Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Auld Acquaintance

Tomorrow it will be a month since my dog Tom Ripley died. He had turned fifteen the month before. I had never lived with any pet for as long as I lived with him.

A lot has happened since he died: I celebrated Thanksgiving Day with Tim and Dave and Dave's mother; I bought my first live Christmas tree and decorated it with help from Kirsten; somebody sent me a coffee-table book of the works of George Quaintance, anonymously, and then discreetly identified himself via email the next week; my neighbor Susan gave me a hug and a Christmas cactus to remember Ripley by--the plant will bloom every year at about the same time, she says; a new neighbor dropped by with a box full of coffee mugs filled with San Francisco chocolates, which she was distributing to everybody on the block, by way of introduction and greeting--her name is Katina, and I told her that my dog had died, and she sympathized; I entertained about thirty people at my small house for my eighth annual quasi-Christmas party; I received a surprise visitor from Savannah, Dominique, and we went to the Rembrandt exhibit together; Shane's mother, another person I know, though not well, died of emphysema that same weekend; I went to a concert with Barbara, Shane, and Ann; I went to my first ever live wrestling show, with Shane; I have eaten out a few times and seen some movies with friends; I read and approved the proofs of a sado-erotic short story of mine that's being anthologized--my second such publication; I read and graded four classes' worth of research papers and final essay exams and submitted the final grades; I attended a coworker's wedding; and I am in the process of finishing up Andrew Graham-Dixon's biography of Caravaggio, a gift from my office mate Jim. I have eaten and drunk and slept and laughed and masturbated and showered and dressed myself and listened to music and filled my gas tank and taken out the garbage and taught classes. Life and its events keep happening.

The Christmas tree is pretty. Decorated with mementoes collected over the past three decades along with tinsel and lights, it casts a warm and rosy glow in my living room. It lends a clean scent to the room that everybody likes: evergreen pine. Still, the house seems empty. Not empty--I have furniture, a TV, books, knickknacks, a Christmas tree--but it feels as if an invisible hole has opened in the place where I live. Or maybe the hole is in me, which is where I feel it. Still, in the mornings I wake up with a start, having in my sleep or semi-sleep reached out to touch something, and the surprise of finding nothing there must jar me to attention. Something is gone. Something that looked after me in ways that nothing else did--or perhaps could. I have had (we all have had) similar losses and fully felt them. I am not unusual, not specially sensitive, not even naive. I have lost a lot of things in my life, pets, places I lived, jobs, money, even people whom I do not miss in the least--in fact, I forget I ever knew them until I get the friend requests on Facebook. Other people lose boyfriends and go out and find new ones. I lost my last boyfriend eighteen years ago, and I think the commonly perceived smart thing to do would be for me to find a new boyfriend as quickly as possible. Eighteen years. He is not coming back, of course--it wasn't meant to be, that much is clear--that is what I meant when I said I am not naive. But the place where he used to be--in my thoughts and emotions--is still there. It is unfilled--still open, a blank gap. I have lost friends too. I have moved, they have moved, or they have stopped speaking to me, or they have died. All the ones I cared about have left empty places behind, places I perhaps obstinately keep empty, even accepting that they will never be refilled.

I should be used to this. I grew up in a military family redeployed every few years. I was an only child, with well-meaning, but rather chilly, asocial parents. I never had a friend for more than three years. I knew my uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents by name, but I knew almost nothing about them, except that my mother either didn't like them or approve of them. Until I was fifty, I never lived in the same place for more than six years, usually quite a bit less than that. Impermanence is something I grew up with. I learned not to care about a lot of things, but I never learned to let go of the things I cared for. Somebody I knew well, who let go of me about eight years ago, once said of me, fondly, "Joe always hates to say goodbyes." She was right, and perhaps she is the only person who noticed that about me--and now there's nobody that notices that about me. She was the One Who Would Notice That. Not that I am bereft of friends or people to love. It's just that when I care for something, I care for it individually and uniquely. Somebody could steal my rather expensive camera, and I would simply buy a new one. If somebody stole my photo album, I would not go looking for a new photo album to fill with new pictures. So I don't lose my friend Elizabeth and go looking for a replacement. This is not maudlin self pity. I feel lucky to sometimes love so particularly, even if not always deeply. I have friends to love. I have friends right now I could not replace, so much do I care for them. When they are gone, I will have even more holes to deal with. Other people come and go without my ever learning how to care for them, and maybe, in those moments, I pass up far too many opportunities to love and be loved.

I think the human mind finds resting places in certain rooms, certain persons, certain objects. They become so familiar that, even when they are taken away, the mind fools itself into the thinking they are still there, glimpsed often through the corner of one's eye. I sometimes suspect this is how the belief in ghosts originated. You have seen the scene in movies, where the abandoned lover rushes up to a woman with a familiar jacket and hair, only to discover she's a complete stranger. You have probably experienced the phenomenon of walking into a familiar room, expecting to find something there that used in fact to be there, but no longer is, yet for a second or two you actually think you see it, and then you realize your mind only remembers seeing it. It's gone.

There's a song about this feeling, so I know that I am not alone. Two songs, really. One song simply asks the question whether it's right to forget old friends and move on. It's called "Auld Lang Syne," one of the saddest songs in the world, the Robert Burns lyrics that everybody now associates with New Year's Eve celebrations. The other, equally familiar, deals directly with the holes others leave behind, and the ways our minds (and hearts) make these holes sacrosanct, preserved forever for persons who will never fill them again. My favorite version of this song is by Billie Holiday.  It goes:
I'll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through.

In that small cafe,
The park across the way,
The children's carousel,
The chestnut trees,
The wishin' well.

I'll be seeing you
In every lovely summer's day;
In every thing that's light and gay.
I'll always think of you that way.

I'll find you
In the morning sun,
And when the night is new,
I'll be looking at the moon,
But I'll be seeing you.

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