The Folly of Regret

cold-air

It’s Charlie’s third year at college, and it’s the hardest yet. While the atmosphere has been a definite improvement over the petty dramas of high school, a worry has been steadily growing over the past few semesters. A worry that he’s doing something wrong.
Sure, he’s got a great group of friends who are a blast to hang around with, and he’s been with Leslie for almost two years now, but somewhere, a part of him is still kicking himself for not getting admitted to his first choice.

Granted, that engineering program is notoriously hard to get into, but since so many of his high school friends got accepted, the rejection stings even more. Some of them already have internships lined up… but Charlie tries not to think about that. Luckily, his best friend Jeff is usually ready with a sympathetic ear.

Sure, he’s kept straight A’s since the first semester, but sometimes it seems like all he does is study. Seeing students from the other programs partying on the weekends, having fun all the time… it just makes him even more aware that he’s always holed up in the library with engineering assignments.

Granted, keeping up with all the crazy stuff his high school friends are up to on social media doesn’t make things easier. And keeping such a tight schedule doesn’t allow for much socializing either – in fact, the only ‘friend’ he has is that weird guy Alan who never seems to leave the second floor of the library.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “all that will sort itself out.” But Charlie still can’t shake the feeling that something’s been irreparably damaged somehow. That a choice he’s made in the past has screwed things up forever.

“Lighten up.” “Try not to worry about it.” “Don’t take things so seriously.” Nothing seems to help.

Though Jeff always seems to be high out of his mind, so you can’t really be sure of anything he says. Though Alan never seems to do anything but study, so you can’t really be sure of anything he says.
“You know what I think,” he says, “I think you should meet a friend of mine. Here’s her number. She’s always good to talk to – and I think she might have some insight you could appreciate.” Reluctantly, Charlie calls her up, and they set a time to meet.

Two days later, they meet at the Student Union for coffee. Thirty minutes later, Charlie is completely shocked:

This girl is beyond perfect for him! There’s an even better engineering program available!
This girl, Karen, has completely blindsided him with wonder. They meet two more times and, steeling up his nerve, Charlie sneaks a kiss… and she kisses back. He breaks up with Leslie the next day, but she takes it hard, cutting him deep with her last words. Still, he’s been with Leslie for so long, and something about this girl, Karen… just seems too perfect. Like this is the kind of love that could only exist in movies and fairy tales. He stops answering her calls and they never see each other again, but the way she made him feel haunts him. Charlie signs up for the study abroad program in London that Alan’s friend told him about, and has the time of his life. The experience convinces him to switch his major to Business, something he’s discovered an interest in… even though he knows his parents will be devastated for leaving engineering behind. The program sounds fantastic, but Charlie declines. Ever since he was a baby his parents told him how proud they’d be when he finally becomes an engineer, and that’s not something one can just put aside. Even though he knows, deep down, that there has to be something better out there.

One year later, graduation day arrives, and Charlie finds himself pushed out into the real world.

He lands on his feet well enough, finding a decent job. It’s enough to support himself and his girlfriend (now fiancée), as long as she works too… and as long as they can stay at his parents’ house for the first year or two. Though it has been getting kind of crowded. He lands a job with a very respectable starting salary at a notable company in his field. It isn’t his dream job quite yet, but it’s clearly the first step. Walking into the new, spacious two-bedroom apartment he has all to himself for the first time, Charlie feels a strange sense of freedom mixed with emptiness.
Months later, on one cold winter night as he’s taking the trash out, Charlie thinks back to those college years, and what might have been.
About how he found Karen, and the hurtful things Leslie said when he broke up with her. Wondering what her life was like now. About how he never tried to make a move for Karen, even though what they had was undeniable. Wondering what her life was like now. About how his parents reacted when he told them he was changing his major, and the pangs of guilt he still feels for not following their wishes. About how his parents dote on him for becoming an engineer, even though that path still seems like the easy choice. A cop-out.
Charlie drops the trash bag in the garbage can and stands there in the cold, staring at the ground, realizing what he’s feeling:
Regret for what could have been. Hope for what’s yet to come. Regret for what could have been. Hope for what’s yet to come. Regret for what could have been. Hope for what’s yet to come. Regret for what could have been. Hope for what’s yet to come.
He lets out a deep breath. The hot air dances visibly against the cold and Charlie goes inside.
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