General Fiction posted January 3, 2019

This work has reached the exceptional level
On roads not taken - then and now

Friend Request

by Mark Valentine

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
  • From “The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.

Dear Katie,

I got your friend request on Facebook yesterday. I can’t imagine what Proustian madeleine might have brought me back into your memory after all this time. I’m surprised you even remembered my name, let alone thought enough of me to look me up on Facebook. Whatever the impetus, I was excited to see your name.

I have often wondered what your story has been these past twenty years. Did you end up marrying Brian? Did you have kids? Were you happy? Are you still?

Speaking of stories, your request reminded me of that Robert Frost poem – the one about the roads that diverge. It talks about how our stories are defined by the roads we took, and how it is only in retrospect that we identify those forks in the road that might have resulted in different stories.

It’s been twenty years now since our roads diverged. I have often imagined what stories I might now be telling had that divergence not occurred. I’m guessing you don’t entertain similar fantasies, for I was never as major a character in your narrative as you were in mine.

We were co-workers who came to be friends. You looked like an angel and had a kindness to match. I’m guessing this won’t come as a surprise to you, but I was madly in love with you about five minutes after I met you. No matter. You were, as they say, out of my league. Besides, you had a boyfriend back in Cleveland -- Brian. So, I kept my feelings to myself and considered myself lucky just to be your friend.

Though I knew I had no chance with you, I must admit, I let a spark of hope flicker inside me when you began to tell me that you and Brian were breaking up. I pretended to be just a shoulder to cry on, but oh, the places my mind went when your head was on that shoulder. The more you confided in me, the closer I felt to you, and the closer I felt, the more the spark grew into a flame.

And that brings us to the place in the road that is a fork from my perspective and, I’m guessing, a non-event from yours. Do you remember? Having dated Brian for over three years, the idea of getting back into the mingling and dating scene after your break-up scared you and so, being the good friend I was, I offered to take you on a “practice date”. I would critique your performance and offer tips that would increase your comfort level when you were ready to go on real dates.

Our practice date was scheduled for Friday after work. There have been Broadway plays that had less thought and choreography put into them than I put into that practice date. I had rehearsed every scene of that date right up to the happy ending where we kissed.

But alas, fate had a different ending in mind. More along the lines of Casablanca, with you playing the Ingrid Bergman role, while I, like Bogey, stayed behind and watched the plane carry you away from me.

Brian called you on Wednesday night of that week. He wanted you to fly back to Cleveland that weekend to see if you could work things out. We went out for beers after work on Thursday and you decided that you wouldn’t go. It was over. I supported your decision. “I think that’s the sensible thing to do – you deserve better”, I said calmly and soberly. Inside, I was celebrating like the Cubs just won the World Series. We were now less than 24 hours away from the curtain going up on "Practice Date: The new romantic play that is sure to be the hit of the season!

But somewhere between Thursday night and Friday morning you changed your mind. And, given that I had no Friday plans now that our practice date was off, you asked me for that favor which is reserved for only the innermost circle of friends -- a ride to the airport.

It was summer. You were wearing blue jeans and a peasant blouse. Again, I’m sure you don’t remember these details, but they’re seared into my memory.

What I don’t remember is what we talked about in the car on the way to Midway Airport. My mind was too preoccupied on what I wanted to say to pay attention to whatever meaningless words I actually did say.

What I wanted to say was “Don’t get on the plane! Stay here with me because I’m in love with you!” But, like Bogey, I kept those words in and watched you get on the plane. I might have even muttered a soft, “Here’s looking at you, kid” as the plane took off.

Once you were irretrievably gone, I went home to an empty apartment, Not the night I had imagined. Among the picnic supplies I had in the trunk of my 1989 Honda Civic in anticipation of our practice date, was a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It didn’t go to waste. I drank it all, bought another one, and drank that too. Lamenting the road not taken.

In case you’re wondering about that road, here’s what I had planned for us that night:

I would have given you a single rose at the beginning of our “date”. Well, it really wouldn’t have been me giving you the rose, but the character I assumed as your pretend date. Roses on first dates are not really my style, but some guys do that sort of thing and so, as part of my tutoring, we would have practiced how to gracefully accept the gesture. Be polite, while not conveying so much gratitude as to make you seem indebted. To maintain the proper cautious first-date stance, I would have insisted that you not kiss me, not even on the cheek, at the beginning of the date. Pacing is important. Oh, I had this all planned out, all right.

We would have started with dinner at La Hacienda de los Gutierrez, the best Mexican restaurant in town, even though it is virtually unknown to the hip Chicago Magazine set. We’d get a table near the fountain at the center of the restaurant (I had called ahead to reserve it). You’d be impressed by my fluency in Spanish when I talked to the waiters. At some point the mariachi band would play “Usted”:

Usted me desespera 
Me mata, me enloquece 
Y hasta la vida diera por vencer el miedo 
De besarla a usted

I would sing along and you, not knowing Spanish, would have no idea how heartfelt those words were – You make me despair. You kill me, you drive me crazy, and I would go so far as to give my very life, if I could but overcome this fear of kissing you.

And then, as night was falling, we would have driven down to 57th Street Beach for a picnic. Oh, they might close the beaches on the north side at night, but cops on the south side have better things to do. I would have set up the lounge chairs so that the warm summer waves hit our bare feet. In between our chairs I would have placed a cooler with the aforementioned Pinot Grigio and some cheese and crackers.

Alongside our chairs I would have had a beach umbrella adorned with miniature lights, and underneath that umbrella a cassette player with a mix tape I had made just for that night. This was my ‘A’ game. So that you wouldn’t think I was trying too hard, I would remind you that I was assuming the role of a fictional first date, and further explain that this particular practice date was for the purpose of showing you what an all-out romance assault looked like… you know, so that you’d be prepared to resist it when the time came. I would suggest that we do some more practice dates in the future so you could see what less romantic guys might offer.

I’d ask you about yourself, your interests, your background, your hopes and dreams. Of course, I already knew the answers to those questions from our previous conversations, but I’d want you to know what it should feel like to be with someone who was genuinely interested in you in a way that Brian was not.

Did I mention that there was a full moon that night, and that is was scheduled to rise over Lake Michigan at 9:47? I’d let the beauty wash over you for a little bit, and then, around 10:05, I would suggest that we dance – after all we had the whole beach to ourselves, because, what kind of idiot goes to the beach at night?

I’d put on the mix tape. Ray Charles would be singing:                                                    
No you don't know the one
Who dreams of you at night
And longs to kiss your lips
Longs to hold you tight
Oh I am just a friend
That's all I've ever been
Cause you don't know me

As we danced slowly, I would have remarked on the beauty of the beach at night – the Chicago skyline in the distance, the waves, the umbrella lights, the full moon. And then I would have looked into your eyes and stated the obvious – that none of those things were the most beautiful thing on the 57th Street Beach that night. I would have made sure you knew what an idiot Brian was for not dropping to his knees every night to thank God that you were his girlfriend. I would have commented on your kindness, your intelligence, the beauty of your soul. And I would have broken character as I said this so that you knew it was coming from me and not from my pretend-date alter ego.

And then, I would have kissed you. I don’t know this for sure, but I like to think that you wouldn’t have stopped me. I’ve played that scene in my mind a thousand times and you always kiss me back. Funny how the stories we tell ourselves tend to have happy endings. The power of editorial control.

So anyway, that’s how the road not taken would have looked at the very beginning. Who knows where it might have led from there. I wonder about that sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, the future that I lived, the one that is now my past, was fine. Still is. I’m married and have three wonderful children. But still, one can’t help but wonder about the greener grass of alternate realities.

And now our roads have converged again. Here. In this reality. So, where do we go from here? Your Facebook profile doesn’t mention your marital status, but it says that you’re living in Chicago. When did that happen? And what prompted your move back here – a divorce perhaps? Should I suggest that we meet? Does this social media encounter represent another fork in the road? Are there two disparate and unknown futures that each have this moment as their starting place? What stories shall we be telling with a sigh ages and ages hence as a result of the decisions we make today?

So many unanswered questions. I ponder on them for just a moment before taking my fate into my own hands for a change.

I decide that, as much as I’m tempted, I’m going to leave those questions unanswered and stay on the road that I know. It’s the right thing to do. There are no other factors that need enter the equation.

And so, I’ll read this reply to your friend request a couple of times. I’ll wallow in it a bit, and then delete it without sending it. I hope you won’t mind my non-response, nor think me rude, but some things are better left to the imagination.

Here’s looking at you, kid. I believe there’s a bottle of Pinot Grigio waiting for me in the fridge.

Story of the Month contest entry


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