Monday, October 12, 2015

The one that got away

From the old pictures, I can see that he was a handsome young man.  Tall, clear-eyed, with a kind face.  A good athlete, particularly adept at tennis.  Smart, with an aptitude for math and sciences.

The picture of potential.  

He did well at college and had friends and girlfriends.  Despite having grown up in a somewhat dysfunctional family, with a mother who was uninterested and unloving and selfish and who, by all accounts, fit the DSM criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, he displayed less of the meanness and depressiveness that ran on his mother's side, and more of the sweetness and benevolence of his father.  

In his early 20s, he had adventures in Europe with friends.  He wore the customary red neckerchief to run with the bulls in Pamplona.  In an age before cellphones, he and his buddies wandered on their own and then reconnected by having faith in the inexorable pull of every major foreign city's American Express office, where they always found each other again.

He lived with a certain verve.

At some point in his late 20s, he married a woman, because it was time to get married.  She must have held a certain exotic appeal for him - he was always drawn to Latin American women - but that appeal wore off quickly.  

He ran a successful business and made money, which she promptly spent on frivolity - expensive European cars that she would insist on sending back to Europe to be serviced, high end designer couture purchased from Nieman Marcus, jewelry.  He made more money, she spent more money. Notwithstanding this apparently high standard of living, no one ever goes to their house because she is a hoarder.  She feigns depth by adopting different religions and different names to go with them, but at bottom, she is shallow and silly and mean.

To the outside world, they demonstrate no love or passion or even interest in each other.  They coexist on small talk.

They had one daughter who, despite being educated in an expensive Swiss boarding school (at her mother's insistence), has never shown any drive or motivation to do anything beyond work a series of administrative jobs in plastic surgery practices.  

He has no grandchildren, and thus has nothing to add while he watches and listens to his siblings and cousins rave about theirs.

For as long as I have known him, he has shown none of the verve of his youth - he is  physically soft, weak-chinned, socially awkward, nonconfrontational to the point of allowing others to bully him a little bit.  In family gatherings, he is overwhelmed by his louder, more assertive siblings, who, over the years, have encouraged him to leave his wife.  But he never did or could.

I'm reminded of Tony Soprano's description of his mother's effect on his father - that she wore him down to a little nub.  

My brother points out that if you stop talking and listen, you can learn all sorts of interesting things.  

And so we ask him about his life and he talks and we listen.  

We listen to him describe a great love he had for a young woman he was with when he was 25 and she was 18.  She was an exchange student from South America, and by all accounts, was beautiful and lovely and sweet.  He was in love, and would have married her had she stayed in the United States, but she was young and heading back to her home country for school.  

Before she went back, her school group took a trip to Washington, DC, to see the nation's capitol. She called him and said, come down and spend the weekend.  Meet me at the Washington Monument.

He caught a flight.  He waited for her at the Washington Monument.  She surprised him by coming up behind him and throwing her arms around him.  His description of this incident makes it clear that it was one of the most blissful moments of his life.

She returned home and eventually married and became a psychologist.  She has children and grandchildren.

But she has kept in touch over 50 years.  First through letters, and then through email.  She emails him every year on his birthday, and always has kind, fond words for him.

About 25 years ago, when he was traveling on business, he reconnected with her.  The feelings and chemistry were there.  He tells us that he tried to make love with her, but was so nervous and overwhelmed by the situation that he couldn't do it.

Our eyes bug out upon hearing this extraordinarily personal, intimate revelation.  But he seems impervious to embarrassment about it.  As if he's so beaten down, what's one more thing?  It is heartbreaking on so many levels.

Today is his 77th birthday.  He will experience the flush of joy that accompanies the annual missive representing everything he wanted but never got.

And then he will continue with the life he has.

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