What Could’ve Been
“Do you remember our night here, Kim?”
“How could I forget, Charles?”
“We were so nervous that night, huh?”
“Who would’ve thought that our thirty-year college reunion would be held at this hotel, of all places, huh?”
“I was so damn in love with you, Kim. I would’ve done anything and everything for you.”
“But you didn’t…and in the end, that was OK. We went our separate ways and we built a wonderful life for ourselves.”
“I’m sorry about the way we ended. What happened in Peru wasn’t planned. It was our last night there. We were all drunk. It was a wild night that got out of hand.”
“So you’ve said. Thirty years later, no need to rehash your apology.”
“You kind of disappeared after our last conversation, Kim. Where’d you go? I looked for you.”
“Did you? I would’ve never thought.”
“Of course, I looked for you. How could you think otherwise? Where did your pharmaceutical company finally send you? I assume you continued with your job at Baxter?”
“Yeah. I did. That job took me to some beautiful places and helped me support an even more beautiful daughter.”
“You have a daughter! I have three kids—all three of them, boys. Where’s your husband tonight, Kim?”
“I guess separated would be a better word.”
“My wife is upstairs, ill. Maybe I can introduce you to her tomorrow at the luncheon if she’s feeling better.”
“Great. Sure. I’d be happy to meet her.”
“Were you truly all right after college, Kim? I felt terrible the way we ended, the way I left you. I wish I could’ve done it differently.”
“Had you done anything differently, you wouldn’t be married to your wife and have raised your three boys. You did what was best for you, Charles. We both did what was best for us.”
“I did love you. You believe me?”
“Yes. I believed you.”
“Would you mind if we sat out here and talked a little more? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about what you’ve been doing the past thirty years. I have thought about you many times. You and I created some unforgettable memories.”
“Unforgettable while in the moment, forgettable during the painful moments.”
“Kimberly Swan, talk to me. Share your pains and sorrows since we parted thirty years ago, and I’ll share my side of the story. Stay here and walk down memory lane with me until we’re caught up to this day.”
“You might not like what I have to say.”
“And I may like what you have to say. I have thought of you. I did miss you. I love my wife, but a first love is hard to forget.”
“Sure, Charles. Let’s stroll down memory lane.”
Thirty years ago
“Hello. I’m Charles Johnson. I’m a senior, president of my fraternity, headed to Georgetown School of Medicine, and wondering where you’ve been during these four years of undergrad.”
“Hi Charles. I’m Kimberly Charlotte Swan. I’m a senior, no sorority association, headed to I-don’t-know-where with Baxter Pharmaceuticals, and we probably never met because you’re obviously an extrovert and I’m an introvert.”
“Welcome to our club. I’m the social chairman and I’ve decided to personally welcome you today, Kimberly Charlotte Swan.”
This wasn’t my first year on campus, but this man made me feel like I was completely new. From the few sentences spoken, he had enough charisma to fill a lecture hall. No wonder he was the social chair.
“Thank you, but I was just leaving.”
“Please don’t go. I have to be here till the end and I’d love to take you to dinner tonight. Please stay with me.”
I looked over to the girls staring at Charles, hoping for an introduction, or maybe a word or two. “I think it’s best I leave now. I’ll look over your flyer—no, I lied. I don’t know why I came here today since school is almost over and I’m not really looking to join a club. Maybe you should go do your job and recruit the younger members for next year?” I suggested.
“I’ll do as you suggested only if you promise to stay. Or, give me your number. I’ll call you when I’m done.”
“No and no. I’ll see you around.”
“Kimberly!” He followed me out of the room.
“I have a dinner to attend with my future bosses. I can’t have dinner tonight, but if we meet by chance, again, I promise to take you out for a meal.”
“There are thirty-thousand people on campus,” he complained.
I shrugged my shoulders and waved good-bye.
I regretted having left.
He was a beautiful man with a contagious smile. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion—perhaps a mix of several races—Charles Johnson was not a man I’d notice at first, but once noticed, he wouldn’t be denied. His eyes told a myriad of happy stories; much happier than the stories I could ever tell. Though my heart felt a pinch of sadness knowing I’d left something that could’ve been special, I was glad to have met him.
“How was your dinner last night?” What? “You thought you were rid of me, didn’t you? You didn’t believe I’d find you.” He sat next to me on the bench.
Compelled to show Charles how happy I was to see him again, I leaned in and hugged him. By the shocked, tense frame, a hug wasn’t what he was expecting. Before he could reciprocate, I pulled back to my original position.
“How did you find me?”
“Wait.” Charles leaned in and held me the same way I held him—though his hold was one that I knew I couldn’t, wouldn’t, break out of easily. “You hugged me. What was that and why’d you let go so quickly?”
“You, first. How’d you find me?”
“You told me you secured a job with Baxter. That meant you were probably a chemical engineer and a south campus major. I asked everyone I knew about you and though no one knew you, I had a secret weapon.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?” I couldn’t help smiling with him. This man had the most gorgeous smile.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I know someone in the registrar’s office. I sent a bouquet of roses to that certain someone and asked where you might be today.”
“Isn’t that illegal or something?”
“Only if they gave me your schedule.”
“If she didn’t give you my schedule, how’d you know I was here, about to head into my next class?”
“I did some sleuthing,” he answered adorably like a little boy. “I asked questions like if you’d be on campus today.”
“Whether you’d be in the southern-most part of campus or borderline North campus. From there, I also asked specifics like whether you might be in a chemistry class. Once I figured out what general class you might be in, I hung around this area and here I am! I found you at a bench right in front of your next class.” Charles’ smug grin had me grinning with him. “I’ll have you know that I’ve ditched every class this morning. This isn’t good for me or my grades. Georgetown might recuse their offer because of you. You owe me.”
I laughed. “I suppose I do owe you a meal.”
“Tonight?” he asked, eagerly.
“No. I can’t.”
I had to think about how I’d do this without alarming my parents. I needed to give them a warning.
“How about lunch tomorrow? I can meet you on campus and we can have a meal.”
“No dinner?” His face and tone of voice were fully disappointed.
“That will have to be a conversation for another day. Class is about to begin.” I stood up, but hated parting with him again. The part of my heart that wanted to be accepted and loved, ached.
“Wait.” He grabbed my hand as I was about to leave. “You can’t do this to me again. Do you have a number? Can I call you?”
Would he think I was lying if I told him I didn’t have a cell phone? The house phone was out of the question.
“Go to class and I’ll see you again soon. This time, I’ll look for you,” I promised.
Charles wasn’t convinced. “Are you right-handed or left-handed?”
What an odd question. “Right,” I answered.
That was all he needed to know. He switched hands and held my left hand, walking me into class. Sitting to my left, he allowed me to take out the necessary equipment for notetaking and then held my left hand the rest of class.
This felt good. No, this felt wonderful. I finally understood the pitter-pattering of one’s heart, the fluttering of butterflies in one’s stomach, the tender aching of desire. Charles Johnson made to feel wanted. I guess that’s all I ever desired—to be desired.
“Are you done for the day?”
“Yes. Are you?”
“I have one last class that I’m going to ditch if you won’t give me your number. If I must follow you home, I’ll do it.” The warning was real.
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?” I repeated his line of questioning. His smile was blinding, his Richter-scale of happiness matched my own.
I read my textbook while sitting in a very small seminar of seven people. If it wasn’t embarrassing enough to sit in this class with everyone wondering who I was, it only became worse when Charles explained to his class mates who I was by raising up our entwined hands. The room was too small and Charles was too loud not to be heard. Everyone laughed and clapped in appreciation.
Doing my best to hide, or at best, blend in, I wondered what I was doing. How had I become this bold in a matter of hours? Who was I and who was this man who brought out an entirely different side of me I’d only dreamed about?
“That was incredibly embarrassing, Charles.” I bemoaned when we finally left the three-hour seminar. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t allow me to take my hand back. I could’ve been finished with my homework had you not been so stubborn.”
He smiled. I loved his generous smile. “Hey, you started it by giving me a hug. I wasn’t going to touch you at least until the third date. You’re more skittish than the usual girls I date.”
It was terribly silly of me to feel my heart ache when he talked about the other girls he dated. Even sillier were the tears that threatened. A man finally shows interest in me and I was a basket case. No wonder my mother kept warning me against men.
“Will you excuse me for a second?” My heart continued to hurt; I didn’t know what to do with myself but to walk away from the man who causing me all kinds of confusion.
“Hey. What’s wrong?” He caught onto me. “Did I say or do something wrong? In the course of a few words, your lips went from smiling to frowning. I’d almost say you look as if you want to cry.”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’d like to run to the ladies’ room and I need to make a phone call.”
“Can’t you make the call here? You’re trying not to give me your number, huh.” He frowned.
“I don’t have a cell phone, Charles. That’s the real reason why I can’t give you my number.”
“What? How can that be? Who doesn’t have a cell phone?”
“There are people who don’t, believe it or not.”
“How will you make a phone call if you don’t have a cell phone. Do you really not have one or did you just want to throw me off?”
“Believe it or not, there are still pay phones on campus for those of us who haven’t graduated to a cell phone.” I pulled away. I needed desperately to pull away. “I’ll be back.”
Charles didn’t believe me and rightly so. Once I hid in the bathroom, I couldn’t help but think I should disappear. These new feelings, as wonderful as they’d been, also scared me. I hated being scared, but I hated uncertainty even more.
Against what I knew was best for me, I walked to the payphone and called the people who’d been responsible for my well-being the past eighteen years.
“Hello, Ma’am. This is Kim.”
“Hello, Kim. What brings you to calling me today? Will you be late coming home?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll be a few hours later than usual. Go ahead and have dinner without me.”
“All right. We’ll see you tonight.”
“Thank you. Have a good afternoon.”
“Thank God! I found you!” Charles had come after me again.
“I wasn’t lost,” were not the correct words to say. This man, who was huffing and puffing from literally running after me, was angry.
“Why do you keep leaving me? You told me you’d be back but you didn’t come back. This is damn annoying.”
His last words cut me profoundly. How’d a man I hardly know make me bleed so deeply?
“I told you that I needed to use the restroom and then I had to make a phone call. I also told you I’d be back.”
“But you’d been gone almost ten minutes. I felt like an idiot just standing there.” His excuse wasn’t good enough. This wasn’t good enough. We, as something more than friends, weren’t good enough.
“I’m sorry you don’t think I’m trustworthy. There’s nothing I can do about your trust issues. It was nice knowing you. Good-bye.”
“Wait!” With the way he caught my arm, I didn’t have time to move not even a step. “I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult day chasing you down. I felt like a crazed person all day trying to figure out how we could meet again. This isn’t my usual—missing class for a girl. Since I didn’t have any way of contacting you, I started panicking. You have a way of making me anxious that I can’t say I like. You’re not the first girl I’ve dated, but you’re definitely the most difficult one to date.”
I didn’t know how to counter his words. Talking intimately with a man was completely new for me. “I don’t mean to be difficult…” I let the words trail as my mind and body started to part from this scene. What was I thinking? Feeling giddy, having hope, seeing the future in today—none of those reactions were realistic for me. My reality was graduation, moving to wherever my job would take me, taking care of the two people who took care of me when no one else wanted me—these were my stark reality.
“Stop.” Charles gently pulled me back to him but this time I didn’t give in. I no longer wanted these crazy painful, warring emotions.
“Today was wonderful, Charles. You made me happier than I ever expected to be. Your warmth and humor will be an asset for you when you become a doctor. Thank you and I hope we might see one another again.”
He watched me carefully while I spoke. The more I wanted to tell him, the more I kept to myself. Why hurt myself any deeper than I already hurt?
Regardless of what I’d said, I didn’t expect him to stop “chasing” me.
But he did stop “chasing” me.
It hurt. It hurt a lot.
“Kim! What brings you here at this hour? How are Bev and Allen doing? We live across the street from one another and I never see them.”
“Bev and Allen are always well, always constant. I needed a little diversion today so I thought I’d stop by. I hope it’s all right. Where’s Grayson?”
“Here.” My dear friend, and Sophia’s only son, gave me a gigantic hug. “How are you? You look sad.” Somehow, Grayson understood me like no one else. When I was younger, I hoped and hoped that he was my long-lost twin; we got along famously.
“Yeah, Grayson, I am a little sad today.”
“Why?” He was such a gentle soul. I hugged him again. I needed this comfort.
“You ready to hear what happened to me today?” I asked both mother and son.
“Yes!” Grayson answered with enthusiasm.
Before I explained my day, I thought back to the day I realized Sophia and Grayson were the two most important people in my life. It was the day I turned twelve and I thought I was dying. As with every year, my birthday was just another day to my parents. I woke up, was wished a happy birthday, and knew there’d be a chocolate cake for dessert tonight. There were no presents, no balloons, no hugs and kisses—and that was all right. That’s how I had grown up in Bev and Allen’s home and I knew no different, kind of.
That same morning, after breakfast, I walked to Sophia and Grayson’s home. There, I was welcomed differently. The balloons hung, breakfast consisted of cake and ice cream, and there were at least two gifts awaiting me—one from Sophia and one from Grayson.
Though Grayson was my age, twenty-two, Sophia turned sixty-five a few months ago. She never married, but had always wanted children so she went through an artificial insemination process. Halfway through her easy pregnancy, she had learned that Grayson had a high chance of being born with Down syndrome. Being the loving woman that she was, she affirmed that she’d love her child regardless.
Her sweet son, Grayson, was born with Down syndrome, and had been reared with overflowing love. Many days, I wished I had been Sophia’s child rather than the child of Allen and Bev. Naturally, these were feelings I kept to myself.
My twelfth birthday progressed like any other day, until that night when I believed I was dying. While showering, I had noticed a pool of blood on the tile floor. Not knowing why I was bleeding, believing I was dying, I hurried through the shower and ran across the street to Sophia’s home. Blubbering my way through an explanation of what was happening to me, I told Sophia and Grayson and I loved them and that they were the best friends any girl could have. Until that day, I’d never told anyone that I’d loved them. Love was not ever expressed, whether verbally, physically, or emotionally, in my house.
Sophia quickly understood my plight and took us to the grocery store. While having Grayson search for his favorite snack, she explained everything about the menstrual cycle and purchased pads and tampons. To give me time to come to terms with the fright I’d given myself, Sophia had me waiting in the car with my purchases while she went back to the store and shopped with her son.
During the most traumatic moment of my young life, I’d turned to the woman whom I knew I could trust. For the next few years, I’d kept my supply of feminine products at Sophia’s house and used her restroom when possible. Even now, my mother and I had not had a conversation about the birds and the bees.
“You’re zoning again,” Grayson teased. “Go on with your story. What happened today?”
To the best of my ability, I explained what had happened since I met Charles.
Grayson abruptly stood up from his chair and walked away from us. I looked to Sophia for an explanation.
“I guess you haven’t ever noticed?” she questioned.
“Noticed what? Did something happen to Grayson, today? Is he ill? Did that boss of his make work difficult for him?”
Sophia smiled sadly. “He won’t admit it, but I think Grayson has had a crush on you for some time.”
“Really?” I had no idea. “Since when? How could I have not seen this? We’ve always gotten along so well, he was like the brother I never had. I figured he saw me the same way.”
“I think his feelings border on love, Kimberly. Our main conversation is always about you.”
“Oh gosh. I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have said anything about Charles. May I go talk to Grayson?” Even before I heard an answer, I walked into Grayson’s room to make things right—assuming I could. “Hi. May I come in?”
“Sure.” Grayson was twirling round and round in his chair.
I walked over and hugged him from behind when I could safely stop him. “I’m sorry for being so insensitive. You know I love you like a brother, Grayson. It makes me sad when you’re sad. Please don’t be mad at me.” This mother-son dynamic duo were my two true friends. I couldn’t lose either one of them; it would destroy me.
“I love you Kimmie. Don’t love Charles.” Grayson’s statement broke my heart as much as the thought that there’d be no Charles in the future.
“You know that you and your mom are my best friends?” I wanted to remind this man that we would always be friends no matter the circumstances. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you both.”
Grayson turned himself around and returned my hug. “I love you, Kimmie. You’re my best friend, too.”
The air in here was too thick and heavy. I wanted to change our moods. “How was work today? Was your boss mean again?”
“Yes. He’s always mean.”
“But he must know that you’re the best number-crunching guy at the bank.”
“That’s why he can’t fire me even though I make mistakes.”
Grayson, while born with Down syndrome, lived life like the rest of us. He finished a two-year degree at the local college and found a job at the bank. Because of his high-achieving abilities with numbers, he was hired immediately out of school. Grayson usually worked half days because his hypothyroidism led to fatigue many of the days.
“Are we still the best of friends?”
“I’m going to go back home before I get into trouble, Grayson. See you tomorrow?”
“You want to go out for pizza tomorrow night?”
“Yep! I get paid tomorrow. Dinner is on me.”
“Hi Kimberly,” Charles cautiously said while approaching me while I stepped out of the chem lab. “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”
Inwardly, I sighed. All last night, I couldn’t sleep because I mourned the loss of someone I never had. Outside of a chance meeting, I didn’t think I’d see him again.
“I can’t.” He wasn’t happy with my response. Because I didn’t want him thinking that I was punishing him or playing hard to get, I explained, “I’m having dinner with my friends in an hour. I need to get home.”
“What happened to the dinner you promised me?” His tone was a lot lighter now. “I remember you saying that if we met by chance, you’d buy me a meal.”
“But we didn’t meet by chance,” I reminded him with the same lighthearted sentiment. “You stalked me.”
“Stalk, chance meeting—whatever. We met again, didn’t we? I believe you owe me a meal and I intend to collect it tomorrow night.”
Tomorrow, being Saturday, would pose several problems. First, I had work to do. Next, I’d have to explain to my parents where I was headed and with whom. Was I prepared for this?
“Can we meet for lunch instead?” Lunch would be much easier than dinner.
“Yes! What time? Where do you live? I’ll pick you up.” My heart blossomed at his eagerness.
“Great! Do you live on campus? I live in the Omega house. I can come get you.”
“I live almost an hour away, at home. I’ll be on campus working so I can meet you somewhere. Would that be all right?”
“You live that far away?” He looked dismayed.
“Yes, but I’m on campus six out of seven days.”
“I hate to make you drive so far, Kimberly.”
“It’s OK. I’m used to it.”
At this moment, I truly didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I wanted desperately to have lunch with Charles, spend time with Charles, get to know Charles—but I also desperately wanted to run away.
“Do you want to meet me at the frat house?”
“Sure. If you’ll tell me where it’s located?”
He wrote down the address on a piece of paper and placed it in my hand. His dark eyes gentled as he folded his hand over mine. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I was sick all evening believing you’d never talk to me again.”
Little did he know I was sick believing he’d never want to talk to me again. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Can you come any earlier? I’d like to spend as much time with you as possible.” His words made me happier than I should’ve been.
“If I’m done with work sooner, I’ll come by earlier. Would that work?”
“Absolutely! I’ll be waiting.”
“Kimmie! Over here!” Grayson waved his hand furiously.
I ran over to my friends and gave each one of them a tight hug. “Hi! Don’t you look handsome today.” Grayson was wearing a button-down shirt and the tie I gave him on his first day of work. “I especially like the tie.”
“It’s my favorite, too!” he answered with a smile.
I loved Grayson’s enthusiasm, but Sophia’s words yesterday made me a bit more cautious. I didn’t want to lose mother and son as friends, but I also didn’t want Grayson believing what we had was more than friendship.
“How was work today?”
“Better than usual. The boss wasn’t here today so I had a good day.”
“Excellent!” I smiled and squeezed his hand. “Sophia, how was your day?”
“I saw more patients than I wanted to see so I was a little late picking up Grayson. A coworker was kind enough to share her lunch with him while I finished up with my therapy.”
Sophia was a physical therapist. Even at her age, she helped men and women recuperate after their injuries.
“You ever think about working with children? It would be easier on you.”
Sophia laughed. “Since you and Grayson like to remind me how old I am, I decided to take your advice and I worked with a few children today.”
“Fantastic!” Grayson and I continually worried about Sophia half-carrying football players during rehab. “I guess tonight’s an all-around celebration.”
As usual, the three of us had a spectacular time.
“What took you so long? It’s way past lunch time when I had arrived at Charles’ frat house.” I had disappointed him, again.
“I’m sorry. The experiment ran long.”
“You could’ve called me. I thought you were standing me up.”
After a harried morning of attempting to fix my failed experiments, I was greeted by a half-angry man. Since I wanted desperately what Charles supposedly wanted—to spend as much time together—I’d skipped breakfast and come into work as the sun came up. What I wasn’t expecting was this harsh greeting.
“The phones in the lab don’t dial out. We can only make inter-campus calls. I’m sorry,” I repeated.
“Have you had lunch?” He sounded apologetic after my explanation.
I turned to leave while saying, “No, but I’m sure you’ve had lunch already. I’ll go.”
“Wait!” He grabbed my arm. “Seriously!” He was exasperated. “I’ve seen more of your back than your pretty face. Stop leaving.”
“It’s almost two, I’m sure you’ve eaten lunch. I shouldn’t have come by but I didn’t want you to think I…”
Perhaps honesty was best in this situation, any situation. “I left the house at five to give myself ample time to finish the test. Every time I ran the experiment, it failed. Even now, I’m not sure what I did wrong. My professor and boss doesn’t come in on Saturdays so I’ve no idea how to fix my problem. By the time my head came up, I realized it was too late for lunch, but I wanted to see you. I should’ve just gone home or to the library to do my homework. I’ll take you out for a meal another day.” With Charles hand on my arm, I knew I couldn’t leave, regardless of how much I wanted to get away and lick my wounds.
“Charles. How long are you going to leave your pretty guest at the door? Bring her in so we can meet her,” some guy teased.
“I’ll let you go,” I said and pulled my arm away.
“But I’ll not let you go,” Charles declared. “Do you want to come in and meet everyone or will you stay here until I get my keys?”
I almost said, “Neither.” He took my silence as admission that I’d stay put.
“I assume you haven’t had lunch?” he asked.
“I hope you’ve had breakfast?”
I chose not to answer, but instead I said, “If you’ve had lunch already, I’m fine. I’ll grab something on campus and go back to the lab.”
“Tell me something, Kim. Do you keep saying these things because you don’t want to spend time with me?” What to say? “Be honest. If you don’t want to be with me, I’ll drop you off and never bother you again.” Why did his words hurt so much? “Can you at least tell me whether we might work—or not?”
What did I have to lose by being truthful? It wasn’t as though we were in a relationship. We’d part in a month anyhow. I began with, “I don’t want to assume anything, Charles.” Slowly, I explained, “With the hopes that I’d be done before lunch, I started working earlier than usual. Maybe I was too eager? Maybe I was too flustered? For some reason, I just couldn’t get the work done. Like you said yesterday, I, too, wanted to spend as much time with you as possible. But when I arrived at your house, you didn’t appear to want the same anymore. That’s why I keep trying to give you a way out. If you don’t want to spend time with me, I don’t want to keep you from doing whatever else you want to do.” That was a bit of a ramble.
“To be clear, you do want to be with me?” Wasn’t that what I’d said? He read my expression and chuckled to himself. “Let’s go have lunch,” he declared.
I was too ravenous to talk at first, but once I stopped inhaling my food, it was a good time of getting to know one another.
“I have two younger brother and they all live in Maine. I hated the cold so the first Los Angeles university to accept me became my home for the past four years.” He began his side of the story.
“But then you’ll be right back in the cold at Georgetown.”
“I know,” he lamented. “Getting into a med school out here was impossible. My parents demanded I accept Georgetown.”
“It’s a phenomenal school. Your parents must be proud.”
“They are. What about you? How’d we never meet when you’re a chem major and I’m a bio major?”
“My life is pretty much school, my work, and home. There hasn’t been much time for anything else.”
“But still,” he countered, “you’d think we might have had a class or two together earlier in the years.”
“I attended a local college the first two years. That could be why we hadn’t met until recently.”
“Why do you commute from so far away? That can’t be easy driving an hour each way.”
“My parents are older and on the old-fashioned side. They don’t believe a girl should leave the house until she’s married.”
“Truly?” he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Truly!” I affirmed.
“You never rebelled against their old-fashioned ways?”
I thought carefully about how to answer his question. “My parents have done a lot for me that they didn’t have to do. I’ll always be grateful to them for taking me in.”
“Allen and Bev, my parents, adopted me when I was four years old.” As expected, Charles was surprised. “I was originally adopted by another couple, but the Cheryl, my first mom, died. Brent, my first dad, didn’t think he could raise me alone so I was given back to the state.”
“Can you do that?”
“In extreme cases it’s done, I guess. Brent wasn’t doing too well without Cheryl. I still remember those nights when he’d drink himself into a stupor, lock himself in the bedroom, and cry. My neighbor found me wandering in my pajamas and reported us to child services.”
“Damn. I can’t imagine how frightened you must’ve been as a child.”
Though I was young, I still remembered those days of being hungry and scared. “Yeah, I was. That’s why when Allen and Bev adopted me, I told myself that I’d never do anything to make them send me back to foster care.”
Having sat next to me at the lunch table, it was easy for Charles to place his arms entirely around me. “Allen and Bev have been good to you?”
“Yeah. They’ve been kind.”
“To the best of their ability, yes.”
“What does that mean?” I appreciated the anguish in his voice.
“My parents were in their late forties/early fifties when they decided to adopt a child. I never asked if they couldn’t conceive or if they never desired a child. They are kind people. They are just not expressive people nor are they affectionate people. At first it was hard for me because I remembered my first parents who hugged and kissed all the time. Soon, I learned to trade the hugs and kisses for kindness and generosity. They made sure I didn’t lack for anything in my life.”
“Damn. You break my heart, Kimberly Swan.” He hugged me even tighter. “I’ll shower you with all the hugs and kisses you missed growing up.”
I chuckled and pulled away. “Don’t get me wrong. My parents are very good to me. I just wanted you to know that my upbringing might have been slightly different than your own.”
“I assume you don’t have siblings?”
“No, but I have a friend across the street whom I consider a brother. There were times, while growing up, I wished I’d been adopted by Sophia and her son Grayson.”
Charles wanted to know more. “Tell me about them.”
“Sophia conceived Grayson through a donor. She never married, but she loved her son as a mother should love her child. The hugs I missed out on with Bev came in the form of Sophia and Grayson. She treated me like her daughter and Grayson and I grew up behaving like siblings.”
“Your parents were all right with you being so close to another adult?”
“I think they were relieved. At the time, it hurt whenever they kept me at arm’s length, but looking at it now, I realize that Allen and Bev had no clue what they were getting themselves into, adopting a child. I’m sure they asked themselves that question many times.”
“So, is this Grayson going to be competition for me?”
“Not at all. Like I said, we consider one another family.”
“I’d like to meet them.”
I didn’t think we’d ever get to a point where Charles would meet anyone close to me. “I want you to know that I leave for training the day after I graduate. I’m not sure if what we’re starting here is a good idea.”
“Why that soon?”
“That’s what I was told. I leave for South Carolina, then once training is done, I’ll be sent somewhere in the world. I don’t know where, yet.”
“I thought your parents won’t let you leave until you marry.”
I laughed. “I guess work is equivalent to marriage. They have no objections to me leaving for a job.”
After contemplating our situation, Charles confessed, “I leave for Maine right after I graduate, too. I’ll be home for a few days before my buddies and I backpack through Peru for six weeks. Then, I’ll be back home to collect my belongings before heading to DC.”
“Yeah…” What else was there to say? We were doomed from the start. “Why don’t we stay friends, or maybe not even that?” The conclusion was obvious to the both of us. Neither of us affirmed what we understood.
“Do you think you’ll be based domestically?”
“No placements have been made, but I got the feeling that it might be international. I am the perfect candidate to uproot—no husband, no kids. They’ll tell us after South Carolina.”
“Would a long-distance relationship be out of the question?”
“With you being in med school and me being out of the country, I think it’s pretty impossible.”
“So, what shall we do?”
“I don’t think there’s a choice.”
Charles sighed but had no answer. As much as I wished things could be different, it was probably best to leave before there was any more attachment formed—on my part.
“That’s it? You’ll just give up?”
“You speak as if I have any other option. I’m glad we met you. I just wish we would’ve met sooner, but it is what it is. Do well in med school.”
“Damn!” Charles said loudly. “How do I get a hold of you if I want to talk to you?”
I gave him my home number and said, “I’m usually not home until dinner time. Call me after six, but before nine. My parents aren’t fond of late night calls.”
“Do you really not have a cell phone? In this day and age, it’s incredulous that you wouldn’t have one.”
I smiled at his comment. “You don’t need to drive me back. We’re close enough to campus; I’ll walk.”
Waving good-bye, knowing this was probably our last meeting, I left holding my fragile heart in my hand.
“Kim, is that you?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m home. Can I help you set the table for dinner?”
“Yes, dinner is ready.”
“I came home at the perfect time.” I answered with a smile.
Beverly Swan, at almost seventy, was an active wife and mother. She cooked from-scratch recipes daily, laundered weekly, and made sure the house was presentable, always. My father, Allen Swan, in his early seventies, just retired from the local school district. After ten years as a teacher and thirty-five years as an administrator, he enjoyed retirement and gardening very much.
“Hello, Kim. Why’d you leave so early on a Saturday?”
“Hello, Sir. I saw that you pulled out all the weeds in the garden. You had an even more productive day than I did at the lab.”
“You had work to do?”
“I worked, but nothing I did turned out well. My experiments were a total failure. I might have to go in again, after church, and try to fix the mess I made today.”
“You’ve always worked so hard, Kimberly. I think you can take a day off. I’m sure your boss won’t mind,” Allen suggested.
“The problem is that if I don’t fix the mess I created, Monday is lost. I think I need to go in tomorrow, if that’s all right with you and Ma’am?”
“If you must,” Bev agreed. “Tell us about your new job. We haven’t spoken since you had dinner with your new bosses.”
“I’m very excited, Ma’am. The labs that they’ve shown me through pictures are humongous and the most advanced in the world. Once training sessions are done, they’ll assign me a location, provide housing, and even a driver in some parts of the world. All three meals are provided at work or in our places of lodging and we’re allowed four weeks of vacation every year.”
Allen chuckled. “When someone houses you, and feeds you, that means they practically own you, Kimberly. All you’ll do is work.”
I laughed with him. “That’s all right. What else do I have to do but work? Once I’m settled, you and Ma’am will come visit me?” They both nodded yes. “I’m told I’ll be housed in a spacious one-bedroom condo and there are housing options for guests, too. As soon as I learn how to apply for guest housing, I’ll send you plane tickets and you’ll come stay with me as long as you feel comfortable. I know you don’t like airplanes, Ma’am, but please make this exception for me,” I pleaded.
She answered, “Of course, we will. We are very proud of your accomplishments.”
“Speaking of flying,” Allen interrupted, “Bev and I will be heading to New Jersey in two weeks for your uncle’s retirement party. Can you join us?”
“Probably not, Sir. I have finals in three weeks and I’ll use that time to study. I’ve purchased a gift for Uncle Randy. When it arrives, could you wrap it for me, Ma’am?”
“I sure will.”
This was our usual at the dinner table. We discussed our day, we had a wonderful meal, and we enjoyed one another’s company. Rarely did we have extraordinary news, but we also rarely had extra-sad news. Life as a Swan was most satisfactory.
“I’ll get it,” Allen stood to pick up the phone in the living room.
While he was gone, Bev told me, “Allen explained that you wanted to send us half your paycheck once you start work.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’d like to thank you for all the years you’ve generously provided for me.”
“That’s sweet of you, Kimberly, but unnecessary. You know that Allen’s pension is generous. With the house now paid off and school tuition no longer knocking on our door, we will be fine.”
I argued, “I know you’ll be all right. You’ve always been excellent at saving for the future. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to provide a little extra for you—vacations, a new car for the both of you, and maybe even an updated kitchen. You love to cook but your oven is only once-removed from the original one. I know you don’t want anything extravagant, but a new car is necessary and a new kitchen is something that would’ve happened had you not paid for my college education.”
“It was our pleasure, Kimberly. You don’t owe us anything.”
“Don’t consider it as payback. These are a few things I knew I’d do for you when I got a real job. Please accept the money.”
Bev wasn’t convinced. “How about we put aside your money in a savings and we will use them as needed. For now, our cars work fine, the oven works miraculously well, and our vacation will come when we visit you. If things start to break down, we’ll talk again then. All right?”
I agreed. “Perfect!”