CHAPTER 10: One Last Memory
What a terrible, beautiful, horrible, glorious paradox. As I've asserted repeatedly, regret is the most self-destructive emotion. I should know—I have enough of them to create a new singularity in space. But there's one regret of mine that stands above all others, one that resurfaced seemingly moments before I was destined to die.
I carefully omitted one person from my memoir up until now simply because I had no idea what color her feelings toward me might have been. Were they black with resentment or contempt? Were they the steely blue-grey of indifference? Or were they the warm, comfortable hue of a beautiful sunset? I was certain I'd never know.
College. I'm riding high. Free from bullies and other bullshit for the first time. Doing things I knew something about: indeed, I'm working at a graphic arts studio while I'm taking graphic arts classes. I knew almost as much as—and in some cases just a tad more than—the professors. I'd become part of informal gatherings after class to compare what the prof said with real-world experience. Usually they were held around my desk.
And there she was, at my desk, every time, sporting the most irresistible mane of gorgeous red hair I'd ever wish to see. And there I was, a pencil-necked geek with close to zero social skills. How do I work this thing? There's no instruction manual.
But I figured it out. Just tell the truth. We did a lot of post-art-class chatting, and one afternoon, when the chatting had migrated to my car, she took her glasses off. And I blurted out what crossed my mind at that instant: "Those are the biggest, most beautiful eyes I've ever seen."
Thus was born the most intensely rewarding, completely satisfying relationship I've ever experienced. Bar none.
I will hasten to add, however, that it doesn't mean I did not have other very satisfying relationships; my second ex and I are still quite close, and her big regret in life was divorcing me. But she had a new partner by the time I'd resurfaced emotionally, so any thoughts of reconnecting were pretty much out of the question.
I'll always insist that I still love every woman with whom I've shared a portion of my life. Genuinely. Deeply. Having said that, there's always been, and always will be, the one. The one that holds the most special place in my heart. The one I knew was the right one, the best one, the forever one... and I let it all go.
Fuck me. Fucking fuck me. I was young. I was stupid. I didn't fully appreciate what I had. Ours was such a spectacular relationship as to render the gods jealous. We lived and breathed one another. The bond was tighter than super glue. The love was deep, and glorious, and endless, and as perfect as anything human could be... and I let it all go.
All of our friends kept pestering us: when are you two going to get married? When are you two going to get married? It was frightening because, although I wanted to get married, I didn't (and still don't, for the most part) understand marriage. All I knew was that I was a classic "starving artist," and after doing the math, I realized I was not marriage material, at least in the responsible breadwinner, or even co-breadwinner, sense, at that point in time.
I didn't want to let her down. So, I did the sensible thing: I let her down. And I've been kicking myself ever since. By far my biggest regret, it yet stands as the biggest mistake of my adult life. I often try to rationalize it: had we stayed together, would I not have eventually let her down anyway? Would I not have dragged her into the quagmire of my existence? Would that not have been terribly unfair? Was it not better, then, to have lived separate lives, remaining together in heart and mind alone?
There I go again, analyzing and justifying and second-guessing everything to death. The thing of it is, if the multi-universe hypothesis is correct, one can never know what an alternate timeline might be like, so thinking about it is a waste of time and infinitely more frustrating. The very best I can do is recall and celebrate the highlights.
To be perfectly honest, that period of time in my life contains some of the most splendid experiences I've ever had—even as it contains some of the worst, thanks to my family. These are the memories to which I return most often for reassurance that such things are possible, if fleeting. They're comfort food for the soul.
Over the intervening decades, all I knew of her was that she'd married, divorced, and moved to the west coast, which made resurrecting the relationship quite impractical, so as much as it pained me, I put that notion out of my head. Meanwhile, those cherished memories remained intact, to both torture and comfort me. I did my best to think about what was, and not what might have been. I wasn't always successful.
Happy endings were never my thing; they're the product of fiction. Yet, magically, I lived just long enough to enjoy one—conditionally. Mere months before I expected to die, I received an email from her. She was dipping her toe in nostalgia, uncertain of the outcome; what happened is that it opened the floodgates. Emails started flying back and forth, until I suggested we keep in touch via text, and that allowed us to communicate practically in real time, almost as if we were together.
One of the immediate benefits of reconnecting was the opportunity to see pictures I'd lost during my nervous breakdown in 2000 when, tragically, I destroyed every photograph I had. Among them was my all-time favorite, a candid snapshot of her taken while we were enjoying a romantic sunset. The sweet light imbued her face with a delicious warmth, and gave her gorgeous red hair a fiery glow. And those incredible eyes were boring straight into my heart. Certain I'd never lay eyes on that image again, I was struck breathless to have it appear in my hands. I immediately made it my phone wallpaper, and left it open on my computer desktop. I never wanted to not see it again.
She shared other photos as well. Images of me—being happy, no less. Glimpses of our brief time together that I hadn't recalled since the moment they were born. Where did all of those years go? How is it one can live in the here and now, and count the passing seconds as though they were hours, yet suddenly realize that an entire lifetime has evaporated in an instant? Time's arrow is fickle and cruel.
Although the embers magically began glowing once more, seemingly within hours, it was all so very bittersweet, for she was as far away from me as she could be while remaining in the country, and circumstances prevented us from meeting: my poor health, as well as that of the nation (owing to the pandemic), made travel too risky for either of two elderly people. Much as I ached to see her once more, I was resigned to remain content with what we had.
Still, it was incredible to be in love one last time. To my astonishment, we seamlessly picked up almost right where we'd left off all those eons ago. I'd forgotten how those feelings made my mind and body ripple with excitement. And while I may never gaze in her eyes or hold her hand once more, it could have been much worse: she might not have decided to contact me, and I'd have missed out on joy I was certain I'd never know again.
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