aturday, 8:30 pm.
I'm lost in old memories, tipsy on old wine, with a glass in my hand and a heart full of sorrow. I’m drinking tonight. I’m drinking to the magic we’ll never make. To the kisses we will never share. To the nights I’ll never feel her breath on my ear as we sleep in the quiet hours before dawn. I’m at a wedding of two old college friends that I drove hundreds of miles to witness. My mood should be celebratory, but fool that I am, took a detour a few hours earlier to visit an old flame. Like summer rain sweeping everything in its wake, memories of sweet yesterdays pour forth as I walk the chapel steps outside the reception hall.
It’s cold tonight. Clouds roll in the night sky slashing the empty canvas of stars above me with streaks of curling gray vapor-trails, illuminated by a silver gibbous moon.
How does any tale of misfortune and loss begin? It begins when we least expect it, neh? It begins in winter four years ago - back in my final year in college - back in my happier yesterdays when the future was so pregnant with possibility.
Garrison Keillor once said, when asked if it was appropriate for a girl to kiss on the first date: "You should never go out on a date with anyone you didn’t want to kiss in the first twenty minutes."
But is it possible to connect deeply within a brief encounter? It's rare, but it can happen. Naïve and gullible people call it "love at first sight," but that’s not quite right. The more accurate description of that experience is ‘synchronicity of idiosyncrasies’; that recognition when you see significant pieces of yourself reflected in the soul of another - pieces that you believed all your life you’d never see in anyone other than yourself. It’s a wondrous, giddy feeling and a joy you hope you can hold close to you forever.
And, during winter 1997, this is when I met Caroline. Caroline with the broad friendly smile and gorgeous dimples, Caroline with the spirited tenderness and cheerful optimism, Caroline with the fiercely brilliant mind and an admission letter to one of the top medical schools in the nation, Caroline with a role as my spouse in a drama production we were both a part of.
Within minutes of meeting, she verbally tore into me - shredding the façade I wear to the world, playfully poking and bantering as if we old friends ... and I responded in kind. And oh, the energy of the exchange - rapid-fire dialogue shifting between English and Mandarin was like some deranged sweeps-week-quality multilingual episode of "Friends." Sharp wit, beautiful smile, bilingual Chinese speaker, and the fact that our very first encounter paired us up as a married couple.
Synchronicity? You're soaking in it.
Heaven have mercy on fools, I was smitten.
And the sun shone brightly on us in the weeks that followed - near-daily encounters for conversation (always great conversation) and shared meals, and talks from the serious and complex, to the absurd and silly, talks that regularly draw past the midnight hours. And that smile - that dimpled smile that lights up a room. And in my giddiness I told her a story I kept close to my heart all these years.
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Story Within a Story - Of Chinese Mythology and Legends
Note: I'm going to have to offer a translated iteration of the tale here. Alas, the English version does rob some of its power and beauty, but it's the best I can do - and will be vitally relevant, as will be seen shortly.
In the beginning of the world, there was an old man assigned to create the souls of those who would populate the earth. He would knead the clay and create little figures in pairs, male and female, connected by a red thread that he would use to hang them upside-down to dry. When his work was finished, the thread, from the left foot of one and the right foot of the other, would be severed and the souls would be sent to populate the earth, where they spend a lifetime finding the one they were connected to at their creation. This is what we call yuen.
Xian shu, shi yuen chi. Xian tze, shi yuen hsu, Xian feng, shi yuen ding.
Yuen is a word rich in meaning that translates poorly to English. The best way to think of it is as the intersection between the words "fate," "chance," "destiny," and "opportunity." Not a coincidence that left side of the yuen character is the root/radical for "thread." Yuen is said to have depth and length - you cannot change whose family you were born into, you cannot choose the people you run across in this lifetime, but you can strengthen and deepen the connection you have ...or let pride, grudge matches and thoughtlessness wither those threads away. And this is the connection - from one person to another, two souls speaking in synchronicity when you find your other half and take the effort to cultivate and cherish the moments you can create with one another.
All's Fair in Love and War
Ah, but all good things must end, don't they? The gods of irony are never far away from where I roam - stalking me from triumph to tragedy, ever-ready to pop out like an evil jack-in-the-box when I least expect it. An attractive woman is bound to have a past and Caroline was no exception - at the impressionable age of 20, she was seduced by a 31-year-old balding virgin accountant, and maintained contact off and on in the time we had together. When you have a string of lame boyfriends behind you, even the most unimpressively mediocre thirtysomething man looks mature by way of comparison. But the damage was done. Imprinting did what charisma cannot. Scientists first discovered "imprinting," when they studied baby ducks - a phenomenon where ducklings would devote unswerving loyalty to the first thing they see, be it a person, toy doll or, in the wild, their mother. Look around and you can see that imprinting happens for many humans as well.
As it turned out, the presence of serious competitor for Caroline's affections was just the kick in the pants the sandbagger needed to realize that he wasn't going to get any better than her - and he quickly proposed ... and the one move I as a college student couldn't possibly counter. How ironic that it was likely my increasingly intimate interactions that catalyzed the chain of events leading to her engagement. So I graduated with a heavy heart - and I knew I lost her forever when she told me she was going to live with her fiancée while attending medical school - lost her to the fact that I didn't meet her a year earlier, lost her to a monolingual old man who had no interest learning the language or culture she and I both live and breathe.
Pjammer: King of Masochists
So it's 2001. I'm driving to San Diego to see two old college friends marry and figured to visit as many other friends as possible during the trip. College buddies. Email pen pals. My brother at his dorm.
And, oh yes. Pjammer (you, dumbass, you) also calls up a certain now-married woman he hasn't seen in years to meet for lunch. She's as beautiful as ever, as sardonic as ever ... and now bears the surname of the old man who outmaneuvered me all those years ago. We talked like old times - about life, about school, about my time overseas ... and ... about married life.
"Remember that story you told me about the thread and the souls?"
Where was she going with this?
"I used it at my wedding and everyone loved it."
Oh Caroline, you didn't.
It was all I could do to hold my face reactionless that day ... because I couldn't tell you anything without me breaking down completely. It hurt so much I wanted to cry, but I kept smiling because sharing those things now would have done us no good. I've lost you already, and heaping guilt on your shoulders is something I couldn't bear to do.
But I told you the tale because in my heart of hearts I believed it was our story - yours and mine. I told you because in the time we had, I lived to hear your laughter, felt joy when you were elated, and suffered in moments of your disappointments. I told you because of all the people I've been involved with, you are the one I remember most fondly.
You gave away the story that should have been ours - and by necessity had to butcher it in its translation for this monolingual interloper, this sandbagging gweilo who wouldn't have had a chance with a women of your caliber his own age. And your eyes were so bright from recounting the memory of your unknowing betrayal I couldn't bear to tell you how wounded and violated your words left me. It's pointless to disclose such things and burden you with my grief - so I will take my sorrow and bury it in the secret places next to the shards of my broken heart. I will bury it with such a smile on my face so that you will never know.
I never told you how much I treasured your company in the moments when I was graced with your affection.
I never told you the crushing devastation I felt when I lost you.
I never told you how many nights I spent in the darkness cursing God, Allah, Yahweh - whatever, for showing me the possibility of perfection, dangling it before my eyes and then snatching it away from me.
Oh Caroline, sweet Caroline - I never told you so much, and perhaps I should have.
But I never will.
It's 10 o'clock. Revelers are straggling out and the happy sounds of wedding celebration can still be heard from the inside of the chapel. I'll go back for a last toast to old friends in a moment, but I pause to take one last look at a photograph of the two of us in a happier season before returning it to my billfold.
The air is still cold, and I still am alone.
P.S. Sandy Ego, Caroline - a followup ten years after we parted ways - where I mull over whether to accept her invitation for dinner when I am in San Diego in December 2007.
P.P.S. Alethia, G.A. Caroline Aftermath, update to the above update.