Anvil dan (67) myron (1) rich (61) shiloh (4) :: Contact

Fri, 30 Sep 2005

Hail and Farewell: Part III

I have already written of the changes that came over Beth during her freshman year in college. She was slowly but unmistakably growing a little more aloof as the weeks and months passed. Sometimes she would go as far as to suggest that we should "slow down" and "not see each other" as often as we had in the past -- strange words to hear from one's fiancée. But then things would get better, and everything would seem back to normal for a while.

Then, in the late winter of the following year, everything came crashing down.

It began quietly enough. Beth had written to say that she would be coming home that weekend, so I decided to call her to see if she might be able to visit me, or I her. I phoned her parents' house on Friday afternoon and asked to speak to her.

"Oh, Beth's not here. She said she has a term paper she needs to work on, so she said she would be spending time in the library working on it this weekend."

"OK, I'll call her there. Thank you."

I called her room at school, but she wasn't there. I spoke to her roommate, Lynn, a friend of both of ours from high school.

"Beth's not here right now. I don't know where she is. But I'll tell her you called."

I hung up the phone, a little annoyed at not being able to speak to her, but sure she would be back in the room after dinner. I waited until 9 PM, and then called again.

"Hi Rich. Beth's not back yet. I didn't see her at dinner."

Now that was odd. Beth was highly intelligent, but I had never thought of her as a person who would put in extremely long hours in the library. Besides, by that hour the library was probably closed. Where was she?

I called again around midnight, and apologized for waking her roommate.

"No, she's not back. Nobody knows where she is; nobody's seen her today."

Now I was starting to really worry. I had visions of her having been in some kind of accident, lying in a hospital bed. Why was I the only one who seemed concerned?

Every few hours that Saturday and Sunday, I called her room, sure that if I just called again, that suddenly she would be there. With each "She's not here", my sense of panic and dread grew. By Sunday night I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. I was 100 miles away at school, with no car, and no readily-available public transit from there to her college, but I knew I had to do something.

The nearest means I could use to get to her school was to take the commuter trains on the other side of the Hudson river, about twenty miles away. I took what little cash I had, and borrowed twenty dollars from my roommate. At about 2 AM Monday, I starting walking towards the train station, figuring that if I kept up a steady pace I should get to the station some time during the AM commute into New York City; I would go there and then take a train back to her college. A passing motorist took pity on me, figuring that anyone out walking on the side of the highway at 3 AM probably needed a ride; he took me several miles closer to the train, dropping me off a few miles from the bridge over the Hudson. I walked the rest of the way to the station, dodging cars and getting more than a few quizzical stares from the motorists, pedestrians on a major suspension bridge being something of a rarity. Got to the station a little after 6 AM, got my ticket, and waited for the 6:20 train.

As I was walking, and then as I rode southward on the train, I had the same thoughts over and over: I had to get to Beth. I had to make sure she was all right. I had to find out what was happening. Like a mantra, these ideas kept repeating inside my head. Nothing else mattered.

I had to ride all the way into Grand Central in New York City to switch to the train line that went to the town where her college was. I fretted over having to wait -- why didn't they have as many trains going outbound in the morning as they had inbound to New York? Where was Beth? Was she all right? What was going on? Finally, the second train pulled out, and about a half-hour later, I was standing on the platform trying to figure out the proper direction to walk to get to her school. But after running on adrenaline for the last eight hours, I was suddenly too tired to walk. I parted with a few of my remaining dollars for a cab from the station. Finally, the campus! I flew out of the cab and into her dorm.

Beth was attending an all-girls college, so there was no such thing as free access to the dormitory for a guy, especially at 10 o'clock on Monday morning. The receptionist at the front desk checked her room (still not there), and invited me to wait on one of the sofas in the lobby. The girls came and went, nearly all of them wondering whom this slightly disheveled-looking guy was sitting in their dorm lobby on Monday morning. Finally there was a sudden influx of girls: 10:50, probably a class period was just letting out.

And then, chatting happily to another student, without a care in the world, Beth strolled into the dorm. I felt an overpowering sense of relief. She was OK! She was fine! But where the hell had she been all weekend? Beth, in turn, looked shocked and surprised to see me sitting in the lobby when I should have been at school myself.

"Richard, what are you doing here?!?"

"I've been trying to get a hold of you all weekend. Nobody knew where you were. I was so scared..." The words trailed off as I held her close.

"Come down to the room; I've got a few minutes before my next class."

She signed me in and we went down the hall to her room on the ground floor. It was a typical-enough college dorm room. The dorm itself was laid out like a miniature version of one of the colleges at Oxford, with a kind of gate into a commons area that the rooms surrounded on three sides. From Beth's room, it was easy to see people coming and going, as one of the commons walkways went just outside her window.

And, once in the room, we sat down on the bed and she told me the story of her weekend. There had been a party Friday afternoon, and one of the guys there had asked her and a couple of her classmates to go out to one of the nearby bars for a kind of after-party party that night. So she called her parents and told them she wasn't coming home, and they all went out, hitting the bars up and down the avenue.

"And Richard, it was so late, and I was so tired, and I'd had so much to drink, that Steve didn't want to leave me alone..."

"Who's Steve?!"

"He was the guy who invited me and Mindy and Connie and Ruth to go out with him and his friends Friday night. So, Steve thought I shouldn't be left alone, so he took me home..."


"...His family was there. They let me sleep on the couch. I met his mother and little sister later on Saturday when I woke up. I was so hung over! They insisted that I stay until I was feeling better. So I spent the day Saturday, and stayed over Sunday. It was so much fun that I stayed over Sunday night and went straight to classes today. And then I saw you here, and oh, Richard, I am so sorry -- you must have been so worried to come all this way!"

And I told her the story of my weekend. I downplayed the depths of the anxiety, but I did express my displeasure at her disappearing without letting anyone know where she was. I was not happy.

"You stayed at his house for the whole weekend?"

"Richard, his family was there the whole time. Nothing happened, if that's what you're thinking. It was all very innocent."

Well, yes, once I had heard where she was, the thought had gone through my head a couple of times. But I was so relieved to see her, to know that she was all right, that I immediately put it out of my mind.

"Have you talked to my parents?" Beth then asked.

An odd question, I thought, although perhaps it was odder that I hauled off on a search and rescue mission without thinking to let Beth's parents know that their daughter was most definitely not at school doing research in the library. In my panic, it never occurred to me to let them know.

"No, I haven't spoken to them since I called your house on Friday."

Beth seemed oddly relieved for some reason. "OK. Richard, I'm sorry, but I have one more class this morning coming up right now. You can stay here in the room; I should be back in an hour. And then I'll take you to lunch; you look like you could use it." She kissed me, switched textbooks, and hurried off for class, waving in the window as she walked by. I waved back, and then sat down on the bed.

I had helped Beth move in in the fall, but I hadn't really spent much time in her dorm room since then, so the place had a more lived-in look and feel. Books and papers all over, some clothes on the bed, others on the floor -- a typical college student, I thought. Over her bed were wooden italic letters that spelled out "BETH". I had bought the unfinished letters the previous summer, and spent the better part of a month sanding, finishing, polishing, and varnishing them until they positively glowed. They were a housewarming present for her dorm room.

"Well, no sense in sitting around doing nothing," I thought. "I might as well make myself useful." I decided to tidy up a bit.

I started with the bed, straightening it, and putting away the clothes. Then I moved to the scraps of paper strewn about atop her desk. One of them was her roommate's log of each time I had called that weekend:

Friday, 9 PM: Richard called. Where are you? Pls call him when you get in. Friday 11:45 PM: Richard called again. Pls call. Saturday, 8 AM: Richard called. Wants to know where you've been. Pls call him. ...

and so on, for two and a half days worth of worry, recorded for all posterity. Oddly enough, I smiled. I was so relieved that Beth was OK that all my anxiety seemed like an enormous bad joke. It seemed kind of funny, in a way. I picked up the wastepaper basket next to her desk to toss in the paper I had just crumpled up.

My hand froze as I looked into the wastebasket.

In the bottom of the wastebasket, partially contained in a crumpled tissue, was a condom. And not a neatly packaged, still wrapped and rolled condom. One that was used, wet with semen and ripe with the scent of sex. I actually picked it up out of the basket to make sure I was not mistaken. I wasn't.

I staggered back and flopped down on the edge of the bed, holding the wastebasket in one hand, and the condom in the other.

"Oh, my God," I thought to myself. "Oh, my God, no." I was in shock. I didn't know what to think. My mind was utterly and completely blank. All I could do was stare at the condom as I held it in my hand.

People have often described how, in times of great emotional distress, everything "seems to be falling down" all around them. I know now that that's true. Everything and everyone else swirled around me in a kind of vortex. The only thing that wasn't spinning was that dammed condom. Its stability seemed to mock me. I felt as if it was laughing at me. I was dizzy, nearly faint. Oh, my God. What was going on?

And I did know what was going on. This was the last piece in the puzzle, explaining why Beth had been so reserved and distant since the fall.

She was seeing someone else.

She was having sex with someone else.

And as quickly as I realized what this had to mean, I instantly submerged the thought deep into my subconscious. No, there had to be some other explanation. This couldn't mean what I thought it meant. Beth wouldn't do that to me! She wouldn't! She couldn't! There had to be another explanation!

I sat there on the edge of her bed, deep in shock. I still wanted to faint. I could barely breathe. I couldn't really move. Tears came, quietly running down. All the while I kept repeating "Oh God, no," my new mantra for the day.

People often speak of someone "dying of a broken heart". I always thought that was a bit of romantic window dressing, but now I could see how that could really happen to someone. It was the most excruciating feeling I had ever had. There was a pain in my chest; I couldn't breathe right; things were still spinning around. It was far worse than any mere physical pain I had ever experienced.

I don't know how long I stayed in this state. It had to have been most of that hour. Beth suddenly appeared outside the window, coming back. She smiled and waved. I looked up at her, but couldn't move. She suddenly looked very concerned and sprinted towards the dormitory door. I put down the wastebasket, and carefully wrapped the condom in the tissue. Moments later, she came through the door.

"Richard, what's wrong? You look awful. Is everything all right?"

I did not get up, but looked at her as I sat. "I thought I would surprise you by cleaning up your room. I was throwing out some papers when I found this." I opened my hand and showed her the condom.

For a second, there was silence. I went back to staring at the condom. It was still the abruptly new center of my universe, still silently mocking me.

"Richard, look at me." I continued to stare. "Look at me," Beth implored. She sounded a little frightened; perhaps because of the effect this discovery was having on me. I looked up at her as she knelt down in front of me and took my face in both hands. "Richard, I don't know anything about this. I have no idea how it got here. You have to believe me."

I latched onto the words, "I don't know anything about this." Beth continued to make reassuring noises, but my hearing wasn't working right. All I knew was that I had hysterically overreacted. Of course she knew nothing about it! I knew there had to be another explanation! And then immediately, I felt ashamed of myself: why hadn't I trusted her? How could I have thought what I did?

Beth continued to hold me and give me kisses. "Baby, believe me. I have nothing to do with this. I love you."

My sense of relief was overpowering; the wave of grief that looked to be crashing down upon my head just moments before instead passed harmlessly over me and left me on its back side, watching it move on towards another distant shore.

"You don't think...Lynn?" I suggested. Lynn was a little mousy-looking, and more than a little shy. Just about the last person one would expect to be engaging in a dorm-room sex while Beth was away. But Beth latched on to the idea.

"Yes, it must be. Lynn! Who'd have thought it?" she agreed.

And I could not help but agree as well. Yes, I told myself, it must have been Lynn. The relief was palpable. My senses stopped reeling; things were returning to normal. Beth continued to hold me and reassure me.

"Beth, I'm so sorry. What was I thinking?"

"Richard, I could see why you were upset. I'd be upset if something like this happened to me. And believe me, I'm going to let Lynn know how much she's upset you! Now come on, let's get something to eat. You look like you need it. Do you feel up to it?" I nodded, kissed her again, and we went off to get some lunch. I told her everything that had happened over the weekend. "You walked all that way in the middle of the night because you were worried about me?" she asked. "Of course," I replied. What else could I do? What else would anyone have done under the circumstances? We discussed how and when I was intending to get back to school. I had my return tickets, but no plan for getting from the station back to school other than walking again. She gave me money for a taxi. "I don't want you walking all that way on the highway in the dark. And, by the way, don't ever do something dangerous like that again!" (as she gave me one of her friendly thwacks on the head).

I left after lunch; Beth had more classes in the afternoon, and I had to start the long journey back. But all my fears were now dispelled. As the train rolled up the shore of the Hudson River, I looked out over the landscape and thought how life was really pretty good, how just when you think something terrible has happened or is going to happen, things turn out all right in the end. I was calm and peaceful, but also emotionally exhausted from everything that had happened over the last three days. I took a taxi back to school, flopped into bed, and slept in instead of going to classes on Tuesday.

Things were fine (or as well as could be expected) for a couple of weeks after that. But the letters from Beth dwindled away, and she was again distant and aloof. She started to mention it would probably be good if "we took a break from each other for a while." I was flabbergasted. What was going on? Why was she saying things like this? What did it all mean?

We had been making plans since the fall to go into New York City for the St. Patrick's Day parade; I had decided back then to surprise Beth by getting tickets to "A Chorus Line" for that day. She had always enjoyed going to Broadway shows, and she had been pestering me to see this for months.

When St. Patrick's Day came, I borrowed my parents' car, and drove to Beth's school early that morning. She was clearly not overjoyed to see me for some reason. Things soon got worse. I showed her the tickets, hoping the surprise would get her out of her funk.

"You shouldn't have done that, Richard."


"I invited a couple of friends to meet us down in the city."

"Oh. Who?"

"Tom." Another friend from Beth's high school class who attended another college in the area. "And Steve."

"Steve?" I said, drawing a blank.

"Steve Petrie," Beth said. "You remember him. I stayed at his house that weekend you got so worried about me."

This hit me squarely between the eyes. I had that same dizzy, nauseating, twisting sensation in the gut that I hadn't felt since that fateful Monday morning weeks ago. I tried my best to keep my outward composure.

"Oh. OK."

But suddenly there was a roaring debate going on within my head. My emotional self was screaming: What the hell is going on here? Why is she acting this way? What have you done to deserve this? It isn't fair! Quietly, my rational self was responding: You know exactly what is going on. You've known since the day you found that condom in her room. She's not interested in you any more. She's dumping you for this guy Steve. But I did not want to listen to that side. I was deeply in denial. The emotional side kept pumping me: All you have to do is show her you're/ better /than this Steve character. Then she'll want you back. Show her you're better than him. Show her....

We met up with Tom and Steve in Grand Central. Tom I had known from high school; he was the brother of a classmate, and I knew him fairly well. He had brought his girlfriend with him. Steve Petrie, on the other hand, I had find out more about. He was of average height and build, tending a bit to the athletic side; he was good looking in that way, but he didn't strike me as particularly "handsome" in any sense. He and I chatted as our group strolled out towards the parade. He was Beth's age, but had not gone on to college; we worked in a local tape manufacturing plant. He also played the piano, which is how he and Beth had met in the first place -- he was recruited to play for her school's fall musical. He seemed to be of average intelligence, but was certainly not an intellectual or scholarly. His idea of a fun time was working on his car -- a two-seater, late model MG convertible.

It was a bizarre situation: here we were, rivals for Beth's affections, talking calmly, but obviously sizing each other up, like two scorpions dancing around each other, stingers at the ready. But he seemed very calm and self-assured; I felt like I was going to vomit.

The parade and the show, which I had hoped would be such a happy occasion, were fairly miserable. Beth paid me very little attention. At one point she sat on Steve's shoulders to see the parade better. With him, she was smiling and happy. Then it was time for the matinee, and Beth and I went off together to the theatre. Like throwing a switch, Beth was suddenly aloof again. Just before she and I went in, I took Tom aside.

"Tom, you've got to get rid of this guy. You've got to!"

"But what am I going to do? I can't make him do anything."

"Invent some excuse. Say you need to get back to school early. Anything. Please!"

"I don't know. We'll see what happens."

Beth and I went into the theatre. She was polite, but not at all affectionate. She would not hold my hand, nor lean her head on my shoulder, nor whisper comments to me during the show, as she usually did. I sat next to her, but it was clear that we were not in any sense there "together", as far as she was concerned. I was so upset, I barely noticed what was going on in the show.

I had made reservations for dinner afterwards. When we exited the theatre, Tom, his girlfriend, and Steve were not there; they had planned to meet us there when the show let out. "Thank God!" I thought. "Tom figured out a way to make him leave." Beth looked distressed.

"I'm not really hungry," she said.

"Please," I asked. "Just a little something."

She sighed. "All right. But I want to go home soon," she said, looking around expectantly.

The drinks and snacks were served, and we ate quietly. I tried to keep up a stream of chatter, trying desperately to draw her into the conversation, but all I got were one and two word answers, mostly "Yes" and "No" and "Hmm". The train ride back was equally somber. Finally we got back to her room.

"Beth, you don't sound good. Let's go out and do something with the rest of the evening."

She sat on her bed and looked me straight in the eye.

"I don't want you. I want Steve..."

And with that, Beth picked up the phone, called his house, and sitting in front of me, arranged to meet him a little later on. It was that same horrible feeling, only this time I was not alone. The woman I loved was thrusting the dagger into me without any regrets. On the phone with him, she was her usual warm, charming self. Every time she laughed, I winced. Finally she hung up and looked at me.

"I think you should leave now. Steve will be here in a few minutes."

I didn't want to make a scene, although I was falling apart inside. I quietly said, "Goodnight, Beth. I'll talk to you soon," and kissed her. All she said was "Goodnight." I turned and walked out.

I have no idea how I was able to drive the forty miles back to my parents' house. I was shaking by the time I reached the car, and I could not help crying. Once inside, I sobbed all the way back, constantly having to clear the tears from my eyes so I could see. Back at the house, I went inside, went to my old room, got into bed, and just started to bawl. Not crying, bawling. Tears. Choking. Sobs. Practically blubbering. Beth was slipping out of my grasp, and nothing would ever be right again. I would never be right again.

My mother came in, obviously alarmed at the sounds from my room that had awakened her. She asked what was wrong, and it all came spilling out in a torrent. I told her about the weekend Beth spent at Steve's house, and what I had found in her room. I told her how much I loved Beth. I told her how Beth and I had agreed to marry someday. I told her about my day, and how awful everything was. Mom was consoling, assuring me that someday Beth would regret abandoning me, as her relationship now seemed to be based on physical attraction and sex. "Beauty fades. We all grow old. What will Beth do when she's no longer considered desirable? What will she have?" she told me.

I felt a little better, but I didn't really believe Mom. Besides, my goal was not to have the last laugh, or to be able to say, "I told you so!" years from now. I had to get Beth back.

It has been said that there is a fine line between love and madness. And that night, I started to go mad.

Not mad in the sense of overtly lunatic behavior, nothing that would land me in a mental hospital or prison. But an overpowering obsession took control of me that night: get Beth back. Nothing else mattered. Know what she was doing. Know who my rivals were. Use that information. Outsmart the dammed duct tape jockey. Outthink him. Figure out what went wrong, and make it right again.

Looking back after all these years, the most frightening things about this obsessive kind of madness were (a) how these thoughts simply took up residence in my psyche, fully formed and without any apparent effort on my part, and (b) how utterly normal they seemed. It all made perfect sense to me. Nothing about it was odd, or unusual, or appeared out-of-the-ordinary. It was what I had to do. I availed myself of every opportunity to pursue these aims. I invented opportunities. Without realizing it, I found myself engaging in behavior that today could easily have gotten me arrested for stalking.

But everything I did when I listened to the voices wound up all being just stupid and senseless and pointless and embarrassing. I would drive by Beth's house on vacations or over the summer, just cruising by, not stopping. Looking for what? A strange car in the driveway? Steve Petrie's car in the driveway? Beth and her date going into or out of the house? Did I just want a glimpse of her?

I would drive down to Steve's house, looking to see if his car was there. Did I expect to see Beth there as well? Did I believe that I could somehow focus my torrents of psychic outrage at him and make him go away? "Golly, Richard, I was wrong. Here's Beth back. No hard feelings?" Somehow in my madness I honestly thought that I could make something like this happen, I really did.

The madness and attendant sense of masochism took me so far as for me to actually join in occasionally when Beth, Steve, and their local friends went out on the town (I would usually tag along with Lynn). I would play along, part of the "gang", desperately hoping to show Beth that I was far better than Steve -- would he sit by and play the jester while Beth was enraptured with someone else? Surely she could see that made me far better than him.

By this time (not very long after the St. Patrick's day massacre), Beth had undergone a complete metamorphosis: formerly intellectual, and a little "preppy", she suddenly became a "street teen". She neglected her classes and homework. She took up smoking. She transformed herself into exactly the kind of person Steve wanted her to be. It was agonizing to watch what she had become. (Had she undergone a similar transformation for me? To this day, I don't know. Years later, I would watch Woody Allen's film Zelig, and nod knowingly -- yes, I knew someone who could transform like that; I had seen it.)

My madness drove me to do stupid, embarrassing things to my friends as well. At one point, many months after the breakup, I vented all my feelings about how shabbily I had been treated into a letter to Beth. (I did not have the nerve to tell her to her face.) But at the last minute, my fear of somehow offending her got the better of me. And the voices had a simple solution: sign somebody else's name to it. So I scrawled a horrible facsimile of the signature of my best friend, Dan Ichov, at the bottom, and mailed it. (The voices made sure to remind me to mail it from the same city where Dan went to school, just so there wouldn't be any discrepancies to notice.) It was the low point, the rock bottom of my madness. Not content to screw up my own life, and do things that would certainly only drive Beth away, I was now starting down the path of messing up my relationships with my other friends. It was an awful thing to do, and to this day I am embarrassed to recall it, ashamed of what I had done. And, as luck would have it, Beth happened to run into Dan not long after I sent the letter.

"That was quite a letter you sent me. It really made me stop and think," Beth told him.

"What letter?" Dan replied. Beth described the contents.

"Well, I didn't write it. But I agree with every word."

It was the single most embarrassing, most stupid thing I had ever done in my life. Dan, friend that he is, was very understanding as I apologized profusely the next time I saw him and he told me about his encounter with Beth. No doubt he sensed the madness within me, and must have graciously attributed my behavior to that. And I have always been thankful for his not disavowing the whole thing, but defending me to Beth instead. It was more than I expected, and more than I deserved.

The madness went on not for weeks or months, but for years. The voices haunted me, day after day. Later that same year, I corresponded with April, a classmate of Beth's and to whom Beth had introduced me shortly after classes had started the previous fall. April kept me informed about what she knew of Beth's activities -- mostly how she was not going to classes, spending more and more time with Steve instead. I was grateful for the information, and glad to have someone to whom I could confide my feelings. We started to date, and I realized that I was starting to fall in love again. The voices tried to tell me that that was not possible, that Beth was the only one I would or could ever love. It must have been a sign of at least a partial recovery from the madness that I, for once, did not listen to the voices. I finished school, and got a job, and April and I did fall in love, and she and I were together for many years.

As time went on, it wasn't that I stopped thinking about Beth -- I thought about her often -- but the voices that usually accompanied thoughts of her gradually faded out. April was compassionate about what I had been through, and I think her understanding and love was instrumental in stopping the madness. Not that it was simply a case of love conquers all -- I also think that simply having more to do (i.e. getting a job) occupied more of my time and thoughts, not allowing the volume of the voices to grow and reverberate for lack of other things to occupy my mind. Just as the madness had come on abruptly and unwittingly, it finally left in much the same way: the voices simply faded into the background, and I would look back at the things I used to do and ask myself, "Why did I do that?"

But my fundamental anguish over the breakup of Beth and I did not and will not ever go away. She and I obviously had radically different perspectives on the nature of relationships and love. Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to not take serious relationships seriously. Love is not something I can turn on or off at will. And love is something I cannot and will not take back. I don't stop loving people because it's inconvenient, or hard, or because they do something bad to me. So, in the old ethical sense of "hate the sin but love the sinner", I will never stop loving Beth. It is just not in my nature to do otherwise.


Since our breakup, I have seen Beth only a handful of times.

Her job eventually moved into New York City, and it turned out that she and I commuted on the same line out of Grand Central. It was inevitable that she and I would run into each other on the train. And, more than 10 years after we broke up, completely out of the blue, we finally did. I was sitting on the 5:25 train, a few rows back from the train doors, reading my newspaper and waiting for the train to start for home, when I heard a voice, quiet but unmistakable.


I looked up and there Beth was, standing in the vestibule with her head cocked a little to one side, a friendly smile on her face.


"Can I join you?"

"Of course, of course," I said, clambering out of my seat and into another that had two empty spaces, more enthusiastically than was warranted and thus more awkwardly than I wished. She sat down beside me. She looked much as I remembered, except for a touch of tiredness about her eyes. And her perfume -- the memories and feelings that came flooding back when I smelled it hit me like a smack in the head. I took a breath and tried to focus my thinking.

"You got my letter?" she asked.

On the occasion of her twenty-fifth birthday some years before, I felt compelled to not let such a milestone go unremarked. I had bought a bottle of very fine champagne, wrapped it, and attached a brief note expressing my good wishes for her the occasion. But not knowing where she lived or how to get in touch with her, I drove to her parents' house and left the gift with them, asking them to deliver it to her when they next saw her. They were pleasant about it all, but perhaps just a little wary about one of their daughter's old boyfriends turning up unexpectedly years later. But they did deliver it, for about a month later I got a letter from Beth. She thanked me for the champagne, then wrote that she had wanted to apologize for the way she had treated me when we broke up.

"Yes, I did."

"And...?" she asked expectantly, probably unsure of how I was going to react to the topic.

"Beth, there's a couplet in a poem I read once that describes how I feel about what happened:

Though the wrong we rue you can never undo,
I forgave you long ago!"

That was true enough. Through all the agonies and heartbreak, I felt angry and hurt, but never vengeful or hateful. I hated what she had done, but I could not bring myself to hate her. I smiled, and Beth looked more than a bit relieved.

With that bit of formality out of the way, the barriers of time and separation came tumbling down. We laughed and talked and joked and reminisced, and, as the train rolled northward, the gulf that had separated us was quietly erased. It was like old times again, as far removed from our last time together as it was possible to be.

I was surprised how many little details Beth remembered from our time together.

"Going on a lion hunt,
But I'm not scared...

Do you remember that, Richard?" I did. It was a little kids' rhyme that she used to say to me when she was feeling particularly affectionate. "I remember everything," I said, with perhaps a little more emphasis than I intended or expected. She looked at me, touched me on the arm, and said, "I know."

And the last shadow lifted from over our conversation.

The train ride home, which usually seemed so interminable, flew by in a blur. So much to catch up on in so little time! We talked about her family and mine, reviewing what had happened to our parents and siblings. Snippets of information about her life emerged -- married, then divorced, no children; her job (a corporate trainer) now took her on the road a fair amount of the time; her office only a five minute walk from mine, just down Lexington Avenue. It was hard to take it all in, and I did not want this to be the end.

"We should have lunch some time; we work so close to each other," I said as the train approached her station.

"Yes, we should. I'd like that."

"Give me your number; I'll call you next week."

"Do that." She gave me her work number. "It was good to see you again, Richard."

"Likewise. Talk to you soon."

The rest of that week passed in a flash. I could not wait to have the opportunity to talk to Beth again, to see her again, to be friends again. But some of the things she had mentioned on the train ride I found a little disturbing and curious -- especially the divorce. I had an awful suspicion I knew what probably caused it, and I wanted to find out if I was right.

I called her on Monday, and we agreed to meet for lunch on Wednesday. I went to her office, and she showed me her desk. There were a number of photographs of scenes from the countryside, and one of a fairly good-looking man.

"Your husband? Sorry, ex-husband? Significant other?" I asked.

"Not any more. It's a long story."

"I can only imagine," I thought to myself.

We went to a quiet pub about a block away, and took a table in a secluded corner. And as we lunched on pints of Guinness and a Ploughman's Lunch, over the next two hours, the high points of the story of what Beth had been up to during all this time came out. "Colorful" was the most polite adjective that came into my mind as Beth told her tale.

She too, had had troubles in college. She had failed several courses because she was constantly hanging out with Steve Petrie, not attending class and neglecting the homework. A couple of months after the end of her freshman year, she had dumped him.

"In that case, he may be the best friend I have in the world," I mused to myself.

Beth transferred to another school closer to her parents' house for the fall, commuting rather than living on campus. It turned out that one of the local professional football teams used the campus for training camp each summer and fall, and Beth very quickly had affairs with several of the players. Inside, I could only wince.

She graduated from her new college a few years later. After graduation, she took a job with one of the telcom companies as a corporate trainer -- a logical enough choice, given her parents' work as educators. I knew she would be a natural at it.

At work, she met and married a man who worked for a different telcom company. (Funny now how I can't remember his name.) For a while, they worked near to each other, but Beth's job soon moved to New York City, and it kept her on the road for a fair part of the year. After being married for about a year or so, while on one of her business trips, Beth started an affair with one of her trainees from the U.K. He, too, was married. Soon Beth was traveling to England on her own, under the guise of teaching classes for work.

Beth's paramour's wife was the first to find out what was going on. She filed for divorce from her husband, and, under English law, Beth was compelled to testify in the proceedings, as she had been named as "the other woman". Beth went into details of how the subpoena arrived at her home one day, how it was printed on heavy, parchment-like paper, with several official seals and ribbons -- and how her husband, having arrived at home before her, had opened the impressive-looking box from overseas and read about it all. Beth ended up not having to stand in the dock in the Yorkshire Magistrates Court, but swore out an affidavit and testified in writing in front of a judge here. Her husband divorced her (uncontested) very soon thereafter.

While Beth was spilling the story of her affair, awful and conflicting emotions welled up within me. Her casualness about all of her relationships, including her marriage, was awful to hear, although it didn't seem to bother her. I felt sorry for her -- despite her offhandedness about it all, it could not have been an easy thing to experience. Remarkably, I felt sorry for Beth's husband. As envious as I was for him having gotten Beth to the altar, I did not have to imagine how he must have felt and what it must have been like for him to open that box. I knew exactly how he felt.

I don't know why she wanted me to hear about all of this. Perhaps she thought it would be therapeutic for her to tell all to a sympathetic listener. Perhaps she thought I would understand (which I did, but possibly not in the way she expected). Perhaps she was trying to warn me away in case I was entertaining any ideas of having any kind of relationship other than a renewed friendship (not an unreasonable assumption on her part, given my earlier reaction to our breakup). I was glad to know, but at the same time I could only realize that, given Beth's personality and somewhat lackadaisical sense of morality, our breakup was inevitable, and the longer we might have been together the more it would have eventually hurt (as hard as that was to imagine).

I sat and mostly listened to Beth's story for the better part of two hours, taking sips of Guinness to calm my nerves, and not really paying attention to my lunch. Finally, knowing that time for this reunion was running out, I asked the question that had occupied so much of my thoughts during these years.

"So, Beth, how are you? Are you happy?"

I braced myself, but the answer was not what I had expected, or feared.

"Richard, I'm tired. I wish I could just have a nice house somewhere, with a white picket fence, with a family of my own. I want to stay at home, be a wife, be a mother. That's all I want. I'm so tired...."

I could never have hoped to compete with the other men in Beth's life during these years. I was not wealthy, or handsome, or famous. But I could have given Beth exactly what she now realized she really wanted -- unconditional love. In that, for her, I had no peer. I had thought that love would conquer all in the end. But it was not enough for Beth -- at least, not enough back then.

It was very late, and there wasn't much more left to say. But we did not rush from the pub back to Beth's office. We strolled back down the block, chatting animatedly, arms around each other's waists. I think we were both relishing each other's company, as we had done so many times in the past. Finally, we reached the door of the building.

"Thank you for lunch, Richard. It was good to talk to you again."

"Thank you, Beth. Take care of yourself."

We kissed, and I felt the same electric jolt I had felt all those many years ago on the school bus. Just like a fireworks display that saves the big barrage for the end of the show, I must have known that this was in all likelihood the grand finale to our relationship.

"Call me," she said, as she turned and headed trough the door.

"I will," I called back, as Beth disappeared into the swoosh of the revolving door.

But I never did.

I have not spoken to Beth since that day, and only saw her on two occasions after that.

Once, about two years after our lunch, as I was walking down Lexington Avenue to Grand Central on the way home, she came out of her office just as I was went past. She was arm-in-arm with a handsome young man, and the two of them were talking and laughing as they walked down the block. She had not noticed me. I turned and watched the two of them go down the street and into the subway. For a split second, I had a powerful urge to follow them, just to try to know what she was doing. Then I realized how stupid and pointless that was. It was a momentary reflux of the urges to get her back, to figure out how to be better somehow than these other guys, with which I had struggled for so long. Instead I turned and rejoined the stream of commuters back into Grand Central.

Finally, about ten years ago, after working late one evening, I was heading down the platform at Grand Central to take a seat in one of the head cars. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Beth, already seated on the train -- at least, I thought it was Beth. The resemblance was striking, but this person looked different somehow, missing the ethereal but ever-present spark of vitality I always saw in Beth's face. This girl had the drained, hollow look I had come to know so well among my fellow commuters. It could not be my Beth.

I kept walking down the platform, and rode home in silence, reminiscing about old times, and the love that made such an impact on my life, for good and ill. And when I got home, my wife and kids fast asleep, I made sure to kiss each of them. I had a strong re-appreciation of their love for me, and I for them, and all that that means to me, during that long train ride home, as I sat alone in my car, and Beth sat alone in hers, a million miles away.

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue,
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 138

Posted Sep 30, 2005 at 01:21 UTC, 8275 words,  [/richPermalink