I have this fantasy about my old boyfriend – the guy I dated just before I got sucked into the cocaine-infused, alcohol-drenched political whirlwind of Washington, D.C. We are in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, surrounded by toxic-tinted green and orange Jell-o and stacks of bright yellow butter boxes.
Don’t worry. It’s not one of those butter and Jell-o fantasies. I wouldn’t share it, if it were.
No. We’re just standing there, leaning our elbows on our shopping carts.
I say, “Do you have a minute?”
He says somewhat dubiously, “Yes.”
Then I apologize for being such a bitch back in the day. I’ve had this fantasy for twenty-five years. A quarter of a century.
This meeting happens in reality every year or so – not the apology part, just the part where we run into each other at the community grocery coop – we live in the same town. We’ve met amidst the Jell-0, but more often by the cat food. We exchange pleasantries, and he tells me about his kids.
I always feel like there’s this huge chasm of unspokenness between us, but I never place any meaningful words into it. He asks how many cats I have now. I say “two.”
Every time I see him I think say it, just say it, but I never do.
This fellow and I were an item for two or three years back in college. I was very fond of him – nicest guy you would ever want to meet. I was a bit older and more experienced than he was and spent considerable time trying to untie his mother’s apron strings.
After a while the challenge wore off, and I was bored. No drama, no tears, no excitement. Just a quiet, stable relationship. We read a lot, played Scrabble.
I graduated and made my way into the big world while he continued his studies to become a librarian archivist (a perfect job for him). I went to work on Capitol Hill and met congressmen and senators and hung out with heavy-drinking lobbyists and attended oh-so-important press conferences and oh-so-sophisticated political fundraisers.
Then he became even more boring.
About this time, he asked me to marry him. I panicked and pretended he was joking. I laughed uproariously, and then he laughed. And then I had a decision to make because the question still hung in our mirthless laughter.
“Think I should marry him, Mom?”
“He’s a very nice boy, Melanie, always sacrificing himself for other people. He is the kind of person who would bring his aging parents to live with him. I’m not sure you would be happy with that,” Mom said.
She knew her daughter, and she knew what she was talking about. Mom had sacrificed much of her freedom when my grandmother moved in with her.
I asked my roommate, an old high school friend. He put it more bluntly. “You would be bored, Mel.”
They were right. I dumped my boyfriend unceremoniously. The guy was just too “good” for me, in the truest sense of the word. I had a lot of partying to do and a lot of ego to feed, and he did not fit into my plans.
I don’t have many big regrets in my life. But the way I treated him is at the top of my list.
By regret, I don’t mean I feel I should have married him.
God, no; I would have made him miserable. I had so much screwing up to do before I opted for sanity.
God has been gracious in the intervening years, allowing me all the rope I needed to hang myself. Dangling there at the end of my rope, I learned something about humility. All the screwing up, every bad choice, has helped me to grow up and see myself more clearly.
Problem is, when you begin to see more clearly, you can’t help but notice the wreckage you’ve left in your wake. That college relationship — which had I been kind, might have been a pleasant memory — is a mangled mass of shame, guilt, and regret.
Freedom in the Ho-Hos
Still, I could never bring myself to say those simple words.
Until last night.
We met in the Obesity Aisle next to the Hostess products, and the cloying smell of yellow plastic icing with hard white swirls was almost overpowering. We smiled as we rattled our carts towards each other.
I didn’t think about it. My heart wasn’t racing, and there weren’t words crashing into each other in my head. I just said:
“Do you have a minute?”
He nodded, looking curious but also as if he wanted to bolt.
“I treated you like shit many moons ago, and I just wanted you to know I’m sorry. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life, the way I treated you in all my dysfunction. I was a mess, and I’m sorry.”
“Well,” he stammered, “I don’t even remember it like that. But we were all a mess.”
“Yes, and I wanted you to be more of a mess than you were. Thank you for being kind to me.”
Then he started talking about his kids, and how one of them was “having issues.”
And it was over. I had done it.
In my fantasies, I never even considered the “after” part.
I don’t know how he felt. But I felt immediately – immediately – lighter, as if I had dumped several shopping carts full of shame back by the Ho-Hos and cupcakes.
I can’t believe it took me so long.
So there you have it. A simple story; no big deal.
But if you’re carrying any of that shame crap around, you know that it is a big deal. I hope you’ll learn from my experience and make amends.
Read more about shame crap here