They say that you never regret the things that you do, only the things that you don’t do. I don’t believe that’s 100% true – I’ve done a couple of ghastly things I desperately wish to erase from my memory bank – but when I’m melancholy, which is too often for my own good, I dwell on opportunities – adventuresome, romantic, financial, professional – that I have let pass out of fear and uncertainty.
Which explains why my mind has created two memoirs: the fictional one where I followed the road less traveled, and the truthful one where I drove the straight, wide avenue with safety barriers and few bends in the road.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Mariam. No, she was not some great lost love or a woman that I wronged. Rather, her story is a bypassed opportunity, though one of my less egregious and more understandable ones, wrapped in a mystery that I’ll never solve. The story is an example of why waiting for all the stars to align may mean waiting for a day that never arrives.
During the summer of 1976, I spent a month in Europe. The trip was my first true adventure. My best friend had moved to Uppsala, Sweden while his Swedish bride finished her studies at the university. (When I visited, he joked that he and I were the only Americans in Sweden who weren’t evading the draft.) At the same time, another friend, a Greek co-worker, was planning his annual return to the small, non-touristy Greek island where his mother still lived and he invited me along.
It was too good an offer to pass up, since I was 25, single and responsibility-free. My two planned stops were at opposite ends of the Continent, however, so I arranged two weeks of unpaid leave from work in addition to my vacation, allowing me to spend four leisurely weeks abroad. I bought a Eurail pass and took the train down, making stops at a few of the cities along the way. I saw many sights, both famous and off the beaten track, and there were many memorable incidents which I relate, and often embellish, when I’ve downed a couple of beers in the presence of company.
On the flight home to New York, I sat next to an attractive Lebanese woman who appeared to be around my age. She introduced herself as Mariam. She was traveling to, of all places, Texas, where her brother was teaching at a college. He had left his wife and daughter behind in Beirut. However, the Lebanese Civil War had broken out and the city no longer felt safe. Mariam volunteered to fly her niece to the presumed safety of Texas to live with the girl’s father.
Mariam and I began talking about our lives, about our differences – cultural, political – with a curiosity and respect that seem too often absent from conversation today. I learned from her why Beirut was considered “the Paris of the Middle East” (it was much more liberal and cosmopolitan than many Arab locations). In turn, I was proud that I was convincing her that Americans weren’t all stereotypical cowboys. (During my European trip, I met a Norwegian who, when I informed him I was from New York, immediately pointed his index finger at me and said, “Bang! Bang!”)
We didn’t stop talking until our plane landed at JFK Airport several hours later. I persuaded her to reschedule her return flight from Texas to New York so I could have two days to show her the sights of Manhattan.
Two weeks later, she arrived in the Big Apple and I escorted her to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the Metropolitan Museum, among others. I recall a wonderful conversation over dinner and wine at a sidewalk café in Greenwich Village. The time I spent with her was warm, enjoyable and informative. It flew by.
When I escorted her to her flight back to Lebanon, I didn’t know that I would never see her again.
Mariam and I corresponded for the next few years. These were the decades before the Internet, social media and cell phones made instant contact with acquaintances halfway around the world as easy as changing one’s socks. Communication consisted of hand-written letters. Every couple of months I would be excited to find a light blue envelope marked “Par Avion” appearing in my mailbox. Our letters were long, filled with details and concerns about our lives and deep thoughts about life.
Mariam’s letters always included the hope that I would travel in the Middle East with her, and we quickly decided that a tour of Egypt would be the least troublesome and most rewarding. I bought the Fodor and Frommer guides, reading them cover-to-cover, and talked to several friends about my planned trip.
The trip never happened. Every year, as decision time would approach, I’d get cold feet, writing, “The Middle East seems too volatile now, with too much violence flaring up everywhere. Maybe next year will be safer. Yes, let’s definitely plan for next summer.”
Finally, inevitably, I sent a letter that was not answered. After several months passed, I wrote another, hoping that the previous one had merely gotten lost in the mail. Again, the response was silence. I never heard another word from her.
It’s possible that Mariam met a man, got married and decided that correspondence with a single American man was inappropriate, but that doesn’t sound like her. Maybe there is another benign reason. The more likely reason, however, is the Lebanese Civil War. Violence flared up in Beirut on and off for fifteen years. According to Wikipedia, one million Lebanese – about a quarter of the population – fled the country during the fighting, and if Mariam was among this number, I doubt that my address would have been one of the important possessions she would have taken with her in haste. More troubling, 120,000 Lebanese died during the fighting; I pray that she was not part of that figure, but there is no way I’ll ever know.
With time, Mariam faded from my memory. I don’t think about her more than once or twice a year. I am not sure I have ever mentioned her name to my wife. Mariam’s letters are still bundled together in a box shoved in the back of my closet. At least I think they are; I haven’t looked at them in thirty years.
I no longer have a great desire to see Egypt – I’m old and set in my ways – and my travel guides have long since taken up residence in some landfill. However, now that I am at an age when adventure no longer figures into my present or future, I find myself wishing that it played a bigger part in my past. In my fictional memoir, I went on that Egyptian trip with Mariam and had a wonderful time which transformed my view of the world. Perhaps I was inspired to learn Arabic and became a globetrotting diplomat.
On Tuesday when I began writing this, I took a break to drive my daughter to work. As we drove through a nearby residential neighborhood, we noticed a commotion – flashing police lights, an ambulance. As we crawled by, I saw a man lying on his side in his driveway, clearly not moving. Since the paramedics were not trying to revive him, I assumed he was dead. I felt awful for the family members who stood helplessly there near him. Judging by his head of hair, I’m guessing that his age was pretty close to mine, a fact that made me feel queasy.
Later, when I returned home, I wondered about him. Did he have a Mariam or an Egyptian reverie in his past? Did he have a goal he’d never pursued, an itch he’d never scratched, a taste he’d neglected to indulge? Did he have a wish that he kept putting off until next week, next month, next year, someday, not knowing that someday would never arrive? If he had known that his somedays were about to end, would he have been at peace with who he was?
Pondering his mortality, as well as mine, I decided upon a title for my fictional memoir, a motto by which I wish I had lived my entire life: “Carpe Diem.”>