By Lisa Romeo
You knew. You knew I was 19. You knew you were 32 and married and the father of two children. You knew I was attracted. I wonder if you knew my attraction (which I didn’t even understand at the time) was fueled so much by your position (your celebrity almost) in that rarefied air we both breathed, in that world we both pranced through – you with ease, me with longing – that dazzling playground scented with horses and money and blue ribbons, with Hamptons houses and equestrian estates and show horses that cost more than my father’s house. Did you know that?
When you flirted with me in the horse show office, when you accidentally brushed against me in the stabling tent, when you waved at me from the rail, when you winked at me from under your hat brim on the sidelines of the polo field, did you know that I thought it was about me? Did you know every time I saw you across a field, across a barn aisle, across the table at a fundraiser, that I wondered if you were there because I was there and not because you were always there? That I didn’t understand it was about you and what you could do, get away with, possess, mark?
You knew, I think, that I couldn’t enter that world, not completely, on my own, with my marginal riding skills and small trove of not-always blue ribbons and my father’s money that seemed so endless on our split-level cul-de-sac, but so puny compared to what the horsy daughters of billionaires spent on their third-string jumper.
Did you know you’d get me, from the start? Did you know I would forget myself, lose my compass, imagine there was a good reason for doing the thing I knew I shouldn’t be doing? Yes, of course you knew, because that was your game, though I wouldn’t know that until you were long gone and I’d meet other young single girls you’d tempted before me, after me.
Did you know that when everyone seemed to know about us, and looked the other way, that I’d think at first that was exciting, edgy, and intoxicating? Of course you knew that, it was part of your charm, as much as your not-so-elegant looks and not-so-refined laugh and not-so-trim physique (though you kept that garbed in preppy pinks and greens, web belts and logo polo shirts).
Here’s what I knew: you moved me closer to the pulsing epicenter of that world I knew I’d never penetrate on my own, not with my marginal money and my merely mediocre skills in the saddle. You put a hand on my back and winked at the judges and trainers and suddenly doors opened for me, invitations arrived; at shows, between events, I began to sit in the shaded tents at ringside, where I was served crisp salads by fawning waiters, instead of fetching my own lemonade from the snack stand in the dusty Florida haze.
When you died in that horrible accident, when I got the call, or rather when I got the messages (it took only listening to three of the 12 flashing messages that night – Hi, call me, I have something to tell you…Hi, you need to call me just as soon as you can…Hi, have you heard anything… for me to know: someone had died) – that’s when I understood. That “we” never happened. That your wife had lost you, not me. That your child who died with you was lost. That your child who survived would be lost forever.
I’d be fine. I’d cry, fly to your funeral, sit in the back, slink away before it was over, fly back to school, ride, graduate, ride, date suitable boys, ride, and forget.
As for that world, the one I ached to be part of, I’d continue to tread its perimeter (my go-to-the-head-of-the-line pass having perished along with you), until something else propelled me to its center again; a particular skill this time, not in the saddle, but at the typewriter, chronicling that world.
Years passed. Decades, before I thought about what you must have also known: that I’d remember you, remember us, remember feeling special. Did you also know I’d understand, eventually, the stupid risk, the selfish impulse?
But I’d also understand it was not all unseemly, not all tawdry. That you were sweet, and kind, and, in your unusual way, honest.
You knew that despite all of that, it was, of course, wrong. Wrong of you to hook me in, wrong to pull me in further, wrong to cheat, wrong to let me help you cheat, wrong of me to help you cheat.
Did you also know that many times since that hideous night when I heard what happened to you, I also wanted to thank you? Did you know that the pep talks stretching into the stolen beach house afternoons, that the touch beneath a table when I felt out of place and intimidated by those wealthy people, that the way you gently thrust me forward when I’d have been content to hide behind you, that as much as they were wrong, they were what I needed? I think you did know that. I think you cared; that in your own unhealthy, convoluted way, that caring was specific and in some way, sincere. But, wrong.
What you didn’t get to hear, ever, because I didn’t come to it until long after you died, is me thanking you, me angry at you, me frustrated at not knowing what the hell went on between us, me (once I was a wife and the mother of two children) livid at you for involving me in something that meant a wife, a mother (your wife, the mother of your two children)—despite her own claims (which friends who knew her longer and better than I ever did claim she made all the time) that she knew and understood and frankly didn’t care all that much about your “extra-curricular activities”—something she might have to fear.
Maybe you knew it all. Maybe you didn’t know a thing. Maybe it was all just instinct and happenstance, or convenience and some kind of luck, good and bad.
Years passed, decades, before I knew what I should have, could have, said to you. But who thinks of saying those sort of final, important things when you are 19 and sneaking around (even if it’s not so-secretly sneaking around) with something you are supposed to be polite social friends with, someone whose wife has been nice to you, someone who is 32 and tanned and rich and sexy and vibrant and who you expect to see again next weekend, on the showgrounds, at the bar, under an umbrella somewhere with a book and a bourbon?
Years passed, decades, until you, frozen at 32, became someone far younger than I am now, until I had a child older than 19, until I had something to say, and here, I’ve said it, and in the end, there’s only one thing to say and it is perhaps what I should have, could have said to you then, in the beginning, or the middle, or before the end, and that is goodbye.
Lisa Romeo writes, teaches, and edits manuscripts from her home in New Jersey. She’s published essays in dozens of venues such as the New York Times, Hippocampus, O The Oprah Magazine, and Under the Sun. Her work has been nominated for Best American Essays and appeared in many anthologies. She’s completed a memoir that explores learning more about herself and her father, after his death. Lisa’s former writing lives have included work as an equestrian journalist, public relations specialist, and web news editor. She is currently creative nonfiction editor of Compose Journal, and on the faculty of the Bay Path University MFA program. Find Lisa on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or through her blog.