Must I always be haunted by the loss of my one true love?

She was everything I'd ever dreamed of. Then there was the screech of tires on a dark street...

Published June 23, 2006 11:09AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

In short, here is my situation: I can't take my mind off a woman I met, fell in love with, and lost. I guess it sounds pretty lame, but I am not your typical lovestruck college kid: I am 42; I run my own business; I raise my kids; I live in Paris, where I am active socially and politically. And I haven't seen her or talked to her in ... 19 years.

Twenty-plus years ago, I fancied myself a romantic intellectual, but of course I was only a confused and immature young lad hungry for love and sex. Though (or because) I was gentle and caring and emotional, I always ended up entangled in multiple simultaneous relationships that sometimes ended messily, but no one was really hurt and it was all good fun, learning to live and love, etc.

At the tender age of 21, I spent three months working on an exceedingly beautiful island in the Pacific, where I met this exceedingly fun and beautiful girl. The attraction was so immediate and intense that we did not take any real sleep for three weeks. Three weeks! Obviously we were having some giant fun, helped by the tropical surroundings and generally happy life we had. But there was more than that, a connection so deep that we could shiver and cry from the sheer intensity of our happiness. Corny, maybe, but true.

We went back home (it turned out we lived, like, 12 blocks away from each other), and, being the jerk I was, I was sucked back into my web of inconsequential one-nighters, unfinished love affairs, etc. Our relationship became an on-again/off-again thing that left both of us frustrated and unhappy.

Fast-forward one year. At the end of yet another silly romance, I suddenly realized that I was wasting the love of my life. I got on my knees, crawled to her door, and swore eternal devotion. This is Christmas Day, 1986, and she welcomes me with open arms. O blissful days!

Three months later, our relationship was going forward at full steam. Until one night, coming home late, she lost control of her car. In the ensuing crash, her lower body was crushed by the engine; when she was finally extracted from the wreck, she had stopped breathing.

For 10 days, she fought death from multiple internal injuries. She survived, and spent six weeks in intensive care. Soon, however, it appeared that she remembered very little. Her memory was almost entirely gone!

All the time I was here, scared to death, handling things (her family was living abroad at the time). I was flying across the country once or twice a week. And she did not even recognize me!

Our relationship was, to say the least, awkward and embarrassed. After two months of this she gently hinted that, much as she appreciated my care and attention, it was preferable that I should, well, discontinue my visits.

We didn't see much of each other for another eight months. Then she reappeared, physically all patched up and having "recovered" some of her lost memory. I was just beginning to adjust to the situation, she was scarred and I was scared, we were both very confused, and I made the biggest mistake of all: I turned her down.

That very last night, snow was falling hard on the Trocadero. A daring cab picked her up at 4 a.m. and drove away in the storm. The next morning, Paris was entirely paralyzed by the snow, the first and only time in the last 50 years.

I haven't seen her or talked to her since.

I still think of her every day.

I'd go back to her in a second, and would have at any time during all these years.

A few weeks after this, I flew away to California where I spent the next three years. Silicon Valley in the pre-Internet era was sweet and funny, energetic yet cool; I liked it very much. I met wonderful people, wrote piles of C++ code, fell in love with American literature, drove from Tijuana to Vancouver and back in a banged-up Ford Galaxy with a trunkful of weed, swam totally drunk across the Golden Gate at 2 a.m. Nature was strong, people joyful and confident, girls sweet and serious ... Everything I know of Foucault and Derrida, I learned from pretty 23-year-old Berkeley English majors, usually between 2 and 5 a.m. What a party!

But seeing the likes of Oliver North and Bush 41 on TV every day was a drag, and I went back to Europe -- a few months before Gulf War I.

Since then I have done whatever could be expected of me considering my age and professional situation. I got married, had two kids, started a few businesses, kept friends, traveled, etc.

Except for my daughters, who are the sweetest things on Earth, I do not care much for any of this. My ex-wife has turned into a deranged virago, work/money/success bores me to death, and I find myself depressingly surrounded by cynical and futile 40-somethings, arrogant bastards of 30, and selfish whiners in their 20s. And don't get me started on the above-50 crowd who got us into this train wreck to begin with.

Of course, I turned 40 two years ago. That does not help.

At first, I did not get back to her because I felt guilty/ashamed for turning her down, especially since, I soon realized, she might have attributed my rejection to her being physically all stitched up, which must be hard when you are accustomed to be a head-turner, etc.

Then I tried to find her and could not. This was before the Internet really kicked in. You could not find someone who lived abroad and/or had an unlisted telephone number and/or got married and gave up her maiden name, and that was it.

Two years ago, having programmed a battalion of "Web agents" to this effect, I found her trail. It took me another year and the help of a P.I. to locate her.

When her 40th birthday came last year, I had an obscene bunch of beautiful roses delivered to her office. I did not sign the card, because I did not want to pressure her into replying out of good manners, but I wrote a nice message that was enough to identify me without being sentimental or corny or anything. Just a nice "hello" from the past, no pressure, no strings, nothing to make her uncomfortable.

I did not expect her to reply and she did not.

She is married, no kids. A dead-end job in a very sinister corporation, and no known involvement or association with anything remotely funny/cultural/political/interesting/whatever. From the outside, the upper-lower-middle-class nightmare at its best.

So I spent 19 years of my life losing sleep over a banal teenage love affair, idealizing a pretty girl who turned into a depressing matron? Am I clinging to a dying fantasy? Or am I being true to the only meaningful event of my sentimental life? Worse yet, am I making up feelings and emotions that never really took place, for 19 years is a lot of time?

I can hear my therapist laughing her ass off.

I could hop into my car and ring her doorbell in 15 minutes, but I cannot see myself doing it if my life depended on it. To think that it took me 19 years to summon the nerve to send a bunch of flowers along with a nearly anonymous message!

Those of my friends who were around at the time might remember this story, but I never bring it up. My ex-wife, kids, associates and closest friends know nothing about it. I do not feel the need to tell anyone, at least not someone I know in the flesh (hence this letter). It makes the whole thing seem unreal, like it's happening in a parallel universe. It makes it very difficult to actually do something.

Should I confront this thing and put it to rest? Would that mean re-inviting myself into her life, possible consequences unknown? Should I risk bringing confusion, embarrassment, bitterness into her life? Why stir things up? And why am I consumed by this? Because I am a sad loser trying to escape the depressing reality of being 40? Or because we loved each other so dearly, so completely that there's nothing else to do?

Or should I just forget about it? Isn't it what I've been trying to do, with little success, for 19 years? What is this thing that no quantity of love, sex, booze, excitation or work can abolish?

Or should I just keep it the way it is, a dark, warm, sweet, burning secret with a life of its own? Will it consume me, turn me into a muttering, bitter fool?

Thank you for reading so far. What a strange feeling! Here I am, telling a complete stranger, a man from a foreign culture who lives 10 time zones away, the story that most matters to me, the strange secret that has been haunting me for nearly 20 years.

I truly hope to hear from you. I mean, this letter was not a catharsis. Although I wrote it over a period of six months, it did nothing to help me understand or handle the situation better. So any help will be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, I wish you the best. You are a kind person, and kindness seems to be in short supply these days.

Stuck in Time in Paris

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: "It might have been!" -- John Greenleaf Whittier, "Maud Muller"

Dear Stuck in Time,

I am occasionally faced with the question of how to respond to a letter that, because of its length, its choice of detail, its style or tone, certain literary characteristics, an unusually tight dramatic structure or general air of invention, is certain to be questioned by readers as to its veracity.

I'm not saying that your letter is a fake. It is possible that your story happened exactly as you say. If it did happen exactly as you say, however, we are faced with a larger and more intriguing problem: It may be that you have fallen into the grip of a fictive god of some possibly malevolent purpose -- that you, a real, living, breathing man, have somehow been mistaken for a character in someone's book and were swept into it by accident.

While it does sound extraordinary, if you think about it this sort of thing probably happens more often than we realize. With constant worldwide production of novels and short stories in all languages and genres, with so much raw action, setting, character and plot pulverized and injected into so many books every day, with rampant global over-fictionalization and the yearly release of thousands of tons of excess plot and setting into the atmosphere, it's a little surprising that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

Or perhaps it does.

Suppose, for instance, that you are walking along a country road and you notice yourself thinking thoughts not your own, concerning a story in which you are only a bit player -- perhaps in this story you are the gardener, or a mechanic hired to fix the car that has sat in the garage for many years due to the recent death of its former owner, a wealthy but sinister landowner who used to drive it infrequently at most, only to funerals and weddings and visits to her lawyer. As you hear these voices and feel yourself swept up into a narrative not of your making, you notice that the landscape around you has become strangely artificial: The colors are too bright and a little off, the greens too green, the reds too red, as though the four-color printing process was slightly off (and it is never exact anyway). You notice that the reeds growing along the river have a trademark swirl as though painted. And you could swear you glimpsed a giant face peering down at you from the sky, a face that looks haggard, bored and unshaven, wrinkled and forlorn, a lot like the face of a grandfather of yours long forgotten and also a lot like the face of a writer, a writer who peers down at his characters as he tries to move them around his shabby, makeshift little village.

In other words, suppose you discover one day that you have unaccountably become a character in someone else's fiction. Your problem then is how to break out of the grip of this author, who apparently is bored with you and not performing at his best, not providing you with appropriate or interesting parts.

I would think you would have to try and write your way out.

When a person attempts to write his way out of such a story, he is like a revolutionary picking up a gun and challenging the state. He is saying, this is not my narrative! This is not my world! It is a dangerous and possibly fatal choice. But what options does he have? Living this way is intolerable!

So I suggest that in order to free yourself of this tale, whether it actually did happen exactly as you say or whether it is only a case of mistaken fictional identity, you continue writing this tale. Fill in everything that happened. It does not matter whether these things can be verified; what is important is that you get it all down.

If you could only contact this author in whose story you may have mistakenly appeared and find out what is next in the story, you could adequately prepare. But it could be anybody -- it is as though some wires were crossed, or a stranger's cellphone conversation came out of your phone. Moreover, the author, even if found, would be as astonished to see you as you would be to find him, because he has no idea that he is merely a parasite sucking some stranger's soul like a tick on a dog; he believes that he is actually making up out of nothing the things he hears and sees in his mind. It would be as if your lover suddenly showed up, magically reverted to her youthful, unscarred self, amnesiac again and ready for love: It would seem impossible.

There is no telling how long you may remain in the grip of this narrative phenomenon. So I suggest that you write it out in its entirety now, not only to free you of it, and not only so you can publish it, but also because it may be a fleeting phenomenon; if you wait a year it may vanish.

Perhaps you unconsciously do wish it to vanish, because it is painful to live in the grip of this narrative. So you may find yourself procrastinating. But I urge you to commit yourself to writing it out, all the details of setting, the things that were said, the other characters, etc. In doing so, you will probably develop or discover a certain aesthetic discipline, and will find yourself naturally limiting your tendency to over-explain yourself and to indulge in hyperbole, as if we would not believe you otherwise, as if you do not trust us. You will discover, greatly to your credit, that you are not, after all, the most interesting person in this narrative, but only its servant, only an innocent man trying to free himself of its grip by using the pen as a dagger, stabbing at the skin of your bubble, starving for air and sunlight that you know exists just beyond your enclosure.

Frankly, while I do not care so much if what you describe happened in every detail, I am bothered by one claim you make: that you swam drunkenly across the Golden Gate at 2 a.m. Perhaps because you were drunk and not a native of the area you were mistaken about what body of water you swam, but I do not think that you swam from Fort Point to Lime Point at 2 a.m. while drunk. And frankly it irritates me that you make that claim. Imagine, for instance, if I claimed that after a night drinking with Michel Houellebecq and Michel Bulteau at Shakespeare & Company that I swam the Seine and scaled the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris single-handedly, all the while playing "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" on my Hohner harmonica.

But as you note correctly, I am a kind person. I do not wish to belittle you. I wish to help. I have no score to settle. Perhaps you did indeed swim the Golden Gate while drunk at 2 a.m. If so, I salute you, and I will meditate on why this particular claim seems to infuriate me so -- as though the Golden Gate were some sacred watery portal to our jewelled city (comparable, perhaps, to your River Seine?).

Anyway, whatever happened in your life is indeed a profound mystery, one toward which we owe nothing but respect. In telling your story, you can perhaps recapture the driving force that compelled you to take these risks and seek these pleasures in the first place. As you write, try to distinguish the influence of that other author from your authentic voice. I think as you do so you will find hints of a third presence as well, something heavy and mysterious, dark and insistent, a vessel in the fog beyond all your thoughts and ideas that has been beckoning to you all this time, vying for your attention, waiting to pull you toward your destiny.

When you find that vessel in the fog, grab the rope that dangles from it and hold on.

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