He met me at LAX and took me to a hip little restaurant in Santa Monica. I noticed he wore loafers but the same old threadbare T-shirt-and-jeans outfit — evolution from the bottom up. He seemed so excited to hear my voice on the phone that I jumped at his suggestion to use his apartment — adorably situated beneath a freeway — for a few days. We hadn’t been alone in a room together in 10 years. That night, we sat on his floor, smoking furiously and swigging Scotch, just like the old days. He had recently broken up with someone. He had started script-doctoring. There were some disturbing sights around the house: The bathtub floor was the color of lichen. A bloody bandage sat curled up inside a box of tissues. And a Vietnam vet lived on the porch and periodically knocked on the window for money or beer.
Nevertheless, we spent our evenings listening to music, driving to the beach and watching movies, doing things we hadn’t done properly even when we were a couple. One afternoon I visited his office, and the young, orange-haired, kohl-eyed receptionists stared at me. They struck me as throwbacks, like New York punks we used to know, so full of themselves and mindlessly rebellious. So like us, really. "Oh, they’re all right," James said. "A couple of them are smart." He’d become so mellow.
The magic net of wishful love descended. In a state of giddy disbelief, I moved from the couch into his bed, and three days later we pulled apart only long enough for me to fly to New York to give notice at my job. "When you come back, stay here for good," he said, his whiskers brushing my cheek. My flight was delayed eight hours, and I lay across a row of seats at the gate, occasionally breaking into a big grin, thinking, so this is it. I always wondered when we’d pick up the stitch. It was as if he’d been waiting for me all these years.
Repeating Old Patterns
It happened to my mother, this kind of love. A few years earlier, she too had connected with an old sweetheart, Leon, at her high school reunion. It was the first time they’d laid eyes on each other in four decades. He’d been married to the same woman for almost that long and had three children. When they saw each other again, it was as if they were still in school. "Hi, Joanie," he said. I squirmed when she told me, worried she was in it for the wrong reasons. She behaved, yes, like a schoolgirl, in all sorts of ways that could only bring black magic: She printed up a bookmark and T-shirt with a photo of him naked. It was hilarious. But she was uncautious with her heart. What part present, what part future, what part past had possessed her? And, maybe condescendingly, I wondered about the irresistible will to rewrite history. Only later would I also wonder whether this romantic urge to march toward a mirage and stake a claim ran in the family. Call it pitching your tent on quicksand. Her tent went under after a year of furtive meetings, and she stayed single for a long time after.
Just two weeks after our western idyll, James leaned against my bookcase in New York and cracked open a Russian novella. He’d been the one to suggest that he follow me east to jump-start my exit, although he added that he also had to see his agent. When he arrived at my apartment, I had a drink ready. I gave him one too. "Hey, I was wondering," I asked in a carefree way, "do you think I’m better now than when we met?" I was sure I knew the answer.
"You were pretty great back then," he said, after a beat. The way he looked at me made me feel at once very old and very young. The next day he blew off our lunch date to spend the afternoon in a tavern reminiscing with an old pal. When he got back to the apartment, we discussed my next step. "I’d love to stay with you for the first few weeks," I ventured, "but maybe I should have my own apartment for a while…." "I don’t see why," he said. He sat up all night in a chair, I think, and when I woke up, he was gone.
He’s anxious, I thought. So was I. It’d been so long, and we were moving so quickly. Days went by. I packed in earnest. No call. I called, with a serious case of the shakes. "Actually, you were right," he said. "I don’t think you should stay here." "But I’ve sent things to your house," I replied, idiotically. "Will we be seeing each other?"
"I don’t know."