Monday, February 14, 2011

Distance (a story from my childhood)

"There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times."-Annie Dillard

The single greatest distance I have ever been from someone was the length of a loveseat.

In theory, the farthest you can be from another human being is about thirteen thousand miles, give or take; if one accepts that the circumference of the Earth is roughly twenty-six thousand miles, then you can only ever be opposite them. In truth, in the sixties, it was possible to be upwards of three hundred thousand miles from another person, for a very brief period of time; the moonshots were a pinnacle of just how far you had to go to get distance and perspective. But nowadays, I’m closer to the folks in the International Space Station, orbiting at two hundred forty miles up and circling the Earth every hour or so, than I am to most of my friends (if you take the average of the distance from me, over time). But all of this is physical space. I’m talking about the distance between two minds. And the farthest I’ve ever been from someone was the length of a loveseat.

I was seventeen years old, and I had just graduated high school. Picture it, if you will: I was short, gawky, rail-thin, with a gigantic (and oft-broken) nose, the beginnings of a mustache, bad teeth, coke-bottle glasses, and a collection of astoundingly mis- matched shirt/tie combinations. A sheaf of brown, unruly hair on my head, which was actually my hair but looked like every bad toupee ever worn by a short bald guy with an ugly tie. I had, since my entrance to the dating scene at fourteen, proceeded on a series of painfully intense but otherwise mostly forgettable relationships with an assortment of men and women of various shapes, sizes, colours, and interests; I had not yet figured out that being myself was preferable to becoming someone else for the sake of love. And I had found, I thought, someone for whom I could become anything.

We will call her Sarah, because at that point in my life, I knew so many Sarahs I had started referring to them by number rather than name; for the sake of accuracy, she was Sarah 24. She was already two years into college, studying to be a doctor on an accelerated program that would kill most people, and out of which most doctors themselves dropped, in order to have some semblance of a life. She would have none of that. Committed; she was committed to a path, like other people are committed to asylums. Brilliant. Funny. Beautiful, with a bushel of curly, red hair, and flashing green eyes behind the most charming little gold wire-rimmed glasses, with gorgeous, white, perfect teeth and thin but agile lips. She taller than me, and slim, but not thin; almost boyish, really, which in retrospect was probably part of why I liked her.

Like doesn’t really cover it. I think Sarah was the first person with whom I ever actually experienced "love at first sight." I saw her, and I stopped breathing. Stopped walking, stopped talking; the entire universe just...stopped, for a moment. I still remember the image of her framed in the doorway. She didn’t even make eye-contact with me, either; I don’t think she noticed me. To be fair, there were a couple of hundred people at the party at that moment, and probably something like fifty people between her and I. But to know that you’ve been struck by someone, slapped to consciousness, and know that they didn’t even register you on their radar...it’s a little disheartening. But only a little bit.

It was my party. The last hurrah before the End Of Childhood. My friends and I had all graduated, were all headed off to different places, secure in the knowledge that no matter how much distance was between us, we would remain the best of friends until the end of time. Except me; I was Tom Beringer’s character in "The Big Chill", you know? "[A] long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that. It’s only out there in the real world that it gets tough." That guy. That was me, secure in the idea that my friends in high school were my friends forever...as long as forever was measured in four-year-increments. It was, in fact, the last in a series of parties I had thrown, each growing progressively louder, longer, and bigger. And, since this one was the end, it was the biggest. Live Band in the basement, people EVERYWHERE in the tiny house my parents owned, people I didn’t know and had never met rummaging through the cabinets in search of a corkscrew. That kind of party. And it was mine. I threw parties because it meant that I wasn’t alone, unloved, unpopular; I hosted them because it meant I never had to talk with anyone for more than fifteen minutes, and I frequently left them because I hated crowds.

Sarah was a friend of a friend of a friend, apparently, and I had never met her before that night, when I wandered over and introduced myself to the person she walked in with, just to convince that person (Sarah’s roommate, who was utterly and completely forgettable aside from being religiously intolerant) to introduce me to Sarah. We shook hands, and she smiled in that rather distracted way that people do when they don’t really know you and aren’t sure what to be doing just at that moment. She was scanning the crowd for a familiar face, I think. We hadn’t even met yet, and already I was in love with her, and already she had dismissed me. Frequently, this is how my life works, or at least, how it worked then.

I still don’t know, to this day, who it was that invited her, or why she came. I do know that I endeavoured not to spend too much time around her, because I didn’t want to creep her out or drive her away or all of the dozen other things that I had done to sabotage relationships in their infancies. The fact that I was thinking about her in terms of "relationship" at that point should have been a huge clue as to just how deep in it I was.

The party wound down, as all good parties do, as the night approached morning. By 3 AM, it was my and about a dozen people, sitting around my living room, talking. And Sarah and I, on either end of the loveseat.

A friend, who was there, mentioned to me later that I had been surprisingly quiet; not that I hadn’t talked, but that I hadn’t done the "Jerome, the conversation-kudzu" version of my personality that I usually stuck to. I said things, none of which I remember, but I remember talking, and watching Sarah out of the corner of my eye, judging her reactions to what I said. And realizing, slowly but surely, that she had no opinion of me because she didn’t really know I existed.

Oh, sure, there was a person-shaped thing on the other end of the couch, and there were words and even whole sentences being inserted into discussions, but she didn’t really see me as a person; just a placeholder. Everyone, I think, does that; in any group of more than, say, six people, there’s at least one person who doesn’t really contribute; they just sort of make noise so that the people you’re talking with can think for a minute. I do it; I’m pretty sure some of the people I know do it. And now, someone I desperately wanted was doing it to me. The irony did not escape me.

So there we were. About a foot, maybe eighteen inches from one another on the loveseat. And in entirely different universes. I think I realized, at that moment, that loving was less important than being loved. I knew, given two minutes, that I would be madly in love with her; I had fallen head over heels for her in two seconds of looking; two minutes would be a lifetime. And she couldn’t be bothered to learn my name.

For me, that was love.

Did I get the girl, eventually? How did the relationship go? What happened after that moment? None of that is important. At least, not to this story, which is about love, and learning, and the infinite spaces between the person who longs for something, and the person who is longed for.

All of history is made up, in the end, of moments in time, where a person turns toward the thing they want, or away from it. It is the want, and the turning, that is the fulcrum for the lever of our lives. Everything else, that’s just the fallout.