This weekend I had tea with an old friend. She is a happily married and attractive woman, dark -haired, still bright- eyed, and smooth- skinned though she is not far from her seventieth birthday. Sipping tea from my mother’s green china, the friend told me she had recently attended a fiftieth high school reunion, where a classmate, an old flame, had taken her out to dinner. He had recently lost his wife, he told her, and then reached across the table to grasp her hand and confess he had never forgotten her, still felt for her the way he had fifty years before.
“What did you say?” I asked. She smiled coyly and said she told him she was very flattered and disengaged her hand.
Certainly this seems a frequent occurrence in both literature and life: these scenes of ghosts from our pasts turning up in the present. Most women or men I have spoken to have had something similar happen to them and now with Facebook something that can be easily accomplished, discovering an old flame.
In my own case, years ago, when I was still married to my first husband, and living in Paris, a South African man, a big game hunter, whom I had known and fallen in love with when I was fourteen, wrote to say he was passing through Paris. My husband had recently told me he was in love with another woman. It seemed a perfect moment. So I sent my family off to the country and stayed in town to greet the old flame. We went out to dinner and then spent the night on the sofa in my living room.
I remember him saying, “I didn’t know you were still in love with me.”
To which I responded, “I didn’t either.”
Literature gives us, of course, some wonderful examples of this: We have Peter Walsch arriving in the middle of the day in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”’ coming into the living room while Clarissa is preparing for her party.
She sits there darning her dress on the day of her party, and he arrives and surprises her. This is such an interesting scene to be studied, for many reasons: the significance of the things used here: the penknife in Peter’s hands and the needle in Clarissa’s and also, for the vacillating point of view: we are in both heads, and for the dialogue: “I am in love” he said, not to her however, but to some one raised up in the dark”...
Another wonderful scene of the return of an old flame is in Chekhov’s story Lady with the dog where Gurov sees Anna Sergeyevna again at the theatre. There is the wonderful description of the theater and Anna in the crowd: “All the time the audience were coming in and taking their seats Gurov looked at them eagerly.
Anna Sergeyvana, too, came. She sat down in the third row, and when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted and he understood clearly that for him there was in the whole world no creature so near, so precious and so important to him; she, this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the one happiness that he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the inferior orchestra, of the wretched provincial violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.”
So, too, we keep these old fantasies alive in our minds, fantasies that we might be able to turn the clock back, return to a time when we were young and in love with someone whom we have not had to live with through all the vicissitudes of life, someone fresh and innocent of pain and suffering , someone with whom we might relive our lives, an impossible but recurring dream.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.