I ran into an old friend the other day, the kind of improbable encounter that makes you wonder what the universe is up to. It had been 16 years since we had last seen each other. During that time, I had left and returned to Colorado; she had stayed put to raise three children and then re-located to a city about 80 miles north of here.
And all those years, we knew nothing of each other’s life.
There had been a certain energy between Jo and I. When we met in the mid ’90s, she had an unfulfilling marriage and questions about who she was, emotionally and sexually. I was in a passionate but unpredictable relationship with another woman that left me wanting. Back then, Jo and I were in our thirties, when the vagaries of the heart and the desires of the body are still potent and apt to cause trouble. And we were drawn to each other, to a shared intelligence, warmth and inquisitiveness that answered a lack in each of us.
So, for a time, we existed in a kind of suspended quaver, acutely aware of the potential for something more, but mindful, too, that what might feel wonderful to us would feel awful to others we loved. In the end, we never crossed that line. But we didn’t stay close, either, and eventually the weight of the tensions within and between us ended our association.
Jo seems happy now. Her children are successfully raised, and she and her husband found on the other side of their difficulties a loving and companionable partnership. I’m doing well, too, with a home that suits me, an animal family I cherish and a few friends of the heart. Life has gone on.
Yet we recognize each other still, in the same way we did those many years ago. I can feel it in the e-mails we have exchanged in the days since we found each other again.
I dreamed of Jo last night, of holding her close in bed while we were doing nothing at all — half-watching TV or talking or some other gentle, quiet thing. We were again our 30-something selves, and there was again that sense of familiarity and tenderness, of belonging to each other. It was a long dream as dreams go, but I wasn’t ready to wake up.
I wonder at the persistence of our yearnings, at how time passes and relationships come together and fall apart. And still these dreams. I marvel at the stubbornness of the human heart, at how it remembers and imagines. Always and ever, this longing for closeness, for connection. I sometimes feel that being encased in a body, so organically and irreparably separate, is a never-ending loneliness.
But with age comes a certain wisdom. I know now that loneliness is a cost of being human, not a disease that can be cured by relationship with another, however deep and meaningful. I understand why my favorite line in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping — a slender jewel of a novel — describes love as “half a longing of a kind that possession does nothing to mitigate.”
So I let myself feel that longing for Jo now, and bow again to the love and loneliness that so often encircle our fleeting lives. And then I go about my day.