Susan and I have been watching The Crown (Netflix, Seasons 1-2), a deliciously languid serial about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. One of the recurring themes of the show is the conflict between love and duty, which has made me reflect on my own experiences in that regard.
About ten years ago, I was married and also felt deeply for someone else; she was married as well. My infatuation was one-way and I confessed it to everyone involved. My deep confusion was over the idea society sells, that we all have somebody who is “the one.” It’s celebrated in countless songs, poems, movies, memoirs. But what happens when you meet your soul mate after you’ve already committed to someone else? (There are plenty of songs about that, too.)
I struggled, and eventually forced myself out of my infatuation. The following story was part of that process – I imagined a distant future that connected back to my adolescence, and walked the characters off into a sunrise. Reading it now, it’s embarrassingly sentimental; I don’t believe in soul mates anymore, for one thing. But the protagonist is all me – boy, do I recognize that guy.
My own experience, and I suspect most people’s, is that we love many people in many different ways, and those overlap. Although the person in this story is me, it’s me in my late-30s, projecting to my 60s and failing to imagine how my outlook would change.
I write all of that to say this: The following story is a time capsule of sorts. It was a way out of a painful time in life, which I’m revisiting now, surprised that it doesn’t hurt anymore. The names have been changed, but one name in particular was chosen to connect with another story, September 1982.
* * * * *
He awoke in the dark, instantly alert. Curious, he sat up and listened. The pale glow from the bedside clock blinked 3:48 am. The house was still; the neighborhood was quiet except for the rustle and last drips of rain through the trees and on the roof. Nothing else moved, but anticipation sparked the edges of his consciousness. What had called him?
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and found his slippers. He looked out the window and saw only streetlight sparkling through dancing leaves. He waited quietly and watched for movement in the street, or on the sidewalk. Something was waiting, it had called him from sleep.
You’re a fool, he muttered to himself.
How many times in forty years had he looked for miracles that hadn’t come? How many sleepless nights had he spent waiting for shadows to become the stuff of adolescent dreams? On the other hand, it had been years now since he’d even heard this particular call, let alone bothered to answer it. Too often, it had been an empty promise.
In spite of himself, he fished a pair of jeans from his suitcase, lying open in a chair. He dressed carefully, fearful of imposing himself on Mia by waking her with his ramblings; although he supposed some eccentricity was to be expected, he was still a polite person and feared giving offense, especially to his grown daughter.
His heart was pounding now, although he wasn’t exerting himself. He descended the stairs lightly, which only gave up a few creaks; he smiled wryly, thinking that maybe not too long ago he’d have used the bedroom window instead. What a scene THAT might create! Time shifted and for one heady moment he expected to hear his father snoring through the walls.
Too old for this kind of thing, he whispered.
So much hope had faded over time, a natural part of growing older, right? Foolish to indulge even a harmless whim such as this (wasn’t it?) But he also had a feeling that late summer twilight was where romantic fantasies retired after being abandoned by the young. He’d spent a lifetime dreaming this kind of foolishness, too late to stop now.
He rubbed a hand across his face, entwined his fingers in his beard. He paused, for a moment considered going back to bed. But adrenaline tingled in his legs and his stomach fluttered; blood rushed in his ears and he knew there would be no sleep even if he did return. He stood at the bottom of the stairs and hesitated.
On an impulse he went into the bathroom and closed the door. Fished a new razor and scissors from his toiletries kit, which hung from the towel bar. Quickly, before he could wonder what he was doing or why, he started cutting chunks of hair from his face. He didn’t look in the mirror yet, but ran some water and splashed it on his face. He grasped the razor and pulled it against the remaining stubble on his cheek; he’d performed this act many times but the pain always surprised him – the first shave removing a beard was the worst.
He remembered the time he’d shaved for Laura, and surprised her. They weren’t married yet – he’d had a full, red beard, not yet “professorial grey,” as she’d called it. She said she hadn’t been sure she was attracted to him until that moment, when she saw his baby cheeks; he still remembered the look on her face when she’d turned and saw him enter the room that evening.
He continued shaving, rinsing the razor in a trickle of water from the tap. He gathered up as much hair as he could and dropped it in the trash basket; as always he was surprised at how much of it comprised a beard. He looked at the remaining whiskers in the sink, and finally at his face in the mirror. In the dim light he was shocked to see himself at thirteen again, and also something else that thrilled and terrified him equally… his eyes sparkled something between madness and hope.
Shaking his head, he left the bathroom, found his sneakers by the door and laced them. He grabbed his fleece from the back of a chair and checked the pockets for keys before remembering that he was only a guest in his old house. There was probably a spare set for him somewhere, but it hadn’t been a concern last night. He considered leaving the door unlocked, which he’d have done in his own apartment. He didn’t want to do that to Mia, though, she kept her doors locked. He checked his watch (4:21) and fished in his pockets for a scrap of paper to leave a note on.
Again he felt a thrilling, scary memory from long ago, sneaking out of the house for a nighttime rendezvous. How could he explain himself now? Had a feeling I needed to be someplace… got a call through the ether and followed it. Leaving a note violated certain unwritten rules of sneaking out, but maybe he was beyond the rules now. Finally, he just wrote “Couldn’t sleep, went for a walk.” Although it stripped some magic from what he was doing, in the end it would probably turn out to be the best assessment of what had happened. He left the note on the table.
It was warmer outside than he’d expected, and he stood for a moment just breathing. He was no longer a 63 year-old man, but an adolescent setting out to celebrate or discover something. The night sounds were giving way to early morning, the air smelled fresh and loamy.
As he started down the walk, he glanced up to the bedroom window that had once been his and got a jolt; like an apparition he saw Mia’s face looking down at him. He blinked twice to clear his vision and was surprised not only that she was still there, but at the sudden tears that rolled down his face. She raised a hand. He waved back.
I’m this far. Now what? He spread his arms and danced a slow circle, then spun wildly, feeling giddy. In the window, Mia was shooing him away now, pointing him up the street. At least someone knows which direction I’m supposed to go. He walked.
Seeing his daughter in the window had jolted him, but the sensation was that he’d come into a dream, not out of one. It seemed right that she would have known, that she would have sensed the same call he did. Had she felt it, or had she just heard him moving in the house, and out the door? He was pretty sure she hadn’t heard him – he’d been quiet, and Mia had always been a sound sleeper. Still, the way the electricity was coursing in him now, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see faces in every window he passed, wondering what the commotion was about.
Halfway up the block, he stopped and squinted into the streetlight haze. Was it… Yes. A figure walked toward him, as he’d hoped (known?) it would. He thought he knew who it was, because that’s how these things work. His heart pounded harder and faster and he thought he might just pass out and be done with it. It is her. He stopped walking, and he saw the figure pause also. Then she started again, and he knew this meeting wasn’t by chance.
What am I going to say? What did I say in my dreams? I don’t have any words left – they were all spent and wasted. The story ended a long time ago, didn’t it?
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Her eyes danced; her smile stirred a thousand memories in him and lit up every nerve ending in his body. He was suddenly helpless against a tide he’d never been able to control but could only run from for a time, and it seemed that all of the hanging threads of his life were gathering together in that moment, at that place. This was part of the same force that had awakened him, and had drawn him out into the street. He was certain that Mia had felt it, too, when she shooed him away from the house.
Kym’s face was as perfect as he’d remembered, a landscape he knew by heart, yet he could study it and still find endless fascination and new discovery. He hadn’t been uncomfortable with his own appearance as he grew older – the creases were hard won from experience, and he welcomed them as they came. Still, there were many times he’d wondered if she’d changed from the image he held onto; now he saw that his memories hadn’t done her justice.
She was speaking again. “You’ve been gone a long time.”
I wanted you to miss me.
Her eyes flashed. Was he going to blow this? What did he want? He couldn’t even remember.
Try again: But also I couldn’t stand being so close to you, when there was nothing we could do about it.
“That’s a better answer.”
She was looking at him in a way that was unnerving – he’d always been the one who devoured her with his eyes, the only option when he couldn’t touch her, hold her. Now it felt like she was taking all of him in, hungry and needing to capture everything. It was new and uncomfortable and thrilling to be scrutinized so closely. A thought crossed his mind: Was this what it felt like to be adored?
I’ve missed you, he said. His mouth was dry and there was some difficulty speaking now.
She smiled again. “So… How have you been? Are you staying long?”
No. I’ve got a few promotional stops to make in Europe, and there’s a race coming up in California…
A flicker of disappointment might have crossed her face then, but maybe he’d imagined it. “Your races,” she said. “You’ve done well – I don’t know how you can run that far.”
How did you know –
“I know the races you’ve run, and a lot of the places you’ve been, signing your books. Probably not all of them, but enough to look for on the Internet, and hope I find a piece of you. I see Mia at the grocery store, I ask her… I’ve missed you, too.”
The words floored him. That last part –
“I said I’ve missed you, too. What, you’re going to embarrass me now?”
Now the words tumbled out. How did you know…I mean, why this morning? What made you take a walk?
“I like to walk in the morning. I thought maybe one of these days you might be home, and you’d be out, too. You told me once that when you were young, you knew you had to go for a walk in the morning, to meet someone. Now it’s me you have to meet, or at least I hope so, but I’m not any good at this so I just keep coming out and hoping you’ll be here.” Was she crying?
How long –
“A year, maybe. I don’t know. Long enough. Not so much that I was ready to give up. You never did.”
I did give up – you made me give up! His voice raised, and she flinched a little. You’ve been haunting the streets for a year waiting for my company and I’m just finding out now? Tears came to his own eyes again, and he felt all of the buried messiness waiting to overwhelm him again.
“I’m sorry! I know you’ve never heard me say it, but I’ve been sorry about us, as long as we’ve known each other. Don’t you know I wanted to tell you things? Don’t you know how close I came so many times, when you’d look at me with all that hurt in your eyes?”
But you didn’t.
“What good would it have done? Who would have been hurt if I told you how I felt and you responded to that? Could you have stopped if I let my own guard down?” More tears. He looked away.
You never had any idea how much it hurt. If you had –
“I KNEW! I do know – don’t you think I felt it, felt the same way?”
If you did, you wouldn’t have stayed so far away. If you knew anything at all about me you would have trusted me to do the right thing and not hurt anyone. Which is what I did anyway!
“It’s what I did, too. For you, for me, for Laura and for my own house too. For the kids, for everybody. And maybe I was wrong, but it was the decision I made. The only one I knew how to make.” She turned away and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
He’d seen her cry before, and the unwritten rules had always said he couldn’t do anything except stand apart and watch. It had always torn him up, and it did now as well. Still he didn’t reach to touch her, although it seemed the rules could be bent now, or maybe rewritten altogether.
“I do know you. I know your heart is gentle, you’re stubborn and opinionated, and those have helped you to do everything you’ve done. You’ve had a good life, despite being hurt and disappointed. And you can be proud of your family. Mia’s amazing…”
He turned from her, took a step, reeling. Years had gone by. Did he want to return to these feelings?
She spoke quietly now, behind him but not coming closer. “I know Laura is gone – I’m sorry.”
It was my fault. We both saw it coming for a long time.
“I didn’t want it to be my fault.”
It wasn’t you… She just –
He closed his mouth and tried to figure out how to say it. She’d grown tired of waiting for him to be satisfied. Laura had always been content with her life as it was, didn’t need or ask for much. He hadn’t deserved her loyalty for so long, and though he’d known she would leave someday, he found that he missed her more than he’d expected to. The frantic activity of the past few years had been distraction, staying too busy to hurt. Too busy to think about all the ways he’d failed.
“You didn’t fail.”
Had he spoken aloud? He didn’t think so.
“Sometimes we don’t have a choice about what we feel. We live with it and we go on as best we can. I remember you said that.”
I did say that, he agreed.
“And it helped me so much, when things got really hard. Especially the past few years…”
He didn’t know exactly what she was referring to. He hadn’t asked Mia about Kym; he hadn’t wanted to know.
She put her hand on his arm. It was the first they’d touched in years. “I hope it’s not too late to keep being friends.”
I said I’d be your friend as long as you wanted me to be.
Without deciding to, they started walking, side by side. Her arm slid through his and their hands met. His fog was receding, the turmoil dissipated as quickly as it had come on.
Are we too broken to start again? Even to keep being friends?
“I have a theory. Don’t laugh – you always had your theories and this is mine. I think we’re like a plant, some kind of beautiful tree. Sometimes we’re pruned – the limbs or branches get trimmed. What remains is much stronger.”
Do you want me to stay? Because I don’t know…
“Stay if you want. Or I could come with you.”
“Are you hungry? Let’s have breakfast.”
The sun was beginning to color the horizon. They walked, hand in hand.
I could eat.