Sunday, September 20, 2020

“The Happiest I’ve Been”*


20 September 1970

I was summoned to the telephone at my parents’ home that Sunday morning. A group of high school friends were organizing a trip out to Zuma Beach in Malibu—was I interested? Of course I was.

This was just about a week before my graduating class was to scatter to the four winds, those of us who were going the “higher education” route, to our sundry and far-flung colleges and universities. I, to my disappointment, was bound just ninety miles away, to an institution that would spit me out half a year later; my classmates went on to various fates, some known, some not: that day was the last time I was to see most of them.

Among the teenagers present was my beloved, with whom interludes in the course of the preceding summer and the following autumn are among the tenderest of my youthful memories. That romance did not endure past the turning of the year (more on this anon), but this Sunday at the beach was the capstone of the year. At one point, as we waded in the shallows, a wave knocked my sweetheart down, and her spectacles into the churning surf: groping at my feet, I found and retrieved these before they were swept out to sea, for beaucoup points.

I do not think that, up until this day, I had ever experienced such an episode, so many seamless hours, of sustained joy.

By January the beloved, four hundred miles north of me, had developed other interests. I was unhappy, and peppered her with letters (in that distant era, meine Kinder, one had to convey text messages on paper and via the post) for the next few years until I finally wore her down and rekindled the romance in 1974. Two years later we wed; ten years after that she had reconsidered and, on this day in 1986, took a step, my weeks of anguished entreaties being dismissed, that pretty much put paid to the entire matrimony thing, so that’s another 20 September, a grim one, to bookend the first.

Someone asked me, twenty years ago, “Don’t you think it’s turned out for the best?” I imagine that the ex would agree—from the scant online evidence, she has long regarded our entire common history as an ill-considered detour from her own life’s journey. For my part, the question makes no sense: had I never been divorced, I’d be a different man today. To desire that counterfactual, to make it magically come about, would necessarily involve an act of self-cancellation of the man who might make that wish. So no, I do not rub the lamp. It is what it has been, and I am who I have become. And today is, fifty years on, the twentieth of September.

*The post title is taken from John Updike’s 1959 short story.

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