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Time Is, Indeed, a Goon

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Last fall, on one of those cool, damp, spearmint-y mornings, I drove past a street corner where two small children danced.

The older had on new school clothes: stiff jeans and a striped t-shirt. He was wearing a backpack so disproportionately large, it looked like he might topple over if he stood still. The younger was three or four -- not yet kindergarten age. She wore a dress, or a nightgown (it was hard to tell from my car) and her feet were bare. The children's mother stood on the path to their house, drinking a cup of coffee, watching her children, waiting for the yellow bus.

I stopped at the sign and sat, struck by a longing so fierce that for a couple seconds I really believed I could will myself back 20 years. Back to when my children were scrubbed and new and dancing in the boulevard. To being that young mother, weary but happy with her coffee. To windy autumn dawns when the grass sparkled and the sun rained sheets of pale light.

It was that blend of nostalgia and regret that I run into more and more as I plow through my 40's. I keep getting hijacked by memories of the early days: My first marriage to a completely reckless but loving guy; the intemperate pride I felt before I knew what lay ahead for my children; a solipsistic sense that we were golden. Even in our worst moments, I believed there were endless possibilities ahead.

In fact looking back now, from the point of middle age, I'm perversely most attached to the stretches of poverty, loneliness and fatigue. Because I think I was at my most hopeful then.

Of course, the wind and the dew and the pale breaking dawn are all still there. It's me who's different. I'm huddled in the back corner of some dim room, writing. Or running out of the house with my meeting clothes on and a briefcase in my hand. All I know is, none of it feels the same, except for those brief time-bending glimmers I get through someone else's eyes.

My children are grown and I no longer get to launch them into the world each morning. I no longer monitor their clothes or check their backpacks or watch them climb the three huge stairs of an idling bus. These are all things I used to control in an effort to make their lives perfect.

What a colossal, nearly comical, failure that was.

The thing that puzzles me is why this should be happening so often now, at a time when I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I am far better married, to a quiet, steadfast man I love more each day. We have enough money to travel. Our careers are going well. My adult children are -- if not pursuing the Harvard-cum-laude, Nobel Peace Prize lives I envisioned --affectionate and funny and incredibly interesting. We have wonderful friends. My parents are close.

In other words, I'm not spending my nights in a fretful darkness. Or rather, I shouldn't be... but I am.

It's as if this pacific time has opened up the space for me to cast back and re-examine. Moments from my 20's run like an old-fashioned slide show through my head. The bright day in 1993 that we all walked my older son to his first day of kindergarten. The yard we raked later that fall and the weekend we spent jumping in piles of leaves. The dusky afternoon I stood outside my own front door, hand on the knob to pull it tightly closed, so I could interview the governor (Arne Carlson) by phone while children whooped and yelled inside. The next year, when we brought our daughter home from the hospital and the boys called her Stink.

There are bad memories, too. My once-strong young husband lying on our kitchen floor, telling me he was done and bone tired and once he got up he was going to leave. Then, when he did walk out -- closing the door with a silent click -- the shattered, white face of my younger son and the inhuman howl was let out.

There are so many things I would go back and change. Only when I lie in bed at 4 a.m. and follow the trails my edits make, there is always a price. Not marrying the man would erase those three strange and wonderful children. Calling him back, begging him to stay, pledging to look the other way as he drank up our future... that would cast out the superb man and marriage I have now.

When I started doing this, playing the nostalgia/regret (no-gret?) game, I thought I was alone. Then a friend mentioned what she called her "ticking clock" moments. Another literally rewrote her own history, the way she wished it had been, in a self-published book.

Because I tend to write characters who are my age -- and experiencing my particular angst -- the heroine in The Forever Marriage plays this game, too. What if she hadn't married her boring, mathematician husband? What if she had pushed him into the Mediterranean on their honeymoon? What if she had aborted the unplanned pregnancy that resulted in the birth of a disabled child?

Sometimes, I imagine all of us 40-something women lying in darkness, reviewing the choices and outcomes that could have been. And I like to think of Jennifer Egan, the novelist, as our leader. Not a god, exactly. More like a yogi who has called out this practice and given it a name.

Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad is an odd and -- at first -- fragmented work. It's comprised of 13 chapters that read like short stories. The first half of the novel jerks you from one character to another with no seeming coherence. Sure, some of these people know each other. But there's no continuous thread.

Then, BAM!, a character named Bosco, an aging rock star with a shitty life and loads of no-gret, says, "Time is a goon, right?" And I swear, the story, the book, your whole incredibly confusing and desultory middle-aged life, just spins into sharp relief.

I read AVFTGS last summer, probably six weeks before the morning I spent parked at the corner, watching those dancing kids. And I'm very glad I did. Because after the little ice pick of pain had subsided, I could put my car in first gear and move on. I finally had a way to contextualize that wild and melancholy feeling.

It was just a visit from my goon.