No Regrets

This is a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. I’ll say now that it’s not a happy story so if you’re not in a great mood right now, please read it another time.

This is another story about people choosing not to be heroes, so once again there’s not much detail about exactly what the main character has opted out of fighting against because the story focusses on his reasons for opting out. The setting is Europe, most likely the UK or Ireland sometime in the next 50 years.

 

Content notes for homophobia (one slur), pregnancy and birth, implied death, parents splitting up, toxic activism.


 

To: jack.reynolds@hemail.co.uk

From: gareth.reynolds@hemail.co.uk

Subject: Please read this, especially if you’re Jack but even if you aren’t

 

 

I don’t regret it. I know you think I do. If you’re still alive that is. And if you are dead, then I know that you died thinking of how much I must wish that I was by your side, how keenly I must feel that I should have chosen differently all those years ago, how it must hurt me to know that you and I became so far apart.

 

Yet even on that last count, I’ve no regrets my long-lost lover. We were good for each other once but you found out where your loyalties lay and I found mine too. I no longer miss you all that much and neither does the son you barely acknowledged. You left him and I alone for your cause.

 

You were probably right to do so, you know. I think I can acknowledge that now. And still look deep inside myself and know that I made the right choice when I refused to go with you.

 

It’s not that I don’t believe you. It was never that, though you often accused me of it. It isn’t even that I don’t believe, as you do and as you would often say, that some things are so important that everything and anything can be sacrificed for them. No, I do believe that. With all my heart. We simply have different priorities.

 

I remember a long time ago, before you knew what you know, before things changed. I remember the love and the sex, the joys of young married life. I remember walking through the park in the sunshine holding hands and being genuinely surprised when that old homeless man called us faggots. I can see his face now, with the distaste and anger we’d never learnt to expect and hear my own voice telling him “Yes, we are gay and we’re happily married and just trying to enjoy the park”. I remember handing him a five pound note and a sandwich because whatever he thought about gay people he looked like he needed it more than we did. But that was a long time ago before you started risking your life saving the world from enemies it daren’t believe it has. That was during our honeymoon, all those year ago, back when we were young and in love and nothing, not a shower of rain, not a homophobe, not a global recession, nothing could take away our happiness. I suspect such happiness is only for people who are young and in love and on their honeymoons because I’ve never felt like it since.

 

You met them at University, of course. The people who changed everything for us. We called them friends and I guess that’s what they were. One of them, a woman, Sophia? She held my hand when I told you that I’d been stupid and forgotten some shots and now I was pregnant. She was sure you’d take it well and you did. You handled it better than I did which I reckoned showed just how brave you were. It’s not every day a man learns his husband is accidentally pregnant. Some of our friends were there when I told you I wanted to keep our baby, they saw you agree, heard you talk about how blessed and loved this baby would be, how you would be the best of fathers, second only to me. They knew what they were doing when they told you.

 

When my son… when our son was little, I used to tell him those old, old stories about the Sight. The really scary ones about the ointment that you put on your eyes that makes you see things as they really are. The one about the girl who doesn’t know she’s baby-sitting for the fey until she gets some of the baby’s eye medicine into her eye by accident and she can See and how she spends the rest of her life wearing an eye-patch in order not to go mad. Really quite scary for a little one but he had to learn somehow. He had to know what happened to you. What happened to us both.

 

When they told you, when they opened your eyes to the truth of this earth and invited you to join their fight, they knew I was pregnant. They knew that I needed you, that our child would need you. They told you anyway. Those friends of yours, they thought they needed you more than I did. I wonder now whether they were right.

 

They told you about good and evil and forces at work that most people never know of. They told you about a war much greater than any war between mere humans and how events much more important than our tiny lives were going on around us as we groped blindly along trying to make sense of the disasters and wars and famines and droughts that were mere side effects of the truth. They gave you proof, showed you things and made your world the world of bigger events, the world of things that were more important.

 

Things that were worth sacrificing everything for.

 

You can’t pretend you didn’t know that’s what they were asking. They needed people. People who couldn’t pretend to forget, who wouldn’t. People who could place an ideal above their own life. People who could see their place in a grand scheme and take it willingly even if that meant losing dreams, losing love, losing life. People like you. People like me. They needed us.

 

I can say it. I was just the sort of person they needed. And if I wasn’t eight months pregnant when they finally asked us to join them, I still can’t say what would have happened. I believed as you believed, I had seen what you had seen. And we both knew that some things are so important that nothing else can ever be allowed to get in their way.

 

I was going to be a dad. I had a living human being growing inside me, soon to be outside and cold and helpless and in need of love. And I knew with every neuron in my brain that nothing could ever ever be more important than the life I carried inside of me. I was a dad.

 

And they still tried to recruit me into their war. They didn’t understand. They’d left people behind, those friends of ours. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers and, yes, even children. They’d given up everything, their livelihoods, their homes, sometimes even their names to fight for all humanity’s right not to be killed off by the actions of a few angry gods. They thought I’d be one of them. And you thought so too.

 

You suggested that we leave the baby with my mother. That we leave him with friends. That we get him adopted. You casually suggested to my face that we just toss away our baby as soon as he was born and you didn’t even understand why I was angry with you. I wanted not to love you any more when you said that. I wanted to hate you and the fact I loved you anyway hurt like anything. I knew you’d decided what you thought was worth sacrificing everything for. I knew I’d found the one thing I would sacrifice anything for.

 

You left before our son arrived. I delivered him alone in a strange hospital where they’d not yet had a man give birth and people still weren’t all that used to trans people insisting on being fertile. I told our newborn child that we didn’t need you and when I next saw you four days later I told you that I wasn’t fighting anybody’s war. And that if you still were, you had to get the fuck out of my baby’s life.

 

You left. So did all those friends. They used to drop by from time to time, to check up on me and my boy and to talk about their experiences with someone who would listen and might understand and believe them. As their visits became less frequent I knew they no longer needed someone to believe them or even to understand, they just wanted someone to listen.

 

When he was old enough to talk and walk, we moved to a new town and I was just a single dad with his kid and everything was fine and I had no regrets.

 

And my son went to school and he made friends and he liked drawing and he didn’t like maths but he got a prize when he was twelve for a maths project and then he liked maths too. He speaks three languages and once they published a bilingual poem he wrote in the paper. He’s made two Father’s Day cards every year just in case and he keeps all yours in his bedside drawer and I pretend I don’t know it. He’s a great kid and I’m proud to be his father.

 

And he had a boyfriend for a bit and then he didn’t and now they’re back together but perhaps that doesn’t matter because right now he’s fifteen and we’re hiding in our cellar because outside the world is ending. The sky is on fire and people are dying and at least down here we can’t hear the screams.

 

And I am writing you this email not because I think you will get it, I really doubt that anyone will but to say to whoever does get it, assuming anyone is alive tomorrow, to say to them that I made the right choice.

 

Because my son is fifteen and he’s terrified and I’m pretty sure he’s going to die tonight. But he’s had fifteen years of being happy and fifteen years of knowing his dad loves him. Not fifteen years of wondering why his dads left him or whether they’re still alive. Not fifteen years of not being loved.

 

I have always known that some things are worth sacrificing everything else for. Giving my child a life worth living, however short, is my one of those. You, my long-ago love, chose to fight a war and I chose to devote my life to a person I love. Who is the hero?

 

My son has been reading this over my shoulder and he asks me to say to you, whether you are his other dad or some other stranger, that he says I am a hero and he loves me no matter what. We have no regrets.

 

 

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Life Gets in the Way

To mix things up a bit, here’s some fiction.

I’m (slowly) working on a collection of short stories about the people who don’t become heroes. People who were given the chance to fight and, for all sorts of reasons, didn’t. I’m calling it “Quitters, Cowards and Idiots”.

This one is about Izaak Silverstein, a young man living in our future maybe a hundred years from now and how he fell out of activism.

Life Gets in the Way

If you’ve ever moved far away from friends and family and promised to keep in touch, you’ll know how it happened. That promise is almost always broken quickly and awkwardly and those “left behind” don’t understand that it was an entirely unintentional breach of their trust. It just happens.

We humans promise more than we can give and yet knowing this we all expect exactly what we’re owed from each other. As if we are the only one in the world who ever lets the phone keep ringing or says “Oh dear I just found your email in the spam box three weeks late!” As if no one else has ever committed themselves to two events on the same night and forgotten one or found themselves too busy or too drunk or too asleep to call home at the expected time. We are fallible and we each know it but find it so hard to accept that everyone else is fallible too.

My parents never quite lost the feeling that I was deliberately avoiding them after I started University. I said I’d email every week, phone twice a week and text in between. I didn’t keep that up even for my first term. They even added me on social networking sites as a “friend” and checked hopelessly for updates, wanting news that I was okay (or perhaps that I wasn’t) and a way to feel close to me despite the physical distance between us. Life, of course, got in the way of keeping in contact. It’s what life does.

And that’s how it happened. Life got in the way. And just like I know my parents sit around their too large dinner table and sigh that their kids just don’t seem to want to see them any more, so I know exactly how I am being spoken of by those I left behind in The Movement and what assumptions they are making about me and all those who leave.

I often wish that I had left, actually. I wish that there was a day when I had said “I am leaving and I’m not coming back”. There wasn’t one – rather than leave I slowly stopped turning up – and if I were to go back now to leave properly I’m sure many people there would have no idea who I was anyway.

Graduating was part of it. Job-hunting. Even dating and taking that Yiddish class came into it. Just other things to do. Other things that were important like shopping for food and turning up in shul every now and then. Life getting in the way.

Unlike some people I could mention but won’t, I’ve never really been Izaak-who-works-for-the-movement or Izaak-who-puts-all-his-time-into-the-movement. I’m Izaak-who-has-a-life, Izaak-who-needs-to-work-to-eat, Izaak-who-wants-to-see-his-mother-at-least-occasionally. I’m Izaak not “some guy who is big in The Movement”. I never wanted to be that kind of guy and I never was – and some people chose to see that as a lack of commitment. I didn’t see it that way. I still don’t.

I think The Movement is doing important and necessary work and that what I did to help when I was still a part of it may turn out to be the most important and significant work I ever do, the most useful thing I ever do with my life. It really might be. Yet… other things can be more important in the moment.

I’ve seen people make themselves sick by working too hard for this, I’ve seen personal relationships fall apart and people losing their homes through not paying their rent on time putting too much money and time and energy into this work. I get it, it’s important, I believe that too but is it really worth ruining your life over?

It probably is, actually. Many people would die for this cause, many have. We can’t afford to let the Earth start another war against our friends in the next star system but neither should anyone be asked to risk losing everything to stop that from happening. We have homes and families and empty stomachs to think of and I wish no one considered us weak for sometimes finding those things more pressing and urgent than preventing a war that hasn’t started yet.

I know that many in The Movement consider those of us who stop attending meetings to be cowards – too afraid to give everything we have. And, yes, that’s what we’re scared of but it’s not cowardice. It’s pragmatism.

And it’s mainly because of that pragmatism that I left. Life got in the way. I’m getting married next Spring, war or no war, but few friends from that long period of my life will be there. The ones that are will be those who left by the sheer force of pragmatism and the in-the-moment necessity to do other things, those who perpetually say that they might attend next week. The others would not begrudge the lack of an invite but will be too busy to attend, maybe too busy to reply. Saving The World can do that to you. If they do reply, they will enquire whether I will attend a meeting next week or if they’ll see me at the next rally and I will say “Maybe”.

I am human and flawed and I care passionately about stopping the war but more than that, though I know it’s trivial in comparison, I care about Izaak Silverstein and his home and his job and his Yiddish class where he met the woman he’s going to marry. I care about his parents and siblings and coming home for Hanukkah, I care about his car insurance and getting his broken TV fixed in time for the Olympics.

Like any other person, I care firstly about myself and my family and if that makes me a coward, then so be it.