“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” ~ Mark Twain
I was seated in a red leather chair by the window, a little tired, wearing my usual face marred by time. It startled me when she walked over and seated herself across from me in the lobby there. I glanced up and noticed her staring at me, straight on, as if waiting for me to emerge from wherever I was hiding within myself. When our eyes locked I immediately became aware of two things: first, the feeling that I knew this person from somewhere; second, the acute awareness of those sensations that precede a miracle — the fear, and the rising expectation of that heart-quickening awe.
I became mesmerized, not by her allure, which was considerable, but by something altogether other, a mystical resonance as if we’d met before, long ago in another space of time. Obviously this was not possible, for she wore the sheen of youth and I am very much an older man. It’s disappointing to see the loose flesh beginning to sag from one’s jowls. And this woman still practically a girl, white skin stretched over her slender frame, high cheekbones, dark gleaming eyes, clothed in black chic embellished with scarlet and gold.
My heart felt raw and it brought to mind a strange party I’d attended at a professor’s home on Hawk’s Ridge.
There were only seven of us in attendance, the hour sunset, the day June the twenty-first — summer solstice and, coincidentally, a full moon. I was not surprised to find myself the first to arrive since I’m fastidiously punctual. He met me at the door and ushered me in, thanking me for having accepted his strange invitation. I owed him a favor and could hardly have turned him down.
At some point in the evening, after a sufficient amount of wine had been poured, the professor herded us back into the living room
I remember vividly how we’d been seated, not that it matters all that much in the context of this larger story. To my left, a somewhat flabby middle-aged man in a grey suit, bald across the middle of his round head, with a small mouth and narrow, tight lips. He appeared to be an intelligent man, but socially awkward and hardly offered a word the whole evening except in answer to the two direct questions put to him. On the low white couch across from us sat a young man in his early twenties who wore the mantle of an aspiring artist. That is, he was eccentric of dress, blonde hair properly long, a trim goatee decorating his strong chin. He seemed oddly comfortable in this room full of strangers. A little further down the couch sat a somewhat older woman whom I took by her formal attire and dignified manner to be someone of importance. I first thought she came with the man in the grey suit, though it turned out this was not the case. The chair directly to my right remained unoccupied, but alongside sat a young woman whom I took to be a teaching assistant I’d known six years previous. When I commented on this, she claimed no relation to the university and had arrived by bus from Philadelphia only the night before. I understood this to mean she had come quite a distance to be here this evening, which attached increased significance to our gathering.
So there we were, the professor preparing us with one or two anecdotes about his life, of which I remember no details. Then he asked us each to take a few minutes to think about a pair of serious questions he desired us to reflect upon.
“Question One: If you could re-live one experience from your life, could re-live it over and over again any time you wished to conjure it up, which experience would you choose?”
After the question we were each to ruminate, then reply. As my turn approached I half considered going for a cheap laugh by saying something like, “I’m glad you didn’t ask what my favorite episode of Seinfeld was, because I don’t watch television.” Everyone seemed so serious about this thing. Though on one level I felt the question a good one, I had a hard time being so candid with this party of strangers. And frankly, there were seemingly countless memories to embrace. As I reflected, however, each fell away one by one and suddenly there was only one somewhat strange memory left standing. To my chagrin I couldn’t recall having called it to mind in decades, if ever, so quickly had it been subsumed into the slipstream of the past.
After each gave reply, Professor M offered his own answer: the satisfaction he’d experienced upon completion of a poem he’d written the previous year.
After an uncomfortable pause he asked the second. “If you could re-live one day of your life and live it differently, change one thing from that day, what day would it be and what would you do differently?”
Each replied very specifically and with a transparency I found embarrassing. To my surprise, the bald man had once inadvertently killed a man. The woman from Philadelphia described a scene that led to a broken engagement. The young artist shared a personal confidence that made the formally dressed woman blush. I made a weak attempt to share something of significance, but my thoughts were fixated elsewhere. Internally I rallied, but failed to really identify a single monumental moment.
The professor then explained that of his own life there was nothing he would change, for he wasn’t sure which of his experiences were necessary and essential to the making of his poem. “And this poem, these twelve lines here, have made my whole life worth living. May I share it with you?”
Another awkward silence followed. The young artist, I believe, broke the silence with a slight cough and, nodding, seemed to confer on behalf of the group our tacit approval. It didn’t seem to me that we had much a choice. We’d accepted his invitation, drank his wine. And now we listened.
The poem had a curious quality and the bald man began sobbing. The woman from Philadelphia looked as if a weight had lifted from her shoulders. I myself had a hard time discerning any meanings from it because something inside me was collapsing. Very shortly afterward we were out the door and on our way.
Perhaps there are films you’ve seen that will help me convey what I was experiencing. I’m thinking here initially of Field of Dreams, not because the story is improbable but because it’s impossible.
Our paths had crossed a number of times recently. I’m pretty sure I first noticed her near a fountain in Canal Park this past summer. Another time I saw her on the street crossing an intersection near Lake and Superior as I was leaving the Tech Center. I imagined her noticing me. It seemed as if she smiled and nodded, which at the time seemed terrifically unlikely. The idea of it made me feel younger than I’d been feeling lately.
It was here in the lobby, here at the Zeitgeist that I remembered, and I said as much. “I remember you.”
“Yes?” she said.
My thoughts were quickly becoming a garbled mess.
“It’s not possible,” I said.
“Oh?” she said, feigning ignorance.
For a moment I saw everything clearly, inside our bubble of the now. I was being given a second chance. My thoughts flew back to our first meeting, forty years ago, the same recollection I’d had on Hawk’s Ridge.
At the time, mid-winter 1974, I lived in an efficiency off State Street in downtown Athens, Ohio, cheap rent the appeal, a small sparse space on the third floor. I’d grabbed my bachelors two years before and was dabbling in a Master’s program there.
I can’t recall the hour, but sometime in the evening I’d headed down to the sidewalk. A gentle flurry of snow glistened under the street lamps. Few students were out, but had there been only one or a hundred I would not have noticed anyways. I saw only her, walking a large dog, something on the order of a mastiff, a very large dog. She walked erect with a simple dignity. It may have been that she used her weight to restrain the beast, but it didn’t seem like this was required, that the animal loped comfortably along with perfect reserve. Even from across the street I could see she had frizzy hair, sparkling as it was with snowdust.
That might have been the end of it, except the following evening as I slipped out to meet friends I once more saw this same sight, and found myself strangely responsive.
It would be easy to say the attraction was simply physical, the typical Pavlovian stimulus response that young women produce in young men. And though susceptible to this inner enticement game, for some reason it felt different to me this time.
Friday arrived. I’d planned an evening with my current circle of friends, which included a young woman named Connie and a big fellow whom we called Bear. I forget the others and can’t even recall what they looked like even though we’d spent months together sharing activities and getting to know one another. What I remember most is the dynamic between us, as undoubtedly Bear and I each imagined one day seeing our relationship with Connie develop into something more exclusive. I could also see that Connie used this to her advantage to create a safety zone of non-committal.
Because my place was downtown we all met there before heading to the club at the end of the block. Including myself there were five of us when we vacated and I turned out the lights.
Igor’s was not one of the places I’d normally frequented, but that’s where the others wanted to go so I went with it. The bar itself was in a cavern-like space down a half flight of stairs from the street. I’d been lagging a few paces when our party began descending. Then I stopped.
There she was, directly before me, coming up from below. I stood frozen on the first step as she approached, looking directly into my face as if she knew me. How, I didn’t know, other than from the previous two nights when I saw her from across the street, though it seemed she never even looked in my direction or acknowledged me.
We stood on the stairs without saying a word. An image flashed through my mind’s eye, a shaft of brilliant moonlight bathing pale skin, and I hovering over her, a living room floor somewhere outside of town.
She said nothing. I may have said hello, or I may not have. I recall no words, no name. I only recall that I drew near, pressed against her as she pulled me to herself and our wet mouths explored with impatient vehemence.
For an instant she paused, tilting her head back to study my face, then invited me home with her.
A moment of rationality briefly distracted me. “I need to tell my friends that I’m not joining them.”
“He who hesitates is lost,” she said.
I disappeared down the stairs, told Connie and Bear something had come up, and returned two moments later. She was gone.
I scanned the street and saw nothing, only the façade of a small town with empty interiors, mine emptiest of all.
“I don’t remember your name.”
“Maybe you never knew it.”
I never asked then and I still hadn’t asked. My face felt hot with shame.
She leveled her gaze. “What is it you want? What do you really want?”
I cast about for an answer, nibbling at this thought and that, trying to form a reply.
“You’re hung up on trying to give the right answer. I don’t want right answers here. What is it you want?” she said.
I didn’t know. So much of my life has been a reaction, or worse. Like a sparrow flitting from branch to branch, no stability, no aim, just sitting then flitting. “Are you in my life for a reason?”
“Do you believe things happen for a reason?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I used to.”
All of us have scripts laid out ahead of us. That is, we have a mental image of the next several chapters of our lives. We become good at playing our lines, dressing our parts, living our roles. But what if we could re-write our scripts? What if we could create new scripts with possibilities we’d never imagined before? How does a snake shed its skin?
“Hello? Anybody in there?” she said.
“For an instant there, I was thinking about miracles.”
“What kind of miracles?”
The sensation returned and I became anxious again.
“You’re thinking something. I can tell. Just say it.”
“It seems…I mean, it’s not possible.”
“How do you know what is and isn’t possible till you try?”
“It’s just that it seems like we’ve met before. I was young. And stupid.”
“People can be old and stupid, too,” she said.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” I said, more as statement than inquiry.
“Your name is…?”
I laughed involuntarily. “The goddess of love and beauty.”
“And sexual ecstasy,” she said.
This was now getting very strange for me.
“So, what is it you’re seeking? I keep asking and you just sit there.”
“It feels like something impossible is going to happen. I don’t know.”
“What if we just go with it?” She leaned away from me against the back of her chair. In a voice almost harsh, almost as if berating me, she said, “It’s your move.”
“What I’m thinking just doesn’t make sense,” I said. Her fierce strong eyes held my gaze, her expression forcing me to continue. “We met before, when I was young. Now we meet again and I am old, but you are still young. I don’t understand this.”
“I told you who I was. Everything’s possible, but you’re stuck in a way of seeing the world and it’s not making sense to you at this moment.”
I laughed again. “No, this isn’t making sense.”
“What if I said that when you kiss me…we’ll go back in time and continue where we left off? You’ll be young and you can live a new life with all new choices.”
I had no words now. I thought again about the strange party up at Hawk’s Ridge. It was the same question being put to me in a different manner, like an echo. Only this time, the possibility seemed within reach.
“Yo,” she said, tapping me on the knee. “What’s your name? You seem like a Tim or a Mike.”
“Actually, it’s Jess. Jesse. Rhymes with messy. My life’s been messy.”
“Well, maybe it’s time to make it right.”
“You can do that?”
“I already told you. It’s your move.”
I’ve always liked the idea of impossibility. I’ve always believed reality stretches beyond our normal boundaries of comprehension. Movies like Field of Dreams defy logic, but what if things like that could really happen? I’m not talking about hearing voices. I’m talking about second chances. And miracles.
I closed my eyes and reminisced, my brain stumbling through recollections of failed relationships, room after room of marred scenery, weakness, selfishness and, sometimes, pathetic behavior. My eyes were moist when I opened them again. This wasn’t the first time in my life I was prepared to believe in magic, but to my surprise she had risen and was now moving away from me.
I stood to follow, but felt paralyzed. What I heard next left me even more confused. The young fellow she was moving toward had asked what she was doing and she’d replied, “Just messin’ with that old man’s head.”