– By Samuel Smith
“Think about your future, son.”
Regret is a strange phenomenon. It’s pain over something we can’t change. Intellectually, we all know it’s pointless and counterproductive. But it’s still there, if we’re at all honest.
I’ve got a bag full of them. But one of them stands out above the rest.
I wrote before about my father and how his lack of peace left him vulnerable to addiction, disease and an early death. As his only son, in a lot of ways I bore the brunt of it. It’s not so much that I ever missed him; the person he chose to be was toxic and manipulative and controlling, even if he did it with charm. But I missed out on who he could have been.
I also got to pay the price for his sins with my mother. Still do, to an extent. I look like him. I have some of his mannerisms and I still use some of his sayings. They’re funny and accurate and in a lot of ways, the old man wasn’t the devil she made him out to be. Just, as Nietzsche said, “human. All too human.”
I know it pains her to see him in me, but I’m past the point of concern with that. I’ve been paid back all that I care to for having the audacity to love and emulate any part of who my father was. If she doesn’t like it, she can hurt. I won’t anymore. At least not over that.
From that background, I missed out, to a large extent on what is an important aspect of what every child needs. I grew up insecure and needy and completely unsure of myself. I was a small, nerdy smart kid in a redneck town where everyone knew my Daddy was a disgraced former minister, among other family secrets that were thankfully less well-known.
Insecurity, meet shame. Shame, insecurity.
Life took its twists and turns, but in my ignorance and fear, I thought that my character was set, that this was life and that this is all that I’d ever be. After high school, I moved to live with my Dad. First day there, he told me I’d be better off moving back to College Station, where my mom wanted me to be. Three years later I did. An awkward year back in College Station and my Dad called and invited me to his birthday party. I was off for the summer and bored. College Station in the summer is pretty dull. So I went.
We partied, as was our custom. He and a guy who later had his own show on Fox News forgot me at a casino. Really. Made a night of it anyway with some random people I met.
A couple days later he told me if I was gonna stick around, I should make some money. I agreed. I’ve never shied from work, and besides I’d worked at this place before when I lived close to him. It would be familiar and comforting, in a way.
The place for my new job looked the same as it always had. A white cinderblock nursing home at the end of a long driveway in the middle of nowhere, south Louisiana. The facility was licensed as an ICF-MR, intermediate care facility – mental retardation. We weren’t so politically correct in 1998.
On the day I showed up, the administrator who I had worked for was there, kissing my ass like always, and so was my Dad, glad-handing and hamming it up. It was coincidental. He almost never showed up there when I had worked at the home from 1994-1996.
But I didn’t really notice either one of them. Or the director of nurses, who told the bawdiest jokes I’ve ever heard from a woman and could flat smoke a pack of cigarettes in two hours.
I just saw her.
I didn’t know who she was and regardless of what she might say, I saw her first. She was about 5’2-5’3”, long curly brown hair, full cheeks, the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen. Her chin was long and came to point and her skin perfectly accented the green shirt she was wearing. In the lobby of a run-down nursing home, of all places. I was flat-footed. It was kind of embarrassing when she turned to look at me, because it was obvious that I was staring at her in the worst way possible. I think my mouth was even open.
I averted my eyes and acted like I didn’t see her. I’ve always been smooth, ya know.
Daddy and Jimmy the administrator were talking in the hallway. I ignored their conversation and interrupted.
“Who is that girl?”
Daddy knew what was up.
“Go talk to her, son. You’re a grown man.”
Well. Yes and no. I was a 22 year old emotional disaster area who was almost a year clean of pills, but still a raging alcoholic, as my father had demonstrated for me so well. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her, though, and the place wasn’t that big. Eventually, I ran into her in the hallway and flashed my baby blues at her. She twisted her perfect little mouth at me, as if she was sizing me up, but smiled. I noticed that she had a Band-Aid over her right eyebrow.
I actually did do some work that week. I always felt the pressure to uphold my end of the bargain as the CEO’s kid and not be some entitled piece of crap. But eventually it was cigarette break time. And, like a lot of people our age in Louisiana at the time, both of us smoked.
There she was. I mustered up all my courage and asked her for a light. I had two lighters in my pocket, but it was the opening I needed with her.
“What happened to your eyebrow? Your boyfriend hit you or something?”
It was a joke, of course. I mean, who would hit this angel?
She peeled back the Band-Aid to reveal a pierced eyebrow.
“They won’t let me work with this, but they said I could keep it if I covered it up.”
At that moment, I didn’t think I could be more taken with that woman. But she started talking, I was. She had that south Louisiana lilt to her deep voice. Not obnoxious. Not exaggerated. When she talked, you could see that she really liked herself without being arrogant. I didn’t at that time believe in “energy” – but I felt it. We made some more small talk and chatted. Got along great from the very beginning. I took the unusual step, for me, of always looking her directly in the eye. Part of that just appreciation. But another part of it was that I could not make myself believe that she was there and she was interested in me without seeing it.
For the next couple of days, we exchanged glances and smiles, made small talk.
“Hey, I’m moving to Houston next week. We’re going out tonight to celebrate. You want to come?’
I had already decided that I was gonna ask her out that day, but she beat me to it. She has a habit of doing that.
I was actually sleeping on my Dad’s sailboat in Lake Charles so I didn’t have to deal with his wife, who I hated. It was well stocked with liquor. Before we met at the agreed-upon place, I drank a half a fifth of vodka. I had been nervous.
Suddenly, I wasn’t!
It was kind of a group date at first. Then I noticed one of the girls who I had dated before was there and kept kind of giving me the eye. Ever resourceful, I leaned over to that curly-headed brunette.
“Hey, I used to date that girl and she kinda broke my heart, but I think she wants me back. Come sit next to me and let’s make her jealous.”
She let out her patented evil laugh and scooted close. Come to find out, she was as fond of mischief and as rotten as I ever thought about being. I will always love that about her. I put my arm around her for the first time and we talked and laughed and kissed and generally made everybody in the place uncomfortable.
After some more drinks, it was time to take the party mobile. She was pretty much sober, ever the responsible one. I was not. So I asked if she’d give me a ride. She agreed.
We both knew that although it had been initiated by a ruse, whatever was going on between us wasn’t just to make someone else jealous. It may have been puppy love, but we were both puppies. She’s eight days older than I am. A point I still make much use of.
Come to find out, she was running from her hometown because her boyfriend had been abusive. And she wanted a new start. I felt about two inches tall about the Band-Aid comment, but she just laughed it off.
Our conversations, even then, flip flopped between drunken frivolity and the meaning of life itself. She was curious and intelligent, although she’ll tell you she’s not. Had her own thoughts and her own ideas about things. I was a typical repressed Southern Baptist kid rebelling against my background, but ultimately tied to it at the time.
She came back to the boat that night and I did what was always my custom in those days. I got a guitar out and played her a song. “Dead Flowers” by the Rolling Stones. Nothing gets a girl’s attention like a song about shooting up heroin.
She stayed with me. No, not like that. I just held her and we talked until some obscene hour. She was as comforted by me as I was by her. I could tell.
The next day, we went to her mother’s house and got her things for the trip to Houston. I told her goodbye. She asked me if I’d come visit her there. I said I would.
I lasted five more days in Lake Charles. She asked me again to come stay with her. My car was in the shop, so I borrowed my Dad’s Mazda Miata. Those things will do almost 130 mph. I know from experience that night.
For the next several weeks, we were together whenever she wasn’t working. I’m no Casanova, but I’ve been around a few women and there has never been another one like her. All of the weirdness that is me, she either did too, agreed to or laughed at.
She was going through a rough time with all the fallout from the abusive ex. But she was curious and very insightful. She was sharp. She was funny. She puts garlic in everything.
I have never known someone as sweet. As kind. As thoughtful. It was never big gestures. It was just in the way she went about things. Matter of factly, she handled what life threw at her. She smiled a lot. And she had a bunch of them. Some were for inappropriate things I said that only she would appreciate. Some were for the times when I could be unabashedly sweet to her and the scared, defensive little boy go play while the man told her how he felt. When she was down, we talked about it – not whose fault it was She didn’t blame people for problems, she just solved them. Composed is a good word. Capable is another one.
Eventually, the summer ended. I had to make a decision. I think I blew the interview for the job I was basically set up for so that I could stay there with her. She thinks otherwise, that I just didn’t want to stay with her.
The fact comes back to insecurity and shame. I didn’t think I was good enough for her. I had to prove myself to the world and then earn her. If she knew the real me, a girl like her could never want that. I wasn’t even good enough for my folks, for god’s sake.
So I had to go back to College Station. Be an Aggie. Join the biggest fraternity in the world and be a part of the “Aggie Network.”
So that I could prove myself. To her, above all.
I didn’t have long to finish my undergraduate degree and we could keep it up long distance seeing each other on the weekends and whatnot. Lots of people do that.
She saw it otherwise. All she ever wanted was me. As I was. We’d figure it out together. When I left, she saw that as me not wanting her. A few weeks later, she ended it. Took up with a very successful older man.
But over the course of the next few years she kept calling me. Would drop by to see me occasionally. I was hurt. I felt like she was toying with me. In fact, she just had never stopped loving me. For me. Not for anything else.
I could believe that about as soon as I could believe that there was hope that someday Guns N’ Roses would get back together or the Cubs would win the World Series.
So I was cold. I was not dismissive. Hurt. Still, I couldn’t turn her down. I still loved her as much as ever.
One day she called.
“Is it more important to have money or be happy?” she asked. I knew she had a wedding planned, and I knew exactly what she was asking.
“That’s not my decision to make. You have to figure that out on your own,” was my reply.
And that, my friend, is how you create a life of regret. Don’t see value in yourself. Don’t think what you really want is possible. Don’t accept love that is freely given. Don’t tell people how you feel. Shut them out. And you, too can join the club.
Life went on, as it usually does. We’re both still alive. We’ve had differing experiences, shall we say. The magic is still there when we talk. But life is infinitely more complicated now. And chances are pretty good that friends is all it will ever be.
The line my Dad used when he was trying to convince me not to throw away the chance to get a degree from the mighty Texas A&M, was, “think about your future, son.” As in a lot of other things, he was wrong.
Well, to be fair, I was wrong. If I had thought about my future, had realized how rare she was, I’d have made a completely different decision.
Of course, I might regret that just as much. There are no guarantees. But we can only go by what we know, not what we could have known had things gone differently.
But there is a way out. And it’s not by wallowing in shame and insecurity.
Yes. I chose to shut out the one who loved me. Yes. I eventually chose one who was a lot more like my mother with a laundry list of my failings that I needed to correct and “you need tos” to complete if I wanted to earn her approval. Then, as my stepfather so artfully pointed out, had a bunch of kids with her and let her walk all over me and determine the course of my career. He said it laughing, because if it wasn’t me, I’d laugh, too. I’d be ashamed if it would do me any good, but it won’t.
So what is the answer? End shame. Admit mistakes. Learn from them. Recognize that everyone makes them.
Remember who she loved. Be that man and even more. Improve every day. Remember that the essence of character is that no one ever does anything once – unless you know yourself well enough not to make the same mistake again.
So, yes. “Think about your future,” is good advice. But while you’re thinking about it, think about who you want in it, too.