This story is by Richard David Bach and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I don’t know why I was surprised that she looked older–after all, it had been 15 years and I suppose I looked older too. She had put on a few pounds, perhaps one dress size–she had been an eight–and there were a few more grey hairs mixed with the blond and the tinted highlights. But the biggest change was in her eyes. Those glorious cobalt blue eyes that had once adored me–they were icy now.
I stood when I saw her, trying desperately to catch the breath I lost when she pushed open the door to the coffee shop. I knew then that I still loved her even after all these years. The hug she permitted was perfunctory, but I’m sure she felt my heart pounding. All I could get out was a lame: “How are you?”
“How are you?” Her voice was icy, too. “You fly half-way across the Pacific and the best you can do is ‘how are you’? That’s pathetic. What do you want, Steven?”
“I want to talk to you, to apologize to you, to try to put it right.”
“You could have done all that fifteen years ago, when you walked away from me. What could you possibly say now that you couldn’t have said then?”
Back then all I could say was “I can’t do this anymore.” There should have been more, but she jumped out of the car and I never saw her again. Now, fifteen years later, I was ready to say the rest of it. I sent her an e-mail: ‘My life has become uncomplicated. Could we talk?’ and she had e-mailed back, two days later: ‘Maybe.’ I took that as a ‘yes’ and caught the first flight to Maui. That gave me just under six hours to write, rewrite, edit and rehearse, over and over, the speech that I had been composing in my head for the last six months. I didn’t know if it would be welcome.
“I want to tell you what happened…and why I left you…and I’m hoping that you’ll forgive me. Please, Miriam, I’ve got to tell you.”
“So tell me…but let me warn you. I don’t want to hear any ‘get-it-off-your-chest’ confession that leaves you feeling so much better and dumps the guilt on me. I cried for too many miserable nights to want to start all over again.” A waitress started towards us but Miriam waved her away. “How did you find me, by the way?”
“I Googled you. Your biodiversity work at the University is pretty impressive.” I tried to make eye contact, but she wouldn’t look at me. “Miriam, please. I think about you all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t fantasize over ‘what if’. What our lives might have been if I had left Janet and gone off with you.”
“Gimme a break.” She rolled her eyes, but I thought I saw the first sheen of a thaw.
I pressed my palms down on the table that separated us, trying to keep from fidgeting. She hated my fidgeting. “OK, Miriam…here it is. Fifteen years ago I did a terrible thing, and I betrayed three people in the process. I betrayed myself…my own personal honor code; something that up to then I had always thought was pretty inviolable. I betrayed Janet when I cheated and lied to her. And I betrayed you. I seduced you with a promise I couldn’t keep, or wouldn’t keep, and I excused it by saying that my life was ‘complicated’…and for that I will be eternally sorry.”
“Well, at least you never tried to hide the fact that you were married.” Was the sarcasm a little less pronounced?
I took a sip of the coffee that had by now gone cold and just slightly bitter, and a deep breath, and it suddenly struck me how noisy this place was. I hadn’t heard a thing since she had walked in except my own clumsy plea and her chilly response, and then, all of a sudden, the surroundings came roaring back. The pressure of that sound squeezed my next words out of some deep place where they had been waiting for years.
“While we were seeing each other, I fell in love three times. I fell in love with you, of course. I never told you that, but I did, and I still do. And then I fell back in love with myself. Before I met you I had lost all respect for myself. I had become convinced that I was a lousy husband, and a lousy lover, and an insensitive jerk, and I couldn’t get it back. And then I met you and you loved me. You loved me so completely and unconditionally…even though I was married and with all my other baggage…that you renovated me, you restored my faith in myself. And somehow that gave me the courage to open up to Janet about the issues that were driving us apart…and she responded…and we began to remember why we loved each other in the first place…and in the end I fell in love with her all over again.”
I searched her body language for clues–the way I watched juries to see if I was being persuasive; to assess which of my arguments, if any, were resonating. But there was nothing, so I went on. “Even then…I still loved you, and I wanted to keep on loving you, but if I was going to be able to respect myself again, I had to respect the vows and the commitment I had made to Janet. That’s why I had to let us go.”
For the longest time she just sat there rigid, unmoving, looking at me and through me and around me. I reached for her hand across the table, but she pulled it back just out of reach. This was not the Miriam of fifteen years ago. That Miriam was headstrong and gregarious. This one was subdued and silent.
“Why now? What’s become ‘uncomplicated’ in your life?”
“Janet passed away. A little over a year ago.” I waited. No sympathy. “And for the last six months I’ve let myself think seriously about us…you and me. I agonized over whether I should try to contact you. I was afraid that you despised me and I was afraid that I’d hurt you again. Then, two days ago, I had to do it. Miriam, if you’ll give me a chance…I know I can make you happy with me again.”
It may have been the light–the sun was just behind a palm tree in the parking lot and sunlight flashed across her face as the breezes stirred the fronds–but I could swear I could see a battle going on behind those eyes. They shaded from ice-blue to a softer baby-blue to an anger-tinged violet to–to what? I was still trying to read her when she abruptly and obviously came to a decision.
She unlocked the rigidity, leaned forward and slapped me. Hard. “That’s for leaving me fifteen years ago.”
Then she hit me again. Even harder. “And that’s for not calling me sooner.”