Early spring is usually about new love.
Paul stood beside his car in the parking lot, enjoying one of the first warm days of the season. He was watching the lobby doors of the building nearby. Around him, trees and bushes were turning green, birds were singing, squirrels were dashing from tree to tree and flinging themselves between the branches. He was waiting for an old love.
Although they had exchanged occasional email letters, Paul hadn’t seen and had barely spoken to Cindy in years. Paul was thinking about the last time he had seen her.
It was almost five years ago. She had finally agreed to come to his house for dinner after declining for so long because she was busy, or canceling at the last minute because something had ‘come up’. Paul was more than excited. He was filled with fantasy and expectation. He planned to rekindle a relationship he had dreamed about for far too long.
On the phone a week before, when she had agreed to come, she asked “Should I bring anything?”
Paul, his mouth seeming to have a mind of its own, answered “A toothbrush.” He nearly bit his tongue when he realized what he was saying.
There was a pause on the end of the other end of the line. He could feel her blush. After a silence that lasted either a moment or forever, she said quietly “I’ve got one in my purse.”
The next few days were a flurry for Paul. He cleaned his house, bought new sheets, and even replaced some of the pictures on his walls. He bought a light fresh fish for dinner and plenty of fresh vegetables. He bought a bottle of wine then, almost as an afterthought, bought two more. It felt right. It felt real. He announced to a few best friends that Cindy was the woman he was going to marry someday.
The evening began just as he had fantasized. She appeared at his door about an hour late, but looking as breathtaking as he had remembered. She was everything he defined as beautiful. Through dinner they spoke about the sweet memories of the brief, but intense affair they had about four years ago when they were both married to others.
Their affair had ended when Paul backed away. His marriage soured and he separated from his wife. He felt that being single and pursuing Cindy could only lead to her marriage’s destruction and he did not want that responsibility. Her marriage ended about a year later when she left for Paris to work for, and live with the president of a small software company. She came back two years later deeply wounded and, as far as Paul could tell, too entangled with her ex-husband and ex-lover to be willing to respond to anyone.
But Paul was unable, or at least unwilling to give up. He thought about her constantly. When he dated other women he saw her sweet smile on their faces and they all fell short. Cindy was as close to perfection as Paul could imagine. Everything else was pale. When she returned from Paris, they dated a few times, but Cindy would always resist his advances, with the exception of a ‘goodnight’ kiss and embrace which made their knees weak and left them both breathless and gasping. He could feel the depth of their connection and the power of their feelings for one another, but still she wouldn’t respond. He didn’t understand why she held back and was unwilling, or perhaps afraid to ask.
Cindy felt the connection, too. He would call her occasionally, sensing that she needed to talk – and he was always right. Sometimes when she lay in her bed she knew they were both thinking of one another. She could feel his warmth. Paul’s love was obvious to her, but so was his fantasy. She knew instinctively that the ‘Cindy’ he was in love with was a fantasy. He loved the helpless girl in her, the virginal innocence he only imagined. He did not know the ‘real’ Cindy with all her imperfections, problems, and baggage. He would certainly be disappointed if he did. She treasured his warmth and the pedestal he put her on but did not want to spend another relationship trying to live up to a man’s fantasy.
Dinner was almost finished and there was an awkward silence. Cindy looked up at Paul and knew what he was about to ask. She couldn’t put it off any longer so she spoke.
“Paul? Something big happened for me yesterday that I want to tell you about.”
Paul was elated. He sensed she was going to tell him that she suddenly realized that she was as excited about to tonight as he was. This is the moment I been waiting for all these years, Paul thought. It’s finally our turn. Paul couldn’t say a word. He just nodded, Go on.
She continued. “Yesterday, I met the man I’m going to marry.”
She watched his eyes. Confusion. He didn’t understand. He looked stunned. She knew he was about to be hurt deeply – as soon as he realized what she said. She couldn’t bear to keep still while it dawned on him and she began speaking quickly, excitedly, like a girl who had just been asked to the prom. “His name is Steve. He’s an airline pilot from the town where I grew up. I actually knew him when I was six years old…”
At first, Paul was sure that she was somehow talking about him. Then the truth rushed over him in a wave of hot sadness, embarrassment, and deepest disappointment. He managed a weak smile and said something appropriate. He took a bite of tasteless food and smiled like he was happy for her. He watched her mouth move and listened to a flow of meaningless words. She was speaking quickly as if she couldn’t hear the sound of Paul’s dreams collapsing.
The evening wound down quickly. Neither of them were really there. Paul was doing an unconvincing job of acting congratulatory. Cindy was just talking incessantly to fill the gaps. They were both afraid of catching each other’s eyes.
I love you, Cindy. I’ve loved you for years. It was going to be ‘us’. You’ve destroyed me. His eyes would say if she looked.
I know. I’m so sorry. Hers would answer.
They parted that night with a ‘friendly’ hug goodbye.
Paul spent a miserable night cursing the fact that two days ago she was ready to spend the night. It would have been the beginning of a wonderful adventure for the two of them… now she’s gone again. The loss was tremendous and the pain seemed almost unbearable. He finally poured himself a bottle of wine and cried.
Now, five years later, they had both grown and changed. Cindy was married and, according to occasional emails, happy with her life. Paul had finally outgrown his fantasies, although he still thought of Cindy frequently. He was soon to be married as well. He and Cindy had been trying to get together for lunch for a while now.
For Paul, he wanted to see Cindy without the fantasy. He had once taken a lovely woman, dressed her in a halo and wings, and fell in love with the angel she resembled. Now, the fantasy had faded, or so he believed. What remained was a deep connection built over the years and the muted echo of a sweet and powerful love. He had learned a great deal from his feelings for her; the unrequited desire, the fantasy, the torture. Through those feelings, he had explored his own definitions of love and expectations from relationship. Perhaps unbeknownst to her, she had been one of his greatest teachers. He wanted to thank her.
— Cindy —
Cindy had been a little reluctant to meet Paul again after all these years. The last time they had seen each other she had felt, and probably looked, a lot younger. She thought of how she would feel if, when he saw her, the look in his eyes said “What happened to you?” His constant love for her, even at a distance, had been a source of strength for her through some difficult times, and she was grateful. Had she used him? She wondered. Would he be angry? She hoped this meeting would not be one of explanations and apologies. She was also worried that he might still have feelings for her and that, after five years of marriage; she would be uncomfortably drawn to the feeling of being desired. She didn’t want to relight that flame. Once she had loved him, too, but that was a lifetime ago. Now, a warm friend would be a welcome respite from a complicated, often rocky marriage. She was in the lobby and could see him waiting just outside.
He looks old! She thought, then scolded herself for thinking exactly what she didn’t want him to think. She had spent the last half hour fixing her makeup and hair, which she had re-colored the night before. She straightened her blouse and walked out the door.
— Paul —
He saw her come out of the lobby and was instantly flooded with feeling. She was exactly as he remembered her and he felt all the love, all the desire, the powerful sense of need that he thought had passed. In that moment he decided, again, that she was his destiny.
He watched her walk toward him. And she got closer, a subtle transformation took place. She seemed to change with every step. She looked the same as she always had, perhaps a little older, but no longer like he had imagined her. In his mind, she had become the embodiment of everything beautiful, everything desirable. He had fallen in love with that imaginary vision. As she got even closer he realized that his feelings about that vision were no longer about Cindy. The vision passed, the fantasy faded as quickly as it had appeared. He looked at her and smiled.
— Cindy —
She watched him notice her as she walked toward him. At first, he looked almost like he had been struck. He stood there, confused, dazed almost. It’s nice that I can still do that to a man, she thought. She was pleased but a little disappointed. She had hoped for something more.
Then, as she watched, he softened. All at once he seemed to relax. His eyes cleared and met hers. Then he smiled; a warm open smile that embraced her from halfway across the parking lot. She felt like running to him.
“Hello Angel,” Paul said as they embraced.
Lunch was wonderful. They reminisced, chatted, and laughed with delight. They talked about their lives, their partners, their children and, now, their grandchildren. They shared photos and stories.
— Paul —
Paul saw Cindy more clearly than ever before. Indeed, she was lovely; her eyes sparkled and her smile was open and bright, but ‘lovely’ was not what mattered now. She had been a central character in his life, even from a distance. She was very important to him and he cared so deeply for her. He knew he would feel that way for as long as he lived. He saw clearly, though, that they could never have been partners. Her life, spread out before him in her snapshots, was on a completely different path from his. She knew this, he thought, and that’s why she never came to me.
He looked up at her and saw a wisdom in her eyes that he had never noticed before. With this new vision of her, he was filled with warmth and it brought a tear to the corner of his eye. How could I have not seen this? He asked himself. The answer came immediately. I was completely blinded by my own fantasies. I thought she was an Angel, instead, I find she is more than that. She is Cindy.
— Cindy —
As Cindy prattled on about her life and her adventures, she felt her heart swell. Paul’s deep love had been something she had held on to in the difficult times. His occasional cards and notes were treasures. She knew how he felt, though, and had to take care not to fall into his fantasies. Years ago, it would have been so easy to say “Yes” to him. She would have made him the happiest man alive… at least at first. It had happened to her before with other men. At one point she decided that if she let it happen, their relationship would have lasted between six and eight months before the reality of two people in one life sunk in. It could have destroyed their friendship as well. I couldn’t bear that, she thought.
She looked up at him. He wasn’t really listening to her stories, but she didn’t care. He’s just loving me, she thought. She noticed a different quality to him, though. There’s no desire in his eyes, no needy questions about why I stayed away. She looked deeply in his eyes with her realization. You understand now, I can see it! She saw a tear form at the corner of his eye.
Their lunch was over too quickly. They felt like they could have spent days just chatting and laughing. They gathered up their snapshots and traded a few. She took one of Paul on a sailboat with a bunch of friends. He took a snapshot of her skiing with her husband and kids. When he picked it, she looked questioningly at him, wondering why he chose one with her husband in it. He just shrugged. No reason.
Back at the parking lot in front or her office, they hugged goodbye. She thought he was going to kiss her, too, and she would have let him. But he stopped at the last moment and turned to kiss her cheek.