Regret is a dog. When you are in your twenties, it is a whippet-thin cartoon dog, comic-fierce but without anything remotely resembling a bite. The worst you can expect from regret when you are young is long stares of absurdly exaggerated mournfulness and streaks of regretful doggy slobber momentarily blurring your vision before you wipe them away and move on.
Like most people, you picked it up somewhere in adolescence but can’t pinpoint the exact moment it became your quiet companion. At this time of life, regret is happy with a quick run-around – say, half-an-hour – every month or so. It knows not to expect too much of you. It reminds you of its existence every now and again with the occasional plaintive whine, and high-pitched yips in your quieter moments, but it mostly just lies there. It exists, you see, on the verge of starvation. You are unavoidably neglectful of it and it sustains itself on the merest scraps from your hand – a high-school crush you never spoke to, good advice from well-meaning adults rejected as irrelevant or condescending, too much of a good thing once too often.
You will come (ironically) to regret it, but at that age, you even bring regret out to perform before friends and family, watching it shuffle and beg as you make jokes about social missteps, opportunities forgone, and loves lost. Regret’s gloomy countenance offers the perfect counterpoint to the comedy you wring from the anecodotes and its shabby, slightly absurd, performance helps you simulate an emotional depth you haven’t earned. Regret’s counterfeit of true tragedy validates you as the hero of your every cheapjack story.
But you ignore it, by and large. Not having asked for it, you probably aren’t sure how to care for it anyway. But the life-cycle of regret moves on without your say-so. It grows. By the time you reach middle-age, it is a shaggy wolf-hound, broadchested and with blood-red eyes and muscles like steel cable. The petty whine has given way to a rumbling growl of genuine menace.
What you have learned – too late – about regret is that it feeds upon your past, just as you feed upon your own future. And where the dwindling stock of your hopes and dreams, your plans yet unrealised that have any chance of coming to fruition, is becoming thin gruel indeed to nourish you on your journey through the days, the store of sadnesses and failures strewn behind you is become a feast. To be blunt, there is more of you left behind than still lies ahead, and regret sharpens its teeth on the cracked bones and gristle of your every wasted hour and misplaced word.
By then, of course, there is nothing to be done. Regret is leashed still – sure – but the leather is lashed tight around your wrist and it is only a matter of time before that grim beast is leading you around, training you to respond to its every twitch and snarl. To perform, at its pleasure, a creditable imitation of someone with reason to live.