When You Don’t Send Birthday Greetings and Other Reflections

Al in 1970

Today is Albert’s birthday. I’ve always remembered it since I learned what day it was way back in 1969. Like many numbers, birthdays seem to get stuck in my memory. Many of them make no sense to me, as the people whose special days I remember are often those I haven’t seen since I was a child in elementary school. I actually haven’t laid eyes on Albert since 1974. I came dangerously close to seeing him in 1975 when I was on a trip in California, visiting my friend Fern, while deciding if Michael was really the right person for me to be with for the rest of my life. Al was my first big love, after some innocent high school crushes. Our three year on and off love story was twisty, painful, ecstatic, tempestuous and often brutal. Being with him almost broke me. I know that I was often exhausted, insecure and filled with self-loathing during that time. For years I thought if I could wait out his immaturity and reluctance to be in a committed relationship at too early an age, we’d wind up together. Letting go of that fantasy was a difficult process for me which eventually got easier when I made my cosmic friendship connection with Michael in 1971. After eight months of that soothing, burgeoning bond, I finally broke away from Al as I ultimately transitioned with Michael into life partners. But that wasn’t easy for me.

Me with Al, Fall 1969

I have always made intense connections with people. Keeping them is a theme in my life. I am loyal while at the same time, quite cautious about who I’ll trust. For the most part, if I’ve felt emotionally betrayed, I’ll walk away and never look back. But walking away from my first true love was a big ask for me. I’d always felt like love wasn’t the problem between Al and me. We weren’t able to get past what felt mostly to me was simply bad timing. The rule was you weren’t supposed to be too serious in college, at least for him. There was a constant push-pull which was torturous for me. But I always loved him. My ultimate leaving was both an intellectual and emotional decision. I knew I could never trust him after all the havoc he’d caused with my sense of security. And I’d found a healthier, more secure passion with Michael. Even with Michael, though, I took several years trying to be sure we could navigate our differences. With that California trip, Al, who finally felt ready to be with me, used all his sway to convince me to travel from San Francisco where I was with Fern, to Los Angeles where he was completing a PhD and preparing for law school. Thankfully, I understood that seeing him again, no matter what the outcome, would be a crushing blow to Michael and me. I had just enough good sense to say no to a visit. I returned home having avoided my impulse. Michael and I were married the following year.

Fern

Over the years, being well-loved by Michael went a long way in healing the scars on my psyche which had so changed me during that tumultuous time with Albert. I moved on with my life and was glad I’d been so lucky. I saw myself as a survivor of reckless, immature mental abuse. Being whole despite that reality was a win. I didn’t ever forget Al but I didn’t talk to him again for thirteen years. I contacted him when my beloved Fern died. She’d been in love with Al’s college roommate for a few years and I wanted to find him to let him know of her death. When I called Al, his wife answered the phone. I identified myself by name, adding that I was an old college friend. When he came to the phone, he sounded excited. I heard him say, “yes, Leslie, it’s that Renee.” I was so stunned. In all the years since he’d been out of my life, I’d never once thought of him telling anyone, wife included, anything about our past history. Perspective is fascinating. I was wounded enough to believe that despite the power of our feelings, that I was the only one who walked away with real pain and damage. That phone call was a jolt. I could tell immediately that he was way too interested in prolonging our conversation, that his marriage was probably in trouble, and that as a feminist, I never wanted to undermine another woman who was in a bad spot. When we hung up the phone, I understood that I couldn’t be Al’s old friend. After 1988, I didn’t communicate with him for a few decades. Years later, a mutual acquaintance told me Al had since divorced and remarried. He also said that he was markedly changed and quite unlike the person we knew when he was young. Sometime in the mid-2000’s, I opened Facebook and found myself staring at his still recognizable face. The algorithms which suggest friends to you was possibly the reason for his appearance but after checking him out, I realized we had no friends in common. I sent him a friendly, chatty note saying I was surprised he’d reached out to look for me, along with some details about my life. And just like that he vanished. I could only assume he wasn’t savvy about how the platform worked and was embarrassed to be “discovered.” I never heard anything further from him and never found him again. My life was full and busy so on I went. Subsequently, my mom’s needs, my kids’ needs and ultimately, Michael’s cancer blotted thoughts of Al out of my mind. Still, every year, I always remembered his birthday.

In the spring of 2017, as Michael’s health steadily declined and he spent a great deal of time sleeping, I began sorting out papers and memorabilia from the past to prepare for what I’d decided would be more an exhibit of his various iterations rather than a traditional celebration of life. During the hours selecting what treasures I’d use for his event, I found a few pieces of writing from Al to me, written in the early ‘70’s. I decided to write him a note, explaining what was going on with Michael and to ask him if he was interested in seeing those interesting epistles he’d written so long ago. His response was polite; he wished me luck and said he wasn’t great at connecting with the past. The blur of Michael’s death and the next several months left little time to dwell on that. But near the end of the year, I sent Al a note explaining why I’d initiated contact with him years earlier and abruptly ended it. I thought that at this time in our lives, we might have at least some sort of connection. As people have disappeared from my life and knowing that the future holds more and more loss, I thought there was value in keeping in touch with those who’d once been so significant in my world. That met with a really negative response from him. A while later, my old friend Brenda sent me the photo of me and Al on the front steps of the student union on campus, taken on the first day we’d gotten to know each other. In the spring of 2018, I sent him the photos and got a thank you email. I thought I’d ask if perhaps we might stay in touch after all but was rebuked by an abrupt response which made it clear that I should go back where I came from. I wrote him a response expressing my surprise that after over 50 years, even minimal contact was more than he could manage, but that I would honor his feelings. I thought for a long time about all the unknown but clearly negative emotions I seemed to elicit from him. For so long I thought I was the damaged party in our relationship but clearly, my view was too self-focused. His desire to leave everything back in that old time still seems weird to me and is really the only instance in which I’ve been unable to share a few memories with an important person from my past. I haven’t reached out to him since then. Sometimes I wonder if he’s still alive or if I’ll ever know if he’s dead. I find that idea that he could simply no longer exist without my knowing to be unnerving and creepy. For some reason, it just feels wrong. But oh well. I guess I’ll just continue to remember his birthday without ever acknowledging it until either my memory fades or I’m gone myself. In the end, I suppose our differences were always as serious from our very beginning as they proved to be late in our lives.

Switching from the personal to the greater world, I’ve been noting the significant changes in my community. I’ve recently photographed three vacant businesses within a few blocks of my home. With the increased freedom provided by my vaccines and the generally accepted mask-wearing in town, I’ve ventured further out of my smallish pandemic route and noticed the economic devastation wrought during this lengthy change to people’s habits. I’m thinking that many of these shuttered facilities are never coming back. Urban blight is evident. I suppose that perhaps the issue of the supply chain might ultimately resolve but I just took the photo below two days ago, in what was formerly a fully-stocked grocery store. Conversations with friends in different cities include discussions of the same issue. Anyone not noticing the big price increases on virtually everything must be wealthy enough to be able to absorb the financial bumps. On top of the scary politics, these are worrisome issues.

On a lighter and more positive note, I’d had great concerns about whether this year’s dry, hot summer would devolve into a drab autumn. Trees were still green and beginning to go brown without the glorious colors which are dazzling and the best part of the four-season area of this country. Thankfully, the past few weeks have brought a brilliant show to my designated tree city. I’ll end with some of my favorite photos I’ve taken recently which make the coming winter easier to bear.

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