**I wrote this about 15 years ago originally. I came across it today and decided to post it.
A Pillar of Regret
by P.L. Caesar
They met for lunch at a popular café in the middle of town. He’d picked the place because it was centrally located and would be easy for both of them to get to from their respective parts of town. It was a cold, blustery day, and though the calendar said it was spring, Mother Nature hadn’t gotten the memo. Snow flurries whirred through the cold crisp air and the gusty wind blew people along the street faster than their feet could carry them. He got there first, and was surprised that she was not inside. He knew she’d gotten there before him because she’d called to tell him so and to see how long he’d be. He told her he was five minutes behind her, and then asked, “so, are you excited? About seeing me?” That question took her aback. She was looking forward to seeing him, but excited wasn’t exactly how she felt about it. But she didn’t want him to think she was not looking forward to lunch so she said, “I’m very much looking forward to lunch.”
He paused. “You’re not excited?”
“I didn’t say that,” she responded, laughing. She lied a little. “Yes, I’m excited.”
He knew she wasn’t, and now felt silly that he was. “I’ll see you soon.”
He had the hostess seat him near the rear of the restaurant, with his back against the wall, gangster style. He wanted to be able to see everyone who came and went. Scanning the restaurant one more time to confirm that she wasn’t there, he called her and said, “where are you?”
“I’m right outside, on my cell phone. I apologize. I got a call that I had to take. Where are you?”
“Inside the restaurant. I don’t know how I missed you.”
“Me either. But let me wrap this up and I’ll be right in.”
He folded his phone shut and closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was there, almost as if by magic, standing near the entrance. She was looking right at him but seemed not to recognize him. But he recognized her immediately. She was very fashionably dressed and for a moment he considered his very casual appearance. She only recognized him by the familiar way he looked at her. She didn’t notice what he had on, but she felt the warmth from his eyes reaching out to her and drawing her closer.
She walked over to where he sat. He stood to greet her. He’d planned to hug her but something in her demeanor prevented it. There wasn’t exactly a wall between them…it was more like a veil. He knew instinctively that he wasn’t supposed to lift it. She wasn’t accessible to him at this moment. She’d always been kind of mysterious, difficult to read, like a walking breathing Mona Lisa. She knew he’d planned to hug her and was glad he restrained the urge. She was still trying to decide how she felt about having lunch with him, and her defenses were on alert.
“Hey you,” she said softly to him as she took a seat. He sat down as well.
“Hello Sarah Jones,” he said in a formal tone that made her smile. The waitress trailed behind her, greeting them and offering menus, departing after taking their drink orders. ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins began to play over the loudspeakers.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “Do you remember this song?”
“Yeah I do. This is all they play here…eighties music.”
“Oh this is going to be funny. I get to hear all the music that was out when we were dating.”
He nodded, and she began to sing, horribly off key. Her head bounced vigorously, and she was oblivious to the stares she got from the tables nearby. But the patrons seemed to approve of her outburst, for they began smiling and bobbing their heads along with her.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said as David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ replaced Mr. Collins.
“It’s good to see you too. It’s been much too long, and it’s mostly my fault.”
“We should have done this sooner. But I know you’re so busy, and I’ve been kind of busy myself.”
They smiled at each other and looked directly into each other’s eyes, over twenty years of familiarity steadying their gazes. He studied her face, and reached over to touch her cheek. “You know, I still see the same shy little girl I remember from years ago. I really do. Still shy and beautiful with the bright sexy eyes.”
She blushed. “I wasn’t that little when we met. I was what, fifteen? Sixteen? And I am the same shy person. I tell people that all the time. Just because I’m in the public eye a bit doesn’t mean I can’t be shy.” She grew redder and redder with each word she spoke, and was positively crimson by the time she was done. He was touched to see he could still make her blush, remembering how much he liked to see her cheeks become ruddy as a result of his compliments.
He removed his hand from her face. “I guess I just thought you’d be…different.”
“Maybe I don’t see it. You look the same. Except the hair. But you have the same face, the same eyes.”
“A lot of the changes in me aren’t things you’d necessarily see with the naked eye.”
“Things I wouldn’t be aware of in public, huh?”
She shook her head, trying to ward away the suggestiveness of the comment. Her voice was tinged with excessive firmness as she said, “no.”
There was a pause as the waitress brought their drinks, then took their orders…a large crab dip appetizer for them to share, shrimp salad sandwich and baked potato for her, honey roasted chicken, wild rice and a salad for him. Bowie was replaced by The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’, and she began to sing again. He touched the naked ring finger of his left hand and sighed. He hadn’t worn it in years, in spite of his wife’s protests. It was the only sign of resentment that he’d consistently held on to regarding his marriage; he’d worn the ring on his wedding day, and promptly put it away in a lockbox when they returned from City Hall.
It would have been normal for two old friends who had been apart for so long to ask about spouses, kids, pets, and careers. They didn’t have to do this because they both already knew all the answers to those questions. They had never totally severed the cord between each other, both quietly keeping track of each other, each making discreet inquiries of mutual friends from time to time on the status of the other. He was still married with five kids. She had never married, but had one child who was mildly autistic. Both had lost a child. Her son had been one of twin boys and the other died in utero; he had lost an infant son to SIDS many years ago. He had become a state trooper, eventually finding his way to college to major in computer science, with an emphasis on computer security issues. He combined his law enforcement experience and his degree to start his own successful security business, doing everything from installing sophisticated alarm systems to investigating identity theft to providing bodyguards and personal protection for athletes, celebrities and events. She had attended several colleges, finally earning a degree in English. She’d been a part-time graphic designer, then worked at a dot com that folded. She cobbled together an existence for herself and her son with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs while continuing to live with her parents for a long span of time. She finally got her own apartment in a two-story walkup in a suspicious neighborhood that he arranged to have patrolled without her knowledge until she moved into a nicer place. Since she was a single mom and her son was disabled she was able to collect Supplemental Security Income for him, and she got food stamps and a small cash assistance check. She dated sporadically, and never very seriously. In the midst of all of this she was always pursuing her writing as if possessed, and little by little managed to have some success. Her first big break was landing a fairly steady spot a contributing writer for the local alternative weekly newspaper. Now she was on staff at the paper with her own column, she covered the arts scene in the area, and she had recently published her first novel that was generating good buzz. He’d been shot once and was severely injured, almost fatally so. Her son’s pregnancy had been a high risk one for her and nearly killed her. He’d gained almost eighty pounds since he last saw her, but tried to keep it under control by going to the gym as often as his schedule would permit. She had maybe gained thirty, and her formerly slim curves had become more voluptuous. She’d grown her hair long and it hung down her back now. He’d been shaving his head bald for years. Her eyes and lips were exactly as they were in 1983, and this caused his mind to wander to a sensual place briefly. She noticed that he was larger and had developed strong bulging biceps. She admired the perfect round symmetry of his head. But neither said a word about any of this…they just continued smiling at each other, he quietly and insistently, she continuing to sing as she stared.
As the music faded he said, “you actually remember the words to this stuff! You’re really are stuck in the eighties, aren’t you?”
“I think you’re stuck in the eighties too, which is why we’re having lunch today.”
Spandeau Ballet’s ‘True’ was next up on the play list. He said, “I have always loved that about you. The way you express yourself. So open and honest.”
“One of us has to do it. You were always so secretive.”
“I wasn’t secretive…”
As the words left his lips he watched them register in her eyes, and watched the veil transform into a wall. The last comment was a lie, and he regretted it instantly.
The last time he saw Sarah before today was the day she rang his doorbell and his very new wife had answered the door. She had not known he had married. Almost six months previously he and Sarah had gotten into a huge argument…the worst they’d ever had. He couldn’t even remember how the argument started now, but he remembered the noise and the emotions running so high in his tiny apartment that the walls began to vibrate. He remembered her leaving, saying she never wanted to see him again. He remembered going to his friend Ricky’s place to talk to him about what happened, and that his sister Denise was there. He’d dated Denise at one time. He remembered the gold tequila clearly, but only vaguely remembered the night he spent in Denise’s bed calling Sarah’s name. He remembered finding out Denise was pregnant seven weeks later from Ricky. Denise refused to abort the baby. He remembered feeling set up. He couldn’t remember if he’d used a condom or not because of the tequila. He never contacted Sarah to explain. He didn’t see the point.
On that day when he heard Sarah’s voice at the door, asking for him, he rushed from the back of the apartment just as Denise said, “sweetheart, who is this woman? Is she a friend of yours?” He arrived in the doorway just in time to see Sarah’s face crumble to the ground as she took in the simple gold band and the ample growing belly in Denise’s possession. Sarah jumped into her Chevy Nova and drove blindly down the street. He’d jumped into his 280Z and caught up to her quickly. He waved his arms at her, trying to get her to pull over so they could talk. They drove down the road like this for several blocks until she suddenly turned off, the heavy traffic preventing him from changing lanes quickly enough to catch her.
He’d sworn off impulsiveness the minute he said, “I do”, and as he drove the few short blocks back to the apartment he cursed at himself for allowing Sarah to make him forget his word to Denise and their unborn child so quickly. Mentally firming his resolve, he returned to his home and his new family, ending his youth as he shut the door behind him. Since that day he slavishly devoted his life to being a column of strength to his family, a rock of stability to the brood that grew by leaps and bounds over the years that followed. Even in his work he made people feel secure, protected, and safe. He was intensely committed to his life decision most of the time. Denise to her credit seemed determined to repay him for the trickery she employed to snare him by giving him a good life in every way she could. She actually turned out to be a pretty good wife, a good money manager, and an excellent mother. If he had known about the good qualities she possessed before he might have fallen in love with her on his own. He often thought it was a shame that Denise never knew how wonderful she truly was and thought she had to manipulate people to get what she wanted. That was the one thing he had never been able to fully digest about her even though they had been married close to twenty years.
He grabbed Sarah’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry Sarah.”
She squeezed back. “I know you are.”
“I’ve always been sorry about how badly I treated you…”
“I always wanted to tell you that I never meant to make you feel like you didn’t matter. Because you did. You were always special to me. I cared for you deeply, and…”
She cut him off. “It took a long time for me to understand how you could…why you could…but it was so long ago. We were both young and you were trying to do the right thing. I definitely understand that now. I admire your high level of commitment.” He squeezed her hand again, and the ghosts of their past officially joined them at the table. Then she suddenly blurted out, “science!”
She began to bob her head again, and repeated the word. He finally caught on. Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ was playing now. It had been one of his favorites too, so he joined her in singing. He stumbled over many of the words, but she remembered every one and laughed at his memory lapses. Music was how she remembered things, especially him. They were transported back in time to days when he’d visit her and she’d play this music and dance for him, him sitting in her living room as she pranced around in her skintight Calvin Klein jeans and her pink Izod polo shirt, grabbing him by the hands, encouraging him to dance with her, ignoring his pleas that she stop. He remembered taking her to see ‘Pretty In Pink’, ‘The Breakfast Club’, and ‘Sixteen Candles’ to satisfy her obsession with Molly Ringwald. He was always trying to talk her out of dying her hair flaming red. She suddenly recalled his favorite faded sky blue Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts for some reason. Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ was next up as the waitress brought the crab dip appetizer. They grabbed crusty bits of the warm baguettes and began dipping. She dipped and blew on hers and he admired the O shape her lips formed. He was hungry and hurriedly dipped and tried to eat, but the hot dip burned his mouth. He dropped the bread and she laughed. She picked up a fresh piece of baguette and dipped it in the crab, blowing on it to cool it and passing it to him. Instead of taking it with his hands, he opened his mouth slightly, and she placed it in, smiling. Feeling impulsive for the first time in decades, he grabbed her hand and licked the bit of dip that had escaped the baguette off her fingers. The people at the tables around them smiled approvingly, imagining them to be lovers. But she froze the minute his tongue made contact with her flesh, and she pulled her hand from him as gently as she could. She knew she’d started it so she couldn’t be angry, but she hadn’t expected him to cross the line so readily and eagerly. A strand of her hair fell over her shoulder and he reached over to push it back. She pushed it back herself before he had a chance.
She spoke, breaking the spell. “I hope you didn’t bring me here just to apologize,” she said sincerely. “I do appreciate the gesture, but it really wasn’t necessary. We could have talked about this over the phone. Or you could have e-mailed or IM’d me.”
“You didn’t want to see me,” he asked playfully.
“Well, no, its not that.”
“Does it hurt to see me?’
“It stung at first. But only a little. Does it hurt to see me?”
He swallowed a large sip of his soda. “I’m very glad to see you. And I’m very proud of you too.”
“Because you did what you set out to do. I respect you a lot Sarah. Very few people in this world do what they say they’re going to do. People have dreams, goals, wishes, talents…and life gets hold of them and they never do what they really want. They use all kinds of excuses, and just spend years dreaming and not doing. But you found a way to make your dreams real. You always said you’d be a writer, and you are. You have no idea how much I respect that.”
She was blushing again. “I respect you too.”
He was surprised at that. “Why?”
“Because you are a responsible person. As much as what happened back then hurt at the time, I do admire what you did. You could have easily abandoned the situation, but you didn’t. You recognized what was important to you…giving your child a two-parent home, a stable home. You knew you wanted to raise your children every day of their lives, and did what you had to do to make it so.”
“You don’t think you’re a responsible person?”
She began to scrape dip from the bottom of the serving bowl. They had gone through it pretty quickly. “I’m not entirely sure. The choices I’ve made in my life haven’t always led to…stability. Even after I had my son. I just wanted to write so badly…I was so driven, just consumed by it. I guess once you and I…well, I became kind of self absorbed, just wanted to do what I wanted to do, make myself happy. Other than that all I thought about was writing, being successful at writing. I should have just pursued a nine to five, a normal career. All those years on welfare while I was trying to get stuff off the ground, only taking part-time jobs, buying groceries with food stamps, living off my son’s SSI money, when I knew I could have just gotten a decent job and taken proper care of him…”
He felt compelled to interrupt her. “You are a great mother. Especially considering the extra hardships with his autism. I can only imagine how you got through it all alone. But you had a dream, and you didn’t let your circumstances stop you. Look at all you have to show for it now.”
“Sure…now I have a little something. But there were lots of times, especially when Noah was younger that there wasn’t a lot in my life. I couldn’t give him things. We lived with my parents for what seemed like forever, and then a shabby apartment after that in a really bad neighborhood. Even now, though things are better, the rug could get pulled out from under me any time. After all, it’s just me. I don’t have anyone else to lean on really. My art is supporting my son and me. There’s not a lot of stability in that. That’s pretty scary sometimes. Sometimes I wish I’d taken a more traditional road like you did. You have a great life…nice truck, charge cards, beautiful home that you actually own, a life partner, decent credit…” she chuckled and he joined her as she continued. “I have this pseudo-bohemian lifestyle, a rented duplex, a used car in desperate need of some work…”
“You did what you wanted to do Sarah.”
“But you did what was right.”
“We still ended up in the same place though, huh?”
They both paused at that fork in the conversation. The sounds of Toto’s ‘Rosanna’ felt into the quiet.
“This was one of my favorite albums,” she said in a low voice, almost to herself.
“Yeah. Mine too.”
They listened to the yearning, mournful lyrics of their youth as the waitress brought out their food. Sarah’s head was bowed. She was saying grace. He joined her, lowering his head. When he heard her murmur ‘Amen’, he looked up at her. She smiled, and picked up her sandwich. He grabbed his utensils and began to slice his chicken.
They were both ready for their food so talk was temporarily suspended so they could eat. The silence that fell between them was comfortable this time because they had something to do. Toto gave way to Hall & Oates’ ‘One On One’. She vented her feelings by singing bits of lyrics between bites of food, and finally acknowledged the look on his face by saying, “is the nostalgia bothering you?”
He wanted to be truthful this time. “It’s hard sometimes, looking at the path in life you didn’t take.” There was a shift in the air around them. The veil was lifting now, and he knew it was because he was finally being completely honest.
She nodded as she chewed and swallowed. “That’s one of the hardest things to acknowledge about life. You can’t travel every road. Ultimately you only travel one, and hope for the best. But I guess hearing this music and being in your company today…it does sort of give us a chance to peek at the road not taken. I love Robert Frost. That’s one of the most beautiful poems in the history of words.”
He signed. “You’ve just seem so…free to me. I wish I were. I was afraid to be. I was afraid of what I might become if I was left to my own devices. As much as I cared about you, in the end I still didn’t do right by you even though I wanted to. And I never wanted to be responsible for hurting another woman like I hurt you. So I did what I thought was right. You did what you wanted to do, and your life still came out okay.”
“And you seem so…stable to me. Believe me, I wish I could be. But I know I’m selfish. I felt like I deserved it after what happened between us. I gave myself to you and …well…I just started being all about myself after that. Plus I was afraid I’d have all these regrets and longings if I didn’t give in completely to the desires of my heart, especially once I started writing. You did what was honorable. And guess what…your life still came out okay too.”
Not that honorable, he thought to himself. He had cheated on his wife during the early years when he still was rebelling against his choices a little bit. They went to marriage counseling and things were better after that. He had been dodging memories of his sex life with Sarah since she’d sat down at the table, but suddenly he felt too tired to run. Prince’s ‘Little Red Corvette’ joined in, providing an appropriate soundtrack for his thoughts.
Back then they spent a lot of time in his car, exploring each other. To this day he got an erection whenever he saw a pint of Hagan Daaz Vanilla ice cream because of one of their escapades. Once he got his own place they would often forgo dating and just wile away the hours in bed. Occasionally she seemed sad and withdrawn after they would be together, and it troubled him. He wanted to please her more than anything, and did everything his relatively inexperienced mind could think of back then to please her. He often wondered if she had orgasms with him, but was too embarrassed to ask.
“Why did you look sad sometimes after we made love,” he asked, almost to himself. Then louder, speaking more directly to her, “I mean, it wasn’t all the time. A lot of the time you didn’t but…sometimes you did.”
She met him head on. “Because sometimes I didn’t think you loved me. I thought you just liked having sex with me.”
“That wasn’t true at all. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t make you happy in bed. And you always made me feel so good.” He could still remember how every inch of her felt on him, next to him, under him, beside him, around him, over him, invading him from the inside out and the outside in, microscopic bits of her spirit clinging to his life…her eyes, her lips, her tongue, her hands, her legs, her feet. In all the years of marriage he hardly ever slept with his wife without thinking of Sarah. Sarah had learned not to think of him while being intimate with others, and left her memories of him for times when she pleasured herself.
She thought back to those days. She was still learning to be comfortable with her sexuality when they began being intimate. She was not at all experienced, and since he was older, she imagined he’d been with a lot of women and that she wasn’t measuring up. (She was too afraid to ask.) Sometimes felt like she wasn’t satisfying him. She feared that their closeness in the bedroom was what mattered most to him. Young women always worried about that kind of thing…trying to balance their desire to be respectable with their need for physical intimacy, and she was no different. It was a hard dance to do back then, and she never quite got the hang of it while they were together. But in spite of her insecurities, most times being with him gave her so much pleasure she felt compelled to hide it. And still did to some extent.
He had to laugh when he recognized the first few notes of Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’. He saw her face light up and he said, “they’re playing your girl.”
“I know they are,” Sarah said.
“I can still see you with all that clunky plastic jewelry on…the beads and bracelets and lace headbands and gloves. I could hear you coming a mile away with all that clanking racket.”
“I wasn’t that bad.”
“Yeah you were. Remember the “Boy Toy” belt your mom wouldn’t let you buy?”
“Oh gosh, now I do since you mention it! I was so mad about that at the time.”
“And you lip synched this song at the talent show. Remember that weekend?”
She laughed hysterically, recalling herself eighteen years younger and fifty pounds lighter, clad in a skimpy white dress with a bustier top, writhing around on the floor onstage at the local community college.
“Where did you get that dress?” he asked. “It was pretty hot if I recall. I can still see it now just as clearly.” He became lost in the memory, and, finding it impossible to resist, she joined him. They smiled dreamily as Madonna sang, and he remarked softly, “you looked so good that night, I didn’t want to ever let you go.”
After the talent show (she’d won first prize), the two of them had gone out dancing, then to an all-night diner to eat, and finally they had collapsed in his bed. He wanted to undress her slowly and seductively this night, and he began working at getting her out of the outfit. The bustier part of the dress had at least a hundred hooks and eyes. He struggled mightily to get them open, trying to contain his longing for her and make his fingers work all at once. She began to help him after laughing at his struggles. Those moments were highly erotic for both of them, her helping him reveal herself, his fingers pressing against her here and there, together exposing her soft skin to his touch little by little, sharing in the quest to make themselves naked to each other. Just when he could take it no longer the last hook released and her breasts came fully into view. She unbuttoned his shirt slowly as he undid the buttons at his cuffs. The rest of the weekend they spent so enmeshed it was impossible to determine where she ended and where he began.
She’d finished her food and he was nearly done. Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’ was on. The waitress brought them back into the present by coming to the table and asking if they wanted to see dessert menus. He looked inquisitively at her and she shook her head. He was torn, trying to decide if he wanted to extend their lunch, and decided he did. He asked to see the dessert menu.
She looked at her watch. “Are you sure you have time for this?
He looked at his watch. “Well, I’m going to make time for it today. Who knows when we’ll get together again? Plus the carrot cake here is excellent.”
“I thought maybe you were working up the nerve to proposition me. But since this is just about carrot cake, I’d love a piece.”
He had to laugh as he ordered two slices of cake. Once the waitress left he beckoned to Sarah. Their heads came closer together over the small table and he whispered to her, “you look really beautiful today.”
“There have been times when I’ve really missed you. Sometimes I’d go months and years and not think about you at all. Especially at first. Then, as I got older, something might happen that would make me look at my life, at what I’ve done with it and the first thing I’d always do is think of you. And then I’d think of you all day every day for weeks.”
She silently took in the weight of his admission.
He tried to finish his thoughts. “I know I can’t really offer you…anything now. At least half of my life has gone by, and you weren’t there to witness it.” He took a deep breath. “But I…I’ve missed…”
The look on her face stopped him.
It was the first really uncomfortable pause of the day between them. Her heart began to faintly ache. She chose her words carefully.
“Seeing you here today does make me look at my life and consider…other options I had. Maybe I shouldn’t have run off that day.”
“Maybe I should have caught up to you.”
“Maybe I should have written you a letter…”
“Maybe I should have followed you to your house.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have argued with you, and walked out that night…”
“Maybe I should have told you before I did it. Maybe I shouldn’t have ma…”
But Sarah cut him off. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.”
“Why not? Why can’t I say it?”
She sighed. He sighed too. ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ by The Fine Young Cannibals started coming through the speakers.
They both thought about how funny life was. It truly was a circle, and you eventually stood at every point in that circle, your perspective always rotating and changing as you learned about yourself, about others, about love, about sacrifice. The waitress brought over their carrot cake.
“Its funny to see you so willing to…throw caution to the wind,” she said thoughtfully.
“It’s funny to see you so unwilling to.”
They both laughed, somewhat nervously and a bit regretfully. No matter what you did, time had its way with you like an inconsiderate lover – it was only the manner in which it had its way that differed for each and every person.
Simultaneously, they picked up their forks and began to eat their cake. It was delicious, freshly made, chock full of bits of carrot and walnut, moist and covered with sweet sticky cream cheese icing. They both used their fingers to wipe frosting from their plates once the slices were gone, and laughed at each other. They each ordered a piece to go. She finally hugged him as they waited for the waitress to wrap the desserts, and they held on tight for a long moment to fully create the memory, making sure they would remember the feeling. They left the restaurant arm in arm. They were parked at opposite ends of the block, and turned to face each other, kissing gently and warmly on the lips. The gusts of cold wind became spring-like as their mouths touched. For ten seconds it was 1983 again. But as quickly as it came, it left. Like soldiers going off to war, they squared their shoulders, turned their backs to each other and marched off in opposite directions, each taking something sweet with them as they went. Both were afraid to glance back lest they turn into pillars of regret.