The first time she saw her old lover again was at a bookshop, up in Rockville.
Rockville was a nightmare area to the north of Washington DC, a suburban wasteland of low-lying carpet shops, pizza parlours and bed shops, all of which transmogrified into something else even as one watched. Everything was temporary there. Susan speeded up, turning up the radio. And there it was: Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, one of the tracks she used to listen to years ago.
As a teenager, she had no particular feelings about the past.
All she’d wanted was future; life was by and large a serial process. The door slammed on the last minute as soon as it was over. Life had been like living in Rockville, somewhere without a memory, where nothing remained for long, where adults could return to the streets of their childhood and find absolutely nothing the same; not a shop, not a church, not a tree.
But now life had a novelistic structure, a shape and some themes and some interweaving characters who made appearances at various stages of her life and theirs. The chief characters had been refined down to just a few, mostly people who’d turned up early in the novel of her life.
There was a new supermarket; there was a baby shop which wouldn’t last long; there was a shop selling ski things. Making a left, her car drew up outside the bookshop with its friendly green front.
She had first lived in America for a few months, at UCLA in California when she was twenty-four, and it had always been to her a place of sanctuary from England, where she was born. Her husband, Jim Stewart, was American.
She sniffed and grimaced. Their car had recently been valeted and smelt pungently of wet dog.
She kicked off her driving shoes and put on a pair of high heels, wondering why she was bothering.
As she walked into the shop, she felt a little nervous, as though sensing what brought her here, for these ties of ours are far stronger than we think, and draw men and women over oceans, round corners, through doorways.
She walked to the biography section past the psychology section which always attracted a group of cross-legged women reading tomes on ‘How to get love back in your life’ or ‘Make him love you forever’. It was too embarrassing to buy such a book, and even more embarrassing to keep a copy on a bookshelf. Thus they were mostly read in snatches by women nervous that the object of their affections, or just a friend, might catch them at it.
Even more difficult to manage was the trick of browsing nonchalantly through the sex books full of incomprehensible instructions and horrible drawings more suitable for a mortician’s manual.
Bookshops were a great solace. When she thought of dying, it was leaving behind books which upset her most of all, particularly a battered copy of John Donne’s poems, with ‘The Good Morrow’ underlined in places. At least the relations with those she loved would continue, in that they would continue to love her, while her death would terminate all relationship with these books.
A man in a wheelchair watched a squat lady in shorts balancing a pile of books in her arms. Close by, an overweight man chewed at an unlit cigar as he examined New Age titles.
Susan began to flip through the biography section and read something about Freud’s cocaine habit, and about how Elizabeth I had been pregnant with Robert Dudley’s child, and also she flipped through a biography of Lewis Carroll arranged in thirty seven fragments, then moved over towards her area of study, the natural history section.
It was then that she saw Phillip over in fiction, an appropriate place.
He met her eyes, then glanced down as though he hadn’t seen her.
She spun round and marched out of the bookshop, nearly knocking over an elderly lady. Outside, under the glare of the hot skies, she tried to find her car.
She’d spent thirteen years avoiding him, checking out every room and every party before entering it.
Whole continents had been eradicated from her world picture because of Phillip. India had become a no-go area. Africa (he had written a piece from there) had been eliminated. The former Soviet Union was somewhere he had said he wanted to visit so she couldn’t go there. Although, even on visits to London, she had never bumped into him, she had been doubtful about the eastern half of the globe, as though he might pop up in a temple, head shaven, as a monk, or be the beggar her group gave money to, or be a businessman at a Hong Kong hotel.
She stood in the car park twisting her silver bracelet round and round.
She focused on her car, and hurried to it, fumbling for the keys.
Of course, this is the age for old lovers, once people have settled in the pattern of their lives. It happens to most people. Those you have thought never to see again appear at parties, in the street, at dinner parties, and while you discuss your child’s homework you recall his taking you down on the floor of a concrete office room, and you blink and ask if he understands equations and how old is his son now and which school is he at. And all the while the comedy is there, at the corner of his eyes and yours.
‘Oh yes, that’s supposed to be a good school.’
‘And your children, how are they?’ he asks.
All your old loves come back, in the end, in dreams or in reality.
They dream of you now their lives are mapped out. Oh – that is the woman or man who could have taken me to another life. I could have been someone else. I remember her gaiety and the way she seemed to understand and the kisses, hot and fluid from the wide mouth. And to be unfaithful to my wife or husband – well, that doesn’t really matter. After all, I met my old lover first, when I was very young, when we were both young, how could it be wrong to do as we did in the past, when her nails dragged over my skin? Maybe my life would have been better if it had been with her.
Even now a father, who has just moved back to the area after many years away, is on a school zoo trip as an accompanying adult.
One of the mothers helping the teacher was his girlfriend years ago, when he was seventeen and he was tall and handsome. But now he has a fat stomach and a sadness around the parallel lines of his forehead. Whenever they look into a cage, the animals start making love feverishly. The father keeps nervously clearing his throat. The mother walks away from the cages and makes conversation about the school’s PTA, and he kicks at the path with his heels, thinking how beautifully her hair drapes her forehead, just as it used to when she was seventeen.
And when you look at each other, you see the old selves. Choose lovers carefully because you’ll have them forever.
It’s thirteen years since Susan and Phillip split up, but of course old lovers never go away, they crowd round, watching your every action, coming between you, stroking your thighs when you make love to your wife, laughing at you as you eat your suburban breakfast, help you to pull on your socks in the morning, with lowered amused eyes. They watch as you drive out from your well-kept house – oh, they whisper, and you had such hopes, they say.
For thirteen years she had kept away from Phillip.