Face to Face with the Past:
Lance is fifty something, a college professor, and in his third marriage. We had little information beyond those few facts when we met him one day close to the end of a semester, when he was between conferences with students.
In this story within a story, we learn what happens when Lance sees Gwen, a former love, after twenty-five years. We also see that Lance's understanding of intimate relationships has evolved, that his sense of the role of vulnerability in intimacy has become clearer.
When I was a young man, and feeling I wanted to talk about relationships, I was afraid that I was so different from everyone else...the sense that you are the only thinking being, surrounded by rutabagas in shoes. I can remember being at college, with good friends, and them saying, "You are always talking about your old girlfriends." But it was just that I didn't not talk about them, and there was definitely the sense that...other people were uncomfortable with it, didn't do it. But to me, it seemed as if they were prominent features of my personal landscape.
I would see somebody, after all somebody about whom I had presumably been kind of enthusiastic, and would tell a story...I mean just mentioning something, not sexual intimacies. I was told that either it sounded as though I was boasting or as if I were insensitive to the feelings of the person I was with. And the important thing would be to pretend that I had never had a previous relationship, or to subsume it, entirely, so this person would be like the tree that became coal.
I have always tended to have some kind of good continuing relationship with prior girlfriends, with only a couple of very specific exceptions. This also has something to do with how one goes about making and then ending relationships.
* * *
IF YOU WERE TO HAVE SOME FOND MEMORY OF CLAUDIA [a former wife], WHAT WOULD YOU DO WITH THAT? I'd enjoy it! And if I were driving along with Iona I would talk about it. Also, she often talks about her old boyfriends, and I would find it hard to imagine what the relationship would be like with someone who didn't. It would be either impoverished or clouded in mystery and suspicion.
Iona has often said that she would far rather that I talk about my inner life, because she is afraid of being blind-sided by what she doesn't know. The whole idea that jealousy springs from nowhere is a potent one...that the less you hear about someone, the more you can believe there is stuff to hear about that you are not hearing. Which could possibly be more disturbing, that you are talking about someone from your past with great enthusiasm and fondness, or that you are talking about them furtively or not at all? But I can't imagine having an enjoyable relationship with somebody who didn't really enjoy the people they had been in relationships with.
* * *
DID YOU TALK WITH GWEN AGAIN AFTER YOUR VISIT?
Well, yes. I called several times, but I didn't get to talk to her for three weeks.
The first night, I started getting more and more depressed, and the following morning I woke up really depressed. I think it had to do with the fact that for twenty-five years, she had occupied virtually a divine place in my order of things, both in terms of the effect that she'd had on my life, and the way I saw her as a person...and that had really been destroyed. My view of her had been clearly a lot more ideal. It was a myth, but to have a myth taken away is a powerful loss.
IF YOU HAD IT TO DO OVER, WOULD YOU?
Oh yes. What I've realized is that you need to lose the myth. And neither that great sense of anticipation nor the tremendous letdown says anything, really, about the person. It does say a lot about hope...and about my habit of idealizing things. In a sense there was twenty-five years of looking forward to seeing her, and now that, as a force, was gone. And so there was a tremendous letdown just from that.
What that encounter had shown me is you can't get back there. No matter how close you think you got, there's a pane of glass between you. This business of not recognizing each other quickly dissipated and we really did recognize each other, and we really were close, but...we couldn't touch each other, and that was very instructive about the past in general.
* * *
AND WHEN YOUR WIFE TALKS ABOUT HER PAST RELATIONSHIPS?
Whenever you hear someone taking about a previous relationship, you have to suffer a little bit from what might be called "survivor smugness,"instead of survivor guilt. Because, after all, these are the ones that didn't make it. Most of the stories that she tells about previous boyfriends are about this guy who was always cheating on her. It wasn't hard to see what much of her jealousy of me was about. But the happier and more stable and contented she is, the more likely she is to tell more positive stories about old boyfriends, ones that I'd never heard of. I think the more bitter we are, the more we remember bitterness, and the happier we are, the more we remember happiness.
IS IT HARDER TO HEAR ABOUT THE NICE GUYS?
Yes, I suppose so. Because then there is a sense of comparison...this is a virtue, this is a quality. Just recently she was talking about this guy who was a French horn player...and she is a musician. And I remember definitely feeling a little twinge of, this was something that somebody else had that I didn't.
* * *
There are always dangers to intimacy...always fears of intimacy. It seems to me that it would be a strange person that didn't feel some need to protect himself or herself to some degree. People do it in different ways, and they are more or less aware of how they do it. One of the great challenges of being in a relationship is noticing self-protection as a habit or an individual occurrence, and then allowing yourself to be wrong, or allowing yourself to be vulnerable, or allowing yourself to be open to criticism or to attack, or allowing yourself to be open to joy.
* * *
I feel sad if I feel that the strength of my fondness for someone is something that I need to disguise or hide, if I feel I shouldn't talk about that because Iona wouldn't understand and it would cause trouble. So there is definitely a loss if that happens. It used to happen more, but there is a lot more trust than there used to be.
This freedom to talk about deep feelings is important. I am thinking about the amount of emotional energy that we have available to us that we mostly don't use. We may not even be aware of its existence. It is only when we find the emotional core of our being that our lives have any meaning to us or to others.
I also take this in a slightly more mystical sense, in the way that Coleridge talks about the imagination, as something which links a sensibility in ourselves with a kind of universal sensibility. And so the loss that I am thinking about is that any opportunity to discover that strength and emotion, that core, if we don't use it, is a loss.. Shying away from the processing of experience or shutting it down is at best a lost opportunity to open to energy and use it. I don't believe that there is a difference between good and bad emotions. But it feels like a necessary and kind of brave thing to do, to let all this stuff come up and have its being. If I do that, I can find some peace. And so to me all those things are connected.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU FEEL IS TOO SACRED, TOO SPECIAL ABOUT A PAST RELATIONSHIP TO SHARE WITH YOUR WIFE?
No! I can imagine myself not sharing it because it would be intimidating to Iona. In other words, this is how wonderful things were, and things in this relationship are not that wonderful. But I can't imagine wanting to keep it sacred, if only because this is the relationship I am committed to, the one I want to make work, the one that has superseded all previous relationships. If the previous relationships are the stuff of my life that I am trying to make sense of, if I have any sense at all, then that process of trying to make sense of these things is what both of us chew on, together or separately, each day. I can't imagine wanting to hold onto something in the past to protect it from the present. To me, that's pathological.
Lance's visit with Gwen, like Carl's visit with Marcia, is a journey taken on behalf of everyone who has fantasized about reconnecting with a former love. When he saw Gwen he experienced a heady combination of re-connection, confusion, and loss of a myth. But he also understood how important it was to lose that myth...and still be able to hold onto the sense of the gift and specialness of his earlier lover.
Yet even with his strong intention to experience the core emotions of intimacy, Lance says that the pursuit of intimacy is very difficult. When he compares the vulnerabilities of the road to the vulnerabilities of being in intimate relationship, he says that relationship is, for him, the more scary.
Do all "lost" loves have a special allure, a memory so enhanced by both the loss itself and the changes wrought by time that they take on an almost mythic quality? Does a lost love -- especially if you were the one left -- possess a power that no lover in the present can ever match?
Yes, there is something appealing about the unattainable, unavailable, the lost. One can, in fantasies, imagine "how it would have been," especially if the relationship ended long before there was a chance to find out how a life together was really going to be. And the ordinary times of disagreement are over, the inevitable taking for granted is over. The lost love has passed beyond the humbling truth of everyday loving and living into a realm that is almost sure to enhance that person's sterling qualities and soften their less appealing traits. All this makes it too easy to have stardust memories and yearn -- secretly, of course -- for the unattainable, wonderful, lost love. But does that mean that the less said, the better? We don't believe it means that at all. If anything, it seems that keeping such a lost love in your private keepsake drawer is more likely to give that lover a mythic dimension than speaking opening and honestly about the whole relationship ever would.