The past is a vast attic -- the dusty toy, the old album, the forgotten fury, must mixing with desire.

some experiences glow all the brighter for being gone. Youth is like that. Years take away the gawky pain, leave only the sweet taste of first times.

other moments are so bitter that no number of years will dull the sorrow. "If you want to keep the beer REAL cold," moans a country and western song, "put it right next to my ex-wife's heart."

But were more faithful than we know to the things we leave behind, to the spent emotions, the discounted dreams, to the fears we've fought and the lovers we've left. Here then are a few tales of former times, ornaments from the attic, shadows of the future.

The divorce had been a minor miracle of gentility, as placid and urbane as a corporate divestiture, two lives dividing in the bloodless lexicon of the law: "Whereas . . . mutual consent . . . separate and alone."

Early on, we had arrived at a just an amicable division of chattels, right down to the lawn chairs and the livestock (two house cats, one each). So there was little to feel but a wistful unease on the day the documents were filed and the court recorder's stamp fell heavily on the first half of our lives. We said an awkward goodbye at the courthouse steps, and I walked away a living stereotype of the '70s, a victim of fission in the nuclear family. Among my other rites of mid-century passage, I could now number an un-wife, former furniture and an ex-cat.

But the Civilized Divorce has its post-facto problems -- including the "still-good-friends" clause in the unspoken contract -- and I soon discovered that separate is different from alone.

When she moved into a house three blocks from mine in Arlington, I assumed that it was an accident of the real-estate market, and cheerfully blathered: "Well, now that we're neighbors, if there's anything I can do . . ." As a matter of fact, there was. Over the next few months that guilt-ridden rhetorical flourish was to cost me dozens of hours of work, often requested at inflecitous moments for a Recent Single. Could I perhaps come over and fix something on the car? Why, certainly. Let me, uh, just put my shoes on. Could I possibly stop by and hang a picture? And bring a hammer? And nails? But of course! This lady and I can just as easily go to the midnight movie. Did I have just a minute to look at the clogged drain in the bathtub? No problem! I can reheat my dinner later.

Then I moved into Washington, and the work orders diminished with the distance. For a while. But then suddenly she was leaving for Jamaica, and could I possibly take custody of the ex-cat for a few weeks, and certainly no more than two years? Well, sure. How much trouble, I asked my long-suffering girlfriend, could it possibly be? One small final gesture of good will! And soon the arrogant little animal was prancing in the door, following by an imposing mound of maintenance material and support systems: exotic blankets, pillows, stuffed toys damp with cat-drool, special food, an old bathrobe and a complicated set of instructions better suited to a new lawn tractor than a small mammal.

Finally, after a last-minute orgy of huggings and pettings, the un-wife walked down the steps and out of our lives. In that moment of relief, we looked down at the ex-cat, shedding quietly on the hall rug. Written in large letters on its collar was: "If lost, please call [my phone number]. REWARD."