By Marlene Kurban -
The email from my old college boyfriend, Stefan, came the same day I received a letter from my alma mater announcing the 25th reunion of our class that summer. I was surprised by both communications: how could 25 years have passed by so quickly? And why would I hear from a boy – a man, that is - whom I hadn’t spoken to since the night of our graduation? I hadn’t stayed in contact with anyone I’d known in school. I tossed the letter in the trash but I opened the email, presuming he’d joined the alumni committee and this was the usual plea for funds. My daughter, Leesa, looked over my shoulder when she heard me sigh.
“It’s an email from someone I knew in college,” I explained. “An old boyfriend, I guess you could say.”
Leesa’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said, my eyes glued to the screen. She waited expectantly and I looked up at her after a moment, trying to digest the words I’d just read. “He’s dying of an aggressive form of leukemia.”
For some reason I still remember it today, the white dress that I wore the night before college graduation. I was 21 with unfashionably straight long blonde hair, a slender waist, and legs as long as stilts. The Berlin Wall had just come down, it was the tail end of the Reagan years and the livin’ was good if you weren’t a financially strapped college student working three jobs to pay tuition. I worked nights and weekends while my richer classmates went to parties and concerts. I met Stefan in one of my biology classes in junior year. He was from Greenwich, old money, a stuffy family, and a mansion near the water. He didn’t have student loans and he didn’t have to work. I disliked him as soon as I learned these few facts.
We worked on a biology project together and the more we talked, the more we butted heads. I was fiercely liberal, a member of Handgun Control and Greenpeace, a tree-hugging, bleeding heart commie, according to him. We had opposite tastes in movies, politics, religion. We had spirited debates and discovered that in spite of our differences, we shared a similar taste in books. We both loved science fiction. One night when I was depressed about something – I was depressed and confused about many things back then – I drank too much cheap wine and knocked on Stefan’s door. He let me in but I wasn’t in the mood to talk about Star Trek. After some stupid ramblings while I sat across from him at his desk, I made a clumsy pass. He wasn’t interested, he said, in his forthright and no-nonsense way. I recall to this day my utter humiliation when I slunk back to my dorm. I avoided him from that point on and didn’t speak to him again for a year. I pretended not to see him when we passed each other on our way to class. I pretended that I hated him.
“So what does your old boyfriend want?” Leesa asked with a naked curiosity. I studied her bright round face framed by golden hair, her large blue eyes. She was a beautiful woman and looked younger than her twenty-four years. I’d been living with her for a few months while I got back on my feet from a series of unfortunate events, including medical problems and a layoff from my job with the state. Her apartment was cramped and I’m sure it was no picnic for her to have me living there.
“He just wanted to say hello. And goodbye, I guess.” I was reluctant to say more, and Leesa let it go and went about her business. I finished reading his apology, for indeed, that’s what it was. An apology twenty-five years overdue.
I wonder if that’s what I would do if I knew I was going to die…make amends to those I’ve hurt? I was astonished, and moved, to read Stefan’s brief but poignant message. He’d always felt badly about how we’d parted ways, he wrote. He’d always regretted how things ended between us. That final night before our graduation, we’d met up at the senior dance. We’d both had a few drinks, danced a few slow dances, and how it happened I don’t recall, but we ended up that night in my room, in my bed, wrapped up in each other until dawn. Four years of pent-up desire exploded that night and we foolishly took no precautions. He told me that morning to call him if “something happened.” He was terrified. His family would never approve of a girl like me, and he would never stand up to them if indeed, “something happened.” I never called him and he never called me. And that, my sweet, was that.
Except of course, it wasn’t.
I read his message a few times and didn’t know how to feel. He wanted to see me. He was in hospice and he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make it to the reunion, months away as it was. He’d understand, he wrote, if I didn’t want to see him, but if I wanted to visit, here was the address and here were the times that were best. His wife and kids knew he was in contact with people from his past, he assured. He wanted to say goodbye to the people who’d mattered to him while he was still able to manage it.
In the end I decided to go. After staring at my computer screen for a very long time, I emailed him back and said I was sorry to hear his news. I said I’d come by to see him that week.
Leesa gave me a peculiar look when she saw me getting ready on the appointed day. I told her where I was going and she frowned. “Why are you doing this? Do you really think it’s a good idea? Do you really think that it’s fair?”
I had no answer to give her. Was it fair that I raised her alone? Was there any point in her – or him - knowing the truth? I combed my hair, put on my jacket, and left. My stomach hurt and I thought about Leesa’s question. Was I really going to disrupt Stefan’s remaining days with the news that all along he had a daughter conceived the night of that dance? Did he need to know how many years I struggled with parenthood and my own deeper issues? The years of therapy and social isolation? Fact was, and I should have been ashamed of myself, but I wanted to see the expression on his face when he saw me. I wanted to burst his little fantasy bubble of “what-might-have-been.”
The hospice was an hour’s drive from Leesa’s place, and I got there in the late afternoon. The air smelled like leaves, like spring, and the sunlight warmed my face and arms. I walked across the parking lot to the main entrance of the hospice and wondered what it would be like to know with certainty that it was the last springtime you’d ever live to see.
I signed the visitor’s log, hesitating about what to write. The name he remembered? Or what I called myself now? I decided it didn’t matter.
I made my way down the tiled hall, breathing in an antiseptic smell. When I stepped inside Stefan’s room, he was lying in bed, eyes closed. I stood quietly, studying his long, thin frame, and took a deep breath, the memories flooding my senses. His hair was still full and a silvery gray. His face was pale but his strong features were just as I remembered. Time had been both kind and cruel to this man. Perhaps sensing my presence, his eyes suddenly fluttered open and he stared up at me in surprise.
Neither one of us said a word. I watched him intently and he blinked twice before he smiled, a long slow smile that made me want to cry.
“Jackie,” he said. “It’s you, isn’t it?”
“How are you,” I said. I shifted from one foot to the other, feeling my cheeks burn hot with sudden embarrassment.
“It’s good to see you,” he said softly, and held out his hand. That simple sentence with no judgment, that simple, sincere gesture was all it took. I leaned forward to embrace him and he hugged me back. His shoulders felt bony and fragile and when I let him go, he sank back into bed with a sigh. His clear blue eyes, the color of the sky at twilight, of Leesa’s eyes, locked onto mine and I read the unspoken questions.
“It’s been quite a few years,” I said, not referencing the time that had passed since we’d seen each other, but since I’d made my transformation complete. I could tell he understood this, was turning it over in his mind. Maybe he was picturing me as the young girl he once knew. The girl in the white dress and flowing long hair at the dance. Not the tall bearded man standing before him.
Finally he patted my arm. “There’s a lot to catch up on, isn’t there? Things I should know. Sit down and talk to me.”
And so I began.
Marlene Kurban is the author of “Under Suspicion,” a thriller novel released in April 2019 by Stairway Press. She has had numerous short stories published in literary journals and small presses in the past. You can find her on Facebook @kurbanauthor.