Anthony sighed and leaned heavily against his worn, wooden cane. It had to be here somewhere in the mess of boxes.
“Christmas ornaments… books to donate…”
Anthony read the box titles as he walked deeper into the dark basement closet. Finally, his eyes landed on a box marked “Anthony’s Memories” with Meg’s precise, neat handwriting. He used to tease her about her need to label everything from the leftovers in the freezer to the plants in the garden, but today it came in handy.
His stomach clenched as a tear welled up in his eye. “Oh, honey, I miss you.”
Hoisting the box beneath his arm and resting it on his hip, Anthony grasped the cane with his free hand and made the trek back upstairs. He settled into the recliner that faced his wooded lawn and dug through his memories, as Meg so aptly named the box.
Brushing the dust off the cover, Anthony flipped open his senior high school yearbook. His breath caught at the sight of Leanna and him. He had forgotten that this picture had been crammed into the book. It was the last time he had seen Leanna before he moved away to start college. The last lazy afternoon they had spent together, dreaming and hopeful about what their future might become.
“You would have liked her, Meg.” Anthony closed his eyes as he allowed the memories to wash over him, to take him back to that night before everything changed.
He could feel Leanna cuddled up next to him, her head resting on his chest as he aimlessly played with her hair and looked at the lake on his parents’ property. Sweat beaded on his neck in the early summer heat, made worse by how closely he and Leanna sat. But he did not care. The sweat and the heat were worth it to keep her close. Truth be told, he hardly noticed the heat. His mind wandered, as he briefly thought about whether he and Leanna would get married someday. The thought wafted out as quickly as it came in, much like the clouds that moved in the sky above them, but the question chased after him throughout that summer.
Every time Anthony tried to picture Leanna and himself married, he could not. There was some wall up around the idea. No matter high of a ladder he built or how far he ran looking for a door, no way above the wall or through the wall appeared. So he called less and less, and he wrote less and less.
Anthony’s eyes went glassy and he cringed as his mind fast-forwarded to fall break. He had come home to visit his family and to tell Leanna what he had decided. The sight of her big brown eyes welling with tears and her sidelong glance away felt as real today as it had felt sixty years ago. She had put up a fight, oh boy had she put up a fight.
Leanna cried and argued, asking question after question, each one driving a nail through Anthony. How could he put her through this kind of pain? Maybe it would have been better to say nothing at all. Maybe he was just doubting and needed to give them more time.
“You’re making a mistake. You’re just scared of commitment and seeing only what you want to see.” Leanna’s voice was eerily calm after all the sobbing and arguing she had done. “I love you with my eyes wide open. I know your faults. I know you’re insecure and you always try to prove yourself to everyone. I know your struggle with self-control. But I still love you in spite of it all- the things to love about you far outweigh all of that.”
Anthony looked away from Leanna’s steady gaze, her dry eyes and intensity too much for him to bear. She swallowed as their eyes connected again, her chin tilting upwards as she waited. But Anthony had no words left to say. Finally, Leanna looked at him with a strange mix of pity and sorrow, resigned to the reality that their relationship was broken and Anthony was choosing to walk away.
“You’re going to regret this.”
“She was right, Meg. I did regret it.”
Anthony remembered the panic that set in as he watched Leanna walk away. She held her head high and her back was straight and tall for a while, until her shoulders started to droop as she got farther away from him. He longed to call out to her and tell her, “Never-mind! It was a mistake,” but his heart would not let him.
He remembered how he felt so lost, like he was wandering through an overgrown forest. She was a safe place for him, extending forgiveness and grace when he did not deserve it. When he wanted someone to talk to at the end of a hard day, she had been the cheery voice on the other end of the phone. When he discovered some fascinating pearl of wisdom, he would share it with her first. Could he still have that friendship with her?
Yet slowly, but surely the regret began to fade. He extended grace and forgiveness to those who did not deserve it. He found new people to talk to at the end of hard days. He meditated on the pearls of wisdom he collected, even if there was no one to whom he told them. The kind of regret he had was the temporary sort, drying up like the dew as the sun rises in the sky, welcoming a new day full of hopes and possibilities when it fades away.
Could Leanna say the same thing? Did her initial regrets give way to newfound hope and realization that he made the right decision? Did she finally see that clinging to what is merely good, rather than what is best, leads to greater regret?
“You were what was best, Meg.” Anthony flipped slowly through the open year-book in his lap, sitting and soaking in the memories for what they were. Even if the good is not best, it remains good.
Anthony laughed as he got lost in school plays and a chess tournament where he stayed awake for forty-eight hours on a dare. He did not hear his daughter come in the room until she stood right over his shoulder and laughed at the image of her father as an eighteen-year old, soaked from the school carnival dunk tank.
“You look like a drowned rat!” Elizabeth said as she hung up her jacket and put the mail on the coffee-table.
“It was all Leanna’s idea- she thought I needed to show more school pride.” Laughter rang in Anthony’s voice.
“Are you excited to see her at the reunion?”
After a brief pause, Anthony spoke. “I am. If she’s there.” There was another regret he had- that he and Leanna had never found their friendship again. Why had he never called her just to say hello and hear how she was doing? How could someone, who meant so much at one time, become a memory on a page rather than, at the very least, a living, far-off friend from a distance? He pondered on this the rest of the afternoon as he dressed up for the reunion.
With a deep breath and a shaky grasp on his cane, he stepped onto the asphalt that he used to drive over in his battered red truck. He smirked as he shut the door of his gray Volvo- what a change! As punctual as ever, he was one of the first people there, so he grabbed a drink and sat down at one of the tables. And here he would wait, until he saw her face.