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Looking Through a Distant Mirror

A few weeks ago I headed up to New Jersey to attend a book fair, part of the wondrous new sensation of calling myself a writer. I spent the night in New Brunswick, a few long blocks from where I went to college and where the first whiffs of adulthood penetrated my still dull but overly Romantic senses. I had a chance then to retrace my steps.

On a clear Saturday night, my obligation behind me and a glorious sunset in front of me, I drove by the place I lived my last two years at Rutgers. After two years in a noisy, crowded dormitory, four of us found a decent place to live, although it was far from a palace. Still, it was two blocks from campus and across the street from a beautiful, sprawling, well maintained park that sloped down to the river. The place looks as rundown as when we lived there, but the park is still beautiful and the neighborhood feels the same.

I stood there and looked up at the windows where I would occasionally pause from whatever I was doing and gaze at the park, perhaps regarding the sunset as I was doing that night, perhaps counting raindrops or snowflakes. Perhaps counting the time that I was suddenly conscious of passing.

I lived there with three friends, as close to me as brothers. One has gone on to a successful career in international finance. Another is one of New Jersey’s most prominent and well-regarded dentists. And another won an Olympic silver medal as part of the US eight-man crew in Montreal years ago. But back then we were four guys feeling our way around, four young men with a surfeit of energy and a dearth of experience. We had no idea what we were doing, but we knew we had each other to lean on, through every ambition, every relationship, every joy and setback, every heartbreak and exhilaration.

Each Sunday night we would gather in the living room, ostensibly to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus but really it was more than that. We would stop whatever we were doing, whatever we were working on, and be together to make sure we each were okay. Most times we were, but sometimes we weren’t, and like the tissue in our bodies that closes over wounds, we would draw together to see if we could heal the punctures that drew spiritual or emotional blood. I loved those guys then. Still do.

And as I looked up at the window through which I had looked so many times from the other side, I recognized again the special nature of that time. During my darkest times, when the wheels of ambition and relationships had come flying off and I saw nothing of value in who I was, I consciously thought that I would eagerly trade five years of my life for a single week again in that apartment, with those great friends, connecting one last time to promise and potential and hope.

In Arc of the Comet, I wrote of the feelings of those days:

"What chapters end, what begin, there on a precipice, a razor’s edge. . . where past existence so clearly meets what lies ahead and swirls it around a single point? A black hole sucked them in there and left behind no sound, no smell, not the faintest trace of any of them. It drew them into darkness and the great mysteries, pulling them through a point no wider than a microbe or the sharpened prick of a needle. But therein lay the fiber of their youth, the heated energy of all hope and promise, compressed by the infinite, relentless power of time. They saw themselves there, victims as well as actors, inescapably linked to whatever seeds had been sown within them, timid in the face of their ultimate fruition.

Solitude impended, as did frustration and loss. They sensed it all without articulation, as a forest deer sniffs the air for a distant fire burning in her direction. They knew it by reputation even as they believed that it could not really touch them after all, this distant fire, that so far had spared them and so by nature in the days ahead they would continue unscathed. It is the arrogance of youth, tempered by a quietly lurking fear that all houses must one day fall, that all men and women, sadly, are mortal, subject to heartbreak, to anonymity, to death in life, to pacing dark and empty hallways in search of what has come to be lost. . . . It is the fear that he will soon be haunted by the brevity of his existence against the grand infinity of his desires."

For a few minutes I felt it all again, as real and as present as if I had stepped into some time machine and thrown myself across the years. This was my launching point, the place where instinct and knowledge and thought began to gel against the expectations of adulthood. I did not always like what it was I was becoming, and corrections are inevitable, but the process became clear at that time, in that place.

We all have those places where the transitions from childhood become acute, notable and quite palpable. We all have those places where we first learned to pay attention to the whispers of our heart and, in so doing, defined who we were and what we might ultimately become. We all have such places, these launching points.

I stood on the sidewalk as long as the light lasted, wondering which of the neighbors might finally emerge to ask me what I was doing there staring up at a clacky old wooden apartment. I would have told them that I was merely looking at myself in a distant mirror.


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