Nothing. That’s what I should have said.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things that I could have done differently in the distant past. There are many other ways I would like to spend my time, which, by the way, is ticking faster and faster as I grow older. I like to live by the attitude, I did the best I could with what I had to work with. However, when I do think back on mistakes I’ve made, there is one event that has always stood out to me: a small thing, but one that still irritates me.
Thirty years ago, I was twenty years old, living with my father in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and a student at New York University. I had a boyfriend at the time—I don’t even remember his name. That should be a good indication that he was no great love of my life. He was a friend and companion; a pillow-friend, I think it’s called today. We spent a fair amount of time together, eating out, going to the theater, and I once went home with him for a few days to his parents’ place in Virginia.
The boyfriend was working a low-paying job but wanted to be a writer—I don’t know if he was ever published—and he kept a journal. He was always writing in his journal, and I recall there were stacks of journals in his dingy apartment on the West Side. I had always thought that journals were personal and not for the eyes of anyone but the writer. “Oh no,” he said. “My journals are for my writing practice. There are no secrets in them.”
One weekend, we went skiing one weekend in Vermont. I don’t remember much about the skiing; what I do remember is his parents were there, and it was a relaxed time with plenty of good food and humor to go around. On the Saturday, he and his parents wanted to stay late on the hill for a few more runs, and I decided to go back early to our little condo and get dinner started. I had skied competitively in high school and knew that the best time to get hurt is late in the day when you’re tired and the sun is going down.
I went back to the condo and while I was cutting and chopping in the kitchen, I noticed one of his journals sitting on the kitchen breakfast bar. I glanced at it a few times, debating in my mind whether or not I should pick it up and read it. I thought journals were private, but he had clearly said his wasn’t. So I started to read it.
I don’t remember the exact words, but it was roughly that he wasn’t happy in his relationship with me, he thought I was just not very interesting and that his time with me was wasted. I was crushed. I didn’t feel like I would be losing a great love or a great relationship; I felt embarrassed, humiliated. Why did he bring me on this trip? Why take me to his parents’ home? Why spend so much time with me?
Money. I had it, and he didn’t.
I only read a page, then I put it down. I looked at the clock: it was four in the afternoon. I knew I could be packed and gone—it was my father’s Cadillac we had driven in—in fifteen minutes. I wouldn’t have gotten home until midnight, but that didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t do it. I felt too guilty about leaving him there stranded with no way back to the city.
So I waited. He and his folks came back to the condo about an hour later, happy, laughing, and with the red flush of a full day of exercise in the cold air. I didn’t want to ruin the evening for his parents, so I waited until they went to bed before saying anything to him. It was brief. I just said that I had read his journal in the kitchen; I knew he wasn’t happy, and I was leaving in the morning at eight if he wanted a ride.
I gave him a ride back to the city, and I never saw him again.
Recently, my daughter, who is starting a Ph.D. in psychology in the fall, told me that there is a term for looking back and considering different outcomes based on other choices not taken in the past. She says they’re called counterfactuals. She says that it’s a giant time-waster because, given the same individual with the same set of circumstances and the same knowledge at the same time, the individual would have always chosen what he or she chose. There is no other reality than the one we lived.
I do wish, though, that I’d left him in Vermont without a word.