There had been a light-heartedness to it. A man had said in passing that he lived a life with no regrets. That afternoon she sat in her kitchen and composed a list of two columns. Regrets/Satisfactions. She had enjoyed filling in the list, poking fun at the major events of her life. She had written “marriage” and “children” and “teaching” under the first column and “wine,” “the prospect of retirement,” and “television” in the second. She went to bed several hours after, slept soundly, rose at the ordinary hour, taught a day of classes to junior high students, chaired a meeting about funding, enjoyed a drink with another colleague, and then went home to find the two-columned list beside the open sugar bowl.
The sugar bowl was swarming with ants. Perhaps it was not swarming, but there were enough ants going in and out of it and walking in circles around the rim of the bowl to disturb her. After she had taken care of the sugar bowl, she poured herself a glass of wine and sat down before her list. She drew up a second list. She was hungry and knew she ought to begin cooking dinner, especially as the meat was sitting out on a plate. Nonetheless, she took care with the columns on this second list. She wrote the two headings again, this time more neatly than before.
The fact was that “marriage” did belong under “Regrets.” She had not had an unhappy marriage, and when her husband had died unexpectedly a few years ago, she had been distraught. What was more, she still woke most days thinking of him. In spite of these facts, there was no denying that the marriage itself was a regret. The children could not go under the “Regrets” column, but neither could she bring herself to enter them in the “Satisfactions” column. The fact was she regretted many decisions she had made in raising them. Of course, they were still young, and anything was possible.
And yet anything was not possible. She thought of the man who said he had lived a life with no regrets. She thought of his successes and his relationship with his wife. She thought of his fitness and charisma and his recent turn to spirituality. What would a man like this have to regret?
She thought of standing on a balcony twenty-five years before with a man that was not her husband. This man was a carpenter. He was working in the empty apartment above the one that she lived in with her husband and their first baby. During the day, her husband went off to work and she was stuck there alone with a baby who would wake at any moment and begin to cry. But it was the baby who had brought the carpenter into her life. Or, it was the baby that had brought the carpenter as far into her life as she had let him come.
She had spent all morning after her husband left walking the baby up and down the long corridor of the apartment, then rocking it, and nursing it to sleep. No sooner had she put the child down and crept out of its room to make herself a cup of coffee than the carpenter had begun banging in the room above the baby. The baby began to cry and she had felt a wave of anger. As she was walking the baby up and down the hallway again, the carpenter knocked on the door. He had heard the baby crying, and had come to apologize. She tried to act dismissive of the whole thing, but there was no concealing her anger, and the carpenter seemed to understand her feelings.
He let himself in. They began to talk. She, the baby, and the carpenter ended up on the balcony with the baby on the carpenter’s lap. It was this moment she returned to now as she sat before her new list. She loved her husband in those days, perhaps more passionately than she did later, but she had also felt attracted to the carpenter.
Now, she thought, I am white-washing the memory. She had felt more than attracted. She had felt panicked. Seeing her baby on the carpenter’s lap, she wished to make another child with him. Not at some future date, but then, at that moment, with the cars passing below. She had not said a word of this, and, in fact, had treated the carpenter as if he were intruding.
She returned to the feeling in her body, the heat of her body. She still desired this carpenter. She was past the age of bearing children, but she still wanted to bear him children. She wanted, in fact, for that baby that the carpenter had held on his lap to be his child. She thought of her oldest son who lived overseas and rarely contacted her. It seemed to her a violation that this child was not the carpenter’s.
Under “Regrets” she wrote, “Not fucking the carpenter.” She also wrote, “My son living far away.” Somehow the two things seemed to be related. As if maybe if she had fucked the carpenter her son would not have moved away.
She thought of her husband. He would have gotten over the infidelity. He was a strong man with a great store of humanity. And if she had fucked the carpenter, she might have ended up feeling less regret about staying with her husband. He had been so hopeful as a young man. Above all else, they had instilled this hope into the children, and it was this sense of hope that had contributed to her son’s flight away from her and away from the country of his birth where it seemed there was less and less to be hopeful for. At the end of his life, her husband tried very hard not to be bitter and most people would have said he was still a very hopeful man. But the truth was that he had grown so intractably pessimistic that he had begun to feel shame about having brought children into a world that he believed was becoming more harmful each day.
She found that she did not disagree with this opinion of her husband’s, and then she thought of the sugar bowl. She had not really “taken care of it,” but had only set it outside the back door on the concrete step. She had not taken care of it because the thought of killing the ants and depositing the fouled sugar somewhere and even of cleaning the sugar bowl seemed to be more than she could bear. It seemed to her that to have a life lived without regrets was desirable, but that there was no real possibility to live such a life now and that there seemed to be a certain threshold of regret beyond which it was no longer possible to live a life with satisfaction.
Thom Conroy is senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University and author of the historical novel The Naturalist (Random House, 2014). His work has also appeared in various journals in the U.S. and New Zealand, including New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, Sport, and Landfall. His fiction was recognized in The Best American Short Stories 2011 and won the 2005 Nimrod/Hardman Katherine Anne Porter Prize. (updated 4/2015)