When I was in college, I met with a professor about a short story I had written. During our conversation, she told me a short story of her own.
When she was younger, she was a dating a guy who was about to turn 30. She went all out to throw him a surprise party to celebrate whatever hair or youth he had left. She killed herself over the party, inviting all his friends and preparing lots of food. At the end of the night all he could say to her was, “How could you do this to me?” For him it was a commemoration of what he hadn’t accomplished in his three decades on the planet.
I met that same teacher last week to talk about Raronauer'ed, The Novel (working title). Reality inspired a lot of the anecdotes in the book, and my professor pushed me not just to recall 7th grade slights, but also to remember why I had remembered them.
Adults always seem to have an air of inevitability, as if who they became was predetermined and there was never a misstep. For my professor, that feeling went double. I never had ambitions to join academia, but I understood that being a tenured professor in New York was the scholarly equivalent of playing in the NBA. For her to acknowledge her own vulnerability to me was a gift, which is why I haven’t forgotten it.
The coda to this story is that ten years later, on my professor’s ex-boyfriend’s 40th birthday, he called to thank her for his 30th birthday party. Being a regret is a purgatory of sorts, worse in a way than having never been thought of. That story would be less memorable if he hadn’t thanked her at all.