What If?

I am guilty of trying to reckon with the past. Putting myself in wishful scenarios has helped me during difficult times to balance out the injustice of an unsatisfying life. Call it daydreaming or just plain damn stupidity, but I find comfort in this thing called the “What If?” game.

I know I can’t change my childhood and all the particulars I had no control over that began to shape who I am as an adult long before I understood that it would, or could. I know even if I wanted to I can’t change things that are set in stone. My imagination can’t/won’t allow me to reinvent myself as a pretty child who was popular with my peers, loved and accepted unconditionally by my family, and change the memory I have of growing up in my dysfunctional family home. Even an imagination like mine can’t help me escape that. But it has taken me on long journeys of what my life could’ve been like if I’d chosen different paths and different relationships. There, my mind is free to wander in the land of What Ifs, and at times I’ve done so with abandon. For many years HE was a large part of that.

This morning as I linger in the memory it feels like just yesterday, but at the same time a million light years from where I am today. My aging hands that type these words betray the vision I try to hold of my youth. We were eighteen, naïve, and in love. We had our whole lives ahead of us and not a clue how wonderful it was then and how all of it would could change overnight.

I didn’t realize then that being with him would probably be the closest I’d ever come to having a normal life and being in a normal relationship. Everything about him just screamed normal: he was raised in a tight-knit Catholic family, with a beautiful, doting mother, a very involved father, who even coached his son’s baseball team, and a brother who was less than a year younger than him that was more like a twin. They lived in a small lovely Tudor in a nice neighborhood. He was popular at his high school, and got great grades. He had manners, knew how to dress and act appropriately around his elders and in situations where it was called for. Most of all, he was happy-go-lucky, and hadn’t yet ate from the cynical table of life. He had and was everything I wasn’t.

He plopped right into my life one night quite by accident. I was out partying with friends, stopped by the house of another, and he was just there. Nothing special that would set bells off. Just a drunk, eighteen year old boy, slumped down in his chair, trying to focus on a game of backgammon he was playing with another at the kitchen table; sandy brown hair in your standard feathered style of 1980, wearing a concert t-shirt, blue jeans, with a pair of orange converse on his feet. Normal; in fact, so normal that he barely got my attention and wouldn’t have if he hadn’t looked my way and spoke.

“Nice ass.” I heard him say as I was turning to walk out of the room. His voice was low, a bit husky like he was struggling and said it as an afterthought, with words that were slurred.

“Excuse me?” I asked, looking straight at him with a bit of attitude.

His buddy across the table that I was soon to learn was his best friend and named, Tim, made some wise-ass comment then about the fact I was a bleached blonde—as if that had anything to do with my ass—but this drunk boy across from him just smirked, glanced over at me, and told him he liked blondes, didn’t care how they got that way, and repeated that I sure had a nice ass. Then he looked me in the eyes. Chemistry? I don’t quite know what it was that night, but the way he looked at me—like no one had ever looked at me up to that point—caused me to blush, and I was unshockable even then.

It was as if I could feel his desire for me across the room. Of course, I played it off as if I was half amused and slightly offended, trying to sound nonchalant as I asked my girl pal who he was. It was then I learned his name was Dennis. A normal name, for a normal guy, who made me feel so incredibly un-normal.

I thought about him again last night, as I so often do. While perusing used vehicles on craigslist out of whim, I typed in 70 Roadrunner just to see what popped up. None did, so I googled it. A slew of images filled my screen, immediately taking me back to those days; days with him in his car that he loved so much. I began clicking on all the orange Roadrunners I could find, and then wondered if perhaps he had ever put any old images of his online. That was when I googled his name along with the car and found his obituary. A fresh obituary from just two weeks ago, and I wondered at the coincidence of that.

It may have been years before I’d ever run into anyone that the both of us knew that would tell me of his passing, had it not been for a peculiar desire I had on this particular night to google his name. We came from different walks of life, grew up across the river from each other in different states, and the friend we had in common that had been the link in our initial first encounter I haven’t spoken to in nearly thirty years. Nor do I have a Facebook account, participate in Twitter, or keep in touch with most people from my past. I may have never learned the truth had I not looked. Coincidence? Maybe, but I don’t believe in coincidences. In the same way I believe we are all made up of energy, and that energy reaches across distance pushing and pulling at one another, I believe those lives we touch we are linked to forever. Maybe I felt the invisible strings that bound us together, the same that has raised the question What If? over and over again in my heart and mind for so many years, finally rend. For whatever reason, I did learn the truth, and it’s left me broken inside.

To understand, I suppose you’d have to know the rest of the story. How this young man, who wasn’t particularly special at first glance, became so very special to me. At his insistence, I agreed to a date after. A double date with the girl pal of mine we had in common and her boyfriend. For him it represented possibility. For me it was just an excuse for another night to party. I didn’t know when I kissed him at the end of that date that it would not only set bells off, but train whistles, and it wouldn’t just be butterflies in my stomach I’d feel, but a whole flock of birds. I still to this day don’t know what it was about him that set him apart and made me lovesick like a giggly schoolgirl, but if it was the right pheromones we were absolutely swimming in them. From that moment we were inseparable.

Dennis and I were together for nearly a year. A magical year. Eighteen is a beautiful age to be in love; a time when you’re moving from childhood into maturity and discovering wonderful things about yourself. Dennis was there to discover them with me. I loved him. He was the first man who made me feel important and put my feelings, wants, needs, before his own. Looking back all these years later I now realize he may have been the only one. He was good to me and good for me. Much better than I’ve ever been to myself.

Yes, I loved him. My family and friends loved him. He asked me to marry him when he graduated high school. I said yes. It sounds silly now. So naïve of us at that age to believe that we could just walk out of our childhood into adulthood, and start a life together on a whim. Still, we planned on marrying, getting an apartment, and even had a name picked out for our first child: Jethro Tull. Laugh if you want, but it all seemed incredibly significant at the time. Significant even now.

I never married Dennis, as any of you that have followed my blog knows. The man I married was one who I’d dated and broken up with before I met Dennis, and who wouldn’t leave me alone after. It was his constant presence and ultimately interference that resulted in the demise of my relationship. He pronounced his undying love for me loud enough for everyone to hear, I was torn, young and naïve, couldn’t make up my mind, so Dennis eventually made it up for me. I still remember the pain on his face as he stood in my parents kitchen and said the words that sealed our fate before walking out the door. “I won’t live in his shadow.” Wise words of self-preservation for such a young man.

My mother sternly advised me to go after him, but I didn’t. I was foolhardy back then, couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and perhaps, also a bit flattered by the game between my two suitors that was being played out, and didn’t realize I was gambling with my future. So I let him go. And he went.

I tried to get him back. Almost as soon as the damage was done I started damage control. It was too late. He saw my indifference at being unable to make a choice as betrayal and he found another. I soon gave up and married the man who had promised me the sun, the moon, and the stars.

I didn’t get the sun, the moon, or the stars, but I seen some. The marriage was an abusive one, left me black and blue, and feeling hopeless, worthless, more often than not. I did receive my two oldest children from it though, so I can’t count it as a complete loss. My second marriage was different, though not much better. I married for security, not love, and with it came my third child.

I did look Dennis up once. Or rather, I had talked about the What Ifs so much that my niece looked him up for me. It was during my second marriage, my youngest was a toddler, and it had been fourteen years since we last spoke. She found him and I went to see him.

It was after dusk when I found myself standing at the bottom of his steps under the porch light waiting for him to answer the door. I hardly recognized the man in front of me that did. He had put on significant weight, at thirty-two his hair was already very thin, and he looked tired. I had to look into his eyes to see the resemblance of the boy I once loved. When I did I found it, but the spark was gone. It was as if the life had been drained out of him.

I spent an hour with him that night in his home. Two people who were once young and in love, who’d gone down different roads, now trying to reconnect and find a common thread to ease the discomfort between them. We remembered, talked of life, of choices, of sorrows. I realized that night that the boy I had loved was gone. The carefree young man, so full of life, hope, always cracking a joke with an infectious laugh, was now a bitter man, who wallowed in the anger/pain of a recent ugly divorce, speaking through gritted teeth of how much it cost him in court to just get partial custody of his son.

I sat on the floor indian-style with a beer in my hand, listening to this sad tale, and wishing I could just crawl up into his lap as I’d once been able to do and make it all better. I admit now, had he asked me to stay and never leave, I would’ve. I would’ve walked out of that loveless marriage of mine with my children in tow and never looked back. But he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t realize he could. Maybe he just didn’t want to. I left after giving him a hug at the door, holding him as close as I could for longer than I should’ve, and walked away. I promised myself after that I would leave him alone. And did.

That was almost twenty years ago, and seldom has a week passed that I don’t still think about him; about all the What Ifs. Mostly I’ve thought about looking him up again someday and seeing how he’s doing. Maybe also hoping I might find the person I was that has gotten lost in the shuffle of time and circumstances by having him help me remember. I thought I had time. I made excuses. Last night I realized time ran out. It eventually runs out for all of us.

He died on May 1st. He was 51 years old. Still young by most standards. Too young to leave this world, but he did. I cried for the loss. I cried for myself. I cried for my mortality that keeps rearing its ugly head to get my attention. My son, Jud, told me he thinks this is my wakeup call to remind me that it’s time I start to really live and be happy. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s not so much coincidence as a lost love crossing the barrier between this world and that one, whispering in the wind to remind me that I’m still important. Maybe I still am.

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