She was never my girlfriend, but that wasn’t my fault.
It wasn’t anyone’s, of course. She was the girlfriend of my closest friend at that college, and I envied him and moped for a sizable chunk of that year. Not one of my finest moments, but that was a bad year for me in many respects, and it’s to their eternal credit that the two of them knew it and put up with me as best they could.
But she was funny, bright, and lovely, and we were all young, and I pined for her until I left that school and my life went in directions I didn’t deserve but Grace allowed me to follow, that left me with a love better than I thought I wanted. And even after she went to grad school and my friend’s life went in good directions of its own, I would remember her from time to time, a memory in herself and a part of the Garden of Forking Paths in which we all live.
And now, it’s nearly thirty years later, and I’m fifty, and she died a few days ago. I found out about it as everyone does these days — on Facebook, where a post from her college roommate made it clear that she was gone (in the indirect way that these posts often do) after what appears to have been a long illness. I’ve known for years that everyone dies of something — I’ve known it since the best friend of my childhood collapsed and died when we were thirteen, through the loss of a friend’s wife (which reminded me of the impermanence of things and drove me back to graduate school), through the loss of former students, and of course through the difficulties of the last few years. I know the voice of Blake’s Bard as well as his Piper.
But for some reason, this one remains on my mind this afternoon. I remember when my dad was in his early sixties, he told me that he still thought of himself as the man he was in his twenties — or maybe his early thirties — and that it would occasionally startle him to realize his actual age, either by seeing his age on a document or more insidiously, seeing himself in the mirror with his mind’s self-portrait superimposed on the glass. I understood that intellectually at the time — ten, twelve years ago? — and now I am learning it emotionally as well.
There’s a part of me that is always that bright naif at a small college. Maybe that’s why I like my students so much. And for that part of me, that beautiful, smart, funny young woman for whom I ached is still there, despite the fact that I know Goldengrove is always unleaving. She, and he, and I are always on a campus hill at night, walking across deep snow and laughing.
Goodbye, kiddo. You will be remembered.