I wasn’t sure if she was familiar because I knew her from somewhere, or familiar because she had that look that reminded me of when I’d lived here. Reminded me of the brunettes in the land of the blond.
Her summer dress was flattering in the way it showed her curves but avoided ostentatiousness. The woman who met her with a chaste hug seemed to be an old friend. The conversation was quiet enough that I could only catch bits and pieces. Obviously they had known one another years ago, maybe school.
It didn’t take long for subtext to arise. She had a wife, but her romantic notions hadn’t been met by the real world experiences. The post-school years in Europe led not to a country lifestyle, but to a nominally appreciated corporate job. Words like sustainability and inclusion don’t mean as much when the checks have a conglomerate logo on them. Her tablemate smiled sweetly.
The reminiscence shone in her eyes. The sky outside was cloudy, but the blinds were down in anticipation of the typical eastern sun. I wondered how her eyes would have looked in the sun.
When I thought of Victoria, I thought of high school sweethearts and missed opportunity. She had been not only kind and thoughtful, but smart and sexy in a way that was effortless. She may have been generous enough to survive my emotional wreckage if I had been strong enough to be honest. Instead of telling her that I needed time to figure out who I was and whether I needed something that I didn’t know how to find, I could have told her that I didn’t know how to avoid recreating the wreckage of my childhood. I could have told her that I was lost and confused and that I had no understanding of how to show love to a human being that had needs distinct from mine.
I had told her things that I had never told anyone, admitting faults that I had barely acknowledged to myself. I had told the stories to push her away, as though my self-hatred could create pity in someone else. It only brought us closer in a way I couldn’t understand at the time. Intimacy in my family had come with sarcasm and unspoken betrayal. Intimacy with Victoria had been earned. I broke both our hearts.
Her tablemate actually reminded me more of Victoria. Straight chestnut brown hair that demonstrated more burgundy in the sun. An easy smile of bright white through plump pink lips. Lean legs and friendly curves, and a slight limp that brought memories of the elegant scars that Victoria had across her left leg from a childhood dog attack. Her lilting inflection so that I could hear her smiles, even though I couldn’t see them. Her economy of words, allowing every syllable to build the conversation, to help it grow, like interconnected logs of a cabin, somehow more impossibly straight and sturdy together than the individual pieces could ever be.
I had failed at finding love and instead found marriage. A dozen years of relationship is a victory, but it had imploded and exploded simultaneously, blowing up quickly and painfully on me, and burning inside her for years after. I was stubborn and insistent, but I at least knew to toss my cards once the other players had left the table. She kept them crumpled in her hand until the lights went out. And yet, here I was, twenty years later, wondering what Victoria was doing.
That may have been why this woman a few tables over was familiar. Not for the hair color, but because she had that same grace in her eyes. The same smart fire that couldn’t hide her emotional intelligence even while she was speaking about education and history and the expanse of personal dreams in a global world.
Victoria had provided me with so much, I wondered if she ever got anything in return. I had cared for her, provided affection and the behaviors of love, spoken in the only language I knew, kind gifts and brutal honesty, clear commitment and confused self-pity. We had provided one another with clumsy sexual awakening and tentative experiences. Even now, many lovers later, hers was the skin that I thought of. Hers was the ideal thigh that would could picture between the spread fingers of my grasp. Hers was the breast with the dark freckle that I would think of sliding my tongue over. Hers was the silky body hair tickling my nose. The earlobe under my teeth. The leg intertwined with mine on a cool night. The slick, neutral taste of her tongue. The gentle scent of her sweat in bed. Even now, decades later, I can feel her in my arms.
This reminiscence is my undoing. It prevents me from overlooking the upturned nose of the woman in the summer dress. The nasal drawl of her tablemate. The gap of the server’s teeth, to much like my hated own. The slumped posture of the young woman eating with her dad. I create reasons why each of the women in my life, each of the failed romances and clumsy second dates end because they fail in comparison to a romantic ideal that memory has created. It sits, not in gauzy recollection, but in clear-eyed, picture perfect recall. But it is only that, a picture. Not a real world, only a two-dimensional shutter click. A perfect moment in time that fails to acknowledge the decay that would accrue, and the beauty that it can bring.