Veni, Vidi, Ego Erravi Male by
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Prompted By Regrets

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I have always had a fascination with obscure words and terms. If they sound funny, or have multiple meanings, so much the better. If they stray into the somewhat risque…well, “penetralia” is one of my favorites.

I have always had a fascination with obscure words and terms.

I speculate that this obsession stems from growing up small, nearsighted and timid. Being smart – and being seen to be smart – was all I had. A big vocabulary seemed a convenient way to achieve that. It did, occasionally, get me beat up. It was a price I was willing to pay.

But one time, this habit came back to haunt me.

I met Michelle when we started graduate school. A pretty, curvaceous Irish brunette from Brooklyn, she had a wicked sense of humor and a Noo Yawk accent sharp enough to slice a thin-crust pizza. We bonded quickly. She was my type in nearly every way I have types, but we were both dating other people, with both relationships being classified as “serious.”

Her BF was in medical school. Within a year, my Cindy also left for med school. The same medical school. Pure coincidence; they didn’t even know of each other’s existence. We decided that it would be a great idea to be each other’s “safe date.” We could go out, have drinks, see a movie, whatever, without the stress of will we/won’t we. Bayonne to Bay Ridge isn’t a long trip, so we saw each other fairly often. The problem was, soon I was becoming very fond of Michelle. Not long after that it became obvious that the feelings were mutual.

But we also were very serious about our respective partners down in Guadalajara, and dishonesty didn’t come easily to either one of us. So we went on as we were. The unfulfilled sexual tension was weirdly pleasant.

Soon after that, it was over between Cindy and me, for a host of reasons and with a fair amount of anger. That didn’t change my relationship with Michelle that much…until she mentioned that she and her BF were sort of on a break.

We didn’t immediately dive into a sexual relationship, though. I was emotionally bruised from the aftermath of two painful breakups, and she had some reservations about how I, in certain ways, reminded her of someone she had dated for a few years only to have it end badly. So, we waited, we danced around it, we discussed it. Maybe a bit too long.

Abruptly, after months of pleasant bantering and platonic dates, she stopped calling me. Whenever I called her to propose an evening out, she was busy. Worse, she was polite. Week after week. And I had no idea what had gone wrong. She’d left grad school without a degree, so I didn’t even run into her any more.

I don’t deal well with rejection by people whom I care for deeply, which is why I have never allowed myself to care deeply for that many people. My reaction is to withdraw, to run. Pride is involved, and fear. So, the situation festered in the back of my mind as we settled into mutual silence.

After many months of this, probably braced by a few drinks, I broke the impasse and gave her a call. Not to propose a date, or anything else. No pressure. Just to say hi, see how she was doing. Eventually I asked her what had happened, why she had withdrawn from me. Or maybe she broached the subject; it was a long time ago and details fade. But she told me that I had said something to her that had hurt her, badly. Something she found insulting. Which was a total surprise to me; there was nothing I knew about Michelle of which I was not enamored.

She told me that we had been conversing by phone as we often did, and I closed by saying that next time we’d continue to explore our new relationship situation and its possibilities. But I didn’t just say “new,” because I like odd words. I said “Incipit” which is Latin for “it begins.” It’s used in typesetting and music. But Michelle, being neither a typographer nor a composer, had never heard the word before. Hell, I have no idea where I had encountered it. Understandably, she misunderstood.

Michelle thought that I had called our lovely, comfortable and maybe about to become romantic friendship, and by extension her, “insipid.”

I was shocked. Mortified. Sad beyond measure. I explained. I apologized. I damn near wept. But it was too late. She’d reunited with her medical student by then. I think they eventually married. As friends too often do, we drifted away from each other.

In the world of what-ifs, this remains one of my most intriguing. A possibly life-altering relationship gone because of a single ill-chosen and misheard word. In Latin.

Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.

Tags: regrets, vocabulary, thesaurus, Latin
Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Ah, a big regret. I understand. Words have specific meanings, but if the other person doesn’t know or understand, it can go really badly, as you just described. A long ago story that still hides in the recesses of your brain. I find this is true these days when texting and the other person can’t hear the inflection or tone in the voice – also can be a recipe for disaster. Sorry this happened to you. Glad you were able to move on.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      I often find myself thinking of the concept of “contingency” as expressed by Stephen Jay Gould. Essentially it says that any long and complex series of events, if restarted, is extremely unlikely to turn out the same way. Too many of the bifurcations, the forks in the road, the decisions made, are essentially chance, and many will go the other way.

      Had my parents not had a marriage that was a constant screaming battle over Mom’s drinking, had the bullies not made grade school a horror, had Teresa not shattered my soul in college, had I not descended into the abyss that led to my first marriage, had any number of things been different, I might have turned out a happier and better-adjusted person. We are all stuck playing Fate’s big pachinko game.

      But, the path that my ball actually took among all the pins, with each bounce or bifurcation, each choice that seemed right at the time but then went wrong, was the only one that led me to Gina.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Your ability with words has not been lost (had to smile at the accent sharp enough cut a thin-slice pizza)—and less likely to be misinterpreted when written and not just (mis)heard. You capture the ambiguity and longing in the friendship so well. This story is tragic, but as you note, you never know which way events will lead, and even what appears to be terrible can still end up somewhere good—Gina!

  3. I love your way with words, Dave. I’m also a bit of a “wordie,” but using obscure words can certainly be alienating so I deliberately choose more conversational words in, well, conversation.. But language is so beautiful, and if we don’t use it, we lose it. Enter the text generation. Sigh.

  4. Leaving aside the truth and the attendant hurt of the actual experience, Dave, this is just a really well written story. If it were completely fictional, it would be great; there’s nothing more you would need to add or elaborate on. The preamble in which you explained how you acquired the habit of displaying unusual and impressive vocabulary is not relevant to the rest of the narrative–until we get to the denouement (a cool word you probably used in middle school) and suddenly, becomes completely necessary and ratchets up the power and the emotion of the ending. Wow.

  5. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this story, Dave. Hard to know what small “wrong” word choice can end up sinking a relationship. How sad that she thought you said insipid. If only she had yelled at you, and said “how dare you call our friendship insipid,” you would have been able to explain. But then again, as you say, it all led you to Gina. Some day I’d love to get a story from Gina!

  6. Marian says:

    Very impactful story, Dave, and I can relate because I love words and using them. Like you, I’ve learned that they can be misunderstood. Your introspection is really impressive here, and I love the way you have written this story. As you said, this series of twists and turns led you to Gina. At one point I was getting to know two different men and had a date with one of them. I got stuck in traffic getting to San Francisco (this before cell phones) and had no way of contacting him, and by the time I arrived, he was about to leave, and that ended the budding acquaintance. I have always wondered what would have happened if I’d arrived on time and not become involved with the other guy, a relationship that ended badly.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a true story of regret. One poor word choice, one misunderstanding, ended what could have been a meaningful relationship. The thing about regrets is that you will never know.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    I join the others in saying this is a captivating, well written story, Dave. And as I’ve said elsewhere, regrets are for intentional hurtfulness, I think. For whatever reason, she was not for you.

    Love the Latin reference. I hear that Princeton has abolished the requirement for Classics majors to learn learn/read Latin or Greek. Big mistake. Perhaps one day the University’s regret.

  9. I’m sorry your erudite vocabulary led to a misunderstanding and a broken romance!

    But as we know Dave all ended well, and so do put your regrets behind you!

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