November 21, 2009
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My mother and I have a long-standing tradition of spending our winter holiday weekends together. It’s something we’ve done for as long as I can remember. We’ll walk along the downtown shops, steaming peppermint hot chocolates in one hand, the other burdened by the weight of heavy shopping bags.
It has always been my favorite time of year – I love everything about it. The pine and cinnamon smell, the white Christmas lights twinkling from trees, the constant spirit of joviality and contentment. It has always been a time when nothing seems to go wrong - maybe that’s why I feel so terrible about what happened last year in the first place.
It had been the weekend before Christmas, and though it was not snowing, you could still feel the bitter sting of cold air. Walking along the street, occasionally pausing to look in the window of a newly-opened store, the conversation had turned towards my fourteen- year-old brother, whose latest mischief included convincing my cousin that he was a fully capable driver whose father let him drive all the time. Needless to say, that escapade ended with a demolished mailbox and a long streak of chipped paint and scratches on my uncle’s brand new car. He had said he was sorry countless times, but the damage was done. It was irreversible.
“As much as I would like to put the blame on your cousin, in the end it’s your brother’s fault,” she told me, stepping off the sidewalk and heading towards our favorite shop, the one filled with vibrantly colored mosaics and glazed pottery. “I don’t know what to do with him. He’s always finding a way to cause trouble.”
“Well, I can’t believe Michael actually let him drive,” I said, climbing the steps to the store and passing a man whose crumpled figure leaned against the base of the steps. For a second, I watched him fiddle with the zipper of his jacket; his eyes were glued to the ground as he dragged the zipper up and down the length of his coat.
Feeling my mother’s hand tug me ahead, I wrenched my eyes away from him and resumed our conversation. “I mean, really, how stupid is he?” I said. And that was where things had gone so terribly wrong.
Clutching the rail with a trembling hand, the man pushed himself up with a speed I wouldn’t have thought possible, his shoes getting tangled up under his feet. He looked at me with desperate, searching eyes, and repeatedly opened his mouth, though no coherent sound came out. My mother held onto my hand tighter and started to pull me into the store.
He pushed himself up the first step with tremendous effort. “Not stupid!” he said, his eyes begging me to understand. “Not stupid, not stupid, not stupid!” He chanted it with a vehement passion, and I was alarmed to see tears sliding down his ebony cheeks. “Slow!” he cried, collapsing at the bottom of the steps as my mother dragged me into the store with an insistent tug.
The door closed behind us and all I could hear was the merry tinkling of the store bell that rang above our heads.
“What… what was that?” I said, my voice shaky and wavering.
My mother sighed and put her head in her hands, looking thoroughly disconcerted. “I think,” she started, “I think he thought you said he was stupid. You know, when you were talking about Michael.”
I felt both dawning realization and absolute horror at the same time. “Oh my God. I didn’t… I swear I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know you didn’t,” she said, trying to calm me. It didn’t work.
I wrenched the store door open and flew outside, wanting desperately to find him. I gripped the frozen rail, my eyes searching up and down the street. All that remained, however, were crinkled leaves and an impression in the earth from where he had once been. He was gone.
That was almost a year ago, but it is still something I constantly think about. My words, although not meant for him, were taken in a demeaning and derogatory way. I had inadvertently thrown an audible hand-grenade at him, not realizing its consequences until it had exploded at my feet.
The worst part of it all is that I can’t take those words back – they are irreversible. I want so badly to see him again, to apologize and tell him that I didn’t mean it.
If I ever did find him, I’m not even sure what I would say. How do you apologize for something that was never supposed to happen in the first place?

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