“I love you more than the flame.” I could have said that to him once. I would not have. I would not have said ‘the flame’ at all.
Ultimately, that is what the choice came down to. Even ‘choice’ is a ridiculous word. I seem to be unspooling one absurd word after another. In the vocab competition it’s the word “flame” that wins.
“He’s an old flame.” “She has a new flame.” That was the talk of my parents’ generation, maybe in the 30’s and 40’s. Like all speech, the term lingered with them. One can see how it suits – the fire, the heat, the temporariness of such a feeling for a person. Even in my own old age, I am haunted by the man I was involved with for a year. He was the flame, surely.
Looking back, I can see I had a crush on him. (There’s a switch of metaphor. Can one crush out a flame? What is a crush? Where did that word come from? A rush of feeling, of emotion? A leaning in?)
Even as it was happening, even as he was calling me and I was with him, I didn’t think the sentiment of “I love him.” I thought these phrases: “the incomparable Doug!” “the dazzling Doug!” “the beautiful Douglas.”
In one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays – I think it’s Henry IV, Part 1, the threat to the crown was defeated by a soldier or general who had the title “Earl of Douglas” whom they referred to as “the Douglas.”
That’s the way I saw the man, my flame. I was taken aback each time by his physical bearing. I have no photos. I’ve recreated him in my mind, an insecure image, and yet, sometimes when I see an actor on an HBO movie, or a young man standing at a bookstore, I still experience a little shiver, a thrill, at the reminder of his presence.
He grew old, as I did, but I didn’t witness it. He died, as did the one I loved more, and I did see that. I was there. I loved him more.
The flame, if I pursue the metaphor, wavered and weakened before me, making my exit an easy one. But it flared up again, as embers do, flared up in my imagination, my memories.
I can’t even said he was the one that got away because I was the one who pushed him away. It was my doing.
I fell in love with another man. Too, I thought then. But one was the flame, Douglas, and the other was a steady fire, one that—if I am to pursue relentlessly this ridiculous metaphor—kept me warm. Douglas, to turn to another cliché, ran hot and cold. Sizzling when he chose to be, and also tepidly indifferent, moody, one would say.
I don’t know. Maybe it was I who both fanned the flame and subdued it. I will never know.
It’s all exaggerated. No one is alive. They all haunt me. The years elide into one another, so that one year of forty years ago seems as vivid as last year.
A flame. Flames. They have all been snuffed out.