Old Boyfriends


Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange


Funny how you can go through a whole day and not remember a bit of it. One minute you’re on the morning train, and the next you’re back at Grand Central during evening rush hour, waiting for the train to North White Plains.

Sarah Carla spotted the gate number just as the fleeting questions about where the day had gone entered her head. She passed the flits off as a human’s amazing ability to turn off their brain when its work day was as mind-numbing, tedious, boring, and mundane as Sarah Carla’s. There was a phenomenon associated with it; some sort of self-anesthetizing reaction to the dull world of the underutilized.

Sarah Carla, expert data input clerk and sometime telephone answerer, would be the first to tell you she was not underutilized. She had the fastest fingers in town. A pretty big statement in a city of seven million. Unfortunately, she got paid by the hour so her talent went unrecompensed fairly. Perhaps Jerome was right about her not reaching her potential. Perhaps he was right to fight with her about it. But did he have to leave over it? Anybody that left because their partner was unrecompensed fairly was not someone you wanted as a partner.

She spotted the gate number, 29, and turned from the boards to head across the floor past the information booth where gate 29 stood.

The commuter crunch was in full swing. Raincoats—the uniform outer wear of the modern-day office worker regardless of the weather—flocked toward the various gates and passages. The surging pool of brown khaki was no doubt overwhelming to inexperienced out-of-towners, but Sarah Carla and the 499,999 other day workers were well informed. They navigated past each other swiftly, avoiding mishaps. Briefcases and laptops slung along like nursery rhymes: all rhythm and purpose.

Sarah glanced at the big clock hanging above the balcony of the Palms where the less-pressed commuters stopped for a martini before heading home to supper and bed. Or maybe a group of visitors rested there to regain strength squandered on a day of manic shopping—the last New York minute before their holiday ended. Parcels and bags gathering underneath the little tables there attested to the latter.

The clock said 4:15, giving Sarah a good twenty-five m…

Just as Sarah returned her gaze from the dial to the ever-moving maze of rushing bodies wearing raincoats and carrying cases, a face materialized out of the crowd and brushed past her. Its owner wore a green and gold letter jacket, circa 1976, instead of the ubiquitous power raincoat.

Sarah gasped. Reggie Crown’s face had not changed a bit. She abruptly turned to watch Reggie’s passing varsity coat sink into the surrounding crowd. The sudden move on her part caused the man carrying the Dell immediately behind her to lose his timing. He stumbled into her for a brief second. Then, in a deft side step, he regained his composure and returned to the swing of the crowd and within seconds was halfway to gate 32. Sarah stood unmoving for a frozen moment before stepping forward to follow the green and gold.

“Reggie,” she called.

The jacket was by now heading around the corner to the main exit. She swam upstream to follow. She called again when she reached the corner and watched him looking for an opening in one of the twelve exit doors. He was the only one in the crowd trying to leave the building. The noise was such that he could not hear her calling. Soon he was out and now Sarah was in the same predicament he had just been in.

Pushing, elbowing, and glaring at the oncoming traffic, she made it to the exit doors as an old woman with a cane was also trying to exit. Everyone around the old lady had opened a path to let her by and Sarah saw her opening. She stepped through with an “I’m sorry,” to the doddering woman.

“Fuck off!” the old woman said.

“Thanks,” said Sarah, actually meaning it, because she was not paying the least bit of attention.

Reggie Crown crossed the street and headed into the Pershing Café just as the traffic light changed. Sarah ignored the red hand standing in for “Don’t Walk” and shot across the street, safe in the thirty seconds after the hand came up that the pedestrians would jaywalk against the light. Long before the thirty seconds were up, Sarah was inside the café and explaining to the hostess that she was looking for a friend in a green and gold high school bomber jacket.

“Cabletown?” the hostess asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered seriously, as if Sarah actually needed to specify the one from Cabletown as opposed to the ones from Allentown, Syracuse, or Bumpfuck.

“Yes, he joined his friends in the far corner,” the hostess answered once she knew exactly which person Sarah was referring to. She pointed to the back where the riser was situated by floor-to-ceiling windows allowing patrons to sit and watch foot traffic outside.

Sarah collected her raincoat belt that had slipped to its last loop. She walked to the corner table where Reggie Crown was just settling in with three others. As she approached the table, the four turned and smiled to her as if they expected her. She kept her eyes on Reggie, though, and didn’t see the others: the crooked teeth and thick glasses with the tape holding the stem in place on bachelor #1, the white boy dreads of bachelor #2, and the innocent age of 15 of bachelor #3. She only had eyes for those of her high school sweetheart, Reggie Crown.

Reggie was not surprised to see Sarah Carla. He smiled in warm welcome, not taken aback in the least. He did not jump up in surprise and wonder for a few moments just how the hell she got here. He did not imagine himself back on the track practicing with coach Dander while his love sat in the bleachers, melting at the thought of a little hunt and pet after the drill.

“Reggie!” Sarah Carla held her arms out to embrace the unembraceable. “What are you doing here?”

Reggie remained seated and smiling. “Sarah, have a seat. We’re all here.”

Sarah’s wide smile slowly released into the shape of a “W” as in “What the…?” as she took in the other three bachelors. She looked from one unaged face of her youth to the next: Tom, her first boyfriend, still anticipating his sixteenth birthday and the expected driver’s license; Lance, the guitar-prone genius headed for the Billboard charts; Mike, her college boy and calculus compatriot. They sat smiling and looking exactly the way they had the day she’d left each of them for greener pastures a long time ago.

She froze and moved only her eyes from one ghost to the next. After several moments of confusion and perhaps a tinge of fright, she spoke: “You forgot Jerome.”

“Jerome’s not an ex,” Mike stated with the exactitude she would expect.

“As of last week, he is,” she said.

“Sit down, Sarah,” Reggie said. He stood to pull out the vacant seat between him and Mike.

“Uh,” Sarah faltered, her brain short-circuiting as she tried to force herself awake. She knew she was dreaming. “I’m going to miss my train,” she said.

“You’re going to take the late bus today. What will you be doing when you get home, anyway?” Reggie asked.

“That’s more important,” Lance added.

Sarah looked at him. His face had not lost its innocence yet. He hadn’t met with the crushing defeat of the music industry. He had not gone into insurance yet. He was still headed for the Grammies right here thirty years later. She stared with her mouth opened in wonder, her brows cinched together.

The four of them watched her and became impatient. Especially Tom, the youngest and a bit fidgety. “It’s your weekly confession,” he blurted. “Did you forget?”

“My weekly confession?” she turned to him now. “What are you talking about? And why do you bother shaving that little wispy thing?”

“Is that why you dumped me?” he asked.

“I dumped you?”

“Sarah, sit down, please,” Reggie pleaded in a not so much accommodating way as an annoyed way.

Sarah looked to him and realized she was stuck in either his dream or hers. Or in a hallucination or delusion.

“It’s not a dream,” Lance said.

“Or a hallucination,” Mike said.

“Or a delusion,” Tom said.

“It’s your weekly confession,” Reggie said.

“That’s what Tom said,” she answered as she looked again from one unchanged face to the next. She ended on Reggie. “And why should this weekly confession be any different than any other weekly confession?”

“It’s different because you meant it,” he answered.

“You sound like some lackey in human resources. Are you going to start in on the bullshit line? I won’t listen; it’s all just some company requirement to keep the psychologists off their back.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Mike jumped in. “It has been proven that people that go to church regularly and experience forgiveness of sins perform fifty percent better in their jobs. After all the tests and surveys were completed it was determined that out of all the things church offers, it’s the forgiveness of sins that really makes a difference.”

“Really,” Tom said.

“Better even than life after death,” Mike continued. “You’re a registered atheist and so have to resort to electronic confession to get equivalent relief.”

“And keep your job,” Tom added.

“It’s just snake oil,” Sarah said, looking straight at Mike.

“On the contrary,” he answered. He stood up and circled over to Tom to illustrate the theory behind the electronic confessional experience.

“Your brain harbors unresolved conflicts in your temporal cortex,” he said palming the top of Tom’s head, his brain. “These conflicts reside in the neurotransmitters stored in long-term memory in various and sundry synapses. They periodically release signals to the amygdala where tension, resentment, anger, self-pity, self-loathing emanate. These negative feelings will continue to affect your personality and sensitivity all your life unless prior conflicts are resolved. Forgiveness of sins resolves these conflicts. Every Sunday, true believers take advantage of the fact, go to church, and start with a clean slate Monday morning. You, being an atheist my dear,” he bowed towards Sarah, “must resort to technological means to achieve the same sort of release. You, my dear Sarah Carla, have been subjected to fMRI which detects just where your sins are residing. A tiny bit of dopamine via tyrosine injection—small and unnoticeable, yet highly effective—has been sent to your temporal cortex to induce hallucinations,” he gestured to the four at the table, “to affect a dredging up of your past sins stored in the cortex. We’ll get the ball rolling, extract a confession, and pretty soon forgiveness will set in.”

“Ha!” Sarah said, taking the seat next to Reggie. “I’ve been going to Confession® every Wednesday since I signed onboard this meat-packing outfit. It’s never made any difference to me. I wake up just as disillusioned on Monday morning as I was on Friday night. I don’t buy it.”

“Then why are we here?” Lance asked. “How did I get here, looking as I do? As if I was still starry-eyed, pimply-assed, and slightly off-key? Why aren’t I interested in selling you some homeowners’?”

“I don’t own a home?” Sarah suggested.

“And how come I’m still fifteen?” Tom asked.

Faced with the obvious, Sarah did what was natural, she balked. “So I went to my weekly confessional requirement as mandated by Company policy and now you four are the result? How’d it happen? Takes a lot of dope to become four sizable blobs of protoplasm, even if your brains were never very developed.”

“So that’s why you dumped me for a jock,” Tom said.

“And me for a rock star,” Reggie said.

“And me for a genius,” Lance said.

“But why’d you leave me?” Mike asked. He walked from where he stood next to Tom and out in front of Sarah across the table.

Sarah pulled on her collar, tugging the clay bola at the front of her neck loose. “Can’t we get a waiter or something?” she said. “What’s wrong with the service here, I’m dry as a bone.”

“Why’d you leave me?” Mike asked, raising his voice to the point of emotion.

“Why am I on trial here?” Sarah asked. “Kids don’t form real relationships, they change boyfriends weekly. What do I have to make an accounting of?” She stood to go and tied her raincoat belt around her waist.

“You’re not on trial here,” Reggie said. “It’s your confession; you wanted us here.”

“That’s bullshit,” she said, looking directly at Mike. “Snake oil.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “You know it isn’t. The confessional samples your brain waves, analyzes the sin, dopes it around and voilá, Reggie Crown is meeting you in Grand Central, leading you to your final destination: the back table at the old Pershing Café. Waitress!” he held his forefinger up in the air, beckoning the server in the middle of the room.

The waitress came to the table balancing an empty drink tray on her right palm and said, “What can I get you?”

“The lady needs a drink,” Mike answered.

“I just want a… a Pellegrino,” Sarah said, retrieving her seat.

“And what else?” the waitress asked looking around the table at the bachelors.

They all shook their heads and cast their eyes down. “Nothing for us,” Reggie spoke for them all.

The waitress smiled tightly and walked away. For several moments no one said anything.

Sarah finally spoke. “Why now, why today? What’s different?”

“Why do you ask us?” Lance said.

“This is your scenario,” Mike added. He sat back down in his seat and fumbled with a table napkin, folding it into neat parallel thirds.

“I don’t know why, Mike,” Sarah said. “I don’t know why, truly. I wish I did. As for the confessional, I guess I wanted to apologize to all of you. I was unable to give you all you needed, what you deserved, or anything at all.”

“You said you loved me,” Tom said.

The table grew restless; they all knew what he meant.

“I lied,” she said. “I didn’t know what love is. Don’t now.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance jumped up. “No one knows. That’s a stupid excuse.”

“But it’s the truth and if you look back on it, you’ll realize you didn’t love me either. We were just trifling, not meaning anything, practicing for the big meltdown. For the day when the walls would come tumbling down. When we’d get hit by a ton of bricks. Nobody loved anybody!” She looked from one to the next as she worked through her rationalization.

“I loved you,” Mike remained slumped.

“Oh, please, Mike,” she said, almost disgusted. “We were still kids, big-brained, malformed, grown-up kids, waiting for the next thing.”

“I loved you and you knew it,” he said.

She inhaled and exhaled in a quiet burst, perceptible only to herself. “Why?” she asked.

“Because you were bright, excited, and exciting. Something that had never come along before. We went everywhere together. We were inseparable. I hung on your every breath, planned my whole life around you. And you knew it.”

“How could I know it?” she asked.

“Because I told you. And you knew it anyway.”

“You trying to make me feel guilty?”

Small laughs and chuckles gurgled simultaneously from all four bachelors.

“That’s the point,” Reggie on her left said. “You’re making you feel guilty.”

“Oh yeah, from the confessional,” she said. “Thing is, it’s not working.”

“It worked before you even stepped into that booth on 29th and Park,” Lance said. “We’re not here to dredge up the past and remind you of what you did; we’re here for forgiveness of sins.”

“I forgive you,” Sarah said.

The four stared at her with half-closed eyes. No one said a word.

Sarah looked at Tom and said, “Because Reggie was better looking.”

She looked at Reggie. “Because Lance was more edgy.”

She looked at Lance. “Because it was over.”

She slowly turned to Mike and inhaled deeply. She glanced at the three-fold napkin he’d been playing with. “It was too much,” she whispered.

Mike sat up stiffly. “What?”

Sarah leaned in towards him. “You were too much.”

When he didn’t react she repeated it louder: “Too much!” And then quieter: “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Because I loved you?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Love was not what I expected. There was this terrible disabling aspect.”

“Because I loved you too much?”

“That’s not love, Mike. That’s fear.”

“It was love, and you knew it.”

“I knew it wasn’t, but I could never tell you. It was so much easier to just run away.”

“So is that your confession?” Mike asked.

“What difference does it make?”

“You tell me.”

“Tell us,” the other three said together.

Silence again as she looked around from face to face.

“I handled it all wrong. All of it. All of you. I never explained. I didn’t know how. I don’t know now. I’m just very, very sorry.”

She hung her head and tried to gather an explanation, find an answer on the inside of her eyelids with eyes pinched shut.

“Ma’am, your seltzer,” the waitress was bringing her order. Sarah snapped her head up and looked at the waitress. “Ah,” she said. Without looking around the table, she knew they’d gone. They’d faded away once her confession had been completed.

“Thank you. I’ll take the check now,” she said.

She took a few sips of the Pellegrino which burned divinely in her throat, and then pulled a few bills out of her laptop outer pocket and dropped them onto the table. Gathering up her raincoat and laptop, she walked through the café and out into the 42nd street pedestrian traffic.

Across Park Avenue, the express bus for Westchester waited for the embarking commuters. It seemed about ready to take off so Sarah hollered “wait!” as she ran across the small distance from the café exit to the bus entrance.

Once inside the bus, she passed her commuter card over the reader and gained admittance to the seating area. With no surprise, and actually a little expectation, she moved to the one empty seat next to Harold, her husband—now ex—of three years.

Harold wore a brimmed hat of the style that would make sure the whole bus noticed. He nodded to her as she sat. Once she had made herself comfortable, he inhaled, gearing up for a spiel. Just as he was enunciating his first syllable, she cut him off.

“I have absolutely no remorse regarding you,” she said. “My confession does not include you. Everything I’ve ever needed to say to you has been said. So what the eff?”

Deflated, Harold closed his mouth and lost his energy. “Hello to you too,” he said.

“So what’s my crime?” she asked.

“No crime, don’t be so defensive. As you noted everything that needed to be said, has been said. A long time ago, I might add.”

“So why are you here?”

“For closure.”

“Oh, please,” she looked away, adjusted her laptop onto her lap.

“Now, now Sarah. Your confession conjured me as the one person that could best guide you forward. You’re all clean now, and vulnerable. You made your confession, that’s true. But you don’t know why yet.”

“So why you? I don’t even like you at this point.”

“Who better? You don’t like me, but you can trust me. We don’t have any secrets; our mutual hate makes us painfully honest. Who else would lay it out in the open for you?”

“Are you going to tell me how many hail Marys or acts of charity I have to commit for penance or something?”

“In a word? No. You just need a push in the right direction and all charity becomes your own.”

“Uh huh.”

“Why do you think Jerome wasn’t there?”

“Leave him out of this. He’s not hounding me so let’s leave well enough alone. I’ve had enough old boyfriends for the time being.”

“He’s not an old boyfriend, Sarah.” All levity had gone out of Harold’s voice. He had the seriousness of a teacher that’s getting to the grist and will leave no child behind.

“Have you spoken to him?” Sarah asked.

“No, have you?”

“Not since last week when he ditched me.”

“Why did he do that?”

“How should I know?”

“Oh, come on Sarah, you know full well why. You made him. You wanted him to.”

“I absolutely did not.”

“Why didn’t you want him to?”

“Because I…”

“Ah,” the bon vivant returned to Harold. His eyebrows lifted, he shrugged his shoulders. “So why are you here? In this city? On this bus?”

“I live here.”

“You ran here.”

“It’s a place.”

“You have a mechanical engineering degree from a half-way decent school, yet you do data input, the type of work a half-witted monkey could do. Why do you take the easy way out all the time? Why don’t you work for what you want?”

“It’s relaxing. You should try it sometime.”

“Why are your fingernails all chewed to the quick if you’re so relaxed?”

Sarah looked down at her hands resting on the top of the laptop. “What do you want, Harold?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave me alone.”

“And so I shall,” Harold said. “For here is my stop.” He rose to go. The side door was already opening with the passengers queued up in the aisle. He latched onto the back of the line and at the door he turned to Sarah and said, “It’s okay to be wrong, you know, if that’s what you want.” The doors flapped shut behind him.

Sarah huffed after him as if her disgust would reach through the doors and remind him how annoying he was and how glad she was that at least she and he had no unfinished business.

* * * * *

Abruptly the lights went out and she found herself waking in the booth’s curtained darkness. The LEDs of the analyzer surrounding her blinked in the darkness. She felt woozy, disoriented. She barely remembered accepting the tyrosine-laced wafer proffered from the booth’s mechanical priest arm.

“Please retrieve card,” came the canned instruction. She registered its sound and slowly realized she needed to get her debit card back and return to work.

Tripping out of the booth on 29th and Park before fully regaining consciousness, she felt too queasy to face the data terminal. She collected her raincoat and her laptop and headed down to Grand Central. She thought about Jerome and the fight they’d had. He was pressuring her into checking into the city engineering gig. He worked in the mayor’s office and found out about a contract in the making for new city development—office buildings, parking garages. A lot of shit was going on. White Plains needed a gaggle of young, enthusiastic (read: cheap) engineers to pump up the design/inspection squad. He really wanted her to put in an app. She claimed as usual he wasn’t getting it; that she was fine where she was. He said, fine. She said, fine. He left. For good, he said.

In the station, the 1:00 p.m. crowd was nothing like that during commuter crunch. She easily found her gate, 11, and without any jarring ex-boyfriends to intercede, entered the train and lay down in the empty seat. Once the train got underway, she felt better and sat up.

On the other side of the river, the train exited the tunnel and made it out into the open. She watched the cityscape permute from tall housing projects to warehouses to six-floor borough residences to the suburbs with its single-family homes on sixth-acre lots interspersed with duplexes and cement walkways running between them. At Woodlawn she debarked along with the Irish-American contingent that lived there.

Walking the couple of blocks to her tiny back-room apartment, she thought of her past mistakes and personality flaws. As she neared her street, the self-absorption slowly strayed away. The sun had come out after an early afternoon shower and the air smelled fresh and invigorating. She thought of how lucky she was to be able to duck out of work on such a mad, great day. She began skipping, with the laptop swinging like a child’s lunch pail. She ran up the steps to her flat and flew into the kitchen, dropping the raincoat and laptop onto the table. She picked up the headset of her landline and punched in #1.

“Hello,” came from the end of the line.

“Jerome,” she said. “What are you doing home?”

“Sarah? Uh, well I was coming down to meet you.”

“But I’m home now and I was, uh, just thinking of coming over to your office.”

“But I’m not there.”

“I know, and that puts me in a quandary, because…”

“I just want you to forget the whole city job thing. It’s fine where you are. I just want you to be happy, and I…”

“…because I decided I needed to fill out an app anyway, and I’m…”

“…miss you, and I don’t want to…”

“…sorry, and I don’t want to…”

Together they said, ”break up.”


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