Do you have regrets? Have you done things in your past that, more than anything in the world you wish you could take back, to not have done, or to have done differently, honourably? A heart you broke you would unbreak and restore if only you could?
If only, say, you had a time machine?
Well. Where to begin?
It was sometime in the 1990s. I was talking to my psychiatrist. I was trying to explain to him why I felt quite so catastrophically awful.
“There was this girl.”
We went back and forth about this, him trying to understand why a girl I loved ten years ago was bothering me so much now. In the end, he told me, “Write about it.” He sent me home with instructions to sit down and write out, in longhand no less, the whole story of what happened between me and this girl. And bring the finished piece to my next appointment for him to read.
I had to write about it? I could barely talk about it. How could I write about it? The enormity of what I had done wrong, my betrayal, weighed on me, made me feel sick. I did a real shitty, cowardly thing to a lovely young woman who deserved much better from someone who said he was her friend. That weight had been bearing down on me this whole time.
I don’t deserve to be telling this story. It should be hers to tell. But I doubt she’d even speak to me, all these 30-something years later.
If I had a time machine, there are two precise moments I would visit.
I went home after that visit with my doctor, wondering how the hell I would even begin to write this story. Because I felt so torn up inside about these events that I imagined I would begin to cry and never stop.
I was a melodramatic drama queen in those days. All I knew was that it felt somehow threatening, even life-threatening, to address this matter in writing, to pull it out of me like a tumour using only a spoon. It occurs to Present DY Me that this might well have been my doctor’s exact idea. To extract the poison, to reveal the thing in its true scale, the look behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, to reveal the feeble little old man.
Which is not to say the people involved here, or their concerns or their feelings, are in anyway less than consequential. But in my case, the guilt I felt might have been casting a greater shadow over my life than the actual incidents might have justified.
One day, I sat down, all knots and grimaces and tension, with a pad of paper and a pen that I nearly broke from holding it so tight, and began to write the story, as if in blood, of what happened between a young woman I’ll call Laura and the bastard she thought was her friend Adrian, who committed the sin of falling in love with her.
The actual matter of the thing is simple. Laura was a beautiful young woman with a love for literature and theatre. She wanted to be an actress, so was in the theatre, where I met her. I liked her a lot from the beginning. We got on well.
But there was another guy, we’ll call him John, who, in the wake of a breakup with his girlfriend, took a shine to Laura. John and Laura were soon an item–until they were not. John’s original girlfriend might have been pregnant. He dumped Laura, and went back to her. Laura was left reeling, beyond hurt.
And there was I, the steady friend.
God, but this is terrible to write. You can see how it’s going to play out. One thing will lead to the next. But what’s complicating it is this is 1983, only four years since I left hospital. I’m still, at this point, trying to settle down with my medication regime. I’m also living on campus, away from home, and keeping strange, not-healthy hours. My life is a flaming mess, but of course none of that excuses what I did, or how I did it.
I wrote on. My arm and hand burned, scorching the paper.
Laura and I became close. We got together, ostensibly to provide her with comfort and a chance to talk about John. Funny, though, how that wound up including a kiss.
John claimed, later, that he saw that kiss. Or at least that he knew about it. I have no idea what to make of this claim.
Laura and I continued to meet. My feelings grew. As far as I could tell, she could not tell how I was really feeling. It was my secret.
Time unspooled. Life went on. We all, in our groups and classes, did our things. We also all hung out and had fun together, quite a group of nerdy, geeky artsy types. I kept staring at Laura. My feelings were growing like a cancer.
One afternoon, at the old and long-gone bus station, we were finished for the day, Laura, Shaun and me. Laura was heading off to get her bus home. I knew then my diagnosis. I had feelings. I loved her.
It was the most awful thing. It was the worst thing I have ever realised about myself, the self-horror of it, wishing for a bolt of lightning or air strike to kill you where you stand. As Laura vanished into the distance, I told Shaun I needed to talk to him tonight. He looked puzzled, concerned, seeing the look on my face, but said sure.
This is the first of my time machine moments. I should have kept my mouth shut. I should have gone home, and borne my misery. Told my parents, sure, but no-one else. I should have written out my tormented feelings and burned the pages.
One of our favourite hangouts was one floor in what used to be the City Arcade building that was entirely empty. An entire floor, with nothing but light and carpeting, and we seemed to be the only people who knew about it, we merry, sneaky few. We all hung out up there many a time. Shaun and I went up there that night, and I told Shaun about my Big Terrible Feelings. He was a great friend about it, and remains a marvellous guy.
I decided that night that the following morning I would phone Laura and confess.
What the hell was I thinking?
My second time machine moment is that phone call that morning. Time Traveller Adrian would sit on that bloody idiot, would wrap him gaffer tape, would break his arms and legs, would rip out the phone line and throw the phone itself out the window. I would do anything and everything, maybe even murder, if Past Me was going to be that difficult about it.
I understand how Past Me felt. I knowhow wretched he felt, how he felt he had let down his friend by allowing his feelings to grow. She had just been betrayed by John, and now again by me. Bloody brilliant friending job, Adrian
Even so, my Past Self should have told Laura, if at all, in person, gently, not over the phone, not in tears, not in apology, not making such a selfish-prick arse of the job.
My psychiatrist, when years later, we talked about it, struggled to understand exactly what I had done wrong. “Did you attack her?” “No. Of course not.” “Did you rape her?” “God no!” He went on like that, trying to get me to see his point, which was, “falling in love with a girl, even in such circumstances, is not the worst thing you could have done.”
It was good to write about it. He was right about that. And despite my producing 17 pages of agonising handwriting, he didn’t read it. The point of the exercise was for me to spoon out the tumour, as I said. It was big, but it wasn’t as enormous as I imagined. I was still a shit. I wronged Laura.
It haunts me, that moment, all these years later. Until all that happened, I’d been doing pretty well at university, and enjoying everything. But suddenly everything was unbearable. I left the theatre. I wound up taking most of second-year off entirely, and just did a handful of electives. My health suffered. I tried and tried to apologise to Laura, unsurprisingly to little effect. She’s never spoken to me since. She hasn’t been one of the people from the past whose looked me up on Facebook.
This was the beginning of what I call the “whirling instability”. I never recovered. In the end, by third-year, even though I was back doing a full study load again, my emotional life was damaged, as ruined, as it ever had been. I withdrew and went home to heal, ashamed of myself.
Of course there are no time machines. Their absence means we have to take responsibility for what we do. And I wish to hell I had not done all this to that wonderful young woman. I hope she recovered and went on to a decent life.