Jane Smiley: It’s Funny What You Remember…

A coffee-date reunion was filled with unexpected insights into being honest with yourself—and with others.

december long time no see
Nick Ferrari for Reader’s Digest

A few months ago, I ran across someone on Facebook whom I last saw at my high school graduation in 1967. In fact, though, the last time we interacted was in seventh grade, when he asked me to tell one of my friends that he liked her. After that, things happened as they always do—friendships shift, some kids grow up quickly and some grow up slowly, and everyone heads out into the world to make the best of himself or herself. It stunned me that this former boy should end up in my small town 2,000 miles from where we grew up, and I messaged him—we went back and forth for months about a convenient cup of coffee. This week, we finally got together. I was a minute late to the coffee shop. There was a short line, and as I joined it, I said, “———?” He turned around. I said, “I would recognize you anywhere.” And I would have. Are all faces that you know from when you were a child so imprinted that their lineaments leap out at you, distinct within whatever has shaped itself in the interim? This happened to me in graduate school. I saw a girl I had grown up with, and I recognized her by a vein in her forehead.

He bought a muffin, bought me a bagel. I cleared a table, and we sat down by the window. He said, “I have to admit, I had no idea you were famous until yesterday, when I mentioned to a friend that I was having coffee with you, and she shouted, ‘Jane Smiley!’ ”

I laughed and said, “May I quote you?” Intermittent fame is what writers specialize in.

It became clear that I remembered him better than he remembered me. He was a bit wild in school, while I was, as he said, quiet and studious. I said, “And always at the stables. That was what I was thinking about.”

He said, “I didn’t know you did that.”

That was my first lesson: that most of your life is hidden from people you see every day, day after day, for years. I was quiet; no one gossiped about me. He was wild; everyone gossiped about him. We kept talking, leaned toward one another.

Some of our fellow students had died. We traded names. The ones we remembered had died young—in their 20s. One was a suicide. I hadn’t known about that one. Forty-five years ago, now. We talked about teachers. He didn’t remember anyone fondly. My favorite, a man I thought funny and subversive, had accused him of plagiarism. In retaliation for what I would consider a fairly routine prank, the interim headmaster of our school had written to the colleges where my coffee companion had applied, telling them he was not a good candidate. For me, college had been a smooth escape, the first stage of my launch toward actually learning something. For him, it had been a dead end, followed by another and another. Perhaps the headmaster and his father would have seen his fate as well-deserved punishment for being wild, thoughtless, out of control. As a parent of children now in their 20s and 30s, I was horrified at the headmaster’s vengefulness.

My companion suddenly looked me in the eye and apologized for anything he might have said or done that hurt me all those years ago. I was taken aback—I couldn’t remember a thing, and I said so, but that was my second lesson: Everyone’s view into the past is telescopic, narrow and sharp, dark for some, light for others.

We cataloged our adventures, our educations, our offspring, our marriages, our midlife crises, the anxieties that somehow we got rid of. I am usually aware that behind every communication there is a wealth of images, insights, emotions, and memories, but sitting with this familiar face that I hadn’t seen in 47 years enriched that sense of fullness. Was it stranger that he had been to many places I have never been, and now will never go (India, Southeast Asia, South America), or that we had been in many places at about the same time (Iowa, Big Sur, my own small town)? I imagined him disappearing around a corner just as I stepped onto that street, us seeing the same things at the same time, but never each other.

Both of us have a living parent, 90 or so, and so our lives are not over, but they are at the culmination stage. I have just published the first in a trilogy of novels that reconsiders and sifts through the history of my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation, my generation, and my children’s generation. My coffee mate is about to embark on a building project that will give him a job and a home for a long time to come—he has found where he wants to settle down. We are eligible for Social Security, retirement, old age, grandchildren, looking at caskets at Costco.

After an hour, we both had things to do; time to head out. I said that I had enjoyed our chat and, “We should get together.” The standard response to this remark is “Yes, we should,” after which, chances are, you will never see that person again. He said, “We’ll see.” I was taken aback, but that was another lesson: Introspection and thoughtfulness lead to honesty with yourself, honesty with others. The impulsive boy I remembered had turned into a man who knows himself—someone who has investigated his feelings and his history, who has sought lenses for seeing what he needs to see. My lens, writing books, has done something of the same thing for me. Normally, relationships go on for years, and the friends and family members we bump against and move along with seem mostly the same as always, and maybe when they change, we don’t like it. But all of a sudden, and just for a moment, I glimpsed the whole of a single life, and for that moment, I loved him.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Her new book Some Luck, was published this fall.