They were always, and never, a couple.
They were always coming together. To laugh. To talk about everything under the sun. To offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, when life was just too damned hard and cruel. To confide secrets they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. And once upon a time, to enter the deepest place of physical intimacy, a place that was more wonderful, and more heartbreaking, than either of them had ever imagined it could be.
But they we never staying together. They were always peeling away when the demands of family, or work, or life goals became too insistent. Or when what should have been a passing infatuation with someone else turned into something like a quicksand of stuckness, of responsibilities that could not be shirked.
Maybe this time would be different.
But how can we talk about this time without looking back at all those other times? We really must begin at the beginning.
They grew up in the same town, but in different neighborhoods. They went to the same high school, but traveled in different social circles. They might never have even spoken except for an accident of fate: their last names began with the same letter of the alphabet. This put them in the same high school homeroom, where everyone was assigned to sit in alphabetical order. Still, they could have sat at opposite ends of the room. Except that the second letter of their last names was also identical. This put them in adjacent chairs. Every day of high school, first thing in the morning, they sat one behind the other. And they talked.
And talked. They talked so much that they couldn’t fit it all into homeroom. They talked by phone after school. She asked him for help with her science and math homework. They visited one another’s homes. They stayed for dinner. Their families each accepted them as if they were already part of the extended family. Some people assumed that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They told everyone that they were just good friends. But everyone suspected it was much more than that.
He had had a crush on her from the first time he saw her. She was beautiful, energetic, and full of life. He was more reserved, intellectual, and serious. If opposites attract, then they were made for each other. He thought so. But she had other ideas.
She had kept him in the friend zone most of the time. She actually thought he was kind of cute. And he was very sweet to her. But with all the top high school athletes competing to date her, she had a galaxy of handsome young men circling around her all the time. That goes to a girl’s head like nothing else. With so many boys to choose from, why settle with any single one of them for long?
After graduation, they went to different colleges. They almost lost touch. Except when the chips were down. When they had no one else to turn to for emotional support. Then would come the midnight phone calls. The long drives from one college town to another. That’s when their emotional closeness first became physical.
He had always wanted it. She had always been open to the possibility, but shied away. She was afraid that she would hurt him. He thought he was emotionally strong enough to accept whatever consequences might follow going to bed together. She knew that he wasn’t. He was too nice, too kind, too chivalrous. She knew too many men who weren’t. She loved him as a friend, and she would die of guilt and shame if she ever hurt him.
But it happened anyway. Her boyfriend, the quarterback of the university’s champion football team, the Heisman Trophy-winning player who was guaranteed a spot in the NFL, had cheated on her. Again. And this time, he hadn’t even tried very hard to hide it. He had practically thrown it in her face. She was humiliated, devastated, and lost. She thought about killing herself.
But she called her best friend instead. He dropped everything and drove through a snowstorm to reach her. Whenever he had visited her at college before, he had always stayed with his high school buddy. This time he got a hotel room. He picked her up at her dorm and took her there. He bought her ice cream. They sat on the bed and talked into the wee hours of the morning. Exhausted, they lay down side by side. He kissed her on the lips for the first time. She felt something inside her break free, as if bands of iron around her heart had snapped. She kissed him back, over and over, with a passion that surprised them both. Their hands and bodies met in all sorts of places they never had before. No words were spoken, until at long last, she uttered those two fatal words: “Take me.”
He did. Gladly. He felt years of pent-up desire within him finally coming to the fore. But he was very inexperienced. He had only had sex a few times before, with a college girlfriend, in a relationship that seemed to have ended almost before it had begun. Now he was finally with the woman he truly loved. He was clumsy and uncertain. He loved her so much, he was afraid of disappointing her.
She didn’t care. Not at that moment. She wanted to be as close as she could possibly be with this man who had given her emotional support and sage advice since they were young teenagers; the man who had braved a snow storm to drive through the night to save her. When she had gone down to meet him outside her dorm, the snow had settled on his hat and coat in a mantle of white. He was her white knight in shining snow armor.
That was the only time they had sex. Just that once. But she got pregnant.
She didn’t tell him. She went to her ex-boyfriend, the football quarterback, and told him he was the father. She threatened to go public unless he married her. She wanted revenge. She wanted to be married to a rich, famous athlete. Growing up, her family had never had much. Now she wanted it all. The man, the money, the big house, the works. She tried to put her best high school friend, the father of the baby inside her, out of her mind.
He heard the news almost by accident, through her sister, when he was home one weekend. She asked him who he was taking to the wedding, since she naturally assumed he had been invited. He was speechless. He had to turn away before she saw his tears.
The woman he had adored for nearly a decade, who had made his dreams come true one snowy night in her college town, had gone back to her unfaithful boyfriend.
Betrayed, he burned through a jungle of emotions in the days that followed. Rage. Anger. Sorrow. Melancholy. Despair. And then, for the longest time, nothing at all. A deadness settled upon his heart, covering it deep under the ashes of emotions burned to cinders and dust. He was a dead man walking.
Then, breaking through that dead calm pile of ash like a single blade of grass, he felt something new. Determination. He was determined to live, to build a life for himself by throwing himself into school, and then into work. Not just job, or a career. A company. An industry. He set his sights on becoming as important in his field, as rich and successful, as anyone had ever been. Maybe more than anyone else had ever been.
After earning his degree in engineering with a minor in business, he moved to Silicon Valley. He worked his way up in one company after another. He proved to be adept at technological innovation, with a rare degree of business savvy. He innovated. He networked with other movers and shakers in the industry. He got recruited from one company to another. And then he started his own company and grew it into a worldwide powerhouse. Before he turned 35, he was a billionaire listed on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people on earth.
Along the way, he had dated sporadically, never sure if he wanted to marry anyone but her. Many women wanted him, but he could never be sure if they really wanted him or his money. At long last, he decided to simply choose someone who could give him children and make his house a home. He thought about his many female friends, the women he had dated at one time or another, and simply chose one to propose to. It was almost like a business merger and acquisition decision. He rated her qualities and judged her a suitable mate. They married and had three children in short order.
By the day he turned 40, he hadn’t spoken to the one woman he truly loved in a decade and a half. That’s when his phone rang and he heard her voice. “Happy birthday!” she said with the same cheery voice that he remembered from the first day he sat next to her in high school. His heart skipped a beat. His throat was so tight he couldn’t speak even though his mouth was open and his tongue was moving. He shook his head rapidly to clear out the confusion. “Thanks” was all he could say.
There was a moment of silence on the line, as if a reservoir of unspoken emotion was being held in place by a gigantic dam. The concrete of that dam was beginning to shudder and crack. Then the dam burst. “I’m sorry” she said, and began to sob. He burst into tears. “I am too. But I don’t know why” he said.
Then the words flowed from both of them as if the intervening years had never happened. They spoke of their feelings about everything that had happened. They talked about their lives and their families. She had only the one child, a son, who was very bright and was studying engineering in college. His three children were much younger. Almost nothing was said about the people they had chosen to marry, except that the marriages continued to lumber along like dinosaurs that expected extinction to come along at any moment. She didn’t tell him that her son was his child.
The call went on and on, as afternoon turned to evening and evening into night. He had to use another phone to tell his wife that something had come up at work at he would be home late.
Eventually, the call had to end. Each one waited for the other to say something, to make a move, to give a sign, that this preternaturally prolonged phone call was more than a one-off event. He spoke the fatal words: “When can I see you?”
Her heart fluttered like a bird in a cage seeing the cage door open for the first time in years. She had been praying to hear those words from him. They discussed their different schedules and soon found an opening when they could meet. The date was set for the following month. The place would be San Francisco. She would fly in from Texas.
He had never cheated on his wife before. He was surprised that he felt so little reluctance to do it now. In fact, he had the weird feeling that being with his wife had been cheating, while meeting the love of his life again after so many years was the honorable thing to do.
The hours and days that followed until their fateful meeting seemed to drag on with excruciating slowness. When the day finally came, he drove north from his home in Atherton to the city of San Francisco. He had reserved a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
She had already checked in by the time he arrived at noon. He went to the room and knocked. She opened the door. They embraced, but did not kiss. It was too soon for that. He ordered champagne and a light meal from room service. He showed her photos of his children and his wife. She made approving comments. Then she showed him a photo of her only child. As soon as he saw the young man, he noticed that the boy did not look anything at all like his athlete father, but he said nothing.
They drank champagne and nibbled on delicious food as they talked. Whenever there was a moment of silence, they gazed out the windows that overlooked the city and the bay. He suggested they take a walk. San Francisco is a very walkable city. They strolled for hours, and eventually found themselves in Chinatown. Wandering into one of the many shops that catered to the tourist trade, they came under the gaze of an old Chinese woman sitting at the back of the shop. She looked as ancient as the hills. The elderly woman spoke to a young girl in Chinese. The young girl approached them and spoke in English. “My grandma wants to talk to you.”