The first girl I ever loved had to leave town to escape her father. It was, prior to that, probably the purest romantic experience I’ve ever had. And when she left it saddened me for a year, and I never forgot her. This was all pre-internet, so when someone went away they really went away.
Five years later, by chance, we met again in another city. One minute I was talking to someone in the beer garden of the Normanby, the next it’s all wide-eyes and exclamations and her refusing to let go of my hand for fear I was going to vanish again.
The problem was that I had been seeing someone for six months at that point, someone I was very close to. I’d lost my virginity to her. But there was so much unfinished and unresolved history with Rachel, and such a payload of scabbed-over longing, that I found I had almost no choice but to be with her. It’s one of those moments and choices that teaches you about yourself. I wasn’t ashamed of the choice, I didn’t feel it was the wrong choice, but I regretted the hurt, and I wished – really wished – the timing of it all could have been better. I knew there was a reasonable chance it wouldn’t work second time around with Rachel, but I wouldn’t sleep well for a long time if I didn’t follow it through.
It didn’t last very long at all. I don’t even remember how it ended, exactly. But I do know that waking one morning and seeing her lying next to me, sunlight falling across her hips, is one of the best memories I have. The fact that it didn’t last long, that it ended, and that in between that frantic re-meeting and the end there was this room where I knew real romance and real joy, taught me a lot about the nature of happiness, and memory. I learned that happiness doesn’t necessarily have to be infinite in order for it to last forever. I don’t know if that makes sense.
The famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Betweens reads: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The past is more than a foreign country, to me. At some point my grasp of time changed and things ceased to grow smaller in the rear-view mirror of my forward-moving life. Suddenly a lot of it was in the car with me. Rachel’s moved on now, she’s married and quite happily last I heard. But somewhere she and I are still lying on an enormous old war-era bed, she on her side, breathing softly, bathed in Brisbane sunlight. If I were to meet her tomorrow it wouldn’t be the same Rachel, and neither of us have notions of rekindling the past, but nonetheless the Rachel I knew is still with me and part of me is still with her, in some very real sense.
I suppose it would be easy for me to dismiss that notion as fantastical or sentimental. I’m guilty at times of being a bit of a dolphin-squeezer when it comes to being alive. But I’m pretty literal when I say my sense of time has accordioned down on itself. Also it’s worth clarifying that I don’t deny the things I’ve done of which I’m ashamed, I just don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with them, even though they’re with me as well. If I were to wake tomorrow morning only to find myself on a street in Edinburgh it wouldn’t seem so strange as I’ve never really left them.
I’m 38 and I think too much and that in itself can be torture at times, but if a side-effect of that is being able to more clearly hear that music from another room then so be it.