.. a (semi) fiction short ..
My first complaint was that Jim didn’t hold my hand in the back of the cab. Granted, he had already held other parts of me (and held them pretty well) but we were dressed in our finest – he in a nice grey suit and navy tie, me in a sheer dress decorated with cornflower blossoms – and I thought it would be ultra romantic if our hands touched on the way to a celebration of hopeful, supposed love. Alas, my hand remained alone and, as if I were a fairy tale princess whose only chance to break her spell of loneliness was to to grip fingers in the back of an Uber, I stared dramatically out the window at the skyscrapers, wondering if my prince would ever come.
We walked against a balmy wind up East Randolph Drive; it was late July, and I still had not a clue what was to become of Chicago in the guttural trenches of January. Jim moved briskly, as was his manner of walking, and stayed slightly ahead of me (my next complaint.) I smiled though and craned my head up the length of the eighty floor building, tossing aside my melancholic princess bit, veering toward feeling like a bright-eyed nobody just off the Greyhound in Manhattan – nothing could keep me in a sour mood on this occasion.
I had on fantastic and impractical silver heels, which I fantastically and impractically splurged on, knowing they would likely be worn again only once before, out of spring-cleaning impulsivity, I would sell them off to a thrift store. I hadn’t been sure that my dress was right for the occasion – this was a “black tie optional” affair, and that sort of invite to a wedding in the thick of summer leaves all women shaking their heads and agonizing about skirt length and color schemes. I took a risk with my floral number, and as if I were some plucky protagonist from a 1920’s novel playing attire Russian Roulette, I fretted until I was ready to go and checking myself out in the mirror; whether I was underdressed or not wouldn’t matter – I felt beautiful, and feeling beautiful transcends appropriate garb.
We arrived to the hall minutes before the ceremony was to start and snagged two seats in the very last row. When two even-later comers sauntered in during the middle of the officiant’s opening remarks, I entertained the idea of showing off my well-raised good graces and offering my seat, but I thought better of it – it would come across too pleasing, and I finally knew better than to be that girl. Plus, I didn’t at all feel like standing.
My hand, by the way, remained un-held, hence dry and clean. I would have gladly settled for a sweaty grasp from a man who I was beginning to gaze at from my periphery wondering what is it about this one? but no bother. I was enjoying myself. I had a bit of extra confidence about me, seeing as I was the only blonde in the whole outfit (dyed as hell, so what), and I’d been flown in on the dime of my – lover? – from wild child California to demure Illinois to be his rarefied smoking-hot plus one. I felt as special as the bride (and her dress was a disappointment, putting my own garment worries ever more to bed.) We laughed at the officiant’s pleasant jokes and the music that ushered in the bridesmaids and groomsmen – the title theme of our shared favorite television drama – and occasionally I reached over and brushed the back of his neck, as was my way. I can’t keep my hands to myself.
In the cocktail hour before the main reception, I stood drinkless and met his friends, more than comfortable in the autumn of my sixth year of sobriety, and filed complaint number three – that he didn’t wait in the tiresome line to snag me a Pellegrino or a Coca-Cola. His friends took an immediate shine to me. My easy wit and (though always an appropriate degree reserved) geniality, and my now obviously perfect frock made quite the impression. It might have also been the stellar timing of my joke that I was a high-class escort whose specialty was weddings and whose weakness was midwestern gentlemen, hence the discount. Or perhaps it was because, despite Jim’s fast-walking and lack of handholding and drink-fetching, he had already told these fellas about me, with that unmistakable tone of this one is different.
I finally took my parched mouth and wild west femininity and got in line myself, proceeding to double-fist ice water and a can of ginger ale. The promise of a magical night was burgeoning.
It wasn’t my exact taste, the reception, a nondescript ballroom with low lighting and a generous waitstaff, but it was a fabulous reception no less. We had the best table in the house, what one might coin the cool table, sitting with his host of friends and their lovely wives, right next to the dance floor and above-average band. I was hungry enough to start nibbling at the piccata and cheesy potatoes – Jim cleaned his plate, and fast – complaint number four – as the father of the bride rambled on mawkishly about the joys of having a daughter. (My father would have given similar sentiments, and they would have been truthful, but he also would have moved the crowd to thoughtful, reflective emotion rather than trite niceties and clandestine eye-rolling. Such was his way. Such would be mine.)
Jim was getting good and liquored up, as were his buddies and one of the wives, and I was fine with it. It’s not everyday your friend from high school gets married, or even if it is, it’s a hell of an excuse to tie one on. Plus, I had the distinct awareness that he was nervous.
Here was a man I knew was falling for me, and yet I had been the one to kiss him first (or at least get him into the position to fin-a-ll-y pull me toward him) and I was the sobered up drunk with the checkered past, and I was fairly clear on the fact that I had a touch more experience. I got the sense that he’d dated a good share of women and had a few serious girlfriends, but none so attractive, none so sexy, none so undeniably Californian as moi, at least, in his eyes (this, all according to my overthought assumptions.) Which, to a midwestern bloke, can prove to be quite an intimidation. Especially when we turn out not to be catty ditzes with our heads in LaLa Land’s clouds. Men still seem to think that the pretty girls are dumb or at least, shallow as a puddle. Au contraire. But then again, I identify with the Ugly Duckling parable, and my roots are forever grounded in feeling invisible or else too visible and average at that – but that’s another tale.
And so if he was a little intimidated or felt a little out of his depths, I took it as a good sign, as well as a weighty compliment – and I didn’t for a moment take advantage of such power. I was in the business of helping a man feel like a man.
When he had the sense to set down his Miller Genuine and loosen his tie, he took us for a spin on the dance floor. That was when a chamber of my heart beat back to life, the one that had been deadened since I was fourteen and turned away from the world, and I let go of my shallow complaints for a moment and decided to offer him the good old tried and true blank slate (which for me meant, nearly blank.) He was a damn good dancer – confident and enthusiastic, and he never let go of my hands (about time.) He picked me up and spun me around like I was Baby in Dirty Dancing – try to let that not awaken your deadened chamber. At the end of the song, he dipped me so low that my curled dye job Cali girl hair nearly grazed the floor. It was the sort of dancing that gets you noticed (and resented) by the other guests. When I came up for air, I was more alive. The heart, you know.
It dawned on me (not for the first time), that while we encouraged the band with our showoff-y moves, nothing about Jim’s behavior suggested that he was after my body alone, or even after my body as the main attraction. I understood that what was said about those midwest boys was true – especially in comparison to the male denizens of Southern California – that they were a little more gentle and a whole lot more wholesome. I had danced with many men, and they were always in one way or another trying to grope my (rather ample) front and backsides or lead me off the floor into a car and then a bedroom. Insecure young lady I once was, I thought the way to a man’s heart (or at least to a man) dwelled mostly in a constant open-for-business air. Jim was teaching me it wasn’t so, and not just on the lit up floor. It just wasn’t that way with him (though I was open for business, and he had already shopped a few times, successfully.) This was all so different, and I had the sneaking suspicion that, just as he had (in my imagination) alluded to his closest friends that this one is different, this one was different.
Being with him reminded of when I first began to know a deeper, more transcendent love, the sort that makes you feel clean and delicate and wholly good: My little brother and sister would visit me from Texas, and we’d while away the hours playing, and when they hugged me goodbye and left, I cried until I felt renewed, that happy, loving, thankful sort of weeping. It all felt like a sacred gift, because I knew my heart was being crowbarred open. And this, with Jim – twirling in a ballroom on the eightieth floor of a downtown Chicago high-rise – was that. Innocent. Sweet. Open. So I knew, last chamber a thumping, windows jimmied wide, that he was due to become much more than a lover – he was to become family.
Then again, we were at a wedding, and that always confuses the senses and the heartstrings. I let the complaints linger sotto voce in the background, just in case.
When he’d gotten good and sweaty and I was due for another ginger ale, we decided to brave the eighty floor ear-popping descent and go out for a smoke. Favored hits were reverberating in our heads – “Stand By Me” and “My Girl” and “Bring it On Home to Me” by Sam Cooke, and we both knew all the words and were singing together while standing close in the elevator.
When we first met our bond was catalyzed over a shared love and erudition of all the same music. He could sing and play the hell out of a guitar, and I could sing even better, and so we had spent our first weekend together having a two-man audience-less gig in his apartment in the West Loop. Like all young idiots who can carry a tune and play a few notes, we joked about starting a band. Really though, it was the music we listened to, lying around his loft. Every song we put on for each other – you gotta hear this! – we both already knew.
Departing the elevator and clicking our jaws, we moved through the turnstile door into a flawless Chicago night. The whole world felt like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even my dress matched the flowers in the courtyard’s garden, and we sat beneath a white gazebo and shared Marlboro Lights, singing loudly enough to garner some stares (then smiles) from the nearby security guards.
I decided at this point to do a bit of detective work, prodding him about what exactly his friends had said about me. I had a hunch I knew what they had said, but I wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
–We like her. Don’t go screwing it up
–How’d you land her, Jim?
–You should marry that girl.
It made me almost love him, knowing he was in such good, wise company and had the guts to tell me so.
–How’d I land you, I would later say.
But you know, weddings, pretty dresses, sultry summer nights. Sam Cooke songs and dancing cheek to cheek. Maybe it was the inevitably romantic ambience and his parade of Jack and Cokes. The promise of grasping youth once more when surrounded by lifelong friends. But even under those glittering facades exists truth, and truth can’t help but rear its pesky head to either sink a stomach or launch a lifetime, and plenty of couples call it in, or worse, under the haze of booze and tear-jerking vows of forever.
So I remained hopeful. I remained supposing of supposed love. One must train the mind to look on the bright side. I let the meaningless complaints (which could easily become meaningless doubts) linger even further back, not to where they were completely forgotten, but where they would get a little lonely from my lack of attention.
And there was, of course, the way he looked at me, when he reiterated what his friends said. If you have ever had the privilege of being looked at by a man the way Jim looked at me that night, count yourself lucky. It reminded me to cut him some slack, because in that look I knew he felt afraid, intimidated, and out of his depths, but I also understood that he felt courageous and eager – to give it all a real whirl. And what is more human, more honest than that, giving it all a whirl in the face of possible collapse? It was the same look he gave me every time we were alone, undressed and pressed together – like he couldn’t believe his luck.
There was to be an after party after the party, and not for one second did I entertain the thought of going. Grown up confident little old me politely told him, I don’t want to. I apologized one too many times about it, feeling a surge of guilt for pulling him away from his old clique and six more drinks, but we had bigger and better fish to fry, namely getting the guitar out and a Google search for the tabs of the songs we’d been singing. I wanted to be in my long dress and barefoot, tucked up on his couch in a haze of cigarette smoke, singing my heart clean until the sun peaked through the windows, and I knew he wanted the same – his shirt untucked and loyal dog at his feet, and some bites of the cookies I’d baked and schlepped on the plane – and that is exactly what we did.
And I understood – halfway between Elvis’ greatest hits – that I would move to Chicago and marry this man, waste my dough on bulky winter coats and desperately miss my mother, because family is like that. A host of complaints (and doubts and sacrifices) forever trumped by raucous, hip-shaking, groundbreaking Love.