THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Meeting Moira for coffee is like getting my teeth cleaned. I know it’s going to hurt, I think of reasons not to go, then go anyway. For the dentist, there’s an appointment, and it looms on my calendar. Moira doesn’t make appointments. She texts and demands my presence. She tends to need me more in bad weather, so predictably it’s pouring. The place she wants to meet has an overhang and electric heaters. It’s all very COVID friendly, she explains. We don’t have to sit inside and risk getting breathed on by some infected idiot. I’m not sure how being infected qualifies someone as being an idiot, but it’s one of Moira’s favorite words. She used to call me one frequently.
I arrive late, knowing she’ll be later still. Ever the gentleman, I order her an espresso so she won’t have to stand in line. It’ll cool a bit before she swoops in, but she’ll drink it anyway. Waste not, want not. Mine’s a decaf-latte with non-fat milk. My doctor says I consume too much caffeine and too many calories. Even someone my age can change his ways. I’m not going to tell you what that age is, but let’s just say I grew up watching Adam West prance around in his cape and visor.
The heater above my head is trained on my bald spot. My fingers are freezing, so I hold my cup and blow away the steam. Moira hustles across the street. She’s got on a new red coat, wool from the look of it, and a dashing black beret. The outfit makes her seem young. When she gets closer, I see she’s not young—which I know, of course, but always seem to forget. Everything she’s ever been through lies on that face and in her eyes. Even when they’re red-rimmed, as they are now from the cold, or some inner woe, their blue is fierce, timeless.
She throws down an academic journal on the table, making the coffee slosh. The espresso is close to her elbow, and I move it so she won’t knock it over. Her body is full of angry energy. I should have known. Moira calls when she wants to vent, a habit that started a few years after we divorced.
I pick up the journal and see there’s a review of her most recent collection of poetry. From her sour expression, it must be bad. I flip to the page in question, scan the article, and close the journal.
“It says your work is inspirational,” I say. “What’s not to like?”
“Hallmark cards are inspirational. So are those sleazy self-help pundits, cheering you on, lining their wallets with your money.”
I sip my coffee. It’s delicious, even though it’s low-octane. Moira takes off her hat and runs her fingers through her short, curly gray hair. I remember when it was brown with gorgeous red highlights. We met in our twenties and were married for almost twenty years. We have no children together, though my wife has two from a previous marriage. Life with Moira was like walking into a nuclear reactor. She burned me out. I think I’m still exhausted, yet here I sit in the presence of my first love, waiting, always waiting, for the narrative to bend toward the light.
“I’m poignant, in touch with how things are,” she says. Moira writes about oppressed women (which is basically all women), crooked politics (ditto), and how nature is the only thing we can look to for any meaningful guidance. If that last isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. What she wants is to educate and enlighten, not lift the heart. That’s for saps. She thinks of herself as a meanie, which is only partly true. She’s also a passionate woman, in love with life.
“When I’m gone, the critics will redefine me, don’t you see? It’ll be their voice the readers hear, not mine,” she says.
“They can’t get onto the pages of your books. You’re the only one there.”
Moira dismissively waves her hand. How often has she done that, over the years?
The rain falls at a slant, and my feet are getting damp now.
Moira sighs and looks at me as if she hadn’t fully registered my presence.
“What’s new with you? How’s the restaurant? Did the lock-down put you out of business?” she asks.
“We’re doing a lot of take-out, we’re fine.”
I’m the head chef at a lovely French place on the waterfront that was packed every night before the pandemic dropped. The restaurant is about to fail; my wife is flipping out about it almost daily; her two college-aged monsters are back home, lying around, playing video games, and emptying the larder. Meeting Moira in the rain is a piece of cake, compared to that.
She tells me again that our splitting up was a mistake and she’s sorry. I never tire of her saying so, it’s just way past its sell-by date.
“Why did we, anyway?” she asks. That’s new and I have to choose my words carefully.
“I bored you.”
She nods solemnly.
“Regret’s a funny thing,” she says. I wait for a follow-up, and when there is none I ask if there’s anything else she needs to get off her chest. She says no, she’s taken up enough of my time.
“You just got here,” I say.
She finishes her coffee, then looks thoughtfully at the journal on the table.
“How will I be remembered, Phil?” she asks.
“As a trailblazer. No doubt.”
She smiles that smile I still dream about. Then she takes the journal, rises, and scurries off into the downpour.
“Also as the one who got away,” I say. I get up, take our cups inside, and walk through the rain alone.