Coming of Age
April 1, 2001
Losing control over a man she hasn't seen in twenty years
by Malerie Yolen-Cohen
didn't mean to plunge into the time tunnel to my past. And I certainly did not intend to fall in love again with a man half my age. But of course, I was also half my age then too.
I've been married for eighteen years, have two children and am in the process of moving into a new home. Boxes come down from the attic. I find myself face to face with thousands of notes from friends and family - read once and stashed away. Among these artifacts, a cache of passionate and tender letters from my first love. I sit down to read - and the portal to my past is opened. 'I miss us being as close as biology and physics allow,' he writes from far-away Law School, foreshadowing the wily ways these sciences will interfere in my life years later, now, in the coming weeks. There is no present. Only the vision of our long-ago bodies. I haven't felt this way in over twenty years. Ever since I last saw or heard from him.
I call his mother and she's surprised, but kind. She gives me some indication of how her son is doing and provides me with his apartment and e-mail addresses. And the fact that he never married. This geographical and personal knowledge of him becomes my tipping point. I do what I have to do to express myself. I write.
And I write and I write. I send off three letters to him within the week. I tell him about stumbling onto the novellas he wrote to me a quarter century ago. I tell him how I've been flung back there. I tell him I'm married with kids and can't believe I'm feeling this way. I'm sad and confused and don't know where all this will lead. Then I e-mail him at work telling him I'll be visiting his town soon, would he like to get together? He responds electronically. He's friendly, breezy, standoffish. He tells me he's glad to hear I have a happy family and no - he will not be in town when I am there. I stare at the words and cry. 'Happy family' sits incongruously on the screen. And I know he is lying about being out of town. I attribute the abruptness of the e-mail to the fact that it's a business address.
I write another letter accusing him of using voodoo on me. No response. I tell him what I'm like now, my day-to-day existence. No response. I'm starting to feel like a stalker. But I haven't gone that far. I'm one hedgerow short of being one.
I feel drugged. And I remember an article I read describing the 'chemistry of love.' Phenylethylamine (PEA), a natural amphetamine prevalent during the 'lust stage' of courtship, has obviously kicked in - elicited by the letters. I'm a forty-three-year-old woman in heat. I want to jump in my car, drive north and ravish this man. I send another letter, but tone down the ravishing part. I tell my friends what is happening to me, hoping they can offer some words of advice that will circumvent the involuntarily self-sustaining opiates. 'Take all that passion and turn it on your husband,' one offers. But I can't. This desire is non-transferable.
I send him angry letters, followed by apologies. No response.
Thoughts about him intrude on my everyday existence. 'Intrusive thinking' indicates I am moving into the 'infatuation phase' of Helen Fisher's Anatomy of Love. I take small comfort in knowing that at least some of this is biologically driven. My pheromones gotta do what my pheromones gotta do.
'Rite of Passage.' 'Mid-life female phenomenon,' many friends say. They've been through this - or are going through it. 'I cried for three weeks,' I tell one. 'That's nothing,' she responds. 'I cried for one hundred days.' I hear a story about another married mother who was so driven she arranged a college dorm reunion just to see her old honey. And I am told by all that these feelings will last two years - it's only been two months. I feel like the only guest at my own pity party.
I take a trip with my children at summer's end to his neck of the woods. I hope I'll bump into him and hope I don't. It's a dichotomy I've learned to live with these past weeks. The visible mom/wife me versus the internal, tortured lover. I stay with friends within walking distance of his place. I can't sleep - and I'm scared to call. He doesn't want to hear from me and I try to respect that. But I still write.
I tell him about the trip upon my return. I tell him I was there and couldn't sleep. No response.
I read Rebecca Goldstein's Properties of Light and find the basis of eternal love in the theory of 'nonlocality' - where events can have instantaneous influences on other, far-distant events. I've invoked quantum mechanics into my time-warped reverie. 'The mind has a strange way of assigning meaning to random occurrences,' says my simpatico, mid-life passage friend.
I fall completely apart one day and write the most gut-wrenching letter ever. I tell him I see myself cooking for him and doing his laundry, and how sick is that? I tell him I go through 'thousand daggers in my heart' days when I think I'll literally burst if I can't talk to him. I tell him I regret finding his letters, but the damage is done and I can't extricate myself from these feelings. I implore him to call me to put me out of my misery. He needs to pull me back to the present.
And he does.
I get the call one morning and I hear his smoky voice and my tears start. It's a voice I haven't heard in twenty-two years, but I'd know it anywhere. 'What are you doing to yourself?' he asks. 'I don't know,' I whisper. I want to tell him about my biologically-altered mind. About the physics of timeless love. I want to acknowledge that I understand how difficult it was for him to call me. But I can't talk. He tells me what he's doing now. He loves his job, he has a girlfriend. He takes me gingerly, cautiously through the years… his years. There's no place for me to interject. I realize he knows more than he wants to know about me through my letters. 'You have to step back and count your blessings,' he counsels.
I hang up and cry. I feel as if we've just broken up. But I'm proud and happy for him and grateful that he made this unadvised appearance back in my life.
The next morning my husband wakes me the same way he has for eighteen years - with coffee in bed and a 'morning, gorgeous.'
I count my blessings and start with him.
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