In the film The Graduate, as Benjamin battles for the soul of Elaine, rescuing her from a marriage that would imprison her, Mrs. Robinson snarls at Elaine, “It’s too late.”
“Not for me,” she says.
They run from the church, get on a bus, sit in the back – she wearing a wedding dress, he disheveled from his long drive and battle to save her – look backward from where they came, then set their gaze forward. They’ve made a clear choice: “Not that.” They look neither happy nor sad. They look bewildered, maybe even scared, the unspoken question, “Now what?” hanging in the air between them.
The Graduate came out in the fall of 1967 – the year I started college at San Francisco State. By the end of my freshman year, Johnson announced peace talks, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, and in a philosophy class to which black radicals had been invited, I experienced for the first time the depth of the racial divide.
I had been catapulted out of a world that was trying desperately to remain static and into a world that was changing with volcanic intensity.
It was within that volcanic intensity that I met the man who would become my first husband. We were together for five years, married for two and a half.
Our breakup was not very elegant. I was the one who initiated it. Though I could not articulate it at the time, I left because I needed to answer the question, “Now what?” He was stuck with great determination in “Not that.” I don’t think either of us had the language to understand what “not that” was or meant.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been touring that past. First, I reconnected with people from that period who I thought I had lost in the breakup of the marriage. The following week, I waded knee deep into my family when I attended the memorial for my uncle, who died in June at the age of 100. One of the attendees was my younger brother, who, for reasons I suspect are not even clear to him, has shut me out of his life.
I have visited the past many times, trying to make sense of it. What was different about this particular journey was that I could see it through the prism of my present – and I am very present in my present right now. My heart is strong – it allows me to see things without guilt, shame, anger, or blame. All because I decided that the story I had been told was mine, wasn’t. Starting this blog was my way of discovering my story and owning it.
My brother, both of them actually, have written me out of their stories. I’m sorry for that. I don’t think I deserve it, but, I don’t get to write their stories, they write their own.
I think my former husband might have written me out of his. I’m sorry for that, too, because whatever pain we caused each other (plenty to go around when a marriage breaks apart), I’m clear that he is a part of my story. He is the person responsible for showing me the “Not that” door. I placed myself at San Francisco State for that opportunity, and he provided it.
It was my choice to go through the “What now?” door that doomed our relationship and began the long and sometime arduous journey to my present.
Reconnecting to the people I knew then, especially the women, helped me understand how deeply sexist the Not That was. We have all grown and blossomed into people our mothers either never dreamed of being, or only dreamed of being possible.
It took close to twenty years for me to learn that I could marry without sacrificing myself to Mrs. Robinson’s curse “It’s too late.” I fell in love with and married a man who sees who I am – whose story includes me. He cherishes my heart and I cherish his, which is, in part, why my heart is so strong.
I think that’s probably the answer I found for “What now?” Cherishing and being cherished.
The present, a college professor wrote on the board once, is how the past flows into the future.
Connections from my past are flowing into my future, and I’m grateful for that. They were a part of my story then, and I think they will be a part of my story now.