Many believe before we die our lives pass before our eyes. This may be true, but the proof hides behind a catch 22: doubters must die or come near to death to test this claim. Certainly, if you really want to recount your life, you don’t always have to arrive at death’s door. Have no fear doubters, I recently found there is one question that kick-starts a flood of memories.
Our first dates were in New Brunswick, Hopewell, and Somerville, New Jersey. In New Brunswick she joined me for a late dinner after we, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, performed a concert at the State Theater. We ate burgers in my Landrover because I had no place to safely put my contrabass if we went to regular restaurant; On date two, we visited arts and crafts boutiques and antique shops as we walked the streets of Hopewell. We even found a moment to hold hands for the first time. In Somerville, on a Friday evening in June, we toured pass the vintage cars on the main drag. We were, in fact, getting closer. Both single, two plus years from divorces, we too, were predictable: date one, awkward and forced; date two less so, and date three evolved to: “this is getting interesting.” None of the dates had culminated in sex, which was fine. We had a different kind of intimacy born from the sting of recent divorces and certainty of surviving to a fourth date. The Question came on the fourth date.
For the fourth date, we chose Princeton — dinner at a Taste of Mexico on the main drag and a one man play called Mandela at McCarter Theater.
I don’t know how she came to her question. Seeing a wedding party in front of St. Paul’s Church might have prompted it. We parked near the church, and as we got out of the car the church bells rang.
It’s an odd sensation, two divorcees having seen the darker side of marriage passing by these youngish newlyweds, mid twenties I think. Would they end up like us one day? Or, will we try to end up like them, again? Yes, this might have given rise to her question. I noticed her staring at the dark haired couple and eventually looking at me to see my reaction to them.
“Look at that limo. That must be where they are having the reception,” was all I offered.
Arriving at a Taste of Mexico, a thin girl with flat black hair parted down the middle of her head told us the wait was about 10 minutes. A Taste of Mexico is just that. As a native of Texas, it comes closest to what I remember of the Mexican food there. The restaurant is smallish, but worth the wait. We both nodded, stepped aside, and began our wait.
“Nathan,” Jessie looked up at me, hazel eyes sincere and purposeful. She is beautiful. Her looping, tight curly hair framing her almond shaped face and neck. I wondered in that moment how someone could divorce such beauty. Of course, there is much more to relationships, but I would hazard a guess that looks, for some, will help stave off a few visits to the divorce attorney for a while. “What’s your greatest regret?”
“What?” I pretended not to hear her.
“What’s your greatest regret?”
Now, I am not a dumb man. I suspected such a question would come, but not after three dates. Usually, the question comes when we are most vulnerable, you know: we when we are about to make love or something like that. This is not the case; while I, like most, have many regrets, I was not ready to catalogue them while waiting to order a chicken burrito. I needed to stall. The first tactic I thought of was to answer a question with a question. Something like, “Wow, what an interesting question. What’s your greatest regret?” I didn’t say it because I knew it would not work; she was too smart for that. She was an archivist at one of Princeton’s libraries; she deals with smarty-pants people all the time. She is incredibly observant. She would just toss the question back to me, like the loaded grenade it is. Plus, this witty and vivacious soul might have taken me for superficial. I am not; I just know the danger of this pus-filled question before me
I could have gone to the restroom, but we are waiting to be seated — tacky and too obvious.
“I can seat you now.” The young lady might as well have said “Hi Nathan, I can offer you more time, but Jessie really wants an answer.”
We followed her to a table in the far corner, facing the door.
“I bet she’s a Government Affairs major at Princeton.” Jessie said.
“Have you seen her on campus?”
“No, but she has a tattoo on her wrist that says ’we are one’. I am guessing she has money, but took this job to be around the workers who have had less. Did you see her shoes?”
“Not really, no”
“They’re Jimmy Choo’s — such shoes aren’t usually worn by people waiting tables to get extra cash for school, and I figure most Princeton students who would permanently display their personal philosophy to the world are committed to seeing it through, and a lot of these students wind up in Government Affairs.”
“Or philosophy.” At this point I was starting to wonder if she’d forgotten her question. This way I would not have to tell her about how I regret stealing a dollar sack of Cowboys and Indians from Westbrook’s store when I was about six years old. I felt so guilty about it I never played with them. Likewise, I would not have to share that I really regret shooting a blue jay with a BB gun. It was just sitting on the clothes line, minding its own business and zip, it wildly fluttered to the ground. I got over to the bird just in time to see it die. I hated myself in that moment. Tearfully, I buried it where it fell.
“Yes, but a student looking to make a difference would go into the government more so than philosophy. Philosophy is too, well, philosophical. You can influence the world with philosophy, but it takes ages for most to align with the philosophical concepts. Think Kant’s Categorical Imperative or doing unto others…Marvelous concepts that we still can’t seem to get right, if at all.”
“What about, mm, Theology?” That made me think of how I regret not paying attention in Sunday school. I was certain I had missed the big connection between the old and new Testaments where God went from being harsh and vengeful to forgiving and loving.
“Possibly, but it is closer to philosophy, wouldn’t you say? Unless she’s a regular at UUCP, she probably sees most religions as too divisive.” Jessie countered.
“The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, off 206, a nice walk from here.”
“Are you ready to order?” Our hostess was doing double duty. We ordered.
“Can I ask you a question?” I caught her as she spun back toward the kitchen. “Princeton student?”
“Do you mind if I ask your major”
“Why did you ask?”
“No reason really. You look like a student; that’s all.”
Jessie beamed as the server walked away.
“Back to my question, Nathan. Your greatest regret?”
“Oh, right, let me think about it for a moment; that’s a tuffy. Off the top of my head I could say, A quick story: I had this cat called Little P. She was cute, full of life, and would not miss a meal. She loved cheese. She could pick out higher quality cheeses.” Jessie laughed, a great smile, too. “I am serious.” I continued. ’She preferred McCaffrey’s cheeses over any other store brand cheeses. I really regret not filming her choosing McCaffrey’s cheese and sending the film in. I could have made a fortune.”
“Funny, but that’s not quite what I mean.”
“Okay then, define ’greatest.’ There’s I regret not auditioning for the Philadelphia Philharmonic, to I regret not calling my mother more often, to I regret not keeping a closer relationship to my brother type of regrets.”
“True.” Her eyes circled in thought. “I guess I mean something like an abortion, not that that’s a decision you made, but the regret is not having the child in your life, always wondering what your life would have been like had you kept it.”
“Okay, gotcha. Let me think about it.”
What would I tell her is my greatest regret? No, to the point, what should I tell her is my greatest regret. There is a difference, you know. I like her, a lot. She’s stylish and — the shoes and outfit are off the pages of Vanity Fair, and yet, she’ll throw in an ill-fitting, chest protector of a necklace that bounces and clacks over her breasts. She’s imperfectly perfect, and I like that about her. I want to see where our relationship can go. So, if I tell her that I regret switching from the classical guitar to the contrabass in high school, it might show a commitment to music, but it also could show overreaction to negative feedback. I love the classical guitar, and I regret not changing instructors, but changing to the bass. “I have to be honest with you, Nathan,” Mr. Cormier said to me at the end of a lesson, “you don’t see any black classical guitarists. There may be a reason for that. Why don’t you consider jazz.” I regret not telling him to kiss my ass. Instead, by quitting, I proved him right. There’s another regret for you. My apologies to American guitarist Justin Holland.
“Be careful, such questions require reciprocity.” I grinned, thinking I had landed on the change-the-topic do not pass square. I had managed to deceptively answer a question with a question.
“Oh that’s easy.” She smiled. “I would have gotten out of my first marriage sooner. I could have saved a fortune on therapy and legal fees. I regret not believing in myself sooner.” Her smile flattened and disappeared. In that moment, I understood the proverbial ball was back in my court. She was being honest. So, it’s my turn.
I could have said: I really regret not getting my father before he died to explain his cruelty and viciousness, and explain why he beat my mother so; I thought to tell Jessie how I regretted getting married so soon after high school. I regret never really reconnecting with my baby brother before I went away to college in Boston. Sometimes, I even regret not visiting home more.
“So, let’s see,” I began as my life continued to flash before my mind’s eye.
I could tell her of how much I regretted that it was my mother who found my brother, dead with the needle hanging from his arm. The Prodigal Son had not returned in time. Really, I could tell her that the Prodigal Son had never returned; I regret that, too. Yet, what I said to her is this:
“You know, Jessie, and I’m being completely honest here. My greatest regret is not meeting you sooner.” Silence followed as she took in my declaration. While it is the truth, it is not nearly my greatest regret, but I hoped she understood this is what she would get for now and, in time, the rest would follow. I owed her that.
She said to me, “I like that, Nathan.” She smiled again and touched my arm and squeezed. The touch told me everything. I like her; as she had read our hostess, she read me, my hardened look. She got it.
And what I got was my life passing before my eyes without death’s door near. When you are ready, ask it.
Texas native John Kizzie lives in Hillsborough and has a music studio, Guitar Lesson Spot, on Nassau Street. He teaches guitar, music composition, bass, and ukulele. In addition, he is an adjunct professor teaching English and classical guitar at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown. He has released two CDs — Art That Echoes as a classical guitarist, and One by Six with his wife, Amy, as vocalist.