I hear the familiar jingle coming from my laptop screen, and I’m surprised when the face above the “Answer” and “Reject” buttons isn’t Rob’s. It takes me a second to put it all together: the four years since we’ve last seen each other, the sporadic emails and voicemails left without answer, and the half-hearted attempts at informing the other about births, deaths, and marriages. I press the “Answer” button and I’m relieved when he doesn’t use a webcam, because it takes the pressure off me to reciprocate.
“Hey, beautiful,” he says, lovingly. “It’s been a long time.”
“Always the flirt,” I chide him. There is a coy edge to my voice, a frilly lace teddy hanging on my every syllable. I hear it before I realize it’s there, then self-consciously check myself. “It has been a long time,” I say, trying to sober up. “These days, I might as well be a married woman. Flirting with me is downright inappropriate.”
“So I hear,” he breathes into the mic. His voice is velvet honey, sweeping from nostalgic refrain all of the romantic gestures from my adolescence, and collecting them at my feet like crispy and colorful autumn leaves. For a long time, he was the standard to which all men were measured. Now here we are, half a world away from each other, without the strings of intimacy and longing tethering our hearts together. What I felt for him has been reduced to a pure and poignant pinprick of the past: wholesome, idealistic, naive and innocent.
“Remember that time we fucked in Washington Square Park?” Well, then. There go wholesome and innocent.
He repeats his question, and I giggle nervously. He might as well be asking for the time, his voice is so smooth and unassuming. “I-I-I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I stammer, my eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Sure you don’t,” he laughs. His voice gets lower, closer to a feline growl. I can hear New York City in his every intonation. The Grand Concourse is streaming into his s’s and Utica Avenue is trailing his e’s. Dollar vans, fresh graffiti, and Chinatown traffic clog his windpipe. There is swagger and rhythm pulsating through his vibrating timbre. Salsa, rap, jazz and reggaeton coat the cords of his voicebox. The baggy jeans of his youth hang off the respectable model citizen he has become. He is my past, incarnate. He is teenage love in all of its grandeur.
“It was summer,” he says, clearly caught up in the memory. “We were sitting in Washington Square Park, high as satellites. You leaned in and you whispered the fifteen words every man wants to hear-”
“What would you do… if I told you… I want to fuck you right now?”, we say in unison. I am roaring with laughter, unbelieving of his memory. He is recalling the moment with exact precision: the color of my hair and the way I unzipped his fly; the tan lines on my back and the way I effortlessly climbed onto him on the park bench. The more he talks, the more apparent it becomes that I am not quite as obnoxiously proud of my sexual prowess as I once was. Instead, I’m embarrassed. And he gets a kick out of this.
“Oh, c’mon! How many other guys have you used that line on?” he asks, remembering a conversation we’d had years after the incident at Washington Square Park. “Five? Ten?”
“Oh, you’re not giving credit where credit’s due, my friend,” I laugh, my shame going the way of the dodo. “Twenty, at least!”
He joins me in a stream of intoxicating laughter, and that’s when our conversation gets awkward. Because remembering the past is great, but it has the pesky habit of leaving people to wonder if there’s anything to return to; if there are other versions of the same motif that should be allowed the right to blossom; if the past is really in the past.
“How’s your wife?” I ask.
“She’s good,” he answers. I swear there’s a note of relief in his voice.
I think about this man, this man who saw so many of my ups and downs, who saw me evolve, who said during our 3-hour conversation, “I remember when you didn’t know how to do that thing with your tongue.” There is no one like him. Once upon a time ago, I loved him with every part of me. I loved him as well as I knew how. I felt certain that he was it, he was the one, he was everything I ever wanted. And it didn’t work out. After all of the dramatics, all of the waterworks, all of the insanely grand romantic gestures and long, drawn-out climaxes, we’d eventually run our course and gone our separate ways.
Once in a while, I remember how I used to scribble my first name with his last name. I think of the satisfaction of pronouncing our names together, all of the daydreams I had of our kids and our life together, and the happiness I imagined I’d know by his side. All of those memories collapse under the weight of my present persona and my real-life situation. They are not fully-developed representations of what I want for myself, just as the girl who loved him was not the seasoned and complete individual I am today.
But still, it’s good to remember that girl and the boys she loved. It’s heartening to know that I can remain friends with people who are constant reminders of my past. It’s nice to remember that beneath my working student/mom ways, there are other layers, other lives, other paths weathered by my own experience. Sometimes, when monotony and conformity knock the wind out of my sails, knowing this makes all the difference.