He sat quietly beside me. Austere in his black suit, crisp white shirt, and black tie. I turned my head to the right and silently studied his profile for a moment. He’d been on the edge of every significant event of my life from the day I’d been born, and he was here with me now. Finally, he turned and gave me a tight smile. I could see the emotion filling his soft eyes. Not so long ago, our positions were reversed. He was the mourner, and I was there to lend my support. Although his children and grandchildren had also been there, my husband and I had none.
Now, as the minister began to speak, I thought back over the way our lives touched and parted over the last almost fifty-five years. He was a lot older than me. When I say a lot, I mean he was a teenager—fourteen—the day I was born. He lived down the hall from me with his parents and older siblings. We grew up in a lovely building in Manhattan when it was still possible for middle-class families to do that sort of thing. From the time I could distinguish boys from girls, humans from the dogs we loved, I was drawn to him. Looking back now, I think of it as imprinting, like a duckling or possibly a silly gosling.
His dark good looks invaded every childhood dream I’d had instead of the things normal children dreamed about, whatever those were… toys and candy? He was my hero. Our parents, good friends that they were, thought it was adorable, apparently. I toddled after him as fast as my chubby legs would carry me whenever I saw him in the hall, the elevator, the lobby, the laundry room, or on the streets of the Upper West Side. He would pick me up and swing me around in the air when I caught up to him. He called me his “Fancy face.” A nickname derived from watching too many hours of soap operas with his mother and older sisters. His good-natured tolerance of my antics only made me love him more over the years, I realize that clearly—especially when I look back.
By the time I was five, he was in his second year at Yale University. He was brilliant and talented, besides being devastatingly handsome. He was studying to be an actor. At five, all I understood was he might be on television someday, which, in 1972, meant I would be able to see more of him. I had no concept of how long it would be before that would happen. The years went on, and I grew older, as did he. His visits home became fewer and further between. He continued to Yale graduate school. Both of our families were proud of him and attended his graduation. I sat up straight and tall in my folding chair. To my utter disappointment, I learned at the dinner celebration following the graduation that he wasn’t coming home. He was staying in Connecticut to work at the Yale Repertory company. By this time, he was twenty-five, and I was eleven. My young heart was still his, although I knew from listening to—eavesdropping on—our mothers’ coffee klatches he’d had many brief relationships in college. I may have deluded myself into thinking they were just placeholders for me. I was just a child, after all. This was my fairytale, and he was my happily ever after.
After a time, he moved back to New York City, but to his own apartment, to the mysterious and esoteric Village. I visited him there. The scent of pot and his cologne tinged the air, making him seem even more attractive in his tousled, sexy, and adult life. My teenage libido was just starting to awaken, and it was ferocious. He started acting in plays that my parents refused to take me to due to the content, although I was already sixteen. It was off-off-off Broadway work that kept him clothed and fed and very little else. His notices were excellent, however, and after a short while, he made it into a play on Broadway. And then another, this time as a replacement for the original lead in a long-running show. But, again, my parents felt the material was too adult for their “baby.” So I took all of my birthday money and all of my holiday money and skipped school on a matinee day. That Wednesday, I took the IRT 1 train to Broadway, hopped off at Times Square, and practically skipped to the theater. The life of a New York City-raised brat. Street-smart. Theater-lover. Independent, not easily intimidated, and with an innate sense of North, South, East, and West. I purchased an available center orchestra ticket at a student discount, took my seat, and began reading my Playbill.
The following two hours flew by as I watched him weave a spell over the audience. He was talented. Charming. The rest of the cast was excellent, but he was simply incandescent. At intermission, I proudly listened to the audience around me talk about the boy, the man I adored. Brilliant. Marvelous. Believable. Heartbreaking. It was too bad he couldn’t be nominated for a Tony as the replacement actor. After the thunderous applause, I made my way to the stage door to await his exit, along with a smattering of other theater faithful waiting for autographs. Suddenly he was there. Tall, lean, and impossibly handsome. Smiling his dimpled smile at the small crowd as he signed Playbills with a Sharpie. The rest of the cast also came out, but I only had eyes for him. When his eyes met mine, his lit with surprise, and the smile he had been wearing grew. “Fancy face!” he exclaimed as he reached around the other people for me and hugged me tightly. “I’m so glad you’re here! But shouldn’t you be in school?” He pulled me under the velvet ropes separating the crowd from the actors.
I laughed as I replied, “I took a day off for you. My parents wouldn’t bring me. You were extraordinary. Spectacular.”
“Thank you,” he replied with a masculine coloring of his cheeks. He looked around then, searching for something. “Darling,” he called, “Come here!” He called to his costar, a woman several years his senior, so she was at least twenty years older than me.
She seemed to snap to his side like a rubberband. “Darling, this is my ‘Fancy face,’ you remember me telling you about her? I’ve known her since the day she was born. She cut school to see the show today! Fancy face, this is Blair Madison. My fiancée.”
The smile remained glued to my face. Maybe my fate was to be an actor as well. Because the pain that arrowed through my heart at that second felt like death itself. Instead of dying, I held out my hand and shook her hand. I’m confident I said the right things because no one looked appalled. They asked me to join them for an early supper, but I demurred and said I needed to get home before I was missed, never more aware of my adolescent disadvantage than at that moment. Unable to behave like the adult I wanted to be. They looked at me understandingly, almost parentally, then practically patted me on the head when they walked me to the subway and said goodbye. I wanted to scream in my rage and mortification.
They broke up not long after, and got back together several years later while shooting a film together on the West coast, then finally married. I also went on with my own life, college, and career—not acting—although, as a teacher, I performed every work day of my life. Hiding my sadness behind my smiles and exuberance for my students. I, too, eventually married—quite happily. Maybe it wasn’t the love of a lifetime, but we were happy.
My first love, my most profound love, lived on the periphery of my life for another thirty-five years. Oh, we saw each other in the intervening years when we visited our parents for the holidays, and eventually, when they all passed, that stopped. However, I saw him often as I had once childishly dreamed of when he went from one long run as a secondary character on a successful television show to the star of his own show—ten seasons worth—not long after the other ended. He lived on the west coast for most of that time, and I remained a New Yorker.
My husband ran a successful business that afforded us a vacation home on Cape Cod. He and his family had one nearby on the ritzier Vineyard. We saw each other occasionally at extended gatherings of our families, and our siblings were always in touch with each other, for they were as close as our parents had once been. I played with his children, attended their weddings, chatted for hours over wine with his wife, and pretended that my heart wasn’t in my eyes each time I looked at him. I always wondered if Blair knew. Women have a way of knowing when someone else is interested in their husband. Didn’t they? Maybe not. It wasn’t until my husband died of a sudden heart attack that I found out he’d been having an affair with one of our friends for years. I couldn’t muster the anger at either of them necessary for a scene, for who was I to judge when he wasn’t always first on my mind or in my heart? Maybe I’d been willfully ignorant, just as I suspected Blair was about my feelings for her husband.
When it came to the funeral, my first love stood by my side, in the place where my father, or a brother, if I’d had one, or my late husband would have been. That was the moment we truly connected as adults. Blair had been dead for well over a year at that point. She was older than him, and by me at least two decades, which made me realize just how old she was when she’d died the previous year. My husband had been on the youngish side, although he’d also been a great deal older than me. A pale imitation? A placeholder?
After the burial, we returned to my apartment, the same one I’d grown up in and inherited a third of when my folks passed on. Neither of my siblings was interested in it, so I bought them out. He said to me, “Wow, the old place looks great. I like what you’ve done with it.”
Pleased that he appreciated my decorating style, I tried unsuccessfully to contain the blush that stained my cheeks and back of my neck at his praise. After the mass of mourners had left, he remained. He watched me from his perch at the living room bar as I moved about cleaning the detritus of the post-funeral get-together.
“Come away with me. Let me get you out of the city,” he implored. “Let’s go up to the Vineyard. It’s peaceful and quiet. You can mourn or feel however you want to up there.” I hesitated, and he said, “Please?”
Impossible for me to resist. Impossible for me to deny, even to myself, that I wanted nothing more than to be alone with him for some unspecified period of time at last. He was between shooting seasons of his latest show. He didn’t need to be back in the city until late fall, and it was just now late June.
We spent those first weeks gazing out into the ocean from his front porch. Watched our dogs laze in the sun or chase each other in the sand. Talked about various moments in each of our lives, the opportunities that had passed us by, and the ones we’d seized with gusto. We cooked together, ate together, laughed together, walked the beach at sunset together, always talking about the things we’d missed in each other’s lives. Until, with enough wine in my system, I finally confessed my deepest secret to him. The worst missed opportunity, the one that had never materialized…until now. The chance to admit I’d been in love with him since the day I was born, and I would go to my grave the same way.
His mysterious, emotional, gorgeous whiskey-colored eyes looked into mine as though they hadn’t ever really seen my green ones before. He smiled then. His days-old beard growth covered the dimples that I knew had deepened with age, but he still looked dark and sexy, even now. Gray whispered at his temples and in his beard, but time had been generous with him. He would be sixty-nine on his next birthday. I would be fifty-five. That fourteen-year chasm didn’t seem as insurmountable as it once did. He put a hand on my cheek and pulled me towards him with his other hand at my waist. For fifty-five years, I’d waited for this kiss, and it did not disappoint; it met my expectations and surpassed them. When he wrapped me in his arms, I knew that the days of him living on the outer reaches of my life were over at last.