“Well, we met at a dinner party,” the woman explained to the guests seated with her at the table. The meal was finished, the table cleared of all the clutter of lunch plates and silverware. The six of them rested their elbows on the table, their chins on their hands. They sipped at their coffee and listened to the story of the woman and her husband. Sunlight shone on her through the big front window of the restaurant, and she smiled while she remembered. “He knew someone I had gone to undergraduate school with at ___“ (Likely some small, liberal arts college whose name I did not catch. Not that I was trying, mind you, to catch the name, or any other part of the conversation. I’m trained not to listen. Just pour the coffee and move along. But sometimes things stick out). “We just had so much in common. We were so compatible. He was a churchgoer, I was a churchgoer... our backgrounds were almost identical. It was very natural for us to marry.”
That is lovely, said the voice in my head, though it knew we should not have been eavesdropping. Tsk, honestly, a seasoned professional such as yourself, listening in and making silent internal commentary on a complete stranger’s love story... Still, it is lovely, the idea of having so much in common, to be settled with someone without having to wade around in the shit, feeling blindly with your bare hands for another something you can grab onto, for one more small, shiny, reasonable argument to stay together. I reset tables and polished silverware, and tried not to think about it.
Remember when you met him? the voice said on our walk home. Remember that first year? God, that was a fucking mess. It was my fault. I instigated the whole thing, that first night, that night that lasted a year, the world’s longest one night stand. It was Christmastime. I blindsided that songwriter with arrant seduction when he tossed his cigarette from behind his microphone. It was perched in his lips while he sang, smoke drifted to his squinting eyes. His hands were too busy to hold it, so he tossed it to the floor. It rolled toward me where I sat with my friend Bro, and came to rest near my black suede cowboy boot. I could have stomped it out for him. That would have been the kind thing to do. He was just trying to keep the smoke out of his eyes. Instead, I leaned forward and retrieved it as casually as he had cast it off, brought it to my mouth and inhaled while he watched. He didn’t miss a beat, just raised his eyebrows in the middle of his lyric. Ohhhhh boy, said Bro, and stood up to get himself a drink. Indeed.
Later that night in my empty kitchen, near the back of my empty house, the songwriter and I stood at the counter (there were no chairs) sipping whiskey while he rambled on and on about something. I pretended to listen. Seizing a break in his monologue, I kissed him. Mostly just to shut him up. He kept talking until the kiss registered. It only took a minute or two for him to catch up.
We had nothing in common. I knew I’d never see him again. I knew that if I did, it would be no big deal to nod politely from across the room in quiet acknowledgment that we’d shared the most impressive, least awkward First-Time in the history of what my 12 year old son bashfully calls: What Humans Do. First-Times are supposed to be artless and blundering. That’s the nature of discovery, the fumbling, stumbling, clumsy and unpolished, how many left feet are in this bed anyway? maneuvering that two people who don’t know each other very well must do to get to through that first dance. That first foreign kiss buzzes unfamiliar and strange on your mouth, so different than how you are used to being kissed, so unlike the last person who kissed you. The First-Time is the most uncoordinated series of movements two people will ever make. Usually. Except this First-Time. This First-Time was a perfect waltz.
Still, we had nothing in common. He woke the next day in an empty house, no furnishings or books or records or photos to clue him in to who I really might be. I was gone. Two days later, a voice on the phone; he’d tracked me down: I’ve got this face in my head, I can’t get rid of it... I was thinking of coming to town tomorrow... Ohhhhh boy, said the voice in my head, and I stood up to make myself a drink. Indeed.
And so it was for the next year. The songwriter would come to town, carrying with him a small black duffle bag that rested near the front door. The house began to transform around it. I ripped out flooring, replaced cabinets, painted, bought some furniture. I scored a free piano. In the early mornings, the songwriter wrote songs on the piano, then went back to bed. The kids playfully plonked away on it in the afternoons, hours after the songwriter had taken his black bag and driven 84 miles back to his town, to his home. Many times that year he took his black bag and seemed to be leaving for good. Many times I wanted him to. We were incompatible. Nothing in common. It wasn’t ever supposed to go that far, anyway. He kept finding a reason to come back. I kept finding a reason to ask him to, or to at least open the door to him when he did.
Then one day, the lid blew off the kettle and the songwriter was gone. I don’t remember the reason, but he was gone. Really gone. It was Christmastime. I could not stop crying. Oh shit. Shitshitshitshitshit. My first broken heart. I had no idea. All these years, all the breakups, even a failed marriage... I had no idea it could hurt this much. I buried myself in work and taking care of the kids and getting ready for Christmas. At night, while they slept, I cleaned the house. I washed baseboards and dusted blinds and scrubbed the dark corners of the brand new cabinets while Ricki Lee Jones echoed off the hardwood floors of the kitchen. Fuck him, I sobbed quietly, pulling my mascara-stained tank top over my face, sinking into my kitchen floor. No. Fuck you. Pull yourself together, asshole. You have no business falling apart like this. Get it together, or so help me... then I’d grip my sponge with weak resolution, and clean until I could sleep. I’d wake a few hours later, sip tea until it was time to get the kids up.
I caught a glimpse of myself one of those nights in the mirror I’d hung by the front door. I looked... real. It was like someone had peeled me, stripped the bark right off. There was something under my skin that I hadn’t seen before. A whole lot, like a really whole, whole lot, of crying will do that, I guess. All the makeup washes away and you get all dewy and your eyes look an entirely new shade of blue against that bright pink backdrop.
That’s how he found me a few days after Christmas: blotchy, puffy, bright blue eyes refusing to make contact with his, wearing pajamas and clutching a cleaning rag in the middle of the night. I didn’t ask why he came back.
The black bag didn’t sit by the front door after that. Soon it was flattened and empty under the bed and, unless the songwriter was touring, its contents hung loosely in the upstairs closet.
My father was concerned. Quite. I sat in my parents’ living room and told him the truth: Dad, I’ve waited my whole life to feel this way... My parents, once incompatible people who have successfully navigated - and sometimes forcibly hacked through - over forty years of marriage, nodded their quiet understanding, then wished us well. I imagine they laughed at me when I drove away.
My parents met when they were fifteen. My mother was a doe-eyed, sweet and pretty 4H-er visiting from the country. My dad was a handsome and charming duck-tailed kid who played guitar and took her out for her first-ever slice of pizza. That’s not code for something I don’t want to think about my parents doing. She really hadn’t ever had pizza before. She went back to the country. They wrote. He took the bus to visit her, gave her a ring that turned her finger green. Years later, when he got home from the Navy, he happened to look out the front window while she was driving by. He chased her, intercepted her from driving into an entirely different future, one where I don’t even exist.
Theirs has not always been an easy love story, but it is a true love story. A story of true love. They had no more in common, and maybe even less, when they married than they’d had as a fifteen year old country mouse and city mouse. They just loved each other like crazy. When I think now about how I perceived their marriage as a little kid, it’s like someone had given them a garage full of all the parts to build a beautiful car. They put it together over years. Their knuckles got scraped up. They sometimes looked around bewildered for the right tools to do the job. A couple of times they had to strip it down and start over. They didn’t always keep that a secret from us. We were witness to the effort, the clanging of ratchets, their frustration and their victories. Look Karen! The transmission is finished!
I don’t live with them anymore. I haven’t for years, but I imagine these days it’s probably just a couple of tune-ups a year in between long cruises in the beautiful car they made. Sometimes compatibility breeds a life-long love, sometimes it’s the love that holds your hand to the fire until you scream Fucking fine, already! We’ll find a way to make it work!
That is lovely, says the voice in my head, to work so hard and so long for something. And how handy to have that beautiful story to tell when your kids ask how you met the songwriter. ‘How did your dad and I meet? Well, I can’t tell you that story, because it makes me sound really slutty. Would you like to hear how Ahma met Papa... ?’