Rekindle: v. To reignite, to rearouse, to reinspire.
I don’t know why I was surprised she looked older – after all, it had been 15 years and I supposed I looked older too. She had put on a few pounds, perhaps one dress size – she had been an eight – and there were a few more grey hairs mixed with the blond and the tinted highlights. But the biggest change was in her eyes. Those glorious cobalt blue eyes that had once adored me – they were icy now.
I stood when I saw her, trying desperately to catch the breath that I had lost as she walked into the coffee shop. I knew then that I still loved her. The hug that she permitted was perfunctory, not at all what I had hoped for, and I began – lamely. “How are you?”
“How are you?” Her voice was icy, too. “You fly half-way across the Pacific and the best you can do is ‘how are you’? That’s pathetic. What do you want, Richard?”
“I want to talk to you, to apologize to you, to try to put it right.”
“You could have done all that fifteen years ago, when you walked away from me. What could you possibly say now that you couldn’t have said then?”
Definitely not what I had hoped for when I sent her an e-mail three days before: ‘My life has uncomplicated. Would you consider sharing it with me?’ and she had e-mailed back, two days later: ‘Maybe.’ I took that as a ‘yes’ and caught the first flight to Maui. That gave me just under six hours to write, rewrite, edit and rehearse, over and over, the speech that I had been composing in my head for the last six months. Now I wasn’t sure if it would be welcome.
“I want to tell you what happened … and why I walked away … and I’m hoping that you’ll forgive me. Please, Miriam, I’ve got to tell you.”
“So tell me … but let me warn you. I don’t want to hear any ‘get-it-off-your-chest’ confession that leaves you feeling so much better and dumps the guilt on me. I spent too many miserable nights crying to start all over again. How did you find me, by the way?”
“I’ve been Googling you … your work at the University is pretty impressive. I think about you a lot; hardly a day goes by that I don’t fantasize over what our lives would have been if I had left Janet and gone with you fifteen years ago.”
“Give me a break.” She rolled her eyes, but I thought I saw the first sheen of a thaw. Maybe it was just pandoric hope – wishful thinking in the original Greek.
I pressed my palms down on the table that separated us, trying to keep from fidgeting. She hated my fidgeting. “OK, Miriam … here it is. Fifteen years ago I did a terrible thing, and I betrayed three people in the process. I betrayed myself … my own personal code; something that up to then I had always thought was pretty inviolable. I betrayed Janet when I cheated and lied to her. And I betrayed you … I seduced you with a promise that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t keep, and I excused it by saying that my life was ‘complicated’ … and for that I will be eternally sorry.”
“Well, at least you never tried to hide that you were married.” Was the sarcasm a little less pronounced?
I took a sip of the coffee that had by now gone cold and just slightly bitter, and a deep breath, and it suddenly struck me how noisy this place was. I hadn’t heard a thing since she had walked in except my own lame words and her chilly responses, and now, all of a sudden, the surroundings came roaring back. The pressure of that sound squeezed my next words out of some deep place where they had been waiting for years.
“But while we were seeing each other, I fell in love three times. I fell in love with you, of course. I never told you that, but I did, and I still do. And then I fell back in love with myself. Before I met you I had lost respect for myself … I had become convinced that I was a lousy husband, and a lousy lover, and an insensitive jerk, and I couldn’t get it back. And then I met you and you loved me. You loved me so completely and unconditionally … even though I was married and with all my other baggage … that you renovated me, you restored my faith in myself. And somehow that gave me the courage to open up to Janet about the issues that were driving us apart … and she responded … and we began to remember why we loved each other in the first place … and in the end I fell in love with her all over again.”
I searched her body language for clues – the way I would have watched a jury to see if I was being persuasive, to assess which of my arguments, if any, were resonating. But there was nothing, so I went on. “Even then … I still loved you, and I wanted to keep on loving you, but if I was going to be able to respect myself again, I had to respect the vows and the commitment I had made with Janet. And that’s why I had to let us go.”
For the longest time she just sat there rigid, unmoving, looking at me and through me and around me. Her gaze seemed to split when it reached my face, and it bent around my head the way light from a distant star bends around the gravity well of the sun. I reached for her hand across the table, but she pulled it back just out of reach.
“Why now? What’s become ‘uncomplicated’ in your life?”
“Janet died – it’s been a little over a year ago now.” I waited. No sympathy. “And for the last six months I’ve let myself think about us … you and me. But I agonized over whether or not to try to contact you … I was so afraid that you despised me and I was so afraid that I’d hurt you again. Then, two days ago, I had to do it. Miriam, if you’ll give me a chance … I know I can make you happy with me again.”
It may have been the light – the sun was just behind a palm tree in the parking lot and sunlight flashed across her face as the breezes stirred the fronds – but I could swear I could see the battle going on behind those eyes. They shaded from ice-blue to a softer baby-blue to an anger-tinged violet to – to what? I was still trying to read her when she abruptly and obviously came to a decision.
She unlocked the rigidity, leaned forward and slapped me. Hard. “That’s for walking out on me fifteen years ago.” Then she hit me again. Even harder. “And that’s for not calling me a year ago.”