Around this time last year, I attended my 15-year college reunion. According to my friend, who organized the reunion, the 15-year reunion is usually the least well attended. This makes sense when you think about life stages. At the 10-year reunion, my classmates were around age 32, and most of us — or, at least, the ones who came to reunion — had not yet had children and were still free to drop everything for a weekend party. But by age 37, many of us had procreated; so many, in fact, that our class sponsored a bouncy castle and pony rides on the quad to entice families. For the first time, my classmates brought their spouses along, partners who were perhaps alluded to at the five- and 10-year reunions but were now sitting on the grass beside them, cradling an infant or chasing after a toddler.
Even though I’d gotten married and had a child of my own, it was strange to see my classmates with their families. I kept noticing tired, balding, and out-of-shape men hanging around the girls I used to know — girls I ran with on the cross-country team, girls I watched Ally McBeal with in the TV lounge, girls I gossiped about boys with, in the library. I couldn’t figure out why everyone had married older men. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have married someone I met in college, someone my own age.
For the first meal of reunion, my husband and I sat with another pair who met in college, as well as two other couples that we see every year or so at someone’s wedding or party. I thought that everyone looked pretty much as they always had. Maybe the men had a little more silver in their hair and maybe the women had a little more dye, but in general, the class of 2000 was looking good — except for those extraneous spouses, at the other tables! Again, I was struck by how old they all looked with their drawn faces. I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates had gravitated toward middle-aged partners. I started to theorize about it; maybe it had to do with technology? We were the last class to grow up without email or cell phones in high school. Maybe that was a significant divide, maybe it was easier to date a person in his or her 40s, rather than a younger person whose personality had been shaped by social media. Yes, I thought. That had to be it. We, the Jimmy Carter babies, had more in common with Gen Xers than Millenials. Of course we would be more attracted to them.
It wasn’t until midway through lunch on the second day, while nursing a bit of a hangover, that I realized that my vision was compromised. I was gazing at one of the unknown spouses, a woman whose lined forehead made me think I shouldn’t be so judgmental about Botox. I tried to guess her age. Her dress was slightly out of style, like she’d bought it years ago and only wore every now and then. Her sandals looked comfortable, a tad Mom-ish. I decided that if she wasn’t at least 40, then she had to be pushing 40. Some rational part of my brain — the part no longer pickled in beer — asked at what age did one begin to push against 40? The immediate answer was 38. I had just turned 37, which meant I was in my 38th year. Goosebumps rose on my arms as I realized that I was probably around the same age as this woman I was so harshly examining. Also, we were wearing basically the same outfit.
I did a very slow double take as a reassessed my classmates. They still looked young to me, in fact remarkably youthful, considering that they were all pushing 40. It hit me that I had no idea what any of them really looked like; that when I saw them, I was seeing the smiles and gestures of kids I’d first met almost two decades earlier, on a sunny September afternoon in 1996. I looked at my husband, whose not-yet-balding hair was nevertheless quite silvered. I’d always thought of it as majority pepper, but maybe it was majority salt? Then he turned and smiled at me and it was the same gap-toothed grin I’d known for years.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Do ever think that you really have no idea what I look like anymore?”
He laughed. “You always get like this when you have a hangover.”
My reunion mistake was a Proustian mistake, and it’s one of the things that spurred me to revisit In Search of Lost Time. There’s a scene in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, which I have a vague memory of reading in college, when Marcel attends a party in Paris after being away from the city for a long time. At first, he can’t find his friends among all the old people in attendance. Then he realizes: the old people are his friends! It’s a beautiful and poignant moment, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it at age 21. I found myself thinking of that scene during reunion, after I realized my mistake. I thought: now I understand that scene. My next thought was that I’d like to read it again. In the back of my mind, I had always thought I would read all of In Search of Lost Time before I was 40. The reunion forced me to admit that the deadline was closer than I’d realized.
This morning, I read another scene about the way love and time warps our vision; it’s a very celebrated passage in Volume III, in which Marcel gets a brief, unvarnished glimpse of his grandmother. He’s been away from her for several weeks, visiting with his friend Robert de Saint-Loup, and when he returns home, she doesn’t hear him enter the room where she’s sitting. There’s a hair of a second when Marcel is not quite sure he has entered the right room and in that moment, he sees his grandmother as she really is, not the woman whose face and gestures are defined by the love he feels for her:
We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it.
What Marcel sees, instead, is a woman who lives in the “world of Time, that which is inhabited by the strangers of whom we say, ‘He’s begun to age a good deal.’” For that split second, instead of seeing his beloved, morally perfect grandmother, Marcel sees an old woman, “red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.”
It’s the cruelty of the physical description that makes the last line hit so hard. And Marcel is no less cruel, a few pages later, when he meets his friend Robert’s mistress for the first time. Robert has built his mistress up to be a lovely young woman who is sensitive and intelligent in addition to being physically charming. But upon meeting her, Marcel recognizes her as the prostitute he met in a brothel, years before. He can’t believe that this is the woman that Robert goes to such great lengths to please, and marvels at “how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first.”
Shortly after Robert introduces Marcel to Rachel, two young women walk by and call out to Rachel, asking her to join them. They are noticeably of a lower class, “two poor little tarts with collars of sham otter-skin.” Rachel rebuffs them, but Marcel can see that Robert is shaken by the encounter:
Robert detached himself for a moment from the woman whom out of successive layers of tenderness he had gradually created, and suddenly saw at some distance from himself another Rachel, the double of his but entirely different, who was nothing more nor less than a little whore.
Again, the severity of that last line makes the revelation hit hard; it is akin to my judgment of the extraneous spouses, people who exist in the world of Time, unlike my classmates who I see through the scrim of fond memories. As much as I like the idea that the people we love are created out of “successive layers of tenderness,” like some strange and subconscious artwork, I also find it unsettling. I want to see the world clearly, without layers of fantasy and nostalgia. And I think I want to see the people I love clearly, too — or at the very least, through one of the less intrusive Instagram filters.
Then again, I’m well aware that that layers of tenderness and nostalgia may be what make long-term relationships last. They help us to see the best qualities in our friends, spouses, and colleagues, and to ignore or laugh at weaknesses. They help us to be less cruel in our judgments, and kinder in general. But in writing and in art, layers of tenderness are not as useful or desirable. I think what’s most disconcerting about Marcel Proust’s repeated examples of our inescapable subjectivity is his insistence that we do not know our own habits of mind; and yet our perception and experience of the world is profoundly shaped by them.