“What I Would Say Now” by Patty Somlo

At first, I fast-forward in silence. Faces of men and women, their hair mostly white or gray, are blurred because of the speed with which I’m moving the mouse, pressed against my computer screen. I am searching for a familiar face, one I haven’t seen in years. These wavy images are all strangers.

Suddenly, I think I’ve found him. I stop and stare. Could that really be him? If I ran into this man at a party, would I believe he was the guy I once knew?

I move the tiny black dot on the solid line underneath the image, trying not to go too far, back to one of those definitely unknown faces. Backwards and forwards I go, never able to hit the exact spot.

And then, I am there.

As much as I would like to think this face must belong to someone else, the longer I watch the video, still with the sound turned off, I can’t escape what my gut is telling me. This is him. The years, I have to conclude, haven’t been especially kind.

Several days pass before I am ready. When I think I am, I find the place on the video where a tall, gray-haired man wearing glasses arrives at the podium and starts the introduction. The man says S’s name, and proceeds to offer some biographical details. Interestingly, the MC pronounces S’s first name differently than I used to say it. I remember that a mutual friend once revealed that S was going by a slightly altered version of his name. She wasn’t sure why.

If the introduction didn’t convince me that this was no one other than S, I suddenly catch what I hadn’t noticed before, when I fast-forwarded the tape. S’s name now appears on the screen, in large, blocky white letters.

The introduction has concluded and S begins to make his way up to the stage. Here is something else I hadn’t previously noticed. S moves as if he were wading through waist-deep water. Watching, I see that there’s some sort of dark object on his left side. I rewind now, to study this segment a second time. He is, I can see now, using a black cane to help himself walk. Even with the cane, he’s barely closing the distance to the stage.

As he walks, I consider the back of his head. His once-black hair has faded to a dark shade of dusty gray. That hair, a thick and wild crown of adorable curls, has grown sparse. There’s even a balding spot at the back I can’t ignore.

Finally, he is on the stage, facing a thin black microphone. The hair has thinned in front. As he speaks, I keep trying to superimpose the face I remember on top of this one, but it’s impossible. Something about the way his mouth moves makes S look as if he is fighting back the need to cry.

To claim that S and I had a difficult relationship doesn’t say much. I had been warned by a mutual friend that getting too close to S was to be avoided. Unfortunately, like many women who stumbled into too-close range, I easily fell under S’s spell. At the time, I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

From the start, I loved drinking him in, like taking the first gulps of a rootbeer float on a scorching day. First off, he had that hair, black as a night without stars. Those fat childish curls bounced when he walked. He had large dark eyes that appeared from a distance to be black, but close-up were brown, high cheekbones, and skin the shade of a perfectly roasted marshmallow. I shouldn’t forget that smile. Gap-toothed, the smile, coupled with those curls, made women believe S was sweet, and harmless as a child.

I was in my late twenties, coming out of a several-year relationship with a kind, creative and funny man I liked but didn’t love. We were pals, but not passionate lovers. They say when you meet someone on the rebound, that person often has the qualities your previous partner lacked. I barely knew S the first time we made love. He was my friend’s roommate, and we happened to end up in bed together one night. I’d drunk one too many glasses of sour red wine and had no idea if anything would happen with S after this reckless act.

But it did. That spring and into the summer, S and I were like two parallel streams following the melting of a winter’s deep snow, that suddenly start to flow together as one. The details of that time are hazy in my mind. I remember most clearly the mornings we jogged side by side in Golden Gate Park, the wondrous greenspace that stretches for blocks, nearly to the ocean, in the city of San Francisco, where S and I lived at the time. Our favorite place to run was around Stow Lake. At that time of the morning, a low, haunting mist hung a whisper above the water, which seemed both mysterious and romantic. This might have been a projection of my feelings for S, but the atmosphere added to the attraction.

A few months into the relationship, I discovered I wasn’t the only woman in S’s heart. In fact, as I would later understand, another woman had shimmied into his thoughts several years before I did and had been there ever since. 

I had just gotten into his dark green sports car, idling in front of the building where I shared a second-floor flat with my old high school friend, Ken. S had honked moments before, and I’d jogged down the concrete steps out front, looking forward to seeing him. He didn’t turn in my direction after I shut the car door and neglected to even say hello.

“Are you all right?” I asked, my hand pressing the top of his right arm.

Slowly, the story unraveled, about a woman named Karen, who I had never heard of or met. Not long before he left his flat to pick me up, Karen had called. The story came out in halting pieces that cold, misty night. Our warm breath quickly caused the windshield to fog. Condensation blocked any view we might have had, but S and I kept looking forward regardless.

He’d had an affair with Karen the previous summer, while interning at her husband’s Boston law office. S was even living with Karen and her husband at the time. He begged Karen to get a divorce and join him on the West Coast but she’d refused. At the same time, she also refused to give S up.

Before S finished telling me the story, he started to cry. I circled my arms around him and held on. A few minutes later, I let him go, and opened the car door. Before stepping out, I said, “I don’t have much appetite now. Let’s forget about dinner tonight.”

I closed the door, walked to the concrete steps, jogged back upstairs, and went inside.

Foolishly, I didn’t tell S I was done. Somehow, the relationship went on. I watched him and wondered when he would leave me for Karen or some other woman. I couldn’t help but assume that Karen was more attractive than me, with long, thick hair, as opposed to my fine locks, or a better body. She deserved to have a man as attractive, emotionally intense and interesting as S, in love with her, to the point that her absence made him sob.

A few months after I learned about Karen, S announced that he would be leaving soon, moving back to his former hometown of Seattle. In all the reasons he outlined to justify the move, and the handful of plans he’d made, S never said a word about me. Weeks later, when I finally dared ask, he said, “I’m not ready to live with you now.”

And yet, he showed up one day, outside a Japanese restaurant where I’d gone to return platters borrowed for a volunteer dinner at my office. There he was, having flown from Seattle just that afternoon. He’d come after I put an end to our long-distance, unsatisfactory relationship over the phone, the previous night. He’d come to San Francisco without a bit of warning, claiming to have changed his mind. S wanted me to live with him now, the same way he’d once wanted Karen.

I should have said no, understanding that minds don’t change overnight. When I heard S say he loved me and wanted us to live together, words I imagined he’d said to Karen, whatever resistance I’d built up against him fell apart.

Almost as quickly as S changed his mind, I revised my plans. The following week, I gave a month’s notice at my job, the job I loved. I collected empty cardboard boxes and started filling them up, mostly with books, since I didn’t have a whole lot besides. My plan was to ship the boxes by UPS before I left, and fly to Seattle with a few suitcases and my bike.

The day the boxes were all packed, a letter arrived.

I’m having doubts, S wrote.

My throat went dry. I felt the room spinning, as if I’d had one too many glasses of wine.

I’m having doubts.

I read those first three words again, to make sure I’d read them right. Then I went on to finish reading the sentence — about our living together. 

I was too stunned to cry. It was as if someone had knocked me over the head with a two-by-four, leaving me temporarily numb. How could that sentence exist in my life? How was it possible for those words to have arrived on a small sheet of white paper now? The boxes were packed and stacked against the wall next to two almost full suitcases. My replacement at work had been hired and I had started training her. Worst of all, I had told all my friends and colleagues that I was moving to Seattle to live with S, including friends who’d never trusted him and warned me to end the relationship months before.

It was too late to go back to the moments prior to my opening that letter and reading the words, I’m having doubts. I knew I should take a deep breath, face my friends and say, “I was wrong.” I knew I should cancel my flight, unpack the boxes and start to look for a job, glad, at least, to be staying in San Francisco, a city I loved.

Instead, I pretended that I had always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest, as if moving to a city known for constant rain was my deepest desire.

To say the move into a tiny studio apartment with barely enough room to walk, sharing a double bed with a man who didn’t want me there, didn’t go well, would be an understatement. The skies were perpetually gray, dropping a light misty rain nearly every day, making me feel that I’d reached the dead-end of my life. S and I were lovers sometimes, and sometimes not. At the end of the summer when the woman S had sublet the studio from returned, S and I moved to a bigger apartment. This one had a view of the Space Needle and silvery Puget Sound. 

By Thanksgiving, I was ready to move on. S followed me out to my friend’s car, in which I had already packed my suitcases and boxes. He carried two plants I’d planned to leave behind, claiming they were mine. He was crying, but this time I couldn’t be fooled. S always wanted me at the last minute, once I’d become unavailable. I didn’t know the roots of this problem, but I understood his tears had nothing to do with me.

***

Even though days have passed since I watched the video of S reading from one of his poems, I can’t seem to get the image of him, older, with thinning hair and some extra pounds, and something about his speech being a bit off, out of my mind. Years have passed since we last spoke or I had any feelings for him. Thanks to therapy, my own part in that drama, stemming from a loveless childhood, has been studied and grieved, and long understood.

Yet I remain intrigued about the feeling that has come over me on seeing this man who — there is no other way to say it – I once idolized.

In many ways, my crush on S, or obsession, was similar to how I once felt about the late actor, Omar Shariff, in the movie, Dr. Zhivago. I was in high school, daydreaming about meeting Shariff, and of course, having him fall flat on his face in love with me. I remember later seeing photographs of Shariff, grayed and not the same, and feeling like I had lost something precious in my life.

But with S there was something more. I had put him above me, mostly because of his beauty. More than attractive, he looked unique, not exactly handsome or cute, but with looks hovering someplace in between. Even in the early days of our relationship, I knew women adored him. He often flirted with the waitress when we went out for dinner or a drink. I recall one evening after I’d moved to Seattle, when an attractive server, with long, straight blonde hair, slipped him a piece of paper, right before we left the restaurant. I assumed the note contained her name and number.

It made sense to me that a man like S, who could probably have had any woman he wanted, wouldn’t be satisfied with me. So it’s a jolt to realize that he’s human, not a god who will forever remain young, with those thick dark curls, sweet smile, and toned runner’s body. He has fallen down from his pedestal, and appears to need a cane to help him walk. I find myself relieved, after all this time.

Years after I set those boxes of books in my friend’s car and rode across town to a house I planned to share with another woman, I learned that S had gotten married. That same fall, I met the man who would become my husband. From Richard, I learned how it felt to be loved, as opposed to putting up with however a man deigned to treat me, hoping I wouldn’t be abandoned. Later, I heard that S had gotten divorced. I, however, remained with the man who, after more than two and a half decades, has become my life. 

I wonder now that S has become old, if he is also alone. What a cruel joke that would be, for the man who once played women like a virtuoso.

I freeze the video at a place where S has raised his head and is looking out at the audience. In the days when I climbed the dark carpeted stairs of a majestic Victorian on Union Street in San Francisco, to sit across from my therapist, Annie, and talk quietly and occasionally cry, I became accustomed to taking my life apart, peeling back layers of denial, until I finally reached the throbbing core. If I were still sitting across from Annie in that comfortable, pale gray leather chair, I wonder what I would say now. 

As I consider where to start, I realize that all this time I have kept my lens focused on S and how he has changed. What I haven’t yet thought about is that I am not the woman I was when I knew him. The woman I have become would never idolize a man who acted as if he could throw me away one day, then come back the following day and beg me to return, and I would agree.  

I turn off the computer but S’s image stays with me for several days. It is like what happens when I watch a powerfully emotional movie or read the final pages of a novel I’ve been engrossed in for days. I am reminded how each of us plays a part in our lives, dressing up and showing a certain face to the world. But it is just a part. When the curtain falls and the makeup comes off, the actor becomes unrecognizable, from every other forgotten face one passes in a crowd.


Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a small Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were also Finalists in several book contests. She has published widely in literary journals and anthologies, received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. http://www.pattysomlo.com.