Call him Ishmael.
I saw “Ish,” an old friend and a fellow psychologist, at a party about 15 years ago, when he was about 40. My wife and I arrived late. He introduced us to a couple we didn’t know, but he didn’t look to be himself and left soon thereafter.
Those were the days before the Internet and social media explosions; when you went to a party and learned things about your friends that weren’t available on your computer screen or your phone; before you could easily track the lives of people you hadn’t seen in years.
The next day I met my buddy again and found out the unpublicized details of why he was out of sorts the night before.
“Remember that dark-haired woman I introduced you to yesterday?” asked Ish. “I hadn’t seen her since college. She was the first person I was really in love with.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “A real beauty.”
Yeah,” replied Ish. “She broke my heart way back when. It was quite a 24 hours — another party, actually.”
It was the summer before my senior year in college. You think Vanessa (the woman’s name) is good-looking now? You should have seen her back then! A shock of prematurely white hair, cut short; pale skin, “bee-stung” lips, very leggy; and a languid way of moving that was hypnotic. She had a swan-like grace, that’s the only way to say it. When I first saw her she was wearing a white bathing suit and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. She dyes her hair now — you can’t imagine how stunning she was.
As I got to know Van, I admired her dedication to her passion — competitive swimming. She enjoyed my sense of humor and we lined up on things musical and political. Both of us were also studying psychology at the time. We seemed to have a lot in common.
But there was this distracted quality about her. I always was trying to get her attention off of whatever else she might be thinking about. She was more compliant with me than enthusiastic about me — along for the ride, but never completely “into me.” When I think about it, I was actually unhappy lots of the time I was with her. She seemed just out of reach, and I was knocking myself out trying to generate some enthusiasm.
Ish related that Vanessa White (her family name had been Weiss back in the old country) was a year younger than he was, went to a different college, and that he had the feeling he was more a “place-holder” than a heart-throb over the summer vacation from college about which he was speaking. Still, he’d hoped that with effort he might make a big enough impression to keep the relationship alive when they both went back to school in late August of that year. The party he was telling me about, in fact, was an end of summer celebration that one of Ish’s friends had planned before everyone returned to campus.
“Van” would leave within a couple of days.
After the party, I drove Van home and we sat and talked in her parents’ living room for a while. But when I tried to pull her close to me, she held back; and then she lowered the boom:
I don’t think we should see each other any more, Ish.
Of course, Ish wanted to know why.
There’s someone else back at school I’ve been thinking a lot about. I don’t know for sure if it’s going to go anywhere, but I don’t think it would be fair to you to make you think there would be a chance for us.
Ish recalled that Vanessa made some comment about “being friends,” but that he’d pushed the idea aside. The conversation with Van continued for a while and Ish remembered that Van shed a few tears.
But then, she actually cried pretty easily on other occasions. She wasn’t an entirely happy person either — very sensitive to a lot of things, including human suffering; unfortunately, not my suffering. No, that’s not fair; more like she wasn’t sensitive to my feelings for her. I guess I would say that she was preoccupied much of the time. I knew she had a really, really good heart, but I could never figure out what was going on inside her head.
At least she didn’t give me the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine. She was painfully honest. It was clear that, for her, it was definitely me.
I remember saying to her that I’d actually thought about a life with her. I tried to make a joke of it — that, she was “Miss White” who just might be “Miss Right.” That made her laugh a little before it made her cry even more. Funny, as devastated as I was, she was the one doing all the weeping. I was mostly just numb; kind of dumbstruck.
Ish recalled leaving “The White House” (as he referred to Van’s home) and getting into his parents’ car in front of her family’s place and just sitting there. Sitting there for a long time, thinking sad thoughts, thinking of what was not to be, including the very vague future life with Vanessa that he’d mentioned to her: the life as “Mrs. Ish.” Or “Mrs. White-Ish.”
Does that make me a dwarf?
Confusing and silly ideas like that popped up as they sometimes do when everything else is going down. Ish realized that he’d never revisit the “White House” or kid Van’s father, Mr. White, about building an “Oval Office.” He’d never again call him “Mr. President” and see his sideways grin in response. Ish knew that he’d miss Van’s mom and dad, who always made him feel very comfortable.
If you’ve been through this kind of break-up, I’m sure you know how peculiar and disturbing it can be.
Surreal and disjointed, not to mention devastating.
One minute you are on the road; the next, you are in a ditch.
But Ish’s tumultuous 24 hours weren’t over.
I was scheduled to go out with my buddy “Starbuck” the next evening. He’d been at the party, too. That summer he worked at the post office. I think he had to get up at about 5:30 AM for his 7:00 shift. And he and his new girlfriend stayed up after the party until it was time for him to take her home, drive back to his house, shower, shave, and go to work.
So, by the time we started out for that night’s White Sox game at Comiskey Park, Starbuck hadn’t slept for about 36 hours. But, he said he felt fine and wanted to drive to the stadium. I was in no mood to argue given how I was doing after getting dumped.
The problem was, by the end of the game he was over 40 hours without sleep. And as we were headed back home down the Dan Ryan Expressway, I noticed that the car was moving into the next lane of traffic. I looked over at him.
STARBUCK!!! I screamed.
His eyes were closed.
I grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it to the right with my right hand, while I shook him with my left. A van blaring its horn flashed by on the driver’s side, narrowly missing Starbuck’s little VW. He pulled over and let me take the wheel. We’d just about gotten killed; what you call a near miss.
Those 24 hours were like that: a near Mrs. and a near miss.
I figured that was the end of the story and Ish did too. But when we next met-up, I discovered that there was more.
“She called me,” said Ish.
“Who called you?”
“Van. Vanessa. She invited me and Arlene (his wife) over to dinner at her house, with her husband and kids. And then we had coffee a few days ago, just Van and me.”
Well, you know, it was pretty enlightening. Every so often over the years I’d wondered what happened to her, how her life turned out. But this — this I couldn’t have imagined. You see, her husband is a psychologist, like you and me! And when we were out for coffee, she said “I should have given you more of a chance.”
When I asked her about that, she offered that her life now — married to a psychologist — sounded very similar to the life that Arlene has with me. Apparently, at the time we were dating, she imagined a very different kind of life and a very different kind of husband.
Vanessa was looking for someone who was a competitive athlete. She was on the college swim team aiming for the Olympics and fancied that the only kind of guy who would really “get” her had to be someone who understood the world of competitive sports; so I got disqualified pretty much from the start.
But, just between you and me, my lack of confidence in college surely didn’t help. And nothing Van did back then boosted my confidence.
And there’s more. It was interesting to see her interact with her husband and her kids. Of course, she eventually had to go into a professional career and works for a human rights organization. Does really good work. Travels across the ocean. But, at the same time, at the dinner she managed to criticize one of her kids in front of me and Arlene instead of doing it in a way that we wouldn’t have witnessed (and wouldn’t have embarrassed the kid).
And, she winds up being away from her husband and her children for long and pretty frequent periods in connection with her career, something that she said at coffee makes for nagging resentments at home. In fact, Van told me that her husband was a bit pissed-off that she was going to have coffee with me, because he doesn’t get as much time with her as he wants.
“So how do you feel about all that?” I asked.
Well, when I’ve thought about her over the years, I sort of idealized her. I’d never realized how self-involved she was. Before, when we were dating and she seemed distracted I took it exclusively as her lack of interest in me. But, seeing her with her husband and kids — seeing the way she relates to them — I guess this is just part of who she is, a part that hasn’t changed much. And, I guess seeing all of that now takes her off the pedestal I’d erected for her. So the life she had in my imagination, the kind of person I’d remembered her to be, was actually not the same as the flesh and blood person she is.
Now, really for the first time, I can see that things couldn’t possibly have worked out between us. But not for the reasons she’d identified — not for the fact that I wasn’t an elite athlete; it would have killed me to be with someone in a marriage who is as into herself and her work as she is. And, it wouldn’t have been good for any kids we had.
But you know what else? Even with all that, seeing her again stirred me just the way it did the very first time we met. I mean, maybe it’s pheromones or something, but there are just some people you are drawn to, no matter how much your head might tell you not to go there.
Thinking about her now — 20 years later — from the point of view of a clinical psychologist, I realize that sometimes things aren’t as they seem. The judgments you made “way back when” (really, when you were a still kid) aren’t necessarily trustworthy or wise.
Van is a very good, very attractive person and she always was. She means no one harm and does good in the world. But a life with her, the thing I desperately wanted, would have been disastrous for me.
“Sobering,” concluded Ish. “I guess the ‘Van-Ish’ relationship needed to vanish. I would have drowned trying to reach her.”
Then, after maybe 30 seconds silence, came his postscript.
I nearly took a hit from a van on the highway, just after taking a hit from a Van I was in love with.
The near miss could have killed me.
But the near Mrs. would have killed me, for sure.
Isn’t life something?
The top image is of a Young White Whale or Beluga approaching an inflatable (Churchill River near Hudson Bay, Canada) and is the work of Ansgar Walk. The drawing that follows of Captain Ahab is the work of Petesimon. The final image is an Illustration of the Final Chase of Moby Dick, from the 1902 edition of Herman Melville’s famous novel published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1902, drawn by I. W. Taber. All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.