Every now and then the past – in the form of a person – catches up with us. When it does, will the experience be nostalgic, embarrassing, or poignant?
My wife’s first trip to Montréal was memorable in many ways. She went as part of a group of students organized by their college’s French Department, and it was her first time in Canada. The group stayed at an historic convent at the foot of Mont Royal due to their chaperone’s friendship with the Mother Superior. As an old, international city, Montréal had much to offer the excited students: nearby Parc Mont-Royal with the stunning panorama of the city; the old port on the St. Lawrence River; Vieux Montréal with its shops, cafés, and cobblestone streets; the magnificent Notre-Dame Church (now Basilica).
The students were on a street one day, deciding where to have le déjeuner (lunch), when they overheard some young men with American accents. Instantly, the two groups started chatting. In passing, one of the boys mentioned that he came from Brooklyn, N.Y. and had blind parents.
This caught my wife’s ear. She quizzed him further and learned that the boy and his older sister had attended a certain Catholic elementary school. My wife was stunned; she had gone to the same school. What’s more, the boy’s sister had been in her class. My wife clearly remembered the parents, each with a seeing-eye dog, walking their children to school every day.
My wife and her fellow students took every opportunity to practice their French language skills among themselves and with the locals. One student, “Elise,” went so far as to strike up a romance with a Montrealer. Never mind that a live-in boyfriend waited for her back in the U.S. Elise and the Montrealer were glued together for the rest of the week. Wherever the students went, the Montrealer was with them, smooching and cuddling with Elise. He even showed up at the train station when the group was leaving for the long ride home; like a movie couple, he and Elise kissed and embraced as if one of them was going off to war.
At the end of the semester, at a party hosted by one of the students who had been on the Montréal trip, my wife learned that the past had quickly caught up with Elise. The young man from Montréal had appeared at her door a week after she had returned home. I don’t know how she explained the Montrealer to her boyfriend, but they allowed him to stay with them for a while and even took him sightseeing. A week turned into 10 days, 10 days threatened to turn into longer, and still the Montrealer remained. Fed up, Elise’s boyfriend finally threw him and his backpack out of the apartment.
On one of our visits to Italy, my wife and I took a day trip to the island of Capri. Everything you have ever heard about the beauty of the place is true. The late spring day was warm, the lemons were maturing into a deep yellow on their trees, purple and pink bougainvillea spilled over enormous terra cotta planters and garden walls, red hibiscus bloomed, palms trees lined walkways, the deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkled in the sun. With my wife’s hand in mine, I floated in a dream, awake.
We were walking near the clock tower on Piazza Umberto Primo when I heard my name called. I looked around. Flavia waved madly. She had been a romantic interest of mine years earlier, but the relationship had withered on the vine. She was born and raised on Capri and had her own small shop there. I should not have been surprised to see her, but I was.
Flavia came up to us and greeted me in the traditional Italian way, a light kiss on each cheek. She acted delighted to see me, overly happy in my opinion. She was dressed stylishly, wore lots of makeup, and had every hair in place. I introduced her to my wife, we chatted a minute, and off she went.
“So that’s the famous Flavia,” teased my wife, who knew all about my failed romance. “Did you see how she scrutinized me from head to toe?”
I had not really noticed. My wife good-naturedly wondered out loud what Flavia’s judgment was of the woman who married Anton.
“Who cares,” I said, and I meant it.
Then my dear wife added, “She had her chance at a really good man, but she threw it away. And she is still alone.”
Flavia had income from a thriving business and a home in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Yet, she was a troubled, restless woman. She had relatives in my hometown and visited them occasionally. As we got to know each other, she would tell me about her small life on the island and her grand romantic pursuits and misadventures. I could have added stability to her life, but Flavia wasn’t having any of that, least of all from me.
I used to wonder what had happened to her. That spring day on Capri, I saw that Flavia’s present was identical to her past and that being with her would have meant a life of tears – for me.