Archibald stared at his 17 inch LCD computer monitor and ruminated on what might have been. As he gazed at the latest scenic wonder he had downloaded from Webshots, he idly wondered why Dell insisted their screen held six million colors – for the life of him, he could never distinguish more than a hundred. Maybe he was getting old – and Archibald did conjure up middle age. However, his nickname (Filli) was even worse. It had taken him several years – and umpteen bruises – to live down Filli (invariably referred to as a female horse) in both school and college. His dear departed mother was a lovely woman in most ways; but what could she have been thinking? He had never got up the courage to ask her flat out. It was never wise to get mom in one of her moods: great lady, but boy, could she hold a grudge.
But he digressed. Archibald did not know what made him think of his mother, but she was not the one he was ruminating about. Her name was Alexandra. Now there was a name one could savor: it would be sacrilegious to shorten it to Nat. It even seemed incongruous to link it with Archibald. Their “encounter”, “relationship” – the wounds were still too raw to attempt a definition – had been tempestuous, exasperating, glorious and, inevitably, brief. He had not once felt her caress, nor she his. And yet, for those few incandescent months, he had been able to peer into the depths of her soul. It was a bond that defied logic and reason. She was 19. He was 62.
Archibald, an engineer in a medium sized company - was retired now. He had had no choice really. His company, eager to recruit younger whiz kids (MBAs or something like that) had offered him early retirement – voluntary on paper, but not in fact. Some prudent investments during his working life had ensured that, unlike some of his colleagues, he was not forced to take up some dead-end job just to keep food on the table. In fact, he had looked forward to an easygoing, relaxed lifestyle. That was then – and that was seven years ago. But, somehow, all the grand projects he now had the time to pursue, the liberty he had envisaged, had not quite materialized. Sure, there were no more ulcer-producing deadlines; no annoying clients one was forced to be polite to; the freedom to do whatever he pleased whenever he pleased – or, at least, whatever his wife of 33 years would allow. But after he had read “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment”; hummed along with those old MGM musicals on DVD and had by now monotonous nights out “with the boys”, there was really not a lot to do. He was bored out of his mind. He did not quite remember how it started, but he began to find solace in the World Wide Web. At first, his motives had been altruistic: broadening his horizons by reading online editions of the New York Times and Washington Post, for example; but somehow he gravitated towards chat rooms. He had been both amused and disgusted – some of the “ladies” made suggestions and used language that made him blush – and he was certainly no prude. Still, it became a sort of addiction. Hours spent on aimless “chats” with people he had no real interest in; nor they in him. He knew it was pointless, but he couldn’t stop.
Then he had found her. She called herself littlecheekydevil; not exactly Hemingwayesque, but there was something; and he found himself sending her an IM. He was quite surprised when she responded, even more so when she revealed she was a teenager, still in college. He was tempted to fabricate an alter ego – as he often did to suit his chat buddy - maybe pass himself off as a twenty-something something; but an inner voice told him it wouldn’t fly with this one. Taking his life in his hands, he told her his true age, expecting her to recoil in horror and sign off immediately; but she didn’t. That was the beginning.
Alexandra, it turned out, was no prom queen. She told him bluntly, at the start, that she was not pretty. He joked that at his age, he was lucky to get any young girl to talk to him – even if she looked like a horse’s behind – and he didn’t believe her anyway. Still it took almost six weeks of cajoling before she agreed to send him her picture. Ok, maybe she wasn’t a looker in the conventional sense; short, slightly plump, thick glasses. But her hair was lustrous black and her eyes hazel; with an intensity that warned that the lady was immune to flattery and not for trifling with. She was passionate about things she believed in; religion, no sex before marriage – and he enjoyed riling her. It usually ended with her calling him a stupid old man with too much time on his hands and sawdust in his head; but somehow it came across as a playful caress, rather than a slap.
In some ways, Alexandra was very mature for her age – some of the things she said surprised and delighted him – but a typical confused teenager in others. She proclaimed that all boys were jerks and she was better off without them; but he knew that was just bravado and that she was hurt that none of them had asked her out on a date. Worse, the girls she hung out with were tolerably pretty – in fact, one was a stunner - and had regular boyfriends. She maintained that she got along great with her friends’ boyfriends, but she must have known it was not the same thing as having your own. He told her most teenage boys were superficial and that if they didn’t take the trouble to discover the treasure inside her, they didn’t deserve her anyway – and she pretended to agree with him. One sure fire way of getting her back up was to accuse her of having low self esteem – he had learned that the hard way.
Alexandra was a very private person and her natural instincts made her suspicious of anyone who tried to get too close. In their early conversations, whenever his questions got too personal, she handled them deftly by asking a counter question and encouraging him to talk about himself. That usually worked; in truth, it made him feel good. His wife had mentally tuned him out years ago and it was flattering that a young girl showed interest – or even pretended to. But he did not think she was pretending. She let him ramble on but, at intervals, interrupted him with a question that was really insightful; especially coming from a teenager.
In many ways, though, she was not a teenager at all. He hardly ever heard her mention make-up and parties and all the other stuff that makes up the centre of most young peoples’ universe. She told him about her first school dance at 16, when she could not get a date and her mom had bribed a geeky cousin to take her. She laughed it off, of course, but he could tell the hurt still lingered. She was passionate about her religion and, at first, he used to get some perverse pleasure by pretending to be an atheist. She told him she often wept for him because he would never get to heaven. Her obvious sincerity and distress came through and he relented. He admitted that he did believe in God, but he was a Buddhist (the conversion had taken place during a backpacking trip to Tibet; and he had never regretted it). That gave her some solace, but not a whole lot. A typical conversation would go something like this:
Alexandra: “It makes me so sad that you cannot see the true path. My fondest wish is to bring you to the light.”
Archibald: “Do you agree that I am a good person; that I haven’t committed any crime; that I try not to intentionally hurt or cheat others?”
Archibald: “But you still believe it is impossible for me to get to heaven. Why?”
Alexandra: “Because you do not pray – and that makes me cry.”
Archibald: “Let me get this straight. You do know that there are millions of people in this world who do not pray – either because they don’t want to, or they have no time? So, according to you, none of them will get to heaven? Is there any logic in that?
Alexandra: “I don’t know about logic. I just know it’s true.”
Alexandra: “Because it just is”
And that was the clincher. It must be so because she said it was so. No arguments. Her passion both exasperated and delighted him. It would have been easy enough to please her by pretending to be “converted” – she had no way of verifying – but somehow he couldn’t lie to her. He could not explain it to himself, but she had some mysterious quality that made him blurt out the truth, even when his brain – and he was a pretty intelligent guy – warned him it would get him in trouble. And it was not as if her eyes – he always thought of them as limpid pools – acted like some sort of polygraph. He didn’t even know where she lived (she had consistently rebuffed his probes). Like he said, he could not explain it.
They talked about everything. Well, to get technical, it was actually typing words on a key board and reading them off a screen. She used a laptop from her dorm room in college. She had no microphone or headphones. He had never heard her voice. He was a two-finger pecker; she played the keyboard like a piano; but somehow it all worked. He told her about his insecurities: whether he had achieved anything worthwhile in his sixty-plus years – he hadn’t really: how he was forced to endure humiliation from fools he knew he was better than – but the fool happened to be his boss: how his marriage had got into a rut – not unpleasant but the spark had long gone. It took a while to open her up but, once he unlocked the dam gates, it came pouring out like a flood. How she always felt she didn’t fit in – anywhere: how folks were kind to her – but she never felt genuinely included: how her friends embraced her without pretence – but, she suspected, it was because they did not regard her as a threat, as competition; how one of her lecturers tried to get fresh with her – and actually believed he was doing her a favor (because she was plain). The secret she held back the longest was how, in spite of herself, she couldn’t help thinking about boys and all that (in her eyes) wicked stuff. At 19, she had never even been kissed. She had this story book notion about love and marriage. She believed her soul mate was out there somewhere; and she would recognize him the minute she laid eyes on him. When that happened, she would give herself to him; body and soul. But, to have lascivious thoughts about a boy she wasn’t sure she was going to marry was wrong; that somehow she was breaking a compact she had made with the Lord. He tried to explain that what she was experiencing was normal; that it was largely a matter of hormones; that it did not make her an evil person. He did not think he convinced her. She was unlike any teenager – indeed, any woman, he had ever known.
Soon, she had invaded his every fibre. The time intervals between signing off and waiting for her to log on again became meaningless emptiness; something to be endured and got through as best as he could. The anticipation of knowing she would be online soon became a thrill; an almost physical sensation, somewhere between rapture and trepidation. Why trepidation? In spite of their closeness, he still needed to guard his tongue. One inadvertent, flippant remark and she would bite his head off. He could live with that: what he couldn’t bear was the freeze that followed soon after; the icy politeness. He would have to grovel to make things right. He knew it was childish – and a little demeaning for him – but the thought of losing her; driving her away; made him break out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t a romance, of course. That would be ridiculous. He was old enough to be her grandfather, for Pete’s sake. He just knew she had become very important to him.
One winter morning, in the midst of his usual prattling, he suddenly noticed she had gone quiet. At first he thought he must have put his foot in it again – not an unusual occurrence – and she was getting ready to tell him to stop being a jerk. But the silence lengthened. To test the waters, he said something guaranteed to provoke her, but no reaction. Now he was really worried. He begged her to tell him what was bothering her. Reluctantly, she did.
She told him she thought she was falling in love with him. For a brief moment, he literally froze; unable to move a muscle. His heart was pounding and his brain was turning cartwheels. His emotions were going every which way. He did not know how to respond. In truth, he did not even know how he felt. Should he feel elated; flattered? A young girl falling in love with a fossil like him? Was not that an occasion for joy? He did care for her, after all – in his own fashion. But love? He was more than three times her age. It was ridiculous: it was unnatural: it was bizarre. He knew she was waiting for him to say he loved her too. Maybe, he did. But how could he possibly put it in words? Someone had to act like a mature adult – and he was the only one around. He was married; dammit, he was old: it would be a relationship doomed to failure before it began: a guaranteed tragedy. He took the coward’s way out. He gave her platitudes (pure humbug) and told her they both needed to sleep on it.
The next day, she did not show up; nor the next; nor the next after that. A little voice inside him told her he had lost her; driven her away; irretrievably. But his mind could not grasp the enormity of it. There had to be a logical explanation. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she had been grounded and denied computer privileges for a week. But he knew he was fooling himself. She was gone. His tortured mind replayed a hundred scenarios about what he should have said; how he should have responded. His entire life had been ruled by logic; by doing the sensible thing. Well he had done the sensible thing - and lost…what had he lost? Did he love her? Had he ever regarded her as anything but a sweet and fascinating young girl who delighted him? He did not know. He did not have any answers. All he did know was; for one brief, shining moment, he had felt alive. And now she was gone. He buried his face in his hands and the tears flowed uncontrollably. He never heard from her again.
It’s been four months now. The pain has dulled somewhat, but is always present. Archibald goes through the motions now. He gets up, he eats, he sleeps; but something is dead inside him. The tragedy is that he does not even know what that something is. What died – and if it did – was it stillborn? Why did he not have the courage to give it a chance at life: to allow it its brief blaze of glory – even knowing that its inevitable fate was to be extinguished? He had been given the opportunity to rise above his mundane self: to glow in the fiery radiance of her young love – foolish as it was. He had failed to grasp it. Regret was futile, but it was all he had. How right that poet fellow was: “the saddest words of tongue and pen; are these, it might have been.”