When I was a child, I dreamed of having a summer romance like the ones I read about in the young adult books of the 1980s whose titles have since slipped my mind. These romances often took place in beach towns on the East coast, along Cape Cod or the Hamptons. Places that, as a Midwestern girl who spent her summers climbing trees in her neighbor's backyard, I could only dream of. Summer vacations rarely happened in my family, so I fantasized instead.
It wasn't until my mid-20s while traveling in Ireland that an opportunity for a summer fling -- worthy of the romance novels of my childhood -- presented itself. I arrived at Anam Cara, an artist's retreat located four miles north of Castletownbere, where I would study poetry with Billy Collins for a week. I was jet-lagged and carsick after a seven-hour flight and subsequent two-hour van ride along narrow, winding roads that left the Guinness I enjoyed upon arrival churning in my stomach. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, and I'm sure looked as worn as my body felt -- but there he was.
He wore a peach-colored shirt and his brown eyes pierced through me, even through his glasses. I was intensely attracted to him and sensed an immediate connection between us. His name was Charlie, and he was 39. I quickly learned that he was separated from his wife and had three children.
As the week unfolded, Charlie and I were inseparable: talking about writing and art, walking along cow-filled pastures, hanging out at pubs listening to the locals play Irish music, even skinny dipping under a star-studded sky.
One afternoon, Charlie drove me to Castletownbere so I could mail some postcards. We sat on the edge of Berehaven harbor, a fishing port on the southwestern coast of Ireland. Looking out into the misty water as a light drizzle began to fall onto empty boats, I wanted Charlie to kiss me even though I had a boyfriend back home.
"You should visit me in Boston," Charlie said. "I'd love to take you sailing."
Listening to him talk about sailing and swimming, my mind wandered to what life would be like with him, a summer romance on the East coast just as I had dreamed of as a girl. I pictured the Boston I had visited the year before, the Charles River as you drive into town, all the boats in their still glory, like a scene from a painting. I wanted more than anything to abandon myself and let the moment take over. Tell Charlie I didn't care about his soon-to-be ex wife and his three children and my boyfriend and the 1,000 miles that would separate us once we returned home. None of it mattered.
We only spent one week together, but it was like hanging out with the best kind of best friends, one I felt in the deepest parts of me, as if I had known him always, as if that week was going to last a lifetime.
And, perhaps, it could have.
The night before I left Ireland, we stood outside my bed and breakfast. Charlie grabbed both of my hands and said, "Let me take you upstairs and make love to you."
He knew about my boyfriend and had respected the boundaries I set early on -- that nothing could happen even though I wanted it to. But he tried -- one last Hail Mary pass before my flight was to leave the next morning.
The moon was big behind his head. He had dazzled me more than it. I was completely taken by him, lost somewhere deep in his soul, but I said, "Maybe, if this was another life, and you didn't have three kids and I didn't have a boyfriend. Maybe. But it's not. It's this life, and I have to return home to him."
I was 25. What an utterly stupid thing to say! But I said it.
I had a boyfriend; so what? A boyfriend I had been dating only a few months but whom I was about to move in with. Of course this boyfriend and I didn't last. In fact, the relationship was doomed the minute I laid eyes on Charlie, but I insisted on trying to make it work.
It was July 2001. I could not have known -- because no one did -- how the world, and everything and everyone in it, would change in just two short months. How life would seem shorter than ever before.
As you age, these are the regrets that haunt you. Not the ones about the college you chose or the marathon you should have ran. Lost love. Missed opportunities. Moments you should have thrown yourself into. People you let go -- and who let go of you.