“The man who insists upon
seeing with perfect clearness
before he decides, never decides.
Accept life, and you must accept regret.”
– Henri Frederic Amiel
I only noticed you because you turned right on red in heavy Saturday traffic near the mall and cut me off. I tapped on my brakes, and my mind registered a BMW SUV with four teenagers in it. I saw your window unroll, and a hand holding a cigarette emerged.
Traffic was crawling, and you were the car in front of me. Soon, you and your friends were all smoking. Smoking and laughing. Smoking and laughing. As your car sat unmoving, a man on the sidewalk approached and asked for a cigarette. Your backseat passenger handed him one and asked him if he needed a light.
I can see you at a party several months from now. Smoking and laughing. Smoking and laughing. “Remember the time we were stuck in traffic and gave that guy on the sidewalk a cigarette?”
I wondered where you’d been and where you were going next.
I wondered if the BMW was yours, and if so, I wondered why the fuck someone would buy a teenager a BMW.
I wondered if the person who bought you the BMW ever told you that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer or if you’d bothered to read the Surgeon General’s warning on the pack you were smoking.
I wondered if your parents knew where you were right then and there.
I wondered where you’d be in 20 years and if you’d look back on your days of smoking and laughing, smoking and laughing with remorse.
As I sit here drinking my Chianti, memories flash through my mind. Memories of myself at your age. Smoking and laughing. Smoking and laughing.
By the time I was old enough to drive a car with a group of friends and get stuck in traffic on a Saturday afternoon, smoking and laughing without a care in the world, things had already begun to go very wrong in my life.
While I watched you in your SUV, the pain of regret was physical. Piercing.
Decisions that shaped the next 20 years of my life seemed, at the time, to be no big deal. It’s easy for teachers and adults in your life to gloss over your bad decisions when you are a “good” kid and also quite adept at hiding those decisions. After all, I’m still here today, right? It couldn’t have been THAT bad.
It took me until I was 37 years old to realize how bad it was.
As I watched you today, I could feel my body tense. My palms were sweating. You were smoking and laughing and smoking and laughing.
I wanted to get out of my car, run up to your BMW SUV, pull you out by the hair, shake you and scream, “What are you doing with your life?”
What are you doing with your life?
I finally know now.
On a Saturday afternoon 21 years ago, I was smoking and laughing while stuck in traffic. I wish someone had ripped me out of my car and asked me what the fuck I was doing with my life. It might have made all the difference.
This post is dedicated to Kevin Kasenow and Paul Cooper, the only two adults who dared to call me on my shit 21 years ago. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.