This story is by Sharon Bell and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was the fall of 75 when h e asked me to the homecoming dance. This was brave, as I was a quiet misfit who had never gone to a dance. All through school I had been either bullied or ignored. I preferred ignored, and walked the halls with my head in a book, making myself as small as possible. He was a young hero, but lacking the skills to fix me. The night of the dance was terrifying and the kiss at the end heartbreaking. The spell wasn’t broken, I wasn’t going to wake and live happily ever after. I wouldn’t fit in and we never went out again. When he emailed me 30 years later that he was coming back to Cleveland for a visit I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had become a psychiatrist. He’d spent his life fixing people, I’d spent mine trying to fix myself.
He’d heard I did catering and hired me for a reunion he was having in 6 months for some friends. We started e-mailing, at first just catching up, then the messages became more intimate as the weeks passed. We’d talk about our pain and disappointments, tell things we’ve never told anyone. We teased and were playful. Our inboxes became our favorite places to go at the end of a day. It was certain that though these shared intimacies we were falling in love. I’m not sure who first typed the words “ I love you”, but there it was.
The fact that he was married didn’t concern us, we wouldn’t act on this love. He lived in a different state, we both had full lives. It was enough just to have this connection with another person. He loved his wife but there had been a disconnection between them for years that he couldn’t mend. Strange how in a marriage one person can be content and yet so blind to the others misery. Sad when the person you choose to make you less lonely is the one who makes you feel most alone.
The day of the reunion approached, he asked if he could take me out to dinner and dancing…a do-over for that first disappointing homecoming. We were excited preparing, almost giddy. I bought a new dress, he bought a blue shirt, and both got bad haircuts. I thought, “this is what I should have felt the first time”. Still, through all the planning he made sure I knew about his boundaries. He wouldn’t do anything to disrespect his wife. He would allow us a kiss, to make up for one before…
When I saw him again there wasn’t any doubt, I loved him. After dinner we danced. Neither wanted the night to end, we went to a park and sat kissing on a picnic table, the one kiss rule pushed to the side. We spent that night together, holding, talking but kept his boundaries. He would leave and we would go back to being friends, and remembering this one precious night together…..except we didn’t.
He would come back to Cleveland for two more visits with boundaries in tact before on the third we’d make love. After we would see each other every few months. He had family in town, it wasn’t hard for him to get away. We handled the distance well, but he struggled with guilt. I knew as much as our time together made him happy it also caused him pain. I was too afraid to acknowledge it, just wanting to be happy.
It’s two years since that second homecoming. I’m on a plane heading to Chicago…he’s driving from Wisconsin. Every second we’re converging on that exact moment when I’ll be in his arms. My book lays unopened in my lap. I marvel that at this late in the game I’ve found love. It had always been beyond my grasp, a myth, a unicorn…
He parks and comes into the airport, we see each other at the same time because we’re both be looking, then it’s just seconds until I press my head into his chest. Im always a little shy in the beginning, but in the car I place his hand between my legs. We walk along Navy Pier. It’s autumn, we have it mostly to ourselves. We kiss like teenagers under every arch until finally our room is ready. Room 524, requested months ago to be sure. Its our room…he calls it heaven, and in it we make love, desperately, urgently.
After he cries and I hold him. She can’t love him, not the way he needs. He feels invisible, merely tolerated in his own home. He was a zombie until me. I was too so we’re even. Now we’re alive, sickeningly happy…but still there is that guilt. It underlines every moment of happiness. It scares the crap out of me. I want him to just let us be happy. I don’t want him to divorce, I’m not threatening his way of life, I don’t cry about being alone at the holidays. Yet he insists on wearing this hair sweater when I’m offering him silk.
At dinner we’ll plan how to survive this. We’ll justify: she has the house, the security, the social status, we just have this small time together. Everyone is better because of it. We consider throwing ourselves on her mercy. Asking her to allow us this happiness. Wouldn’t she feel less pressure knowing she doesn’t have to make that yearly walk up the stairs to his bedroom, to stoically accept him without passion. We both know that if she says no, we’re through. This is unthinkable so we leave the question unasked.
We’ll wallow in the hopefulness of conjecture…she already knows and is looking the other way, or maybe she has a lover too. He sees the way she touches Kevin at parties, or maybe she’s gay? He asks, but she denies it….both Kevin and being a lesbian. We just need proof for him to be alright with us. I’d give years of my life for proof….those shitty ones at the end. He worries this isn’t enough for me. I reassure him truthfully that I’ve never been happier, never felt less alone. What we have is more than I thought possible, it’s my unicorn and how many people get that?
Back in the room I decorate with twinkly lights, open a bottle of champagne and put on Christmas music. Its only October but we won’t see each other again until January. We open our presents. They’re small trifles, nothing worth anything to anyone except us, things to be hidden away and savored. In 5 months I’ll burn mine in a fire of grief.
We make love again, less urgently. Tomorrow we’ll go to the reptile convention. She has no interest in his hobby so it’s easy for him to get away these two weekends every year. On our last morning he takes me to see the Dali paintings. He knows I love them…the autumn day is gloomy, mirroring our feelings, knowing that this time together is almost over. We sit in his car at the airport until the very last minute, clinging, kissing. From the moment I open the door I’m moving away from him again, the distance growing. I turn and wave and walk through the doors. We’re hopelessly pathetic. I recognize this and it’s sort of funny. On the plane I can feel the distance, it hurts.
In 4 months he’ll throw a birthday party for his wife. People will come up to him and tell him he’s a great husband. The guilt will be too much. The next day he’ll call telling me it’s over, he can’t do this anymore. He needs to find out if there’s any chance she can ever love him. He wants me to know he still wants me. It seems important because he repeats it three times. He tells me he’ll love me forever….
He crawls back to the safety of his cul -du- sac life and separate bedrooms, climbs up on his cross, runs the nails of guilt through his hands…and there he hangs. They’ll try couples therapy. She’ll go twice, he’s still going. You can tinker with the engine all you want, but if the tires are flat the damned car’s still not going anywhere. I think I’m clever coming up with that metaphor, but so what.
From time to time we’ll talk. He’s miserable but accepting of this loneliness and despair, (his words not mine). He still loves me. He has thousands of precious memories, but while he licks at those remembrances like ice-cream I choke on the bones of those same memories picked clean. I won’t tell him that I’m angry, he turned what we had into a boring cliché. I’ll choke on that too.
Everyone tells me I’ll get over him in time. When I die, I’ll prove them wrong.
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future. Particularly the one you’ll never have.”