What is it about the heart’s ability to feel an emotion not felt for decades? Is it only mine that refuses to relinquish a heartache more than twenty years old?
This time it began with a dream. I had slumbered back to Kensington, a Maryland suburb hard by the shoulders of the Washington Beltway, where I spent just about exactly my teen years. So did this one girl. She went to my junior and senior high school and captured my heart in a big big way. Only she never knew. I didn’t let her. I was afflicted with shy-guy disorder, where the more you want to know a girl the more terrified you are of talking with her.
In this dream I got over it. After two decades she still lived in the same house, was still single and now was ecstatic over my appearance, torch in hand. We fell deep into each others arms, happy as only two long-separated and reunited lovers can be. The last thing I recall was grappling with the hellish choice of whether to hide or reveal the affair to my wife, who was back home, with our two kids. End of dream.
My real-life infatuation with this girl was not a fleeting one. It flourished all the years we went to school together. Any sighting or happenstance exchange put a flutter in my heart and in my gut, and each imbued me with a confidence I would eventually break the ice. A confidence I would outgrow my shyness and learn to do what everyone else could do: talk with people I wanted to talk with.
The real encounter I remember most is our last one. We were newly out of high school. I was walking along Cedar Lane and suddenly noticed exactly one other person on that sidewalk, coming my way, walking her dog. It was her. What I noticed first was her wide and glowing grin, evidence she was honestly happy to see me. “Durbin! Hi!” Could it be? It was more than a courtesy hello. More than a fare she felt obliged to pay before continuing on her walk. She halted before me and was clearly in no hurry to move on.
Imagine happening onto the darkened stage of an immense and sold-out theatre. The lights burst on and suddenly you realize you are expected to perform for this overwhelming audience. My audience was standing on the next sidewalk square, there on Cedar Lane.
Our chat was awkward. My gift for gab has never been much greater than, oh, my gift for championship figure-skating. I do know my fight-or-flight mechanism opted instinctively for the latter. It couldn’t have been more than a minute before I hurried out one of my ever ready adieus, leaving her to scratch her head from within, wondering what was my hurry. Occurs to me only now she must have thought I had to go to the bathroom. Anyway, we exchanged so-longs and went on our ways.
I’ve not seen her since. Her name comes up during games of whatever-happened-to, played with one of the handful of high school friends I keep up with. Last I heard she went off to the school she’d always had her sights on.
Then I have this dream. Then the next day I’m alone in the car and hear Stevie Wonder’s song from the seventies that goes, “If you really love me, won’t you tell me?” My chest gets slightly heavy, pressure builds behind my eyes, and every muscle in my body is just a touch weaker – the palpable pangs of longing for an unattainable love.
Had this happened a few years back, when my neurotransmitters were in shorter supply, a rush of unstoppable tears would have pushed me to the side of the road. My mind is stronger now with walls emotionally unbreachable by such assaults. I can let my left hemisphere take charge and examine intellectually this curiousity of travelling through time behind a cannonball heart.
Now I can safely and simply wonder, wonder who she really did fall in love with and how it went. I wonder where she is right now and what she is thinking and feeling this very moment. I wonder… what if? What if I had just turned around that day on Cedar Lane and said, “You want some company?” What if she had given her face a little why-not wrinkle and said, “Sure.” What if we had started going out? What if we had married? How many of my fantasies would have come to life?!
Perhaps those walls aren’t so unbreachable after all.
Time to think at this some more, to reality check what really has happened since those Kensington days. In real life I fell furiously in love with a woman who would become my wife. My priceless experiences with her are uncountable. And uncountable experiences with my kids are priceless. Our son was moved the other day to put down his crayons to embrace me and shower me with “Daddy I really do love you.” My daughter toddles up to me each night as I come through the door, with an ever-recognizing smile and her first word, a version of “hi” that comes out a long and breathy “haahhh…”
Had I turned around on Cedar Lane? I don’t know what would have happened. But I know what would have not.
There must be some evolutionary explanation for flights of the heart back to times past. No doubt something about keeping track of potential mates. Can the vestigial tendency be of any value to me? A middle-aged man well beyond his courting days? They do teach me something about infatuation, that endorphin-rich sensation drawing our hands to glistening gifts. Infatuation illuminates the wrapping. But of course what matters most is what’s inside. And what we do with it. And how we appreciate it.