As often happens now that most of us live in or regularly visit Internet Land, a man from my past turned up online. Slight correction. He was a boy when I knew him before, literally. Teenage. Now he was married and living in another state. We caught up in emails, cleared up a few things from the dusty past. He had a relatively strong memory of me to offer, as well as regrets and apologies I never expected to hear but found gratifying.
He’d played a significant role in my teenage years and was able to fill in a few blanks in our narrative for me, things I hadn’t understood at the time. Also, a devastating event had occurred later in that general time frame that had nothing to do with our specific (long over) relationship, but which had haunted him since. I was not impacted the same way but had known about it, remembered, and could discuss it now. The interplay was cathartic on both sides. And honestly, because he’d turned into a skilled and witty writer – a talent there’d been no evidence of in our history, however brief – it was fun. About as close to time travel as I’ve found possible.
I needed to know for my sake, who this person was now. A single, real-time conversation would do it, so at my suggestion, a phone call – a lively, funny one it turned out – followed. This guy was a stranger in so many ways and yet I picked up on traits that must have been the same ones that appealed to me in the teenage boy. Smart, a shrewd wise-ass with a big personality. In fact he was the one who made this comment: https://writerinsoul.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/somebody-will-cry/. There were signs of other attributes I did not relate to so well that I don’t need to elaborate for the purpose of my story. But there’s a bigger point. As I alluded via the need for apologies, he hadn’t been the nicest guy when I’d known him years ago. He’d left ill will in his wake. I held judgment in reserve but couldn’t escape that million dollar question: Do people really change? How young is your essential personality really set?
I’ve read what academics have to say, I’ve talked this question over with friends, and still, I wonder. Strokes, Alzheimer’s, or other big life-altering events and conditions can alter someone’s basic personality. But I’m talking about shy of that. If you believe you’ve got someone’s number at age 15 or 18 or 20, can you safely assume you’ve still got it at 30, 50, 70, always? Despite any claims or assertions to the contrary?
It turned out he was going to be passing through my area. Now, don’t be sitting there thinking, “Oh SURE, he just HAPPENED to be passing through your area! I’ll bet. Did he just HAPPEN to book a quiet dinner for two at a nearby hotel too?” Give me some credit. His mother still lived in my state and I wasn’t the only person from his past he wanted to see. His wife knew he planned to meet a few people. I got the idea it might have even been a sort of Making Amends Tour. And if I’m wrong about that, it was definitely to catch up with more than just me.
When we met, the only thing that seemed familiar from the past was his voice. Not surprisingly, the ease of the emails and the phone call were not immediately at hand (I’ve been down this particular road before). But we managed. He seemed tired, and maybe uncertain about me. I sensed he wasn’t saying something, or was waiting perhaps for a sign from me, although quite what, I couldn’t say with certainty (and I’m fairly good at this if I do say so). As he had in emails, he said he’d like to stay friends but had no real answer when I asked exactly how that might work. (If I may, I will offer that wives as a rule don’t line up suggesting I befriend their husbands.) Please forgive the cliche but I was not at a place in my life where I was in the mood for nonsense or anyone trifling with my feelings. I didn’t want to be the Secret Internet Friend, to provide entertainment or counsel or titillation – if it came to that – on the side. I’ve learned a thing or two or eight and was only interested in entertaining a scenario on the up-and-up, if at all.
He’d made arrangements to catch up with another guy from the old days that evening, someone I’d known but not well. He wanted me to join him. There was going to be a band and a bar on the itinerary. Our time together, and the point of it so far as I intended, was over. I gave an unequivocal no. I didn’t hedge or coyly try to get him to talk me into it. I didn’t say this to him – although I had brought up something related in email – but I knew the moment I got in his car a line would be crossed. “Date” was the word in my mind. Get in that car and I’m on a date. I don’t drink but could foresee the role alcohol might well play in the remainder of the day as he and the other old friend kicked back a couple brewskies and caught up. There I’d be.
We parted without fuss. There was no follow-up. Months later I emailed, with the express caveat it was a one-time thing, to share with him news of another guy we’d both known well and had wondered about when we reconnected. The story I told was way too good not to share, particularly given that back in the day we both had been on the receiving end of sh*t from this other person and it was a bit of a bonding point.
He loved the story, chimed up again that he still thought the two of us should be friends (I’ll resist putting that last word in italics or quotes even if I thought it came across a bit breezy) and that he was in a time crunch, but would write more later. He didn’t. You’re not surprised are you? Neither was I, even if I allow it didn’t make me feel all that great. I kind of saw that he’d already told me all I needed to know. For my purposes here and now. And I was glad we’d reconnected, truly. The bigger questions I’ll keep thinking about.