“I love you”
It was the first time she had ever said it, although she had known for years. She whispered the words. He barely heard them in the silence that had become the two of them. He had waited months to watch those three words leave her lips, to taste their sweetness, but this felt futile. He wanted to pull her into his arms, tell her he loved her too, and etch his name forever in her soul. But he couldn’t, not now.
They had been here before. They had already had this conversation, on these bleary concrete steps, setting side by side but never daring to meet the other’s eye. Good-byes were hard, but inevitable. So, why did they keep ending up here?
He reached over and touched her hand. He felt the shaking, sensed her tears begin to fall. Still, he could not help feeling how unfair it was of her to do this to him now. She knew what he wanted, what he could give. Why did she insist on making this more difficult than it needed to be? He had always been so good at walking away but something about her made him pause. He was only 19. She was 18. He was not ready to define his future. He had told her this last time, but she knew the truth. They both knew.
“Laney, I am not going to ask you to do that. No one gets into Juilliard. You are the most talented violinist in the state. One of the best in the country. You are not staying in this dead end town for me”
Every part of her knew he was right. They met when she was a high school sophomore and he was a junior. For her, it was love at first sight. He was the strapping football captain that the world opened up for. She was nothing but a shadow until she was on stage. It was there he had first seen her. He was struck by the confidence of a girl and her violin, of someone that was so committed to something. He kept her close after that, but it was over two years later before they officially started dating. He finally asked her out the same month she applied to Juilliard. She never expected to get in, so she didn't feel the tearing of her heart then as she did now. She had just said yes, without hesitation. They had been together ever since. Then, the letter came. The one she had waited for her whole life. Violin was her existence, her breath, until she met Matt. Then, he began to consume her. The rational path seemed absurd now; her heart and her mind were conflicted by her own fortune.
Before he graduated, Matt had a football scholarship offer to Albany State. It was Division II, but he knew his work ethic and his ability to impress his coaches. It was that offer that had him in the school gym every morning at 5:30 and giving everything he had at practice every afternoon. This was when he and Laney truly connected. They were bound by their discipline. But in the final game of the season, a linebacker ripped through the line and pummeled him, tearing his ACL in the process. Offer rescinded. No football, no school, no future. After spending months mourning what was, he started taking his life back. It was Laney was there throughout it all, encouraging him to not give up. He initiated his return to the world by finally asking her on a real date. Since then, he had enrolled at the Junior College and was working on his uncle’s farm. He knew this town would be his life, but he also realized it did not need to be hers. She was better than it. She was better than him.
“I love you, Matt.”
This time, she looked directly at him and he did pull her in. He could not resist anymore. He imagined their life. He imagined how happy they would be, how right they were together. He needed her. He knew it was no use. Laney was his future and he was hers.
“Happy 20th Anniversary Mom and Dad”
The children screamed the words in unison. Jake had made it back from college to celebrate. Sarah and Mark were still in high school but having them home at the same time was becoming increasingly rare. Sarah will graduate this year. Mark the year after. Laney could not believe how fast the time had passed.
It had been twenty years since she married Matt. Her mind flashed back to the early days of their marriage - slow dancing in the kitchen, promising the world to each other, catching him staring at her across the room. The memory of them still made her heart leap. But, as time went on, things changed. They became busy, preoccupied with babies and jobs. To make ends meet, she went to night school and became a nurse. He was now the manager of his uncle’s farm. Despite endless promises, they have never left this town, not even for that vacation to Paris they had dreamed about. They merely survived each day and that had slowly turned into life.
She looked over at her husband of twenty years. She tried to find the confident boy she had fallen for way back in high school. He had held so much passion for his dreams, for her. He looked tired now; exhausted by merely living. They had been in this house since they married and everything about it felt familiar, except him. She knew they had grown apart over the years, but she understood that is what happens in marriages. She loved him and she had always hoped that was enough. She knew it had to be enough.
As the kids brought out the anniversary cake, he watched Laney. He allowed himself to miss her for a moment. Where was the girl on the stage that seemed so sure of herself, so secure in who she was? As she smiled at their children and he noticed the lines around her eyes. She complained that those lines made her look old. He never told her, but those lines made him think of the times they would stay up all night laughing. How they used to dance in the kitchen and how lucky he felt on their wedding day. He had promised to always make her feel important and loved that day. He knew he didn’t do that now. But, after twenty years, things change. After all, they were just kids back when they met, full of unrealistic dreams and promises. It was not possible to keep that type of love forever, right?
They both adored their children. Laney mothered like she was born for it. They had Mark when Laney had just turned twenty, one year after their wedding. The second he was born, she was a mom, and an exceptional one. She never missed a bake sale or a field trip. She was kind and compassionate and the children worshipped her. Matt had a difficult time adjusting at first, but Laney helped him too. Everyone was in awe of her. Her life rotated completely around her family, and she seemed happy with that.
She made being a wife and mother look effortless, but in the back of her mind she always remembered that she should have been a sophomore - and then a junior - and then a graduate - of Juilliard. Then, her guilt over that thought would push her to put everything into being as dedicated a mother as she had been a violinist. Her doubt, fears, and regrets turned her into the martyr that the world loved and but was unrecognizable in her own mirror.
At first, she continued to play. She would take out the violin and play for the kids to lull them to sleep or get their attention. When they were young, they would sit and stare, their jaws slack with amazement. As they got older, this strategy worked less and less. The violin made its way to the attic and then was sold to help pay for Sarah’s braces. Choices make our lives, and these were hers. She accepted that.
“Come on, mom and dad, time for presents!”
The kids led them to the living room, giddy with excitement. Mark gave them a caricature of the two of them. Laney was surfing and Matt was hitting golf balls into the ocean from shore. They did not surf or golf, but the picture got the laugh Mark was looking for. Jake got them a gift card to their favorite restaurant, the one they had not been to in over five years. Laney and Matt glanced shamefully at each other for just a split second, knowing the gift card would probably go unused. Sarah was next, a picture album.
“I went by Grandma’s and got an old picture album. It has wedding pictures and pictures from high school. You guys were a good-looking couple.”
They begin flipping through the pages laughing at Matt’s long hair and Laney’s out-of-style clothing. There were moments of remembrance in these pictures, both Laney and Matt could almost close their eyes and feel those days. Then, she saw it.
It was an envelope, her old name and address printed on the front. Her throat was instantly dry. Her heart pounded.
Sarah saw her stare.
“Oh, what is it? “
Sarah grabbed for the envelope and quickly opened it. She pulled out the letter eagerly and unfolded it. Sarah’s eyes scanned the page and then her smile slowly disappeared.
“Mom? You were accepted to Juilliard?”
Her sons begin grabbing at the letter as if they could not possibly believe what their sister was saying.
“I was. But I decided to stay here, to stay with your dad.”
“But it was Juilliard! I mean, I love you Dad, but really? Juilliard?” Sarah said.
Laney just smiled. It was Mark that asked the question she had avoided for years. The one that sat between her and the truth. The answer was the secret she slept with each night.
“Do you ever regret it? Not going, I mean.”
Curious eyes bore through her. She looked at Matt who sat with his head bowed, looking at the floor, remembering that day on the steps all those years ago. She paused long enough to give him time to look up, to find her again, to pull her into his arms as he had all those years ago. Finally, Laney looked back at her children.
“No, of course not. I never even think about the path not taken. I have everything I ever wanted right here.”