I walked into the restaurant, wondering what I was doing meeting him, feeling very nervous and uncertain, I slid into the booth.
He greeted me with a big warm smile and said, “Hi Dana. You look great. Thanks for coming.”
I blurted out, “You . . . you look so different. You seem different. Your hair. Playing music? Really? And . . . San Francisco? So what’s going on. What do your parents think about you?”
“Whoa, one at a time,” he said laughing. “Obviously things have changed a bit.”
“A bit? A BIT? God, what happened, Russell? What happened to the uptight banker I was married to?”
“Well, when you left me, and by the way, I don’t blame you. It took me a while, but I realized what an ass I was. I’m very sorry for how I treated you. I would have left me. Truth is, I didn’t know any better, but that’s a feeble excuse, I know. But I am truly sorry.” He paused for a long moment looking past me into some other space. “Forgive me?”
“Of course I forgive you. We were both too young and inexperienced in life. We never should have gotten married. But I have to say, leaving you was the hardest decision I ever had to make. Now, seeing you so happy, I’m happy for both of us that I did. You seem so, I don’t know, just different, so much at ease. And Hannah, she’s amazing. I’m guessing you’re together?”
A clean cut waiter, dressed in the obligatory white shirt, black tie, black vest, pants, and shoes, appeared with water and menus. We each ordered iced tea.
He left and Russell continued, “Yeah, Hannah, she’s amazing, we’ve been hanging out together a little over two years now. I met her my second day on the road after I, for some unknown reason, decided to do a camping trip to the west. She was hitchhiking and, believe it or not, I picked her up. Still, to this day, I am surprised that I ever did that. You know as well as anyone what a social derelict I was. She,” he paused and I noticed his lips quiver and his eyes tearing up. Regaining his composure he continued, “She more or less saved me from myself. I don’t think I can ever tell her enough. Anyway, she was the complete opposite of me, a total free spirit which I discovered early on when we went swimming that first afternoon in Nebraska and she got in the water in her birthday suit.’
“What? Oh-my-god. What did you do?” I said laughing.
“Turned red as a beet, I’m sure. Looked the other way. Embarrassed to death. Didn’t phase her though. But she, I don’t really know, but she took me on an amazing adventure from a sweat lodge, to hiking and exploring, to Buddhism, to music of course, and to a life I never could have imagined. She taught me about love, not by sitting down and teaching me, but by example. She is an amazing woman who I am very grateful for and very much in love with.”
The waiter appeared with our teas and was ready to take our order. We both momentarily cleared our minds and ordered without ever having glanced at the menu. Both of us ordered salads, mine with chicken, Russell with brisket.
As soon as he left, I asked more excitedly than I wanted, “Are you married?”
“No,” he answered almost too quickly, “that’s the furthest thing from our minds. Maybe someday. Her mom and stepfather have been together over twenty years and never married. They’re and interesting couple . . . really, really interesting. So, enough about me, how are you? How are you really?”
“I’m good. Really good. Jess, like Hannah, saved me, I guess. She gave me the strength and support during that last year we were together. Without her, I don’t know what I’d ever have done. She’s good to me. Encourages me, gives me space, supports me. My parents hate her. My father hasn’t spoken to me since he found out I divorced you and am together with a woman. My mother barely speaks to me . . . makes me sad. But they’re locked into their belief system, worried about what their friends and pastor will think and don’t want anything to cause any chinks in their stone walls . . . sort of like we were back then. Funny how life works.”
“It is truly strange indeed. Back then, if someone told me I’d be playing music professionally, I’d have laughed in their face. But I love it and I’m having more fun than I could ever imagine. We even make some money. Are you still at the DA’s office?”
“No, actually, I started with a private firm about six months ago, family practice, which is what I always wanted. Overall, things are good.”
Our food arrived and we ate with smatterings of small talk. As we were finishing, I asked Russell to tell me what really happened. He hesitated for a moment and went on to tell me how his world fell apart after I left him. He told me about his depression, his mother’s criticism, his crazy idea of a solo camping trip, about his loneliness, about Hannah and how they fell in love, about her parents, about Sausalito, about music, about his time at a Buddhist retreat center, how he had started therapy, about his father’s heart attack, about how Donny was really his half brother and was serving time in prison for spousal abuse, about his mother, and finally about how he would never go back to banking.
I sat there and realized my mouth was hanging open as I tried to absorb this epistle. He was so different now, so open. Our table had been cleared and when I looked at my watch, we had been talking way over an hour after finishing eating. We both came out of our trance at the same time and reached for the check, but Russell insisted it was his treat. The bill was paid and we got up to leave. He took my hand as we walked out into the Chicago sunlight. He turned and looked at me for a minute and I thought, even hoped, he might kiss me. But it was not to be. He said his good-bye with a short hug, an uncertain smile, then turned and walked away without another word, without looking back.
I stood watching him as he walked down the street until he disappeared around a corner. My mind was racing with questions. What would have happened if he had this epiphany while we were married? Before we were married? Would we still be married? I suddenly felt unsure of my decision to leave him. Maybe I should have hung in there. Did I still love him? Did I ever? Doubts about my relationship with Jess unexpectedly erupted. Why was I with her? Did I really love her? Was she just a temporary fix that I kept clinging to? Should I have stayed with Russell? Would he had ever became the man he now was if we were still married? I’d never know. I kept looking down the empty street maybe wishing deep down he might come back. He didn’t. I turned to walk back to the condo. Tears of uncertainty and fear fell onto the city sidewalk I somehow now felt a stranger to. And now a life I felt a stranger to.