"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Girl By The Lake–The Meaning Of Regret

Robert had been ten when Nancy Bell pulled her dress up over her head and stood naked as the water droplets from the ferns dripped onto her face and arms.  “They are my jewels”, she said to him, “and one day you can buy me real ones.”


It was cool and dark in the woods behind his house.  Robert’s father had said that he would cull the deep grove before it got too overgrown but he never got around to it, so the ferns had grown taller than him, and only rabbits could find their way through the bramble bushes. Once when he was little he got lost in the woods and thought he would never find his way out. There were bears and wolves in the woods, and he might wander for days without finding his way home.  For years he never set foot in the woods until Lucretia had asked him.

He knew that the wild animals were not real, but he still hesitated at the mountain laurel bushes at the back of their yard, and never took the narrow path into the woods. That was how childhood worked, he later thought, full of crazy imaginary things that scared you, and one day you woke up and they weren’t there any more, and the woods was just a dark, wet place where you would prefer not to go.

Nancy sat next to him in school the next day, so close together in the auditorium that their legs touched.  She smelled fresh and clean, like talcum powder and lilac soap, and she was wearing the same dress that she had worn in the woods.  He noticed a bit of dried oak leaf on her dress that she had not seen and remembered how she had put her clothes neatly in a pile on a mossy patch under his father’s favorite tree.

Nancy with a necklace of rain jewels.  Nancy standing naked in front of him standing as tall as she did at the Pledge of Allegiance.  She always recited the Pledge louder than any of the other children, and the could hear her voice above all others when the class sang America the Beautiful.

Robert compared every woman he met with Nancy Bell; and they never measured up.  They were either too matter-of-fact or too determined; too focused or too deliberate and precise.  None had Nancy’s ability to change things to suit herself or to make things go away. Henry was never fully aware that she was doing this to him, making his choices for him; and when he once considered it, he laughed. They were only children, after all, and one summer with Nancy Bell was nothing.

Much later on a warm February day in Central Park, he looked across the water to a young woman who, like him, had played hooky on a surprisingly warm February day, and only mused.  Why had he not walked around the pond, by the melting snowdrifts, on the soggy path by the conservatory, avoiding the mud and the slosh, and talked to her?  What doubt, lack of confidence, uncertainty, or unwillingness to break the spell had held him back? 

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Of course she could easily have been a secretary on her coffee break, a single mother of two from Brooklyn grateful for the warm day and an unobserved absence from her 9-5; but it could also have been otherwise – a kindred spirit, moved by the  early thaw and the unusual space of a park without visitors. He was in refuge from a love affair gone bad, an unpleasant job, and the loss of any romance he might have hoped for.  The girl across the lake remained  anonymous and unknown, but because of her, like Nancy Billings before him, he was never free from their memory. 

He tried to make up for his sexual desuetude –the girl by the lake – just as he had after Nancy Bell.  He had many sexual affairs, none of which matched up to the romance he had imagined with either woman.  Discouraged and disappointed, he had become indifferent to women although insatiably hungry for them, a Casanova despite himself.

There had been serious challenges to his indifference – the Austrian woman who had insisted they make love in the hilly brush above Islamabad; the Palestinian woman who had invited him to tea in her Jerusalem apartment, not far from the Wailing Wall, within sight of Israeli soldiers, and in defiance of her Hamas supporting family; the Burmese whose Bombay flat overlooked the sacred Towers of Silence, and the accountant from HR – all vindications for his temerity and indecision by the lake.

Robert replayed Central Park a thousand times – the woman on the chaise longue by the pool at the Ivoire; a girl alone at breakfast on the terrace of the Independence, hassled at military checkpoint in Timbuktu with a Congolese actress, waiting for the down train to Bombay with a Kashmiri Brahman princess – and in most cases answered the call.  Quick assignations, refusals, longer times in colonial redoubts – all done in expiation of the sin of omission thirty or more years before by the lake in the park.

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He had never looked specifically for an anodyne to the predictability of his secure marriage - the woman of his dreams, and the final epiphanic, Lawrentian episode of his life; but Nancy Bell and the girl by the lake had never left him entirely; and there she was, in Tyrolian leather, buskins, and hiking boots tramping through the Murree Hills, caring less about prying eyes and police patrols; indifferent to them and him, and intent only on the climb, the coolness, and the view of the plains below.

This time it was she who left him on the curb – he who for the first time had fallen without recourse– he who out of this persistent adolescent desire to complete the promise of sexual suggestion, fell prey to it.

After Joanna he was much more careful; but Usha had put up with his on-again-off-again dalliances for months and then gave him his walking papers; Laura had been demanding of his time and impatient with his marital fidelity; and Esther simply grew tired of waiting, and he ended up alone and disconsolate.

Lord Jim, the main character in Conrad’s novel of the same name, committed a heinous and unforgivable act – abandoning ship as an officer and watching while it sank beneath the waves to drown all aboard – and he spent the rest of his life searching for forgiveness and redemption, only to die in the search.  There is some things about the past, whether sins of commission or omission; or simply regret over chances not taken that define one’s course.  Had it not been for Central Park, Bob Maxime might have been completely content with his wife, never eager to set himself free to roam as penance or retribution for his mistakes.

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Where was she now?, he still wondered, that anonymous, unapproached woman on the park bench who smoked a cigarette and watched the ducks on the lake? She like him was in advancing old age; but she, unlike him, probably never remembered the chance, lost encounter.  She would have to be a grandmother of seven in Mantoloking, New Jersey, not unhappy with the way her life turned out; while he trailed her memory like unwanted baggage.  And where was Nancy Bell?

Robert expected regrets in his old age, but never like this.  He could understand not having made a mark, or never having left a legacy or an enduring personal heritage; but not the regret of the girl by the Central Park lake or of never finding another Nancy Bell. His whole life had been determined by them – his marriage, his infidelities, his pursuits, and his irrational, romantic belief in love and simplicity.  “There are all kinds of love in this world”, F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Rich Boy, “but never the same love twice”.  A lesson Robert never learned.

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