The Gardens of Our Minds
When I was in college I tripped over the first love of my life. Bobby was a boy who became a man before my eyes, and we wandered into the adult realm of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, foreign films, and tiny apartments. We lived together, and I treated him less lovingly than he deserved.
He was totally smitten with me, and although I adored him, I loved more what he unleashed in me. And so when the opportunity came to have a grown-up affair with my former high-school art teacher, I leapt at it. And since it was the late ’60s, I believed I had to tell my sweet Bobby about it. After all, weren’t we supposed to celebrate this newfound equality, men and women standing toe-to-toe for feminism, rallying behind the pill and politics?
I also told him in a matter-of-fact way about the subsequent affair I had with the twice-my-age, married manager of the restaurant where I worked. This man flipped me upside down, spun me around, and then returned to his wife. And so, after the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I was left emotionally slack-jawed but equipped with a sexual vocabulary and a salacious travelogue that short-circuited any prospect of settling down with someone my own age.
Yet I returned to the apartment Bobby and I shared; squishing into our single bed, making hallucinogenic spaghetti sauce for our friends, enjoying our sloppy sheep dog. But I was no longer in love with Bobby and he knew that.
We stayed together for another six months, during which I was unfaithful but joyful whenever we found ourselves together. Bobby became morose and distant; he had every reason to feel that way. Finally I moved out, right into another boy’s apartment just down the street.
I am not proud of this behavior. It was thoughtless, unwise, and not a firm foundation for future anything. I thought I was being modern, off the cuff, sexually liberated; thought too much about me and not enough about the detritus I left behind.
What I am proud of is that Bobby and I have maintained a friendship for three decades that dims and flares with varying intensity, but has lasted. He is Bob now, a middle-aged man who races and rehabilitates cars; a former pre-med student who turned his ability to care and cure into a thriving business restoring classic beauties.
This past fall I crept back into regular touch with Bob when I was searching for a car as a gift for my husband’s 50th birthday. By chance, Bob had just restored a 1976 MGB, and it was exactly what my man wanted. I test-drove it with my 17-year-old son, Bob helped to get it inspected; he pointed me to classic-car insurance and special plates that read zinc 50, my husband’s business and his age. We were back and forth on the phone often, Bob and I, and I visited his shop.
On the day I picked up the MGB – after giving me a mini-tutorial in non-automatic chokes and the hidden latches for trunk, bonnet, and glove box – Bob took a breath and said: “I had a nightmare about you.”
I wanted to know, so he went on.
“We were back in college and you were having that affair with that restaurant guy, Peter, right? It was the same thing all over again. You leaving me, me feeling hurt, and angry that I hadn’t stood up for myself enough.”
I went to him and said how sorry I was for everything. I had apologized for the damage over and over in the past.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” said Bob. “I love my wife, I love our daughter, I am not sitting here with a hard one for you. I am as confused by this as you are. I just think it’s crazy the way brains keep things stored up, like some sort of dormant garden – and then maybe by seeing you again, it’s as if I kicked over a rock and out crept all this hurt.”
We talked some more, laughed, hugged, and I roared off in the MGB. Autumn leaves swirled at the tires, the wind felt more pronounced, and the car squealed on the curves. As
I waited for the light to change I started to cry. The sun was setting early now, and the chill air stung me when I rolled down the window and let in the September melancholy.
Where does all of this come from? All these emotions we warehouse over years, over decades? We change calendars, celebrate milestones, but the gardens of our minds still hoard sadness, hurt, and disappointment. We can’t predict or avoid what will release these hidden demons. We just have to acknowledge that they exist, honor them as part of our past, and keep on with life. The only defense I know is joy and forward motion.