conventional wisdom – and truth – is that the sequel is never as good. There have been exceptions, but generally in such rare cases that sequel then led to a further sequel which is, in nearly every case, appalling. The fact is that in fiction as in life (a fact which contributes much to truly great fiction), one cannot do it over again. A great film can only be made once ( a remake is never the same film - it is updated, removing those frozen-in-time touches that placed it in its era); a great book can only be written once and a great summer, or job, or vacation, or friendship, or romance or circle of friends can only be marked by your departure once, even when that departure seems temporary or just a slight bend in an ongoing road. Life’s sequels are promised or marked by some form of the plea, “Let’s keep in touch.” But you were not in touch while it lasted – you were in constant proximity, real or mental, and it was an embrace, a clinging, a passionate attention to each other and, even if the circle you left included people you hated or who ignored you most of the time, they were there, they were real, they were felt, they had to be taken into account. Now, as with dead heroes, they are nothing but pictures, they are stories told too often and with the same words until they are a grey worn habit more than a real time with real people. Like George Washington, they have come down to a lifeless litany: wooden teeth, father of his country, a cherry tree, a general, a dollar, the first president, an unfinished portrait - that one that is in the White House, maybe, painted by someone whose name is on the tip of your tongue, a Jeopardy question.
Seeing an old friend after some years is somewhat like seeing for the first time a person whom one had come to know only from telephone conversations. No one ever looks as one has imagined them. That vibrant, manly voice from this weedy little man? That soft alluring voice from this angry-faced, repellent woman? We are flooded with those aspects of the old friend from which our memory has smoothed the details: the habit of clearing the throat, the insistence on getting the time and date exactly right, the taste in clothing, the nervous laugh that accompanies every remark, the insistence on an ironic distance from every emotion.
My cousin Warren, who has had a somewhat episodic life because his mother is one of those people who finds new enthusiasms and new jobs in far-flung places, and who saw his father infrequently after his mother discarded him along with whatever he represented for a time, shocked me by telling me that he always considers friendships as temporary things. I am quite the opposite, the very essence of a friendship to me is that it will be forever. Yet, I am much like Warren’s mother, constantly moving, looking for the new meaning, imagining that this time I have found what I was looking for. If I look honestly at my situation, I have only one friend who is still truly my friend after many years. There are a handful of people with whom I am ‘in touch’, with whom I still usually imagine I am friends as I once was. One of these, my old college and surfing buddy, Moondoggie, sent me a letter two Christmases ago, wryly referring to it as ‘our annual catch-up letter’. This year I wrote the first of our annual exchanges, although it was several months past Christmas and thus even more indicative of the fading that is happening between us. We will always love each other, ‘love’ meaning a friendship that was truly felt, not any romantic thing – and we will always think of each other in the present tense, at least until one of us dies. But we will never again be Moondoggie and Dave, the guys who could talk all night, the guys who could somehow sense what each other was thinking or feeling. Moondoggie will forever be California and I am forever (I think now) New York. I may – I hope I will – visit him again a time or two, but I know that he will never visit me. (I seem to be the half of most pairings who does the visiting.)And the number of times we will see each other again can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
As much as I rail against the idea, and shocked as I was by Warren’s calm assertion of the temporariness of friendship (though I see that it is true for both him and me), the fact is that there are now people whom I have never met in the flesh who know me better than many folks I still half-consciously think of as my best friends.
I really have to stop reading coming-of-age novels, especially on rainy days; just see what it is doing to me!