Now come dessert and coffee and each couple telling the story of how they met. From across the table, you send a hint of a smile that is for me alone. We know how these stories go, and these couples keep to the conventions. “She was working at the bank, I knew from the first time I saw her that this was the woman I would marry.” “My car broke down, and when I called my brother to ask him to come get me, his roommate answered. My brother wasn’t there, and I started to cry, and I hadn’t even met Jerry then, but he told me to stop crying because he would come get me.”
We don’t know these couples. We don’t know what parts of their stories they might be leaving out. But we do know Danielle and Chuck, who aren’t here but whose story is typical in what it omits. “We kept running into one another in different places,” Danielle will say if prompted for their story. “At the grocery store, in the park, in the library.” She won’t mention Chuck’s ad in the personals, the effort that each of them made before all of these chance meetings started taking place. Every word the story she tells is true, but not as true as the story she doesn’t tell.
When it’s our turn, you say, “There isn’t much of a story.” You tell what little there is. We were working for different companies in the same office building, and saw one another every day, and often ate lunch at the same time in the first-floor deli. And one day, we talked, had a real conversation, and we each thought — you look at me as if for confirmation — we each thought that there might be a match here, something worth pursuing. We were both divorced, both a bit leery. But we gave it a try. Actually, things didn’t seem too promising after the first date, but we kept seeing each other, and we got used to one another. We made the effort.
No moment of certainty. No hand of fate steering us into one another’s arms. We each made the tiny decisions in our lives, one decision after another, that brought us close enough to decide on this union. We know it doesn’t sound romantic. It’s a pity to have us go last. Our story kills the mood.
There’s another way to tell our story, but I keep it to myself. It’s a version that I don’t tell anyone, not even you. Especially not you, not now, because it contains a sort of betrayal.
I started smoking when I was twelve, sneaking one or two cigarettes at a time from my mother’s purse or my father’s dresser. I chose tobacco, chose it deliberately, and had to apply myself at first to smoke a whole cigarette all the way through. By the time I quit, smoking was easy. I had been smoking a pack a day for twenty years, and the difficult choice, but another choice I made deliberately, was to leave tobacco alone. I was well past cravings by the time you and I were working in the same building, but I had the zeal of the converted about smoke. I hated the smell, especially when I was eating. I ate my lunches in the deli — the place where I saw you most often — because smoking wasn’t allowed. If I hadn’t smoked for all those years, we wouldn’t be together.
Another example. When I was ten years old, I set off a whistling rocket underneath my big brother’s car, and the shriek of the whistle, the bang of the report, left a ringing in my ear that I still hear to this day. People on my right side have said things that I misunderstood, or did not hear at all, because of that partial deafness. Since childhood I have missed hearing things that would have made me feel better or worse at a certain moment, would have made me choose to spend my allowance rather than save it, and without the saved allowance I would not have bought the book of science fiction stories that made computers exciting to me. I would have ended up following some different path in life that would have brought me to a job in a different sort of building in a place many miles or many states away from you. Every little choice I made, to light the fuse or not to light it, to drop the French class or stay in, to go home because I was tired or go to the party anyway, every little choice added up to the life where I would find myself married to you. Any other choice, anywhere along the line, and I would have missed you.
That’s why I regret nothing. I used to wish I had never smoked. I used to wish I hadn’t lit that blessed fuse under my brother’s car, but the ringing that I always hear is a small price. I used to wish I had persisted and learned a foreign language, but then I might have gone to France to try it out, and who knows where that might have taken me? Everything had to happen just as it did for me to find myself with you. I regret nothing, and nothing can make me regret, not even the white spot in the chest x-ray which, I swear, I will tell you about soon.
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