I HADN’T PLANNED TO RUN INTO HARVEY DECKER.
I do sometimes, plan to run into people. I go back to my hometown planning to run into my first true love, a boy who never gave me a look. I rehearse long, desultory conversations we will have–I take both parts: his, wistful with regret and keen awareness of missed opportunity; mine, cavalier and funny and remarkably kind. I’m always planning to run into people, rehearsing how surprised I’ll be. I just hadn’t planned on Harvey Decker.
“Call me if Carlton ever runs off with his secretary,” Harvey Decker called out as he drove away, the last time I saw him, which would have been the summer of 1974. Approximately once in a lifetime someone tosses off a line that will invite chill winds to cause a shiver down your spine, a line that blows the future’s cover, lets you peek inside the crack in time. Just as, once in a lifetime, Carlton, your beanbag of a husband, will suddenly remember, after almost 30 years, that he never wanted to be married in the first place, and in celebration of the dawning of awareness blares easy-listening soft-rock music 24 hours a day. In two months’ time, he’s got his own apartment and says he wants to date around. It’s called midlife dementia.
And when that happens, you remember Harvey Decker’s telling you to call him if you ever find your life turned into a land mine of a cliché. When that happens, you remember everything that anybody ever said to you in your whole life: the guys in college who put the “Help Cure Jock Itch” medical ointment advertisement in your intra-campus mailbox; the blind date who asked you–15 minutes into the proceedings–did you have any girlfriends you could introduce him to; the svelte, blond cousin who gushed in stage whispers at your wedding, “It’s a miracle. I can’t believe it. It’s a miracle.” When your husband of a quarter of a century absconds with both your near and distant futures, memory calls back a whole lifetime of one-liners.
I’m back in Albany for a conference which the signboard outside calls The Psychology of Dental Wellness, which I’m hoping is a serious typo, or I will be the only psychologist in a room crammed full of dentists. I’m working out the logistics and advisability of running a group therapy session for 137 unwilling dentists, when I spot Harvey Decker. He’s wearing a name tag which helps with the what-to-call-him part, but his face I recognize right off the bat. He’s wearing no doubt the same granny glasses that he wore to sharpen up the ’70s, specs resting on the same nose, above the same small mouth with tiny, child-sized teeth.
He doesn’t have a clue who I am. It’s a good thing I didn’t call him up when my husband Carlton did jump ship. (What did you say your name was? Ran off with a secretary you say?) But once I have convinced him that time has indeed done all this to my one face, he seems to remember me entirely.
“I’m really glad to see you,” Harvey says. He sounds glad.
“Where’s Carlton? Is he here too?” Harvey pulls the name out of thin air. The man’s a midlife wonder. Not only does he look about 27, he has a fully functioning memory. I’m 52 and can remember names of close family members. For the rest I rely heavily on pronouns. I, who have abhorred name tags all my life, now wish they were mandatory for anyone appearing in public. “Is Carlton here?” Harvey says again.
“No,” I say. “Carlton isn’t anymore.”
“You mean he’s dead?”
“Only to me,” I say. “We’re divorced.”
“When did that happen?” Harvey says. And it comes back to me. Harvey always had a way of sustaining interest in another person’s life.
“Oh, it’s three years now. The last of our three sons went off to college, and Carlton left the weekend after that.”
I’m hoping Harvey doesn’t say something about why didn’t I call him, but he just shakes his head like that’s about what a person would have expected Carlton to do. He gives no evidence of having been sitting by the phone waiting for my call, lo these 27 years.
“My boys all went to Cornell,” I say. “Didn’t you go there?”
“Stanford.” Harvey smiles.
“Oh yeah, right.” It would have been nice if I could have remembered one proper noun from his past life.
“So,” I say. “I wonder whatever happened to our boss on the education project. Remember Ron-the-priest and the other guy, Sandy?”
“Randy. I see him and his wife Joan a few times a year. Ron Baylor’s still around too. He might be here today. He comes to a lot of these meetings.”
I am dumbfounded. It’s as though I imagined all these people existed only as minor characters in my life story, then disappeared or went on living only in my head or were still sitting in the large upstairs storage room that was our office for the year we worked together, sitting in that high school waiting through time and all eternity for the nasal door chime of a dismissal bell to ring.