In Life

 

“Have any regrets?”

 

Hamilton stared at the woman sitting across from him.  He’d been carefully watching her lips speak the words, but he hadn’t really heard the question.  She was captivatingly beautiful with choppy dark hair, but it was her intense green eyes that gripped him at the moment.  He tried to pinpoint why he was so attracted to her.  He wondered if it was because she reminded him of someone he’d been trying to forget.  He pushed the thought out of his head.  Maybe she’d sleep with him.  She waited for a response, assuming he’d been considering the question.  He smiled smugly then let his gaze travel conspicuously down her body, stopping finally on her hand.  It gripped a pen that was poised to write. 

 

He was making her uncomfortable, but she refused to let him see that.  This was Amy Wood’s first byline and, even if it was for the arts section, it was going to be brilliant.  She flipped the pen over and tapped it against the nearly filled notepad, looking back at Hamilton with an innocent smile.

 

“Should I take that as a no?”

 

Hamilton shook his head as if to shake himself out of a daze.  He looked her in the eye again.

 

“I’m sorry.  What was the question again?”

 

Amy looked at him as if he must have been kidding, but when she realized he wasn’t, she coolly and slowly stated the question again.

 

“Do you have any regrets?”

 

Hearing the question clearly this time, his mind rapidly traveled to all the places he never let it go.  He could feel the dread and the guilt surge through him and spread over his face.  He tried to force the feeling away as he pretended to seriously ponder his answer.  Instead, though, he thought about the question.  Why would she ask him that?  This was supposed to be about his new photography exhibit, how he was the youngest photographer ever featured by this New York gallery, and how he had accomplished more by his current age of twenty-five than most artists had by the time they were seventy-five.  Why was she asking him about his regrets?  An answer came to him.

 

“I guess I regret spending time earning a college degree that I’m never going to use.  I should have been focusing on my portfolio instead of studying for tests about the parts of a camera,” he laughed and raised a flirtatious eyebrow, “You know what I mean?”

 

She shrugged, “It never hurts to master your craft.”

 

This comment irritated him. 

 

“Fine.  You don’t like my answer?  We can go back to ‘no’” he snapped, “write this down ‘no, I don’t have any regrets about my work.  My professional life is just like I’ve always wanted it to be.’”

 

She didn’t write it down.  Instead she tried to read his face.  He was disheartened.  Three hours ago, when she first met him and he took her through the gallery, she thought maybe it was an “I am a tortured artist and here are my depressing pictures” act.  He alternated between broodingly miserable and teasingly seductive.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to hug him, or if she just plain wanted him, but after an hour-long interview, she was certainly convinced that Hamilton Fleming was no fake.  She also knew that she needed a spin for her story, and she was quickly becoming convinced that her angle lay somewhere in this young artist’s soul.

 

“I didn’t necessarily mean regrets about your professional life,” Amy began carefully, “There seems to be a certain sadness in every photograph.  In some cases, it’s right there in the foreground: a heartbreaking, distressing image.  Other times, it seems to be influencing your subjects peripherally.”

 

“I don’t know if I’d agree with that critique.  I mean, my exhibit is not supposed to be about sadness, or any other emotion for that matter.  My themes are visually based.”

 

They both knew he was trying to justify it to himself just as much as to her.

 

“I think that, as a photographer, you act as a filter.”

 

“And, you think I filter out everything but sadness?” he asked with no sarcasm.  He wanted to know.

 

“I just think that what influences you also influences the emotions evoked by your photographs, and, despite the facade you present, when I look at your pictures, I feel sadness…loneliness…desperateness…”

 

Hamilton looked down, running his thumb over the edge of the table.

 

“Maybe you’re the one that’s sad.”

 

“Maybe.  Want to know what else I felt when I looked at your work?” she asked gently.

 

He looked up, offering a shrug and a curious nod.

 

“Hope…desire…kindness…love,” she ended it there.

 

He smiled at this.  He looked at her for a moment.  She was way too smart to sleep with him.  He abandoned the quest and decided to pursue only her temporary friendship. 

 

“On a non-professional level, on a personal level, I have several regrets.”

 

She looked up at him, surprised he was opening up.  She started writing. 

 

“Uh,” he waved across at her notepad, “could we keep this off the record.”

 

“I’m here for a story, not to be your therapist,” Amy said, sounding as if she didn’t really mean it, but wouldn’t back down from it, “I’m sorry.”

 

Hamilton nodded and conceded, “Okay.  On the record then.”

 

She smiled to herself as she finished recording the first quote.

 

“Okay, go on,” she urged.

 

“Don’t you people usually use tape recorders?”

 

“Don’t you people usually have a slightly easier time bearing your souls?”  She smiled up at him slyly.  He smiled back steadily until he spoke.

 

“I was dating someone.  I let her leave.  I regret it.  Any other regrets I have stem from or are related to that,” he tried to plaster on the smile again, but failed miserably.

 

He watched her as she scribbled furiously, forever engraving his words to that piece of paper.  He couldn’t turn back now.  He was ready to tell her everything.

 

“I don’t usually talk about this,” he said when she finished writing, “but it’s a huge part of who I am.  She is a huge part of who I am.”

 

Amy reached into her bag, pulling out a tape recorder.  She pressed record and set it on the table between them as she tried to write down his last quote.  Hamilton shook his head, amused by the stubbornness he saw in her.  He smiled when she put down the pen.

 

“I heard you used to date a movie star,” she said casually as she leaned back in her chair. 

 

She watched him fidget uncomfortably. 

 

“Where’d you hear that?”

 

It was something the entertainment columnist mentioned to her over coffee that morning, but they had been interrupted before she found out know who the actress in question was.  She had tossed it out there because she expected him to dismiss it.  She had a passionate distaste for the superficiality of Hollywood.  She couldn’t imagine anyone like Hamilton being sucked into mistaking the tawdriness for anything real or true.

 

“Jake wasn’t a ‘movie star’ then,” he offered, “She was just an actress.  A talented one.”

 

“Jake?” she questioned, vaguely recalling an episode of Entertainment Tonight she mistakenly taped while trying to record a late night news program about a year ago.

 

“I’m sorry.  Jacqueline.  Her name is Jacqueline,” he clarified.

 

Jacqueline Pratt.  She knew exactly who he meant.  The ET story was about her rebellious youth and how she masqueraded as a boy for four years of high school all to gain attention from her famous mother.  Amy remembered thinking it was a completely bizarre tale, yet one that had fascinated her so much she didn’t mind that she’d taped the wrong program.

 

“There’s a lot of history that I couldn’t even begin to explain to you,” Hamilton offered after Amy didn’t speak for a moment.

 

“You’re the boy from boarding school.”

 

Hamilton stared at her.  How did she know?  She quickly began to ramble about how she saw the ET piece on it.  Judging from the description, Hamilton was glad he’d missed it.  She had spoken about how her current boyfriend, an actor named Landon, had been the first person she dated who didn’t already know every single detail of her sordid past.

 

“That’s because the only other person she ever dated before was me.  We’d been together since we were fifteen.  I mean, that’s not exactly the kind of relationship you just walk away from, is it?  But, she did.”

 

“She broke up with you?”

 

“After we graduated, she determined that she would need to move to L.A. if she wanted to have a career in film.”

 

“Sounds reasonable.”

 

“And I needed to be here,” Hamilton added.

 

“You couldn’t be a photographer in L.A.?”

 

Hamilton ignored her, “And, so, she left.  I haven’t seen her since.”

 

“That sounds pretty ridiculous,” Amy commented frankly.

 

“It wasn’t about our careers.  We were in love.  We were supposed to be building a life together.  I needed her to stay.  I needed her to prove that our relationship was her top priority.”

 

Amy didn’t speak because she knew she had too much to say.  What was this idiot talking about?  Jacqueline had to prove her love, but he couldn’t even make a supportive gesture like letting her pick their nesting ground?  Hamilton watched her, knowing what she must be thinking.

 

“I didn’t say I still think like that.  I was an idiot.  That’s why it’s a regret.  She was my whole world and, in one selfish act, I let her slip away forever.  I’ve spent the past two years trying to both forget her and move on.  You can see how successful I’ve been.”

 

Amy looked at him thoughtfully.  She had her angle, and it was a good one.  He really was a tortured artist.  He was making himself pay for a mistake: a missed opportunity.  Even someone who barely passed her art class in college could see the remorse reflected in his photographs.

 

Hamilton became aware of the silence between them.  He wanted to wrap this up.

 

“I know it’s a lost cause.  She’s still with that actor, and a mutual friend tells me they’re planning on getting married within the year.  There’s not a damn thing I can do about it, but, a part of me—hell, who am I kidding—every part of me would give anything to go back and get on that plane with her to California.”

 

“Some days I wish you had, Ham,” Jake said out loud as she re-read the quote that had ended the interview and completed Amy Wood’s first story.

 

She couldn’t help glance at the byline.  She wondered if Amy Wood was one of those gorgeous, ultra-trendy, put-together journalist types that you think only exist in the movies until you start getting interviewed by them.  She hoped that the New York Observer only hired, unattractive, ultra-hag, past-their-prime types.  She laughed at the unlikely idea.  It felt good to experience jealously again.

 

Landon wasn’t home yet.  He was either with his co-star or her stand-in.  Jake couldn’t tell when she saw them across the restaurant together.  She hoped it was the stand-in.  At least then the poor girl might actually get something out of the relationship.  She knew it was probably the co-star, though.  It was a trend that had begun with Jake.  She let him move in with her right away.  She let him get away with cheating.  She didn’t even bring it up to him.  She wanted to end things long before he proposed to her, but she didn’t know how.  She knew how to leave, but she didn’t know how to kick someone out of her life. 

 

So, most of the time, when she wasn’t working, she did what she was doing then.  She sat alone in her Malibu beach house, wondering about Hamilton.  She looked down at the picture featured in the article.  It was Hamilton standing in front of a wall of his own photographs.  She wished he looked more arrogant.  It would be easier to close the paper if he had.  Somewhere in the article, Amy Wood described him as “brooding.”  She didn’t want him to be brooding.  She wanted him to be happy.  One of them should be.

 

She looked out of the large window across from the kitchen table where she sat.  She loved her view of the beach.  In fact, she enjoyed most components of her life.  She got parts often and she was pretty famous.  She liked both the work and the attention it got her.  She also liked Landon, despite the fact that he was a liar and a cheater because he was also fun and sweet in a way that reminded her of Hamilton.  It also didn’t hurt that he looked like Hamilton.  She tried to tell herself it was a “type” thing, but she knew it wasn’t true.  She knew she was looking for a substitute. 

 

She looked down at Hamilton’s picture.  In a way, he was the only piece that was missing from her life.  Unfortunately, he was a huge piece.  She hated that she let herself think about him so much.  It had been two years.  It had been his fault.  He obviously knew it.

 

She shook her head.  She always played this game with herself.  She wanted to leave—New York and Hamilton.  She needed a break.  Yet she always let herself blame him.  At this porint, though, she wished she had just stayed in New York.  She could have gotten work on the stage.  She probably could have done some indie films.  At the time, though, L.A. just seemed like her only option.  And New York, he said, was his only option. 

 

She couldn’t quite take her eyes off his picture.  She was slowly letting herself be convinced that something in her life needed to change.  She needed to retrieve the missing piece of the puzzle that was her life.  Or, maybe, she thought, she was willing to break apart the puzzle and take it back to the missing piece.  Maybe she was ready to go back to New York.

 

And just like that, her mind was made up.  She left the newspaper just as it was and went into her bedroom.  She packed a suitcase, took a shower, and got dressed.  As she headed to the backdoor, she found Landon sitting at the table, reading the newspaper.  He looked up at her.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

Jake didn’t have the patience to act guilty.

 

“New York,” she told him plainly.

 

“Who the hell is Hamilton Fleming?”

 

“My past and, hopefully, my future.”

 

“What about your present?” he asked with the drama of an actor.

 

Jake laughed.  It wasn’t mean spirited.  She simply couldn’t believe this guy was pretending to care.

 

“My “present” just spent the night with another woman, and should currently be looking for another place to live.”

 

He was incredulous at first, but when he realized she didn’t care, he smiled slightly.

 

“You’ve always known, haven’t you?” he questioned.

 

She nodded.  She’d always known he’d been cheating.  She’d always known she still loved Hamilton.  She’d always known this moment would come.  And, here it was.

 

“I’m going to leave now,” she told him as she headed for the door.

 

“I’ll have my stuff out by tomorrow,” he told her back. 

 

She turned to offer him a smile and a wave.  She walked out the door and headed for her car.  She thought about how easy it was to walk away from him.  They had been together for almost two years, and after less than two minutes, she was completely over it.  She turned her reflection to her relationship with Hamilton.  After more two years, she still wasn’t over him.  His memory affected her on a daily basis.  She had merely been waiting for a specific reason to go back to him.  She’d found it.

 

She tossed the suitcase in the backseat of her black Mustang convertible.  As she put the car into reverse, doubt swept over her.  Reporters put spins on stories all the time.  She knew that better than anyone.  A recent People article called “Monica Pratt: the Woman behind Jacqueline” twisted her quotes so badly that even she began to believe that her mother was her “greatest inspiration and influence.”  She wondered if Amy Wood had simply used her relationship with Hamilton as a chance to name drop.  The realization that there were many alternate, reasonable possibilities about Hamilton’s life hit her hard.  Maybe he was seeing someone else.  Maybe he was seeing Amy Wood.  She didn’t know why she kept coming back to that.  There was just an intimacy in that story that made her uncomfortable. 

 

She let her foot off the brake and the car began to ease backwards down the long driveway.  She wasn’t about to turn back before she even got started, but she was never secure with her instincts, and she needed someone to back her up.  Will was a writer in the city.  She talked to him at least once a month.  They never discussed Hamilton, but she knew the two of them still hung out regularly.  They had many other mutual friends.  She pulled out a cell phone from her glove box as her car moved slowly backwards down the driveway.

 

At the last minute, she changed her mind.  She decided to dial a number she would always know by heart.  She hoped he hadn’t changed it.  After just one ring, he picked up.

 

“Hello?” he answered curiously, not recognizing the number on his cell phone’s caller id.

 

“Hamilton?” she asked.

 

The momentary pause disappointed her.

 

“I’m sorry, I must have the wrong number.”

 

“God, I hope not,” he finally forced himself to get out. 

 

He hadn’t heard her voice in two years.  Of course, he’d seen all her movies and most of her television appearances and interviews.  But, he hadn’t really heard her.

 

“I, um, it’s been awhile,” she stuttered, “but I saw an article about your exhibit in the Observer.  I’m really proud of you.”

 

“I didn’t know you could get the New York Observer out here in L.A.,” he teased, gaining confidence.

 

“What did you just say?” she asked.

 

“Hit the brakes.”

 

“What?”

 

“Jake, I’m serious, brakes!” he laughed.

 

She glanced in her rearview mirror just in time to see the taxi at the end of her driveway.  She slammed on the brakes, only about four feet from the cab.

 

“Thank you,” Hamilton lauded as he emerged from the backseat of the taxi, holding the cell phone to his ear.  He turned to pay the cab driver as he continued to listen to Jake, curious and hopeful about how this would turn out.

 

“Well, it was nice talking to you, but I have to go,” she said in a tone that was too hard for him to read.

 

He turned to look at the car.  He met her eyes in the rearview mirror.  His cab pulled away.

 

“The love of my life just turned up at the end of my driveway, and I’m pretty anxious to see him,” she added reassuringly.

 

“Bye,” Hamilton said with a grin. 

 

He hung up his phone and dropped his bag.  Jake put her car into park and turned it off.  She tossed the cell phone on the seat and tried to gain some composure.  Slowly, she got out of the car.  She looked at him, fidgeting.  Neither of them was capable of breaking the look they shared.  Jake was the first to speak.

 

“I was on my way to the airport.”

 

“Oh.  I’m sorry,” was all Hamilton could manage, yet he hadn’t lost the hope she’d given him a moment before.

 

She shrugged, “You just saved me the trip.”

 

He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head, trying to make sure the implication was what he thought.

 

“I was going to New York.  I was going to see you,” she explained.

 

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” he said with an air of chastisement.

 

“Why not?” she inquired.  She didn’t get it.

 

Slowly, he began the speech he’d been practicing, “Because I’m the one who screwed up.  I should have been on that plane with you two years ago.  I was a selfish, stubborn idiot.  I’ve spent the past two years wondering how I could fix things.  I think this might be the first step.”

 

“Neither one of us was willing to compromise, and maybe that was okay then,” Jake said, knowing it was really only her who was selfish. 

 

“I’m beyond ready to compromise now, though,” Hamilton insisted.

 

Jake smiled and said, “So am I.”

 

Slowly, he made his way to her.  She let him cover the entire distance.  It wasn’t really a metaphoric gesture.  She just didn’t think to move.  He stopped right in front of her.

 

“About this Landon guy…” Hamilton trailed off. 

 

He didn’t really know how to ask what he wanted to ask.

 

“He’s inside, actually,” Jake began, “but he’s moving out.”

 

Hamilton nodded, sighing with some relief.

 

“And what about you?  I mean, is there anyone…” Jake laughed at her awkwardness, “You’re not sleeping with Amy Wood, are you?”

 

Hamilton laughed, feeling suddenly at ease.

 

“You know what?  I actually considered it, but then she got me talking about you, which got me thinking about you.  It was something I had been avoiding, but once I started, I couldn’t stop.  I got Will to tell me everything, including the real deal about the boyfriend.”

 

“It’s not as bad as it probably sounded,” she said looking down. 

 

“I was hoping it might be worse,” he said boldly, “I was looking forward to being your knight in shining armor.”

 

Jake laughed.  He always wanted to be her hero.  In many ways, he always had been.  In high school, he’d kept her sane when her life should have driven her crazy.  In college, he helped her create a self-confidence that felt so natural she sometimes couldn’t remember the insecurities that used to engulf her.  Throughout everything, even at that moment, he was capable of making her feel loved when no one else seemed up for the job.  Whenever she got scared and tried to run away, he put everything into perspective for her.  He never manipulated her or made her stay.  And, when she really did need to go, he let her.  He even took the blame for it so she could escape guilt-free.

 

And there he was again, present at the exact moment she needed him.

 

“You’ll always be my hero, Hamilton,” she said with enough cheesiness to hide how much she actually meant it.

 

He was, though, as usual, onto her.  And, as usual, he didn’t mention it.  He simply closed the tiny space between them, unable to believe it had begun as three thousand miles.

 

“What I really came here to say, Jake, is that I love you and, if you’re ready, I want to be with you again.”

 

She smiled.  She knew he had always understood the circumstances of their break-up better than he let on.

 

“I love you, too, Hamilton.  I never stopped loving you.  I just needed a—“

 

“Shh,” he cut her off, not wanting her to take the blame.

 

He did, in fact, regret not going with her to L.A.  He knew it was the right decision, but it was an agonizing one and the beginning of the most painful time in his life.  The payoff was pretty amazing, though. 

 

He looked at her, thinking she looked so much more beautiful in person than on a movie screen.

 

“God, I missed you,” Hamilton said after a silent, slow, steady move toward her lips.

 

She closed her eyes, ready for the kind of kiss she’d spent the past two years trying to forget.  It didn’t take either of them long to remember as they came together—in a kiss, in the present, and in life.

 

The End