Monday, August 13, 2007

Bad Nostalgia, Good Nostalgia, Real Nostalgia

Dichosos Mis Ojos Que Te Ven!
A couple of years ago i was re-introduced to an old acquaintance of mine. Well, actually, she was much more than that. She was my ex-girlfriend. Actually, she was much more than that, she was my first real girlfriend. You know, that first real love-song-inspiring, poetry reciting, hours gazing into each others' eyes relationship. It was also the first immaturely obsessive, "why the hell did I do that", "why the hell did you do that", stomp-my-heart-with-razor-spiked-shoes breakup. I hadn't seen her in 18 years. She looked great, but in the back of my mind as I was talking to her and wondering at the circumstances that placed us in the same location after nearly 20 years, I was hoping that she wasn't getting the wrong idea about my excitement at seeing her. But of course, I didn't want to give off that impression, so I made sure that everything was by the book. That is...sterile. We had about a 15 minute sterile conversation about life's ups and downs over the past two decades. Marriage, divorces, school, achievements, failures. It was a great conversation, but it was decidedly...bland.

In fairness I should say that it would likely have been in bad taste to have jumped into a controversial discussion with someone I hadn't seen in 20 years. But I kept thinking about this. Why was I making such an effort to keep things sterile?

Neutral Dining
We had lunch later that week and we caught up a bit more, but the conversation was still sterile, as if every word were pre-washed in alcohol. The overall atmosphere was much more relaxed than before. We discussed not just events, but what occurred up to those events and what happened afterwards. We also helped each other fill in the gaps in our collective memory. And then it hit me. As we were discussing a mutual friend, a reference was made to the time that our relationship ended. I believe it was "...after we broke up." It was then that I registered a slight discomfort on her face, and I felt as if I were not adequately masking my wince.

The Break Up.
After we said our goodbyes I thought to myself, "Surely, surely this was not still an issue." I also thought to myself, "She likely didn't even notice." If she did, she would never admit it. But of course it wasn't an issue. I'm sure that neither of us had thought about our break up for at least 18 or so years and that sentimental framework had since disappeared. New relationships, new schools, new jobs, new experiences and life had happened since. And that was just it. It was that we were discussing everything other than the thing that we had once shared, our old relationship. Not necessarily the relationship, but the nostalgia and all the ripples originating from that time so long ago. We were understandably trying to stay politically correct. A good nostalgic discussion might have been under the context of, let's say "What happened after we broke up?" Then the old remembrances would have been free to flow. And (at least for me) there would have been no pressure to suppress any reference to the subject. And so, we "talked about the weather." Of course the conversation was still good, but it was still as if we were speaking through latex.

Baby Talk
Our third meeting occurred over a year later. We both had added our first children to our families. We now had a common point of reference that just begged to be discussed. Kids are ripe talking points and there was no want for dialogue. But I was determined to insert some reality in to this discussion. Although I didn't truly realize what I was doing, I knew that she was much more profound than the light banter we were about in our past meetings. I remember making three repeated references to our past relationship; analogies to our current relationships, common issues... By the third reference, we were TALKING. And a great conversation it was. Of course all this was in the presence of her precious baby boy (who was so very considerately asleep).

Retrospective Retrospect
I left that last meeting with a much better understanding of who this woman had become. She was a remarkable girl when I'd last seen her 20 years ago, and she had become a remarkable woman. She is savvy and successful and a joy to talk to. I'm very glad to have been reunited with a friend. The next time I run into an old friend, girlfriend or acquaintance, I'll try to remember that to avoid the bad is to avoid the real. And avoiding the real would make conversation so...sterile.