Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sliding doors

My friend Linda and I were best friends at first sight.

We met in Indiana when we were both starting our jobs as teachers of freshman comp at the university that is not Purdue or IU. It was my first real teaching gig. Linda was 10 years older than I was, although she looked like she was fresh out of grad school herself. She had never taught college before, but she had been a high school English teacher for many years and I came to rely on her for her experience and good judgment in handling 18 year olds. The odd thing was that I began to do it almost as soon as our eyes met.

We were at a department orientation meeting for new hires and I knew no one in the room, until I spotted her.

I knew her.

More to the point, I knew that I knew her. Already. It was as if we'd not only met before but spent a lot of time together. It was so startling to me that I was convinced that she was a friend of mine from high school or grade school that I had somehow, impossibly, forgotten about. This was all before we said a word to each other. When the meeting broke for lunch and we finally got to shake hands and introduce ourselves I felt as if I should apologize for having forgotten her and let our friendship lapse.

It turned out that our paths had almost certainly never crossed before.

I kept the fact that I felt certain we'd met before to myself for a few weeks until one day she brought it up.

She told me what I already knew because I had seen it register in her eyes. She he had known me---recognized me---instantly that first day.

Linda believed in reincarnation. She said that the reason we felt as if we had met before was that we had met before. In another lifetime we had known each other well and cared for each other. She thought we must have been brother and sister or mother and son. If I had believed in reincarnation, I'd have said she'd been my big sister and our friendship---friendships---through various liftetimes had been defined by her looking out for me. I didn't believe, and I thought Linda had identified the central truth about us, that she was my mentor and heroine, and was misinterpreting it as evidence that something she wanted to believe in was true.

Linda died of cancer in 1997.

I still don't believe in reincarnation, but I also hope that she was right. I can't wait until we meet again for the first time and resume our friendship. I wonder how long a soul has to wait to be re-born. I keep looking around for her, but since she'd be no more than 9, I guess I will be an old man before I find her again.

She died just at the time I was being drawn into the world of cyberspace. Since that time I have met and made friends with a bunch of people I have never seen and in many cases never even spoken to on the phone, and in almost every case we became friends so quickly that it was hard to believe that we hadn't always been friends.

My pal Margot and I were talking about this the other day. She's had many similar experiences. In fact, she and I are that experience. We met online and have yet to meet offline. We talk by phone and by email and by instant message. Neither of us can remember the exact moment our friendship began. It seems to us now that we were just always friends.

It's not just that we like each other and enjoy each other's company and those feelings are eternal, online and offline---eternal in that they take place outside of time. They are time-less. Clocks and the movement of the stars and the planets have nothing to do with them and can't be used as a measure of their duration or intensity.

Before it happened to me, even for a long time after, I'd have said it was impossible to become real friends with someone you never touched.

You can touch people with your eyes.

I'd have said that.

I'd have been forgetting that the blind and the deaf manage it somehow. But I'd have said but the blind hear, the deaf see, and both can touch and smell. They sense the world, they sense the people around them.

Maybe I should say I'd have said it's impossible to know someone well without sensing them. We are trapped in our bodies, I'd have said. We have no way of knowing anything except physically. We have to see and touch and smell and hear the world.

My friend Steve has been legally blind from birth. His eyes have grown worse and worse over the years. When he was young he could "see" things if he put his nose right up to them. By the time he was in his 30s the world had turned to fog with only the vaguest shadows moving through it. But even so I was always amazed when we were walking together across the campus of the college where we were both teaching that he could pick his students out of the crowds of kids around us. He could do it from a longish way away too, before they saw him, in fact. I've asked him how he was able to do this, if he recognized them by the way their blurry shadows moved or if he heard them, if the students he identified were talking with their friends as they approached us and his ears were so attuned that even at a distance he could isolate and recognize individual voices in a crowd.

He doesn't have an answer. He thinks it must be a combination of things.

Linda would have said he felt their auras. She believed in a lot of things besides reincarnation that I thought were nonsense, except when she was talking about them.

I wonder if she'd have said that we can push our auras out into cyberspace.

Once upon a time I'd have insisted that even if friendships can be forged in virtual reality it was impossible for people to fall in love in cyberspace. Friendships can exist out of context or within their own contexts. Friendships can be compartmentalized. We can be friends with a person in this box, whatever is going on in any of the other boxes we spend the rest of our time in.

I suppose love affairs can happen that way. But love, true love, can't be boxed. Besides needing, more so than friendship, touching, sensing, love breaks out of its original space. If it's love, we love all the time and everywhere. This means that love is dependent on circumstances. In order to love someone, we have to love their circumstances. We love them for where they are and we love them for the people around them, even, sometimes, for the things around them.

That's what I'd have said.

Now I know people who have not only fallen in love in cyberspace, they have met face to face and continued their love in the real world to the point that they are now married.

Happily, thank you.

Steve, by the way, is someone else I became friends with at first sight. From his perspective, we became friends at first hearing. We met in grad school when he hired me to read to him. Back then he could still do his own reading, if he put his nose right to the page, but that was exhausting. He was working towards his Ph.D. and had too much reading to do it that way. The first thing I read to him was an essay on boxing by William Hazlitt. By the end of it he and I were old pals.

His girlfriend, D., brought us together. She was another person I fell into friendship with at first sight. I was in the library the first week of school and I looked up from what I was reading to see a very pretty pair of ankles standing over by the circulation desk. I followed the legs above the ankles and worked my way pretty swiftly north to a face with a very pretty pair of dark eyes staring back at me with a laughing, knowing expression. And I recognized her. She was my old friend...whatshername.

She knew me too. I mean she really did. We were in a class together. It had only met once and I have to admit I hadn't noticed her, or I didn't remember noticing her. She must not have been wearing a skirt and high heels that day and had her eyes hidden behind a book. So the fact was that at that moment it was as if I was seeing her for the first time and yet it was as if I was seeing her for the thousandth time and when she came over to introduce herself it was practically a redunancy.

Right away our frienship fell into a pattern that felt like an old, comfortable routine. We were both insomniacs and regularly late at night after I'd tried to exhaust myself into sleep with a long walk around town---not knowing at the time that this was the worst thing I could do, exercise wakes you up. I was pretty dumb for a grad student---I would wander by the house where she had an upstairs apartment and I'd see the light on and go on up. I would find her wide awake, after her regular cure for insomnia, a long bath, hadn't done the trick. She'd be wearing her full-length zippered robe with the orange and green vertical stripes, her long dark hair lank and wet, all her books and papers spread out all over the floor, and a tea kettle already hot, waiting for my arrival. She would make us instant decaf coffee and we'd sit in the wrack and ruin of her studies and talk until dawn, just as if we had been doing the same thing forever.

I have noticed this with other friends, that the patterns and routines of our time together have been set from the first, just as if we'd settled back into old, long-established habits after a time apart.

This has happened with the friends I've made in cyberspace whom I've since met offline.

With the friends I met first in the analog world I could say that we were brought together by our already sharing habits and routines. D. and I were just re-enacting a scene that has taken place at colleges since the first academies were established in Paris. Before D. and I met we were both doing separately and with other people what we wound up doing together.

But with my initially virtual friends the routine of our frienship involved keyboards and computer screens. We couldn't repeat any patterns. It all should have been brand new. But it felt old.

It was deja vu all over again.

This is going on too long. I'm going to call this Part One and end it here. You can jump to part two from here.

Steve Kuusisto has written a beautiful memoir about the nightmares and strange beauties and compensations of his blindness. Planet of the Blind was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 1998.


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