I 'm not strong enough to be with you.

Today's Story


Autumn Moon

By Wayne Scheer

When I saw her at Doc’s funeral she was talking to two women her own age. Although engaged in conversation, she seemed alone. Nearly thirty years had passed, but she still looked as if she lived inside herself and, like a turtle, only poked her head out temporarily.

I knew that look well. It broke my heart when we were both in our twenties. I thought I loved her. She said she loved me, but something in her deep, dark eyes frightened me. Oh, she was kind and gentle, funny and affectionate, a much more intelligent, spirited and passionate woman than I could appreciate at the time. Still, I was smart enough even then to know that I would never meet anyone like her again in my life.

What frightened me, I came to discover, was my own insecurity.

She was a graduate student in economics, with an interest in developing nations. I was preparing to teach high school English. She had already arranged to join the Peace Corps after she finished her degree. I held vague hopes to write a novel.

She thought we should marry and join Peace Corps together. “Think of the stories you’d have. The experiences.”

Again, I was afraid.

If not for my fear, we might have married. Of course, we’d be divorced by now. She could never have lived in my cozy, limited world and I could never have resided in her borderless universe.

I can still hear our words when we broke up. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to be with you,” I said.

“I see.”

That was it. No tears, no attempt to refute my self-assessment. A year of intense conversations about politics and literature, passionate sex and confessions of love ended with a simple, “I see.”

She reached across the table — we were in a booth at a small, neighborhood bar — squeezed my hands, and said, “It’s a beautiful spring evening. I’d like to walk home.”

I stood, planning on walking her to the small apartment she shared with another graduate student.

“No. I’d like to walk home alone.” She kissed me on the lips and said good-bye. Her eyes never betrayed her feelings. They were already somewhere else.

That was the last time I had seen her until now.

“Claudia?” I asked, approaching her and the two women. I was surprised at how short her hair was. She had gained a few pounds, but she had managed the years well.

I could see she didn’t recognize me at first. My once dark hair was now white, a mostly gray beard covered my face. I was ready to forgive her.

“Jason. I don’t believe it. It’s been . . . a long time.” She held out her arms and we hugged, like two old friends. Despite all the time that had passed, there was an instant familiarity in the embrace, the way she patted my back and kissed me on the neck. I fear I held her a bit too long.

She turned towards the women she was with and introduced us. We talked about Doc. It turned out that she and the women were cousins of the man I’d known as Doc for over twenty years. I explained that I had met him at a teachers’ conference back in the nineties and we had kept in touch. “I’d visit him and he’d come see me and my family in Madison where I’m living now.” I turned to Claudia. “I can’t believe he was your cousin. It really is a small world.”

We added in unison, “But I wouldn’t want to paint it.” It was an old joke we repeated from a favorite comic of ours. When she laughed, she opened her mouth wide and made a peculiar gurgling sound. I remembered how out of character her laugh was in contrast to her usual reserved intensity.

The women shook hands with me and excused themselves. We mumbled something about wishing we had met under better circumstances. I felt a little guilty about our laughter, considering where we were.

As soon as we were alone, Claudia asked, “So, you live in Madison? Married? Children?

“Yep,” I said, trying to sound casual. I told her about my family and asked about her.

“Married twice, divorced twice. I’m afraid, I’m just not in one place long enough to stay married.” She explained that she worked with the U.N. and would just as likely be in China or Turkey than the U.S. any given day.

“Must be exciting,” I said.

“Sometimes. I also spend a lot of time in airports trying to remember where I’m going.”

It seemed callous, of course, as I listened to my old friend’s eulogy, but I felt a sense of anticipation, even arousal, at reconnecting with Claudia. I remembered telling Doc about her once. While splitting a pitcher of beer, we confessed our regrets like two old-timers. He admitted he had found high school teaching so comfortable he never attempted to turn his dissertation on the history behind the Hamilton-Burr duel into a book, as planned, just as he found bachelorhood so secure, he never opened himself to the idea of marriage. I had moved on to college teaching and eventually an associate professorship at the University of Wisconsin, but I admitted that I had chosen the comfort of academia over ambition. That’s when I told him about ‘the one who got away.’ I told him how life with her probably would have pushed me to have attempted more. “Maybe if I had married her, I would have finished my novel.”

“So?” Doc was my age, but he had a way of speaking as if he were the old wise man come down from the mountain. “The world has one less book on the 50% off table, but you have a good marriage and two fine children. Would a novel have made you happier?”

Of course not, I wanted to say. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure. There was a time when I wished I dared to be a writer, to put aside everything and focus on my art, but I had a family. I played with the novel on weekends, but eventually it gave way to Little League and piano recitals, barbecues and lawn mowing. I loved my wife and kids, and the quiet, secure life we led, but I still held doubts about giving up the novel.

Now that Claudia and I were arranging to meet at a restaurant near the hotel where I was staying, I felt new doubts.

“I’ll meet you at seven,” she said. “I want to spend time with my family. We have a lot of catching up to do.” She smiled, and raised her eyebrows in a gesture I recalled well. “And so do you and I.”

I knew I was reading into her smile worse than a freshman English student interpreting a Sylvia Plath poem, but a flood of memories overwhelmed my usual rational thinking. As I paid my respects to Doc, I wondered if he was getting some kind of cosmic kick at the moral dilemma he had gotten me into by dying.

“Hey,” I imagined him saying. “I’m the one dead, remember? You’re supposed to be feeling sorry for me. Besides, what moral dilemma? You’re having dinner with an old friend. Nothing more–unless you choose more.” I could see Doc shrugging his shoulders, repeating his favorite expression: “Things work out the way they work out.”

He was no help at all.

I caught a cab back to my hotel and thought of Claudia. Even in the dark pants suit she wore, the outline of her body looked, if anything, more sensual than in her younger years. As Claudia’s young, naked body flashed before me like out of sequence film fragments, I squirmed in the taxi’s backseat. Mercifully, the cab pulled in front of the hotel.

In my room, under the sobering hotel light, I stared into the mirror as I undressed. The reflection looked familiar—long, unkempt white hair, a beard that probably covered a road map of wrinkles. Despite all that, I wasn’t displeased with how I had aged. My body remained thin and vaguely muscular, only ten pounds heavier than when I wrestled in high school. Ellie still thought me sexy.

Ellie. For the first time in the past few hours I thought of the woman I had married two years after breaking up with Claudia. In fact, we began dating only a couple months afterwards. Early on, I wondered if it was a kind of rebound relationship. She, too, had recently broken up with a man she had met in college and moved in with soon after graduating. But after celebrating our thirty-seventh anniversary, such thoughts faded into the past like memories of an old song.

I checked the clock and saw it was after three in Madison. I remembered that Ellie had just completed a twelve hour shift at the hospital, so she’d be home by now.

“Hey,” I said, relieved to hear her voice. “I just got back from the funeral.”

“How was it? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. It was — you know — emotional.”

We talked a while about the shock of Doc’s death, the first friend my own age to die since Vietnam. Ellie told me about her day and about the wedding arrangements for Julia, our oldest. “If we get through this still speaking to one another, it’ll be a miracle.” I laughed, and asked if she heard from Eric, who was a junior in college.

It felt good talking about our life.

No natural segue in sight, I asked, “Do you ever regret not going to medical school? Do you feel you settled being a nurse?”

“What brought that on? That’s a thirty-plus year old discussion. Before Julia was born.”

“I know. The funeral. Doc dying so suddenly. I guess I’m re-evaluating.” I made a conscious decision not to tell her about Claudia.

“Well, I don’t regret anything, except maybe not joining you at Doc’s funeral. You sound strange.”

“Oh, no stranger than usual.”

“I miss you.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, as if we were in bed, our heads sharing the same pillow. “I’ll miss you tonight.”

“And I’ll miss you.” I regretted reserving the morning flight back to Madison, but the evening flight had been booked. “I love you.” My voice cracked.

“I love you, too. But you sound so sad. What are you doing tonight? Did you meet anybody you knew from the old days? People who taught with Doc?”

“No,” I lied. “Some of Doc’s family. I might get together with them for dinner.”

After I hung up, I felt terrible about lying, but telling Ellie over the phone I was going to have dinner with Claudia, whom I had once talked about much too much, would have only worried her. I told myself I had lied for her sake. But that wasn’t completely true.

I tried taking a nap but couldn’t sleep. My mind wandered to the time Claudia gave me head while driving home from visiting her parents. I tried reading, but all I could think about was how foolish I was being. Claudia probably just wanted to have dinner and catch up on old times. It was just dinner with an old friend, for crying out loud. I decided to go for a run.

On my way back, I stopped at a drug store and bought a pack of condoms.

Showered and dressed, I still had almost an hour before I had to be at the restaurant. I had never cheated on Ellie, despite the temptations on a college campus. I had thought about it, sure, but not recently. Was that a sign of maturity or was it me again choosing comfort over risk? Ellie would never have to know. Claudia probably had a meeting in Bangladesh tomorrow. I’d never see her again.

But would a one-night stand be enough? Was sex with an old lover all I wanted? Or was it Claudia’s sense of adventure and her passion for her career that I hoped to grab on to, like a drowning man to a life preserver? Did she represent a lost past and would I ever be satisfied after I tasted what could have been?

I checked my cell phone for Doc’s number. His sister answered. We talked about Doc and then I asked if she knew where Claudia was staying.

I called, and one of the women I had met earlier answered. After polite small talk, she put Claudia on the phone.

“I can’t make it for dinner,” I told her. “I’m sorry.” I tried making up a story about catching an earlier flight home. Instead, I blurted out, “I ‘m still not strong enough to be with you.”

“I see,” she said.

Afterwards, I took a walk in the cool night air. A bright autumn moon dominated the evening sky, a harvest moon, reminding me that although it was late, winter was still a long way off.


Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Awards and a Best of the Net.  He lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at

Read more stories by Wayne Scheer


To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page

A simple premise; a bold promise
To present one story per day, every day —providing exceptional authors with exposure and avid readers with first-rate fiction.