Do you ever hear from someone in your distant past? Someone you haven’t seen or heard from since childhood and were certain you never would again?
This probably happens more often than it used to, thanks in large part to social media. Before that, the options for tracing people boiled down to, what? Private detectives, the Salvation Army and newspaper ads in the Personals section? (Are there still such things as Personals ads? I used to read them for fun. Sometimes I’d come across messages so cryptic that I was sure they were connected to drug deals, extramarital assignations or murder-for-hire schemes. ) Well, once in a great while, someone from the remote (as in decades-old) past will track me down and get in touch. It’s happened several times over the past five years, but one of the most recent was especially surprising.
About a year-and-a-half ago, a woman reached me by using the contact form on my website. I remembered her at once. We’d known each other for a brief time in childhood; she was a few years older than I. Our mothers were good friends. When I read her name, I had a vivid mental image of her as a girl: an intense and level gaze, beautiful skin, long brunette hair that was impossibly thick and healthy, often worn in a braid as big around as a man’s fist.
It developed that she was going through her late mother’s effects and found some family photos that my mother had given her. She wanted to send them to me. We exchanged a few lovely, cordial emails, and then, after not hearing from her for months, I forgot about the whole thing. So imagine my surprise when, a few afternoons ago, I opened my post office box to find a manila envelope bearing her return address.
Did I rip it open as soon as I got home? No. God, no. As I’ve written before ("Too Close to Home"), there are sizeable chunks of my past that are painful to look back on, and to do so can make me physically ill. The good memories, oddly, are more painful than the bad.
Instead, I put the envelope on the coffee table and watched it from the corner of my eye for several hours. But it stayed put, didn’t explode, didn’t lift its flap and begin speaking with the voices of the dead. Finally, I opened it. And, to my surprise, enjoyed viewing the contents. Kind of.
The photos were largely lighthearted and harmless: a badly faded, spotty record of a handful of people, most of whom are now buried, and some of whom dressed on at least one occasion in matching outfits.
For reasons best known (I’m sure) to my mother. My grandmother and I just put on what she told us to wear. The envelope contained nothing incendiary or toxic (but since when was I ever allowed to stand on the furniture?),
which was a big relief.
But still . . . No matter how pleasant the results, it’s such an unsettling feeling when a long finger reaches out from my history and taps me on the shoulder. A few weeks before the above photos arrived, there had been another tap. That time, the long finger was my own.
I had decided to reread a book I’d purchased and greatly enjoyed soon after its release in 1986: Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. But before I dove in, I lingered for a couple of minutes in pleasant anticipation (do you do that with books you’re really looking forward to reading?), studying the cover image, a detail from the Watteau painting, Nymphe et Satyre.
At last I opened the book. And this fell out.
I might have screamed just a little, but luckily I soon recognized myself. Thank heavens. Otherwise, I would’ve wondered who the dead person was. (But why did I stash the photo in that particular book? As a jokey contrast with the nymph on the cover?)
As I examined the photo, the circumstances came back to me. Early in our relationship, Glen had tried to tell me that I slept with my eyes open. That was so clearly preposterous that I refused to believe him. So he decided to prove it to me. I don’t recall how many nights he waited, listening to me snore, but finally he caught me in the act and snapped this Polaroid. Somehow I slept through the camera’s mechanical wheezing and clackety ratcheting. Not to mention the flash.
He told me I scared the daylights out of him the first time he woke up and found my corpse beside him. After seeing the evidence, I couldn’t blame him. And eventually, I even forgave him for taking the picture.
*GLEN: STOP READING NOW*
Or at least, that’s what I wanted him to think. Actually, I’m just biding my time until the night I rise up in the bed and bend over him, watching him with my creepy dead eyes . . .