It seems strange to me now, at this point in my life, to feel so strongly and think so long on such a small decision made so long ago. With the sun getting so high, why should such a little thing haunt me?
I was only a kid. Fresh out of college, throwing myself headlong into my work, thinking about my future. Walking to the office one morning. Bag slung over one shoulder. Tie hung loosely about the neck, blowing in the wind. Looking down. Used to look up. Now, always looking down, deep in thought. Alive! But starting to feel that tingling numbness in my fingers.
And then a car drives up, breaking my train of thought. A sporty red convertible. Blonde at the wheel, brunette shotgun. Young girls, younger than me. Full of life, saturated with it. They stop next to me, and the brunette takes off her sunglasses.
“Wanna take a ride?”
And being what I am, I do want to. But -
“I can’t. I’m headed to work.” And I point ahead of me.
“We’re headed to California.” And she points behind me.
I look over my shoulder, and I can taste the ocean. I can feel the sun’s rays. And the warm breeze. I can feel the girl’s kiss, her hair, her waist, her shoulders. Her smile smoldering red hot against the back of my eyes.
“I can’t just ditch. Lots of work, projects, loose ends.”
And before I can ask her name, her number, anything -
“Suit yourself.” And she disappears. Forever. And what gets me more isn’t my reaction, but hers. Somehow, I had it that she would argue, convince me to go. Just for the day. Just around the block. And I looked down again, deep in thought, and went to work. After a few weeks, didn’t even think about it again. Until now.
Now, that I’m married thirty-five years. Kids grown. Happy. Complete. A good job turned great career. A good woman turned great marriage. Good kids with great futures ahead of them. The Great American Dream. The perfect life, in the little yellow house and the white picket fence, the dog, everything. Reading by the fire. Playing ball in the backyard. Building a fort. Painting that white picket fence, the distant twenty-year-old inside me chuckling. Making love to a woman after thirty-five years. Putting two kids through college. I loved my life. I love my life.
It just wasn’t the life I wanted. When I was little, I wanted to be an explorer. The Seven Seas. North Pole. Safari. India. Mt. Everest. The deepest cave and the highest cliff. An astronaut. Test pilot. And not just like everyone else, either. I remember. I embraced it. Loved it. Stories, movies. I honestly remember a time thinking, “When I’m fifteen…”, as if it was far beyond the horizon. There was just so much time in the world. Like grains of sand on the beach, the minutes of life spread out before me. I would conquer the world by fifteen.
And by fifteen, I had new ideas, a bit more grounded, but just as fantastic. I would be a rock star. A writer. A surfer. Rock climber. Travel around the world and back again. In college, I would be a millionaire, a CEO. International Business major. Switched to marketing. And on that hot day, content at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, aiming high as I could see. That was the threshold, that day, the point of no return.
Two years ago, sitting at my desk, the memory of that day came back all at once. For some reason, I can’t shake it. Men my age - I think - go out and screw women like her and buy cars like hers and take vacations to places we used to dream of, where they build hotels to mock our adventure. But not me. I just wonder what happened. I wonder what happened to me, what forces of my own biology and culture squandered me. That when a lark flew by my cage to sing to me, I turned the other way.
What is it that snuffed out that candle inside me? I don’t know. There is nothing I can imagine, and yet it was me, the whole me, that turned her away. Not just a gut reaction, but a full body instinct. The thought of getting into that car turned my body to stone. It was all of me, my own freewill that turned me down this road.
And here’s what gets me more than anything. What wrenches my heart out of my chest. She was beautiful. Even two hundred feet away she caught my gaze, and two feet away she stole my heart. I can’t say if she was truly the perfect woman or if that’s simply what she represents in my mind. All I know is that she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. More than my own wife.
I’d always thought of her as a lark, beautiful, free, and uncatchable. In reality, she probably went to school or married or waited tables or had a child. She’s probably still alive - my age - and would never in a million years remember me. She and her friend just picked up some other guy, had fun on the beach, and returned home. But to me, she would always be that beautiful, that unattainable, that wild and free, that daring thing.
I love my wife. I love my kids. I love my job. I’ve led a good life. But all that emptiness and loneliness and regret, that stinking regret inside of me, leads back to that day. One day on the sidewalk. One hour in the sun. One minute talking to that girl. One little minute, tiny and delicate. It is lonely and small as a grain of sand, plucked off a beach from a sea of sand. And it is truly everything.
Sometimes I catch myself crying. As my sun is setting, I think about that minute. That one grain of sand that defined my life. I think about a sunset on the Pacific, lying on the sand, in an ocean of time. And she’s right there beside me. Around the world. Deep inside me.
I suppose I’m too old for such thoughts, but I find myself watching sunsets. Waiting. Waiting to take that last ride.