How do we remember our lives?
We tell ourselves stories, we use our will and imagination to contrive linear narratives, but the result is a sham: the moments that mean most to us flicker separately, strung out along the hippocampus like the house- lights on a night-dark coast.
When I recall Sophie Zambarano’s visit, I see it in patches of remembered perception, brightly lit tableaux, cave paintings on the folds of the cortex:
My daughter Caroline coming into my newly cleaned house, glancing at the flowers on the table and saying. “I know what’s going on. She’s coming.” I loved the amused, conspiratorial look on her face, though it had made me nervous. You can’t slip much past a nine year old girl, and you’d be foolish to try
Then: driving to the airport to pick Sophie up, stricken with the thought that I wouldn’t recognize her. That was banished by the quick physical jolt of actually seeing her walking across the tarmac, like the moment when you crest a hill too fast and your stomach stays airborne a split second longer than your car. She was thinner than I remembered, and her hair was longer, a great brown mane, scattered by the wind. But the face was the same.
My favorite face. Was it really that simple? Maybe it was.
She smiled and waved and I waved back thinking about all the other beautiful women I’d seen in other airports, accidental stranger whom I did not happen to have gone to college with, in whose eyes I had seen no recognition or reunion; it has always seemed so arbitrary. I would think – why shouldn’t I have known that woman? Perhaps if I’d stayed at BU instead of transferring to Hampshire, I would have met her in Psych class. Nothing else would be different. And I could so easily have been thinking that same rueful thought as Sophie came through the terminal door, staring at this woman with whom I would have fallen in love at first sight at any time or place, under any circumstances. I grabbed her, pulling her into a hug before we had time to speak, safe from imaginary heartbreak, accidentally blessed.
Her hair had the same musky smell, spiked with the citrus of the same shampoo. It was twenty years ago. My life between had been a dream.
Her first words: “Are we crazy?”
I smiled into her hair. “Certifiable.”
She wanted to walk. I took her to the beach at Wauwinet: a narrow strip of sand running between the Atlantic and Nantucket harbor, with the spires of town minutely visible in the distance over the calm water on one side and the gale-tossed sea on the other. A scattering of gray-shingled houses, still boarded up against the winter, rising from the dunes under an impossible dome of cloudless blue sky. The silence has a grain to it out there, raised and rough like the driftwood on the beach, made up of the wind and the breaking waves, the buzz of distant airplanes, the bark of a dog. This was a natural beauty built to human scale – nothing was dwarfed or diminished, a companionable immensity of light and space, wild but welcoming.
And it was a painfully romantic spot. Its bare uncluttered beauty seemed to demand some answering nakedness of spirit. In this bright, wind-scoured place, the strongest feelings of your life were just another part of the landscape, like the wind in the dune grass or the sandpiper tracks in the sand.
I took her hand and we talked. I asked about her boyfriend.
“What does he look like?
“Looks don’t matter to me.”
“Let me put it another way – does he have any major deformities?”
She shoved me away a little, but kept hold of my hand. “He’s short and he’s losing his hair, but he has beautiful hands. He writes travel books. He wrote one about Nantucket, actually. It’s part of a series – how to have an inexpensive vacation in the great resort towns of America. Aspen, Carmel, Nantucket … a couple of others. I was going to bring it with me and read it while I was here …”
“I left it at home.”
Did we talk more about the boyfriend? I can’t remember, but at some point we left him behind, like a shell we had picked up and discarded.
The wind churned against us, steady out of the north east. It was kicking up the sand and the air was gritty. Finally it discouraged her. “I feel like it’s brushing my teeth,” she said. We walked back to the car and sat there in the warmth, letting the engine run while the wind rocked us.
I remember she said something funny about her “inner child”. Her shrink was always trying to put her in touch with that elusive individual. “I have no problem finding my inner child,” Sophie said. “In fact I can’t get rid of her. And I hate that little bitch. She’s a spoiled brat. I want to send her away to military school – let her get ostracized and rejected by the other inner children. That would shape her up! Before she turns into my inner adolescent and really makes my life miserable.”
I remember we sat talking for a long time, looking out the windows at the harbor and the big shuttered hotel. Then the talk ran out and the kiss that hadn’t happened yet loomed between us, turning the most brilliant insight or anecdote into a chicken-squawk of pointless evasion. Words were useless, suddenly: white noise, static to tune out. The only way to continue this conversation was mouth to mouth. We reached for each other at the same moment. It was rough; for a second I thought I was too frantic, too aggressive, but she returned the kiss just as hard. I was wild with it, all of it, the scent of her hair, the heat of her, the fragility of her head under my hand, and her power, pulsing on her tongue, pouring into me like some pure raw liquor of spirit and all I could do was drink and drink and drink,
She pulled away finally, panting unable to speak. I reached for her, but she shook her head violently and lurched back against the passenger side door. I touched her knee.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry – I just … when we were kissing. It felt like – chasms opening up.”
“Are you afraid you’ll fall?”
“I’m afraid I’ll jump.”
“Then do it.”
He voice was small. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
She let me hug her; we huddled together for a while and let the reverberations of the kiss die out – a gunshot in a canyon, echoing into silence. We drove to my little apartment and I watched Sophie taking in the raw, wind-flattened landscape, the quick glimpses of the harbor between the big houses, and I felt irrationally proud of the place, as if I had conjured it out of the Atlantic fog, just for her. But with that pride came a disquieting sense of risk – as if my whole settled island existence was teetering on the edge of her smile. What the hell – it was a great smile and for the moment she was offering it to no one to me.
That was the whole problem, of course.
She clarified it when we got back. “It’s so bizarre being here,” she said.
“Good bizarre or bad bizarre?”
“Illicit. I shouldn’t be here at all. I’m in love with someone else. He thinks I’m alone. So I’m lying to him, just being here. I don’t like it.”
“Do you want to go?”
She shook her head. I was sitting on the couch. She stood over me – afraid to commit even to sitting down. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. I took her hand and pulled her down onto my lap, grabbed her around the waist.
She twisted around to face me.
“Why did you do that?”
“It felt right. Was it?”
She let herself fall against me. “What’s happening, Steven?”
She settled herself more comfortably. When she sat up a little I knew I was going to kiss her again and she seemed to know it too and we both held back to feel the anticipation snaking through us, the delicious certainty, like those last few moments before orgasm, when you no longer have to concentrate – just submit.
We kissed in the long slanting decline of daylight, making up for the years apart, testing each other, proving each other, sharing the seizure of desire. That’s not a figure of speech: I was actually shaking.
But when I put my hand to her breast she moved it away.
“No,” she said.
“Oh God. High school rules?”
“Well, that makes sense. I feel like I’m back in high school.”
“Do you? I don’t remember it feeling this good.”
Then she kissed me again and that was all we did and it was enough. It was almost too much, which might explain why high school rules were invented in the first place.
We went out to dinner and talked until the restaurant closed and hey kicked us out. I remember one moment near the end of that meal.
“Things have been bad for me lately,” she was saying. “My mom is sick. They think it might be cancer. They’re doing tests. My sister’s in a drug rehab program that isn’t working. One of my best friends just tested positive for Hepatitus C. My job is dull, I can’t seem to finish a drawing any more. My love life is … well, here I am. That sort of says it all. Nothing works out, nothing leads anywhere. Nothing seems to make me happy, except sitting in your lap.”
I stood with the edge of the table biting into my thighs leaned across the table and kissed her, just I had done fifteen years before, with snow filling the dark windows of the little restaurant where I had taken my last stand with her – what had felt like my last stand. But Sophie kissed me back on this night, more than five thousand nights later.
But we didn’t sleep together that night, and she didn’t sleep at all. I finally drifted off around midnight, questions keening in my head like a tinnitus.
I woke up at three in the morning, and found her awake, bundled into her coat outside on the front steps and we finally talked and I got the answers, everything I wanted to know, and more than I wanted to know, more than I was ready to hear.
Sophie’s story was not for the faint of heart.