In the midst of divorce, Steve Axelrod holds out hope that reconnecting with an old flame may prove to be something more.
So I had a Sunday alone after a long week and it was raining hard, and found myself sorting through the first half of my life to see if there was anything worth keeping. In fact there wasn’t much; the only absolute was my parents and my children. Beyond them—a few friends, a few poems, some good memories.
And Sophie Zambarano.
I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years and the last time was hopeless.
We had eaten dinner in some little Greenwich Village restaurant with a raging blizzard closing down the city outside. She’d told me about her work, she was about to have a first gallery show at some TriBeca hole in the wall. She’d told me about her family, her sister had disappeared again; and she told me about her passionate love affair with another man. I could tell when she talked about this other man that I had no chance—that my chance had come and gone. Still, I had taken her hand and leaned across the table to kiss her. Desire had surged briefly, uselessly, between us, and she said, “We’re not going to make love tonight,” and we didn’t. We walked back to her apartment building with cones of snow swirling in the streetlights, the sidewalks soft and slippery underfoot, and I kissed her once more and she said “I’m sorry” instead of “Goodnight.”
A few weeks later, on an impulse, I had written her a poem for Valentine’s Day and sent it with a bunch of irises. It went like this:
Here are flowers
To celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Neither of us is quite sure why
But I think it’s only to demonstrate
That the best things only hibernate—
They never die.
But I am here and you are there
I cannot reconvene us;
So instead I send flowers
And try to sing
Of the wild bear who sleeps between us
Waiting for the Spring.
I never got any response and I hadn’t really expected one. Sending a poem like that to a woman who had just told me she was “madly in love” with someone else was in questionable taste anyway.
So I gave up on her.
I thought about Sophie now the way I thought about the dead. My affection had become historical over the years, caught in time like an old photograph. I actually had photographs of her, but I never looked at them. That Sophie was in all likelihood living an eventful and passionate life parallel to mine reading the same newspapers I did, drinking her morning coffee very possibly at the exact same moment I was drinking mine, sleeping when I slept (though she never slept much), occasionally dreaming of me as I dreamed of her, I had always refused to contemplate. That was some specific sub-category of self-abuse: wanton misuse of the imagination, like using a beautiful ceramic knife to open a cardboard box.
Better to grieve and recover, eulogize and move on. I had done that, long ago. Even at my weakest moments, in darkest days of my marriage, I had mastered the urge to find her. But now I couldn’t think of a single reason to maintain that resolve. It had been three days since I found the poem, and I hadn’t thought about much else. Maybe I was living in my head, but I liked it there. And all I had to do to make real was pick up the telephone.
I was pacing my living room. I couldn’t sit still. Finally I grabbed my phone and called Northampton information.
It was that easy. I pressed to make the connection and the phone started to ring. My mind was a blank. Then I heard her voice.
“Hi, this is Sophie. I’m not home right now. Please leave me a message. I like to see that little red light blinking when I come home.”
I hung up. I didn’t want to leave a message, give myself away, lose the element of surprise. It didn’t work though. She had the number on her caller ID; she called the next day and she hung up also. We were circling each other now, preparing ourselves. She called the next night, late. This time she left a message:
“Steve, this is Sophie … I hope it’s not too late to call. It was so good to hear your voice on the machine yesterday. I can’t stop thinking about you now. I feel like all I’ve done all my life is make one stupid mistake after another and the way I treated you was one of the biggest ones. Sometimes I think tragedy is just … the finality of our mistakes. Was this one final? I hope not. I’m living just outside of Northampton. You’re in the 508 area—not even that far away. We could see each other. But first call me back. I need to hear your voice.”
I picked up the message in the morning. I couldn’t do anything about it—I had to get the kids to school. But her voice had gone through me like a backhoe through a hedge. Whatever the thing was between us, it wasn’t starting again. It had never ended.
She had left the next move up to me.
And I knew I was going to take it.
This post originally appeared at Salon.