Pat Matsueda

One Pierced Moment

I come across your obituary, K., and learn that three days before my 2021 birthday, you’d died of complications from heart surgery. It was difficult to accept the fact that you were no longer in the world even though it had been years, perhaps decades, since we’d last seen each other. No longer material, real, present.

In the early seventies, I had signed up for a Pol Sci 100 class, one of the courses listed among the university’s core requirements. I can’t remember anything about the class, what you spoke about, what we learned. What I know for certain is that toward the end of the semester, I—a foolish child—had fallen in love with you. Is it more accurate to say I’d become infatuated? Perhaps, but it seems to me not, since those feelings lasted long beyond our association as teacher and student and even now are fundamental to my sense of who I am.

In your late twenties, recently married, you were unlike anyone in my sheltered life: intelligent, charming, witty, articulate.

Thinking about those days, a memory surfaces. I recall that you visited my high school, McKinley, to talk to us students about the Peace Corps. You were with C, handsome and striking in the stiff black hat I’d seen Sukarno, the Indonesian president, wear in news photos. What was the purpose of the presentation? I wonder what the organizers—our teachers, I assume—hoped we would glean from the talk. Then, C was soft spoken, modest, his Chinese skin a smooth and dark I had not seen—the antithesis of the vain, self-absorbed politician he’d become years later. When I worked at the Legislative Reference Bureau at the state legislature after graduating from McKinley, mention of his name evoked knowing, embarrassed smiles from the women. He’d become used to their adoration, his natural expression prepared for nothing less.

The path from high school to your political science class must have been short and straight, though perhaps it appears that way only in retrospect. One day I came to your office, and your wife had woken from a nap, her hair slightly mussed. After she left, I confessed my feelings, and I blush now to imagine your shock and your struggle to regain your composure. Somehow we had a conversation, and you said you couldn’t see me often, that it would probably be only once a month. But no relationship formed, and all I had was the knowledge that I cared for you and had told you so.

I would become involved with J, a friend of yours. J, D, M were part of the group you socialized with, and J sought me out—perhaps after hearing about me from you? Long haired, pot smoking, a fellow graduate student who volunteered for the Hawaii National Guard to avoid the draft, J was so unlike you. At some point I lived on Keanu Street in Kaimuki and would climb long, winding Sierra Drive to the house he shared with other students. The Watergate hearings had them enthralled in the evenings, and I, ignorant and apolitical, would merely observe.

Soon after I started seeing J, he recounted the moment you found out we were involved. According to J, you said something about “my girl” and did “an incredible double take.” I imagine the scene at a table somewhere, you sitting with your chums and talking casually. Were you embarrassed that I liked you and had shared my feelings? Is that why you spoke of me? Or was it to share the novelty of being desired by someone other than your wife?

You told me more than once that you envied J because of his ability to make quick decisions without fear of the consequences. I can’t remember the whens and wheres of these conversations. They must have been brief, in passing, when we’d run into each other on the University of Hawaii campus. I was mystified and dismayed because, compared to you, J was inferior in looks, intelligence, and accomplishments. What was there to envy about him?

Reading about you now, I am not surprised at the long list of achievements, the manifold ways in which you interacted with your community of leaders and policy makers. Of course everyone would want your analysis, keen mind, indefatigable energy. I feel sad that so many people got your time and energy and I saw you so little. And yet I hold dear the memory of something that happened nearly twenty years after we were teacher and student.

I was working for a state environmental agency and had been invited, with other staff people, to attend a conference on the Big Island. Unbeknownst to me, you were the key speaker at a plenary session with hundreds of participants. With effortless charm and characteristic confidence, you started by admonishing those who owed you papers to see you after your talk—a way of acknowledging the many at the conference whom you’d mentored. We all laughed. I came up to you when you were done, though I can recall neither your talk nor what I said. But I do remember your smile, the way you looked at me.

While speaking to me, you somehow dropped your papers; perhaps they slipped out of a folder. You didn’t notice, but surely there must have been a few seconds of self-consciousness when you realized they had fallen and you had to pick them up. When you realized I had witnessed that instant you lost self-control.

I also remember a hotel room, a so-called hospitality room set up for invited guests. Somehow I ended up there, and I have a memory of you talking with someone while holding a drink. That night, after I’d gone to sleep, I woke suddenly, feeling a deep pain: what e.e. cummings called “one pierced moment whiter than the rest.” I’ve thought many times that I should have responded to my desire to see you—a feeling that recurred, of course, when I read your obituary.

In his book The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink identifies four basic kinds of regret. His attempt to learn about these resulted in his conducting the World Regret Survey, a large project that amassed a database of responses from sixteen thousand people in a hundred countries. My regret falls into the second category: the failure to act.

In chapter 8, “Boldness Regrets,” Pink starts with a wonderful story about a young man named Bruce, who in 1981 was on a train in France. When a young woman sat next to him at the Paris station, they began talking. Eventually, they were laughing and holding hands. When her stop came, he wanted to leave the train with her. Though they kissed, they did not exchange last names, and though he gave her his parents’ address and she wrote to him, he never learned her last name or address. Many years later, he searches for her on “Missed Connections,” a section of Craigslist.

Near the end of Pink’s book, he enjoins us to live more boldly and truthfully, to step off the train. But it is too late for me. That final train, Death, has come and taken someone I cared for deeply. As it took my sister in December 2020 and, five months later, my boyfriend’s mother, who became as close to me as my own mother. And as it will take others. Now that you’ve died, K, what regret is there left to remedy?

Pat Matsueda is a founding editor of Vice-Versa and mother to cats Ivy and Candace.

Author and banner photos by Alan Mawyer