Old flames best left to flicker in memory

February 14, 1994|By Ana Veciana-Suarez | Ana Veciana-Suarez,Knight-Ridder News Service

She recognized him in a crowded restaurant during lunchtime and realized she would have known him anywhere: the familiar thatch of black hair, the spread of shoulders, the way he tilted his head back to puff on his cigarette.

She couldn't believe it. Seated a few tables away, in the smoking section, was a man she had last seen 15 years ago, in college. A man she once had been crazy about.

She stared at him in disbelief. What was he doing in town? Why hadn't he called her? Who was he with?

In the process of wondering about the answers to those questions, she began to detail how he had changed. He was graying at the temples, and he had a beard now. He seemed larger somehow, too, but more subdued. If she remembered correctly, his deep voice had boomed and carried across even the noisiest room back then. That day she couldn't even hear his laughter, only the tinkle of silverware against china and the buzz of others' conversations.

When my friend told me about this chance sighting, I understood how flustered she must have felt, and I could imagine her blushing furiously under her makeup and studied seriousness. I know I probably would have done the same. Old flames and lost loves, I think, have a way of bringing color to most people's cheeks.

My friend resumed the meal with her co-workers, a little shaken, of course, but never letting on. She even splurged with a slice of Key lime pie, the house specialty, and ate every last crumb.

Though I suspect she secretly hoped he would spot her and make the first move, she never crossed the room to speak to the man, and she left before he saw her.

I know why.

To anyone who has played and lost at love, and that probably includes most of us, old flames can flicker in our hearts for a long, long time. Unlike the loves we marry or live with, time moves old flames into the realm of fantasy; they are never scorched with reality. Old flames do not age. They do not blow their noses or grow bald or fat. They never forget birthdays or leave their dirty socks on the bathroom floor. They languish forever in an idyllic state of infinite possibilities -- the road not taken, the life not lived.

The most titillating type of old flame, I think, is the one never consummated, the relationship in which nothing serious transpired. The high school crush. The unrequited passion. The admiration from afar. These make the best stories for happily-ever-after endings because there is nothing -- no reminder, no memory -- to cloud our romantic fantasies.

(In high school, another longtime chum and I shared an infatuation for a young man who was in most of our classes but had never spoken more than a sentence to either one of us. When he left halfway through our senior year, we were brokenhearted. And wouldn't you know it, 20 years later, we still talk about him.)

The most harm we can do to an old flame, in fact, is to meet him 10, 12, 20, 30 years hence, when both of us have aged, have changed. Old flames are best left in the past, at a distance, untouched. My friend, wise woman, chose to do that exactly.

Some old flames have made mincemeat of our hearts and stomped on our most tender vulnerabilities, and yet, those moments are either forgotten or glossed over. My friend's flame, if I remember correctly, was narcissism personified. They parted when he refused to make a commitment. I wonder if she remembers or if she chooses not to. I tend to think that she, like lots of us, is selective in her memories, recalling not the bitter, weepy nights but a contagious laugh, the way he made her feel like the most important woman in the world.

It matters little whether we are currently in a meaningful relationship or if we are happy. Old flames are alluring regardless of place or time because, quite simply, they endure beyond the harshness of the everyday grind. Real people can never live up to our romantic illusions.

My friend is happily married and has two beautiful children, a great job and a nice house. The man she wed is, in her own words, "a sweetheart and a gentleman." But she wonders, and perhaps always will, if the old flame, the man with the thatch of black (and now graying) hair, wouldn't have been, at a different time, in another place, her Prince Charming.

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