One day, there she was. We hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years. She was with her spouse. They’d been together 25 years at that point. She recognized me. I’ve been told I never really change. Just age. The lines in my face growing deeper. My hair growing more grey, and ever thinner up top. “Tom?”
I heard her voice. I stopped walking, and turned to look for who had asked my name. I saw her standing there, staring right at me. I didn’t know who she was. “Tom?” she asked again. “Is it you?”
I didn’t speak. My mind was racing through my mental archives. Searching through everyone I’d ever known. Everyone I remembered. Trying to remember people I’d long ago forgotten. She spoke as if she knew me. “Tom. It’s me. Barbara.”
I tilted my head to the side. “Barbara?” My mind searched for that name. I’d only known two people with that name in my 65 years on Earth. One in high school. One from the land of work. A land I’d exited rather suddenly.
As I stood there I remembered her. “You don’t remember me,” she said. “Do you.”
She was wrong. “I remember.” I wanted to add, “How could I forget?” I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been right. I’d come to realize in the years after my exit from the working world, I’d hurt her. I’d never meant to. But I had. It took me years to figure out what I’d done. And how my coming apart had hurt her.
I still didn’t really understand what I’d done. How what I’d done had caused so much damage. I only knew it had. I had.
“You look well,” I threw out a phrase I’d learned through the years. Something I knew people said to each other. It was a social skill I didn’t have. One I could mimic, but I couldn’t understand it. Small talk. “You look happy.”
She smiled. “It’s been a long time.”
I knew how long. I’m like that. I remember dates. Times. Events. Like the date and pretty close to the time of day I’d met my wife. The date, and time each of our children were born. Dates my mind considered important always remained in my mind. I could never forget them.
I could never forget the dates tied to her. The date she told me she was ill. The date the people at work had sent me home, forcing me out on leave. The date those same people declared I was never to talk with any of them again. For any reason. So many dates.
I remembered other dates. The one I’d told her I’d take her out on a boat, on the river, any day she asked, for as long as she wanted to go. The date I’d told her I’d send her a picture of a rose once a week until she got well. The date she’d come back to work after her first round of surgery. So many dates.
“15 years. Give or take,” I’d learned to fuzzy up the answer. I’d learned imprecision. Precision upset people. It disturbed them. Made them uncomfortable.
“How’ve you been?” She smiled as she asked. I remembered her smile. And her eyes. Both still reached right to my soul, touching my heart. I knew I could still forget everything just by looking into her eyes, seeing her smile.
She’d never understood, I knew that. No one ever had understood. Except my family. And my doctor. They knew. They understood me. They knew I loved Barbara. They knew I believed she was my friend. Someone I never wanted to hurt. Someone I would help any way I could.
Barbara never understood that kind of love. Learning I cared for her, learning I loved her scared her. She backed away. And everyone that knew both of us acted to keep her safe from me. Now, there she was. Standing an arm’s length away from me. Smiling.
I took a chance. I glanced, briefly, into her eyes. Then, I looked at her husband. I smiled at him, and extended my hand. He accepted the gesture. “Good to see you both,” I stated the greeting I’d learned over the years.
I’d promised myself I’d do one thing if I ever saw her again. I’m a lot of things. Disturbing. Disruptive. Confusing. Lost in a social environment. But I always tried to keep my word, and I’d promised myself, and God, I’d apologize to her if I ever saw her again.
I looked back at her eyes. She always had such beautiful eyes. “I’m sorry, you know.”
She just looked at me.
“I never meant to hurt you.”
I looked at him once more. “It’s been good seeing you both. I wish you well.”
With that, I smiled one last time, at her. Then I did what I had to. I turned and walked away. I knew how much I’d changed. I knew she didn’t know who I was. She only knew who I’d once been. I knew too, she’d never understand me, what I’d become, who I’d become. Part of why my time in the working world ended as badly as it did was to protect her. From me.
I wouldn’t take the chance to hurt her again. I would honor the wishes of the people I’d once known, and protect her from me.
So I turned, and walked away.