I walked into the Y this morning and saw an old friend at the other end of the room, next to the window, studying the instructions for a new machine. She lifted her hand and tucked her dark hair behind her ear. She looked young and fit.
Happiness rushed through me at the sight of her, along with the feeling of Wow, how long has it been?
Then I realized that time had done one of its hiccups. The darkhaired woman across the room wasn’t the friend I was thinking about. I haven’t seen that particular friend, even though we live in the same city, in well over a decade. The woman I was looking at could have been her niece, or her much younger cousin.
Sometimes time picks you up and sets you down, momentarily, in another place. Another era. My old friend might not think about me anymore. The last time I saw her I was forging solo into new territory. Maybe it seemed too hard to maintain the friendship; maybe she wished I would stay put, in the place where she had always known me.
But as I stood there, looking at the familiar-looking stranger studying the machine across the room, I was suddenly back in the living room of an apartment I used to rent, back when I was struggling my way into that new life.
This was the last time I saw her. We were both sitting crosslegged on the floor and drinking red wine and she was telling me about something hard in her life. I could hear her voice, which I remember as calm and bell-like, as if all the vowels became somehow rounded and soft when they emerged from her throat into the air.
Her voice had the texture of what I imagine bubbles from a bubble-pipe would feel like if you could touch them without them popping. What a beautiful voice she had, I thought.
I left that room and went down to the weight room and started doing pull-ups, conjuring up people from my past, to see if their voices were still there. My grandmother, yes. As clear as if she were standing right there in the Y.
Do I hear her so clearly because of the six hours of video I took of her and then had transferred to a cd and then into my computer, so that sometimes, when I’m cooking or cleaning, I pull her up on the screen and she keeps me company?
No. At least I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I will remember her voice forever and ever. But I don’t really know.
How about my best friend from childhood? She appears immediately in my mind, the way she would have looked in, say, fifth grade. Blonde hair, bangs, blue-blue eyes. She was a very small person but her voice was low, older than her years.
Was it, though? I try to listen, but I can only see her, standing in the framed-up doorway of her always-in-progress bedroom. Her voice is low and calm. I can hear it, and yet I can’t. The way I hear it is the way you remember a bubble drifting in the air, undulating in that rainbowy way, just before it vanishes. It’s the sense of a voice, but not the voice itself.
Try someone else. My friend Absalom, yes, I can hear his voice whenever I want, maybe because I spend a fair amount of time with him these days. But I distinctly remember driving to the airport to pick him up a few years ago. This would be the first time I had seen him since college, when we were great friends.
Will I even recognize him?, I remember thinking. And I also remember trying to conjure up his voice, there in the car as I drove down the highway to the airport. No. Nothing.
I pulled up to Baggage Claim and there he was, standing by a post, the same but not. Twenty and more years pass; how can someone not change? Then he called out Allie! and we both started laughing, and his voice came washing over me in that moment but also it came welling up from some deep reservoir of memory.
Now I’m picturing people from long ago in my mind and trying to conjure their voices. Some are there, others are lost. But are they really?
I’m thinking of my darkhaired friend’s voice as it was that night, the last time I saw her. Is that conversation –her soft words, filled with sorrow, and my responses– still somewhere in the world? Do the voices of everyone we know, everyone we loved, hang somewhere in the air after they’ve spoken? After they’re gone from the earth?
Does everything that rises converge, somewhere beyond where we can see and hear?
. . . In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me . . .
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.