These shorts came in today, and before I could assimilate the individual aspects of their 70’s-ness– the pleats, the polyester, the wide legs, the tiny, high waist, the modest navy blue– I was overwhelmed by the memory of the girlfriend I had when I died. Boy, she was a peach. Not long before my death I had gone to look for an engagement ring and couldn’t commit myself to buying it. I knew I wanted to marry her, and I knew she would have said yes, but I got so nervous in the jewelry store. It was stuffy and carpeted and just seemed so wildly unrepresentative of what she and I had together, and you know I never saw her wear a ring anyway. She didn’t like the way they felt on her fingers. I think I might be glad I never got around to asking her because maybe that made it a little easier for her when I passed, but on the other hand my heart breaks that I never had that moment when she looked at me and said, “Yes.” It just breaks.
Let me explain. I have solid memories of a past life. Nothing really linear in scope, but very real and concrete moments that did not occur within the life I began in 1981. When I started remembering it I was a teenager, and it came with the sudden and vivid knowledge of what the inside of my apartment had looked like. It was on the outskirts of New York City, and it was tiny. I hadn’t lived there for all that long and I missed my younger sister; I had come from a smaller city or town that had a playground I walked by every day of my life; I can see the swings moving in the wind behind a chain link fence. My apartment was one room with a small cot, stacks of books piled up against the white, cracking walls (some things don’t change) with no bookcases (some things do), a small white but rust-stained stove that didn’t work and that had an electric hotplate perched across its burners, two miraculously not-dead houseplants, and a teeny bathroom to the right of the stove that had a stand-up shower and a toilet that blocked the bathroom door from ever shutting all the way. There were two windows in the main room; one, on the narrow wall, had a view of the expanse of the brick wall of the building next door and the other, over the cot, looked onto a park. It was fall, probably mid-November. There were a few brown leaves still clinging to the skeletal trees in the park and considerably more scuttling across the grass and pavement below and huddling in piles against fences and trash cans. I was in my mid to late twenties. I was a man. By deduction I know that I liked to read and I would have liked a record player but was really fine with the small radio that I hardly ever used because when I was home I preferred to listen to the environmental sounds I didn’t have control over. I do not remember what I did for work. I don’t remember a heck of a lot more solid facts except that I was happy. And I remember her.
Who knows how we met, how long we knew each other, what kinds of things we did together, what we laughed about and fought about, what her name was, what her parents were like, or even what color her hair and eyes were. I don’t remember those things. I remember walking in the park across the street from my apartment building and turning to face a woman with an honest body, an open face, and clear eyes that overflowed with love who was the best part of my life. I remember that whatever we fought about wasn’t important and that we laughed often. I remember that the way she smelled– like jordan almonds and wool and tomato vines and herself– made my knees buckle, and that even though she was tall she felt fragile and precious in my arms. I remember the curve of her shoulders and the way her shoulder blades felt under my hands. I remember that her hair was soft and a little bit wavy and was always getting knotted at the nape of her neck when it got tossed around by the wind and rubbed on her scarf in cold weather. I remember that sometimes I thought about breaking it off with her. I remember the way she would brush lint off the front of my coat without thinking about it, an unconscious act that made me ridiculously, foolishly happy. She was the woman for whom I felt compelled to walk into an uncomfortable and stuffy jewelry store. The sight of her made my heart feel like it was coated with glycerin and sliding around in my chest in places it wasn’t supposed to go. It was simple. And it was the 1970’s. I know this because I remember our clothes. I wore corduroys, a thin brown sweater, and a plaid scarf. My hair was too long. She dressed like this:
I was some lucky guy, wasn’t I? She’s probably still alive out there somewhere. I wouldn’t know the first thing about looking for her, and I wouldn’t want to find her. The time we had together, like all time spent with someone you love, was too short, and if I hadn’t died so suddenly I would have married her and we would have had this other life that neither of us had or are going to have. There would have been fights and difficulties, but every second with her was worth ten years of heartache. Or maybe we would have been together another six months before I destroyed us, or she betrayed me (she wouldn’t), or we got bored and ugly, or things, as they do, fell apart. But the way things are she still loves me and I still love her. I’m not certain if that’s better or worse. For a long time I thought that I’d been murdered, because I had a sense that my death was somehow violent. It would explain my excessive fear of murder, and how else does a guy who isn’t even thirty years old die? But maybe I got hit by a car. Maybe I fell out of a tree. Maybe I was sick. If you think dying from an illness isn’t violent, you need to reevaluate your perception of violence. I don’t know how I died, but it’s a big relief to know that how you die isn’t important, and the bad parts aren’t important, and that even after death nostalgia steals in and leaves only the best. It leaves cold air and dry leaves and walks in the park and the smell of wool and warmth. It leaves her.