When I have forgotten everything else, I wonder if I’ll be able to forget you.
In June, it will have been 28 years since we met in your classroom. I don’t even know if you remember me at all, given the extraordinary life you lead, but the role you played in my life has dominated everything else from that first day forward. You once told me you could marry me tomorrow–that you would put me on a pedestal and worship me–but you feared that I would leave you, and you couldn’t handle it. I was young, but I knew I’d never leave you nor stop loving you. What I understood, but didn’t fully realize for years, was the fact that you also couldn’t handle letting go of a life you had built for a quarter century. I know today it would be impossible to do that myself, no matter how strongly I felt–even if it meant having you.
Hearing you say you could have married me was a validation, but it also turned me into stone. Having tasted true love, I wanted nothing else, and your presence only reminded me of that every day until I finally tore myself away from you.
You had asked me if we could still be friends. No…I couldn’t be your friend in the sense that we’d hang out and have a beer now and then. We had tried to be friends from the beginning, but, as you once put it, you couldn’t keep your hands off of me. What you don’t know was that yours was the only touch I craved, and you were never as lecherous as your comment implied. Who else would have thought, as we sat side by side in an empty classroom, to do nothing more than draw one finger slowly, tenderly down my arm and, reaching my hand, clasp it…who else ever treated me as gently as you did? You could have had me in any way you wanted, but you never took advantage of me. Other men tried and failed, even in your presence. You were jealous if I ever looked at another man, apparently unaware that no one could have taken me from you. Yet it was you who told me to go to the man who became my husband, then ex-husband, and finally lifetime companion. It never occurred to me until much later that your noble gesture came straight out of Casablanca.
Everyone who knew us also knew how we felt about each other. Nothing beyond kisses on three separate occasions ever materialized, though people assumed that it did. I never would have been accepted in your circle of friends, or by your family. And how could I face them, considering the enormity of what I felt for you? How could I inflict my presence on them? The one time you invited me to a party, a few months after we first confessed all to each other, I felt like a pariah and fled early, but not before you drew me close to whisper something very sweet, kissing me in view of everyone. I had once dreamed of the day you could kiss me in public, but never envisioned that you would do so at a party celebrating your silver wedding anniversary. It couldn’t have been worse. You’d been drinking and you probably paid dearly later, but as much as I loved you, I refused to play the other woman.
With the memory of that night still vivid in my mind, to your question, “Can we still be friends?” I replied, “I can’t promise you that,” and turned away, never to speak with you again.
I’ve always felt sorry for that, but I don’t regret doing it. Walking away from you didn’t change my feelings for you–it underscored them. It would have been selfish to expect anything more than what you had already given me.
The last time I last laid eyes on you was 15 years ago, the afternoon Lisa and I were having a drink at the university club. You walked in with half the department, people I knew well, and not one of them acknowledged my presence. I didn’t care, as I had burned those bridges long ago. That you failed to give me a nod didn’t surprise me, but it hurt. Lisa and I sat and drank, making jokes at the other professors’ expense. She knew you well and went to your table to say hello; when she came back, she cheerfully reported that you hadn’t appeared to remember her at all.
Eventually Lisa excused herself to use the restroom, leaving me by myself. Your colleagues got up to leave at the same time. Feeling defeated, I stared out the window at the dreary street below, my fingers wound tightly around the stem of my wine glass, until suddenly, I was taken with the urge to look up.
Lagging behind the group, you stood by the exit staring at me. From that distance our eyes locked, each of us reading the other’s mind. As you disappeared into the hallway, I realized that no one else had ever been able to do that to me. Ever since I was 23, as if by telegraph, you could send an electric signal across a crowded hallway or classroom, shocking me out of oblivion to turn my head and meet your gaze. You spoke to me subconsciously–from four blocks away–on the rare occasions I slept through class, repeating yourself when we saw each other later.
Then, we had been in love.
That afternoon, in the dimness of the club, it seemed we still were.
The only time I see you now is in dreams. I’ve awakened to find myself unable to breathe, my heart on the verge of stopping, my body and soul burning because I dreamed you kissed me. As I grow older, my dreams of you are less about passion and more about longing, wanting some kind of resolution–or perhaps absolution; I don’t know. Last night I dreamed I saw you in a crowd. You reached out both arms to me and I fell into them gladly, relishing your proximity. At the same time I felt I was clutching a ghost, and indeed I was, as you vanished without a word.
I’ve stayed away from you physically, but in my mind I’ve held on. I see your face in photographs people post of you at school, or with your family, or on vacation in some exotic locale. I’ve read things about your health and want to tell you how sorry I am, but I haven’t the right. The Internet has made us all stalkers in a way no one should ever be, though I have only looked at things that are in public view. You were always so private, and seeing you unguarded seems very wrong, but it’s all I have left.
Did you ever wonder what might have been? I’ve thought about it, and the conclusion is always the same: You made the right choice. Everything has its reason, and the reason for this is no simpler that, in fact, you would have lost everything. You would have even lost me. Perhaps you sensed I was dying even when I was young.
These days, you wander around the world, you’re surrounded by your children and grandchildren, and you still teach, despite everything you’ve suffered. (I see you scoffing: “What did you expect me to do?”) You have the career to which I once aspired, that now I will never know. Despite all your success, when I see you facing outward in a photograph, I see something in your eyes that breaks my heart.
It’s longing. It’s always been part of you, and you’ve told me so, but this longing is for something intangible.
Like resolution–or absolution.
If only it were mine to give.